by Madeline Ewanyshyn
One of Toby Almond’s hands shook as he knocked on Walter’s front door, the other one held tightly to his speargun.
“Hiya,” Walter swung open the door and eyed his friend, offering no invitation to warm up inside. He was wearing his Montreal Canadiens sweater- one he had borrowed years ago from Toby’s oldest brother.
Toby shoved out his arm, displaying the gun. “I thought we could trade. Don’t play with it any more.”
“Woah,” Walter reached out to take the long, wooden weapon. “This the one your dad made? I recognize this,” he thumbed against the grain of the wood, where a small almond-shape had been carved.
“Yeah. Whaddya got for me?” Toby adjusted his toque, which never quite fit over his defiant curls. Walter held up a finger, and left Toby shivering in the doorway. Walter’s house was much different than Toby’s. It was smaller and modern, with slanted ceilings and hip furniture his parents had ordered from Sears catalogues and driven into Kamloops to get. Toby had only been inside once, awkwardly sipping grape Kool-aid as Walter’s parents debated whether he was allowed to go out and play. His parents had rules that way.
There was a clatter as Walter returned to the door, lifting up a bucket full to the brim with Wagon Wheels. “I was gonna make you some jam and cheeses too, but I guess you gotta go.”
“No,” Toby said, “I don’t gotta go. I came to tell you that the river’s freezing up. Pretty soon the whole island’s gonna be froze. Then we can play hockey.”
Walter was silent, handing Toby the bucket. Toby opened up a Wagon Wheel, slowly peeling out his prize and holding it in his hands like something precious.
“How come you haven’t been at school?” Walter leaned against the door, bumping his head against the knocker.
“I go sometimes,” Toby shrugged, “Only the teachers don’t really care if I show up or not. Y’know because they feel sorry for me, I guess.” He stuffed the marshmallow and chocolate cookie into his mouth.
“My dad wouldn’t let me miss a day, even if I was sick. You’re lucky,” Walter said.
Toby continued to chew, bits of marshmallow jamming his gums shut.
“I mean,” Walter blushed, “not lucky, but y’know...” he paused, “I guess I should tell you that I’m not really supposed to see you or your family anymore.”
Toby swallowed. “How come?”
Walter kicked at at a pile of stucco that had crumbled off the door frame.“Just…my parents have been saying some stuff. ”
“It’s probably nothing. We’re gonna measure the ice this afternoon. Maybe I’ll see you,” Toby said, trying not to squirm from embarrassment, shame, or the cold.
“It’s almost minus 15 outside, ya loon,” Walter gave his friend a shove and laughed, before closing his door.
Now that the water was beginning to freeze around the riverbed, Toby decided to walk home through town. It took longer than rambling alongside the current, but his big sister Cheryl had warned him about slipping and falling. It wasn’t like he listened to Cheryl all the time, though sometimes he thought it would be a good idea, for her sake. Toby had five siblings- June, Lois and Scott, Craig, and Cheryl. Cheryl was only twenty-one years old, but she was in charge.
“She’s kinda like your mom now,” Walter had said one afternoon, over a session of trading hockey cards. “Nah,” Toby said, shutting down the discussion. His mother was gone now. Besides, Cheryl wasn’t anything like her. She worried aloud, anxious with the sudden responsibilities handed to her. She made an annoying tutting sound when she was unsure what to do about all the problems Toby and his siblings seemed to cause. Hunger strikes, messy clothes, disappointing attendance records or report cards, or the trouble his sister June had found herself in.
Toby figured that was some of the stuff Walter’s parents could be gossiping about. His dad was with the RCMP. His mom packed Walter big lunches and cut his crusts off.
Toby trudged through the mix of frozen mud and snowy sludge as he reached the bridge which separated his family from the rest of the town. They lived in a small village with just over 1500 people. Most of them lived on one side, where the lake glistened and drew tourists in during the summer. On the other side of the bridge, where the lake wound into the South Thompson River, was where the Almonds lived.
Toby stopped walking mid-way across the bridge, clutched the cold metal railing and leaned forward so that he could peer down at the water. The rivermouth was cracked with veins of ice, like a broken mirror. Toby made a fish face, mustering all the saliva in his mouth. To summon more, he pictured the apple pies his mother used to make. The kind Cheryl tried to replicate. He spat as hard as he could, watching it land down with the tiniest splatter as it hit the water. Satisfied, he moved on.
Toby walked around the back of his house, where the rusted old pickup truck had sat since before he was born. His dad’s car was also parked on the lawn- they had no driveway. It was a 1959 Chevrolet Biscayne in a beautiful plum colour. Toby’s dad had loved it more than anything else. He took that car out, driving up north for weeks, sometimes months at a time.
He’d set up a carpentry shop and work until he felt like it was time to come home. Toby figured they all loved their dad more when he was gone. Now that he was gone for good, they loved him the most.
Toby walked up the steps to the back door, and let himself into the kitchen. He announced himself by slamming the door shut.
“River’s frozen!” He called, hoping his voice would reach every room. The wood stove was sputtering; the fire stifled to little bits of flickering light among the coals. The firewood bin was empty. Toby opened the cupboards, looking for something worth snacking on. He pulled down a box of Hamburger Helper and green Jello. He thought better of it and put them back. He wasn’t starving or anything.
He continued on to the living room. Instead of a couch, they had a plaid orange futon which faced the big bay window looking out at the veranda and down at the river. Their mother had always said that watching the real world was more important than watching TV. But Dad had set up a TV in the basement so they could watch hockey games. Mostly they got crap TV, so sometimes they’d all pool their money and hitchhike to Kamloops to catch a movie at a theatre. Theatre sometimes played episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which the Almonds loved.
June was sitting on the couch, staring at the river, or perhaps across the way at the mountains the highway ran against. Most likely, as was often the case with June, she was staring off into her own world.
“You’re right,” June said in her soft voice, “the river is freezing up. Well, just the island. I heard rivers can’t freeze, not really.”
The island was what the Almonds called the sandbar that reached out from down the riverbank. It was a buildup of sediment from over the years, like their own private delta. In winter it froze, along with the stiller, shallower water. The back eddy had a layer of delicate ice, but if you were to stand on it, sure enough you’d fall right in.
“Yeah well,” Toby walked over to the shelf where they kept their records, running his thumb along the spines. “Probably a river could freeze. But not ours.”
“How come?” June asked, turning around to face her brother. She could still fit all her normal clothes because she dressed in such oversized, draping ponchos and dresses. But even in all her layers, Toby could see that she was seven months pregnant.
“Because,” Toby tugged out a Leonard Cohen album. “Our river is special. It can’t be tamed like that.” June nodded and turned back to the window. Toby couldn’t talk like that with anyone else- not Walter or his other siblings. But June understood. She was fourteen- the closest sibling in age to Toby, and she believed in everything. Dad used to tease that she still believed in fairies.
Dad was more like them than he thought, Toby figured. He was intense where their Mother was calm; cool where she was warm. But there were days when he’d stare out that window, just like June did. He’d lose himself and forget what he was saying mid-sentence. Like he saw something out there. Toby figured when he died, he just went off to that place beyond the mountains. Maybe he finally found what he was looking for.
Toby put the record on the turntable and set the needle down, letting the song Winter Lady wash over the house. He loved the crackles the record made as it spun. Toby’s brother Craig had made the stylus himself. Dad wasn’t going to replace it when the needle snapped, scratching their Joni Mitchell album. “I’m not going to spend good money on that,” he told their mother, “if the kids really want it, they’ll make it happen.”
Toby ran upstairs. He walked to the room at the end of the hallway and knocked three times. He heard giggling and whispers and a thump. Frowning, he raised his fist to knock again, but lowered it. The door opened, and out stepped Cheryl’s boyfriend Brad.
“Hey Colonel,” Brad ruffled Toby’s hair until his toque fell off. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. His salmon-coloured bell-bottoms were much too tight. Toby rolled his eyes.
“Cherry and I will be down in a minute. Mind giving us a little space?” Brad winked. Toby wondered if Brad had forgotten how old Toby was. His sister was supposed to be helping him with his homework or making him eat his vegetables, not giggling behind the door as she threw on a robe.
“Whatever,” Toby said, turning away from the door, “Just meet me by the river.”
Brad pulled the measuring tape up from the hole he’d chiseled into the ice. “Three inches,” he estimated. “Maybe four.”
“There’s only one way to know for sure,” A voice came from behind Toby, and he turned around to see Walter. A feeling of relief washed over him. He ran over to greet his friend and they began to jump up and down, their boots thwacking against the ice.
“Yup,” Toby called out between laboured breaths, “it’s stable!”
“Alright then, Colonel,” Brad saluted the boys, “I’ll go inform the troops, and we’ll set up a game before supper. It’s fucking cold out. Better watch yourselves, because your asses are gonna be on the ice tonight!”
“What if we’re on the same team?” Toby asked, but Brad was already walking away, chuckling to himself. Walter and Toby sat down on the ice, cross-legged. They ate the jam and cheese sandwiches Walter had brought. The jam was tart, and slightly crystallized from the cold air.
“I brought you something else,” Walter patted the messenger bag slung across his shoulder. It wasn’t army surplus. His dad had never fought in a war like Toby’s dad. Toby wore his army fatigues every day. Even under his parka.
“GI Joes? Skin mags? Dope?” Toby crumpled up his sandwich wrap and tossed it at his friend.
“No. I just figured I ripped you off. Giving you wagon wheels for your speargun,” Walter unzipped his bag and pulled out a long wooden rifle. He passed it to Toby.
“22 caliber. My dad won’t miss it,” Walter said.
“For keeps?” Toby gulped. He ran his hand along it, petting it like an animal.
“Nah. Probably should bring it back sometime. Thought we could shoot at some ducks or something,” Walter said.
“No ducks around, stupid,” Toby sighed. He lay down against the ice, staring up at the sky. It had darkened in the late afternoon, but the light was still harsh. It didn’t really seem like day or night, more a strange space in between.
“Your family’s kinda weird,” Walter said suddenly. “There’s just so many of you. And no parents. How does that work?”
“Doesn’t really matter. We fit,” Toby shrugged. He sat up and struggled to pull his glove back on. They were the same ones he’d had nearly five years ago.
It wasn’t as though before there were all these rules. The Almonds had never lived life like Walter’s family, or any of the other kids at school. Dad was gone a lot of the time. When he was around he’d make up arbitrary rules or temporary chores, but contradict himself or forget what he’d said. The kids learned not to question him on this, lest he get frustrated.
To show them he loved them, their Dad used to roar like a bear and toss them across his back in a fierce, sudden piggy-back. He could be playful when he was present.
Their mother, on the other hand, would bake pies and leave them cooling in the kitchen window so that the Almonds could smell them as they came home from school. She’d let them play outdoors all day, and never interfere except to bring down glasses of lemonade. She never insisted on extra padding during hockey games, or extra layers during the winter. She let the kids figure that out on their own. If they came home with battered bodies or chattering teeth, she’d sit them by the wood stove or make them a bowl of soup. She’d give them a knowing look, which would at once make Toby feel ashamed and sheepish in a way that he knew that he wouldn’t get in any trouble.
They didn’t have much money, but they were always okay. Their mother worked evenings at a bakery across town. For Christmas, Mother and Dad would stay up late at night making toys like little elves. Toby caught them once. Little wooden sailboats and dolls with clothes Mother stitched from leftover curtain fabric. Toby knew it was special. He was never jealous of any of the new toys kids at school had.
Things were different now.
“C’mon,” Toby said, “let’s go play with that gun.”
Snow was beginning to fall, building up each minute, but not too strong yet. Toby and Walter stood up, spinning around and catching snowflakes on their tongues. Walter scooped up the gun and squinted, pretending to aim for something that wasn’t there. “Bang! Bang!” he yelled. If any ducks were around, they would have scattered by now.
“Let’s see if we can shoot across the river,” Walter suggested, “I bet we can get that tree right there,” he pointed at a fir tree. “And nobody’s around so we don’t gotta worry about hurting anyone or anything.”
“Okay,” Toby said, feeling a little cautious.
Walter squinted again, lunging his leg forward a little in a ridiculous pose. “Wait,” Toby said, “there’s snow on the barrel.”
“So won’t it like...explode or something?” Toby said.
Walter lowered the gun and examined it. “Dunno. Maybe,” he sounded uncertain of which outcome he wanted.
“Here,” Toby took off his ill-fitting glove and placed his fist around the barrel, “I’ll warm it up.”
They both laughed as they blew air onto the gun, hoping to thaw the possibility of an explosion. The door to the house slammed shut, and the boys looked up at the veranda to see Toby’s brother Scott rummaging through the wicker chairs and side tables. He pushed aside cushions and kneeled down to look under the table legs. He was probably searching for one of his many dog-eared paperbacks that he left in his various reading places. Kerouac, Hermann Hesse. Margaret Atwood, too.
“What’s he looking for?” Walter asked. He was beginning to shake from the cold; Toby could feel it through the gun.
“He’s just…” Toby trailed off, noticing Scott head toward a Harlequin paperback resting on the porch railing. It had a cracked spine and pages with forest-green edges. The cover featured a blonde woman staring intensely into the distance. Toby knew this because that book had sat there, undisturbed since before their mother died. He always wondered if she’d gotten to the good part yet.
Toby watched Scott look down at the book and take a moment to realize it wasn’t his.
He reached out to touch it, but pulled his hand back as if it might burn him.
Toby turned back to his friend, squeezing the barrel as tightly as he could, to get a better grip. “Why don’t your parents want you hanging out with me?” he asked.
Instead of a reply, Toby found himself deafened by a sound. First, there was a click. Then a loud bang. His ears grew warm and his hearing was muffled. There was a ringing. He held his hand out in front of him. It was warm too, stinging with fresh blood and torn flesh. The spot just between his pinky and his ring finger has been grazed by the bullet. Toby sat down on the ice. Walter had put down the gun, and placed a hand on his shoulder. He was saying something. Fumbling over an apology.
“It’s fine,” Toby brushed off his friend, pulling away from him abruptly. He stowed his hand in his pocket, clenching his teeth to hold back a wince. “You should just get out of here. Before the snow picks up.”
“Tobes, I’m sorry,” Walter’s eyes were permanently wide, his nostrils flared. Toby’s mother would have warned him that his face might freeze that way. Toby began to walk back to the house, leaving Walter alone. He didn’t look back, only down at the droplets of blood staining the ice. He wondered if anyone had even heard the sound. Were their ears still ringing? Or did his family carry on without him, planning a hockey game and pretending everything was the same.
Madeline Ewanyshyn a fourth year Creative Writing major at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and an emerging writer. She was published in "The Liar" literary magazine in 2016 and her short story is forthcoming in "Pulp" magazine this Spring. Madeline works with fiction and creative-nonfiction. This piece is an excerpt from an unpublished novel she is currently writing entitled “The Death of an Almond”. It is semi-biographical and based on her father’s childhood, but with a fictional twist.