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A Beautiful Fable

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Emily had always loved Wilby, even though she'd never really believed in it. She knew it was a real place, of course, the same way that Mark Twain's Mississippi River was a real place, the same way that Jack London's Alaska was a real place. But she'd never believed in the Wilby that existed in her mother's memory, the Wilby where Mary MacKenzie had set a record for knitting the world's longest scarf, and old Eddie Havscomb had kept a pet moose, and little Walter MacDonald had climbed the water tower to rescue a stranded pelican.

Her mother talked about Wilby constantly, and always talked about going back, but it was the reasons why they couldn't, instead of why they should. Her mother had said, 'one day we'll move to Wilby,' the same way that other people said, 'one day I'll win the lottery;' the words were emptied by improbability, left dry by lack of true intention. The closest they'd ever gotten had been Edmonton, but their overnight stop had turned into ten months, and Emily had realized that somewhere along the way she'd stopped believing in her mother, too.

She didn't start believing again until the ferry was moving under her feet and Wilby Island, that charcoal-black smudge on the other side of the flat gray sea, resolved out of the morning fog. The rough textures became rock and the jagged edges turned into trees, and suddenly there was an island where before there had been nothing real.

Emily had stopped believing in Wilby and her mother both, but she'd never stopped loving either one.

The ferry inched its way toward the island's dock, and the fog along the shoreline was so thick that it was almost rain; Emily could feel it wetting her face, could taste the coastline on her tongue. Emily clutched at the railing and leaned out so she could watch the ocean eddy slow and silver around the ferry's hull.

"You're going to love Wilby," her mother said, and squeezed Emily's hand, trapping little drops of the sea between their fingers. "We can make a whole new start here."

Emily, skimming just above the sea, drifting dream-like toward a beautiful fable, was almost fool enough to believe it.

+++

Her mother's hand still smelled salty, like ocean and sweat, but her fingers were dry against Emily's face and the flesh of her palm was warm.

"Okay," Sandra said. "Are you ready?" There was the sound of a car moving slowly by, and even this far inland -- well, it seemed pretty far inland, though Emily was a little disoriented after being led two blocks with her mother's hand clapped tight over her eyes -- Emily could hear the sea.

"Yes, mom," Emily said. She reached up to tug her mother's hand away, but Sandra was already dropping it, chucking Emily's cheek with her knuckles on the way down.

Emily wanted to sound encouraging -- God knew her mother needed all the encouragement she could get just to get out of bed in the morning sometimes -- but when she said, "This is it?" the words came out uglier than she meant them to, with a disappointed downward twist.

The diner really wasn't much to look at, though. The dirty, faded sign above the single window said Iggy's Diner and Where the sweet meet to eat in a combination of red and green that made Emily think of cheap Christmas decorations. There was a new coat of crisp green paint on the door and around the window trim, but the awning was corrugated metal and the storefront made the place look more like a worn-out warehouse than a restaurant. It wasn't exactly the Iggy's she'd imagined.

"It's a little rough," Sandra said, and there was something underneath the words that Emily couldn't put a name to, something that made her mother sound tired before they'd even begun. "But we'll get it fixed up. A coat of paint, a little varnish, we'll get the kitchen open--"

"Wait, the kitchen isn't ready?" Emily said, but her mother was already towing her across the street with a hand under her elbow, pulling her toward the door. "Does it even have an oven?"

"It'll be great," Sandra said, ignoring the question entirely. "You'll see." She pushed the door open -- a bell over their heads jingled to announce their presence -- and pushed Emily inside.

The interior was nicer, at least: the walls were a nice sandy brown, and the black countertop of the coffee bar was gleaming-clean. The place smelled strongly of fresh paint and orange-scented cleaner.

"Okay," Emily said, nodding slowly and trying not to smile. "This is definitely better."

Sandra tried not to smile too, but wasn't very successful. The smile broke out in short order, followed quickly by an excited little squeal that was more appropriate for somebody Emily's age than somebody Sandra's age. Age-appropriate behaviour had never been her mother's strongest point, anyway.

From the next room -- the kitchen, presumably -- there was an answering sound, an almost-echo of disturbingly pre-pubescent excitement. Then someone tall and not-quite-blond came scurrying out, tottering and shuffling in a too-tight skirt and too-tall heels, and rushed straight for Sandra like an agitated beaver. (Emily had never really seen an agitated beaver, but she imagined that if beavers got agitated, they'd look a lot like this. Except maybe without the bad highlighting job and the bright red lipstick.)

"Oh my God!" Sandra and the woman both said at the same time, in the same tone. They threw their arms around each other and hugged, in that careful way that women did when trying not to smudge their make-up against the other woman's shoulder.

"Deena, this is Emily. Em, this is Deena," Sandra said -- with a flourish of her hands like a TV presenter on home shopping -- once they'd pulled themselves apart and finished complimenting each other's hair.

"Hi," Emily said, and had no time to prepare herself before she was offered the same treatment as her mother, and found herself smothered by Deena's ample bosom.

Deena's perfume was kind of cinnamony, though, and when she squeezed Emily extra hard and whispered, "Oh honey, I'm so glad you're here," into Emily's ear, it sounded like honest, heartfelt truth.

Not that Emily had ever really heard anything like that before.

"So, what do you think?" Deena said, setting Emily free and turning instead to fling her arms wide and gesture expansively toward the diner's interior.

"Oh, Deena," Sandra said, and let her fingers skim over the back of one of the booths. The seats looked recently reupholstered and the tabletops looked new. "You didn't have to go to all this trouble. And you can't have done this with just the money I sent; it wasn't enough for all this."

Deena's smile got wider. "Well, I worked my usual magic," she said, "and got you some really good deals. My boss, Carol? She's in real estate, so all day I'm dealing with contractors and construction workers, you know, they're calling in about this and that on whatever house that's going onto the market. So I chatted some of them up, got you a few discount rates."

"This is just too much," Sandra said, in that tone she had that said she'd expected people to go the extra mile for her but had still figured on being disappointed.

"Don't forget you've still got friends on this island," Deena said, and shook a finger in mock admonishment. "I did all the cleaning myself, and Duck refused to let me pay him for any of the painting in here, much less--"

"Duck?" Sandra said, and brightened considerably, all her white teeth showing and those little happy crinkle-lines appearing at the corners of her eyes. "Duck's back in Wilby? I thought he'd disappeared onto the mainland, never to be seen again."

"Back in Wilby?" Deena said, and she clasped her hands together in front of her like she could hardly hold back the good news. "Sweetie, he's in your kitchen."

When Sandra dashed toward the kitchen, Emily could feel somewhere in her gut that Sandra wasn't just running out of the room; it was as if her mother was running out the door, straight down to the docks, right back onto the ferry and across the sea.

It wasn't a stretch, anyway. They'd run farther than that before, to escape her mother's mistakes.

Emily didn't want to watch, didn't particularly want to see her mother tear down their new beginning before they'd even had a chance to build it up, but Deena dragged her along with an arm around Emily's shoulders. Trapped there in the kitchen doorway, watching her mother start to ruin everything, Emily tried to remember what it had felt like to be riding toward Wilby on the surface of the sea, and she tried not to remember it at the same time, because there was little use in holding on to things that wouldn't last.

Her mother was in the guy's lap -- which was moving kind of fast, even for Sandra -- and they were on the floor, limbs tangled together, Sandra's arms wrapped tight around the guy's -- Duck's -- neck, and Duck's arms around her back, and Sandra already squirming and arching her spine to present her boobs to their best advantage. She had Duck pinned against the side of the grill, a captive audience.

"Careful," Duck was saying, but he was smiling, his face half-shadowed by Sandra's hair. "My hands are all greasy." He held them carefully away from her body, but there was already a smear of something near the hem of her shirt, and it didn't help that Sandra was down there on the floor, which obviously was Duck's native environment.

He was grinning, and Sandra was grinning, and Duck had stains on his coveralls and scars on his workman's hands, like he'd spent a lot of time punching things. He was just her mother's type.

"What are you doing down here?" Sandra said, finally pulling away enough to look Duck in the eye, though she didn't make a move to let him up. She slapped the back of one hand softly against Duck's chest, just one of those gestures that people make with old friends, but she also lingered a little too long, ran her knuckles down across Duck's stomach much the same way she'd grazed them against Emily's cheek outside Iggy's a million years ago, before everything had started to fall apart right there on the kitchen floor.

"Ah," Duck said, and raised a hand to knock his knuckles against the grill that Sandra had trapped him against. "Trying to get your grill going. Some of the wiring's bad, and I'll have to replace the heating element. Parts have to be ordered in; it'll take awhile."

"Oh, that's fine," Sandra said, and seemed to be ignoring the way that Duck was wriggling a little, though whether he wanted to get away or was trying to restrain himself from getting closer, Emily couldn't tell. "We didn't expect to have the kitchen running right away, anyway. Lots of work to do. I hope your hourly isn't too expensive, because I have a feeling we're going to be calling on you a lot before we really get the place going."

Duck smiled, and shrugged with the shoulder that wasn't painfully wedged against the side of the slightly antique grill. "No worries," he said. "This one's on me."

Sandra smiled, sharp and wide -- clearly that had been the expected response -- and said, "Well, at least let me treat you to supper."

+++

Emily managed to survive supper mostly by staring at her salad and stirring it around and around with her fork, watching the little seeds in the salad dressing pass from one leaf to another as the salad grew progressively soggier. She responded to her mother's increasingly strained prompts about school and life in much the same way that she'd answered a million essay questions at a million different schools in a million different towns: with an economy of words, most of which said something but meant nothing.

Once the meal was over, and Duck was rising awkwardly from his seat to help clear dishes away, Emily made a break for it. She said something about fresh air and bolted for the door, though she only got as far as the porch before she stopped to lean on the railing instead of fleeing farther, like she'd done in Edmonton.

From here, there was ocean in all directions; there was nowhere left to run away to.

A few minutes later the door opened and Duck stepped out, hesitant, like he wasn't sure if she'd want the company. She didn't want it, but she couldn't say that to his face, so instead she just watched him from the corner of her eye as he retreated toward the edge of the porch, settling on the top step and lighting up a cigarette. The smoke drifted around the building and away, as if he'd planned it like that; she could barely even smell the sweet burning tobacco.

She waited for him to say something, sure that just a few more words of polite conversation would push her past some breaking point. But he didn't say anything, just sat silently and stared off down the road into the darkness, and exhaled smoke like he'd long since given up on breathing fire.

There was a lingering shadow of grease on his fingertips where he held the cigarette, where the blackness had worked its way down into the whorls in the skin, and his hair was ruffled and unkempt, and the toes of his boots were scuffed.

"I hate it here," Emily said, which wasn't what she meant at all.

Duck's head tilted in her direction, but he didn't really look at her. "Yeah," he said, after he'd pulled his cigarette away from his lips again. His words drifted out on a little eddy of smoke, tinted yellow by the porch light. "I used to hate it here, too."

He didn't tell her it would grow on her, or that she'd learn to like it, or that she'd understand it better when she got older, but Emily felt sure it was coming. She stood silent and waited for it, but it never came. Duck just sat and smoked and stared out at nothing -- maybe something she hadn't learned to see yet -- and left her alone.

Emily opened her mouth, but she wasn't quite sure what she wanted to say, so the words all stuck in her throat, What do you want with my mother? tangled with I hate you, and Get out of my house and don't ever come back, and What gives you the right? and a hundred other bitter, hurtful words she'd only ever thought, even with the hundred other men before him.

But the words that came out instead were, "My mom told me you climbed the water tower once. To rescue a pelican."

Duck chuckled, and it was a low sort of sound, a curl of warmth that licked right out of his lungs. He ducked his head and scrubbed at the short-shorn hair at the back of his scalp with a couple of fingers, using the others to hold the cigarette up away from his skin. His smile was white and wide and kind of nice, actually. After a few months with her mom, he'd probably stop using it.

"She told you about that, huh?" Duck said, and left his hand curled around the nape of his own neck for a long moment, two fingers curling into the muscle there. "Yeah, I climbed the water tower to rescue a pelican. I was... seven? I don't remember. Young."

"What happened?" Emily asked. "My mom always says you saved it. Did you catch it and carry it down?"

Duck laughed, took another long pull on his cigarette, and leaned back on the heels of his hands, letting his head fall back so he could stare up at the night sky. "The thing about pelicans," he said, "that you might not realize, if you're seven, is that they can fly."

Emily blinked at him, crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against the porch railing. "So, what, you climbed all the way up there and it just flew away? It didn't need rescuing at all?"

Duck shrugged, and kept staring out at nothing, but there was still a little smile on his lips. "Things happen that way sometimes," he said. "We make our lives harder than they need to be."

"My mom always said you rescued it," Emily repeated. She was scowling now, fiercely, clutching white-knuckled at her own elbows like she was trying to hold on to the foolish belief of a more innocent -- more gullible, anyway -- time. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised to hear her lie about anything, though."

Duck didn't frown, didn't tell her to respect her mother -- Tom Buckley in Vancouver had been like that, "respect your mother" this and "you mind your manners" that -- he just tilted his head to one side, considering. "Yeah, she used to say that," he said. "Because when I scared that pelican off, it flew away toward the mainland. She always said I'd saved that pelican by giving it the push it needed to leave Wilby. She used to hate it here, too."

"But all she's talked about is Wilby," Emily said. "As long as I can remember, she always talked about Wilby like it was... like it was Camelot or something. You know, legendary."

Duck stubbed out his cigarette and palmed the butt, cradling it in the center of his wide hand. "It's not that," Duck said. "But it's a pretty good place. Good place for pelicans, anyway."

Emily snorted, and watched Duck as he climbed to his feet. He looked a little stiff in his nice western shirt, like he wasn't used to wearing it, wasn't used to being the person who sat at a dinner table and made polite conversation. He shuffled his feet on the porch, like he wasn't sure if he wanted to go in and face Sandra again or fade away into the night.

Finally he said, "Hey, say goodnight to your mother for me, will you? I have the feeling she's pouring a nightcap, and I've got an early morning. I'll be by Iggy's in the afternoon to finish up on that grill." He edged away from the screen door and headed for the stairs, fumbling in his shirt pocket for another cigarette.

"Okay," Emily said, and watched him make his slow way down the stairs and out toward the road. "Hey," she called, when he'd nearly reached his battered pickup. "Does Eddie Havscomb really have a pet moose?"

Duck sucked on the cigarette and the tip of it flared bright red, like phantom lantern-light meant to lure her away from the mainland and out to sea.

"Her name's Gladys," Duck called back. "Good place for moose too, I guess." He smiled and climbed into his truck.

From the porch, Emily could hear the ocean, and if she closed her eyes it was like she was standing at the center of a vast and endless sea, with the ground beneath her feet -- Wilby Island, tiny and terrifying and somehow written already into her bones, somehow intrinsically hers -- the only solid ground in all the world.

the end