Skye was the one who found the body. Because she was always first up in the morning, and because her mother had warned her that guests should under no circumstances be disturbed before breakfast was ready, she’d perfected a stealth routine: pad down to the kitchen, start the coffee, arrange the muffins on the platter. Quietly, she tipped the juice concentrate into the pitcher, diluted, stirred. A guest would enter the kitchen to find the table set and Skye, with her braids fuzzy from sleep, flashing a shy smile. She and her mother had worked on that smile because its earlier incarnations, just after Skye’s father moved away, were strained and hectic. “Smile like a normal person,” her mother would say, an instruction Skye found unsustainably vague.

On this morning, Skye was pouring cream into the little jug shaped like a cow’s head—an object she’d loved at eight and now, at eleven, considered anatomically confusing—when she heard a thump upstairs. She stopped to listen, but the noise did not repeat. Mr. Simbatye, their only guest, had arrived three days earlier, toting an old-fashioned brown suitcase belted with a red strap. He said he was travelling on business without specifying what kind. Theirs was a Maritime village of lanky, weathered houses and damp motel rooms, too far off the highway to receive much tourist traffic, let alone to be a place where much business got done. Mr. Simbatye was not a tourist; he was not here to relax. He had made that much clear.

An hour passed and Mr. Simbatye didn’t come down. Yesterday and the day before, he’d taken breakfast at 7:30 before departing for the day. Now, nine o’clock ticked by without any sign of him. Skye’s mother was also asleep, but this wasn’t unusual: morning light made her wince. She stayed up late each night, working on the books—which Skye knew meant worrying about money—and the next day, she was always pale and irritable, their household a continuing problem she couldn’t solve.

Still observing stealth protocols, Skye stepped upstairs and paused on the landing outside Mr. Simbatye’s closed door. She heard no rustle, no voice. If she opened the door, it would squeak; she could predict every sound this house made. She slowly opened the door, which indeed squeaked, but it didn’t matter. Mr. Simbatye lay on his side, on the floor next to the bed. He was wearing light-blue pyjamas whose pants were soiled. His eyes were fixed, as if mesmerized, on the wall in front of him. Skye knelt down. She flashed her shy smile, but Mr. Simbatye didn’t care how it looked. Skye put her hand on his arm, which felt like any other arm. You wouldn’t have known it was the arm of a dead person.

She stood up and looked around. Mr. Simbatye’s suitcase was on the luggage stand, open: pants, socks, shirts, underwear. There was nothing of note in the room except the body. A teacher had once told Skye that, at the moment of death, the soul ascends to heaven, and in its absence, the body begins to wither. When she reported this to her parents, her mother said it was nonsense and her father said, “Of course you’d think that,” and the air in the house turned heavy. Mr. Simbatye’s body had not yet begun to wither, but she opened the window in case his soul required an avenue of escape. Also because of the smell.

Mr. Simbatye’s family said not to call the police. They didn’t want the body moved; they didn’t want anyone near it. Skye’s mother spoke to them on the phone, nodding as though they could see her, saying in her calmest voice, “But—yes—you see, it is awfully warm.” They said it would take them twenty-four hours to arrive. Skye and her mother spent the day quietly, as if noise might still disturb their guest. Skye put away the untouched muffins, the undrunk juice. They did all the usual chores, except Skye’s mother moved all the fans into the guest room, turned them on, and closed the door. In the evening, they watched the news, the only television Skye’s mother allowed. There were protests against the police in Florida, rising waters in Bangladesh. Skye fell asleep on the couch as the sun finally set, very late, reluctant to loosen its grip on the day.

When she woke, it was morning and a girl was staring at her. She looked around Skye’s age but with dark hair razored to the skull on one side and hanging down to her shoulder on the other. The ear on the shaved side held a row of silver studs, like an ellipsis. Skye sat up on the couch, its nubbly weave indenting her skin. An afghan hung over the back cushions, but her mother wouldn’t have draped it over her in the night, because it was summer and also because she wasn’t that kind of mother. She believed that, if Skye needed a blanket, she should use her internal resources to get one herself.

“Where’s your mother?” asked the girl.

“She’s asleep,” Skye said. “Are you checking in?”

A look of impatience, bordering on disgust, passed over the girl’s face. “My mom and I came from Toronto,” she said. “For Ed?”

Behind the girl, Skye noticed a thin woman lingering by the front door, wearing an elegant skirt suit and clutching a small boxy purse with both hands. The light from the windows was still dim. Skye, now more awake, understood who Ed was.

“Mr. Simbatye,” she said. “He’s upstairs. The second room on the right.”

The girl turned and spoke to her mother, not in English. The mother nodded and made her way upstairs, her high heels smartly rapping the floor as she went.

Skye said, “I’ll make breakfast.” That same look flickered on the girl’s face, but she followed Skye into the kitchen. She was wearing a black T-shirt, cut-off jean shorts, and a plaid shirt tied around her waist. Skye poured the cream into the cow, nestled the spoon into the sugar. When the coffee finished brewing, the girl helped herself to a cup, holding the mug in both hands and blowing across its top like an adult.

“I’m Kate,” she said.

“Skye.”

“You found him?”

Skye nodded.

“What did he look like?”

Skye hesitated. “He was in bed,” she told the girl. “With his eyes closed. Like he was sleeping.” She didn’t say that her mother had stripped off his blue pyjamas, laundered them, and put them back on, or that the two of them had hoisted Mr. Simbatye into the bed and smoothed the covers around him.

Kate looked disappointed. She set the mug on the counter and faced the kitchen window, its view of the vacant plot where tall grasses swayed and flattened in the wind. If they’d been closer to the water, Skye’s mother always said, they could have charged a lot more; as it was, the web listing showed a picture of the rocky coastline at sunset and noted underneath, in small font, a short walk away. That the short walk wended past a derelict gas station and the concrete foundation of a home that had been washed away decades earlier was left unmentioned.

“He’s not my real dad,” Kate said. “He met my mom in the Philippines when I was a baby and brought us to Toronto. My real dad died.”

“Mine moved away,” Skye said.

Kate grabbed a muffin, bit into it, and looked down at it. “Cranberries,” Skye said. “They grow in a bog near here.”

Kate took in this information without comment.

“My mom grew up here,” Skye went on. “My dad came here to be an artist. He makes ceramic sculptures of the sea. Mom wanted to be an artist too, a painter. He’s still an artist, but she isn’t.”

Skye’s father had once said that, when they first met, her mother had been more free, dreamier and happier, less obsessed with the details of life. “Something happened to Joan,” he would darkly intone during their fights. “What was it, Joan?” Skye’s mother always refused to answer, but Skye knew: it was Skye who had happened.

“Do people buy the sculptures?” asked Kate.

“No,” Skye said.

“You should sell these muffins. These people would buy.”

Skye took one, chewed, brushed crumbs from her chin. “What was his business?” she asked. “Mr. Simbatye. He said he was here on business.”

Kate frowned. “He didn’t have any business.”

Both mothers came downstairs. Skye’s set the kettle on for tea and gave Skye a look that said, Make yourself scarce. Skye opened the back door and asked Kate if she wanted to see the water.

Now they were standing outside the derelict gas station, on the cracked pavement, sweating in the morning sun.

“Nice view,” Kate said. “This must be on all the postcards.”

“What was he doing in the Philippines?” Skye asked.

If the non sequitur bothered her, Kate didn’t show it. “Ed? Who knows what Ed did.”

She sighed. “My mom thought he would take care of us. She’s so naive.”

She picked up a rock and threw it at the gas station window, which was already broken. Skye had been inside it many times, had taken everything there was to take: rubber bands, grimy old jars, a wall calendar from Canadian Tire. Still, when Kate went inside, she followed. It was cooler, at least, out of the sun. Despite the open windows, the building smelled sulphurous and chemical. Kate listlessly opened drawers, closed them. She seemed like someone who walked into a room and forgot what they were looking for. Skye searched her brain for anything worth showing Kate, but there was nothing left.

Skye’s father had loved the nothingness; her mother hated it; yet, somehow, her mother was the one who remained. Her father was in New York now, which he said was a place all artists should go. He’d promised that Skye could visit him, though specific dates had yet to be arranged. Once, on the phone, she had asked him if he missed the water, and he’d said, “There’s water here too,” but he hadn’t described it and she found it hard to picture. As he’d spoken, a siren had risen, almost obliterating his voice.

Her father had once told her that she was too much of a follower, that she needed to learn to make her life her own, to decide things for herself.

Kate hummed, a high whine like a door hinge. “Well,” she said, “this is a bust.” She lay down on the oil-stained floor, placed her palms on her stomach, closed her eyes, and began to sing—softly but without self-consciousness. Skye didn’t recognize the song. Perhaps Kate had written it herself. Her voice was throaty, almost phlegmy, though it hadn’t sounded that way when she was speaking. A large seagull stalked inside, circled a wire rack whose pamphlets had rotted off, and left, dissatisfied. The wind picked up, an audible rush of accompaniment. Kate kept singing. Later, Skye would struggle to remember the lyrics. At the time, they seemed profound, even magical, but when she reassembled the moment in her mind, the words were diminished and ordinary. You are . . . Love never . . . The lines trailed off without rhyme or conclusion.

Skye lay down next to Kate. There was no point waiting to be invited. Her father had once told her that she was too much of a follower, that she needed to learn to make her life her own, to decide things for herself. She decided to follow Kate. She viewed the sky through a hole in the ceiling, a cloud-mottled block of colour that grew stranger the more she looked at it, deprived of its context. She thought about what she’d tell her mother they’d been doing. But her mother, flustered, deep into arrangements for the transport of Mr. Simbatye’s body, never asked.

On an airless Monday in New York City, Skye stood on a Seventh Avenue subway platform. All summer long, the trains had been messed up; now, the platform collected people until it seemed like it couldn’t hold a single body more, then more arrived. Everyone squeezed endlessly closer together. The station smelled of sweat and exhaled breath. A man nearby kept saying, “Man, I give up, I’m getting out of here” but didn’t move. Skye couldn’t imagine fighting her way out of the crowd. Plus, she’d been to Bed Bath & Beyond after work, and the heavy shopping bag sat like an anchor between her feet. She stared at the wall opposite her and then down at the tracks, where a few rats were nosing around. A woman down the platform caught her eye, then looked at the rats.

Skye’s purse buzzed. Her phone showed a text from her father, querulous as ever: “Didn’t you say you were coming?” She texted back, “On my way, trains delayed.” The stuff she’d bought was for her father’s room in an assisted-living facility in Sheepshead Bay. He was young for assisted living, but Parkinson’s had rendered life on his own impossible. When Skye first moved to the city, he was working as a custodian at a Long Island hospital, but his decline, once initiated, was rapid. Now, he didn’t work anymore, though he still drew, unintelligibly shaky graphite sketches that looked like labyrinths or heart rate monitors and that were, in Skye’s unvoiced opinion, stranger and more beautiful than anything he’d made before the illness took hold.

A line of sweat rivered down her back. A man jostled her, and she turned to scowl at him, but even that much movement was a strain. Skye thought of her first roommate in New York, a woman from North Carolina who had lasted exactly one week. On the 6 train one morning, a man had bumped her, and when she got off, she realized that he had masturbated onto her dress. She left the next day.

Skye had looked her up once on Facebook, her profile picture with a baby and a toddler and a husband, her life having accelerated into adulthood as it seemed to do for people who lived outside the city. Skye’s mother always pointed out that Skye could get married and have children if that’s what she wanted. “There’s no reason you can’t settle down with someone, even in New York,” she’d written over email. She meant that Skye could settle down even if she was gay. Obviously, Skye knew this.

Joan herself had remarried, to a cardiologist who’d gotten lost looking for gas and wound up at the bed and breakfast. A childless widower, he had put Skye through school and given her the deposit for her first apartment. Skye had not visited them in three years. Her mother and stepfather deserved her visits; her father needed them.

“Maybe the train is just never coming,” said someone behind her. “Maybe the subway is cancelled.” Skye thought she felt a distant ripple of air. More people were coming down the stairs into the station, onto the platform, and Skye felt pushed forward, involuntarily stepping closer to the tracks. “Hey,” she said, though she knew her voice wouldn’t carry. “Stop it.” She was at the yellow line—almost over it. She leaned in to the people behind her, and they pushed back.

What Skye remembered later was the collective breath of the crowd, so sudden and unified that it sounded like a wave breaking.

Then, at last, the train: the glowing B advancing. It was almost at the platform. Skye stared at it, willing it to come faster, willing it to be air conditioned and empty, so she had a clear view of the woman who had met her eyes earlier, who had looked at the rats so intently, and who now stepped—with evident deliberation—in front of the train.

What Skye remembered later was the collective breath of the crowd, an intake of air so sudden and unified that it sounded like a wave breaking. This could not have been true. There must have been screams; there must have been the ear-splitting grind of emergency brakes; there must have been the sound of the collision itself. She couldn’t find any of this in her memory. She couldn’t locate the body as it fell. She could find only this ocean roar, this almost shapeless sound, so powerful a wind that it raised the hair on her arms.

When Skye finally arrived, her father served her a drink. Alcohol was contraindicated with his medication, but she’d given up talking to him about it. She didn’t know where he got it, but helpless in certain respects, he was endlessly resourceful in others. She took a sip, wincing; it was light red wine or maybe sherry, stickily sweet. On the wall opposite his bed, her father had tacked up his latest drawings, which showed the view outside his window: a parking structure and power lines, a landscape of cracked pavement and grey cement. Outside, trucks beeped in reversal. Somewhere just beyond the traffic was the bay. He still loved the sea, and when she first moved to the city, they sometimes walked there together. Now, they only ever sat in his room or on the balcony, pretending they could smell it in the air.

Her father set his drink down and lowered his mouth to sip from it, which was easier for him than trying to hold a glass. He was wearing a wrinkle-free blue button-down shirt and his hair was neatly wet combed. The aides called him Handsome Mr. Jerry, which was both condescending and apt. They shaved him every day. His face was getting thinner, sculpted into sharper planes. He nodded to the bag at her feet and she showed him what she’d brought, making her way around the room, installing the purchases: shaving cream on his dresser, the soap he said was better for his hands, a lap desk so he could draw in bed. His right leg tremored, and his right hand. He was trying to learn to draw with his left.

“What did she look like?” he asked.

“Middle aged. Hair dyed that purple-red colour. Grey roots. I can’t picture what she was wearing.”

“You could draw her.”

Skye smiled. “That’s your solution to everything.”

“Well,” he said, looking around the room, “not everything.”

She probably shouldn’t have told him about the woman jumping in front of the train. He was prone to dark moods and would sometimes call her at one in the morning, yelling about some imagined betrayal: she’d brought the wrong soap, she came only out of pity, she changed her visit from Tuesday to Wednesday just to upset him. The next day, he always apologized, and she forgave. They both knew that she’d followed him to New York, that she’d patterned her escape after his, for lack of any other example. For a while, there had been Kate in Toronto, love letters Skye had illustrated with the house, the gas station, the sea, until Kate asked her to stop. “You just make me think about Ed,” she’d written. Later, Skye fell in love in college and then with a woman she met hiking in Banff and whom she still emailed sometimes. Each of them shook her off eventually, no matter how she tried to hold on, and now, she doubted the power of her grasp.

“Show me the latest,” he said. She flipped open her notebook and passed it over; she worked for a textbook company, illustrating medical diagrams. “What is it?”

“Embryogenesis.”

“Looks like an infection.”

“It’s cell division. In the early stages.”

What she’d drawn was not identifiable as human: eight small purple circles encased brown seeds, like tropical fruit. Often, Skye barely understood what she was drawing. Increasingly, the company was requiring 2D or 3D animation, which Skye felt even less equipped to render. Yet she tried not to worry about the future. Her father had passed down the conviction that a job was what housed your life and not the life itself.

You and your father, her mother would say, are two peas in a pod. Skye knew it wasn’t true. She was more like her mother, and it was her life’s task to fight against the resemblance. She stood up and moved her father’s drink, settling the lap desk on his knees. It jiggled with him, with the quaking of his nervous system. He scowled.

“Let’s try this thing out,” she said. She brought him papers, his graphite pencils, and soon he was absorbed in his work, ignoring her. She finished her drink, then his. The block of sky outside his window was neatly bisected by power lines but still held some quality of mottled light, of sea-adjacent cloud, that reminded her of home. It began to rain, fat summer drops that would bring little relief.

The woman who’d jumped in front of the train had a name, which Skye would read tomorrow morning, in the newspaper, and then instantly forget. “Had the woman struggled with mental illness?” Skye’s mother would ask. “Did she have a family?” Although Skye would have read a lengthy article about the incident by then, she would find she couldn’t answer, that the facts escaped her. Her mother, on the phone, would sigh impatiently. Her stepfather would come on, his voice warm with concern. He would want to know if she’d been to a counsellor. He would tell her to practise self-care, and Skye would laugh. She would tell him she felt fine, and it would feel true. At her desk, at work, she would sketch the pink geography of a fetus. The curved spine notched like a seahorse. The pale twist of umbilical cord. The huge, disproportionate head. The crouched form caught between weeks eight and nine of its existence. Bent to her work, rich with purpose, she would draw into life a body she’d never seen.  

Alix Ohlin
Alix Ohlin’s most recent story collection, We Want What We Want, was published in July. She lives in Vancouver and is the director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Creative Writing.
Michelle Theodore
Michelle Theodore is an illustrator based in Edmonton.

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