e’d slimmed out. Stopped eating junk food. He ran every morning. He got a degree, and then another one. He found a job. Not one he loved, but he made decent money and the holidays were nice. He married someone who saw the good in him and treated him well. They were talking about having a kid. Maybe two. His parents were proud of him.
People liked him. He was loved by the few that matter.
But still, sometimes a stranger, walking by him on a street, would stop, turn back and watch him go. They’d shake their head. He could be beautiful, they’d think, if he’d just stop eating chocolate bars.
he hits the horn again, aimed at no one in particular, knowing it will have no effect except to make the world around her just a little bit worse. Here she is, trapped in gridlock with no end in sight.
For most people, it’s an inconvenience. Just another necessary evil in a long bastard of a day. For her, it’s life or death. This is the way she feels about everything, all day long. Somehow she keeps on living. This time, though, she could lose her job.
She looks at the clock. Seven minutes left. If she gets there late, at best they’ll take it out of her pay. Again. She puts her hand on the lid of the cardboard box in the passenger seat. Lukewarm and fading. And there goes her tip, too.
The right lane opens up and she makes her move, hitting the gas and swerving in front of a rusty old Civic. She flashes the finger in the rearview before the other driver can honk.
Her lane is wide open ahead. She’ll show them thirty minutes or less. She crushes the pedal, flashing by all the gawking commuters on her left.
Then she sees a flash of orange dead ahead and realizes why the lane was so open in the first place. She waits until the last minute and then screeches to a stop. The sound shocks the driver of the hatchback on her left enough that she can jam herself in front before he can do anything about it.
A green sign above, like a beacon on a rocky coast, tells her the exit is just another hundred metres or so. Four minutes left, time for extraordinary measures.
She swerves left into the carpool lane, accepting honks from all comers. They don’t know she has a passenger. Twelve slices of cheese and pepperoni. Cheese already stiffening in rigor mortis as it cools. She jumps ahead a few more car lengths and then hops right, then left, right again, more honking, screeching tires, brushing bumpers, windows rolling, new curse words birthed, and then there she is—running up the ramp to freedom.
All that mess left behind her for someone else to deal with.
Two minutes left. Just enough time. To make the right on Broadview, make the left onto Victor, make it to fifty-four just in time.
She pulls through the stop sign without looking and something crashes onto the hood of her car, windshield spidering with cracks. She jams on the brakes, but whatever she’s hit grabs a hold of the wipers to keep from falling off.
A man in red spandex, mask over his eyes and rabbit ears. He’s pressed against the remains of the windshield, staring at her, cross-eyed, with a grin like an escaped mental patient.
She looks at the clock. She’s going to be late. It can’t be avoided. All she can do is feel annoyed.
e didn’t notice the change. It’s hard when you’re together every day. It had been too gradual, like the air leaking from a balloon after a party. One day all that’s left is a wrinkled bit of rubber you find under the chesterfield. But balloons were not cats. Cats could live fifteen, twenty years. It was a long time.
He calls again for breakfast. It used to be that he was the one woken up every morning. But there’s no pounding down the stairs now. No meowing banter.
He doesn’t bother with the bagged food anymore. Instead, he makes the cat’s favourite, hoping the smell will lure it down to eat. To shit. To make it through a few more hours before falling back to sleep again. Day after day being stretched like some old piece of leather. You never know when it’s going to rip.
He used to make it from scratch. Nature’s most perfect food. Peel and seed the tomatoes, boil down the sauce. He’d buy the noodles at the little grocer’s up the way. An old Italian widow rolled them by hand. The store was gone now. They’d plopped something big and cold and mean on top of it. Maybe crushed the widow, too.
So, now he bought the frozen stuff. Microwavable, but he doesn’t have a microwave. It took twenty minutes in the oven. Tasted like gym socks. But it was easy. And he could watch TV while it cooked. He hitches his belt in another loop. He doesn’t eat so much himself these days. He’s too scared to ask why.
He’d lost the dog last year. The car hadn’t even stopped. He dug a hole in the backyard and the work nearly killed him, too. But one of the neighbours called the city on him. An officer showed up, lights and everything. You can’t do that anymore, the officer said, They got cemeteries for that now. After he’d gone, he lit a bonfire and tried to cremate the dog. The officer came back, followed by a fire truck. The whole street was lit up like Christmas. They wouldn’t let you have fires anymore, either.
He climbs the stairs with the pan in his hand. It takes him a while and he has to lean on the wall a few times to catch his breath. He’s not the spry bachelor he used to be. Just another old, lonely man.
He stands in the doorway, looks at the cat sleeping. The little wooden box and the blue baby blanket. Half of it spills onto the floor into a furry puddle. Fat, the veterinarian said. But he just thought of it as big.
He sets the pan on the floor and pulls his pants up again. The cat opens its eyes, too tired to even yawn. He’ll feed it by hand if he has to. It keeps on growing and here he is, wasting away. They were disappearing in different directions.
he police arrive late, as is their habit when parents are crowding emergency lines with gross hyperbole. The strobing lights are an alien presence on these tree-flanked suburban boroughs. People gather on their lawns in clothing not meant for public consumption. Jogging pants with awkwardly situated holes, shirts with questionable stains. It’s a community event to rival any backyard barbecue.
It was the little Weaver kid. Danny with those angelic locks of hair. You’d never suspect him of such wanton violence. You’d think it was one of those downtown kids, sneaking up on the bus to smash a window, steal a bike, uproot the geraniums. Not one of their own. He must play the same videogames those terrorists enjoy. But his parents aren’t talking. They’re huddled in a little circle on their lawn with the sprinklers erupting all around them. The water trickles down the street toward the Johnsons’ place, but it can’t wash the stain from the curb. That cement sucks up the blood and it’s already drying black as the asphalt underneath.
Little Lou Anne, the pride of 19 Butter Crescent, is the victim. Father, a real estate agent with a smile like a china cabinet, is smoking one cigarette after the other, while Mother holds a cloth to her darling girl’s head wound, in between bouts of shrieking for justice. You’d never suspect such a little nick could bleed so much.
The police officers have split up. Hands hitched in belts, one with either family. Nodding and taking notes that look a lot like grocery lists and doodles.
No one has noticed the thing lurking in the shadowed gutter. In between the leaves and the litter. A small ball. But not just any ordinary tennis ball, because this one has a face. A single eye. A horn. A grotesque grin.
When Danny brought his mother the package in the hardware store it had boasted Freaky Fun for Everyone. Mrs. Weaver said, What are you going to do with that awful thing? Danny said, Throw it.
But he didn’t say at what. He didn’t say at whom. He didn’t mention the petition that Concerned Parents of the Americas had mailed in. They were ugly, the petition said, too ugly and the rubber was too hard. Children could not be trusted with rubber. Rubber was the gateway weapon. Rooftops and rifles were next. Their families could not survive the embarrassment.
When Mrs. Weaver took Danny’s toy to the counter, she had no way of knowing the balls were being recalled and new ones manufactured from foam. Soft, harmless foam with happy faces instead of gruesome monsters. She could not know that there was a better way. But little Danny knew. Foam was not fun for anyone.
e had to fight, they said. When he asked why, they simpered and wrung their hands. No damsel to be saved, no kingdom to conquer, no villain to overcome. There was certainly no reward. But haven’t you always wanted to be a hero, they said. No, he hadn’t. He was moderately content with his mid-level salary, midtown condo, middling midlife mediocrity. They simpered some more. But what about flying, they said, bet you always wanted to fly. No, he said. Flying made him sick.
In the end, they drugged him and stuffed him in a trunk. The next thing he knew, here he was, sitting on an ostrich on a ledge over a pool of lava. And they’d taken all his quarters.
Bridle, reins, saddle. Just like a horse, they said. But he’d never ridden a horse. No problem, they said, this one flies itself. But ostriches can’t fly, he said. Shut up, they explained.
He dug his heels into the ostrich’s side. Giddy up. It turned its head and hissed at him.
He heard flapping above him, and looked up to see large birds circling. Buzzards. They didn’t look friendly. He peered down. Far below the ledge, the lava was rising.
He didn’t like this. It was all too exciting. He liked monotony. He liked doing the same thing over and over. That’s why he’d answered the ad in the first place. Wave after wave, they told him, wave after wave after wave.
Something hit the ledge near him with a wet slap. Steaming and stinking. Buzzard shit.
The ostrich spooked and started to run for the edge. It spread its stunted wings. He was still pretty sure ostriches couldn’t fly.
Remember when you were a minipop, and you saw that film, you know, the one you loved that never had a sequel? Well, let's say it did. And it was just like you imagined it, only a little bit worse.