Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019


A work of short fiction.

A Diagram of a Building

Robertson Hall has lost its roof. It's as if a twister has blown the top off the building to reveal the mouse maze of classrooms and corridors on its fifth floor.

The diagram appears in Maclean's magazine. Lucy wonders who drew it. A man, she assumes. A man with the clinical fortitude of a coroner. He's peopled his diagram with stick figures. They walk the hallways, bend over drinking fountains, raise their hands in class. Perhaps they're thinking what a fine institution Scott University is. And Petertown, what a peaceful community.

The stick figures, Lucy notes, are shadowy grey. Except in Room 523. The eight women huddled together on one side of the German class are pale pink. The five men lined up on the other side are deep purple. Like good boys, these purple men filed out of the room when Buddy MacDonald told them to.

Where's Buddy? The question is like, Where's Waldo? But Lucy doesn't need to search long. She knows where Buddy is: the women's washroom down the hall from the German class. Buddy is the red stick figure. He's lying in a toilet stall, a chunk of his head floating in the toilet bowl. Brain, scalp, skin, skull. Buddy got down on his knees, leaned over that bowl. In one hand he held a gun, a silencer attached to its barrel. He put the gun to his temple and squeezed the trigger.

The Label from a Prescription Bottle

"In the pink" is the expression her parents use for sound health. Lucy has always been in the pink. If she has taken prescription medication in her twenty-three years, she doesn't remember. Consequently, although the pills are intended for her boyfriend, Thomas, her name typed on the label seems portentous.

This afternoon, she went to the campus clinic and feigned insomnia. She could have told the truth: her boyfriend had been in Room 523. But she lied. "I knew one of the girls who were killed," she told the doctor, who then scribbled on a prescription pad.

The prescription was for sleeping pills, and she's now sitting at the kitchen table crushing a tablet with the back of a spoon. She mixes the powder with some applesauce because Thomas has trouble swallowing pills whole.

Thomas' face is flushed with blood. He's in the living room doing the Downward Dog on a yoga mat, his hands and feet flat on the floor, his rear end pointing up, his head dangling between his extended arms. He looks like no dog Lucy has ever seen, certainly not like Bugaboo, their female Dalmatian.

His German parents nicknamed Thomas "der Gepard"-the cheetah-a tribute to his gracefulness and speed. But despite his streamlined body, wide-set hazel eyes and mane of tawny dreadlocks, Lucy doesn't see a big cat either. She sees simply a man. A man down on all fours. She recalls the first time she lay naked in bed with Thomas, how she inspected the meat of his calves, his flat bluish nipples, the walnut folds of his testicles. She thought, So this is a man.

Thomas puffs out a last gusty exhale as the brooks on their relaxation tape stop babbling. "How many pills did you mix in?" he asks when Lucy brings over his mug of applesauce.

"Just one."

"I need two."

"The label says one tablet at bedtime. You've never taken these before. You could have an allergic reaction or be extra sensitive."

"Spare me the lecture, Lucy." He rubs his eyes. "I haven't slept in days. Just give me another fucking pill."

Later, as they lie in bed, Lucy wonders whether in the night Thomas will again whisper, "Do you still love me?" Will he curl himself around her again? God, she hopes not. She can't stand his touch. Yet she can't bear to push him away.

She turns to him now. He has dozed off. He's so quiet and still that she's struck with the irrational fear that two pills might constitute an overdose. She holds her breath. When he makes a soft smacking sound with his lips, she breathes out. She whispers, "Yes, I do." She says it not to him but to herself and to her witnesses: the spill of moonlight across the ceiling, the glowing digits of her clock radio, the bottle of pills atop her nightstand.

The Cover of a Grammar Book

The book's cover is the German flag: three horizontal stripes, black, red and yellow. In the red stripe are the words Sprechen Sie Deutsch? The colours are glossy. The book looks new despite a gouge hacked into the red stripe. Grey-brown pulp pokes out. As Lucy fingers the pulp, she pictures Thomas deflecting a bullet with his grammar book. My hero, she thinks, the sad irony pinching her face and gunning her heart.

Before the shootings, Lucy hadn't even known Thomas was enrolled in German class. After all, German was his mother tongue. He took the class on the sly to boost his grade point average, even flubbing answers so the professor wouldn't twig to his fluency.

By the time the shootings started, Thomas' grammar book was no longer in Room 523. It was tucked under his arm as he hurried along the hallway, down the stairs and out of Robertson Hall. One guy from the class pulled a fire alarm. Another called 911. As for Thomas, he stepped around students as they sat on the lawn, sunning themselves on an Indian summer day. When he reached the edge of campus, he ran. He ran all the way home to Lucy.

Lucy didn't hear him come in. She was in her workshop sketching designs for the dog boots she sells to pet shops. A thud from the living room jolted her. "Bugaboo," she called out. She peeked down the hall. There was Thomas sitting on the futon couch in front of the steamer trunk they used as a coffee table. "Was yoga class cancelled?" she asked, since that was where he supposedly spent Wednesday mornings. No answer. On the steamer trunk, beside some of her boot-making tools, lay a textbook. He was staring at this book.

"What's wrong, love?"

His Bob Marley T-shirt was speckled with sweat. His forehead, too. He looked up, face contorted, lips quivering. He exhaled hard. Then he grabbed an awl, raised it above the book and drove it straight down.

Lucy's heart beat in her ears.

Days later, her heart is still in her ears. Sprechen Sie Deutsch? is splayed out on her drafting table. She has just amputated its cover with an exacto knife. As she picks at the gouge in the cover, she thinks of bullet holes, of having one in her chest as she thrashes on the floor of Room 523. She could have been one of the eight. She damn well could have been. All those times she promised Thomas' mother she'd learn more German than just "Gesundheit."

She takes her awl and pokes it all the way through the gouge in the grammar book. Then she holds the book's cover to one eye and peers through the hole. She homes in on Thomas' back as he stumbles in a sleeping-pill stupor down the hall to the bathroom.

"Freeze," she says, "or I'll shoot."

Thomas is too far away to hear.

The Back of an Envelope

Thomas sits on a stool in the middle of the kitchen. He's wearing cut-off jeans and, over his bare shoulders, two green garbage bags taped together like a flimsy sandwich board. With her fabric scissors, Lucy has snipped off his dreadlocks, which now lie at her0feet like sections of rope. As she finishes clipping around his ears, he says, "I wonder who's on that envelope."

Every day, she spoon-feeds him a few details from the newspaper articles he can't bring himself to read. Today the Petertown Examiner reported that Buddy MacDonald (or "the Silencer," his posthumous nickname) left no suicide note. While searching his apartment, though, the police did come across a list of names on an envelope. A hit list. These names are of local women, all fairly prominent. "Leading lights" is how the police chief put it, although he wouldn't divulge exactly which leading lights Buddy wanted extinguished.

Lucy goes to the sink, snaps on a pair of plastic gloves and shakes a bottle of hair dye. Thomas, meanwhile, picks up a pen and begins writing on the back of their unopened phone bill. She watches him. With short hair, his eyes look smaller, more wizened, and his forehead looks as square and white as a slice of sandwich bread. Lucy seems to be the only person who knows he was in that German class. The police haven't called. When their friends phone, she feeds them a story about Thomas visiting his sick mother in Montreal.

He hasn't ventured outdoors since the shootings, but there will be a memorial march this weekend and she wants them both to go. At first, he vetoed the idea: he's afraid of running into "the others," meaning his classmates from Room 523-the two women who survived, the four guys who fled. She suggested he go incognito: sunglasses, no dreadlocks, brown hair. A new man.

When the dye is ready, she lathers the soapy mix into his hair. "Let's play a game," he says, tapping the phone bill against his knee. "I give you clues and you tell me which famous Petertown woman is on the back of my envelope."

"I don't want to play games."

She yanks off the plastic gloves and chucks them into the sink.

He grabs a grapefruit from a fruit bowl and shot-puts it into the living room. "She really throws her weight around," he says.

She stares at this boy with his garbage-bag apron and foamy ammonia head. She wants to hug him close, she wants to slap him hard. Finally, she says, "Olympic bronze medallist Becky Pepper."

"Bingo." A devious smirk cocks up one side of his mouth.

She plays along because they both have a warped sense of humour and this game feels restorative, although a bit painful, like blood flowing back into frostbitten toes. She plays along because she wants to hear him talking again after a week of his mumbling little more than "yep" and "nope."

For his next clue, he holds out his arm and pretends to saw it with a long breadknife.

"Violinist Margaret O'Reilly."

Other names on his envelope belong to a police officer, a novelist, an abortionist, an alderwoman and a country singer. After she guesses, he strikes the name off his list.

In search of his final clue, he heads into the workshop, Bugaboo at his heels. She settles down on the couch, thankful for this momentary let-up in their storm, till he returns with colourful dog booties, her DogPoz, stuck on the ends of his fingers. He straddles her lap and taps her head and face with the boots. She closes her eyes, endures the tiny kicks. Finally she hisses, "Quit it!"

He lowers his hands.

"I'm no leading light," she says.

A treacherous look in his eye, he flicks off the booties and snatches a framed newspaper article hanging on the wall above the couch. "Lucy Hamilton," he reads, "an up-and-coming businesswoman with a go-getter attitude." She shoves him backwards into the steamer trunk and wrests the frame away. How unhinged he looks, the dye dribbling down his forehead, his garbage bags askew.

She goes into her workshop and slams the door, locks it.

The day the Petertown Examiner ran "A Cobbler for Canines" on the front page, she felt such a balloon of elation. Thomas was so proud he yelled, he hooted, he went right out and had the article and its photograph matted and framed.

Now she stares into the face of the girl in the photograph. There she is, beaming behind Bugaboo, who offers a booted paw to the camera. She sees her blithe smile and imagines Buddy MacDonald, highlighter in hand, ringing her face in yellow.

"Bud MacDonald had a list ee-eye ee-eye-oh," Thomas yells from the living room, "and on his list he had some gals, ee-eye ee-eye-oh. With a pow pow here and a pow pow there, here a pow, there a pow, everywhere a pow pow!"

The air sweeps from her lungs. Sweeps back in.

"Shut up!" she screams.

"Ee-eye ee-eye-oh..."

"Shut up!"

He's at the door, shaking the knob.

"A pow pow here and a pow pow there

Her anger is an awl through her chest.

"Piss off, you fucking coward!"

She has said it. What she knows he's wanted her to say all along. What she has felt. A sick, wavering, guilty feeling.

He stops shaking the knob.


Eight women shot and all the papers talk about is Buddy. Was he beaten with a yardstick as a child whenever he wet the bed? Was he a model employee at the paint shop where he worked? As a man, was he an aberration or the Hyde hidden in every Jekyll?

Her own man is on the floor now, his shadow edging under the door. The sounds he's making-short, sharp coughs-she recognizes as sobs. She shuffles to the door, opens it, kneels. He's on his side, his face planted in the crook of his arm. His front garbage bag is gone, but the back bag remains taped to his shoulders, a superhero's cape. Bugaboo licks his hand while Lucy strokes his chest and plucks away stray snips of hair. So this is a man, she thinks numbly. When there's a lull in his crying, she whispers, "We've got to rinse your head, love, or your scalp will stain." She helps him up. The envelope drops from his back pocket. She sees her name. The only one without a strike through it.

Excerpts from Newspaper Profiles

Heidi mastered French's pluperfect, Spanish's imperfect and German's future perfect, but her favourite mood was the subjunctive. "It conjures up our wishes and desires," she would tell her students, "our fears and possibilities."

Her friends say that Louise often tried signing them up as volunteers for the Meals on Wheels program she helped run.

Tamara planned to become an accountant, but was also toying with the idea of writing detective novels featuring a female private eye.

Mimi acted as a kind of resident therapist at her dorm. If a girl had a problem, she'd stop by Mimi's room. Her dormmates made her a sign to hang on the door when she wanted peace and quiet. She rarely used that sign, but it hangs there now. It reads,


Susan handled publicity for the local punk band Wuzzy and was often found in the mosh pit during the group's concerts.

A fan of Frida Kahlo, Vera painted self-portraits. Her younger brother has hung a dozen of these works on a wall in the family den.

Cynthia plans to return to the Magdalen Islands when she has recovered. What she misses most about her tiny island home is the endless horizon. "Everywhere you look, there it is-infinity."

Despite her ordeal, Myuko has decided against returning to Tokyo. "Most people here are good people," she says. "Very, very good."

A Double Loop of Ribbon

Everywhere Lucy looks, there it is-infinity.

A ribbon looped twice into a figure eight is being pinned to Thomas' sweatshirt. The ribbon is deep purple, the university's official colour. "You wear it on its side," says a girl with a pierced eyebrow as she adjusts Thomas' ribbon. "Like the infinity symbol."

"Doesn't she get one?" Thomas asks, nodding toward Lucy.

"Only the guys," says the girl, who then drifts off through the crowd with her canvas purse full of pins and ribbons, on the lookout for other ribbonless men.

"Infinity is the theme of the march," explains Lucy.


"Something to do with remembering the dead for eternity." She leaves out how men are also meant to reflect on the infinite number of women whose lives they've snuffed out.

It's mid-October. The sun is shining, but the ground is muddy from an overnight rainfall-hence the boots, the lighter fall model, that Bugaboo is wearing. Lucy and Thomas are in Davies Park with two thousand other students, a good chunk of Scott University's student body. Despite the crowd, people are subdued. Lucy sees a few girls weeping quietly and guys hugging the way guys do, two quick slaps on the back.

Under his mirrored sunglasses, Thomas' eyes are bloodshot, not from crying but from the pot he smoked to muster the nerve to go outside. Lately, Lucy has barely been out either, other than to scoot to the store or to walk Bugaboo in the woods behind their apartment. She tugs on the dog's leash now to draw the animal closer, but Thomas, she feels, is the one who needs leashing: he keeps wandering off, craning his neck in search of her and then scurrying back.

"You okay, love?"

He nods absently.

The march is to begin in fifteen minutes. It will be a silent march attended only by students from Scott University. They'll walk out of the park and, accompanied by a police escort, follow George Street past the downtown core, with its small shops tidily arranged like canisters of coffee, sugar, flour and tea. They'll then head north, past the library and petting zoo, and on to the subdivision where Lucy and Thomas live and finally up the road to the university campus. People from Lucy's town, her parents and little brother among them, will line the sidewalks all the way, as will journalists from across the country and beyond.

A volunteer with a reddish goatee approaches Lucy. "Would you like to carry a sign?" The young man is clutching a half-dozen placards, each bearing a blown-up photograph of one of the women killed.

Lucy holds up Bugaboo's leash. "I've got my hands full." The dog sniffs the volunteer's muddy shoes.

"I'll take one," Thomas says.

"No can do," the volunteer replies. "The guys get the ribbons, the girls get the signs."

"Just give me a sign, man." Thomas grabs the sign displaying the Meals on Wheels girl. The volunteer pulls the sign back.

"I said you can't have one."

"Fuck you, asshole!"

"Take a pill, bud," the volunteer says, hurrying off.

"I already did," Thomas yells. "And don't call me Bud!"

People stare.

"Real cool," Lucy snaps.

"Well, what's with the boy-gets-this, girl-gets-that crap? What's with rules when this whole fucking horror is, like, so ... unruly?"

In his sunglasses, Lucy sees herself, her fatigue warped into a jolly clown face by the funhouse mirrors of the lenses. She glances away and scans the crowd, recognizing a bald furrowed head, the reporter who interviewed her about DogPoz. He's speaking to three girls. She turns away. She doesn't want to talk to him. He'd ask, "What are you feeling?" and she'd stare at the faces of the dead women bobbing over the heads of the crowd and say, "Relief." Relief as potent as guilt. Relief that no one is waving a sign with her face on it. Or with Thomas'.

The march begins. On the long walk to the university, Lucy endures the silence by counting the number of fallen purple ribbons, muddied and trampled, that litter the way.

Excerpts from an Encyclopedia Entry

The first commercially successful gun silencer was designed by Hiram Percy Maxim, the son of Sir Hiram S. Maxim, the inventor of the automatic machine gun.

To cancel out sound, Maxim used a turbine chamber to churn the gases produced by an exploding charge. The idea came to him after he flushed a toilet and watched the water swirl away.

The term "silencer" is somewhat of a misnomer as gunshots cannot be truly silenced, but merely suppressed.

A Japanese Character

A Japanese girl is sitting under a pine tree. She wears a fuzzy cardigan sweater, a crisp white shirt and capri pants. A leather-bound notebook is on her lap, and her felt pen hovers over the page as she gathers her thoughts.

Despite his sunglasses, Lucy can tell Thomas is staring.

The girl looks past them to the crowd on the football field, where students are filling the bleachers in preparation for the upcoming speeches. The silent march has ended here, just around the corner from Robertson Hall.

"I have to talk to her," he says.

"You can't. You're incognito, remember."

He slips off his sunglasses. "Don't do it," she says. "Chrissakes, Tom, you don't need to." He'll make things worse. Their friends might see him and think he's comforting a survivor. "That's just like Thomas," they'll say, and, though her face will burn, she won't blurt out the truth.

He walks away and she watches him interrupt the girl, whose name, she recalls from the newspaper, is Myuko. Myuko looks up, puzzled, and then smiles and with two fingers pantomimes scissors across her bangs. Thomas sits on the grass. Lucy watches them talk. He has his demons to grapple with, she tells herself. They don't involve her. She is a bystander. A grey stick figure on a diagram. Yet when Bugaboo pulls on the leash, draws her toward that pine tree, she doesn't resist.

Bugaboo scampers to Thomas and noses him in the ear. "A dog in go-go boots," Myuko says. She has a fleshy mole on her upper lip and faint eyebrows like a pair of smudged thumbprints. Thomas introduces Lucy and the dog. Lucy sits on the damp yellowing grass, and the three of them pretend to be absorbed by Bugaboo gnawing a pine cone until Myuko mentions Cynthia, their classmate who's still in the hospital. "Have you been to see her?" Myuko asks Thomas. Lucy begins to say Thomas was out of town all week, but he cuts her off.

"I'll go tomorrow."

The newspaper said Myuko escaped with a flesh wound, and Lucy wonders where underneath the girl's clothing that wound is. She stares. When Myuko catches her eye, she quickly looks away. She glances at the columns of Japanese characters filling the pages of Myuko's notebook.

"Are you keeping a diary?" Lucy asks.

"Very healing." Myuko pats the pages. "You keep one?"

"Lucy keeps scrapbooks," Thomas says.

"Mementoes, keepsakes, that kind of thing," Lucy says. She attempted a diary in high school, but found her entries never captured the intricacy of her feelings. Her words simply toddled across the page like a string of daycare tots, infantile and uncoordinated. In contrast, the objects in her scrapbooks conjure up a spectrum of emotions and memories.

Thomas peers at Myuko's notebook. "I wish I could write like that."

"Maybe you can study Japanese," Lucy says, "after you've learned German." Thomas blinks fast, won't look at her, and she regrets her jab.

Myuko turns to a blank page in her diary and draws a large Japanese character, a blend of sabrelike dashes and strokes in black ink. She rips the page out and lays it on the grass between them.

"What does it mean?" Thomas asks.

"Hyo," Myuko says. "That means 'big cat.' The closest kanji to 'cheetah.'"

"You know Thomas' nickname?" Lucy says.

"Der Gepard," Myuko says. "And he knows mine."

"Die Sonnenblume," Thomas says. "The sunflower." He explains that Heidi, their professor, had them choose German nicknames.

"Heidi was crazy lady," Myuko adds. "She said language is a virus from outer space." Myuko and Thomas look at each other and their eyes well up. "Poor Heidi," Myuko whispers. She presses her palms into her eyes. "Poor Glocke and Taube and ... and ..."

"Hündin und Giraffe und Apfelsine," Thomas finishes.

He leans into Myuko till the two of them are hugging, faces tucked into shoulders. Silent. Lucy puts one hand on Thomas' back, the other gingerly on Myuko's back. She feels the heaving of their breath. She feels the heaving of her own. She glances down. On the grass, between the three of them, lies the big cat. Lucy tries to make out a cheetah in the random lines and dashes, but the character could be anything. An elephant, a tulip. Or something less easy to define. Rage, love, shame, forgiveness. Any of these things.

Or all of them at once.