Fifteen More Minutes
Honourably mentioned in the QWF/CBC short story competition
You grow up in a house so battered and old it leans on an invisible cane. When the wind blows hard from the east it snows paint flakes in the west. You grow up in this house with only a vague memory of a mother and with a father whose devotion to efficiency is his defining characteristic. He wakes at 5:20 a.m., shaves as 5:22 and showers at 5:26 under the copper pipe that pokes out of the bathroom wall. At 5:30 he makes tea and toast and calls upstairs to you.
“Fifteen more minutes.”
The syllables are sharp like keys falling in a typewriter.
Your father leaves a 5:45 to drive to the plant where his title of junior engineer is out of step with his fifty-seven years; where younger men with higher degrees from better universities give orders to which he must answer “yes, sir.”
“Fifteen minutes,” he dictates to you.
You live too far from the school so there’s no bus for you; no cheery yellow paint or pop-up stop sign flashing protectively. Fifteen minutes after 5:30 a.m. you pull yourself up into the cab of your father’s truck with the book-bag you packed and the lunch you made yourself the night before. Your own lunch is your own responsibility, your father says, no matter that you’re only eleven. You write down the ingredients on the shopping list on the fridge and your father buys them at the store. This is the system. If you forget to write them down there’s no lunch for you, just like if you dawdle too much in the morning you miss your ride to school. “In this life, you’ve got to be organized, Caroline” you father often says in the truck, staring at the road straight ahead.
Efficiency is currency for love between you two. Get in the car at 5:47 after the two warning honks spaced 60 seconds apart and you’ll get the heavy sigh. Once, you were so fast that you got in the truck at 5:43 even before he did. He tousled your hair that day.
Your father drops you off at 6:15 and school doesn’t start until 9:00 but you have a secret. The back door to the library doesn’t lock properly and if you jiggle it just right you can get in and then you can read anything you want. Your favourite spot is by the cardboard castle in the kid’s section even though you’re not a kid any more. The bricks are all painted in silver and the round towers on the sides are called “turrets”. You read about it in a book.
Mrs. Findley, the catechism teacher at school, says that God knows everything you do even if no one else does. If you lie, even if no one else knows it’s a lie, God knows and it’s wrong and you’ll go to hell and you’ll burn for eternity. But the library isn’t really a lie. You’re just borrowing it for a little while. This is what you tell yourself. But it must be a lie because one day you wake to God’s wrath.
In the bathroom, you’re bleeding. Down there. There’s blood on the toilet paper. Your stomach hurts suddenly all at once. Your eyeballs get really hot and you start to cry. You know that only babies are allowed to cry and you’re not a baby; it’s just that you don’t want to die yet even if you don’t understand what that means.
“Fifteen more minutes”, your dad calls upstairs.
You swallow hard and squish your palms together to pray like Mrs. Findley taught the class and you make a deal with God. You’ll never go to the library again. Ever. Just, please, you want the bleeding to stop. You squeeze your eyes shut to send the message on up but when you wipe again the blood is still there. “Ten minutes”, your dad calls upstairs, impatiently, and you can hear in his voice that he loves you less than he did five minutes ago. The tears are getting into your mouth and your nose is running. You don’t know what God wants. You think of every offence you can and promise against them: you’ll clean your room every day, you’ll never forget the grocery list, you won’t say the d-word even if you’re really, really mad… You take a long sheet of toilet paper and stuff it up inside, then say an Our Father. But when you take it out all you see is evil. Oh God oh God oh God oh God oh God…
You press your hot face against the cold tiles of the bathroom wall and wait for the end to come. Outside the engine starts, gravel crunches and then all sound fades away.
You’re a bad person. This much you know. The proof is soaking through the 2-ply.