issue twenty-six

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(5600 words)
Adam Kelly Morton
Live Free or Die
Mom crouched down, looking straight at me, with her red hair all puffy, and her brown eyes drippy with black makeup. "If anything goes wrong with that man," she said, "you call me. Anything at all. You understand me, Alan?"

"Yes," I said. I didn't understand what Mom thought Dad might do, but there wasn't any time to talk about it; I was going to miss my plane. Dorval airport had a bunch of people hurrying around in the green Departures area, kissing and waving at their family members who, like me, were on their way to the United States. This wasn't my first time visiting Dad in New England, but it was my first time going alone, and I was afraid of messing it up.

"And you report back to me if there's anything strange going on down there. Will you do that for me?"

I nodded. Mom gave me a hug and kiss, then I walked away, pulling my red suitcase behind me, the one with the Mickey Mouse sticker on it from the time the three of us went to Florida together. I remember we had such a good time seeing Mickey, and Donald, and riding on Space Mountain with my hair blowing through the scary tunnels of light -- but Dad was next to me, so it was great -- and on the beach Mom took Polaroids of us feeding the seagulls.

Rushing down the long, green corridors, I made it through security and to the Delta gate where the plane was going to be leaving for Boston. The name of the city bothered me: it was the home of the Bruins, lifelong enemies of my beloved Montreal Canadiens. The Red Sox played there too, but I didn't mind them so much because they were in the American League and the Expos were in the National.

We got on board and pretty soon we were taxiing. Just as the engines started to rev up for the big takeoff I crossed my hands tightly together and said a prayer, whose opening part was the only one I knew by heart:

       Now I lay me down to sleep,
       I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
       And if I die before I wake,
       I pray the Lord my soul to take.
       God bless Mommy, and Daddy, and all of my family,
       And please keep me from liking the Devil more than You,
       And please don't let me say any swears,
       And please keep me from dying on this plane.
       I love you, God Bless You, Amen.

And when the plane took off safely, I pretty much knew that my prayer had been answered.


       At Logan Airport there were a bunch more people, but I couldn't see Dad. I looked around for a bit and found a store. In there I bought some Big League Chew purple flavour with the American five-dollar bill Mom gave me. They didn't have purple flavour in Canada so I was pretty happy to find it. Then I walked back out to where all the people were.

After a while, Dad showed up. He was wearing his gold sunglasses with yellow shades, and he had on a white zip-up jacket with red and blue stripes on the bottom. His moustache was a little thinner than I remembered, and he was starting to get a little grey in his brown, wavy hair, which he had cut short. He lifted me up in his arms and squeezed me.

"Were you waiting long?" he asked.

"Nah," I said.

I hadn't seen him since just after Christmas, and it was summer now. We walked outside and it was white sky, and sweaty. The parking lot seemed bigger than the one in Montreal, and there were heat waves coming off the cars.

Dad smiled as we approached our blue station wagon; it looked more worn down since last time. One of the hubcaps was missing.

He threw my suitcase in the back. We got in and drove away.

"How are things going?" he asked.

"All right," I said.

"How's your mom?"

I didn't want to say too much. Even though everything at home was pretty much the same, Mom wouldn't want me to say anything about her. "She's fine," I said.

Dad pulled out a pack of Marlboros and lit one. It smelt richer and more dangerous than the Players he used to smoke. I remember he got mad at me once because I flushed a bunch of his Players down the toilet.

"Smoking can kill you," I said to him.

"Life can kill you, Son," he said.

I chewed on my Big League Chew. Dad wasn't saying much, so it was good that I had something to do with my mouth.

"How was your flight?" he asked.

"Good," I said. "The plane shook a bit with turbo-lens, so as I was getting off I told the Delta lady, 'Thanks for the fright flight.'"

Dad smiled. "Nice one," he said.

I was glad Dad liked that. I looked up at him and he was watching the road signs, which all seemed to be directed to Boston, but I knew he lived in New Hampshire.

"Are we going to Boston, Dad?"

"Do you want to, Son?"

I picked at a scab on my knee and looked out the window. There was a brown car beside me that had a bunch of black guys in it, and some of that rap music coming from their stereo. The driver looked at me. He looked mean, so I looked at Dad.

"Dad, what if those guys told you to pull over?"

He took a quick look over at them. They were all looking at us.

Dad turned back to face the road. "Then I'd be in deep shit, Son," he said.

I started laughing. "Deep shit," I repeated.

"The deepest," Dad said. I thought it was so funny and couldn't stop laughing. Mom would never have let me swear like that. I took a look over and the black guys were speeding away. Obviously, my father had scared them off.

Pretty soon there was a sign for North 93 Concord NH, and I knew we were heading the right way. We drove for about an hour, going through the hilly back roads of farms and woods. I started to smell that New Hampshire smell of pinecones mixed with rust, and then, manure when we got near a farm.        

We crossed over the state line, and Dad took off his seat belt.

"Why'd you do that?" I asked.

"Live Free or Die, Son," he said. "Motto of New Hampshire." Mom always said you should wear your seat belt for safety, so I left mine on.

The last time I was down there, in January, Dad was staying in a town called Pepper All, in a brick apartment that was small and smelled like the inside of a hockey skate. We played lots of games like Cut Throat and Mastermind, which was pretty fun. But I missed Mom. The best part was when Dad drove me all the way back home from New Hampshire. When we were going through the snowy mountains of Vermont, Dad called them Pretty Big Titties. I couldn't stop laughing. Then we sang songs he was making up about White Titties, Tight Titties, Clean Titties, and even Green Titties. I was crying all the way to the border.

Now Dad was in a small town called Town's End. It had a 7-Eleven and we stopped in to pick up some Wonder Bread, JIF peanut butter, and beer. I saw they had a couple of arcade games in there: Ms. Pac Man and a new game I never tried called Jungle King. The U.S. had all the best stuff.

Dad bought me another pack of Big League Chew purple before we left the store, and a short drive away was the new place Dad was staying in. It was this big, sad-looking old mansion on the side of the road. We turned in slowly with gravel stones popping under the tires. Above us was a giant, grey tree with no leaves, and with branches like twisted arms. The mansion had rows of dirty windows with grey paint peeling off the wooden flats.

"You live here?" I asked, a bit of purple juice spilling out of my mouth onto my Spider Man t-shirt.

"For now," Dad said. "Until things settle down with the new plant. Then I'll get my own place." He told me the house used to be a sewing school for girls back in the 1800s or something, and that the textile company he worked for had bought it.

He parked the car around the back, where there were some rotted buildings that Dad said used to be stables. I wondered if there were any horse skeletons in there.

After pulling my suitcase out of the trunk and slamming it shut, Dad came around to my side of the car.

"You coming?"

I opened my door and tested my sneaker on the gravel, then had another good look up at the house. It was way different from our house back in Montreal, where we all used to live together: him, Mom, and me. This house reminded me of one of those haunted places where Scooby Doo would go investigate. I wished Mom were here with us, but I knew that that couldn't happen anymore.

We climbed up onto the big old wooden porch, and everything creaked. I took one more look back at the car, and at the stables where the dead horses were sleeping because it was daytime.

"I'll give you a tour of the place," Dad said. I pulled my suitcase up to my chest, and when I did the Mickey Mouse sticker peeled off a bit. "Here, give me that." Dad took my case, and saw the sticker. "Do you remember that trip?"

"Yeah," I said. I was afraid to say too much more because I felt like I was going to cry, and I didn't want Dad to think I was a baby.

"Are you okay?" he asked.


Dad used his left-hand fingers to try and press the sticker back on, but it didn't work. It was then that I noticed he wasn't wearing his gold ring anymore.

"We'll fix that later," he said. "Come on in."

Inside the back entrance was an office, with a dark wooden desk and shelves of old books and papers piled up everywhere. It smelled like dust and old ink. We went through there to an empty, steel kitchen that was the opposite of Mom's wood kitchen -- which had funny fridge magnets, and plants, and a calendar with a different picture of a dog for each month. Next to the steel kitchen was a dining area with glass tables and yellow curtains -- that at least had a bit of sun in it, and past that was a lounge full of dusty furniture. The hallway running between them all had worn-out red carpet that didn't look clean enough even to play on.

Dad said there were four floors to the place, plus a basement and a cellar, and stairs at the back and the front. We climbed up the front staircase to the second floor. There were a couple of unused, grey bedrooms, plus a pink bathroom, a blue bedroom for Dad with a big TV in it, and a beige bedroom for me with a small TV in it. I tried out my TV and it was black and white, but it worked fine.

He tossed my suitcase onto my bed and told me to follow him. I had to pee first so I did that into the pink toilet bowl, which was all stained with lines of rust or old poo, I wasn't sure. I flushed and the toilet started gargling my pee. It took a long while to go, and I watched it all the way. Dad told me it was an old toilet and that I only had to flush on a Number Two.

We went up to the third floor, which had more empty bedrooms and bathrooms, then up the creaky back stairs to the top floor. There was a thing called a Dormitory up there: rows and rows of green beds and dust on the windows shaped like little ghosts. It was really stuffy up there, and I was starting to sweat.

"You want to see the cellar?" Dad asked.

I didn't want him to think I was chicken. "Sure," I said.

We went all the way down the back staircase, which creaked like an old witch. In the basement was a room filled with sewing machines, heaps of white thread like cobwebs on the red carpet, and about a dozen statues of different body parts. I could feel my eyes grow bigger.

"What are those?" I asked, not getting too close to them.

"Mannequins," Dad said. "For the seamstresses who used to work here."

All those bodies of white chests and arms -- some without heads -- were making me dizzy, but it might have been because it was musty down there in the basement. Across the room was a white wooden door made of slats. Dad walked through the maze of thread and scraped the door open. He flicked a switch and a hanging light bulb appeared. There were stone steps going down into a tunnel of stone.

He looked back at me. I hadn't crossed the mannequin room yet. "It's okay," he said, and stepped down the stairs into the cellar. His footsteps echoed on the sandy stone.

I crossed quickly, and jumped when some thread brushed my ankle.

Damp air hung in the cellar, which was just a stone hall with iron doors on the right-hand side. Dad was standing in front of one of them.

"Do you want to see what's in here?" he asked.

"No," I said, from the middle of the stone stairs. I could see he was getting a kick out of me being scared. "Why are you bringing me here?"

"Because I know you," he said. "You'll come down here on your own and it'll scare the Sweet Bejesus out of you." I tried not to laugh when he said that. "Better to see it all with me," he said.

I felt a lot better. It felt like when I was seven and there was a big older kid named Derek King picking on me all the time, and one day Dad was hosing down our driveway when Derek walked by, and Dad said to him "Hey, Derek. You leave my son alone, or I'll kick your ass." Derek said he'd tell his dad on him, and Dad said "Yeah? Get him over here, I'll kick his fucking ass too."

I pointed at the doors. "What are those?"

"Beats me," Dad said. He opened one. It made a big clang and screech. He had a look inside. "This is probably where they used to lock up the bad girls."

I had visions of ghostly girls stuck in there with steel knitting needles, trapped forever as punishment for their evil deeds.

"There's nothing in here," he said. "Do you want to have a look?"

"No, thanks," I said, rubbing at my ankle where the cobweb had grabbed me.


       Upstairs in the kitchen, Dad made some pasta for dinner. It wasn't as good as Mom's, but Dad said I could watch some TV afterward, which I usually couldn't at home, so I didn't mind the pasta so much. In the U.S. they had this new channel called MTV that had these things called videos on all the time. There was Def Leppard and The Who and lots of others I liked, but especially the guy who sang Eminence Front -- he had the best name: Pete Town's End, just like the town we were in.

Over the two weeks I watched lots of videos when we were home. Dad brought over his new girlfriend nearly every night. Her name was Ann and she was from a nearby town called Hollis. Like lots of people in New Hampshire, Ann said "cah" instead of "car" and the country I came from was Kianada. She was skinnier and younger than Mom, but she had red hair, too. Whenever Dad kissed her, it made me think of when he used to kiss Mom. He used to be happy when he kissed Mom, and she was happy too, so I couldn't understand why it made him happy to kiss Ann now.

Most nights, Dad made pasta or we ordered pizza and Ann was there. A few times, we played Cut Throat in the dining area sometimes with Ann, but Dad kicked our asses every game. She stopped playing after Dad made hooting noises and did this victory chicken dance around the glass tables.

"Your fahtha is wicked competitive," Ann said. I nodded. "And wicked immachoah too."  

That made me laugh, mainly because Dad was still squawking and making chicken movements with his arms, but also because Ann said "wicked" all the time. It meant the same as if I would say "very." People from New England had such a funny way of talking. But I probably wouldn't tell Mom I thought Ann was funny. I didn't know what I was going to tell my mom. Anything would upset her.

Usually after we ate, I took the BMX bike Dad borrowed for me down to the 7-Eleven with money he gave me. American quarters are weird because they feel heavier and dirtier. On the tails side there's an eagle on a branch saying E Pluribus Unum and on the heads there's a man facing left saying "In God We Trust." They seem like they're worth more, but I prefer the Canadian ones, clean and shiny with a caribou on one side (Mom told me it wasn't a moose) and the Queen on the other, looking pretty and staring off to the right.

The 7-Eleven had Big Gulp drinks: huge cups of Coke for fifty cents. In the Jungle King arcade game, you have to swing from tree to tree watching out for the monkeys on the vines above who want to kill you. Then you have to swim through crocodile waters that also have bubbles that push you into the crocodiles if you're not careful. Finally, there are boulders to leap over and evil jungle men who have your girlfriend tied-up over a stewpot. You leap over and win, then start over again -- all that adventure for just a quarter. I imagined I was Pete Town's End, the Jungle King, leaping to the rescue. I would play until it started getting dark out, or until the money ran out, whichever came first, and then bike back to the mansion.

In the mornings when he had to work, Dad drove me over to this woman Brenda's house. It was alone on a country road, with fields all around and an above-ground pool in the backyard. I liked swimming, but there were these little white balls floating in the pool that could detect if you took a pee in the water, and they supposedly would follow you around if you took one, so I only went in once, just in case I peed by accident.

Brenda was a nice lady, and her husband Rick was building a boat in the backyard. He showed me the inside of the hull, which was full of Styrofoam to make it float. "Might take this one down to the Boston Hahbuh." I had never seen the inside of a boat before. It made me wish Dad would still live in Montreal and build a boat for us. Then we could go sailing together, the three of us. Maybe all the way down to Florida and the beach again. I had to stop myself from imagining things. They made me feel stupid.

Brenda and Rick had a son named Pete, who had thick brown hair like his dad. He had such a cool name: Pete Shattuck. We would take our BMX bikes down to the woods where the train tracks ran. There was an old train there with its cargo doors open, so we climbed inside and I had a good look around. I had never been in a train. I climbed up the rusty ladder all the way to the top and hopped from one car to another. I was pretty high up. At one point I peered over the edge and there was Pete, way down below, taking a poo next to the train. I had never seen anybody taking one before. He plucked a leaf off a weed and wiped. Then he pulled his drawers up like nothing had happened. I couldn't believe it.

We biked down to the river and there was a rope there that you could swing on over the rocky sand beach to leap into the river. It looked dangerous. "And there'ah snappin' turtles in the wahta," Pete said, taking off his shirt and shoes.

He got a running start and swung high over the river then let go. He splashed in and the rope came back towards me. "Come on, Al," Pete shouted, far below.

I pulled my shirt over my head then bent down to undo my shoelaces. "Come on, you Cuhnucklehead," shouted Pete. I had on nothing but jean shorts and my underwear beneath. The rope felt like a greasy, girl's hair braid. I clutched it tight and took a few steps back. Then I ran and swung my legs in the air. But there wasn't enough momentum for me to make it out to the river. As the rope swung back, I got scared and let go.

My back slammed into the rocky sand. I made a noise like "Ungh," and tried to pull myself up as Pete ran over.

"Wow," he said. "Your back's wicked bleedin'." The shore stones had cut into my back, and it hurt.

We biked back to Brenda's house. She put rubbing alcohol on all the wounds. It stung my back and the smell stung, too.

When Dad came to pick me up, Brenda told him what happened. "I see," he said. I got into the blue station wagon and just sat there as we drove. I figured I was in trouble.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said. My back hurt when I leaned against the car seat, so I took off my seat belt and leaned forward. But having no seat belt felt weird and unsafe, so I stretched it around me and clicked it on.        


       Just about every night, after I went to bed, Dad and Ann stayed up watching TV in his room, with Dad giggling and stuff. It kept me awake. Then they would stop over in my room before Dad would drive her home. Ann still lived with her parents in Hollis.

"Night, Son."

"Night, Dad."

"Good night, Alan. Maybe I'll see you tomahrra."

"Have a wicked night, Ann."

"You bet."

I would listen as they made the long, creaky walk down the stairs, then all the way to the back of the house, and out the door. Then I'd hear our station wagon start, then back up on the gravel, straighten out, and drive until the gravel turned into road. The sound of the car would get louder as it passed in front of the house, then quieter and quieter until there was no sound at all. Most of the time, I couldn't sleep until he got back.

It was Saturday and I was going home to Montreal the next day. To prepare, I packed my red suitcase, and I noticed that my Mickey Mouse sticker was almost fully peeled off. Dad had left to take Ann home and it was dark out. I couldn't sleep, so I decided to go down to the office to look for some tape. Thinking that the back staircase would be too creaky, I started going down the front staircase.

That's when I heard the clang. It sounded like one of the cellar doors. Then I thought I heard a bunch of very quiet squeaks.

I stood still for about two minutes -- heart pounding in my ears -- then tiptoed over to Dad's bedroom window, which overlooked the gravel driveway. He wasn't back yet. My mind thought of all the things the noises could have been: the wind, one of the books falling in the office, the house sinking, a ghost in the dormitory, one of the mannequins coming to life, or one of the punished dead girls in the cellar -- breaking out of her cell, with a steel knitting needle in each hand.

I wanted to go home right away. Back in my room, I took up my suitcase and walked downstairs quickly, quietly, and went out the front door because it was the nearest. The night was cool, but I was sweating, and I hurried over the lawn, under the great tree and onto the road. Cars with blinding headlights zoomed past as I dragged myself along the shoulder.

A long way away was the strip of closed shops, including the 7-Eleven. It didn't seem like there was anyone around so I walked behind, looking for a place to hide. There was a dumpster full of thrown-away pizzas, and I sat down beside it, the streetlight reflecting off its dark blue paint. I could hear the buzz of the bugs slamming into the lights above, and cars going by every few minutes on the road. I must have sat there for an hour, not knowing where to go or what to do. Then I heard a door break open behind me and there was a guy standing there wearing a dirty apron, smoking a cigarette. "Hey," he said. "Hey you!" I grabbed my red suitcase and ran away.

Back on the road, I was nearly run over as a car honked and drove onto the gravel right beside me. Staying on the far edge of the shoulder, I made my way back in the direction of the mansion. As the cars whipped past in the other direction, I could still see the headlights in my eyes even after they had gone. At one point I lost my balance and slipped down into the ditch on my right. I scuffed my left elbow and knee. "You're in deep shit," I said out loud.

By the time I got back near the mansion, I stopped under the light of a neighbour's driveway and looked myself over. My leg and arm were covered in blood and I was full of road dust. I felt bad because Dad was probably really worried about me. I figured he was half ready to kill me for being so stupid. Even the stables with the skeleton horses seemed like a safer bet than the mansion right about then.

Slowly, I crossed the lawn, and as I walked under the great tree, I realized that Dad wasn't going to kill me after all. I just had to wait outside on the porch and everything would be okay.

I knew, because I saw that he wasn't back yet.


       The next day, Dad drove me back towards Logan. We had time before my flight so he took me for a drive past Fenway where the Red Sox play. Dad asked if I wanted to go see anything in Boston, but I said no. I was wearing my Expos t-shirt and I didn't want to get beaten up.

At the airport, Dad gave me a hug. "Bye, Son," he said into my ear. He was holding me for a long time; it made me feel like I wouldn't be seeing him again for a long while. When he finally let go, I could see behind his yellow glasses that his eyes were watery. I had a hard time not crying right there in front of him.

I turned and headed for the security. When I looked back, Dad was already gone. I started trying to remember all the funny things he said, like Sweet Bejesus, so that I wouldn't forget them later.

On the plane I looked out the window and saw the parking lot, but I couldn't see Dad's station wagon. Maybe I'd forgotten something and he would show up on board and say "Sweet Bejesus, Son. You forgot your Big League Chew. Live Free or Die and fly over them Pretty Green Titties." But the door closed and we backed up onto the runway, drove around a little while, then took off.

We landed in Montreal in the rain, and I pulled my suitcase toward the big glassed-off area where all the people were waiting. Mom was there. She ran over, kneeled down, and hugged me. It felt good to see her again. I'd missed her.

Then she looked straight at me with wide eyes. "Oh, my God. What happened to you?" She started looking at me all over, and touching me everywhere: on my face, on my left elbow and knee, and then under my clothes on my back. She made a breath sound every time she found a new wound, and she even did one when she looked at my Expos T-shirt -- on the flight I had spilled some Coke on it.

"My God, the bastard," she said. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," I said. I'd never heard Mom use a word like that before.

"You're never going back there, Alan. Do you understand?"

I didn't say anything. I just kept thinking about Deep Shit.

Mom was crouched down with her face really close to mine. She smiled and rubbed my hair. "I have a surprise for you," she said.

We walked outside and it was still raining. Suddenly a red Camaro drove up, with AC/DC blasting on the inside. There was a fat man with a beard driving. He got out and smiled.

"Who's that?" I asked.

"Alan, this is Mario," Mom said.

"I Halan," said Mario. He had a French-Canadian accent. He looked down at my suitcase and held out a hairy hand. "Can I get dat for you?"

I gave him my suitcase and as he pulled it up the Mickey Mouse sticker came off. It floated down through the air and into a grey puddle.

The trunk door slammed beside me. I bent down and picked Mickey up. He was dripping with dirty water so I wiped him off on my Expos shirt.

My mother was on me fast. "Alan, don't do that," she said. She tried to wipe away the new stain I'd made, then gave up and pulled me over to the car. "Look what we've got for you," she said.

She pointed at the back seat of the car. In there was a brown and black puppy with white paws. I smiled with my mouth wide open. "Is he mine, Mom?"

"She," my mom said.

I jumped into the back with the sticker still in my hand. The puppy was really excited and there were some newspapers lining the seats. She was jumping and spinning and peeing everywhere.

"Tabarnak," said Mario. I didn't know what that meant, but I saw Mom give him a look like he'd said something bad.

"Do you like her?" she asked.

I thought about it and decided that I did like her. She was getting taken away from wherever she was to live with some strangers, so I figured I could at least make her feel welcome.

"I'm going to name her Pete," I said. "Pete Town's End."

Mario laughed. "You mean da guy from da Who?" he said.

"Yeah," I said.

"That's not a good name," Mom said. "By the way, anything to report?"

I thought about Ann, and about seeing Pete take a shit, and my fall off the rope, and trying to run away from the haunted mansion in the middle of the night, and Dad saying Sweet Bejesus in the cellar.

"Not really," I said.

"Hm," she said, turning around to face me. "I feel like you're hiding something. Mommy always knows."

There wasn't a window in the back seat of the Camaro, so I looked over at the dog again. She was happy to get my attention and started wagging her tail like crazy. I petted her head.

"Alan," Mom said. "Mario's going to be staying with us for a little while. Okay?"

The puppy was licking my face, and Mario turned up the music louder, so I didn't answer anything. My mom smiled and turned back to face the front. Mario's right hand was on the stick shift, and Mom put her left hand on top of his. I saw that her ring was gone too -- only on Mom's finger you could tell where the ring used to be. The skin was tighter.

In my right hand was the Mickey Mouse sticker, which I forgot about since getting into the car. I looked down at it for a second then crumpled it. The dog got interested in it, so I put it in her mouth to chew.

As we left the airport, I didn't bother attaching my seat belt, and sat back with the dog sitting there, leaning against me. I waited to see if Mom would tell me to buckle up, but she didn't.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Adam Kelly Morton. All rights reserved.