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Authors: Gaston Bill

Juliet Was a Surprise

BOOK: Juliet Was a Surprise
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ALSO BY BILL GASTON

NOVELS

Bella Combe Journal

Tall Lives

The Cameraman

The Good Body

Sointula

The Order of Good Cheer

The World

SHORT STORIES

Deep Cove Stories

North of Jesus' Beans

Sex Is Red

Mount Appetite

Gargoyles

POETRY

Inviting Blindness

DRAMA

Yardsale

NON-FICTION

Midnight Hockey

To Lise, and love

CONTENTS

House Clowns

Cake's Chicken

Any Forest Seen from Orbit

Tumpadabump

Petterick

Geriatric Arena Grope

To Mexico

Black Roses Bloom

At Work in the Fields of the Bulwer-Lytton

Four Corners

House Clowns

 

H
e woke up to the challenge of a mountain sun blaring through thin white curtains. Without lifting his head from the pillow he took stock of the bedroom, feeling beyond it the empty cottage and a hollow presence that felt a bit too eager. It could go either way. He decided he'd better stand up, get right out there and see what came.

After morning ablutions, he searched the cupboards for coffee but found none. This was fine. Coffee was a mistake, especially now; even two cups hid a nasty tipping point. He was here to try hard. He had made these arrangements and driven all this way not just to find the old clarity but to keep it. He'd told no one. Strings of that sort felt like confusion.

Inside the backyard shed, beside some fishing rods, he hefted a wooden shovel, thick and designed for healthy work. He smelled a cool, grass-clipping mustiness, a waft of childhood. The question, Did I make a huge mistake choosing an urban life? came with a ripple of panic, which he quelled by stepping back outside. Bouncing the shovel, he scanned the lawn for a worm spot, some wild place that wasn't grass, shrubbery or flowers. There was nothing diggable all the way down to a wall of cattails and the lake. An inner voice asked almost
sarcastically why he was breathing quickly, especially with all this stillness around him and a view he'd paid for and driven four hours to see. He brought his gaze up. Okay, there was Pinanten Lake, liquid black glass mirroring a dark mountain on the far shore. The lake was speckled with boats, people fishing. Trolling silently, eerily, the boats all had little electric motors. He'd read in the McGregors' leaflet that gas motors were banned.

The leaflet had also bragged of the lake's “world class trout.” His sarcastic voice had relished telling him that the flip side to all this promised fishing glory was that there would be nothing else to do here. But he'd fish. He could do it. He could stab a hook into a worm and not be thrown off course by its writhing. He could reel in a trout. And fry one. Butter, flour, salt. He'd famously taken Casey fishing that time and got nothing, so if he caught a trout, he could call his son and tell him. It would be the perfect reason to call, all the way to Belgium. At the phone he'd joke lightly, a trout shining in the sink. “Casey. Remember how we went to Sooke and didn't catch anything? I've felt like a failure for years, so—” The call would continue perfect, lively with Casey's questions. None of which would ask if his mother was there with him, or was he taking his meds this time, or was this in fact a vacation.

The shovel wasn't tall, so he'd have to stoop. Last week, in a gesture to his coming great health, he'd thrown away his velcro lumbar brace. Without support, his back felt precipitous, a cliff of possible pain on every side. He pictured the movements of shovelling.

He recalled all the roadside bait signs. He would hunt worms in his car.

But the signs had proved fraudulent. At each gas station, Bubba's, the outfit that supplied the worms, was behind on deliveries. A clerk joked, “Maybe Bubba got into the beer,” and “Bubba's probably lying in his hammock.” And as it always goes with these things, when he tried the Bubba-into-the-beer quip himself on the next baitless clerk, the young muscleman threw his head back and squinted, hostile, possibly a relative of Bubba. He saw now that his journey had dangerous choreography.

He drove all the way into Kamloops, finally locating a prize tub of worms—in a 7-Eleven, no less—and learned from reading the tub that Bubba's Bait Inc. was a corporation with a website for an address. He wasn't sure what any of this might mean. He smiled at the notion that these might be multinational worms. But fishing now felt less pure, and less destined. At his car, in the rising heat of parking lot blacktop, he peeled open the tub's plastic lid to find in peat moss maybe eight thick, alarmingly flaccid worms, barely alive, the grey green of turned bologna. He pressed the lid back, seeing he could be nudged off the journey by worms. The flip side was that they didn't look capable of agony if he stuck a hook in.

HE MANAGED TO KINDLE
some fishing spirit on the return drive. His clarity was deepening, and he noted with a nod the hawk eyeing him from a fence post as he glided past some dry fields. Then he saw, pulling into the carport, the cottage's front door ajar. This wasn't too disturbing, but as he got out of the car there were voices coming from inside. This wasn't necessarily horrible either; a rural place, maybe neighbours dropped by
and such. What was bad was the voices stopping at the sound of his car door closing. Worse, they stayed stopped, and after a time he could hear whispers.

He stood beside his car, not moving, worm tub against his leg. He could turn now, get in his car and fly. But that was probably ridiculous. And he'd heard a woman's voice in there. Not that that changed anything, not these days. But this was all wild thinking. There was a clear reason for people to be in there. They wouldn't be the owners, since there was no car. Unless, a taxi. Their leaflet said they lived here winters and travelled summers. Maybe something had happened to their trip. But wouldn't they have phoned? They—

“Hello!” A young man popped out smiling, his hand already in a wave.

“Yes. Hi.” His own hand came up automatically. The young man was twenty-five, thirty, and unshaven. Tanned, with startling blue eyes. Actually, he was extremely handsome. His T-shirt was filthy, his hiking shoes looked beaten up or even found. It was too hot for those jeans. His blond hair looked unwashed. But his good looks were male-model calibre. Who dressed like that with a face like that? His manner, the way he spoke, showed that he knew he was handsome.

“Fishin'?” The fellow glanced at the worms and lifted his eyebrows rhetorically.

“Bubba's,” he answered, feeling stupid as he turned the tub to show him the lid. The leaflet said the McGregors had raised kids here, kids who had “loved the place,” so maybe this was a child's ill-timed return. Now a young woman appeared too. Without looking at her, the man raised his arm to let her in,
and she stuck her shoulder into his armpit. She seemed nervous and fixed her gaze on her boyfriend's cheek.

“Are you the owner?” asked the young man.

“I'm the renter,” he answered, too keen to claim even that bit of ownership when of course he should have said nothing, seeing how the young man's question revealed so much. And now, at this answer, the woman turned his way with a beautiful, ripe-peach smile.

The young man said, “Hmm.” It was too long a pause. “This is strange,” he said at last. “So are we. The renters.”

She continued to smile sweetly at him. That light in her eyes he knew he would take to bed with him tonight to dwell on, parsing it for what might be its defiance, or its dangerous lie, or—this was possible now, given his deepening journey— its beautiful welcome.

THEY WENT INTO
the kitchen to “sort this thing out.” Before sitting down, the man swung round to offer his hand. Introductions followed. The young man was Adam, his girlfriend Eden. She was not Adam's equal in looks. But her body was sinuous, and he had always had a weakness for white halter tops. Her spirit was eager and well tuned. He bet she got what she wanted. When the unlikelihood of their names dawned on him he froze, and Adam said, grinning, “I know.”

“We get lots of jokes,” said Eden. “But I mean, I could have been Eve?”

“You did have a long history of snakes,” Adam said, pretending to glower.

“Oh, stop,” Eden said, smiling down at her tea fixings.

This including him in such intimacy alarmed him even as it seduced him. It could be signalling the best, or the worst.

He left a polite amount of time, then gently slapped the kitchen tabletop. “So. Okay.”

Adam looked up and agreed. “Yes.”

Eden made to move behind him, ostensibly to get something. When he quickly scraped his chair back from the table to keep her in view, he hoped it looked like he was just trying to position himself to include her.

“Okay.” This time he slapped his knee. “So you rented, starting today. For how long?” He had a series of questions ready, ones that wouldn't directly accuse them.

“A week,” Adam said.

“So it's a double booking, then,” he said, nodding. “It looks like they … the, ah, what's their name—” He hoped his act of forgetfulness looked convincing.

“McGregor,” said Adam. His knowing the name would have been a relief were it not for him pointing his chin at the stack of mail on the counter beside the phone. Why would he gesture to it unless it was his source of the name? And why had he gone through their mail?

“Did they charge you the same price? Five hundred?” He was especially happy with this question, though as he said it, he felt transparent. He saw them trade a glance.

“Um, I'm pretty sure we actually paid more, come to think of it. Didn't we, honey?”

Eden, brow knit, nodded. “I think it was more like seven, wasn't it?”

They got the price almost right—it was seven fifty—but they didn't look like the kind of people who spent that much money then forgot the exact amount. They had no car. Maybe no luggage.

“Sounds like you got a deal,” said Adam, the humour in his tone maybe also a challenge.

He wanted to ask about the no car. He tried for the right words.

“Okay. So if we do decide who shouldn't be here, if we flip a coin or something, if it comes down to that—well, you seem to lack transportation?” He tried to look sympathetic.

“We hitch-hike. Or we just hike. We like it. See the country. Meet the people.”

“Where are you coming from?”

“Calgary.”

“I could drive you out to the highway if you lose.”

“Hey—I'm not saying we're going.” Now Adam wagged a finger at him, and the wagging grew to belligerent pointing. “We're not flipping a coin. We're here. And how do we know
you're
not some kind of—”

“Idea!” Eden stepped in, smiling brightly. “The McGregors. It's their mistake. When we tell them what happened, they'll make it up to us. A refund. They have to! And look at the size of this place. Two storeys, two giant bedrooms, giant lawn, lake. We won't even see each other if we don't want to. Half-price vacation. And hey, maybe even we all fall in love and have a time.” She put a hand to her heart, peered ceilingward and batted her eyes. “Maybe in ten years we'll be writing letters to each other.”

He didn't know where to look. Eden said all this in the easiest, funniest way, such a skilful overture of friendship that any response but acceptance would seem crippled, almost evil. Was there much danger, really? If the choreography was violent, wouldn't they have done it by now?

“Well, today it's too late for anyone to be leaving anyway,” he said. He shrugged in a friendly way and lifted his eyebrows. “We can try calling them. The McGregors. See what happened. I think in their note they said they were travelling in Europe. I think France and Italy. I don't know how we'd … maybe a neighbour?” He was babbling now. For one stupid moment he'd almost said he had a son in Europe, a son who could somehow help. He needed sleep.

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