It begins with a big black truck, as these things often do.
Cee feels it first, rather than sees it – hard, as it cruises up behind her, slowly, pulsing a dark beat of post-nineties hip-hop with bass dropped so heavy Cee feels it start in her feet, through the asphalt, surging up through her pelvis with each rhythmic thump. From the other side of the parking lot – out of the water – Safe Cee watches the truck-thing surface above the line of parked cars, its dorsal fin so densely black it pulls in light and never lets go.
In the parking lot, Real Cee feels the bass like jaws, as surely as John Williams’ eponymous shark theme; feels the muscles in her deltoids and traps lengthen and stretch, trying desperately to keep their forearm sisters laden with grocery sacks – all reusable of course – still clinging onto all of them, while their straps cut violently into her wrists and fingers. She should have brought the cart all the way to the car. Real Cee feels the pulse and pressure of the truck at the back of her skull like the business end of a boot. The strain in her arms seems less urgent comparatively to the Emergometre™ in her mind. Consciously or unconsciously – it being much the same – Cee picks up her pace, breaking for it and trying not to be too obvious about it.
The shark keeps pace easily, gliding effortlessly through the tangle of other shoppers’ carts and kids, keeping with Cee as she swims for the shallows. There it is: The Shore: Her little yellow sunshine Beetle with the skittish radio that switches between FM and AM whenever she hits a pothole. Behind her the truck snorts, lurches forward into a…trot? (What was a shark-trot? An ‘attack dive?’ It was always Shark Week on streaming somewhere; Cee decides she’ll have to check it out at home.)
If she goes for her car the truck will know what she drives, will recognize who she is wherever she goes. Why? Oh why had she bought a bright yellow glob of mustard? From her perch in the past, all of it bright yellow and brilliant bursts of colour, Strong Cee refused to do anything differently – she has no regrets – she’d buy the egg yolk all over again in a heartbeat, she said, as confident as the car.
Real Cee isn’t sure she can go past her car, pretend to be looking for another one, without dropping at least some of the bags; she can feel two of her fingers begin to blue. In her animal brain she is as aware of them as she is of the truck. Once and future pains.
Like a dollop of sheep’s feces caught in its wool, the handles of one of Cee’s reusable bags begins to distend, reaching slowly through infinity toward the ground. That decides it; she slops herself at the hatch of her car, dropping all of her groceries in a controlled ditching on the pavement before her back bumper. Isn’t it funny that crashing airplanes are not actually crashing; they ‘ditch’, which, having ended up in her fair share of winter ditches, Cee agrees is a rather accurate description. Cee adds it to her ‘ha-ha funny’ moments of the day, along with her five-minute-old discovery that ‘disposable’ in French is ‘jetable’. Hilarious. Far funnier than the ugly about to splash up on her.
The truck makes its lunge before Cee can haul herself up onto the beach and dry land. Silly her, she thinks, swimming so boldly where there have never been sharks before. But someone somewhere has broken a levee or four and now the sharks from out there are making their way in here – where people swim. Silly her for thinking she could swim too.
The big black truck glides past her, oil slick smooth like the money that bought it. She doesn’t dare turn around. A sniggering laugh, all throaty male Muppet erupts as menace behind her, a half-blink before the aluminum can, still half full, ricochets (also French) off of her skull, almost exactly where the truck’s heavy barometric weight had been pressing against her. It isn’t the can. Obviously, yes, sure, it hurts – how could it not, it was a half full can thrown by an adult man; more akin to a bowling ball than a beebee – but the beer afterward, sloshing out, sloshing around, sloshing all over Cee, that’s the worst. She’s allergic to beer. It makes her break out in hives. She breaks out in hives. And it smells. Rancid old newspaper given over to birdcage carpet. It’s warm. Warmer than the day. Cee feels it drizzle down her top, between her boobs, before being absorbed by her bra.
The truck has made a loop at the top of the parking lot, is cruising along in the next lane over now, slowly coming back for a drive-by and a look at her face. Cee opens the hatch and bends to be out of sight; the yellow car has become a shield, as protective as broken yolk. Before the truck can make another loop and come back for another view or an encore, Cee piles the bags of her month’s groceries into the cavernous luggage hold and climbs behind the wheel. She circles through residential streets over and over, taking paths behind churches and through school zones she never traverses until she is sure there are no sharks in her wake.
By the time she’s in bed, Cee can’t even feel the tiny bump on the back of her head where the beer can bounced off – she tells herself. And besides, she mostly sleeps on her side anyway, away from the lump. In her bed, in her mind, Cee runs over all of the better cooler things she could have – should have – done in the parking lot. Sharkbait Cee watches her coldly from under the umbrella of her hatchback, groceries on the ground around her, hair and shirt smelling of beer. “Good thing I’ve got you, to figure out all these things afterward,” she tells Cee. She can’t meet Sharkbait’s eyes; they’re too accusing, so she slides hers sideways into the pillow. The soft nap of the sham soaks up the tiny little baby tear-trail that’s managed to escape over the lip of her underlid. Fucking things are always getting away on her! Cee swipes at her eyes with one sleep-ready arm, already pinny and needley, but just makes more tears fall.
Frustrated by her inability to staunch the sudden flow, Cee rolls on her back to face the ceiling. In the dark there’s no real metre of distance; she can’t tell how far away the stippling is, or how close. She could be buried alive in a coffin, the lid half an inch from her nose, and she wouldn’t know it. Maybe she is. Isn’t she?
The back of her skull hurts a little, just above the little knob at the top of her neck. Not sure what that’s about; could be anything, she claims. “Could be anything,” she says aloud into the coffin lid. Rudely, it has no answer for her. She feels her numberless others watching her out of the dark, peeking up from their places in her past, waiting to see what she’ll do now. Hoping she’ll do…anything. The little bump on her skull is just the newest monument to the moments that have been pinging their presence against her every beat of every breath. Black trucks bring them; her co-workers hand them to her as valentines with the chocolate already eaten; parents on the street; baristas; the old codgers in her grandmother’s building: They all bring them to her and hang them as ornaments from her defenseless limbs.
Cee makes an exaggerated sigh into the dark, making sure it knows that really, truly, it’s not her fault she has to get out of bed now; it’s really something else going on and if she had the chance she would stay in bed, but, well, nothing to be done. Has the dark seen her tears? Obviously, she needs to do something about them, for a start.
Cee’s collection of Boxes That Never Get Opened has numbered six since they were left on her driveway by her parents. The lightest one sits at the top of the pyramid she put them in, attracting her like an altar. True, the storage room light does hang right above it. Despite the drop-off in her upper body strength, the top box is easy enough to lift down. Cee opens it at her feet and the ones she’s looking for are there, on the top, looking back up at her – as happy to see her now as they were then. Cee with a different – very different – face waves at her from his blind just behind the tower of boxes. “Good call,” he says. “There’s power in them still.”
“Bunny” Rabbit has patches of fur worn almost bare, black button eyes that always smile, and ears that never stood up, always just fell down the back of her oversize cartoon head. The pads of her feet: rubbed raw with years like rocks in a streambed; a beautiful blue Cee has always seen the colour of the sky in, or the brilliant robins’ eggs in the nest on the branch of the ancient spruce outside her once bedroom window. Cee had always adored the soft combination of the bright blue repeated again in Bunny’s ears, with the airy white of her fur. Now she wonders if maybe the colour was supposed to be saying something to her. Meh. Cee shrugs. She never heard it.
Howler “Munkey” Monkey has weathered his boxing better, except where his face is just a little smushed from where the box top was the only thing kissing him for thirty years. Cee attempts to reshape his grin a bit. Both smell of the salty-sweet mix of time stored forever in cardboard. Cee rolls Bunny over in her hands, looking for a care tag. “They’re not a sweater,” Kid Cee says. He’s crouched over the box with her, staring into the pooling past inside it – his future.
“So I should…what?” Cee says, “Dryclean them?” Not that Kid Cee knows what to do; he also doesn’t know what kind of launder heat she’s packing in her later days: Steam heat baby! Munkey and Bunny go into the steam dryer, the first anythings to ever be steamed in the dryer Homeowner Cee nicknamed Spaceship Clean, so it’s really a great honour Cee thinks, for both the dryer and the pair of plush.
“This is it you know, there’s no going back from this,” Homeowner says in the doorway. “You do this and it’s not…you’re not…it’s just, embarrassing you know – sad. You’re sad.”
“A truck attacked me today,” Cee says.
Homeowner rolls her eyes, a darker sturdier colour than Cee’s own. “Yeah, what’d you expect, you know where you live. It coulda been worse girl, way worse. You gotta be ready for that.”
“I don’t want to be ready for ‘worse’,” Cee says. She shoves a small pile of cloth facemasks off the top of the dryer where she’d meant them to remind her that they needed dried, onto the floor.
“Mature,” Homeowner says.
“I just want to sleep,” Cee says. “I just want to start with that.” In the wee small hours the dryer chime bolts Cee awake. Her forehead is warm from being plastered against the clear dryer bubble, her legs are numb from a lotus-seated sleep; there’s a little puddle of drool neatly collected in front of her. Her neck is stiff.
When they went into the steam room, Munky and Bunny smelled of an old sock. Now they both smell sweet, like the remains of the taste of old perfume on the back of her tongue, but it’s not a scent Cee recognizes. She throws a quizzical look at Kid Cee. “Don’t look at me,” he shrugs. “I just used to dress ‘em in necklaces.”
Cee squeezes them both to her, breathing in the soft scent wafting up. She lies back against the laundry room tile and deliberately tickles her nose with Bunny’s ear. She closes her eyes; maybe she’ll sleep now. They smell like someone she hasn’t met yet.
Joelle lives and teaches English Language Arts and Japanese Second Language just outside Edmonton Alberta Canada. Her fiction is decidedly feminist, trans, and grown in the many small towns and tiny cities she called home growing up on the prairies.