Authors: Dani Couture
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #General Fiction
by dani couture
Halifax & Toronto
For Carolyn Black, Stacey May Fowles, & Natalie Zina Walschots
We all have reasons for moving. I move to keep things whole.
To have joy, one must share it. Happiness was born a twin.
5:14 p.m. -12°C. Wind NW, strong.
Snow drifting in waves across river.
New ice groaned beneath the hard plastic soles of Leo’s winter boots. The temperature had dropped dramatically two days earlier and sealed the river, however thinly. Small pressure cracks exploded beneath his feet as he leaped to each new stretch of ice. Although the bear was emaciated—fur and skin hanging off its frame like grotesque drapery—it moved quickly.
If Leo kept a quick pace, didn’t stay on the same fragile stretch of ice too long, he wouldn’t fall through. He was sure the river teemed with a thousand toothy pike looking to exact revenge on his summer limits.
When he’d encountered the bear on the south shore, he’d immediately forgotten about his network of snares in the woods behind him. The thin coil of wire and wire cutters attached to his belt bounced against his hip like a heartbeat as he ran. Although he didn’t know how, he thought he could help the animal. And even more than that, he wanted to touch it, feel its rough fur in his hands, the sharp contours of its shoulder blades that pumped up and down like a locomotive. He’d never seen anything like it before, and he was glad his brother was not there, that he’d managed to slip away from him after school. Ferd would have only wanted to find a way to get its hide, teeth, and claws. Leo wanted it all, and alive.
Fifty feet ahead of him, the bear stopped, stumbled, then quickly regained its footing. The animal did not turn around to acknowledge its stalker, a boy dressed in a dark blue parka with white fur trim around the hood, black tuque, and a thin red scarf at his throat.
Leo took the bear’s missteps as a chance to catch up and picked up his pace. The tree line on the north shore of the river had lost definition in the last minutes of daylight and was now only a fence of black wood capped by a darkening blue sky. The bright white ice that stretched from shore to shore held the remaining light of the day and every ounce of the cold.
The bear stopped again.
The crunch of snow and ice beneath Leo’s feet was deafening. He stopped, held his breath, worried that at any moment the bear would hear him, smell him, turn on him, and it would be over. Whatever this was. He was so close, he could almost touch it if he reached out his hand.
The bear—diseased, starving, or both—struggled to release one of its front paws from the hole it had created. The animal bared its large yellow teeth at the ice, growled, and tried to gnaw its trapped limb free.
Under the weight of the boy and the animal’s struggle, the ice started to cave.
As he fell into the water, Leo reached for the bear, desperate for something to hold onto. Its fur was softer than he could have ever imagined.
From the train bridge, Ferd stood on the slippery railway ties and watched Leo chase the bear across the ice as darkness fell. Frightened for his brother, but more afraid that Leo would find out he’d tailed him after school, he remained quiet. He watched the gap between brother and bear grow smaller and smaller until it was difficult to make out two distinct shapes. They appeared as one mass until they disappeared into the river leaving Ferd to stand on the bridge. Alone, it felt, for the first time.
DECEMBER – JANUARY
7:04 p.m. -14°C. Light, crisp N wind.
Salt glittering on the sidewalk like costume jewellery.
Inside the darkened lobby, Lake used both hands to flip on all the light switches at once. Outside, the marquee bulbs flickered and popped on to reveal her six sisters shivering on the cold sidewalk, a mix of steam and cigarette smoke rising from their mouths as they waited for her to open the doors. She took a rare moment to watch them all without being noticed. They were never together like this—alone—without partners, children, or friends. She wished times like these happened more often and not just on the anniversary of their parents’ deaths.
“Unlock the goddamned door,” Bay yelled. “It’s fucking freezing.”
Everyone always did what Bay said, mostly because she was the loudest.
“Your mouth,” Port said. “Watch it.”
Bay flicked her cigarette into the street and sulked. “It’s cold is all.” It was as close as she could come to an apology.
Cen and Steel rolled their eyes. The eldest of the seven, they had gone from trying to manage their siblings to being resigned to the realities of their personalities. Easier to go with the river than against it. Algoma and Soo huddled together to stay warm, their arms wrapped around one another’s waists. They rarely got into the middle of any argument, preferring to let things resolve on their own.
Lake opened the door to the ticket booth and stepped in. She leaned down to the hole in the glass: “Did you see the marquee? Go look.”
The women looked at one another and stepped back.
“3rd Annual Mom and Dad Film Festival,” Cen read aloud. Steel looped her arm with Cen’s and put her head on her sister’s shoulder.
Lake exited the booth and propped open one of the four main doors. “Come on in. Have your tickets ready and grab a glass of wine. Show starts in twenty.”
The theatre was the only one in town. Built in the sixties, it was abandoned by the early nineties, until a local man had renovated and reopened it under the name Fox Theatre after a theatre he’d visited in Detroit in his youth. Thomas Deneau had spent his early twenties thinking he’d make films; thirty years later, he had several uncut reels in his basement that he tried not to think about. Buying the theatre seemed like a good compromise. Instead of making films, he’d show them.
After five years of running the theatre by himself with the help of an ever-changing roster of teenagers to run the ticket booth and concession stand and clean up after each showing, he decided he needed a business partner. Someone to help run the place so he could have a few days off every week. Maybe finish one of his films, even though the actors were likely too aged, missing, or dead.
Lake had just graduated from the University of Montreal with a degree in demography and geography, but she didn’t want to work in her field because it would take her away from home. She’d applied for the job and was immediately hired. “If someone ever needs a map so they can find their seat, we’re set,” Thomas joked during her interview.
He treated Lake like a daughter, giving her free rein of the theatre when she wanted it; and for the past three years, she’d hosted an evening of home movies for her sisters on the anniversary of their parents’ deaths. The first year, Lake had had to explain to an angry would-be patron that the theatre was closed for a private event. The man had pounded on the ticket booth glass until she’d appeared.
“One ticket for the eight o’clock,” he’d said. In the end, she’d let him sit in the back like an extended family member no one could remember.
Lake brushed her bangs out of her eyes and ducked behind the concession stand. She pulled out a half dozen bottles of red and white wine and placed them beside the boxes of Whoppers and bags of Swedish Berries and Sour Patch Kids. “Small, medium, or large?” she asked.
Bay pushed passed her sisters to the front. “Large,” she said, pointing to a jumbo soda cup.
“I have to set up the movie,” Lake said. “Pour some for everyone else first.” She never gave into Bay’s demands.
“But…” Bay started. Undeterred, she emptied the better part of one of the bottles of red into a cup. She took a sip and nodded. “All right, who’s next? We’re almost out of red though.”
When Lake turned to go to the projector room, she felt a hesitant tap on her shoulder.
“Can I put it on this year?”
It was Algoma, the youngest of all of them. Someone who was closer to being a family mascot than a sister. She also carried the notable distinction of being the only non-twin of her siblings. “My only mistake,” Ann often said when referring to her youngest. She’d said she was joking, but everyone knew otherwise, especially Algoma. Like the Dionne Quints in Ontario, Ann had hoped to achieve reproductive fame, but it never came. She blamed it on two factors: that one set of siblings was not identical and that Algoma had come out alone. “Wanted the womb all for yourself, didn’t you,” she’d said when her newborn daughter was brought to her for the first time.
Few could refuse Algoma anything. Last year, Lake had showed her how the projector worked.
“Here you go,” Lake said, handing over the disc. “The office is unlocked. You know the rest.”
Algoma smiled and ran into the office like she was a teenager and not the mother and wife she was.
The projector room was only accessible from the office. Lake’s and Thomas’s desks were pushed up against one another in the centre of the room with two sticky notes on either side of the border between them. One read “Haiti” and the other “Dominican Republic.” Apparently Lake hadn’t completely left her studies behind. Behind Lake’s desk was the steep metal staircase that led to the projector room.
Upstairs, a narrow doorway opened up into a long room with a high ceiling that held three large silver projectors—two for 35-inch film and one for 16-inch. And in the corner, what Algoma was looking for, the DVD player. She turned on the machine and placed the disc on the tray.
Through the window, she watched her sisters mingle and talk below. They stood on the casino-style carpeting behind the last row of theatre seats, not ready to sit down yet. Lake circled around, refilling glasses with wine. Algoma pressed her forehead onto the glass. The sight of them should have made her happy: it didn’t. Despite the identical parentage, she always felt foreign, extraneous in their presence. Unnecessary.
Her entire life, she’d been looking for someone with the same dull green eyes, blonde hair, and pale skin. She was the extra card in a game of memory.
Growing up, she’d always felt like she was missing something. The required companion her mother had created in utero for every girl born into the Belanger family. Every girl except her. Day after day her sisters paired off after breakfast, not separating until bedtime, and even then they stole into one another’s beds. Twin-speak was the official language of the house, a handful of dialects lilting, giggling, and whispering into the night.
As years passed, Algoma gave up a number of comforts: the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and, finally, the most difficult, her twin. She vowed to make do with only herself, her own two hands, two feet, two eyes. Her life, she believed, was inferior to those of her sisters, who seemed like many-armed gods radiating light and ability.
She’d found it ironic, almost cruel, when she’d given birth to twin boys: Ferdinand and Leopold. She felt betrayed at a cellular level. When she’d first found out she was pregnant, she’d confessed to Gaetan that she was looking forward to raising someone like her. An only. After Leo’s death, she’d blamed those early thoughts for his loss, as if the world had conspired to give her exactly what she’d asked for.
Lake looked up at the projector room. Everything okay? she mouthed.
Algoma nodded quickly and stepped back from the window. She flipped all the necessary switches for lights and sound and hit play. For the past several years, Lake had worked with their father’s collection of home movies, editing a new family movie each year. The movies always followed a theme, which Lake kept secret until the night of the viewing. For once, Algoma had a head start on her sisters. Written on the disc in permanent marker was one word: “Water.”
The lights dimmed and the aging red curtains yawned open. The sisters moved to take their seats. Algoma watched as the six women turned into three packs of pairs. Her father, Richard, had joked that lightning had struck Ann’s womb three times and they’d won the jackpot—six girls in half the time. He’d held efficiency above most things, and the thought that he’d had something to do with it had only made him prouder.
Algoma went down into the theatre. On the screen, she saw her father teaching a lanky teenage Cen how to fish in the Charles River. The scene cut away to three-month-old Soo being bathed in the kitchen sink in the old house. Teenage Lake and Port running around in the rain in the backyard, mud streaked across their faces, her parents sitting under the cover of the back porch.
She took a seat in the back row, the same she took every year, able to see everything and everyone all at once, no one able to see her.
7:42 a.m. -10°C. Wind NW, calm.
Top of cedar hedge covered in crown of new snow.
Whatever Algoma brought into the house began its long journey at the side door, a slow migration that would sometimes take months before the item would arrive at its final destination.
A shower curtain she’d purchased last February, still in its original plastic packaging, had spent weeks on the small wooden table by the front door until it had blended in with the keys and half-empty packs of gum. By April, the curtain had made it across the kitchen and sat beside the phone until June.
By the time the curtain had made it into the bathroom in October—packaging covered in ink doodles, to-do lists, and phone numbers—the old curtain was in terrible condition, discoloured at the edges as if ravaged by tropical disease.
In November, the curtain had rested on the edge of the tub for weeks, sometimes falling in when someone showered, only to be picked up and placed back on the ledge until one morning the new curtain, free of water stain and hard, curled edges, had been put up.
Algoma pulled the slick green curtain back without a thought of regret or longing for the old curtain that had served her family for the past year and was now nailed to the unfinished shower wall in the basement washroom to stop a leak. Naked, she stepped into the tub and frowned at the dark footprints she could never scrub clean. The enamel no longer thick enough to repel the outside world. The footprints all faced the same way—toward the drain. It looked like a trail that ended at the bullseye of metal that was meant to keep things from slipping away.
She leaned forward to turn on the water taps and mouthed a small prayer that her husband and son would remain asleep and stay away from the other faucets in the house for at least ten minutes. Long enough for her to rinse the conditioner from her hair. The shower head choked to life and hot water rained down on her shoulders, her aching muscles. She tilted her head back and wet her hair, running her fingers through tangle and curl.
As she massaged shampoo into her scalp, Algoma felt the waterline rise over the tops of her feet. The drain was plugged. She crouched down to take a look. Slippery clouds of lather slid down her back and landed in the tub. All she could see was water and the rust-pocked silver rim. She pushed a strand of sopping hair away from her eyes and stuck her long thin fingers into the drain. Her stomach tightened with disgust as she fingered the rough sides—gummy slivers of soap and knotted hair. She dug deeper, her fingers now knuckle-deep, until she felt something unfamiliar. Something with a soft edge. With two fingers, she fished the thin fold up toward the mouth of the drain. A sodden wad of paper.
She turned her back to the shower spray and held up the note. Blue ink bled through the lined paper, but she could not make out the words. She tried to open it, but the note began to come apart in her hands. She pieced it back together as best she could and stuck her hand out of the shower, placing the note on the edge of the sink. Later, she thought, when it was dry. She was a nervous woman by nature; having to wait for what she thought could only be bad news just made it worse.
She thought about all the things it could be and none made sense. But then, not much did anymore.
Warm and scrubbed clean, Algoma turned off the cold water first and then the hot. As the last of the water slipped down the drain, she pulled the shower curtain back and leaned forward to grab a thin white towel from the rack. Steam rolled out of the shower in thick waves. She worried the paint would start to bubble and peel soon. She worried the floor was wet and rotting beneath her and would send the tub crashing down into the basement one day. She worried there was too much snow piled on the roof. She worried about what she’d find when she peeled open the folds of the note.
While standing in the tub, as she did every morning, Algoma dried her forearms first, then her legs, leaving her stomach, chest, and back for last. After stretching around awkwardly to sop up the last drops from her shoulders, her eyes closed, she brought the towel to her face. When she pulled the towel away, her face tingling from her rough drying, she saw the note on the edge of the sink. She wondered how it had gotten into the tub. Why not just throw it away?
She spread the towel across the floor to avoid standing on the cold tiles and stepped onto it. She stood in front of the bathroom mirror and leaned in for her morning inspection, the edge of the note touching her bare hipbone.
Only a week ago, she had discovered a new freckle beneath her left eye. At first she’d tried to wipe the mark off, but soon realized it was skin deep. Today, at least, she was a carbon copy of the woman she had looked at in the mirror yesterday. Her inspection went as wide and low as the bathroom mirror allowed: shoulder to shoulder, head to navel. Her blonde hair was slicked back against her scalp and curled loosely at her shoulders, each end like a sharp, wet hook. Her eyes, the colour of warm lake water, stared back. The same tired gaze as yesterday, the day before, the year before. Her shoulders sagged more than she liked, but she still enjoyed her collarbone—sharp, ready to poke through her flesh. The bone looked like a weapon stashed beneath her skin, ready in case of emergency. Even her breasts seemed efficient, small, and compact, never in the way. She put a hand on her belly, the only place where her body defied its natural leanness. A modest pouch to remember her only pregnancy by.