The King Is Dead

Fiction by Julie Paul

The King Is DeadExcerpted from The Pull of the Moon © Julie Paul, 2014. Reprinted with the permission of Brindle & Glass, an imprint of TouchWood Editions.

There was little chance we’d see any loon chicks that morning on the lake. It was the middle of summer, and I knew the babies had been growing for months already. But my nephew, Sammy, age five and three-quarters, wanted to look all the same—at the end of our family’s beach, he’d found a few dark feathers with white spots. I didn’t have the heart to tell him they were most likely from a long-dead chick.

Sammy and I set out for a trip in the old green canoe, after he’d pleaded with his mother, my sister Donna, to let him go. She relented only after I promised to make him wear his sun hat and lay down my life for him if we tipped—I practically had to demonstrate my cpr skills.

He turned his blond, curly-haired head around to face me as I pushed us away from the dock. “Auntie Trish, what did you call the canoe when you were a little kid?”

“The pea-green pod.”

Sammy laughed as if he hadn’t heard me say it just ten minutes earlier. “And we’re the peas, right?”

Donna made him sit in the bottom of the canoe because he was less likely to fall overboard from there. We’d had to do the same thing when our father—a man I termed “The Emp”—took Donna and me out to hunt for bullfrogs when we were kids. On one of those frog hunts, Donna and I decided to trail our fingers in the water on the same side of the canoe at the same time, and we ended up in the lake just a few feet from the dock. It shouldn’t have been a big deal; Donna and I thought it was hilarious, and we’d bobbed around in our keyhole life jackets, kicking and splashing. But Dad started yelling at us to keep our heads up, as if we could do anything else, our heads framed in padded canvas, and next thing I knew, he was screaming for our mother. “Dee! Help! Help!” She came rushing right into the water, arms flailing, to save us. We didn’t need saving, but she’d acted as though the lake held electric eels or a crazy undertow. She didn’t catch her breath until we were safely on the dock. Then she helped Dad turn the canoe over and pull it back to shore. He repeated over and over, “I’m sorry, Dee, I’m sorry. It’s all my fault.” Our bossy, headstrong father was sobbing.

“Your father needs a rest,” our mother had said and helped him up the stairs to the cottage as though he were wounded.

Sammy and I were out a hundred feet from shore. From that distance I could barely see a cottage at all; the cedars in front of it had grown into one another to form a dull green cloud. My mother was away at a local day spa with some friends from Ottawa, a celebration for a woman whose cancer had gone into remission, but The Emp was behind that cloud, holding down a Muskoka chair, a highball in his hand.

I paddled as little as possible, just one J-stroke every few minutes, while Sammy looked for loons, and then I let my paddle rest across the gunwales and watched the water drip back, dimpling the flat surface. I’d always loved this lake best in the morning, before anyone else could ruin the day with their rules about water safety or their hangover gloom. I used to wake up early and swim, unencumbered, before my parents were up; just in case my mother asked if I’d worn my life jacket, I always left it soaking in the water, ready to show her.

Sammy was squirming around like someone needing to pee, although he’d gone before we set off. I asked him why he was so wiggly.

“Because we’re on an adventure!” He opened his small blue backpack and pulled out four plastic people. “Look who I brought!” He held up one of the figures. “You gave me these, back when I was little-little.”

The pirates. Wow. I’d bought him the pirates the last time I’d seen him—two Decembers ago, when Donna had brought him to Toronto to see The Nutcracker. We’d met in the Eaton Centre, in front of a toy store, and Sammy was crying because he wanted the hundred-dollar Playmobil pirate ship, and he wanted it right then and there. The crowd curdled around us; I could barely breathe in my puffy coat. My hair was full of typical winter mall static, my fingers were cracked from the cold, and my lips were shredded.

“Looking good,” Donna said. Donna’s curls lay flat due to the toque she’d stuffed in her coat pocket. On her thigh was a smear of snot at Sammy’s nose level.

“You, too.” At one point our words would have carried irony, but we pretended we meant it. “Should we grab a bite to eat now?” The only thing I knew about kids: keep them fed and things go better.

Sammy then spent the whole half-hour in the food court driving French fries through ketchup drifts, making vroom-vroom noises while Donna and I caught up.

The food court was crammed with dozens of little kids all jumping out of their skin, so hyped up for the big day. I remembered that can’t-wait feeling so well, and I missed it. On impulse, I hopped to my feet and told Donna and Sammy to keep themselves parked, and ran down to the toy store to buy him that pirate ship.

The look on Sammy’s face when I handed it to him was worth the frown on Donna’s.

“What do you say?” she prompted.

“It’s awesome!” Sammy had cried.

What was truly awesome was that this little boy remembered that the pirates were a gift from me. He lined them up on the canoe seat in front of him, faces staring into the clear blue sky because they wouldn’t stay standing; my solo paddling skills weren’t what they used to be. I hadn’t been in a canoe for three years, the length of time I’d been away from the cottage.

Sammy, the pirates, and I scoured the lake’s edge, trying to avoid the big rocks marked by floating bleach bottles. He was so happy, he was singing made-up songs, every now and then adding a matey and an Arrr, as if he never came out on the water.

Sammy, Donna, and her husband, Mitch, live half a mile up the road, inland. Spending so much time by the water when we were kids made my sister want to move to the area; Mitch commutes to the outskirts of Ottawa for some kind of boring telecom work while she stays in the country with Sammy, who’s just finished kindergarten. When The Emp inherited the cottage, we spent our summers at the lake.

“Do you come out on the lake very often?”

“No, Mommy’s afraid I’ll drown,” Sammy said matter-of-factly. “She knows a lot of stories about kids who died in water.”

The same old paranoia, coming down the line. “And you’re not scared?”

“Oh, no,” he said. “I’ve got this life jacket. Plus, you’re here.”

His trust and obedience were kind of sweet. He was a kid who didn’t even try to go hatless or upset his mother.

What did he know about me? I’d been a scrawny, jumpy, sugar-loving kid, then a sullen teen with a hate-on for pretty much anything except for my own take on style—wearing lingerie as clothing, lacy underwear over street clothes, an upside-down crucifix—and I’d turned into a scrawny, jumpy, sugar-loving tattooed adult with my own company, designing websites for people who want an edge to their image—Artful Darkness. Nice of Donna, in a way, to have kept the stories of Auntie Trish to herself.

*

Sammy and I returned to the dock, empty-handed and hungry. Donna greeted us by throwing her arms around Sammy as if she’d been away from him for weeks. “You need more sunscreen,” she told him. “Come on, let’s go up.”

We climbed the stairs and discovered that The Emp had a visitor. “You remember George, Trish?” The Emp asked.

I nodded. I guessed the family was still buying corn on the cob and tomatoes from his farm. He was sitting in the other Muskoka chair on the deck. Donna disappeared into the cottage.

“Gidday, kiddo,” George said. “How’s the fishing?”

Sammy cocked his head and put his hands on his hips. “We weren’t fishing, we were searching for loons.”

George laughed and looked at me. “Looks like you found one.”

“Sammy, come here and give your old grandpa a hug.” Sammy ran over to The Emp and nearly sent his highball flying. “Careful, now, my boy. Careful.”

“Long time no see,” I said to George. “How’s it going?”

“Can’t complain.” He lifted his beer. “And what do we have here?”

Donna brought out a bowl of nuts, some crackers and cheese, and a jelly sandwich for Sammy, who snatched it and headed back down to the beach, announcing his intention to make a sandcastle. Donna looked at the spray in her hand. “Wait! I forgot your sunscreen!”

While my sister did her mother-thing, I settled in for a chat on the deck and George told us why he could afford to visit, evidently a rare event. At the beginning of the summer, his wife and kids had gone to the East Coast, to visit her family until Labour Day. “It’s a good thing,” he said. “Time on my hands for once.” I didn’t believe him. His shoulders were sad—even with all that meat on his bones, his shoulders looked thin and empty.

“Hey, those things hurt?” George was pointing at my tattooed shoulder, the morning glory vines wrapping around from my pecs to the bottom of my shoulder blade.

“Not much.”

The Emp said, “Bring the good man another beverage, Patricia.”

I took a deep breath: nothing had changed. My father hadn’t asked a single question about my life since my arrival, and while my mother had been chatty, Donna ignored me and went about doing Sammy stuff. I’d always been the outsider, estranged from them, not part of their secret family club. We were right back to the usual patterns. Sure, I’d go get George another beer.

Donna came back and we sat and shot the breeze for a few more minutes, marvelling at the run of decent weather, the low number of mosquitoes.

After he finished his beer, George needed to use the bathroom. He started to rise from his chair, but it wouldn’t let him go. He tried again, grunting and laughing, with no luck. George had really wedged himself into that Muskoka chair. He was completely jammed in.“You attached to this here chair, Bob?” he asked my father. “Might have to bust me out of her.”

“Oh, don’t worry, we’ll get you out.” The Emp directed Donna and me in his teacherly voice that was beginning to slur a little. “Each of you hold down an arm now, while George stands up. These chairs are awful. Damned nuisances.”

It worked. Freed from the chair, George shook himself off like he’d won a fight, then limped to the bathroom.

“Thank God we’re outside,” I whispered. George gave off a blend of cow shit, diesel fumes, and farts. “Pee-ew.”

“Hush, now,” The Emp said. “He works hard.” He put on his glasses and picked up the Globe and Mail’s Review section. Soon he was making a sound I recognized: a half-whistle, half-hum that meant he was feeling no pain.

I remembered Bob Hudson, a.k.a. The Emp, as a successful man in every way, including his success, if you’d call it that, at getting completely sloshed on a daily basis. It seemed he was still good at it. I came up with “The Emp,” my name for him, as a teenager, and I’d referred to him as The Emp ever since. When I mentioned it to Donna, I said the name referred to his proclamations, his putting on airs and accents, like an aristocrat—short for The Emperor. The one who wears no clothes? she’d asked. Sure, I’d said. If the shoe fits. It could also be short for Empties. Donna stuck with “Dad.” The good daughter who’d stuck.

I was just coming out of a pretty bleak period—a dark and rainy spring, a bad breakup, my friends dating decent people and plotting their futures. The guy who’d dumped me, like most of the guys I’d attracted, had taken my darker look to mean hard “partier.” Yet I’d always been too afraid; I worried that it would be like enticing tapeworms to come out through my mouth with a saucer of milk at my lips—the addict rising from deep inside, wanting to be fed. The last guy quipped, “I didn’t know I was signing up for a church lady. You have twelve tattoos. You like Rage Against the Machine, for fuck sakes!” He called my look “false advertising.” Needless to say, I hadn’t found a decent match.

With George rescued, Donna left the deck and descended the dozen steps to the beach to skip stones with Sammy. It was like being on holiday for her. Whenever our parents were at the cottage, Donna came over every day.

“Want some cheddar?” I asked The Emp. “Or did you already have lunch?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “Sister took care of me.”

I took up the steel wool and continued scrubbing down the barbecue. We’d cooked up some tandoori chicken breasts I brought from the city only on Mom’s condition that the grill would be pristine again the next day.

“Just turn her up to five hundred and walk away,” George said, returning from the loo. “Best clean you’ll ever get.”

“Is that so?” I kept at it. George sat himself down on another, easier-to-exit chair. The Emp had gone quiet, his pink face contemplative under his bushy white head of hair—good hair even at seventy years old, no messy-look hair product required. He looked smaller than he had on my last visit to Ottawa, but I put it down to the oversized chair he was in.

“What’s the big thing at the farm these days?” I asked George, as if a century-old farm made quick decisions on crops and livestock. I wondered if organic had hit that part of the country yet. I handed him another Molson’s.

“Oh, same old corn and beef. After sixty years of farming, Dad won’t stray from those. But there’s a couple fields in the back corner where I’m growing buckwheat, kind of an experiment. A cereal company pays decent money for the stuff. Purely a cash crop, I guess.”

“I used to sell buckwheat. Raw and toasted. When I worked at the health food store.”

“Yeah, it’s a hippie thing.” George squinted at my nose. “See you took your bull ring out.”

I ignored this brilliant observation. “It’s high in protein, compared with other grains.”

“You ever eat it?”

“Sure.” I’d only ever eaten it once, at a friend’s geodesic dome. They served it like porridge with soya butter and soya sauce, and I couldn’t get the burnt, bitter taste off my tongue for two days.

“I’ll stick to other protein, thanks,” George said and dug through the bowl of mixed nuts with his dirty hands, rooting out the cashews. “You want some, Bob?” But The Emp couldn’t answer; he’d passed out.

Just as we noticed his condition, we heard excitement from the lake.

“Grandpa! Grandpa!” It was Sammy, yelling from the dock. “We caught a bullfrog!”

The Emp’s head was bent toward his chest.

“Good job,” George yelled back. “Hold on tight!”

My father didn’t stir.

“Napping, Bob?” George nudged The Emp’s foot with his own. “He okay? Heart okay?”

“Oh, I think so,” I said. “He’s been drinking his medicine all day.”

“Ah, shit.” George chuckled. “I shoulda known that. I thought it was water at first, all fancy-like with the lemon. The way he was guzzling.”

“The only water he gets is in the ice.”

The Emp was slowly slumping over; his top half was about to fall sideways out of the chair. George jumped up to catch him.

“You want me to put him to bed?”

“I guess we’d better.”

Donna had come up to check on things. George picked up my father like he was a sack of potatoes, hefted him into the cottage, and laid him down, tenderly, on the old feather mattress in the bedroom closest to the front door. As I shifted him away from the edge of the bed, I was surprised to feel how bony The Emp’s limbs were, how insubstantial they felt under his grey cotton slacks.

At that moment Sammy yelled from the dock again. “Mommy! Come help me! The pool noodles are floating away!”

“Oh, bloody hell,” Donna muttered.

A fake inner Brit surfaced when she panicked, something else she inherited from The Emp. He always liked to act British, used to go days with an affected accent, a slight tea-time tightness to his voice. Maybe a by-product of the gin, a distillation of Her Majesty’s royal juniper berries, but more likely it was a way for him to feel distinguished among the neighbours in Ottawa, who were senior civil servants or professors. A high school history teacher was not a prof. At one point, apparently, he could have taken things further and done his PhD, but then Donna came along, and then me, and after all (although this is not a part of the official story), in my opinion, he was busy dedicating his free time to the bottle.

I could feel the day settling into my shoulder muscles, knotting them up. “Thanks for stopping by,” I said to George, who stood on the deck, finishing his beer. A light wind had begun to blow, and on it, the scent of the wild roses growing along the dirt lane. I decided to walk with him out to the main road. We kept a leisurely, work-boot pace.

“You don’t miss it around here? Big city’s not too much for you?”

“No, it isn’t,” I said. It wasn’t true. I missed the lake so much. The city offered me chances, diversity, stimulation, but the lake was my medicine; it settled me down.

“Donna’s pretty happy living here, seems like,” George said. “Nice little family. Good mother.”

“Yeah. Maybe a little over the top with the safety drills.”

George slowed down and lowered his voice. “Well, now, you can never be too careful. After Patrick and all.”

Who was Patrick? “What do you mean?”

He jerked his head to the side and looked at me hard. “Oh. Well, then. I better be off.” He looked embarrassed. He hoisted up his jeans and turned toward his farm. “Give my best to your mother.”

Probably a little dotty, mixing up stories. Or maybe it was the beer at work, making him forget that I hadn’t been around in years and no longer knew the local stories.

“Will do,” I called. “Good luck with the buckwheat.”

*

Back at the cottage, I went to check if The Emp was still alive. Not choking on his own spew, able to breathe. Good enough. I lay down on the couch to try to fight off a headache that was beginning to build.

Alcohol was an addiction, and addicts needed empathy. And I felt it—for people I didn’t know, at least. I knew that people were hurting everywhere, and needed to soothe their brokenness with whatever they could get. The thing was, my father was not suffering. He had a wife who dedicated her life to creating a magazine-worthy home—albeit, for me, a claustrophobic one—two kids who hadn’t fucked up in any substantial way, a job with enough money to let him keep the cottage, and seemingly rock-solid health despite his dirty habit. He had a good life. It should have added up to something better than his regular obliteration.

Donna had turned into Mom, pretending the man didn’t have a problem, and I didn’t blame her: she was a lot closer to our parents, and now with a boy who needed grandparents, I could see why she’d rather live as if things were rosy. Sammy and my father loved each other. Yesterday The Emp must’ve played ten rounds of Go Fish! and even read Sammy a story. Despite deliberately leaving all this behind, I envied Donna her full life.

As for me, when I wasn’t working, or had no new boyfriend in the bed, my days were empty vessels; I’d begun to think that getting tattoos was intimate—the buzz, the pain, the blood, the scarring—and at least I was left with something I wanted to see again. I was only twenty-seven, but I was lonely. I was starting to think I would become one of those women on the streetcar who tell strangers about their breakfast, just to talk.

I didn’t think of Sammy often before the day in the mall. But when he was with me in the canoe, I felt something completely new: he was mine. Not that I owned him. I guess you could call it kinship. He was my nephew; I was his auntie. Maybe that relationship could mean more than just buying him presents.

*

After a few minutes, Sammy came into the cottage and stood on the mat, soaking wet and shivering, still in his life jacket.

“What’s up, matey?”

“The frog swam away, and we lost the blue noodle.” He began to whimper.

I got up to help. “You don’t want to take that thing off?” He stepped into the antique Care Bears towel I was holding open. He smelled like coconut spf 100 and fish skin.

“I’m going back down,” he said.

I rubbed his little arms to warm him up.

“That was my favourite noodle!” He grumbled some more.

“Oh, well, it’s just gone down the lake a bit. We’ll get it later. You and me in the pea-green pod, okay?” It sounded more like naptime than canoe time. Did kids still nap?

“Mommy’s doing that already.”

I looked out the window over the sink to the lake below. Donna had managed to get the canoe into the water and up alongside the dock. I lifted Sammy up onto the counter. “Let’s watch her!”

He was still shaking, his taut muscles vibrating against my shoulder like a washing machine.

“She wouldn’t let me go,” he whined. “I wanted to go along!”

“She’ll be right back,” I told him. How could I teach him to take that whine out of his voice?

Sammy sat on the counter, his feet in the kitchen sink, and we both observed Donna from above. We were watching closely when she stepped into the wrong side of the boat and fell into the lake.

*

Donna has cerebral palsy, just a mild case that affects one side of her body. The cord was wrapped around her neck at birth and deprived her brain of oxygen for minutes. After multiple surgeries on her left arm and leg, she’s been left with one smaller hand and one smaller foot—lucky, in comparison to most others with cp. She holds her arm like it’s a wounded paw and takes shorter steps so the foot doesn’t drag her down, but otherwise, she’s totally okay.

Naturally, she’s had to make concessions, and so has her family. There were times during our childhood when I felt like one of those rats that turned to horses in Cinderella, pulling her royal carriage—the little red wagon did get up to a decent speed with a dose of younger-sibling anger as fuel.

“Trish! Trish!” Donna started calling to us before she could see we were on the way down to help her. “Throw me a bloody life preserver!” More with the panic, British-style.

She was flapping around, perfectly fine, but stressing herself out working to get the canoe turned upright. A boa of weeds ringed her neck. I threw her the life jacket to complete the ensemble.

“The blasted paddles!” Donna yelled. “They’re floating away!” She held on to the life jacket and started kicking her way toward them.

At this point, our mother arrived home. I caught a glimpse of a pearly silver car pulling out of the driveway as she floated down the steps in her post-spa bliss, wearing a shapeless sage green tunic.

“Donna’s swimming, is she?” Mom asked in a smiley voice. “Hello, dear Sammy. Hello, Patricia.”

“Not swimming, Grandma,” Sammy said. “She was chasing the noodles and then she tipped out of the canoe and now the paddles are gone, too.”

Mom looked at me for confirmation, the worry back on her face.

I nodded. “Business as usual.”

“Where’s your father?”

“Napping.”

She sighed. Spa time was over. “Sammy, will you come with me in the pedal boat, once you find your sun hat? We are going on a rescue mission.”

Sammy cheered. “Another adventure!”

Donna had given up and was climbing the ladder at the end of the dock, red-faced and panting, picking weeds out of her bathing suit. The green canoe was face down in the lake.

“Hello, dear,” Mom said. “Are you all right?”

And although my sister was clearly not all right, judging by her rate of breathing and the pissy expression she wore, she followed our code of conduct: never alarm our mother, never make sudden gestures, or talk about adventures we’ve had, never admit to bodily harm. Donna simply nodded.

*

The Emp wasn’t a bad guy. He didn’t hit us, didn’t wake us up in the middle of the night to beat us, like my friend’s mother had, calling them little shits and worse, as if they were being bad while they slept. He never touched me down there, never mortally wounded anyone. But still, it was hard for me. I had to learn to lie, for him and for me. I never took rides with him after 3:00 pm, never volunteered my daddy for pickup after dances or shows. I took to pouring out his bottles, filling them with coloured water, throwing tantrums about it, leaving Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlets out for him to stumble over, the whole nine yards. I pleaded with my mother to help, but she wouldn’t entertain the idea that anything was dire enough to seek help. Wouldn’t want word getting out, now, would we?

*

After Sammy and my mother were tucked into the pedal boat and pushing toward the runaway paddles and noodles, Donna and I waded into the lake and worked together to get the canoe turned over, then into shore.

“Doesn’t this remind you of that day we tipped with The Emp?” I asked her when we were resting on plastic chairs on the beach beside Sammy’s sandcastle.

She shook her head. “I don’t really remember it.”

“Really? The day he cried?”

Donna avoided my gaze and started rattling on about the high water level and the petition going around about banning gas motors on the lake.

I pressed on. “You really don’t remember?”

She stood up. “No, I don’t. Now will you please help me take these chairs away from the edge of the lake in case those clouds mean business?”

Bulbous clouds were gathering at the far end of the lake, but it was still sunny and clear at our place. I dropped the memory talk and helped her, and then said I was going back up to check on The Emp. I really just wanted to take a Tylenol and lie down again for a few minutes.

“I’ll come, too,” she said. “Should we try to get him up? Wash his face, change his shirt, you know, while Mom is out?”

“Not a chance,” I said. We climbed the stairs, me letting her go first, as always. “He’s a big boy, Donna. It’s not up to us any more.”

I tried to imagine the future. Who would take care of him if Mom were to go before he did? Not me. I could not see myself swabbing his bony, pseudo-aristocratic ass with a Wet One. No. Not my department.

He was lying on his back like a coffined body, hands on his belly, cheeks flushed, that familiar, sweetly-acrid scent escaping his pores.

“At least we should open the window,” Donna said. “It smells in here.”

She crawled onto the bed and reached over The Emp to the window: the cottage was built when people were shrunken versions of what they are now, when a vacation house’s bedroom was a cubbyhole and people built according to how much cold, hard cash they had in hand. All the windows were old storm windows from an even older house, hinged on their top edge and held open by hooks suspended from the rafters of the unfinished ceiling.

When there was air flow, we closed his door and began cleaning up the kitchen.

“Oh, hey, maybe you know,” I said as I swept the floor. “George mentioned something that happened to a boy named Patrick?”

Donna stopped wiping the table for a second.

“Did you know him?”

She turned to the stove and attacked its surface. “You’ll have to ask Mom.”

I heard Mom and Sammy stomping up the stairs. Donna dropped her rag and raced out to meet them. I kept sweeping. There was enough sand on that floor to build a castle.

My mother came into the kitchen, her sage green tunic soaked up to her hips. “Well,” she said. “We found everything down by the Murphy place.” She was speaking slowly, melodically, the way she used to talk when she wanted to distract us from something. Like steering us away from an accident on the road, saying, “Let’s all go over here for ice cream, shall we?”

“Nearly time for dinner! I brought some lovely tomatoes and basil home from the market near the spa, and I thought we could start with a bruschetta. Or, Patricia, would you rather make one of your famous Greek salads?”

Wow, she was really going back in time; I hadn’t made a Greek salad in years. “Mom,” I said. “Who’s Patrick?”

“Who? Oh.” She cleared her throat. She pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down. “Well.”

She sat staring out at the lake. I could hear Donna and Sammy on the deck, discussing the reasons why he couldn’t stuff three cookies into his mouth at the same time.

“Are you okay, Mom?”

“Yes, Trish. I’m okay.” Her voice was barely audible. “But I think—yes, you’d better come out on the deck, before your father wakes up.”

I stuck the broom back in the closet and found Mom and Donna outside on the deck, having a mumbled conversation that stopped when I arrived. They were sitting at the oval plastic table with their hands folded in front of them. They looked as if they’d seen a ghost; their faces were pale and they wouldn’t look at me directly.

“Sit down,” they said in unison. A team approach. I sat down in the same chair The Emp had passed out in.

“Where’s Sammy?” I suddenly wanted him with me; I needed a comrade.

“Castle town,” Donna pointed toward the beach.

He was struggling to manoeuvre his sand pails, wearing that stupid life jacket. She probably made him wear it on rainy days.

“So,” Mom said. “George was here.” She was smiling, but it was more of her fake niceness.

“So who’s Patrick?”

My mother looked at her lap.

“Donna, will you please tell me who Patrick is?”

There was a long pause. “Well,” Donna said. “He was . . .” She looked at Mom.

“He was a darling boy,” Mom finished quietly. “You would have loved him.”

I was confused. “Yeah, but who was he?”

She wouldn’t look at me. “He was my little boy.”

“Wait a second.” Something about the way she and Donna kept darting looks at each other was making me sweat. “Are you saying that he—that you have another child?” I looked to Donna for help. “We have a brother?”

She nodded. “Neither of us knew him.”

My right eyelid began to twitch. A brother? I had a brother? The questions tumbled out. “What do you mean, knew him? Where is he? What happened?”

“He was playing in the water,” Mom said. “I was in the hospital, with a newborn Donna, and your father was at home with him.”

Donna leaned over and down to get a better view of Sammy, even though we could hear him singing.

“What, you mean he’s—he’s dead?”

“He died that day,” Donna said. “Five years old. Sammy’s age.”

“Oh, my God.” I’d had a brother, and lost him. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Then I got it: The Emp. It felt as though chainmail had dropped over my shoulders. “He was drunk, wasn’t he?”

“No,” Mom said. “No, he wasn’t.” She spoke too loudly. “It was an accident.”

“As if,” I said.

My mother was adamant. “Your father didn’t drink back then. I mean, he had a beer or two in the afternoons, but he wasn’t—he didn’t drink, like now.” She closed her eyes for a moment, as if to summon her stronger self. “We didn’t want either of you to carry this around. A dead brother can haunt you forever. God knows I know that, with my brother taken by that car crash. And I didn’t want you to be afraid of water. So, we just pretended there had been . . . no Patrick. We focused on raising you two instead, in the best way we could.”

“Incredible.” To think I’d had a brother.

“Bob loved him so much,” Mom went on. She rose slowly and walked over to where she’d left her purse on the railing, pulled out her wallet, and took a photo from within its folds. “Look, this is the two of them, together, just a few months before—before he was taken from us.”

I looked closely at the photo. A young Emp was holding a small blond kid on his knee like he was playing Santa. A boy with the same eye shape as him. Patrick. They were smiling, as if someone were making a puppet dance behind the camera. Happy. Living a good life. Alive, a hundred percent.

Patrick looked a bit like Donna had when she was young, but even more like Sammy, singing Sammy, down at the edge of the lake.

“I can’t believe this,” I said. “Why would you keep this from me?”

“Trish, they did the best they could.” Donna had her arms folded, her small hand tucked behind the good one.

My sister had known. Everyone had known. “When did you find out?”

Donna looked away. “Just after I had Sammy, Dad kind of—well, he had a sort of a breakdown. Mom had to tell me why.”

“I see. And you just wanted to keep me completely in the dark.” Now I was pacing the deck. “What, like forever?”

“Can you imagine how hard it must have been? Coming home with a newborn, and losing a son? Give Mom a break, will you?”

“I’m sorry, Mom. It must be a horrible thing to lose a child.”

She sat back in her chair and looked at me, surprised, I think, by my generosity.

“But it’s just too unfuckingbelievable that you told Donna and not me.”

“Trish!” Donna said. “Keep your voice down.” She leaned to see Sammy again.

“Did the police come? Was there an investigation?”

Mom shook her head. “There was nothing to investigate. A little boy drowned in a lake, Trish. A tragedy. No one to blame.”

“Except Beefeater. Or was it Jack Daniels? What was it then, Mom?”

My mother just stared at the photo.

I stared into the white cedars all around us, keeping us hidden from the world. They were full of cedar seeds, tight lime-green buds that The Emp used to pelt us with when he’d had a few, stinging our bare arms and legs despite our pleas for him to stop. He’d laughed; he’d wanted to make us hurt.

Sammy was belting out “Frère Jacques” below, really letting the lake have it. Donna wouldn’t look at me. But she couldn’t, really, could she? She was always head-cranked toward the beach, making sure the orange of Sammy’s life jacket was still in view.

My mother’s lips were trembling. “Trish. Your father was not a drinker back then. He wasn’t. He was a sweet man who wanted a simple, sweet life, and then his only son died.”

“His only son,” I repeated. “It ruined him, is what you’re saying.”

She nodded, teary-eyed. “I thought having other children would help him.”

“Yeah, well, that turned out nicely, didn’t it? The love’s just poured out of him ever since.”

“See, I knew we shouldn’t have told her,” Donna said to Mom. “She’s too damned selfish to even get it!” Then she turned to me. “Do you know that they were worried every second we were here at the lake, but they didn’t want us to miss out on all this?”

Mom put up her hand to stop Donna. “It’s okay. Trish has a right to be angry. She’s always felt like she’s had the short end of the stick, no matter how hard I tried.” Her voice broke. “I tried to make your life the best it could be, but I failed. You’ve just abandoned us, living your perfect life in Toronto, and I don’t know where I went wrong.”

“Really, you don’t know? You lied to me my whole life. How’s that for starters?”

“You’re such a little bitch!” Donna yelled. “You don’t deserve any of what she’s done for you. Always the baby, always special little Trish, the weird but talented one doing her own thing in the big city, too busy to care about her family. Why should she have told you about Patrick? Would it have made any difference to you and your holier-than-everyone attitude? No. It would just make you hate Dad even more.”

Mom put her hands over her ears and began to rock a little, eyes shut tight. Donna wasn’t finished.

“In fact, why are you even here now? We’re all beneath you, isn’t that what you’ve always thought? That we aren’t good enough to be your family?”

Sammy kept on singing, “Ding dang dong” over and over again, under what had become a cloudy sky.

Donna’s words stung, even if she was onto something: I did have to get away from there. But as much as I wanted to peel out and head back to Toronto right that minute, I couldn’t leave. I had to face my father. I wanted to hear what The Emp had to say.

I went to sit in my car. The sky had started to spit. I began to move one hand over the other, stroking my skin, a strategy called “Pet the Bunny,” a calm-down technique I hadn’t needed since I left therapy.

*

There was no bruschetta for dinner, no famous Greek salad. While I was still in the car, all windows and doors closed, Donna called Sammy up from the beach. I stared at him and imagined it was Patrick I was seeing, imagined him into the part of my lifother e I’d already lived through. Big brother at my birthday parties. Big brother teasing me about boyfriends. Big brother driving me places.

Eventually I left the car and went inside. Somebody had made a stack of grilled cheese sandwiches and left them on a plate in the middle of the table. I wasn’t hungry, but Sammy had grabbed three triangles and was zooming them through a dune of ketchup, just like he’d done in the mall. Donna had the Uno cards out. She said Mom had gone to lie down.

I went to my room. Our heads—Mom and mine—would be nearly touching, separated by only a few inches of plywood and panelling. I heard Donna and Sammy playing Uno at the coffee table in the living room just outside my door, and above that peaceful sound, The Emp, snoring in the far bedroom.

I walked past the game, pulled a chair in from the kitchen table, and carefully closed the door. I sat beside the bed. “Dad,” I said. “Get up.”

When he didn’t respond I took water from the glass on the bedside table and flicked it at him. “Get up, will you?”

His cheeks twitched with each spray, until he turned over and moaned. I moved on to clapping in his ear and finally he thrashed himself awake.

“Dad,” I said quietly. “I know.”

The Emp sat up and rubbed his ruddy face.

“What?” He tried to focus on me. “What are you talking about?”

“Patrick,” I said. “I know about Patrick.”

He opened his red-rimmed eyes and looked right at me before sinking onto his back again. “Donna tell you? Or your mother?”

“George told me first, they told me the rest.”

His voice was raspy and dry. “My little son. Patrick.”

Then it dawned on me: Patrick; Patricia. I was named after this dead boy. Their way of keeping a little bit of him alive.

“You were trying for another boy,” I said. “And got me instead.”

After a moment, he said, “Yes.”

The Emp said yes.

Twenty-seven years of being an outsider, in that one word. Yes. I’d been a replacement for Patrick. But not a good one. Not good enough.

“And you were drunk, right?” I whispered. “The day Patrick died.”

He struggled onto his elbows and sat up again. For what was the first time in years, The Emp was really looking at me. He nodded. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

I could hear Sammy exclaiming about the sunset from the living room. My mother’s bed creaked and I could make out the shuffle of her flip-flops. The show must go on.

I couldn’t wait to tell them the truth; it would feel so good. My brother was dead because of this man. A lie lay buried in the foundation of this family because of this man.

I had to tell them the truth, didn’t I?

Didn’t I? Yet.

Yet, if I did, the most likely scenario would be destruction.

Donna would flip out, maybe pull Sammy away from his grandpa.

Mom would be hurt, never forgive me.

The family would distance themselves from me even further.

I wouldn’t get to see Sammy.

I leaned in close to The Emp’s face again. “Who else knows?”

His nose was running. “No one,” he whispered. “Other than God.”

*

I left my father lying in his own mess and went to find Sammy. The weather had turned fair again, but the lake was still mottled with choppy waves. Donna and Mom were sitting on the deck, teary faces staring at a decent sunset, cups of tea on the table. Sammy was back on the beach, padded in his foam and nylon shield.

I ran down the steps to him. Sammy, my little not-brother stand-in.

At the shoreline stood his creation: a whole fortified city, complete with walls and moat and little pirates peeking from around the corners.

“Look at my castle town!”

“Amazing.” He’d made a very cool town. I knelt down to get closer.

“This is where the king lives,” Sammy told me, pointing at the biggest castle, nearest the lake. “It’s strongest.”

The castle was already being licked by tiny waves, but he couldn’t see that. It would be the first to topple. The stones he’d made into a fence around its perimeter were shifting in the small surf. I was about to point out the weaknesses, to tell him to abandon the castle and start again farther in, but I couldn’t break it to him. He’d put his heart into that castle, and I wanted it to work as badly as he did. I grabbed a broken bulrush that had floated in and stood up, pointing it into the sky.

“Long live the king!” I cried out. Wasn’t that what the Brits said, when their monarch died?

“Long live the king!” Sammy shouted, stretching his short arms out of that orange life jacket as far as they could go.

“Come here.” I walked about ten steps to the end of our small beach, out of Donna’s view, and Sammy trotted behind me. When he was close enough, I squeezed the two black clips on his life jacket’s straps and popped it open.

I kissed his cheek. “Our secret,” I whispered.

 

 

Read our interview with Julie Paul in this issue. 

 

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About Julie Paul

Julie Paul is the author of three books: two collections of short fiction, The Jealousy Bone (Emdash, 2008) and The Pull of the Moon (Brindle & Glass, 2014) and the poetry collection, The Rules of the Kingdom (MQUP, 2017). The Pull of the Moon was awarded both an IPPY award and the Victoria Book Prize and was named a Top 100 Book in the Globe and Mail. Her essay “It Not Only Rises, It Shines” won the Edna Staebler Personal Essay Award from The New Quarterly, and her story “The Expansion” won The Rusty Toque’s 2016 Chapbook Award.

She lives in Victoria with her family, where, in addition to writing, she works as a Registered Massage Therapist.

Julie Paul

Julie Paul is online at