Excerpt from Honour Among Men...
November 2 1992, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. Today I finally did it. Put my name in for a peacekeeping tour overseas. Danny's been bugging me for weeks to volunteer so we could go together. Do our part for peace and see the world. Easy for him to say. For him, our reserve unit is the most exciting thing in his life, but for me it's mainly just been a way of making money to pay for college.
'There's more to the world than sheep farms,' says Danny. 'You never even been outside of Antigonish County!' Which is unfair. I went over to Prince Edward Island only last month to check out their vet school. Dad's not happy, but I don't want to end up like him, working fifteen-hour days in the barns and up to his eyeballs in manure and debt.
Anyway it's the animals I like. The new lambs you help into the world, the old dog at your side no matter what. But the cost of vet school blew me away. Even if I get in - and that's a big if - I'd be up to my own eyeballs in debt before I'm through. That was what did it. I looked at the sign-up forms, did the math, and figured by the end of the six month tour, I'd have enough money to pay for vet school and maybe even marry Kit at the end of it. And Dad's proud of me that I'm going off to work for peace.
Kit is another story. Tryouts are in less than a month. There are probably thousands of reservists trying to get in, so my chances are slim, but if I pass the screening, I ship out right after New Years. Kit and I can barely stand to be apart for a day, how can I tell her I'll be gone six months? What can I tell her? Wait for me? Write to me every day? What's six months in the big picture of our lives?
* * *
Daylight leaked through the jagged rip in the blind and lit the dust in the tiny room. As it worked its way behind Patti's closed eyelids, she cursed and rolled over to face the wall. The bed springs shrieked and her ratty quilt fell off.
She yanked it back around her, shivering. The goddamn sun was getting up earlier now, but it sure as hell wasn't bringing any warmth with it. The April wind swept across the top of Citadel Hill and down Gottingen Street to rattle the solitary window of her third floor walk-up. It whistled through the cracks in the aging clapboard and swept down the chimney of the useless fireplace. The landlord was on such an economy drive with the heat that even the cockroaches had moved out.
April 9th, 2006. Patti felt a wave of despair. It sapped the strength from her limbs and the breath from her lungs. Ten years. Ten years today. And look what she was reduced to. No fucking pension, no little house and curly-haired kid, no respect or sympathy. A throw-away.
Bitterness rose up on cue, in the familiar dance of feelings that had kept her company these ten lonely years. Sure, she had her job, with its endless days of breathing dry-cleaning fumes and taking crap from bitchy housewives for stains that wouldn't come out. She had the happy hour gang at the Seaman's Watch on Friday nights. But it wasn't supposed to be like this.
After Danny died, she'd thought things would eventually get better. She'd loved him, but face it, he hadn't been the easiest guy to get along with at the end, and she'd assumed someone new would come along. She'd expected Danny's friends to rally around her, help her out, start a fund or something, and then maybe one of them would even step up to the plate.
But the truth was Danny didn't have any friends. Not by the end. Drinking buddies was all, and she'd learned what they were worth. 'Didn't see nothing, didn't hear nothing', never knew a thing that went on. They'd melted into the woodwork, leaving her to sort out the whole mess of his life by herself. Even his family had come and gone from town so fast that she'd barely learned their names. They'd brought with them a photo of Danny for the wake. Dressed in his reserves uniform all ready for parade, with his hat on square, his eyes set straight ahead and just the tiniest smile on his playful lips.
Looking nothing like the Danny he'd become.
She'd wanted to feel a connection with them, to find a hint of Danny in them, but they were strangers. And after the funeral they went back to Cape Breton, sad but resigned. Like they'd lost Danny years ago.
"What about all his things?" Patti had asked on the morning after the wake, as they all slumped over coffee in the Tim Hortons on the way out of town.
His mother was a stick of a woman with basset eyes and ropes of muscle along her arms. Her eyes drooped further. "Is there much?"
Patti shook her head. Judging from the way Danny borrowed off her in the last three months, he hadn't a penny to his name. When he got laid off for the winter, he hadn't even bothered looking for another job.
"Then you keep it, dear. I'm sure Danny would have wanted you to have it."
Danny didn't expect to die, she'd wanted to snap back, but she held her tongue. They were all in shock, all bumping around blindly in the dark.
Truth was, there wasn't much worth having in his little basement apartment off the harbour. He'd never invited her there, because he said it smelled of fish, so she was surprised by how neat it was. Danny's last few months had been a mess, but his shoes and clothes were all lined up, his old enamel sink spit-polished and his blanket stretched tight across his bed. Once a soldier, always a soldier. She'd buried her face in his jacket, inhaling his scent of sweat and lemon spice aftershave. Neatly stowed under his bed she found a kit bag full of books, souvenirs, and letters from herself and his mother, all upbeat and cheerful with news from home. There were photos of himself with his company overseas, soldiers grinning ear to ear with their guns and their makeshift bunks.
For hours she'd sat on his bed, poring over the photos and letters, reading back in time to a Danny she barely remembered. Young, naive, cocky, setting out on his first grand adventure. Then she'd packed up the bag and brought everything back to her own place, thinking she'd send it on to his family some day, when she could put all this behind her.
But now, hugging the quilt around her to fend off the cold and the ache inside, she realized that time had never come. Instead, she'd been stuck in limbo, waiting for answers. For justice. Maybe even for a chance at revenge. But against what? Against the big, faceless public bureaucracy that had robbed Danny of his life? Or against an enemy much more specific. With a face, surely a name...
Something thumped against the front door at the bottom of the stairs. A dog barked. She rolled over, opened one eye, and squinted at the clock. Seven-twenty. The kid from down the street had just delivered the Halifax Sunday Herald, and if she didn't hurry, the asshole from downstairs would steal it so he could read the comics. It was her one pleasure on a Sunday morning, when she didn't have to rush to work. When she could brew a proper cup of tea, snuggle up in bed, and check her weekly horoscope to see if her luck had changed.
She pulled Danny's old jacket over her pyjamas for the trip down the chilly staircase to the front door. The door on the landing opposite was just opening when she snatched up the paper. The door slammed in her wake as she dashed back upstairs.
The headlines were the usual crap. Another suicide bombing in the Middle East, another refugee crisis in Africa, more hype from Ottawa about still another useless election campaign. She tossed the paper down on the table in disgust. Why should anyone even bother to vote? The world was going to shit, and there wasn't a fucking thing the little guy could do about it. Danny was right about that.
She made her tea, opened her package of half-priced cinnamon buns, and paged through the paper in search of her horoscope. She didn't know why she bothered. It was all lies too. Lies and contradictions. Yet for one brief moment, facing a brand new day, sometimes it gave her hope.
A moment later she stopped, her eyes rivetted to page 10. She read, reread, until deep inside a flicker of triumph began to grow. Maybe this time her luck was about to change, she thought as she shoved aside the paper and headed for her closet.
Peace at last. It was past midnight when Twiggy squeezed her bulk through the gap in the bushes and lumbered down the slope towards the darkened gully, guided more by feel than by sight. Three days' worth of old newspapers were tucked under one pudgy arm and a battered garbage bag dragged along behind her. She held her bottle tight in her hand, but most of the rum was already singing through her veins. The soggy ground was slippery, but at least the ice had melted, and below her she saw the black water glisten as it drifted slowly towards the old pump house.
Twiggy felt laughter bubble up inside her. April was her favourite time of year, when the squirrels and the leaf buds began to appear again. When the sun warmed the frozen ground and beat down on her secret hideout. After six years on the streets of Ottawa, she knew all the best spots -- the ledges under the bridges, the back doors and vents of the indoor parking garages, the window wells of old office buildings. And best of all, this hidden sliver of trees and water running through the city core almost within sight of Parliament Hill. Cars whizzed by on the roads up above, but only a few regulars knew the old aqueduct existed beneath the canopy of trees, and Twiggy hoped it would stay that way.
She'd had enough of her fellow man after a winter of stinky, crowded shelters, noisy drunks, paranoid psychos and ridiculous rules. She'd been waiting all month for the moment when she could finally return to her cubbyhole near the water's edge, spread out her belongings in the shelter of the graffiti wall and settle in for the summer. Her living room, she called it, complete with wall paintings from the most renowned street artists.
During the summer months she had her regular panhandling spot next to Tim Hortons on Bank Street, just a few blocks away. She had a special deal going with the day manager, who gave her doughnuts and a stack of old newspapers at the end of each day in return for her being polite and respectful to his customers, and not crowding the door. He said he'd rather have a friendly, middle-aged woman sitting quietly against the wall than a surly, in-your-face punk with piercings and tattoos all over the place. She usually made a pretty good haul during the tourist season.
Earlier that evening she'd got a full meal at the Shepherds of Good Hope before linking up with a couple of friends to pool their take and party a little. She'd even had a little snooze in the side doorway of a hotel before some security guard kicked her out. So she was really groggy when she finally stumbled down the ravine toward her favourite sheltered spot near the water. The moon was high and the pale gray trees swayed in her vision. Above the gurgle of the water, there was no sound. No giggles of stoned teenagers, no grunts of hurried sex or wails of homesick drunks.
Twiggy wavered dreamily along the muddy bank until her foot hit something solid, pitching her forward onto her face. Her fingers encountered hair. Masses of long, tangled curls and cool, doughy flesh. She jerked back in panic, groped the length of the body, feeling high boots and denim stretched tight over a boney ass.
Some little whore had passed out cold, right in the middle of the path.
"Lucky the little bitch didn't fall in," Twiggy muttered, staggering to her hands and knees. She thought about dragging the girl farther from the water, but in the end couldn't budge her. So she hauled her garbage bag up to the shelter of the wall, shoved the wad of newspapers under her and collapsed with a grunt to fall asleep.
The cold woke her just after dawn. Pale sunlight speckled the ravine, and the morning rush-hour was just revving up. Frost had settled onto the ground and her breath swirled white around her. She curled herself stiffly into a ball, trying to warm up as she gathered her rum-soaked thoughts.
Jesus, was her first thought. She'd jumped the gun. It was still too fucking cold to be sleeping outdoors. Tonight she'd have to grit her teeth and go back to the woman's shelter. No one in their right mind was out here this early in the spring. No one except...
A vague recollection fluttered down, like a forgotten leaf from a barren tree. She rolled over and lifted her head to peer at the body by the water. Saw in the daylight that the woman was still there. Blonde and long-legged, but scrawny as a chicken and wearing a man's old jacket. She was curled on her side with one hand flung out and her face tilted towards the sky. A fine layer of frost had settled on her cheeks and eyelashes, and not even the faintest puff of white mist drifted between her parted lips.