by christopher evans // issue 3. Vol. 1 // web exclusive
HLR Emerging Writers Fiction Contest
Richard stood in front of a large, framed photograph, trying to find himself. He scanned the first row of children. There he was, with the rest of the kindergarteners, just to the left of the little engraved plaque on the bottom of the frame that read “1981,” grinning in his powder-blue turtleneck and corduroys, the rest of the school spreading out behind him like a fan across the soccer field. Stepping over to the 1982 photo, Richard again found himself easily, just a little further from the front, in a Superman T-shirt, hair cut to the shape of a bowl. He walked past the next few photos, picking himself out—a little deeper into the crowd each year, slight variations on the same haircut—until he came to 1988. Grade Seven, his final year of elementary school.
He let his brain fill in the names as his eyes moved from face to face: Brian, Nicole, Sandy, Mike H., Mike S., Jennifer. He remembered posing for that last photograph, even though it had been taken eight years earlier, because he’d stood behind Stephanie Bolero and Susan Pants and could see both their bra straps popping through the fabric of their blouses. Yup, there were Stephanie and Sue, arms across each other’s shoulders, hands over mouths to stifle giggles. Richard leaned in closer to the picture and held up his hand to block out the fluorescent glare against the glass. Tonight was the first time he’d seen the photo—it hadn’t been printed and hung until after he’d moved on to junior high. Was that part of his arm showing just past Stephanie? Had he ducked down for some reason? He appeared not to be there at all.
He walked away from the photos, along the deserted second floor hallway, past the darkened Principal’s office and silent administrative desk, towards the stairs down to the main floor and the rising hum of voices. He let his hand trail along the corkboards on the wall as he moved, fingers snagging on staples and crinkling hand-shaped paper turkeys. One came unstuck and floated to the floor, but Richard didn’t stop to pick it up.
He wandered the halls looking for his nephew, Connor, who had bolted within the first two minutes of being in the school, a wad of game tickets tight in his grimy little fist. Richard waded through the hordes of children. Their shrillness was intense, all of them screaming for more tickets, more tickets. Had he been this loud? Richard didn’t think so.
In the gymnasium, a long, hand-painted banner hung above the pull-out bleachers, reading “Hazelwood Elementary Community Fall Fair 1996 + Science Fair.” He walked up and down the makeshift aisles, past the shoebox dioramas and baking-soda volcanoes, until he came to the Grade Threes’ area and found Connor’s project. It appeared to be titled “Raccoons Ar Friends?” and consisted of dozens of pictures cut out from old National Geographics and sloppy hand-printed factoids about raccoons, glued to a tri-folded piece of cardboard. Even from a distance, Richard could tell it was a shoddy job; one of the raccoons was a badger and two more of the pictures clearly showed Chinese red pandas. Typical Connor. The children were encouraged to stand by their science projects, to answer questions and receive patronizing comments from the adults, but Connor wasn’t there. Richard’s own third grade Science Fair project had been on garter snakes, its centrepiece—an intact snake skeleton—gingerly placed in a protective glass box lined with black velvet. He stood guard over his project and answered any informed questions about garter snakes. He chose his National Geographic cut-outs carefully.
The other side of the gym was separated from the Science Fair by a line of folding chairs, and was a riot of activity. A parent-and-child three-legged race was in progress, the uneven pairs falling heavily to the thin pads lining the floor. High-jump mats had been pushed into one corner, where the Grade Seven boys were performing piledrivers and trying to suplex each other. There was a line-up for the beanbag-toss station that snaked along the wall, all the way to the bake-sale ladies. A few more folding chairs had been set up as an eating area, next to a table with a chafing dish full of limp pink hot dogs floating in murky water and buns still in their bags, where parents sat and watched and commiserated. He became acutely aware that there were nearly no other twenty-year-olds in the mix; Richard was alone in a sea of kids and old people. The whole huge room thudded with hollow noise. Connor was nowhere to be seen.
Back in the hallway, Richard spotted Mrs. Kaser, his fourth grade teacher, his favourite. On his year-end report card, she’d written “Ricky rarely answers questions in class, but when he does his responses are thoughtful and clear. Ricky is a kind boy.” He’d taped the report to the fridge, where it had remained for several years, until it fell off and slid underneath and no one had bothered to fish it out. Mrs. Kaser had hugged him once after class, on a day when Shana Adams had called him “Rich-tard” in front of the whole room, after he’d refused to share his coloured pencils with her.
Mrs. Kaser stood in a cluster of parents. Richard hovered on the periphery, until the crowd broke. “Hi, Mrs. Kaser.”
She smiled and nodded. “Well hello, young man.” She waved to someone over his shoulder.
“Richard Balfour. You were my Grade 4 teacher.” Richard moved his head to try and stay in her line of vision.
Mrs. Kaser continued nodding. “Of course. Yes! And what are you up to these days?” She called to someone further down the hall, “Hey, Connie! Better make that a double!” She gave a thumbs-up and laughed and turned her eyes back to Richard. “So, college then?” She gave him a once-over. “Or just finishing high school?”
“Oh. No, I graduated three years ago. Just working right now. Video store, uh, management. Well, assistant management.” Richard felt himself straighten up. “Just a workin’ man now. Probably get my own place soon.”
Mrs. Kaser patted his arm with one of her heavily-ringed hands. “Well, that’s just terrific, just great.” She dropped her hand and started to move past him, her arms already spreading to embrace someone else. “You’ll have to excuse me, dear. It was very nice to speak with you again, David.”
Richard let the door slam behind him as he headed out into the damp night air. He walked over to the little cement alcove along the side of the building across from the tetherball court—an architectural defect, its original purpose long-forgotten. Richard leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, breathing deeply, as the sounds from inside melted away. He could feel the concrete against his back, cold and hard through his shirt and jacket.
“You’re Ricky Balfour.” Richard turned to the voice. It belonged to a girl with bleached out hair, who pointed at him with an unlit cigarette. “You were in my sister’s year, yeah? Tamara? Tamara Armstrong?”
Richard felt some parts of his body go tense and rigid, while others went slack and weak. Holy Jesus, Tamara Armstrong. He leaned deeper into the wall and let it support his weight. What percentage of his waking hours had been spent thinking about Tamara. Thirty-five percent? Fifty? Richard swivelled his head around. “Is she here? Your sister?”
The girl snorted. “Fuck, no. She took off to Vancouver right after grad. Said we were all holding her back.” She lit her smoke and held the pack out to him. “Like she’s the cat’s ass.”
“Totally,” he said, without commitment, and slid a cigarette out of the package. The girl flicked her lighter and lit his smoke. Menthol—gross, but also good. “So you’re…Becky?”
“Wow, you remembered. I’m impressed.” Becky leaned in closer. “So, Ricky Balfour, what are you even doing here? Handing in a late assignment?” She might have winked.
“My oldest sister’s kid goes here now. I’m supposed to be watching him, but he took off.” Richard shrugged. “He’s kind of a turd.”
Becky laughed and shot smoke from her nostrils. “That’s funny. I remember how you’re funny.”
That surprised him. He couldn’t imagine how someone two grades behind him remembered him at all, let alone as funny, which he wasn’t. He studied Becky; she looked a lot like her older sister, if he squinted and imagined her with darker hair.
Becky Armstrong turned and scanned the parking lot and tetherball court, then stepped closer. She pulled down the zipper of her jacket. She wore a low-slung top underneath. “So…want a taste?”
Richard exhaled and stepped back. “Uh, I don’t…um. Aren’t you still in high school?” He narrowed his eyes again so his vision blurred. He moved back towards her. “Well—”
Becky pulled a bottle from her inside pocket and held it forward. “Graduating this year.”
“Oh. Oh, right. Good.” Richard chuckled to himself, glad it was too dark for her to see his cheeks turn pink. He accepted the mickey and took a slug, wincing as the liquor seared his throat. Becky took the bottle from him and belted it back without so much as a blink. She dropped her cigarette to the ground—the butt smeared with pink lipstick—and let it smoulder, until Richard crushed it with his heel. They passed the bottle back and forth a few times, before Richard held up his palm and said, “I’m supposed to be babysitting.”
Becky laughed—a sharp, hard blast. “Fuck that. You’re coming with me.”
Tamara Armstrong was too good for the rest of them—anyone with half a brain could see that. Richard went all the way from kindergarten to Grade 12 with Tamara, and had probably spoken twenty words to her in that time. He still remembered her valedictory speech—not the wording, exactly, but the sentiment. It was a kiss off; Tamara made it clear that she made it to where she was—top marks, top of the pecking order—all on her own merit. She’d succeeded, not because of her teachers and peers, but despite them. Her shitty attitude had made her even sexier, in Richard’s estimation.
Becky Armstrong had the same raspy voice as her sister, and probably the same hair colour before the bleach, and maybe a similar body under her winter coat, and the same shit attitude. Richard knew her resemblance to Tamara stopped there, but he was willing to believe that she maybe offered different charms than her sister. She pulled him through the crowd, her hand cold and small in his, brushing past students and parents and teachers. They went into the classroom with the apple-bob station and quickly out again, into the room with the pop-bottle ring-toss and out, scanned the face-painting tables without stopping. Richard half-heartedly searched the faces for Connor’s. He searched the corkboards, in case any of his own artwork had been preserved, but it hadn’t.
Becky seemed to know a lot of people, a lot of teenage girls anyway. She clung fiercely to Richard’s arm as they approached her and giggled, or whispered into Becky’s ear and gave Richard knowing looks. The alcohol muddied him, left him with little to do but nod and smile. As they waded through, Becky told him about the nail salon she would open after she finished high school, which she would call “Beckeez.” Richard said that sounded great, and told her to let him know if she ever needed a doorman or a bouncer. He tried to picture himself at an Armstrong family dinner, Becky at his side, while Tamara sent him regretful looks from across a table piled with food. Richard wished his friends could see him now.
Outside a classroom blaring with tinny music, Becky stopped and turned to Richard. She placed one hand flat against his chest and reached up to tuck a lock of hair behind his ear. He craned his face toward her, head tilted to the side. Becky pushed him back with one hand, while drawing his hip closer with the other. She laughed loudly and looked at something out of the corner of her eye. “Oh my God, Ricky,” she said. “That is sooo funny!” Her hand slid across his lower back, as she turned her face away from him. Becky’s hand briefly dipped down the waist of his jeans.
“Oh, hey there, Troy.” She regarded a sullen-looking boy, watching them from a few feet away. “I didn’t expect to see you here.” The boy had on a leathery 8-Ball jacket and lines shaved into the side of his hair. Becky pushed Richard towards him.
“Troy, do you know Ricky?” She brought Richard closer still. “Probably you don’t. He’s older.”
“Hi.” Richard held his hand out and the boy took it, one iron squeeze.
“Pff,” Troy said.
Becky laughed again, as though someone had said something hilarious. “Anyway, I’d love to shoot the shit with you, Troy, but Ricky here is going to win me a cake.” She reached both arms around Richard’s torso and hugged. “Right, Ricky?”
Richard nodded dumbly and allowed himself to be dragged into the classroom. Becky dug her hand into his jacket pocket, pulled out the rest of Connor’s tickets, handed three to the woman seated at the CD player, and stuck the remaining ones in her own pocket. She propelled Richard forward.
Richard stood on a piece of construction paper painted with a number twelve, one of a series laid out in a circle in the center of the room. Becky was quickly enveloped by a trio of girls at the edge of the room, their eyes lifting occasionally to assess him. Troy leaned in the doorway and smirked. Richard was several heads taller and a decade older than the rest of his competition. The music started—Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man.” Richard began to move.
He lurched from number to number, watching his feet, the papers too close for his long legs. A hand reached out and removed one of the sheets. The music stopped. Richard stood on sixteen. One child left the circle. The music resumed. Richard lurched.
As he circled the room, Richard’s eyes darted from place to place. This had been his classroom once—Grade Six. He passed Becky, still in the huddle of girls. He passed Troy, who might have mouthed something foul at him. He passed the table of decorated, home-made cakes. He passed the narrowed eyes and disapproving head-shakes of parents and teachers. A number was yanked from the circle and the music stopped. Richard stood on eight, the child behind him bumped into the back of his legs and was left without. The music resumed.
On his next pass, Richard saw that Becky had left her girlfriends and moved closer to the door. Next round, he saw her in a whispered conversation with Troy. When he circled around again, they were gone. The room was nearly empty. Richard decided it would worse to leave in the middle of a walk than to stay.
He looked around the circle to size up his four remaining competitors. A kid two children back, with a face painted like some kind of rodent, stuck his tongue out at Richard. Connor. The music started.
Richard glanced back at his nephew. “What are you supposed to be? A rat?”
“I’m a racoon, duh.”
Numbers were pulled, the children departed. Soon it was just Richard and Connor pacing around a single piece of paper. Connor looked up at his uncle, while Richard looked down at his feet. The initial buzz of the liquor became an angry throb behind his ears. The music played on and on and on, until it didn’t. Richard stomped his foot down on the number four.
“You’re a jerk, Uncle Rick,” Connor said, and fled from the room. Someone behind Richard booed, but he didn’t turn around to see who.
He walked down the hallway, a round cake on a cardboard tray in his arms, its icing an ugly swirl of purple and green. He went into each of the classrooms, back up the stairs to the quiet second floor, into the same gymnasium where he had sung “O, Canada” and “God Save the Queen” so many times. He stepped over a pile of sawdust by the drinking fountain, a sure sign some over-sugared child had barfed there. Richard watched out for Becky, in case she’d gotten confused and was waiting for him somewhere. He briefly considered just giving the cake to his nephew, but what would Connor learn from that?
Richard leaned into the pushbar of the door and went out into the night air, the door slamming behind him. He carried the cake through the tetherball court and past the smoker’s alcove, until he came to the parking lot.
He placed the cake on the ground in the middle of the lot’s entrance, where it was sure to be run over. Under the streetlight, he could see a smear of purple icing across the front of his jacket. He ran a finger through it and up to his mouth, leaving behind a taste of greasy sweetness and nicotine. Richard retreated to the shadows outside the streetlight’s range, and waited for a car to come or go.
Christopher Evans lives in Vancouver, where he attends the University of British Columbia, and works as the Prose Editor of PRISM International magazine. His work has appeared in Grain, The New Quarterly, Joyland, The Canary Press, The Moth, and other fine publications from Canada and beyond.