I thought I would share the beginning of CHAPTER 1 of my 3rd novel here. THE REASONS was awarded BEST ADULT NOVEL in the 2008 Muskoka Novel Marathon. It was later published by Musa Publishing in the U.S.A. Unfortunately, they closed their doors this past year…taking 2 of my novels with them. Although Sebastian’s Poet is no longer available, THE REASONS is currently available on KOBO.
Although I write mainly YOUNG ADULT FICTION, this title is NOT YA.
The Reasons is a story about a mother struggling with mental illness and the son who tries to save her…
Here’s the synopsis for THE REASONS:
In the midst of absence, death, and insanity, Tobias longs to make his family whole again.
With a mostly absent father, a deceased older sister, a younger sister on the verge of invisibility, and a certifiably insane mother, Tobias Reason is forced to grow up quickly. Though he tries to be a surrogate parent to his sister, their broken mother, Maggie, takes up a lot of his time. Annabel falls to the wayside and becomes a ghost in their chaotic existence.
When Maggie flippantly hands her mother’s house over to Tobias, he sees an opportunity to learn how and why his family became so shattered. Be careful what you wish for. When his world begins to collapse from the weight of unburied secrets, he focuses on a stranger from his parents’ past. Only by eliminating the past, he believes, can he make his family whole again.
Here’s the opening of Chapter 1…
My mother was always losing things. She once lost my dead sister. She spent years looking for her, but by the time she had lost Deja she was far too gone to realize there’s no finding the dead. When you lose sight of them, they are gone forever.
I was ten years old when Deja died. She was the oldest Reason child—gifted, bright, and headstrong. She had just finished high school and was contemplating her next steps in life, pondering her choices.
Deja and her boyfriend, Mark, headed out west right after graduation, to discover the Rockies. She was obsessed with mountains. Deja did everything big. Her journey of discovery should have lasted the entire summer. I saw this journey as her way of putting space between herself and our overbearing mother, though the Himalayas are a hell of a lot bigger and a lot farther away. Had I been able to stow away in her Volkswagen Beetle, I would have. The thought of sharing a house with my mother and my younger sister, Annabel, for a whole summer scared me beyond words.
* * * *
There is something unmistakable about the knock on the door by an OPP constable delivering bad news. I didn’t know what it was, of course, until after I answered it. Having answered it, I will never forget it.
“Is your mother home?” the constable asked me. He was impossibly large. I craned my neck to look up at him. He stood like a statue, with a thick clipboard in one hand and his hat in the other. He’d used the clipboard to knock on the door. I knew a hand had not made that sound.
I hadn’t ever seen a police uniform up close. As I looked at him, with his walkie-talkie on his shoulder and his gun holstered at his side, I wrapped my arms around myself. I shivered, entranced by his thereness. Eventually, I pulled myself away from his stern look and raced to the living room to get my mother.
Our parents had always insisted we call them by name. I shook her arm to wake her from a reverie. She sat in front of the television, pretending to be glued to the soap opera playing out on the screen. She stared beyond the screen, though, lost inside her cosmic Maggie thoughts.
“What is it, Tobias?”
“There’s a policeman at the door, Maggie.”
Her eyebrows crinkled. She didn’t want to be bothered. The details of the real world constantly intruded upon her inner universe. She had no time for reality once she slipped into her imaginary world.
“Why would a police officer be at our door?”
“He’s here,” I insisted, amazed she would not run to see what he wanted. “Waiting for you.”
She stubbed her cigarette into the ashtray beside her and rose from her chair. I ran ahead of her, eager to find out why the police had shown up. I couldn’t think of any reason they would come other than to arrest someone.
“How can I help you, Officer?” she asked. Her fists were tight balls at her sides and she was lurching forward, ready to pounce.
She nodded and folded her arms.
“Ms. Margaret Reason?”
“Yes. Maggie. This is my house. I don’t know who else you would be expecting to be here.”
“Could I please have a word with you, Ms. Reason?”
“You are, sir. You are having many of them with me,” she said, unable to disguise the scowl of impatience on her face.
I worried she might get herself into trouble. Can you be arrested for being rude to the police?
The officer nodded his head in my direction and I knew immediately what he meant. I’d have to leave so they could have a conversation in private.
“Alone, ma’am, if you will.”
“Tobias is fine, Officer,” she said. “I’m not really in the mood for games. If you will let me know what you’re here for, I can—”
“I’m terribly sorry, ma’am, but I’m afraid I have some deeply unsettling news for you. Can we sit down? Somewhere private?” He looked at me again and seemed annoyed that I would not take the hint and leave them alone. But I wasn’t budging.
“What is your name?” she asked, not inviting him in any farther.
“I’m Constable Ryan Murphy, ma’am.” He held out his badge.
She inspected it longer than was necessary before looking back up into his face. “Constable Murphy, please let me know the nature of your visit. I’m not one to fiddle-faddle. And Tobias is not leaving my side. I would like the gist of your—”
“There’s been a vehicular incident, Ms. Reason. Your daughter,” he began, and looked down at his clipboard before continuing, “Miss Deja Reason. She was involved in the accident. Her Volkswagen Beetle was involved. The collision took place on King’s Highway 11, between Braintree and Richer, Manitoba.”
His monotone voice cut into me as he methodically listed off the details of the accident. As the words left his mouth, they began to weigh Maggie down like bricks. First she hunched her shoulders and then sagged closer to the floor. Her composure crumbled as the officer continued to speak. I missed most of the words, but understood their meanings as they registered on Maggie’s face.
“…I regret to inform you that despite the concerted efforts of the paramedics on scene, they could not resuscitate your daughter.”
For the first time, I noticed how young the officer was. Though his voice remained cold—like steel—he was cracking. He swallowed too frequently and his eyes misted with un-fallen tears.
Maggie slowly collapsed to a cross-legged position on the front hall floor. She bent her head into her hands and her raven hair shrouded her face. She began to rock slowly back and forth in silence.
“Both Deja and the driver,” he continued, now making eye contact with me as he spoke. As if I was adult enough to hear the information. He referenced his clipboard again. “Mark Bennett. Both Deja and Mark Bennett were killed instantly. Their Volkswagen, travelling westbound, was hit head-on by an eastbound vehicle attempting to overtake a transport-trailer.”
He stopped, looked to Maggie and then looked back at me. He scowled as he wiped an errant tear, as though he were angry with himself for not keeping his façade of emotional detachment. Or angry with Maggie for not participating in the way he figured she should. I had begun to cry, but had not yet thought to wipe at the tears. Seeing him swipe at his own tears brought me back to myself. I wiped my face on the sleeve of my shirt.
“Ma’am. It took a while for the emergency vehicles to respond. There’s a long empty stretch of highway there and they were right in the middle of it. But be assured they did the best they could. They made every effort. Every effort. The road conditions were wet, but manageable. The fault of the collision rests on the other driver. Had he not—”
Maggie lifted her head and let out a wild, wailing moan, interrupting the officer mid-sentence. Her shrieks soon filled the cramped hallway and I fell into crying with her, my sides hitching uncontrollably as I tried to stop myself and hold it together.
Deja had been gone for only three days. After a lifelong desire to surround herself with mountains, she got only as far as the barren flatlands of Manitoba. For me, this deepened the sting of her death. She had longed for mountains and died in one of the flattest pieces of land on the globe before ever reaching them. Even at ten, the tragic irony in her death was not lost on me.
“Deja, love!” My mother looked up into the kitchen doorway as though her eyes were called there. She swiped wildly at her tears and smiled. The smile was incongruous below the black trails of mascara cascading down her cheeks. “Please. Tell this kind man that you’re fine. Deja, don’t you ever scare your mother like that. You beast! Tell this man he need not be here harassing us and trying to scare the living hell out of us on such a beautiful day.”
She rose, ran to the doorway, and reached into the empty space. She fell over herself to embrace the invisible apparition.
She ignored me. I tried to control myself, but seeing her reach for something that was not there sent my brain spinning. As hard as I tried to see Deja, she would not appear. I looked to the officer for help.
He took a few quick steps towards her and then stopped in his tracks. Perhaps he realized for the first time that he was in over his head. He was not quite back to his position at the door when Maggie turned on her heels and rushed him with her arms flailing, ready for battle.
She grabbed at the front of his uniform and pushed him out the front door and down the steps, screaming the whole time that her daughter was—“right there, you bastard. Right in front of your goddamned eyes.”
Though he was much bigger than my mother, his face contorted into a grisly mask of terror as she continued to barrel into him. In her fury, she overpowered him. Seeing his fear took my breath away. They tumbled to the ground and my stomach turned as though I were going to vomit. Knowing he was the only sane one of the two threw me into further despair.
In seconds he was on his back on our wet front lawn, shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand so he could protect himself against the flailing blows with the other. His hat and clipboard lay scattered on the steps.
“You bastard,” Maggie screamed. She straddled him and pummelled him wherever her flying fists landed. “My daughter’s alive. She’s alive!”
“Ma’am, please.” He took advantage of the moment Maggie paused and he grabbed her wrists. He swung her around so quickly, I didn’t even see how it happened. He pinned her to the ground. “Please, ma’am. I’m going to let you go so we can both get up. I need you to cooperate. Please.”
“I’ll kill you. Let go. I dare you.” She would not relent. “Tobias. Go call David. Deja. Please show this officer that you’re fine. Show him.”
Constable Murphy held both of Maggie’s wrists with one hand while he wrestled out his handcuffs.
“Ms. Reason. I’m only putting these cuffs on you for my own safety. And yours. I’m terribly sorry to have to do this. I know how badly you must—”
“Shut the hell up. It sounds to me like you’re deviating from the script, Mr. Despite Concerted Efforts. Mr. Vehicular Incident. Acknowledge my daughter, you bastard. She’s as real as the stupid look on your face. And right in front of you.”
She struggled constantly under his weight, but now that he had regained control of the situation, she wouldn’t get the upper hand again. The handcuffs snapped into position, and the officer jumped up off Maggie in one swift motion.
I stood on the top step of the front porch, unable to move. I knew I had to call David, but her insistence that Deja was in the kitchen had scared me so badly I froze in my tracks. And my mind had gone blank, anyway. I could not remember my own father’s phone number.
“I need backup at 623 Eagle Drive. Officer 4906,” he said into the walkie-talkie on his shoulder. There was a static reply before he continued. “I’m going to need an ambulance.”
Maggie still sat on the front lawn and we were waiting for the ambulance when my father, David Reason, came tearing into the driveway in his pick-up.
The truck barely stopped when David was out of it, making a beeline for Maggie. She was back to her rocking cross-legged position, with her hair covering her face. Her cuffed hands were in her lap. She had stopped yelling and crying, but ten feet away from me the storm of aggression and chaos still swirled about her like a whirling dervish.
“What the hell is happening here?” David asked the officer. “Why in the name of God is my wife in handcuffs? Handcuffs! You better have a damn good reason for doing this at such a time. What the hell is your problem? What’s your badge number?”
He spoke fast and furious as he made his way to Maggie, not waiting for any of his questions to be answered.
“I’m sorry, sir. She became violent. It was the only way I could subdue her. I’m following procedure.”
“Maggie. I’m here.” He fell to his knees on the grass in front of her. Only then did he cry. “I came as soon as I could. They came to my door too, sweetie.”
He embraced Maggie and began to rock with her. I finally found the ability to move. I made my way to join them.
“Tobias. Oh my God, Tobias.” He opened one arm to invite me into their embrace.
I ran and buried my face in his shoulder, felt the warmth of his skin and that reassuring scent of Old Spice and cigarettes.
I cried hard, but knew I was safe for the first time since answering the knock on the door. I held tight and tried to forget about Deja’s death and her ghost in our kitchen.
“Tobias. Your sister is in the car. Could you go get her? Go get Annabel, please.”
I turned toward the car. The neighbours stood on their porches gawking at us. David hated that about our neighbourhood. This wasn’t the first Reasons episode caught by the prying eyes of neighbours on their porches. Nor did I think this would be the last.
I ran to the car to be with Annabel. Her white face was glued to the window. Her pallor was more ghostlike than Deja’s could ever be. I only had time to open the door before the ambulance pulled into the driveway beside us.
* * * *
Even as the ambulance attendants struggled to get Maggie strapped into the gurney for the ride to the hospital, she screamed her defiance.
“My daughter is alive,” she told the attendant. He held her down while the other one tightened the leather strap that secured her to the gurney. “I spoke to her. She’s in the house. In my kitchen. Don’t listen to that man. I don’t know why he’s here or why he’s doing this to me, but you have to believe me. He’s telling lies. I’m not in shock. My daughter is perfectly fine, thank you very much.”
“Ma’am, please,” the young attendant pleaded. “We’ll take you to the hospital and they will medicate—”
“I don’t need medication. I need for somebody to believe—”
“Ma’am. Please,” he said again. They rolled the gurney to the ambulance.
David turned to look at me. “Take your sister inside,” he said. His eyes were cold steel. They left no room for argument, but I couldn’t help myself. I did not want to go into that house. Not without an adult, anyway.
“But, David,” I began, “she said Deja’s in there. In the kitchen. I don’t wanna go—”
“Tobias. Now. Take your sister in the house and wait for me there.”
He was too ruffled to show me mercy. I took Annabel’s hand and we entered the house. As the screen door slammed behind us, my heart rose a little in my throat. I averted my gaze from the kitchen as I escorted Annabel into the living room.
* * * *
Maggie was not afraid to argue with the doctors who medicated her despite—or because of—her stance that Deja was alive and well. She was not in shock, she did not need to dull the pain…her daughter was fine. Perfectly fine, thank you very much.
She still held up a front five days later as we prepared for the funeral. Deja’s body had been flown back to Ontario. Maggie made note that it was Deja’s first ever plane ride. I couldn’t comprehend why this would thrill her. If Maggie believed Deja were in the house, safe from harm and chatting non-stop, how could she also believe her body was on a plane? How could she possibly work the two things into the same delusion? Mental illness is a baffling thing—capable of putting my sister in two places at once without so much as a skipped beat from Maggie.
I wish I could say Maggie only became crazy after Deja’s accident. But I would be lying. Maggie was crazy long before our Deja died. Deja’s death just helped shape the new direction Maggie’s illness would take. With Deja walking around the house whispering into her ear, she was pretty much free to be as crazy as crazy gets. What was once only a mild craziness had instantly skyrocketed into something of Olympic proportions.
* * * *
David temporarily moved back into our house to get Maggie through the initial trauma and I had hoped, Deja’s funeral. I watched him with a skitterish panic, though, knowing he would soon bolt and leave Annabel and me alone with her. At the same time, his continued presence in the house would only prove to be too volatile. He and Maggie could not live under the same roof. That had already been proven.
Our parents divorced three years earlier, when my father decided he had enough. He ran from us like we were on fire—I suppose Maggie was. Her illness has always been like a brushfire, consuming her and everything around her with a fury when least expected. I remember the Bits & Bites commercial where this big-headed cartoon man in a hammock would reach into his bag and spread out his findings in the palm of his hand. He said something like, “You never know what you’re gonna get.” That was Maggie. The cartoon man was always happily surprised to see what he got. I, on the other hand, was constantly on edge whenever I walked into our house. I did not like surprises. Not when discovering them meant my life was about to be thrown into turmoil.
On the morning of the funeral, David made himself scarce after he fed Annabel and me a breakfast of French toast and orange juice. He decided it would be best if he got ready at his condo so we wouldn’t have to fight for bathroom time in our house.
After he arranged for a town car to pick us up and deliver us to the funeral, he left me in charge of making sure we were ready when it arrived.
First I made sure Annabel was ready. For her, the whole thing was a lovely opportunity to play dress-up. At six, she was thrilled to wear a pretty dress and shiny new shoes. Why would it matter that the occasion was also the burial of her older sister? She was devastated, of course, but she also really liked wearing dresses. I guess that’s the way six-year-olds process things.
Once Annabel was dressed and sitting in the living room in front of the television, I went upstairs to awaken Maggie.
“Maggie,” I said into her blinds-blackened room. “Maggie, you have to wake up. We have to get ready for the funeral.”
“Go away, Tobias.” She pulled a pillow over her head as I opened the blinds to allow the sun to pour into the room. “I’m not going to any goddamned funeral. You know as well as I do that Deja is okay. I don’t know why you people insist on playing this charade.”
It was always you people with Maggie, as though the whole world were against her. The whole world was other. I sat on the end of the bed, dejected.
“Deja? Tell your brother, please. Tell him you’re fine.”
The hair on the back of my neck bristled, as it had regularly since the morning we had learned of Deja’s death. I allowed for a pause, as though I half expected Deja to reply. I was at the point where I really didn’t know what to think.
“You know damn well he’ll listen. Yes you do. Tell him so we can end this charade once and for all.”
“Maggie. Please. Her body came on the plane. She died in a car accident and—”
“—and blah, blah, blah,” she said. “I heard it all. I don’t need a rundown of the events. What I need is for you fucking people to open your eyes and see that Deja is right there in front of you. Get out of my room, Tobias. I’m not going. I refuse to take part in this.”
I pulled the covers off her and ripped the pillow from her grip, leaving her exposed to the light. Like a poked lion, she screamed her displeasure. But she also sat up in bed. I walked a fine line with Maggie. She would refuse and refuse and refuse, but as long as I persisted, she would eventually bend to my will. Knowing her threshold is what saved me. Though she always made things more difficult than they needed to be, she eventually came around. Sooner or later she’d surrender and become pliable like Plasticine. Instead of continuing the fight, she merely sat there and allowed the rest of the day to happen to her.
I walked to the closet door and grabbed the black dress David had chosen the night before. He’d left it hanging on the doorknob, ready for her to slip into. I spread it across the bed.
“David wants you to wear this one,” I said, physically taking her hand and placing it on the dress. Connection. She needed these little connections to bring her down from the sky, like a balloon needs a string to prevent it from floating away. Touching the dress, she would realize its existence, and hopefully, put it on.
“I will wear the dress I want to wear.” She returned the black one to the closet and stepped farther inside. She rattled through the clothes on the rack, shoving dress after dress aside in her search for something unsullied by David’s demands. “David is not going to choose my dress, Tobias. David is a bastard. Correction, the bastard. The day I wear clothes he picks out for me is the day I rot in hell. And you can quote me on that one.”
“We need to get ready. We only have an hour.” I sighed.
“This one will be fine.” She pulled out a white dress with a pink floral print. “It’s summer. I will not be roasting in the sun in black. In black that David picked out for me! If we’re gonna do this thing, I’m doing it my way.”
She held it out at arm’s length, clearly pleased.
It was the worst possible dress for the occasion. That’s the reason she chose it. But David’s only explicit demand was that I get her to her daughter’s funeral. If he had wanted more from her, he should have stuck around and taken care of things himself.
I left her to her dress and went to my bedroom to change into the new suit David had bought for me the day before—my very first suit.
When I returned to her room, tie in hand, she was dressed but sitting on the edge of her bed, staring off into limitless space.
“Get me my cigarettes, darling.” She skipped a beat and took me in with her gaze. She smiled. “Aren’t you the handsome little prince? They’re in the bathroom, beside the sink.”
“Maggie. You have to get ready. We have to leave now. Please.”
“Get me my goddamned motherfucking cigarettes, Tobias, before I lose my mind.”
I hurried into the bathroom and retrieved them.
She was half-way through her first cigarette when I began to apply her makeup. I had watched her do it a thousand times. I thought it would be just like putting on cream. But when I started to do it, I found it so weird. Her face began to change colour as I smeared the brown cream around. I was creating a clown. She allowed me to do this without uttering a word.
When I finished smearing her face with cover-up and rouge, Maggie took over. She placed her cigarette in the divot of the ashtray, picked up a lipstick, and opened it. She drew the red tongue of lipstick out of the gold casing with a little twist of her wrist. I loved to watch her. It was the one singularly non-insane event that was all Maggie, all sanity and reason. She seemed more together and in control while applying her lipstick than she did doing anything else in the world.
“Kleenex,” she demanded after she slathered her top lip with waxy red and puckered her lips together. She absently waved her hand, like a surgeon in an operating theatre, and waited for me to deposit the tissue into it. As I did, I anticipated the next step.
She placed the Kleenex, folded lengthwise, between her lips and pressed down. She released her lips and handed me the Kleenex with a near perfect representation of her lips emblazoned on it. I unfolded it and brought it up to my face. This had become a ritual years earlier—one of my fondest memories. Bringing my lips to the tissue was as good as a kiss, was like a weak substitute for the love she either refused or didn’t know how to show me. And dropping the tissue into the wastebasket beside her dresser—allowing it to silently flutter to the bottom—brought me back to reality.
The reality with Maggie was that kisses could neither be bought nor sold in our household. She knew, though, that the Kleenex kiss was important to me. Her consent to these paper kisses was clear in the way she allowed the ritual to continue. Otherwise, she would have put a stop to it from the get-go, calling it a silly childish nonsense.
With her lipstick on, she mouthed, “Voilà!” into the mirror, raised her eyebrows at her reflection, and picked up her cigarette. As she pulled it away from her mouth the filter was newly aflame with the burning red of her lipstick. She raised her face to the ceiling and expelled thick blue-yellow smoke. “Come and let me put that tie on you, Tobias.”
I scooched between her and the dresser, the tie in hand.
“Face the mirror. Turn around, turn around.” She twirled her hand above my head as though she were spinning a marionette.
“Why this way?” I asked, looking to her reflection for an answer.
“It’s just easier this way. I don’t know why.” She placed the tie around my neck, pulled my shirt collar up, and folded it back down to conceal the tie beneath it. Then she reached in front of my neck and knotted the tie. It happened so fast, like watching a magic trick. One second it sat there like a scarf and the next it was knotted to the throat and pointing perfectly south. I was mesmerized.
“One day I’ll teach you how to do it,” she said, after seeing the look on my face. She smiled and held my gaze. In that special way she had of killing a moment, though, she added, “God knows David never will.”
Maggie moved in closer and looked at our faces side by side in the mirror. If she thought anything, it did not register in her expression. She merely took in the reflection and let out a sigh.
“Can we go now?” I asked, trying not to sound too desperate. I had fallen out of her spell and come back to the realization that we were on a mission. “Annabel’s downstairs waiting for us. David’s going to be wondering where we are.”
“I need to go shopping,” she said. “It’s far too nice a day to waste it in ceremony, Tobias. I’m sure Deja would love to have a girl’s day out. We can go to the beach, go shopping. I know Annabel would enjoy a good—”
“Annabel’s downstairs, Maggie. Waiting to go to Deja’s funeral. Deja is in a coffin. I’ll call David, Mom. I swear I will. Please.” I often reverted to Mom when begging for reason.
She stood, picked up her clutch purse, and walked to the door in a huff.
“Fine. Fine. Fine. We’ll go. But she’s alive, goddammit. Deja, please. For the love of God,” she moaned into the ceiling. “Why don’t you talk some sense into your brother? Why do you punish me like this? You bad, bad girl.”
But again Deja made no response.
“She hasn’t spoken to me yet today, Toby. Not a single word.”