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Fiction: Myles’ World

Irving Layton Awards for Creative Writing
September 19, 2016
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By Sarah MacKenzie

Each year, Concordia’s Department of English honours outstanding work in English literature and creative writing. The Irving Layton Awards for Creative Writing, worth $500, are given to undergraduate students for works of poetry and fiction. Sarah MacKenzie, the 2016 fiction winner, is entering her third year at Concordia. The native of the Greater Toronto Area will continue  to pursue her writing ambitions.  

Sarah MacKenzie Sarah MacKenzie

“In an ideal world, I’d like to become  a novelist,” MacKenzie says.

In her Layton-award-winning  short story Myles’ World, excerpted below, a 12-year old boy encounters a series of offbeat individuals. “Besides using the story as an outlet for these weird characters, it was also largely inspired by suburbia itself, a locale I owe my upbringing to and a concept  I find strange enough to warrant a  story of equal oddity,” she says. 

Myles’ World

Father Wildrow walks to church every Sunday with his head down. I think he lost religion. I’m thinking that because I never found it maybe it’s possible to lose it too. I wasn’t sure that I’d never found it until today. I usually walk behind Father Wildrow on my way to church because we only live two blocks apart. I never get too close though because I don’t want to sync up with him. I have a section in my notebook just for him because I think it’s interesting that he walks with his head so low. I figure men like that should always be looking up.

I have to choose a role model for school. We all have to choose one person in our lives whom we consider to be a good role model and then ask them ten questions that we make up. I was going to write about my dad so I told him that, but he told me not to, and wouldn’t explain why.

Instead he said, “What about Father whatshisface? Man of God? Huh?”

Today, on the way home from church, Man of God stole a cat. He was walking, looking kind of sad, as usual. He bent down to pet a tabby cat and even though I don’t like cats I felt kind of happy for him, but then he picked it up and kept walking. I know that’s not the Father’s cat because it’s my best friends’, Mitzie and Marcel’s cat. His name is Bilbo. I followed the Father past his house as usual, but I saw him take Bilbo inside with him. There aren’t any cats in the bible so I’m not sure what to make of this. I’ve decided that religion is not for me. I hope my dad understands.

I have a spot in my notebook where I write down nice things about people in case they die and I don’t have anything to say about them. I don’t ever want to not have something kind to say about someone. It happened with my grandpa where I was at his funeral and people kept saying nice things about him, but I always thought he was kind of angry and mean so I couldn’t think of anything. Under Father Wildrow I write, he loves cats.

Instead of going home after, I go to Mitzie and Marcel’s house. Their mom, who tells me to call her Tina, answers the door.

“Myles, hi sweetie.”

“Is Marcel home?” I ask.

“Yes, come on in love.”

Tina Barnaby is always very very very happy. She uses the words “lovely” and “love” a lot. In my notebook, under Tina, I have always happy, pretty, uses her imagination, gives me random gifts. Once she gave me a goldfish, but it died really fast, and then I wondered if that’s why she gave it to me. After our beagle, Betsy dies I probably won’t get another pet.

“Do you want a snack? A juice box?”

“No thank you. Juice boxes are unhealthy for you.”

I walk into the living room where the Barnabys have a chalkboard wall. Mitzie and Marcel’s dad, who tells me to call him Benji, painted it on last month. I asked him why and he said, “Use your imagination.” Mitzie and Marcel are always telling me that. Whenever they do something weird and I ask them why, that’s what they tell me. Right now the chalkboard wall is covered in drawings of spiders. It’s a wall full of spiders, and they’re all different and some of them are really nice spiders, but they’re still spiders.

Tina hands me a juice box and says, “I’m working on a book.”

Mitzie wants to write books like her mom, when she’s older. Her mom writes stories for little kids. She has a series called Whistler’s World Web about a whistling spider that travels the world. I don’t like spiders. I don’t kill them when I see them, but I still don’t like them.

“They’re under there.” She points to a cabinet.

“Mitzie and Marcel?”

“No, the spiders.”

That’s weird, I think, but I bend down anyway and look underneath the cabinet to see a whole world of spiders.

“Oh,” is all I say, and then again, “are Mitzie and Marcel home?”

“Oh,” she also says, and then, “I don’t think so actually.”

In my opinion Mitzie and Marcel’s parents don’t look after their children very well. Mitzie and Marcel have been going to the creek by themselves for like five years now, and we’re only twelve.

Before I leave I ask, “Do you ever get bored of spiders?”

She smiles and says, “Never,” and I feel lost. How can that last a person’s lifetime?

I go to the creek to find my friends. They’re twins, and I feel that this makes our friendship easier. They’re different, but not by a lot so it’s really like being friends with one person, and when I’m only with one of them it’s not as fun.

Creakland Park is big, but not too big so I find Mitzie and Marcel in okay-time. They both have brown hair and their heads are perfect circles. From the back, they look like brown Smarties or M&Ms. Marcel tells me he prefers M&Ms.

“Guys,” I call out to them because they’re busy making a teepee out of twigs.

“Myles!” Mitzie looks happy to see me, the same way her mom looks happy to see everyone.

“We’re making teepees for our pets,” Marcel tells me as he points to two dead minnow fish at his side. They look like they’ve been dead for a while.

“Where did you find those?” I ask.

“Right here,” Mitzie says, “We haven’t moved them.”

“Why would a fish live in a teepee?” I ask.

“Use your imagination,” Marcel replies.

I help Mitzie and Marcel build teepees for the dead minnows. I don’t tell them that their cat has been stolen because I’m scared of where that will lead and I kind of want Father Wildrow to be happy.

“Have you guys done the role model project yet?” I ask.

“Nope,” Marcel responds.

“Well who are you going to pick?”

“I’m going to do our dad and Mitzie’s going to do our grandma.”

“I thought your grandmas both died.”

“So?” says Mitzie.

“So how are you going to interview one?”

“I know what she’d say and if I get stuck I’ll just ask my mom.”

“I wanted to do my dad, but he won’t let me,” I tell them.

“Well you can do our mom if you want,” Mitzie volunteers, but I think about the spiders and I don’t want to. Also, Tina Barnaby is really pretty and sometimes I worry that she knows I’m thinking about her like that.

I ask Mitzie, “What would you do if you were an author like you wanted, but then one day you started getting sad because writing wasn’t fun anymore. Like you lost writing, or reading—if it became like work instead of play, what would you do?”

“That won’t ever happen,” she says.

I get sad when people respond to me with such certainty.

“What would you do, Marcel?” Marcel wants to make cities. All my classmates know what they want to do later and no one’s worried.

“Then you just switch,” he says.

“Switch to what?”

“I dunno, maybe I’d start a business like my dad.”

I can’t stop thinking about Father Wildrow and how he replaced his faith with a fur ball and being around Mitzie and Marcel is making it worse so I leave.

My dad and his girlfriend watch a lot of TV on Sundays and it makes me angrier than it probably should, but I go home anyway and walk in on them watching TV. Cheryl, his girlfriend, looks unhappy.

“Hey kiddo,” my dad says.

“I don’t want to go to Church anymore,” I tell him.

“Your mom made me promise,” he says.

When I was eight my mom moved to New Mexico to marry a soap-opera producer named Richard. My mom and dad were kind of mean to each other anyway, but I think she left because he was so unsuccessful. He seemed like the kind of person who would be successful, but he wasn’t, and he still isn’t so she married someone with a bunch of TV series instead. She’s pregnant and I hope that their baby doesn’t look like me because that would be weird.

“Father Wildrow stole a cat today. I’m not cut out for religion,” I tell him.

My dad starts laughing, a lot. Cheryl smiles.

“You’re too young to be saying things like that,” he says.

I hate when people say things like that. I leave to go to my room. Twenty minutes later my dad and Cheryl are fighting, which happens pretty often and usually only last ten minutes or so. I go to the bottom of the stairs and sit with my notepad. Sometimes my dad says things that seem really true so I like to write them down so I won’t forget.

Cheryl is telling him that he should ask for a promotion, and he’s saying that he doesn’t want a promotion, and she’s saying that he should want a promotion and back and forth. Eventually Cheryl says something that I have to write down because I think it might be brilliant, and I’m disappointed that it came from her mouth instead of my dad’s.

She says: “It’s like life has stopped and started a thousand times over and no one’s ever let you know. You’re just…stagnant.”

She yells it kind of. It’s weird how angry she gets. I run up to my room and look up the word “stagnant” in the thesaurus. Synonyms are more useful than definitions. Stagnant: Inactive, Lifeless, Dull, Dormant, Foul, Dead, Passive. Sounds like road kill. I learned the word “passive” at age seven. Someone said to me “you should’ve been more mean,” and my dad said, “story of his life,” which I don’t think is fair considering I was only seven. How do you know someone’s life story at age seven? That was annoying, but I didn’t say anything.

I start thinking of my dad as road kill. Like he’s a really clever raccoon, but he still got run over, just because he was too lazy to move. My dad’s really smart and was the kind of person who would get good grades in school without ever really trying. He told me biology was his favourite subject in school, but he works as an assembly supervisor for a manufacturer of mechanical household products—they make things like vacuum heads, which has nothing to do with biology.

I leave through the back door because I’m sick of thinking of my dad as road kill, but as soon as I get to the front of my house I see actual road kill. It’s a bird, but it’s too colourful to be from outside. I recognize Petey smeared into the pavement. Petey is the McGillicuddys’ pet cockatiel. I know because Mr. McGillicuddy is always asking me to come in to say hi to Petey. He says that Petey likes my company, but now Petey’s dead.

I knock on the McGillicuddys’ door to tell them this, but now that I’m here I really wish I’d ask my dad to do it instead.

Mrs. McGillicuddy, who tells me to call her Kat, greets me with a “Hello Mr. Handsome,” which she always says.

In my notebook, under her name, I have: gives me compliments even when she doesn’t believe them.

I tell her fast: “Petey is dead in the pavement.”

She tells me to wait and calls her husband, Quirk, until he comes. Quirk and Kat come outside together with a thousand animal odors wafting out after them. Kat gasps at the sight and Quirk picks up dead Petey with his bare hand, which makes me feel uncomfortable.

“Will you help me bury him?” Quirk asks with his other hand on my shoulder, “You were always his favourite.”

We go into their backyard for the pet funeral. Not realizing, Quirk digs a hole where it looks like some other dead thing was buried and Kat starts crying.

I like most animals, and I really love Betsy, but I wonder what happened in Quirk and Kat’s lives that led them to cry over birds and iguanas every time one dies. This isn’t my first pet funeral here.

After the burial, Kat says that their party guests will be arriving soon so she goes inside to prepare, still crying a little. When she says party she means old-person tea party. They host them a lot and they get surprisingly loud. Quirk and Kat seem more energetic than most parents I know, but they’re pretty ancient looking.

“You don’t have kids do you?” I ask Quirk. Their hallways are filled with photographs of each other, and they’re always trying to get me to come over, and they cry every time a pet dies, and it makes me wonder.

“No,” he says, but I wait for more. “We decided against it. Kat wanted to sing. I had my business to worry about. Me and Kat, we uh, we wanted our lives to be simple but significant,” and then he says, “forever young, right?” and he winks at me.

I think simple but significant sounds really nice, but then I look around at all the soil with dead animals underneath and I think that maybe they never got it right.

I leave the McGillicuddys feeling sad for them. I’m surrounded by anti-role-models. We live in a suburb and my dad says suburbs are boring out of necessity, but I’m starting to think that they’re just boring because this is where all of the “simple” people go when life doesn’t end up being “significant.”

I keep walking down the street, away from the dead cockatiels. I see Turner Oakenfort, the Brinkling Avenue Bachelor. He doesn’t really live on my street, but our streets intersect right at his house, so whenever I leave my house I see his mansion looking down at all of the little houses on Twick St. My dad says it’s not really a mansion; it’s just a bigger house.

Turner Oakenfort is mowing his lawn. He isn’t wearing a shirt. I’ve tried to find something to write about him in his section, but I really can’t think of anything I like about him. No one else calls him the Brinkling Avenue Bachelor. I just like the sound of the double “B”s, but I also suspect that he’s secretly lonely because even when I walk by there’s something kind of hopeful about his face.

There’s a big truck in the driveway with three men taking out what looks to be a hot tub Jacuzzi. I find it odd that he didn’t have one already. The lawn mower turns off.

He shouts, “Hey bud.”

I stop, but I really don’t want to talk to him. I probably don’t like him because he’s the kind of man my mom would kiss—or he’s the kind of man my mom would want to kiss. I guess most moms would want to kiss him. It makes sense for him to never wear shirts. It’s like if he were a bug, he’d be a Daddy Longlegs. It’s hard to explain why because he’s not long looking, but he just seems like he can spin a fine web. I get mad at Tina Barnaby for making me think of spiders.

I don’t say anything so he goes, “Hey tell your dad he still owes me a rematch in pool.”

I don’t think my dad wants to play pool with him, but I say okay anyway.

“Did you not already have a Jacuzzi?” I ask.

“Yeah, but it’s kind of old and this one’s a lot bigger—nicer too.”

I wonder why he needs a bigger Jacuzzi if he lives by himself. I look from the double doors at the front of the house to his Lexus in the driveway to his bigger, nicer Jacuzzi moving into the backyard. Everything Turner Oakenfort owns makes me think that he’s one of those people that Quirk and Kat wanted to be, one of the significant ones.

I can see him following my eyes, and he says, “Live large, right?”

I say, “No,” because I don’t want to agree with him. “There’s freedom in futility.”

Sometimes I repeat things other people have said to me that I find clever, but I almost always regret it. The twenty-eight year old stoner who lives with his angry mom two doors down from me told me that once. I didn’t even know what a stoner was, but the only reason I was talking to him was because he was asking me if I had a lighter. I told him, “No, I’m twelve,” and then asked him why he’s twenty-eight and still living with his angry mom and then that’s what he responded with. I had to look up futility in the thesaurus. It said, emptiness, idleness, pointlessness, and I was surprised that anyone would refer to their life like that. Looking back on it, I get sad because I wonder if my dad finds freedom in futility too.

Turner Oakenfort looks hurt, or maybe he’s confused.

“Where did you hear that?”

“I can’t remember.” I don’t want him to know who really said it because then it won’t have any effect.

“Wow. You’re too young to be saying things like that.”

I can’t stand that.

“Well maybe you’re too old to be saying things like ‘live large.’”

“Hey, did I upset you?”

“No.” I feel embarrassed, but just then a pretty lady walks out of Turner’s front door and he looks so proud and they kiss and she leaves and it all happens in front of me and I just get so mad at him for acting so happy about everything.

“Will you be my role model for class?” I ask, even though it feels terrible.

He looks shocked. “Sure!”

“Okay.”

I pull out my notebook and begin. He asks me if I’d rather go inside and I say no. I get three questions deep and then I ask, “What was your favourite subject in school?”

“Hmm. I guess it was biology. Never did anything with it though.”

Out of curiosity I ask, “What grade did you get?”

He laughs and says, “Oh jeez, I can’t remember that. Something like an A.”

“Really?”

“Maybe a B. It was hard, but I liked it.”

My dad got an A in biology, so why couldn’t he be better in life than Turner Oakenfort? I skip a few pages behind in my notebook to his section, still blank, and write got worse grades in high school than my dad (it’s something that I’m both confused about and fond of).

Just then Father Wildrow walks by with Bilbo on a leash. He’s not looking at the pavement anymore; he’s looking at his cat. If an iguana or cockatiel can’t make up for Quirk and Kat’s lost lives then how can a cat cure Father Wildrow?

“I need to leave. I’m sorry,” I tell Turner Oakenfort.

I think I’m going to run away because no one here makes any sense to me, and I don’t make sense to myself, and I don’t think I’m ever going to finish this project or decide my future if I stay here with my bonkers neighbours and road kill dad. I go home and leave a note: Dear Dad, I don’t want to live somewhere that’s boring out of necessity. I feel like you would understand. Probably be back in a year or two. Also, I quit Church. Love Myles.

I take the following collection of things: one pair of socks, a half-full carton of milk, Campbell’s chicken broth (I mistook it for soup), my math workbook, two Band-Aids, thirteen dollars, and my notebook. I also bring a balloon. I just saw them stuffed in a drawer and I was rushing so I grabbed one. I figure if I get lost then a balloon is a good way to get noticed. I always notice balloons at least. Before I leave, I print off a picture of a Daddy Longlegs from the Internet.

I feel free, but not really. I feel terrified, so after a brief detour to Brinkling Avenue, I walk to the creek and try to find Mitzie and Marcel’s teepee so I can sit by something familiar. It probably got blown over though so instead I just sit on the outskirt of the forest. It starts getting dark outside and I blow up my balloon, both for fun and because I kind of want someone to find me, even though I can easily find my way home okay. I’m disappointed when I blow up the balloon and see in big silver numbers, ‘40’ printed across it. I guess it was from my dad’s last birthday.

I learned the phrase “midlife crisis” at age ten.

My mom said, “Deb, this is like your fourth midlife crisis,” when she was on the phone with her sister. “You can’t keep starting life over.”

 It occurs to me now that my mom pretty much started her life over. I tie the silver 40 around my wrist and wait for something more to happen. I wait two hours and twenty-four minutes. In that time I make five twig teepees even though I have no minnows or imagination to work with.

My dad walks up to me. I didn’t see him coming, but I guess he had been walking towards me for a while because there’s nothing rushed about the way he’s walking. I’m kind of hurt by that.

He says, “I never thought you’d be the kind of kid to run away.”

“Me neither,” I say.

He sits next to me on the dirt and twigs. He sees my teepees and balloon, but doesn’t comment on either.

“So you’re bored huh?”

“I don’t have anyone to write about for my role model project. I don’t know any good role models here and you won’t let me write about you.”

“Well, fine, write about me,” he says.

“Now I don’t want to,” I tell him.

“Why’s that?”

“Because you’re not special,” I say, and he doesn’t really make any type of face, so I say, “I think that maybe you were special, but you just never did anything about it so you lost it and I don’t want to get lumped in with the rest like that.”

I think I break him a little right here. It’s pretty hard to realize that your heroes have fallen, but it’s probably worse to be the fallen hero.

“Wow,” is all he says, so we sit in the quiet for a while, but I just keep feeling worse so I go, “You got better grades in biology than Turner Oakenfort though.”

“That’s weird,” is all he says.

“I left a picture of a Daddy Longlegs in his mailbox,” I tell him.

“Why a Daddy Longlegs?”

“I dunno. He reminds me of them.”

“Interesting. You know those are among the few spiders that can’t spin webs,” he tells me.

My dad is always telling me facts like these, but I wish he hadn’t told me this one. I punch the soil with my fist.

 “I’m sorry you’re not special—or I’m sorry for calling you not special…why don’t you want a promotion?”

He sighs. “Because I’m happy with where I am,” but I don’t think he looks happy.

“Why?”

“I think you’re taking this assignment too seriously. You take everything too seriously.” He shakes my shoulder a little. “Don’t worry, you’ll always be special.”

 “I don’t know what I want to be when I’m older,” I tell my dad.

“You’ll be whomever you end up being,” he says with a shrug, and then, “just don’t grow up angry.”

I say okay, but my dad still looks a little sad. I think I’m going to write a letter to his boss asking him to give my dad the promotion, even though it might make my dad angry. I think he secretly wants it; at least I hope he does.

Once we’re home, I untie the balloon from around my wrist. Latex balloons can’t really float up, but even if it was helium I wouldn’t let it go up into the sky like that, because I know that’s a bad thing to do. Instead, I pop the ‘40’ and enjoy the sound.

***

Next Sunday I decide to go to church even though it’s against my beliefs now. Father Wildrow isn’t there. There’s a new, younger man, who seems a lot happier doing what he’s doing. Once the sermons over, I leave and walk to Father Wildrow’s house.

I knock on the door, and he answers pretty slowly.

“Myles,” he says.

 I didn’t know he knew my name.

“Hello Father—”

“Call me Buck.”

“Oh. Okay. I was wondering if you would be my role model for a school project.”

He laughs a little bit. “You might want to ask the new minister,” he says.

“I don’t want a man of God. I just want to know what makes you happy.”

He seems shocked, but invites me inside. All of his answers to my questions end up being about his cat. I don’t think my teacher will like my assignment and I don’t think I’ll get a good grade, but if I squeeze my eyes really tight and tell myself that it’s okay, then getting a bad grade doesn’t seem so scary and knowing that Father Wildrow’s happiness lies in a cat doesn’t seem so confusing. I guess Father Wildrow just feels like his web is complete. I don’t know why I felt so angry towards spiders before.



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