PLEASE NOTE: This story contains profanity. Reader discretion is advised.
Leslie wanted to go faster, but the car was reluctant.
As he flattened his foot against the pedal the engine chortled unhappily, the sway from the unbalanced tires becoming violent enough to threaten to upset the wax-paper cups of Coca-Cola Leslie and his son had jammed into the shallow, sticky-bottomed cupholders on the dash.
"Jesus Dad, I'm going to puke," said his son, Angus.
"I'm just trying to get us there, alright?"
"Car's going to fall apart."
"Then we'll get out and walk. Until then, spare me the commentary."
Angus sneered and turned away from his father, eyes nailed at the brown and yellow and grey smears of the autumn countryside passing outside. He pushed white earbuds into his ears and proceeded to tap a frenetic tattoo against the armrest in time to whatever angst-ridden crap he was into listening to these days. Leslie tried to ignore the boy.
"There is a radio, you know. Why don't we put on something we can both listen to?" he asked finally after waving for Angus' attention, his nerves rubbed raw by the incessant finger-drumming.
"Because everything you like sucks," replied Angus loudly without removing his earbuds.
"That isn't a very civil way to behave."
"Maybe people would be more civil to you if you weren't always such an asshole," opined Angus. "There's one to grow on, Dad. Think about it."
"I don't know where we went wrong with you..."
"Oh not this crap again," grunted Angus, increasing the volume on his music player until the tinny, muted thumping and bleating noise became an insurmountable obstacle to any further discussion. He leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes.
Leslie swerved the car to the edge of the lane briefly and then tugged it back hard. Angus' head knocked against the glass with the inertia. "What the hell?" he bellowed.
"Smarten up," said Leslie darkly, eyes on the road.
"You don't like what people have to say so you try to cause an accident? What the hell, Dad? Jesus!"
"There's an expression," said Leslie tonelessly, "that says, 'don't bite the hand that feeds you.' You ever heard that before, Angus? Well, that's one to grow on. Think about it."
"You think about it," spat Angus.
"Leave me alone, you asshole."
Leslie pushed the car a little harder, the steering wheel wobbling under his white-knuckled hands. He had never wanted a cigarette so badly in his life, but pulling over to buy a pack was unthinkable after the drama that had erupted last week when Angus had been caught smoking.
As if reading his mind Angus said, "Have a smoke if you want to. I already know what a hypocrite you are."
"I don't smoke, Angus."
The teenager chuckled derisively and turned back to the window, casually rubbing at the corner of his eye with his middle finger.
The aging Taurus shimmied as Leslie let off the gas, realizing that his turn was approaching. He consulted the piece of note paper stuffed under the visor again and then squinted at the approaching signs. Twenty minutes later he decided he'd missed it and pulled over at a gas station to ask directions.
Behind the counter inside the cramped, snack-stuffed booth was a gum-chewing girl with a raccoon-like application of blue eyeliner, reading a dog-eared pulp with a half-naked corpse on the cover. "What pump youse at?" she drawled without looking up.
"Um, I'm looking for Baynard Trail North," said Leslie, peering at the folded scrap of notepaper on which he'd scrawled himself a map. "Do you know if that's west of here, or did I pass it back further east?"
She chewed her gum pensively. "Did you come from left or right?"
Leslie blinked. "Um, right now I'm going westbound." He pointed out the window to the highway.
"Yeah, no," she confirmed cryptically. "It's probably back right more."
"About how far?"
She shrugged. "Five minutes?"
"Okay, okay thanks," said Leslie, putting away his map. "Um, is there a washroom here I could use?"
She glanced at the till's readout with heavy lids and yawned ponderously, exposing her fillings. "Youse have to buy something before I'm allowed to give you the key."
"Fine," said Leslie absently, patting his pockets. "Whatever."
He bought a pack of DuMaurier Lights, the red box emblazoned with a graphic photograph of diseased lungs, and then let himself into the grimy washroom to take a leak. He lit one of the cigarettes while he peed, looking sideways into a greasy mirror, chagrined to see how haggard he looked -- pasty skin, thinning rust-coloured hair, watery eyes, softening jowls...
"Christ I look like shit," he mumbled around the cigarette.
The smoke made him feel dizzy and sick so he threw it in the toilet and washed his face until it turned pink. He still had to face two days alone with a son who hated him, sorting through the belongings of a dead uncle he could only recall ever having met once or twice -- at funerals or weddings.
His pocket rang. With difficulty he extracted a telephone with a cracked face and flipped it open. "Hello?" he said wearily, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"Where are you?" asked his wife.
"Hi honey," said Leslie. "We're just on the highway still --"
"Shouldn't you be there already?"
"Well, I think we may have missed the turn-off but we're back on track --"
"Jesus, Les. I should've known. I told you to buy a new Perly's."
Leslie's jaw tightened. "My map is fine, Margaret. I just missed the turn, we're five minutes away now -- we're going to be there in five minutes, okay?"
"It's getting dark."
"Like I said, five minutes."
"I don't want you drinking in front of Angus. You know how you get."
"Shit Margaret, I think I can handle two nights without a consultant, okay? Lay off. Everything's fine. We'll be there in five minutes. I'll call you in the morning. Okay?"
She sniffed. "Don't overpack the car."
He hung up on her, pushing his way aggressively out of the washroom and tossing the key on the counter, startling the pulp-reading girl. As he stalked back to the car he wondered whether it were possible that he was, in fact, the most miserable loser in all the world.
Thus, he was not taken completely by surprise when the Taurus wouldn't start.
"Fuck!" yelled Leslie.
"Chill," recommended Angus dully.
Leslie leaned his head against the steering wheel and closed his eyes, flexing his hands against the grip rhythmically. Though he did not know precisely what had been willed to him by his uncle, he suspected, given his luck, that it would not turn out to be a new car or a pot of gold.
What Leslie really wanted was a magic bullet -- something that would sweep through his life and make everything right again.
He looked up slowly, blinking. "What is it, Angus?"
"You totally reek of cigarettes, hypocrite."
Leslie's uncle's house was a palace; a palace left to wilt, the furniture mourning under sheets, the curtains moth-eaten. The dust denied any ability to stop sneezing.
He uncovered a giant, sun-faded oil-painting of his uncle's long dead second wife and regarded dolefully the handsome, unsmiling girl trapped inside. He sneezed four times in rapid succession and rubbed his eyes. "Thanks Unc, I know just where I'll hang it," he muttered, thinking of his basement.
With a grunt he dragged the portrait into the hall and leaned it up against the rest of the inherited kipple in a pile meant for Angus to load into the Taurus. Despite bellowing at the teenager to get out of bed half an hour earlier the pile had not yet been touched. Leslie sighed and leaned on the banister. "Angus!" he called. "It's nearly noon for Christ's sake -- get down here already!"
Angus stuck his head out of a bedroom. "What?" he mumbled blearily, pushing strands of long, lank hair out of his face.
"You have to start taking this stuff out to the car. You said you'd be up at ten."
Angus blinked. "What time is it?"
The boy scoffed. "It's only like eleven forty-five."
"Doesn't really change anything, does it?"
"Whatever," grumbled Angus. "I have to take a shower."
Leslie ran his hand down his face wearily. "Let's just skip the shower and get on with this, okay? There's no girls here. Nobody cares if you smell."
"I don't smell," snapped Angus defensively.
"All the more reason to hop to it."
Leslie went back to the mouldering drawing room and consulted again the manifest of decaying possessions of which he was entitled to take custody: an antique grandfather clock in need of repair, a slightly cracked set of intricately hand-brushed fine bone china, a series of tarnished military medals awarded for killing Korean communists, presumably in the context of a war.
At the bottom of the list was a rather cryptic item specifying only the contents of Uncle Weldon's private study in toto. "I hope it's nothing too big," he sighed. "Or too worthless," he added.
After trudging up to the third floor he discovered the study and found the door locked. He slipped out the envelope given to him by the executor, his officious cousin Leon, and fished out the key that had been included without explanation. He fitted it into the heavy oak door and turned the lock free.
The door swung open with a long creak, releasing a bloom of dust. Leslie sneezed again, six times, leaving him winded and his forehead covered in a thin sheen of perspiration.
The little room was empty.
"Nice," said Leslie darkly.
He wandered inside, the floorboards whining petulantly under his feet. He turned around a saw that there was a closet, and affixed to the narrow, scuffed door was a manilla envelope that bore his name in an old man's looping and elaborate but shaky hand: Attention Leslie Carstairs: Private & Confidential.
Leslie plucked it free, blew open the end, and leaned against the wall by the small, vine-choked window to read. The first item to drop out was a short letter on his uncle's personal letterhead. It was dated just a couple of weeks before Weldon had passed away. Leslie squinted.
Leslie blinked, then sneezed. He wiped his snot off the letter carefully and then refolded it and exchanged it for an age-yellowed envelope bearing postmarks from Auld Scotland. Inside was a thick folio of papers bound with a leather string. The pages were encrusted with line after line of tight, old-fashioned cursive in brown ink.
I have never had much truck with words. Thus, I direct you to my grandfather's own notes as they were delivered to me so many years ago. Read carefully, and be sure to heed his advice in all matters relating to this gift. Welcome to a better life.
Leslie looked across the room to the closet and furrowed his brow.
With the unread folio still clutched in his hand he shuffled across the floor and twisted the dented brass knob. The closet yawned open. His eyes strained against the gloom.
Inside the closet was a bird cage covered in a swath of linty black velvet.
He reached out to pull away the drape but hesitated when something inside the cage shifted audibly. Leslie frowned. He backed out of the closet and untied the leather string around his great-grandfather's folio, holding the faded pages close to his face. He settled on a random passage and read:
The creature requires very little in the way of sustenance but will offer lower yields if not supplied with fresh water. Each fortnight the creature will consume 4 to 6 grams of insect matter with a distinct preference for beetles & a matching reluctance for flies. NB: for maximum efficacy the feed should be live when introduced to the cage.
Leslie decided that whatever exotic bird or lizard he had been bequeathed had probably already died from lack of attention, and that the sound he heard had likely come from a leftover insect. He shuddered, wondering what kind of rotting mess lay in wait beneath the velvet.
He strolled into the closet, tugged off the drape, then leapt back and preemptively covered his nose from whatever odious smell might be released.
Inside the dark closet, the cage rattled. Leslie bit his lip. He looked down at the folio pages again.
As the creature is nocturnal by habit it is best to harvest during daylight hours to take advantage of a certain natural lethargy. This lethargy is not alone sufficient to ensure safety however it does substantially mitigate the dosage of ether necessary to perform the act.
Leslie sniffed experimentally. Indeed, at the edge of perception he could discern a faded funk of ether gas. Resting on a shelf in the closet was a series of flasks and tubing beside a box of disposable rubber gloves and a pair of metal tongs. He frowned. "What the hell is this?" he wondered aloud, flipping over a page to find the reverse face covered in even more notations.
The cage rattled again. Leslie looked up.
Almost without volition he stepped gingerly forward and reached out for the hanging corner of the black velvet drape, then decisively whisked it off. The cage sang briefly like a harpsichord. He leaned in close, probing the shadows with wide eyes.
Inside the cage was a tiny woman.
She was about four inches tall, naked and pale. She crouched on a bed of shredded newspaper, looking back at Leslie with eyes as black, shiny and inscrutable as a bird's. Except for a tangled bramble of matted red locks on her head she was hairless, her breasts and hips subtle like a girl just barely beginning to bloom. From her back rose four wings like those of a butterfly, translucent and run through with fine veins.
"Jesus Santa," whispered Leslie, the folio dropping out of his hand and scattering on the floor. His knees felt weak so he sat down, back to the closet. "Christ, Christ, Christ," he said.
He looked back over his shoulder: the tiny woman was still there, her pinched little face pointed at him, watching silently. She blinked.
Leslie had never left a room so fast. He staggered down the staircase to the second floor, grabbed his coat from the bedroom and frisked it until he found the red box of DuMaurier Lights, his breathing quick and ragged. He jammed one into his mouth and lit it, pacing around the musty bed he'd slept so badly in.
"Holy God, Holy God," he mumbled, smoking.
He wandered aimlessly downstairs and pushed into the diningroom, eyeing the liquor cabinet. It was black, oriental, painted with scenes. He unlatched it and opened it up, peering at the rows of dusty bottles. He was about to select an Old Mull when he heard a noise from the kitchen. "...Angus?" he called.
"What?" snapped his son.
Leslie walked into the kitchen. Angus was sitting with his feet up on the table, unwrapping a sandwich from the cooler and examining the filling critically. "What are you doing?" asked Leslie.
"Having breakfast, obviously."
"It's lunch time."
"So I'm eating lunch. Who cares?"
"I care since I'm waiting on you to load the car, like you promised."
"I didn't promise, I just said I'd do it."
"So why aren't you doing it?"
"I'm hungry. I'll do it in like five minutes."
Leslie was quiet for a moment. He watched the boy bite into the sandwich. Then he surged forward and slapped his feet off the table. Angus dropped the sandwich and swore, glaring at his father. "What the hell?" he shouted.
"Now, Angus. Get your ass off that chair and load up the car. Now. Do you hear me? Now."
Angus sneered. "You know, people would be more willing to do favours for you if --"
"Just cut that shit out!" bellowed Leslie, striking the table top with a clenched fist. "You're always talking about people when what you really mean is you. Why can't you even take responsibility for yourself in your own statements? Is it some kind of goddamn brain damage?"
Angus was stunned. "You cracked the table, Da --"
"Shut up!" cried Leslie. "Sixteen years old and you still don't know when to keep your fucking mouth shut. It's amazing to me. I have no explanation. Maybe your teachers are right after all: maybe you're just not very bright."
They stared at each other. Angus' face twitched. For a second he looked like he was going to cry before he suddenly kicked over his chair and stomped out of the kitchen.
Leslie leaned against the counter and closed his eyes, hating himself.
After a moment he lit another cigarette, his hands shaking. He heard scuffling sounds as Angus started dragging the first items out to the Taurus.
They didn't speak to each other for the rest of the day. Leslie kept busy, and kept away from the third storey. He ordered a pizza at twilight. Angus loaded half of the slices onto two paper plates and walked away, then returned a few minutes later and took away a can of pop. Even sitting on the far side of the kitchen Leslie could hear the music thrumming through the boy's earphones, excluding everything.
Leslie didn't eat much pizza. But he did taste the Old Mull.
He was wagging a second bottle of the fine scotch in his hand as he shuffled into his uncle's third storey study an hour later. He snapped on the overhead light -- a dim, amber lozenge hanging from a chain -- and kept his back to the closet as he knelt down to collect the fallen folio pages.
Sparing use of the extract is recommended for a host of reasons including but not limited to: risk of exposure to & igniting the jealousy of greater authorities; risk of exposure to & exploitation by nefarious players; risk of exposure to & vengeance from the kingdom of the creature's origin; risk of losing sight of Christian propriety & becoming depraved with avarice & ill passions.
Leslie looked up at the small, dark window. In the reflection he could discern the open closet behind him as a warped rectangle framing his head. "Extract?"
He took a swig of scotch and turned the pages over, looking for something resembling an introduction or overview. Instead what he found were step by step instructions for gassing the creature with ether, grasping it with tongs, and shaking off a sprinkling of powder into a paper cone. The instructions mandated the use of rubber gloves and the donning of a gas masque. Everything was specified in neat tables: seconds, ounces, inches.
Leslie sneezed, and then drank. And then he did it.
He sweated as he did it. He worked hard to keep his hands steady and obedient as he rapped the tongs against the mouth of the cage's opening, the limp little body clasped between its tines quivering. Each oscillation left in its wake a few specks of twinkling, fine sand that danced like snowflakes as they swirled into the paper cone held beneath...
He didn't want to be around when it woke up again so he folded the paper cone according to his great-grandfather's diagram, stuffed everything into the manilla envelope and then locked the study door behind him.
It is essential to understand that the principle upon which the extract functions is a moral fulcrum with as its engine an algorithm to optimise the state of justice in a target object with the degree of resulting change measured in strict proportion to the quantity of application. In short: it makes things better.
"Better, eh?" said Leslie, swinging by the liquor cabinet to pick up another pick me up.
He lit a cigarette and wandered out the front door, kicking pebbles in the circular driveway. He sauntered over to the Taurus and examined the half-assed, slap-dash job Angus had done loading it up. The slightly broken china set now appeared to be more generously damaged. The grandfather clock had been strapped, uncovered, to the luggage rack with only a single bungee cord. "Jesus, Angus," muttered Leslie aloud.
With tipsy enthusiasm Leslie hopped on the rear bumper and hoisted himself up to the clock's level, reflected stars glinting in the cracked glass of its face. Suddenly, he had an idea.
He took out the paper cone, unfolded it, and tapped a few grains of the powder upon the grandfather clock.
The cigarette ran down to the filter and threatened to burn his fingers so Leslie hopped down off the Taurus' rear bumper and tossed it into the gravel. He shoved the paper cone into his pocket, took a haul of scotch, then tried to hop back up. Instead he barked his shin on the tow-hitch and spent a moment swearing with sacrilegious vigour.
When he quieted he was surprised to hear the crickets ticking.
He frowned. Crickets don't tick.
The grandfather clock struck eleven bells. The magnificent peals cut the night, reverberating dully against the car's metal roof and sending a chill slithering along Leslie's back. Birds swept out of the nearest trees.
"Holy God," whispered Leslie. "It's better."
He went inside and ate a slice of cold pizza while staring at the wall, his sluggish, drunken mind feeling to him as if it were racing. He tried to read more pages of the folio but could not focus on the miniscule words. He turned instead to the problem of placing the contents of the folded paper cone in a housing more in line with the awe it now inspired.
Despite Leon's pointed prohibition against taking possession of non-specified items, Leslie decided the estate could spare a latched jar. There were a row them on the counter labelled in faded stencil: flour, salt, labeled, sugar. Leslie chose sugar. It wasn't exactly the Ark of the Covenant but it was more dignified than folded paper.
He snapped the latch closed on the sugar jar, then pushed it across the kitchen table and stared it down.
"I can make things better," he burbled reverently, head lolling.
Leslie fell asleep, half spilled out of his chair, half splayed across the kitchen table. He dreamed of genies and lamps, miracles and Tinkerbell, blowjobs and Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Leslie awoke with a start.
The kitchen was sunny. The light made his eyes burn. He knuckled his sockets groggily and tried to move, discovering simultaneously several zones where his body was voicing rabid protests over his sleeping position. He groaned, aching.
Across the cracked kitchen table was the latched sugar jar.
As Leslie's brain sluggishly booted up memories of the previous evening's activities dribbled back into his consciousness and found their proper order: Old Mull, the grandfather clock, ether and extract, the tiny woman in the bird cage.
"Jesus Christ," murmured Leslie, his mouth dry and pasty.
He stood up and then paused a moment to let his bearings catch up to him. Stifling the urge to vomit, he looked out the wide, bay windows and was surprised to see Angus sitting out in the yard on a small rise under a sapling, a mug of coffee in the grass beside him.
Leslie checked his watch, then furrowed his brow. Angus up and about before noon?
He pondered that strange turn of events as he trudged up two sets of risers to the third storey. Uncle Weldon's private study was silent. Leslie cautiously opened the closet door and looked in, standing to one side to let the sunlight by.
The tiny woman lay on her side in the shredded newspaper, her miniature ribs rising and falling slowly with laboured breath. Her head rose slightly as she glanced at him, then let it drop feebly back down.
Leslie gasped. He'd forgotten the water!
He returned to the study moments later with a shallow soap dish from the upstairs washroom sloshing with tapwater. He hesitated at the closet's threshold. Was he supposed to gas the thing before he opened the cage door?
Ultimately driven by the creature's weak, pathetic respiration Leslie decided to broker no delay: he snapped open the little wire door and carefully manoeuvred the soap dish inside, placing it gingerly beside the tiny woman. She took note of it and then crawled to its edge and began immediately to drink.
Leslie stood back and watched. "There, there," he whispered. "Go on, get your fill little lady."
After drinking she sat back down in the newspaper nest and washed her face by licking her hands. Leslie thought he should refill the soap dish so he reached in the take it. Her head turned and her dark eyes flashed.
Leslie hesitated. "You don't want me to take it away, huh?"
In less than the blink of an eye she was attacking him, repeatedly biting into his fingers with savage zeal, tearing free slivers of fresh and raking at the wounds' edges with her sharp fingers.
Leslie howled and fought to pull out of the cage. He dashed his hand against the side of the cage, knocking her loose as the bars sang. He slapped the door shut with his good hand and then spilled backward out of the closet, landing on his haunches.
"Holy shit," he said raggedly, clutching his injured hand to his chest.
The tiny woman stared at him through the bars, black eyes narrowed, needle-like teeth bared over her blood-smeared chin.
Leslie kicked the closet door closed, then shambled to the washroom to run his hand under the tap. He sighed, leaning against the mirror and feeling out the extent of his headache. The basin turned pink. He withdrew his hand and examined the slices critically, then wrapped a towel around it.
Back in the kitchen he found his great-grandfather's folio pages folded roughly under the table. He snatched them up and smoothed out the top face with the heel of his good hand.
It is essential not to underestimate the creature. Given any opportunity it will murder you. There is no quantity or quality of compassion sufficient to mollify its malice even an iota. Make not the mistake of grieving for it, for doing so would surely be your final error.
Leslie snorted. "This is insane. If I can never let her go, who's the real captive?"
He decided that it was all too weird and dangerous for the likes of him. He would collect Angus and they would drive away from this house and Leslie would never let his thoughts stray to the caged woman again. Let some other fool die releasing it, or spend his life in fear of same.
The folio he would burn.
He decided not to wait. He folded the pages in half and strode into the drawing room, tossing them into the hearth and then hunting around for something to get the fire going: kindling, newspaper, cardboard, garbage. He returned to the kitchen to grab the Tim Horton's bags and the pizza box but was interrupted as Angus walked in from the yard, cradling his empty coffee mug with a faraway look in his eyes.
"Dad, you're up."
"Could we...do you think we could sit down and have a talk?" The boy swallowed awkwardly. "About yesterday?"
Leslie hovered. "I'm sort of in the middle of something here, Angus..."
"Why do you have a towel wrapped around your hand?"
"Um," said Leslie, looking around and blinking. He teased a chair out with his toe and then sat down heavily. "Yeah, sure. Let's talk. Sit down."
Angus took his mug to the sink and rinsed it, then sat down across from Leslie and casually pushed the latched sugar jar out of the way. Leslie's eyes flicked to follow it. Angus sighed and played with his hands, looking at his lap. "The thing is..." he started quietly.
The boy was very serious. Leslie grew concerned. "What's on your mind, Ang? You shouldn't be too bent out of shape about yesterday. It was my fault. I'm...under a lot of stress. I should probably say I'm sorry for how things got crazy."
Angus shook his head. "No, Dad -- I'm the one who's sorry."
"What do you mean?"
"If I look at just yesterday by itself then, yeah, right, maybe you look like the big asshole. But, you know, if I look at everything -- like, how things have been for the last while and my trouble at school and stuff -- if I look at everything all together it kind of looks like I'm the asshole."
Leslie bit his lip. "You're not an asshole, son --"
"No, I am," Angus replied quickly. "I'm not looking for sympathy here. It's just that I've been doing some thinking. I've been thinking about a lot of stuff, like about me and about you and Mom, and school and whatever." He looked up into Leslie's eyes, his own welling with earnest emotion. "I've been thinking about how I must seem to you, you know, if I look at from your point of view."
"How does it seem to you?"
"It seems stupid for somebody who's totally screwed up his own reputation to keep complaining about not having your trust," Angus said sadly, his expression open and frank. "I don't know why I never thought about it like that before, but it's true. How could you trust me? I've screwed up so much lately."
"Hey, everybody screws up. Especially when they're teenaged."
"Yeah, well, I guess it's time I stopped feeling sorry for myself about it. It's stupid. I mean, you're not psychic. You don't know what's in my head. You can only react to what I say and how I act, and the things I've said and shit I've done has been...so stupid."
"You're not stupid," insisted Leslie, his heart aching.
"I know you love me," replied Angus, surprising Leslie with his unflinching candor. "And I love you too, Dad. And I want you to know something: I'm going to show you what kind of a person I can really be. I don't expect you to believe my promises -- I'm just telling you that things are going to change with me, and I want you to pay attention. Watch for it. And one day I'll earn your trust back, I totally swear."
Leslie got up, walked around the table, and embraced his son tightly. He tried not to cry because he thought it would embarrass them boy. "You're a good kid, Ang. You've always been a good kid. And I have faith in you. And...and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for telling me how you're feeling about all this, okay?"
"Yeah," said Angus. His nose was running.
Leslie straightened and wiped his eyes. "Now let's get our stuff into the car and get the hell home, huh? What do you say?"
When Angus left the kitchen Leslie turned his attention to clearing up the mess they had made, his heart feeling buoyant for the first time in a long, long stretch. He'd been telling Margaret for months that one day Angus would "just get it" and grow up a notch; she'd argued that was just Leslie's rationalization for piss-poor parenting and yet and here he was, vindicated.
His feeling of vindication faltered as he arrived at the kitchen sink and noticed Angus' mug, courteously rinsed out and placed on a paper napkin to dry.
Beside the sink lay the crumpled paper bag filled with road-side condiments in plastic or paper sleeves: ketchup, salt, vinegar, pepper. The fact that they had forgotten to grab some sugar had forced Angus to refuse coffee yesterday morning.
Leslie looked slowly from the mug to the bag of instant coffee on the counter to the latched sugar jar sitting on the corner of the table. He paled, realizing what had happened in a dizzying flash.
Angus was better.
Leslie sat down again and smoked a cigarette, deeply conflicted. Was his son now somehow brainwashed to act better, or had some better thing truly happened inside of him? Was it his son talking, or the powder? Had Leslie just drugged his only child?
But it wasn't a drug, was it? Grandfather clocks didn't get high. Narcotics didn't make things better.
Leslie rushed out to the Taurus and hopped up on the rear bumper to take a good look at the grandfather clock. It remained repaired. Against all reason it continued to tick despite the nearly flat angle of its pendulum. It looked brand new, but it was the same clock -- cleaner, highly functional, unscuffed -- but basically itself.
He jumped down and brushed his hands on his slacks. Angus came out of the house with his knapsack and tossed it in the back seat. "You feeling okay, Ang?" asked Leslie.
"Yeah, actually," Angus replied, closing the car door. "I feel pretty good today, Dad. Why?"
"No reason. Just let me know if you start to feel any different, okay?"
"Um, that pizza seems to be backfiring on me a bit. I'm worried some of the meat may have been off."
"Honestly Dad, I feel great."
Twenty minutes later, as they were about to leave, Leslie ran upstairs and returned with a bird cage covered in a black velvet drape, a rattling and clinking cardboard box under his arm. He carefully sandwiched the cage between a box of family albums and a dresser in the trunk, wedging it firm with the box. Angus hopped down from retying the grandfather clock. "What's that?" he asked.
"Antique bird cage," said Leslie quickly. "Is that clock good to go now?"
Angus nodded, tugging on the bungee. "It isn't going anywhere except wherever we drive."
They hit the road. Leslie invited Angus to plug his music player into the dashboard and together they rocked to the earsplitting strains of some awful, angry band. Uncle Weldon's decaying estate disappeared behind them. After lunch they switched spots and Angus drove the car under his father's watchful eye, sweating as he concentrated on keeping centred in the lane. "Watch your speed there," warned Leslie.
Angus checked the speedometer and eased off the gas. "Sorry."
"No need to be sorry. You're doing fine. You're doing great."
The teenager smiled. Leslie smiled, too. He hadn't felt so at ease with his son since before the boy hit puberty.
Come sundown they switched spots again, and after a cheeseburger dinner Angus fell asleep in the passenger seat. Leslie allowed himself to tenderly touch his son's cheek, and the pliant, smooth warmth made tears come to his eyes. With all the tension he hadn't realized just how much he missed Angus.
He considered calling Margaret but he'd forgotten to charge his telephone. He couldn't even get the screen to light up.
When he shifted against his seatbelt he heard his great-grandfather's folio crinkle in his jacket pocket. He yearned to read more, but knew he would get no opportunity until they reached the city again. He wanted to know everything there was to know about his pet and her wondrous extract. He burned to know how he could make more things better.
The glow of Halifax grew on the dark horizon. Leslie couldn't help but whistle a jolly tune.
Leslie sent his son to bed and bent to unpacking the contents of the car into his garage. "Do you want some help?" asked the boy groggily, stretching.
"Nah," said Leslie. "You've got school tomorrow. Go on to bed. Thanks, though."
Angus waved vaguely and shuffled into the house.
Leslie surprised himself by failing to break the grandfather clock as he hefted it down over the hood and eased it upright by the front bumper. He ran his hand over the ornate curlicues carved into the mahogany -- mahogany that had before last night been pitted and scraped, nicked and sun-bleached. Now the clock looked as pristine as it must have on the day it was built.
It struck twelve bells magnificently. Leslie grinned.
"Lord Jesus," said Margaret, standing in the doorway. "What's all this, then?"
"It's a grandfather clock," said Leslie.
"I'm not blind."
"It's quite lovely, don't you think?"
"It's junk. With a house this small do you imagine I'd welcome more crap to stuff in? Honest, Les, honest to Jesus you're a mess of a man." Margaret wrinkled her nose. "Is that it, then? That's our grand inheritance?"
"Um, there's more."
Leslie watched mutely as his wife -- whom had once been tall and willowy but was now fused by aerobic tension into a hard streamline -- strode across the garage and haughtily retied her robe before swinging up the Taurus' tailgate and casting a critical eye on the contents. She shook her head and turned to him, frowning. "Well, garbage day is Wednesday. See that it all gets out."
"It's not all garbage," he protested. "If we wanted to I bet we could get quite a price for the clock."
"I won't hold my breath," she muttered, poking back into the car. "What else did you drag home? A musty painting of some trollop?"
"That's Aunt Diana."
"She's not your real aunt."
"Garbage." She reached in and sighed with exasperation as she pulled out a sheaf of family albums. She flipped through one quickly. "Photos of the dead. Great. Where were you planning on keeping these?"
"In the laundry room?"
She dumped the box of albums on the garage floor. "There's no space. And what's this? A bird cage? Jesus Les, we don't have a bird -- and we're not getting one, either. You'd better disabuse yourself of the notion of our putting up any pets in this house, and fast."
Margaret hauled out the cage and tossed it carelessly into the corner. "Hey!" yelled Leslie indignantly. "Careful with that, you idiot!"
Her eyes narrowed. "Don't you start calling me names, Leslie Carstairs. Have you been drinking again? Let me smell your breath."
Leslie pushed past his wife roughly and knelt down next to the cage, righting it gingerly and tugging the velvet drape back into place. "You could have broken this," he said quietly.
"Watch me lose sleep over a broken piece of trash," she snapped. "I shouldn't have let you go. I should've gone myself, obviously. You're hopeless, Les."
Leslie straightened, his face colouring. "Just cut that crap out!" he shouted, startled by the intensity of his anger. He fought to keep his clenched fists at his sides. "I'm not your goddamn child, Margaret. I'm a grown man. It wasn't up to you to decide, and it still isn't. We live in this house together and if I want to find a place for this clock, I fucking well will do so."
"Such language, Les! The last refuge of a poor argument."
"You want to see a last refuge?" he challenged, leaning in close to her face. "Bugger off. Do you hear me? There's your marching orders. Leave me the hell alone, shrew."
She hardened her pose, looking down as she retied her robe tighter again. "Barking orders at me will only get you the opposite, I'm afraid."
Leslie chuckled darkly. "So you're going to stand in the middle of the garage all night just because I told you to leave? That's pretty unbelievably bloody childish, Margaret."
"No," she simpered with simulated sweetness, "calling me names and swearing to defend your pile of trash is childish, Les."
Leslie regarded her fixedly for a long moment, neither of them moving. Then he broke the contest and rummaged in the back of the Taurus until he found one of the bottles of Old Mull he'd elected to take away. "Well, I'll drink to that. To childhood regained!" He unscrewed the cap and took a messy swig, scotch dripping from his chin.
"You're a pig," said Margaret.
Possessed of a sudden inspiration, Leslie fished out the sugar jar, surged forward as he unlatched it, and then upended it over her head. Margaret stumbled backward, coughing and confused.
Leslie stood his ground, hands on his hips, licking the taste of scotch off his lips.
Margaret brushed the sparkling dust out of her black hair, frowning at it as it glistened on her palms. She opened her mouth to speak but then closed it again, a thoughtful veil pulled over her eyes. She sat down on the cement floor, her brow furrowing.
"Feeling any better?" challenged Leslie.
She looked up at him, her face as open as a child's, her grey irises shining in a way he'd forgotten. "Leslie Donovan Carstairs..." she said slowly, carefully.
"...I'm leaving you."
Leslie was startled. "What?"
Margaret got to her feet again, a little smile blooming on her thin lips. "I'm leaving you, Les. I really am. God, I've been thinking about it and thinking about it for so many years -- and now I'm really going to do it. I don't know why I didn't do it earlier. It's so clear to me now. I'm leaving you. I'm leaving you tonight."
Leslie blinked, paralyzed. "What?" he said again.
His wife nodded to herself, rubbing her chin. "I'll go to my sister's. I'll pick up Angus after school tomorrow. Have him pack a bag. Lord Jesus, this always seemed like such an ordeal to me before, but now I realize all I needed was a plan."
"Plan?" Leslie stammered.
She looked him in the eye steadily, her expression thoughtful. "There's a parent-teacher conference with Angus' home-form teacher tomorrow at eight o'clock. You can take care of that for us. Room four-eleven. Don't be late. They already think we're rotten parents as it is."
Leslie said nothing. He just stared.
"I'm sorry, Les, I really am. I've had nothing but piss and vinegar for you for so long after so many years of taking your crap. That's over now. Let's be adults about this. Promise me you'll make it to the conference. It's important. It's for Angus."
"I...promise..." said Leslie, his mouth dry.
She smiled wanly, reached out and touched his cheek with tenderness. "You used to be a good man," she told him, then turned on heel and left the garage.
Leslie sat down heavily on the rear bumper and drank generously from the bottle of Old Mull. He patted down his pockets until he found the cigarettes and lit one up. Finally, he slipped his great-grandfather's folio out and unfolded the pages, rifling through them to find something to make some sense of what had just happened.
The extract is not capable of granting wishes or realizing fantasies. It must be understood that the effect is to improve the target however such improvements may not necessarily be aligned with one's desires. For example were one to affect a thief with the extract he would be more likely to confess his crimes to the proper authorities than to become more adept in his immoral craft.
"So how is it morally better for my wife to leave me?" he asked aloud, frustrated. He took a hard haul off the cigarette and chased it with scotch. "Damn," he added absently.
This principle is the basis of the prime & paramount interdiction with regard to the extract: that self-administration is forbidden. Should one err in this respect the repercussion is a sentence of death for one would find oneself compelled to immediately undo the greatest injustice one in such a condition must inevitably carry which is aught else but the imprisonment of the creature itself.
"Damn damn," breathed Leslie, looking up. "If I take the powder myself I let the thing go and it kills me. Terrific."
He thought about closing the garage door and running the engine and going to sleep forever. He drank instead. He heard the screen door slam; Margaret left in yellow taxicab. The only thing that kept him pegged to Earth was the knowledge that Angus was asleep inside the house. The only thing that gave him hope was the damned powder.
Recklessly, tipsily, he found himself unwilling to face another bad news parent-teacher conference without arming himself with the extract. It would cut his way! He lurched off the bumper and set to preparing the dosage of ether, snapping on his rubber gloves.
He peeked under the velvet. The tiny woman watched him with black eyes, quivering slightly, hugging her own thin shoulders. "I'm sorry about this," mumbled Leslie. Then he gassed her. He heard her body drop into the bed of shredded newspaper.
He tried not to watch while she flopped around like a doll in the tongs, but he had to or he lost too much powder outside the paper cone. A number of grains landed on his rubber glove, which became increasingly comfortable and faintly strawberry scented.
A moment later he was peeling off his gas masque and transferring the contents of the paper cone into the sugar jar, latching it firmly. The jar had become both lighter and stronger than it used to be, and it now gleamed as if constantly polished. By constant exposure to the extract it had become a more worthy vessel.
Leslie cackled to himself, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "I have a feeling things at Angus' school are about to get...better," he told the grandfather clock.
It struck one.
The tiny woman in the cage stirred. She blinked and lifted her head, the shredded newspaper crackling. One wing twitched. Leslie raised the bottle of Old Mull in salute and polished off its contents.
"Here's to you, little lady," he grunted. "Here's to a better life."
He staggered off to bed.
Leslie stepped into the classroom. It smelled like disinfectant. A young but very severe woman sat behind a much-abused wooden desk, her hands folded on a blotter that only half-covered the gouged graffito MR. ROSS IS A GOAT-FUCKER. The teacher's nearly colourless hair was pulled into a bun so tight it seemed to stretch the edges of her pale, unpainted face. "I'm sorry I'm late," said Leslie. "Miss..."
"Groverston. Sit down, Mr. Carstairs. You'll understand if we have to rush -- class begins in twenty minutes."
"I'm sorry," he mumbled again, pulling up an orange plastic chair and sinking into it. He rubbed his throbbing temples ruefully.
Miss Groverston levelled a steely stare at Leslie, making him feel as if he were back in school himself. He squirmed in the uncomfortable chair. She said, "You are aware, I hope, that this is not the first incident involving Angus this term."
"Yes," agreed Leslie. "He's been going through a lot, lately. You know -- teenage stuff. But I have to tell you that Angus and I just spent the weekend together and we had some very good chats. He's made some breakthroughs and I think you're going to notice a big improvement in him."
Miss Groverston smiled without humour. "Indeed. While that remains to be seen we are still obliged to respond to the incidents that have already happened. That is why you are here today."
"Are you aware, Mr. Carstairs, that Angus has amassed to date zero marks for homework completion?"
"That's not too good."
"No, Mr. Carstairs, it is not. In fact, that alone is enough to jeopardize his year. When I questioned Angus about his performance he told me what did or did not happen in his own home was not my affair."
"I directed him to discuss the matter with our vice-principal, Mr. Watson, but Mr. Watson tells me that Angus did not make his appointment on Friday afternoon."
"Oh," said Leslie, "well, actually, he had to leave early because we were driving out to my uncle's house. You see, he recently passed away and --"
"Indeed, Angus did tell me he quote-unquote could not stay, and I informed him that his school commitments must come first lest he risk fouling his academic career."
Leslie frowned. "You told a teenager he was fouling his academic career by seeing to his family commitments? What kind of response did you expect to that?"
"His comments were disrespectful."
"That's what I'd expect."
She pursed her lips in another humourless smirk. "I can see that you too are having difficulty appreciating the severity of your son's situation, Mr. Carstairs."
Leslie shook his head and wiped his bandaged hand down his face. "You're asking a kid to choose between getting in trouble at school or getting in trouble at home, and you expect him to smile and toe the line? With all due respect, Miss Groverston, that's ridiculous."
Her icy eyes flashed. "The other students do not seem to be sharing Angus' difficulty in maintaining an appropriate level of respect."
"Well, like I said, Angus has been doing a lot of thinking. I don't think you'll have this kind of a problem with him in the future. Really. He's changed."
"Be that as it may, we still have to deal with this incident."
Leslie was becoming impatient. "We're running in circles here. What is it exactly you propose, Miss Groverston?" he snapped.
"At this juncture I am recommending expulsion," she replied coolly.
She nodded primly. "I frankly see no alternative."
"If you don't see any alternative, what exactly are we supposed to be discussing?"
"I am obliged by board policy to solicit your feedback."
"You want feedback?" Leslie stood up from his chair and paced a quick loop in front of the desk. "Here's my feedback: you've got a bright, sociable kid who's been having some problems lately; a concerned parent comes in and tells you the kid has just turned a major corner in his maturity, and that things will be different from now on; and the best you can up with -- at this juncture -- is to kick him out of school?"
Miss Groverston said nothing, her lizard eyes locked on Leslie's face expectantly.
"Go to hell, lady," he concluded lamely. "That's my feedback. If this is the level of understanding you bring to bear on my son's education I'd just as soon he go somewhere else than suffer under your thumb."
She raised one eyebrow. "Many institutions will not accept students who have been expelled. You may have to consider private school." She stood up abruptly, her shoes clicking on the linoleum. "I wish you the best of luck in this matter, Mr. Carstairs. Now I would thank you to leave."
"I'll leave when I'm done saying my piece."
"Do not force me to call the police, Mr. Carstairs."
"The police?" he echoed incredulously. "You drag me down here so you can preen over your decision to kick my son out of school, and now you're threatening to call the cops when I have something to say about it?"
"This conference is over, Mr. Carstairs."
"Lady, you've got to be the worst teacher in all of Nova Scotia."
"This is your final warning, Mr. Carstairs," she said crispy, her hand hovering over the ancient, flesh-coloured telephone on the corner of her desk.
Leslie reached down and picked up his briefcase, then unzipped the top and pulled out the sugar jar. He slammed it on the desk, making the officious marm jump. "Know what this is?" he asked softly.
She shook her head, frowning. "Mr. Carstairs --"
"It's sugar and spice," he told her, opening the lid and hefting the jar from one hand to the other. "And everything nice."
He launched the entire quantity of powder directly at her face -- everything he had extracted from the limp little animal the night before. Miss Groverston threw up her arms in alarm and fell backward off her chair with a plaintive yelp. Leslie stood at the edge of the desk, watching her turn over and brush the sparkling residue from her face. "I'm calling the police," she said through clenched teeth. "You're some kind of maniac."
Leslie said nothing. He simply latched the jar closed and replaced it inside his briefcase, zipping the top with a flourish.
Miss Groverston watched him carefully like a cornered animal as she picked herself up and started reaching for the handset. "I'm warning you..." she said, flinching every time he shifted his weight.
Leslie cleared his throat.
Her hand hesitated, barely brushing the receiver. She took a step back and touched her forehead, blinking.
"Miss Groverston," said Leslie liltingly, "are you feeling quite alright?"
She smiled uncertainly. "Yes..." she said after a moment. She let her hand fall from her forehead, lightly skimming her cheek and neck and finally settling on her sweater between her breasts. "Yes, I'm feeling...very good," she admitted.
Leslie swallowed and then moved forward impulsively. "Why don't you let me take you out for a coffee? We can talk things over, see if we can't reach an understanding about this whole situation."
She licked her lips. "Why did you...throw sugar at me?"
"I'm sorry, I lost my temper."
"Yes...yes I can understand that. I suppose I have taken rather a hard line with your boy, haven't I?"
"A bit, perhaps."
Miss Groverston smiled warmly, her blue eyes vivid. "I really should apologize. It can be so stressful sometimes, dealing with each student's unique situation. I suppose it can be easy to lose perspective."
"Naturally. It isn't an easy job."
"I'm so glad you can appreciate that, Mr. Carstairs."
"Please, call me Leslie."
She giggled. "Leslie's a nice name."
"Thank you. About that coffee...?"
"I have a class to teach."
"Of course. Don't let me take up any more of your time. Thank you, Miss Groverston."
"Karen," echoed Leslie, grinning. "That's a nice piece," he added, pointing to the polished and immaculate surface of the exquisite wooden finish on her desk. Whether or not Mr. Ross was a goat-fucker was now a mystery left for the ages. "We'll talk again," Leslie promised, heading for the door.
"Wait," called Karen Groverston, holding up a hand. "Let me just arrange for a supply. It won't take a minute. I'll say I'm sick."
"Great," said Leslie.
While Karen bent over her handset Leslie fumbled out his own telephone and called the office, telling them he would be getting back to the city a day later than anticipated. "Death in the family, lots of stuff to take care of, you know how it is," he said to the human resources manager, telling her how it was. "Tell everybody I'll see them bright and early tomorrow, mkay?"
Karen glanced at the clock. "Ready?"
Leslie drove the Taurus fast, barrelling into the parking lot of the nearest Tim Horton's. Karen laughed. "You're a bit wild," she told him not unkindly.
"Sometimes life calls for a little bit of wild," he opined. He got out of the car and walked around to open the passenger door for her, his eyes lingering over just a hint of nicely shaped leg showing at the bottom of Karen's long skirt and she stood up. "Wouldn't you agree? A little bit of wild makes you feel alive."
"I do feel alive," she agreed, taking his arm. "I've never done anything like this before."
"What? Cut work?"
She blushed. "Never."
"Does it feel good?"
She grinned. "Yes, it really, really does."
"I knew there was a woman inside there, yearning to bust out."
"I'm a very contained person."
They walked right past Tim Horton's and Leslie steered them into the pub next door. Karen didn't object. They found a cozy booth near the back and ordered a couple of glasses of wine. "I'm not normally much of a drinker," Karen told him earnestly, "especially during the day."
"It's okay to let loose sometimes. It's good for the soul."
She nodded and then reached up to her bun and let her blonde hair fall around her shoulders, shaking her head to fan it out. Leslie's breath hitched in his throat upon recognizing just how ravishing she truly was. "That's better," she said.
She sipped her wine. "I never wear my hair down. I don't know why."
"Because it frightens you to be perceived as a sensual creature," replied Leslie lightly, watching her.
She met his eyes, nodding slowly. "That's...probably true. How did you get inside my head, Leslie?"
"Just chemistry, I guess."
"Can I ask what you do for a living?"
"Sure. I do nothing at all. I go to meetings and play Solitaire in my office."
"Is that rewarding?"
"No. But I'm thinking of quitting. Is it rewarding to teach?"
She shrugged. "If you had asked me that yesterday I'd have said yes."
"I think I just like to be in control. Like my father. He's a pastor. He works his congregation like a puppeteer, extorting them to fear to make himself feel important."
"Is that how you see yourself?"
"Maybe," she admitted. "I can't believe I did this. It's highly inappropriate for me to socialize with a parent. Frankly, it feels inappropriate to socialize at all."
"You're a solitary person."
"I am," she said, nodding. "I'm very focused on my career." She paused, looking into the space over Leslie's head. "Perhaps for the wrong reasons." She blinked and smiled nervously. "I don't even know why I'm telling you this."
"Because it feels good to let it out."
"You're right again. You're an insightful man, Leslie."
He snorted. "I'm a moron. But I'm a good listener."
"Why do you carry sugar in your briefcase?"
"It's a long story."
"I feel very at ease with you."
"It sounds like you've been ill at ease for a long time, Karen."
They ordered another round of drinks. Karen unbuttoned the top of her sweater, exposing a creamy white breastbone bridged by the grey strap of a heavy brassiere, crossed by a golden crucifix. "This should make it a little easier to breathe."
Leslie nodded. "It's stuffy in here."
"Can I confess something to you?" she asked, chin resting in her palm carelessly as she twirled the end of her hair with the other hand.
Karen looked down at the table, chewed the inside of her cheek. "I've spent my whole life fighting against my...feelings. I've spent my whole life making everything fit into a little box, being more serious than anyone else, keeping my nose to the grindstone, suppressing my appetites. I always felt so wrong for even having those appetites."
"To be close."
She blushed and dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Leslie, I'm a virgin. Can you believe that? Twenty-six years old and I'm still a virgin. I preferred to be a virgin rather than...give in."
"Finding balance is hard," said Leslie philosophically.
She took another sip of her wine, licked her lips again. "I feel like telling the truth today."
"So tell me the truth, Karen."
"I feel a connection with you."
"What kind of a connection?"
She looked away. "I feel stupid. Maybe I'm drunk. I never drink."
"Don't feel stupid. Tell me what you're thinking, Karen."
"I want to touch you."
"To touch me?"
She sighed, and grasped his hands across the table. He could feel her heart beating through her moist palms. "I don't want to be locked up inside myself anymore, Leslie. I want you to help me. I want you to want me."
Leslie blinked, then waved his arm in the air and called out, "Cheque please!"
Her apartment was small and neat, like a display at Ikea. With regard to decor she favoured a cat motif. Her bed was edged in frill and lace like a grandmother's, a looming portrait of a nailed up Christ haunting the space over the headboard. Leslie tried not to look at it as he thrust himself against Karen's lithe pelvis, a sheen of sweat glistening on his brow.
She didn't climax, but she came close. Leslie apologized.
"Are you okay?" he asked, panting.
"I don't think you bled much. Do you hurt?"
"No. It doesn't really hurt. I've...been touched there before. I bled then." She sat up in bed, pulling the frilly comforter up to her neck. "I guess that makes me a fake virgin, doesn't it?"
"Not if you haven't made love before."
"He used his fingers," she whispered, then added, "My father, that is."
Leslie gulped. "Your father the pastor?"
"He's a good man, really," she said, looking out the window. "But he was sometimes tempted, and he wasn't always strong."
"Jesus Christ, Karen. I'm so sorry."
She held her arms across her chest, hugging the comforter to her. Leslie frowned and touched her forearm gently, tracing the edges of a series of fine scars arrayed in ridged, purple sets over her skin. She brushed his hand away. "I don't do that anymore," she told him.
"Don't do what?"
"Cut myself. I found other ways to feel proper."
Leslie moved across the bed carefully and put his arms around her. She hesitated, then let her head droop on his shoulder. "You don't need to feel that way anymore," he said softly into her ear. Karen cried. Leslie held her tight while the sobs wracked her frame. His heart ached. "You're free now," he told her.
She fell asleep. Leslie slipped out from her embrace and went to the kitchen. He picked his pants up from the floor and found the DuMauriers. He couldn't find his matches so he lit it off the stove, the gas igniter clicking.
It only took him a haul or two to decide the cigarette made him feel worse, not better. He stabbed it out, crumpled the box, and tossed the whole pile into the trash. A man of his luck and power didn't need that kind of crutch.
He had transformed a marm into a vixen by introducing the powder that undid the bonds her father had tied around her soul decades ago. He could see the good in it, unrepentant carnality aside. He figured he was finally getting a grasp on how the powder operated.
As its agent he was a dispenser of justice. He made things better, for himself and for others.
Leslie decided his inheritance was truly a blessing.
On Tuesday morning Leslie drove to the office. Instead of taking his usual nip of drink he threw the tin flask out the car window as he turned into the parking lot, hearing it clang on the asphalt behind him.
In the elevator he caught himself humming.
He was early. The place was nearly abandoned. He nodded in a friendly way to the girls in the secretarial pool as he slipped into the kitchen. He made straight for the coffee machine as he pulled on his rubber gloves. He opened the tin of grounds, dumped a load of extract into it, and then mixed it thoroughly before putting on the day's first pot to brew.
The coffee machine began to chortle.
He went into his office and sat down, opening the lower drawer and withdrawing his emergency stash of booze. He dumped it in the garbage can, the bottles clinking. "It's a better world now," he told the bottles. "I don't need you anymore."
While he waited for his computer to boot he took his great-grandfather's folio out of his briefcase.
Predicting the effect of the extract presents an incalculable challenge as unintended consequences can be generated from the most seemingly innocent situation. A specific caution is called for with respect to commercial enterprises as their connections can be far-flung & difficult to foresee. By way of example I once treated my favourite handkerchief with the intention of restoring its original lustre & softness only to have it unravel into thread in my hands. Subsequent investigation revealed that the factory in which the product was woven had been a bastion of brutal forced labour by children until it burned to the ground on the same date that I treated my cloth.
Leslie sniffed. Did he smell smoke? He decided it was his imagination.
Mitchell Green wandered by, leaning in the doorway of Leslie's office as he usually did, making his social rounds and telling off-colour jokes between brief bouts of returning to his own office to browse pornography. "Morning, Les. What's shaking?"
"Morning, Mitchell. Nothing much."
Mitchell pestered him about a bunch of melodramatic television shows Leslie didn't follow. "I can't believe you don't watch Sopranos," said Mitchell, cradling his coffee mug. "It's totally excellent. But Lost is good, too."
"I only get the low channels," shrugged Leslie apologetically.
Mitchell got bored and wandered away to bother somebody else about television. Leslie wondered for perhaps the hundredth time why nobody ever seemed to notice that Mitchell hadn't done an ounce of work for years. He was a professional coffee drinker and Web surfer, paid to disrupt others.
On his way to the morning meeting Ranjana from reception asked Leslie if he wanted a coffee. "No thank you," he said.
The meeting began predictably enough: a run down of current initiatives with brief status quacks from whomever was perceived as being on point. People mumbled over their coffees, eyes on the agenda. Time seemed to come a stop. Leslie burned to have a drink but fought down the urge.
"Everything on track with the budget review, Carstairs?" asked his boss, Mr. Feldman.
"Yes, we're in good shape," replied Leslie. "I have accounting sourcing those third quarter numbers now."
The meeting moved on. Leslie glanced at his watch. When he looked up again he noticed that Mr. Feldman was having a difficult time focusing his attention. Though he'd just asked a question of the vice-president to his right he was now searching the left end of the table distantly, his lips twitching slightly. The vice-presidential mumbling ran down and gradually all eyes turned to Mr. Feldman.
Mr. Feldman played with his pen idly for a moment, then looked up and flashed everyone a disarming smile.
"There's something I'd like to share with you all at this time," he pronounced carefully, putting aside the pen and folding his hands on the table before him. "The fact of the matter is that I have been personally embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from this company each month for the past fourteen months."
Sharon from marketing began to emit a friendly chuckle of joke appreciation but cut it off as she saw the hurt look in the Mr. Feldman's eyes.
"I'm serious. I feel really badly about it," said Mr. Feldman. "I am crippling this company financially in order to feed my cocaine habit. Also, I bought sportscars for both my mistresses." He coughed awkwardly. "And last week I groped Bernice Chisholm's breast and told her that if she ever told anybody about it she'd be fired."
All eyes turned to Bernice. She nodded mutely. Someone gasped.
"We really appreciate your candour, sir," said Leslie encouragingly.
Chad from IT nodded, his jowls quivering. "Last spring I stole a DVD player from the AV room and took it home for my kid. And...I want to pay the company back. Can someone source a cost on that for me?"
Sharon wrung her hands. "I drive around parks at night looking for people having sex in cars and then call the police and report them for incident exposure."
Ranjana topped up everyone's coffees and then stood at mid-table, holding the pot and looking around with a pained, nervous expression. Finally she said, "I think I'm gay."
"Super," said Leslie. "More power to you, Ranjana."
"Right on, sister," said Sharon.
"That's hot," said Mr. Feldman.
Leslie met Karen for lunch at the Seahorse. She was wearing a pair of jeans and a loose T-shirt, which she showcased for him by spinning on the spot like a runway model. "What do you think? I feel like one of my students," she said.
"Carefree and gorgeous," said Leslie.
She leaned in close and whispered, "I'm not even wearing a bra!"
"You're out of control," joked Leslie.
"I do feel a little all over the place," she admitted.
"I'm kidding. You look great. What are you going to eat?"
"You're crazy. That stuff'll kill you."
"Maybe," she agreed with a toothy grin.
The food arrived in a haze of steam. Karen dug in with relish. Leslie smiled as he watched her, swirling the end of his beer around in the glass before draining it. "How's school?"
"Easier. I hadn't realized what an atmosphere of confrontation I was fostering by trying to keep them all hemmed in close to the line. We had a class discussion about the war that was really amazing -- even the quiet ones had something to say once they realized I wasn't going to bite their heads off for saying the wrong thing, or saying it the wrong way."
Leslie couldn't help but ask after Angus. "Did you notice a change in him?"
"I sure did," she told him, nodding over a stringy forkful of poutine. "He told me he's thinking about running for council president next year. Wouldn't that be great for him?"
"I'm stunned. I'm pleased."
She put down her fork and looked at him levelly over the table, biting her lip playfully. "Can I ask you something, Leslie?"
"You can ask me anything."
"Do you promise not to laugh?"
"Do you promise to tell the truth?"
She raised her brow and leaned in closer. "Did you drug me?"
"You heard what I said."
"Why would I drug you?"
"That isn't an answer."
"Do you mean like a date-rape drug or something?"
"Yes, no -- I don't know."
"I'm being serious. Think about it, Leslie. For years I've been coping with...my problems -- in my own ways. Maybe they weren't great ways but they were my ways. And then suddenly I meet you and I feel it all fall away, like a suit of armour collapsing at my feet. But instead of feeling vulnerable I feel tall. Instead of feeling naked I feel strong." She smiled resignedly and sat back in her seat. "Maybe you're right, maybe it's chemistry. Maybe I've been waiting a long time for somebody like you to come along. But...well -- don't take this the wrong way..."
"I couldn't take anything you say the wrong way."
"...Well, you're nothing that special, Leslie. Don't misunderstand: I think you're a great guy; I think you're attractive; I think you're smart, and sensitive and funny. But you're just some guy. Do you know what I mean? Why do I feel this connection with you?"
"I don't know," claimed Leslie.
She chuckled, shaking her head. "As stupid it might sound, I keep coming back to our conference yesterday when you threw sugar in my face. Maybe it makes me sound paranoid, but I can't stop wondering about it. It was right after that...that's when -- I opened."
"Maybe somebody should've thrown sugar at you a long time ago."
"You think it would've helped?"
"How did it make you feel?"
"Humiliated, angry, shocked, confused..."
"You see? You needed to be snapped out of your scaffolding of dignity. You needed to have someone freak out on you -- someone you couldn't dismiss or punish. A wake up call."
She considered this and ate a gravy-soaked chip. "Maybe," she said, chewing. "Still, why did you have sugar in your briefcase?"
"They only have brown sugar at the office. I prefer white."
"That isn't a long story."
"No, it isn't."
"You said it was a long story."
"I guess I was using long as a euphemism for dull."
Karen laughed. "I think my life up until this week felt both long and dull."
"You're the furthest thing from dull, Karen."
"You're buttering me up."
"Are we still telling the truth? Yes. Yes, I am buttering you up. I'm hoping a girl as fantastic as you doesn't come to her senses and leave an aging dolt like me in the dust. Because if I don't get to touch you again I may go crazy."
"That's a lot of butter."
"Dairy is an important food group."
"Are you coming over tonight?"
"I sure hope so. Are you inviting me?"
They kissed. Back at the office Leslie tossed his overcoat in the corner and sank into his chair, eyelids heavy from the beer. He slapped the spacebar on his keyboard until the screen lit up, then grumbled when he found he was unable to open a connection to the central server. He called Chad's extension but got only voicemail.
Mitchell passed by in the corridor. "Hey, Mitchell!" called Leslie.
"What's up?" asked Mitchell, sticking his head in the door.
"Do you have any idea if Chad's around?"
"Chad quit? Why?"
Mitchell shrugged. "I don't know. He said something about going to Africa to help build infrastructure for impoverished communities."
"Listen Leslie, I've love to hang around and talk about this but my schedule's just choc-a-bloc this afternoon. I have to run to legal."
"Oh -- er, don't let me hold you up, Mitchell."
Leslie shook his head wonderingly as Mitchell jogged off with purpose, calling for someone up ahead to hold the elevator for him. Leslie had never seen Mitchell move so fast.
What incredible potency of influence must it take to so thoroughly blind one whom the extract has affected that they will blithely sail through the transition of personality without substantive remark? As far as I have been able to discover there is no charm or agency of bemusement at work beyond the amazing but familiar powers of self-delusion possessed by all men.
Leslie wondered if Mitchell's wife would find the revision in his character as smooth to swallow as Mitchell had. He wondered what Mr. Feldman would tell Mrs. Feldman. He had no doubt that many of his colleagues would be having interesting encounters with their spouses tonight.
Nothing can be rationalized with fainter strain than a change in oneself. To each of us it is obvious that a better man lies just beneath the surface & very nearly realized; to each of us it is easy to defend a better version of ourselves as inevitable & authentic.
That passage left Leslie with a strange, bitter taste in his gullet. Was there not a better version of himself lying in wait beneath his foibles? Was it possible without self-administering the extract to find out?
He jumped as someone rapped on the open door. He looked up and furrowed his brow. "Angus?"
"Hi, Dad. Can I talk to you for a sec?"
"Um, of course -- come in, come in."
Angus closed the door and took one of the grey, sorry-looking chairs across from Leslie's messy desk. He let his knapsack slide to the floor and launched into his piece immediately: "Mom didn't send me," he said, "but this is about Mom."
Leslie swallowed. "There's a little fridge full of pops over there. Do you want a can of pop?"
Angus shook his head, then tucked his hair behind his ears and looked Leslie in the eye. "Dad, I think you probably only have a short time to fix all this easily. After that it's just going to get harder and harder. Or impossible, I guess."
"Did your mother tell you to tell me this?"
"You're not listening, Dad. What I'm saying is that you have to decide sometime in the next day or so whether your marriage is something you're letting go of or holding on to. Mom is...Mom still hasn't made up her mind yet. You have a chance."
"It isn't always so simple..." began Leslie.
"I just thought you should know," finished Angus. He scooped up his knapsack and stood. "I'm going to miss my bus unless I hurry."
Leslie stood up awkwardly. "Um, I could drive you to the stop."
"It's cool," said Angus. He left.
Leslie sat down again.
He swivelled in his squeaky chair and watched the sky darken over the city's core as the evening's lights winked on one by one, the traffic in the harbour unidirectional as everyone motored home for supper.
Without cigarettes or liquor he had no alternative but to actively feel sad and to sit with it. Without distractions he had no choice but to consider how to make things better.
The building emptied around him. Everyone but Mitchell Green and Mr. Feldman went home early. Then even they left, and the janitor arrived and nodded in a friendly way as he bent between Leslie's knees to retrieve and empty the trash can and recycling bin. Leslie was late to meet Karen. His pocket rang a couple of times.
"Hey, Sergey." he said to the janitor. "You married?"
"Married? Yes I am, for sirty year."
"You mind if I ask you something?"
"Of course. Ass me anysing, okay."
"What's the number one rule for a successful marriage?"
Sergey rubbed his chin as he screwed up his mouth, considering the matter. "Number one rule? Okay: I have to say apology. You always have to make the good apology when bad sings happen, okay? It take a big man for apologize."
Leslie nodded to his reflection in the glass. "That's good advice, Sergey."
Sergey grinned and raised a second finger as he leaned into his cart of cleaning products. "Okay: number two rule? Make her the orgasm -- not just for you."
"Number three rule? Use thumb for --"
"Thank you very much, Sergey."
Leslie heard the cleaning cart wheeled away. The sky had turned brown, the city gold. Rush hour was ending, the last brake lights trailing away. His pocket rang again.
He came to a conclusion. He snatched up his jacket and left.
The rain was cruel -- pointy, cold, incessant. Leslie tried awkwardly to shield the bouquet of roses in his arm as he leaned in to ring the bell, rain dripping from his nose.
The door opened. "Oh. It's you. What do you want?"
Leslie tried to smile. "Hello Molly. Is Margaret in?"
"She's just finished crying her eyes out over you and your antics. Why should I let you in to peck at the wound and get her all worked up again?"
Leslie's smile did not falter. "Would you please tell her that I'm here?"
Molly glanced down. "It's flowers, is it?" she sneered. "That's sure to make up for twenty years of grief."
Leslie simply waited expectantly. Molly murmured something unkind and shut the door. He could hear her bellowing for her sister inside. He shifted from one foot to the other and cleared his throat. The rain beat a sad tattoo on the flowers' plastic wrapping.
The door opened again. Margaret said, "Come in before you catch your death."
They sat down in the kitchen, Leslie's clothes dripping on the scuffed tiles. Margaret put the kettle on and took a seat opposite him. Her expression was hard but it softened for a second as she noted the bouquet. "Are those for me or for your girlfriend?"
"They're for you. They're roses."
"I can see they're roses, Les."
"I know you like roses."
"Every girl likes roses," she muttered, then added more kindly, "Even me."
"There's chocolates, too."
"Well Leslie Carstairs, you're certainly working hard to butter me right up, aren't you?"
Leslie winced. "I didn't come to have roses or chocolates do my work for me. I have something to say, too."
Margaret leaned back in her chair, frowning slightly. "You'd best get on with it, then. And you'd best make it quick -- Molly'll be back here in a moment to brain you with a pan if she has her way."
"She'd be right to do it," noted Leslie.
Margaret looked surprised. "I think that's the closest you've ever come to saying something nice about my sister."
"She's trying to look out for you. I can't fault her for that. I should take a lesson. Looking out for you is something I should do more of myself."
"Is that a fact?"
"It is. Yes, it is. For a lot of years I've been a lot more consumed with my own feelings than with yours, and let's neither of us pretend that's news to you. It isn't news to anyone except me, and it's only news to me because I'm a moron."
"So far we're in total agreement," she said lightly, reaching to the shelf and grabbing a white pack of Players. She knocked one out and rattled the box at Leslie invitingly. Leslie shook his head. Margaret lit her cigarette and drew on it, watching him through the smoke.
"For a long time I've felt like I live in a cage."
"A cage made of crap -- life crap: bills, work, Angus. I felt sorry for myself. And instead of feeling sorry for you, I came to think of you as one of my wardens. And that's worse than unfair because you don't want to live in a cage any more than I do...but unlike me you were always willing to do whatever it took to make it work, cage or no cage."
Margaret looked down, blinked. "Les, that's very --"
"Let me finish. The first thing I want you to understand -- flowers and chocolates and everything aside -- is that I respect you. I respect you, Margaret. You're a stronger person than I will ever be, and I can't express to you how sorry I am for making you feel badly about that instead of proud."
"You're going to make me cry."
"Ash your cigarette before it falls on your sweater. The point is, Margaret, that there has been a better Leslie lying underneath and I think I've finally realized what I need to in order to let him out. I just didn't know how to change."
She sighed, took a drag, wiped her eyes. "But now you do?"
"Yeah," he said firmly. "Yeah, I do."
Leslie ran a hand through the remains of his rust-coloured hair. "I saw a lot of people change around me, and I saw what made them different. I realized it doesn't take much -- just a tweak of attitude, really." He smiled self-effacingly. "I realized all I needed was a plan."
Margaret chuckled ruefully. "You're making fun of me."
"I'm not. I'm not at all." He put his hands on hers across the table. "I'm apologizing to you, Margaret."
Her eyes welled up. Leslie's breath caught in his throat. He came around the table and hugged her despite his damp clothes, tears running down his cheeks. She hugged him back tightly. He smelled her dark hair, and luxuriated in it.
The kettle whistled.
They talked for hours. Leslie felt transported back in time, back to the years when they were tender rather than bitter. Deposits of spite melted and washed away, and their eyes shone at one another. For the first time in a long time Leslie felt like a man, and looked upon his wife as a woman.
Come midnight he kissed her on the forehead and told her he'd come around after work tomorrow to take her and Angus back to the house, if that's what she wanted. She did. "I didn't know you could still surprise me," she told him softly. "I do love you, Leslie."
"I love you, too."
He left her in the kitchen picking at chocolates and staring at the black beyond the windows. In the hall Angus was loitering on the staircase. He smiled at his father. "Good work, Dad," he whispered.
"Good work, son," Leslie said to him, squeezing his shoulder.
Angus pulled him into a hug.
The rain had stopped. The night was strangely warm and a mist was rising from the empty streets. Leslie lowered himself into the Taurus and flipped open his telephone, thumbing through his contacts until he found the address he was looking for...
He drove slowly. He was at ease. He left arm still smelled faintly of roses.
A quarter hour later he was keying in the code for Chad's apartment, the security camera behind him buzzing quietly as it panned back and forth across the lobby. The intercom clicked. "...Hello?"
"Chad, it's Leslie Carstairs -- from the office."
"Oh -- uh, hi Mr. Carstairs."
"I didn't wake you, did I?"
"Uh, no. Can I help you with something or something?"
"Yeah. Do you mind if I come up?"
"Uh, sure. Hold on. I'll buzz you through."
The corridors of Chad's apartment building smelled like fresh laundry. The patterned carpet and ornate lighting fixtures made the place look like a hotel. Leslie found himself wondering how much IT guys got paid. He knocked on Chad's door which cracked open instantly and released a rich, skunky aroma.
Chad's eyes were bloodshot. "Are you okay Mr. Carstairs?"
"Call me Leslie. Can I come in?"
"Okay. Uh, please excuse the mess."
Chad's livingroom was a sea of empty pizza boxes, wrappers, DVD cases and dirty clothes amassed around several mounds of wire-entangled electronic devices: computer monitors, videogame consoles, stereo equipment. Chad waded into the midst of it and brushed a slurry of kipple away to free up one of the chairs, then gestured at Leslie to take a seat. Chad himself settled into an ample ass-shaped dent in the sofa and looked at Leslie expectantly. "So, what can I do for you Mr. Carstairs?"
"Please, call me Leslie. I heard you quit."
The chubby techie nodded. "I've sort of been re-evaluating my life priorities a bit, you know?"
"Are you really going to Africa?"
"I might be going to the Congo, uh, to help out there and stuff."
"That's very commendable."
"Thanks, Mr. -- uh, Leslie."
There was an awkward silence. Leslie leaned forward in his seat, the garbage under his feet crunching. "I'm wondering if you can do me a favour before you go. When's your flight?"
"I'm still working out the details."
"Okay, good. I have a bit of a project I need some help with. You originally went to school for engineering, didn't you?"
"Yeah, at TUNS."
Leslie licked his lips. "I need you to build me a device."
"What kind of device?"
"I need a device that can be triggered from a distance."
"How big a distance?"
"At least a couple of miles."
"And what does it do when you trigger it?"
"It opens a bird cage."
Chad blinked. "Is this for like a magic trick or something?"
Leslie considered this. "Yes, I suppose it is. A very dangerous magic trick -- hence the distance requirement."
"Let me think..."
"I can pay you for your time, of course."
Chad dismissed the last statement with a wave, the beady eyes in his doughy face defocusing at the wall. His lips twitched and his fingers moved. He frowned briefly, then seemed to come to a conclusion. "That shouldn't be too hard. We could use a radio relay, maybe trigger it through a cell phone. Is the cage door resistance- or latch-based?"
"Probably need a pretty hefty battery to give us the power we'll need to pop it open."
"I can pick one up at Canadian Tire tomorrow morning. And anything else you need. Just write it out. Make a list."
Chad held up a pudgy finger. "Wait!"
"Wait!" Chad repeated, getting up and thrashing his way over to a far corner of the livingroom. He dug in the trash until he came up with a remote control 4x4 truck which he presented to Leslie triumphantly. "Ah-ha!"
"Powerful little motors in here," explained Chad, prying at the plastic chassis which was covered in banana stickers. "It's already wired for remote control. All we have to do is boost the range and find a way to rig the motors to the cage door. Presto!"
"You're a genius."
Chad snorted. "I'm a fat fuck who smokes too much weed, but I do like a challenge. When do you need this?"
"As soon as possible. Tomorrow?"
Chad nodded as he lowered himself back into his dent on the sofa. "Shouldn't be a problem. What about the cage?"
"What about it?"
"Did you bring it?"
"Um, no. I'll bring you a test cage in the morning."
"Well, as long as it's got the same door mechanism that should be fine."
"Good," said Leslie, standing up.
Chad opened his mouth, hesitated, then opened it again. "This isn't...you're not..."
Leslie grunted. "What?"
"You're not a Muslim or anything, right?"
"Christ, no. Like I said, it's a magic trick."
"Actually I said it was a magic trick. You said it was dangerous."
Leslie smirked. "Only to me."
Leslie wanted to go faster, but the car was reluctant.
He had a plan, but time was his enemy. The plan was worth fighting for. The whole city would be better for it, and Leslie would be free.
When he finally arrived at work Mr. Feldman was waiting in his office, his ample frame propped up against the desk. Leslie dumped the bags from Canadian Tire and Home Depot on his chair with a grunt. "Mr. Feldman, I'm so sorry I'm late. I just had to run a few errands, and --"
Mr. Feldman waved it off. "Don't trouble yourself, Carstairs. I've never been a clock Nazi. I only wanted to make sure you're alright -- I know your son dropped by yesterday, and your wife's been calling all morning."
Leslie blinked. "She has?"
"Is everything alright at home?"
Leslie sighed and drew a hand down his face. "To tell the whole truth, sir, the family's been going through a bit of a rough patch lately, but I think we're going to be okay. I appreciate your concern, though."
Mr. Feldman smiled dolefully, his brown eyes heavy. "Things have been a little messy at home for me as well. I understand how it can be. Will you need some time?"
"Actually, I will have to pop out for a spell today."
"Fine, fine. Do whatever it takes, Carstairs. Nothing's more important than family." He eased himself up from the desk, shoved his hands in his pockets and wandered toward the door. "I was worried about you. Your wife sounded like she was under some strain. What's her name again? Colleen? Kristin?"
"Karen! That's it, isn't it? She asked to speak to me personally. She wanted to be sure you'd be in today."
"Karen..." echoed Leslie dumbly.
"You look tired. Are you sure you're alright?"
"Quite sure, sir. Thank you. Thanks for handling that. Thanks for everything. It's been a tough time but we're all fine now, really." Leslie tried to smile.
Mr. Feldman lingered at the jamb. "The details are none of my business but let me just say this, Carstairs: don't let a good woman slip away. You don't know what you've got until it's gone."
"I won't, sir. Believe you me. I know what I've got and it's damn important to me."
Leslie sat down heavily and turned on his computer. Error messages popped up all over the desktop warning him that his mailbox was full. He clicked open the window and surveyed the list of almost two hundred messages from Karen Groverston: Where are you??? was the first subject and Bastard!!! was the last.
His desk telephone rang. The display said the call was from Angus' school.
"Oh shit, oh shit," moaned Leslie, head in his hands.
He dumped the call to voicemail, grabbed his bags and ran straight back down to the garage. Ten minutes later he jerked the Taurus to a halt outside Chad's building and rushed into the lobby to stab at the intercom. He hurried into the apartment and dumped the bags. "Here's everything," he said breathlessly. "Are we still good to have this together today?"
"I'll have it together before noon," said Chad, squinching out a joint on the glass coffeetable. "I have to, pretty much, because I have to be at the airport at like three this afternoon to catch my flight."
"You're off to the Congo?"
"They're sending me to Cameroon, actually. I'm not going to get into any trouble over this, am I?"
"Do you know anyone who might want to sublet this apartment from me?"
"Sorry, no. Listen, I have to run. You call if you need anything, okay?"
Leslie sped. He was pulled over on Gottingen Street. The cop was nice. He bumped the ticket down so it wouldn't cost him too many points. Leslie thanked him and strained every fibre of his being to moderate his speed until the cruiser was out of sight, then he laid on the gas and pushed the rattling old car to the limit until he was screeching to halt in front of his house, a cloud of burnt rubber stench washing over the car, carried by inertia.
Once inside the garage he panted to catch his breath as he knelt down to flip the velvet drape off of the bird cage. He cast a critical eye on his captive. The tiny woman looked up at him feebly, lying on her side in the bed of shredded newspaper. It had been a long, rough night and the tongs had left purpling bruises on her pale flesh. She quailed at his face.
"I'm sorry about this, I really am," breathed Leslie as he reached for the ether canister. "But I promise you: this is the last time."
He didn't get very much this time -- not after last night's massive harvest, now secured in a neat row of metal thermos bottles lined on the garage shelf next to a can of paint, a broken fan and a box of sandpaper. Beside the shelf he had pinned a map of Halifax with each of the city's drinking water reservoirs marked by a red push-pin.
He set to his business.
When he was done Leslie released the tiny woman from the end of the tongs and watched her body sink slackly into the newspaper. He pulled off the gas masque and gloves after dumping his scant collection of fresh extract into the final thermos, screwing the cap on firmly.
He sat back on his haunches and wiped his brow. "Okay, okay, okay."
An instant later he jumped to his feet and loaded up the car: thermos bottles, map, gloves, covered cage. He checked his watch.
He went into the kitchen to get a glass of water. The telephone rang. He heard the answering machine click into gear, projecting his own warbly voice muttering about beeps and messages. Then Karen's voice sounded out through the speaker: "I know what's going on here, Leslie. You can't jerk me around. I'm not an idiot and I'm not going to take it. I'm not your toy, you bastard."
On his way back to Chad's apartment he was pulled over by the same cop, who was this time less inclined to be lenient. Leslie was slapped with a massive fine and docked several points from his license. "Whatever your rush is today, sir," lectured the cop, "it isn't worth dying over."
"No sir," agreed Leslie.
The elevator up to Chad's unit was painfully, tortuously slow. Leslie glanced at his watch and swore. He was supposed to be picking up Margaret and Angus from Molly's house in less than six hours. The elevator chimed and the doors eased apart glacially.
Chad was in the midst of orchestrating a frenzied mission of packing assisted by a couple of friends with oily hair and T-shirts with computer slogans on them. "Chad -- please tell me you have good news," begged Leslie.
"No problem, Mr. Carstairs," replied Chad. "Here, let me show you how it works. Have you got the cage?"
"There's no time. Just show me on the test cage. I'll figure it out."
A short nerd hovered at Leslie's elbow. "Dude, can I borrow your PlayStation while you're gone?"
"Yeah, sure," said Chad. "Whatever."
Back down in the visitors' parking lot Leslie yanked open the tailgate of the Taurus and placed Chad's remote opening device inside, beside the cage. As he did so his mobile rang five times in a row. He slammed the tailgate and fished the telephone out of his pocket. He pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. "...Yes?"
"What the hell is going on with you?"
"I can't explain right now, Karen, but I'm caught up something really complicated and really urgent. I'm sorry I can't say more right now but time is of the essence."
"I've been trying to reach you for two days."
"I know, I know. I'm very sorry. You're just going to have to believe me when I say I'll explain everything just as soon as --"
"Bullshit. Explain now. I'm not waiting on you, Leslie. I'm not some whore you can put aside when playtime is over."
"It's not like that!" he shouted.
"So what is it like, Leslie? Are you going to talk to me now or am I going to have to go down to Mic Mac Mall and ask Margaret?"
"You shut your mouth," warned Leslie, his own mouth going instantly dry.
"You can't run, Leslie. I have Angus' student records -- contact numbers, work addresses, everything. I know where you live, you bastard."
Leslie almost gagged. He took another deep breath. "Where are you? Let's meet. Right now. Let's talk this out." He checked his watch, frowning.
"I'm at school."
"I'll be there in fifteen minutes."
As he drove he tried to reapportion his afternoon: fifteen minutes to the school, fifteen minutes to talk to Karen, twenty-five minutes out to Point Pleasant Park to drop off the cage and set up Chad's device, twenty-five minutes to get far enough away to trigger it, then on to the first reservoir...
Thirteen minutes later he squealed into the school lot. He jumped out of the car and slammed the door, then popped the tailgate and hoisted a thermos bottle. So what if one reservoir got a little less extract? The city would still be better. Besides, Leslie had more immediate concerns.
The corridors were clogged with students changing classes, babbling, laughing, shoving. A squadron of boys ran into him bodily, causing him to drop the thermos. Leslie bellowed "Fuck!" and scampered after it, dashing to his hands and knees to protect it with his body as kids pressed in from all sides.
He got it. He sprinted through the stragglers to Karen's classroom, bursting through the door.
She looked up from her desk. "Where is everybody?" asked Leslie stupidly.
"I have a spare," said Karen, eyes hard.
"You have to understand something --"
"No," she interrupted, standing up. "You have to understand something, Leslie. I don't allow people to treat me this way."
"I didn't mean to --"
"What?" she demanded, pushing a blonde lock out of her flushed face. "Didn't mean to leave me hanging after changing my life? Dodge my calls after everything you whispered in my ear? Play bullshit games while you dick me around and dick your wife around so you can have it both ways like some kind of playboy?"
"No, no, that isn't it at all --"
She screamed, "Don't you lie to me, you bastard!"
Leslie leaned against the door, closing his eyes. "Karen," he said after a moment, "you're right. I want to be perfectly honest with you."
She stared at him, lips pursed.
Leslie went on, "Margaret and I have reconciled. I have to end this. I'm sorry."
He opened his eyes again. Karen's shoulders were quaking with quiet sobs. She hugged her shoulders tightly, and then her knees buckled and she sat down hard on the floor.
Leslie took a tentative step forward, reaching out. "Karen..."
She looked up, her features puffy and her eyes red-rimmed. Her lips trembled as she began to shake her head slowly back and forth. "No..." she said. "No, you can't do this to me. Not like this. You can't make me feel this worthless and just take off like nothing ever happened."
Leslie moved closer. "Karen --"
"You can't!" she shouted, fists clenched. "I won't let you. I won't let you off the hook. I'm going to call your wife and we're going to have a nice, long conservation about everything."
"Shut up, Leslie, and get out. Get out of here now."
"Karen, you have to --"
"There's nothing you can say. There's nothing you can do. Just fuck off, Leslie. Get out of my sight." She picked herself up and wiped her nose. "You had your chance."
She walked over to her desk and picked up the flesh-coloured telephone. Leslie begged, "This is stupid, Karen. Just stop. We can talk about this like adults. Just stop."
"No," she said. She selected a line, and then flipped open her daytimer and traced her finger down the page to a scrawled number.
"Stop!" howled Leslie, his ears throbbing with heartbeat.
"No," she said again. And then into the receiver: "Is Margaret Carstairs available?"
Leslie's blood boiled, adrenaline igniting his muscles. The stress was too much. He couldn't take it. He had a mission to accomplish. He could broker no delay that would keep him even an hour further from making everything right.
He could not let Karen spoil it. Not after everything he'd been through.
Leslie crossed the classroom in three quick strides and smacked the receiver out of her hand, so she picked up the body of the telephone and hit him across the jaw with it. He stumbled back, seeing stars. He withdrew the thermos bottle from his jacket and wrenched off the cap.
Karen's eyes widened. "You are drugging me!" she cried. "Oh my God, you are! Oh my God, I knew it! I knew it!"
"I can make everything better," whispered Leslie, a line of blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. "Trust me, Karen. I can fix everything. Just let me --"
Karen rushed at him. She pried the thermos bottle out of his hand, loosening his grip by kneeing him in the testicles savagely. Leslie dropped to his knees, straining for breath, his bloody mouth fixed in a circle of shock. He tried to plead but he had no voice.
Karen upended the contents of the thermos over Leslie's head.
They were frozen in that attitude for a long moment, Leslie cowering, Karen standing over him with the empty thermos. It dropped from her hand and clanged to the floor, rolling under her desk. She shuffled backward until she hit the desk, too, grabbing its edge for support. "Leslie?" she whispered.
He looked up. He was weeping.
"Leslie?" she said again.
He slowly climbed to his feet, grunting at the ache between his legs and the waves of pain coursing through his jaw. Tears rolled down his cheeks, slid down his neck, darkened the collar of his shirt. He turned around and reached for the doorknob.
"Leslie, speak to me!"
He looked back over his shoulder sadly. "I...have to go to the car now," he said, his voice now soft and almost dreamy. "There's something I have to do." He opened the door.
"Leslie, stop! What is it?"
He looked at her again as he stepped outside into the corridor. "I have to," he repeated dully.
The door closed.
||IF YOU HAVE ENJOYED READING THIS STORY, PLEASE CONSIDER LEAVING A SMALL TIP. A PAYPAL ACCOUNT IS NOT REQUIRED. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. YOURS TRULY, C. BROWN.