-- House Stuff
-- Heat Dream
Artwork and Photography
-- Mistry Trees
-- Let it Begin
When Sheila got on at St. Andrew Station, the subway was near empty. She took a seat just inside the door and turned up the music on her phone. Happy to be off her feet, she regarded the smattering of fellow passengers.
Almost directly across from her, two boys, eleven or twelve, she guessed, just old enough to be out on the subway unattended like this, huddled over a piece of paper. One wore a Sonic the Hedgehog ball cap and blue and white Pokémon T-shirt. The other sported a red T-shirt with a fat, sparkly lightning bolt shooting across it, reminding her of the iron-on decals she’d covered shirts with as a girl. It was as if she’d travelled back in time and was looking at a couple of her middle-school classmates.
To Sheila’s mind the clothes belonged to the mid-nineties, but the boys wore them earnestly, without the hipster’s quotation marks. Anyway, they were too young for irony or hipsterdom. She imagined the one in the ball cap must actually have a Sega, probably purchased at one of those retro game stores she’d seen around the city. Or—she liked this idea—maybe the same console his father had played on as a kid. Either way, he liked Sonic. He wasn’t wearing the clothes to be kitschy.
At the next stop, Sheila looked away briefly as the boys glanced up from their paper to note what station they were at. When the doors slid shut and their heads angled back down, she let herself keep watching. The one in the lightning bolt shirt was holding a subway map that it took her a moment to realize was hand-drawn. Could one of their mothers have sent them out with such a thing? On the piece of white printer paper, someone had taken the time to draw the subway line just as it appeared on the maps you get from the TTC. The U of the Yonge-University-Spadina line was traced in what looked like yellow felt pen. The intersecting Bloor-Danforth line, which must have been drawn along a ruler, was in exactly the right green. She could see the names of each station printed in neat, round letters.
The boys talked only about the journey they were taking, confirming again and again that their map corresponded to reality. “The next one should be Museum,” the boy with the lightning bolt said to his friend, confident, but frowning over the map. When the PA’s computerized voice confirmed it—The next station is Museum, Museum Station—he gave a hushed but jubilant “yes,” like someone who’d just hit the first in what he expected to be a string of winning bets.
As soon as the PA announced St. George, the lightning-bolt boy stood, cuffing his friend on the shoulder to rouse him from his seat. The subway whipped through its tunnel, the boys smiling to each other as the motion rocked their bodies, but not smiling too widely. They didn’t want to broadcast how novel this was to them. Arriving at St. George, St. George Station, the PA’s sped-up voice spit out as the subway slowed on approach. The doors opened, and Sheila watched the boys step out and then nearly walk into each other as they looked around for which way to go. She half wanted to call out directions to them, but instead watched them figure it out for themselves. New passengers stepped on and the subway doors slid shut.
The boys got to the lower platform just as the westbound train was pulling in. Edgar tried to take a look at the map in Sam’s hand to confirm they were getting onto the right subway, but it was happening too fast. Sam jumped aboard, forcing Edgar to dart in after him before the doors slid shut.
“Are we going the right way?” Edgar asked as they walked toward a pair of seats in what they’d decided was their favourite configuration: a bench of two, facing sideways, right next to the doors. Sam strolled easily as the train rolled out of the station, riding the movement of the subway as if it were a wave and he a seasoned surfer. Behind him, his head weaving as he tried to get a glimpse of the map, Edgar doggy-paddled. The rising timbre of his own panicked heart beat was the water lapping at his ears. This is where it would all fall apart, Edgar was certain. They were on the wrong subway. In their haste to catch it, they’d managed to get dangerously and irreversibly lost.
At the seats, Sam slapped the nearest pole and swung softly in the spot closest to the door. He leaned against the partition and flapped open the map their classmate Chantel had drawn for them.
The next station is Spadina, Spadina Station, the intercom announced. Edgar sat down next to him and bent his head close.
“There it is,” said Sam, tapping his finger on the paper. Edgar took a moment to read the name he’d just heard. Spadina. Right after St. George. They were headed west. They’d got on the right train. He let the relief wash over him and straightened up in the seat. He hoped Sam hadn’t seen his fear.
“Only five stops to go,” he said.
“Chantel said we’d be able to walk to the mall from Dufferin Station. We just have to make sure when we’re on our way out to keep track of which direction’s south.”
How was Sam so good at all this? It wasn’t like he had any more experience riding the TTC than Edgar did, not without an adult. But he could connect the signs he saw to the directions on the map so quickly; he trusted that they’d end up where they were supposed to.
He was that way with Chantel, too: confident. A skinny half-Korean kid with zero coordination and a tendency to let Pokémon references slip in class, Sam should have been just as uncool as Edgar was. Yet his uncoolness didn’t prevent him from being basically popular. Everyone liked him; he could talk to anyone. He was never at a loss for words, never clammed up or said the wrong thing. When he talked to Chantel, his dorky patter had much the same effect as the tenth-grade soccer captain’s ubercool nod. He had the power to make her blush and laugh. He’d even swung this invite to meet up at the mall.
They were going to the Cinnabon where Chantel’s sister worked. The plan was that she would sneak them all free cinnamon buns, and then Chantel would spend a few hours hanging out in the mall with them. It was a long way to go, and more money in transit fare than two cinnamon buns would cost, but it was enough of an excuse for Sam and Chantel to hang out together outside of school.
Edgar wasn’t sure how he fit in. He liked Chantel—in fact, he kind of like-liked her—but he suspected that today he was serving as a buffer, a third party to make the Chantel-Sam hang out look harmless. Sam had never said that he was into Chantel (and Edgar’d never told Sam that he was), but Edgar could safely assume his friend had a crush. Chantel was pretty and nice and funny, plus she played video games.
Arriving at Spadina, Spadina Station. This station intersects with Line 1, the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line. The subway stopped and a handful of passengers entered Sam and Edgar’s car. At ease now that he knew they were going the right way, Edgar looked around the subway at his fellow riders. At the far end of the car a family, a mother and aunty with three kids, bubbled with activity. The youngest was in a stroller, and the two older sisters kept leaning in to taunt the big-eyed boy while the women laughed and flung their arms around as they spoke. Across and to the left, there was a white couple, just younger than his own mother. The woman had two large paper shopping bags at her feet and was wondering loudly to her partner whether she should have got the brown boots instead. Edgar’s eyes made their way to the man who’d entered the car last and was now sitting about ten metres away. A weird dizzying moment of recognition crept up before Edgar’s stomach dropped away. Grey spots swept in from the side to blur his vision. He grabbed the pole beside him.
“What? What is it?” he finally heard his friend saying.
“My dad,” Edgar whispered.
“My dad just got on the subway.” With a tip of his chin, he indicated the man who had sat down. “That’s my dad.”
“He’s white.” Sam turned to get a good look at the man Edgar was talking about. He didn’t look a thing like the deadbeat Sam had always pictured. For one thing, he had expected a black man, and this guy was a creamy, pinky white. He wore an old Blue Jays cap, faded jeans, and a Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt. His face was scruffy but healthy-looking.
“My dad’s white. I’m half-white,” Edgar was saying. “I’ve shown you pictures.”
“No you haven’t.”
“What do I do?” Edgar almost cried. He was shaking, and his shoulders bobbed with his quick, shallow breaths. His face had lost its colour.
Sam hushed his voice. “Don’t wig out, Man. It’s not him. You don’t do anything. It’s just some stranger on the subway. You can’t say anything to him.”
“It’s him. I’ve shown you pictures.”
Arriving at Bathurst, Bathurst Station. There were only two photos, but Edgar had seen them enough times. Age had changed him, bulked out a once-bony frame, roughened the cheeks of the man-boy who’d donned a baby blue hospital gown to hold his son twelve-and-a-half years ago. But that man across the car was him.
Edgar’s mom always told him that his dad had been scared. It wasn’t that he didn’t love him; he was just a coward. He probably didn’t live a single moment when he wasn’t haunted with regret for what he’d done. But because he was a coward, he’d never be able to come back, to try to apologize and set right everything he’d messed up. This explanation was supposed to comfort the fatherless boy, to reassure him that it wasn’t his fault. But it never made sense to him. Because what would his father have had to fear? What was so scary about a baby and his mother?
While Edgar eyed the stranger, Sam was wondering the things his parents often wondered aloud after Edgar’s mom came to pick him up from a sleepover or videogame party, questions he could never lay in front of his friend: How had his dad just disappeared? Didn’t his mom get any support from him at all? How impossible could it be for her to find him and sue for child support? Sam didn’t understand everything his parents—mostly his mom—talked about with regard to his friend’s parents, but their questions made vague sense to him. People didn’t just disappear. If a dad left a mom, he still had to help; he had to pay.
“I don’t think your dad would still be in Toronto,” Sam whispered. He imagined the deadbeat dad as a man on the lam, living in the Caribbean, in a boat moored off some scarcely inhabited fishing village.
Edgar said nothing. He was breathing loudly through his nose, looking down at the subway floor, then up at the man.
“If he were here, your mom would know.” The man hadn’t noticed their attention. He was listening, bobbing along to something coming through his ear buds. From time to time he’d look up to study one of the subway ads. Then he’d go back to drumming his knee caps and watching his own tapping toes.
“What if he gets off before I can say something to him?”
“You can’t say anything to him.”
“I need to say something.”
They’d pulled out of Bathurst and were coming up on Christie.
“We’re getting off in”—Sam consulted the map—“three stops now. Be cool”
“I could go ask his name. And then if I’m wrong it wouldn’t matter.”
“That’s crazy,” Sam spoke firmly as he saw his friend readying himself to stand. He put a hand on his Edgar’s shoulder to keep him in his seat. “You don’t just go ask some random dude on the subway his name.” Edgar stayed seated.
No one got on or off their car at Christie, but as the PA announced that Ossington Station was next, the man got up and stood in front of the doors.
“Shit.” Edgar stood up and hesitated. Sam rose too, pulling Edgar’s shirt as he tried to take a step towards the man waiting for the subway to still and the doors to open.
“Edgar!” he whispered frantically.
“Leave me alone, Sam.”
Arriving at Ossington, Ossington Station.
The man looked over at them, puzzled, only now sensing himself the object of this scuffle between the two kids. His cheeks flushed pink as he affected not to notice and quick-stepped out the opening subway doors.
“Come on,” Edgar said, moving to the door after a moment’s hesitation. Sam, with a strength unexpected in such a skinny kid, held him back. The doors slid shut, and the subway started to roll away. Stunned, Edgar watched the man who was purposefully not turning his head to look back at him. The man walked alongside the departing subway, turning at the first exit. The subway picked up pace and slid out of the station and into its tunnel.
“Why the hell did you do that?” Edgar’s voice cracked while the PA announced Dufferin Station.
“It wasn’t him, Man. It’s okay.”
“How do you know? Why do you think you know everything? Don’t you think I’ve seen a picture of my own dad?” The last question came out as a howl. Most of the people on the subway pretended not to see the scene. Only the little girls who had been teasing their sleeping sibling gaped openly at the crying boy.
“I’m sorry,” Sam said, startled and ashamed. With the hand that had been yanking his friend back just a minute before, he reached awkwardly to give him a hug or pat his shoulder. But Edgar stepped away, pulling the neck of his T-shirt up to press his eyes into it.
They were pulling into Dufferin Station. “We have to get off,” Sam said, moving to the doors. They opened, but Edgar stood where he was. Sam hovered over the threshold of the subway car, watching his immobile friend. “Please, Edgar?” They heard the three descending notes that signalled the doors were closing. Edgar darted out just in time.
Instead of following the rest of the exiting passengers, the boys took the nearest bench on the platform. Edgar sat stunned and silent, his elbows on his knees, his head between his hands. Next to him, Sam held an uncomfortable hand on his back.
“It’s going to be okay.”
Sam’s words floated weightless in the air, and Edgar squeezed his eyes shut, trying to imagine how it could ever be okay. His dad had run away. He’d left him and his mom. Whether the responsibility had terrified him into bolting or he’d taken one look at his spawn and rejected him, it didn’t matter. Edgar had grown up fatherless. The absence of this man he’d never known had always overfilled the small two-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother. Even though the two of them had fended just fine, with a lot of help from Edgar’s grandparents and aunts and uncles, Edgar’s whole life was based on the premise that his dad was gone. Without knowing what he was missing, he’d missed and missed. And now, after a Saturday morning on public transit, he’d unsettled whatever peace he’d made with his life’s facts. He’d seen his dad, and this time he’d seen him leave.
Another subway rolled into the station and was gone. The boys had been sitting in silence for several minutes. “Should we get going?” Sam asked tentatively. Edgar pushed his eyes into his shoulder one last time. He nodded. They stood up and headed towards the stairs.
He wouldn’t tell his mom. He’d make Sam swear not to tell anyone. And next weekend, he would come back. If his dad had gotten off at Ossington once, chances were he’d do it again. It could be his regular route. He might have a job or a friend, a doctor or a barber nearby. He might even live there. Perhaps today he’d been heading home after a morning appointment. Edgar gulped down another flood of feeling as he followed Sam up the stairs.
He would haunt the station. Now that he’d come here with Sam, he could find Ossington again. He could figure out how to navigate the transit. Maybe he’d have to ask for Chantel’s map, but he could get there. And if he didn’t see his dad next weekend, he’d try again the next one. He’d get to know that subway stop better than his grandmother’s living room or the videogame store near Sam’s house. He’d find his dad again, and this time he wouldn’t let him walk away.
At the top of the stairs, Sam and Edgar looked around. People, sure of their destinations, swirled around the boys, coming up out of stairwells, striding through turnstiles. Sam’s lips moved as he read the signs around the station. Edgar didn’t bother. He was awaiting directions. His throat felt tight, and his knees a little shaky.
“Where do we go now?”
About the Writer
Liz Johnston is managing editor of Brick. Her stories have appeared in The Antigonish Review, The Nashwaak Review, The Impressment Gang, and Confingo.