Sometimes, the yellow-blooded day will be slaughtered on my bedroom floor. Great marigold pools, spilled across pine. But those dying moments are brief, and always shifting. Usually, they won’t come at all and this cramped, third-floor space will die a less colorful death, slowly starving in a gloomy Toronto autumn. I might go weeks it seems, without a glimpse of that stuff I want.
There are eventually days like today when things align. I make sure to keep my eye on that furious orb as it droops, facing my steep, angular home with vanity. With a little kick to it I mean—enough, for a string of moments, to hold itself out of reach of the pointed black roofs I can see sprawling hungrily to the west. On days like today, my bedroom will bleed. And I will be there to roll in it.
I have that instinct, to stretch out on the floor at the day’s end. Why is that? Vaguely, stale ruddy sunlight seems to draw me. It’s a pause, maybe. In the stale ruddy light, the world has paused very briefly and so have those other things, like what’s in the walls. Or the construction across the back lane from my apartment that’s been going since I arrived here six weeks ago and somehow hasn’t progressed. Foggy nagging thoughts about a pit in my stomach. As clear afternoons implode around me, I can usually forget how funny it would be to lose my mind one sluggish drop at a time and that hiding it from myself and anyone else would be no trouble at all.
But today has been a waste of perfect conditions. Things won’t pause, for whatever reason, and there’s no comfort in the dying light. All I can think of is whatever’s in the walls and how desperately I want to ignore it, and that lying here is useless and strange and that I have another seven months of this place yet to come, assuming I move this summer and find a sublet who’s deaf or doesn’t mind angry clawing sounds. Soon I’ll give up and stand again. Stretch, and drop myself back on that ugly wooden chair that creaks as I study.
Something is in the walls, I’m sure, and it clearly wants to escape. The scratching has that kind of urgency to it. It has a purpose. The urgency is a step in the wrong direction (that much is plain) and it puts me on edge. Until last week, I’d hear that ratty noise behind my headboard only at night and barely then. Scritch-scratch, like a shy imposition. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it polite, but it had the feel of a slow burn to it. This new sound is more of a slasher. So to speak.
I guess I can’t do much. Aside from clutching a hammer at the edge of my bed and daring myself to take it violently to the drywall, to face whatever comes crawling out. But actually, it’s not that bad. In all the student apartments I’ve filled fleetingly with thin mattresses thrown into stark corners, through the blurs of chipped stucco and bitter coffee, there’s been worse. Others had it worse than me. This is nothing, in the reality of student rentals. My landlord lives across the ocean besides, and he won’t answer my calls. I don’t have time to deal with it. Every day, through undusted library windows, I’ve looked up to such slow-shifting leaves, I
didn’t even see them change. October now, and somehow I feel weeks behind.
I should mention John Crawley.
Professor Crawley wrote to me personally last week, which surprised me for the simple reason that no prof had written me personally before. His email was fairly cryptic, asking me to meet with him in his office on the top floor of Halstein House the coming Thursday. I wasn’t overly glad for the email. Mostly I couldn’t understand why he’d be writing me at all. Adding to my confusion, the subject line read Break up the seals and read, which I didn’t understand at the time and I still don’t.
Crawley is a man whose face, at least until our brief meeting last Thursday, was mostly a mystery to me. I’d caught darting glimpses of course, but nothing more. During that slot of time in which he must lecture us on heat transfer, John Crawley behaves in a wholly predictable way. At five past the hour, he’ll walk with strong intention through a slim door at the very front of lecture hall 255 in Halstein House. In that long and crowded room of identical wooden desks, he’ll drop his briefcase on a front-row table with impeccable symmetry,retrieve a ghostly stick of chalk and begin to write. Nothing more, but never any less. I’ve spent long, tense hours watching chalk grow short as John Crawley looks to the board and scribbles in silence.
Worst of all is that I never meant to take heat transfer, to begin with. Not that I can blame anyone for it; it’s my own fault. But when I push open the House’s thick wooden doors each week and slink into its gothic, stony bowels, I usually sulk over that fact for a while all the same. I’d always heard that fourth-year engineering is a breeze because of all the electives they allow you—a nasty rumor, actually—and I thought maybe I’d take early impressionism in that slot. With no time to paint, I could listen to someone talk about it. It was an idea, is all.
As it happened, I was blocked when I tried to sign up for the course. I reached out about it and the faculty told me I’d already spent my allowance of arts electives, only technical electives remained, which I soon found are pretty vile things. When they sent a list of acceptable units, I got the sense one would as dull as the next. I closed my eyes and pointed. Heat transfer it was.
My meeting with Professor Crawley took place last Thursday, just before I went home for the long weekend. I’d already booked my train out of the city and I was worried the meeting might drag out and I’d be late. Actually I had my bags with me, ready to jog to Union if need be, straight down Bay and dodging foot traffic and decrepit scaffolding. “I won’t waste your time,” Crawley told me as I took a seat across from him, without even trying to obscure his face from me now. And he didn’t lie—the entire encounter lasted probably two minutes. The second my bags hit the floor, very nearly, he slid a sheet of paper my way.
“My TA brought this up,” he said, monotone. “Why would you write this?” His voice was cavernous and bland, like something a whale might produce after spending a lifetime caged for exhibition. Glancing down, I saw the final page of last week’s exam. Dominating it, in one cramped and hurried line, were four large words in my own sloppy handwriting. Blotted, disgraceful ink. Barely legible. “I’m not sure,” I said in total honesty, looking up again and wincing slightly. I couldn’t even remember scratching those words into existence, not clearly. A faint memory of it had come to
me just now, that was all, like something shouted through the wind. There wasn’t much that was funny about the words themselves, not that they were overly grim or something. They just weren’t very funny. So it wasn’t a joke but it might have been an impulse. I’d had nothing else to write.
Minute seventy-five of last week’s ninety-minute test was feverish. By then I’d hoarded six or seven half-solved problems together, collecting them as though I had a plan, and naturally I didn’t. I was shorter even on answers than I was on time. The adrenaline had worn off and my mind was gone, the bloated grey corpse of a once-healthy organ. And although I’d put it through such cycles before, and so I knew this drill and gave some thought to devoting another frantic quarter-hour to checking over what I’d managed to write down, when they called out that fifteen-minute warning I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Reading over these things, I mean abstract
math can drive me to a bad state sometimes. There’s a cold misery to double checking values and equating variables. I’ve had better luck catching fish with my bare hands, in the shallows by the dock where we spent one sweet summer week each year, growing up.
“I won’t patronize you,” John Crawley told me from across his broad desk of rippling walnut. Once more, he kept his word. He told me I’d failed the midterm and because that makes for a sort of conversational wall without any clear point of entry I said, “Oh,” and then, “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me,” he snapped back, but not especially harshly. “Just focus. I want you to do well in this course, and now there’s only the final and three labs left for you. Please try to focus.”
I nodded energetically and glanced down. I eyed my hands and ten coarse, bitten-down nails. I watched Crawley briefly too, just long enough to note his confusingly peaceful expression, lacking even the vague disappointment I might have expected. There was only hinted uncertainty. Despite the bland cadence of his voice, he did seem genuinely puzzled.
“You can keep this.” He slid four more exam sheets my way. I stuffed them into my pocket. I thanked him and collected my bags.
“And August,” he spoke up as I reached the door, and I turned round to face him again. “If you ever feel you’re struggling, you can come to see me. My door is always open. But this is a professional program, and there are certain expectations.”
“Of course.” I swallowed the sensation that flew through me—a mixture of boredom, maybe, and shame. A sense of some abstract inevitability. Then I pushed open his office door and was gone.
I had the brief rush of an early escape as I swept myself out of Halstein House in all its heavy, nearly medieval gloom, and back into the daylight. It seemed I’d clawed back stolen time. I had time to spare.
Bronze bells sounded noon from the clock tower looming behind me, staring down Front Campus from its rounded north-western corner. I decided to walk to Union, a distance of about ten or twelve blocks. My bags were empty, mostly, and the October sky was a bright cloudless blue. Anyway, I like to walk. I’ll walk nearly anywhere to avoid the bus.
As I walked, I rubbed at my eyes and thought of Professor Crawley’s face. That grand mystery, finally revealed. I wasn’t sure what I’d expected. Something taut and angular, probably, with all the give of new leather. Hawkish features that might strike fear into students. But the truth is, the man has a kind face. Weary, in a way, but kind all the same. I think it might be his eyes that do it; they’ve got a certain spark to them, like the suggestion if not the outright declaration of compassion. Leaving his office that day I believed his words, that he wanted to help me, but still I had a feeling there was little he could do on that front.
Outside the station I still had time and I sat for a moment on a stone bench to feel the breeze and stare at the jagged glass high rise towering over me from across Front Street. Leaving campus, I’d slipped casually from a false old world of grand pointed arches and ribbed vaults into this contemporary one of sleek, looming glass and polished shoes clicking hurriedly on asphalt. I thought I’d better study on the train. Maybe the change of setting would do me good. All I’d known lately were thick volumes on library desks and dry yellow light from those metal lamps that hum incessantly as if they’re trying to let you in on something. I thought and watched crowds
blur for a minute or two, but soon I began to feel like someone had scooped my insides clean out of my body like the flesh of a grapefruit, and I stood again and made my way finally inside the station.
When I boarded the train home, I tried to cram thoughts of school down. For a few days at least I wanted to wash my mind clean, like a quiet street after the rain. But I couldn’t resist a final look at my exam papers, and glancing around all I saw were other passengers settling predictably in for the five-hour journey. No one seemed particularly concerned with me. I reached into my pocket and withdrew the crumpled papers, straightening them across my lap, flipped through them to that final page until I could lay eyes on the line
that had so confused John Crawley and all its awful, haphazard defiance. My gaze poured over it letter by letter:
I was never here.
Four words that took barely a second to read. Still, I shot an unthinking glance over my shoulder once again. The phrase tasted so very bitter as it washed noiselessly over my tongue. Staring down at it and thinking how repulsive it was to me, I could feel the dried ink gazing back up at me with an even greater distaste. The phrase was familiar. Nova came to mind again. But I couldn’t recall consciously deciding to write her words down, and why I would do something like that was totally unclear. With a grimace and rigid, mechanical motions, I crushed the test, stuffing it back into my pocket. I banished it to the back-burner of my mind. I was headed
And I won’t tell you about home; it wouldn’t add a thing, as far as I’m concerned.
Days later, the night before my return trip, I dreamed something bizarre and disquieting too, but not in an outright way—a soft disquiet held just below-surface, frustratingly hard to pin down. It’s been this way with my dreams, lately. At times when I wake up, I find it hard to be sure if I’ve only just left a dream or in fact been plunged into one. In a way, it was the case here too.
I dreamed of a great, sun-baked field, and impermeable clouds of dust kicked up by dozens of hooves. Savannah was there. My family was there as well—my mother and father, and Julie, my younger sister. We stood to one end of the field, tucked into a cheering crowd, being slowly drained of sweat by a cruel midday sun. There was no shade to be found anywhere, only dust and heat and, strangely, men on horses driving their way up and down this hellish pitch to screaming fanfare, I found myself taking part in. Why should I be so excited? There too I was confused. I had a sense it was expected of me. And whatever the reason we were there watching horses, and cheering at the men on them, I could say Julie was almost definitely at the root of it.
My sister Julie, at ten years old, loves horses in an unconditional way that I think exceeds my capacity to love anything at all. I can’t fault her on that. After all, I’m responsible for it, if anyone is, although horses and ten-year-old girls seem to find each other as a natural course of things I guess.
For Christmas two years ago, I bought Julie a book all about horses, with a hardcover and hand-drawn illustrations. I’d thought it looked nice, gleaming up at me from its wintry display in the store that December. It covered anything horse-related pretty vigorously, apparently, because within a couple of weeks she was an expert on the big skittish animals and anything even vaguely tied to them. But I hadn’t thought of the book right now; my eyes were glued to the action on the pitch. And I realized suddenly, as we watched these men on their horses and I saw they in fact had clubs in their hands and were chasing a weighty looking ball, what I was
witnessing was a polo match.
I’ve never watched polo, and I have no idea how it’s played. This must be how my mind formulates it. There was an undeniably dystopian quality to it all—the cruel heat and the dust, the heavy clubs and the horses’ wild, darting eyes with that violent froth building at the corners of their mouths. In fact while I thought as much, I watched one man lean forward to flatten himself against his animal, taking careful aim at the careening white ball underfoot, only to have an opponent emerge from dust clouds to his left like some apocalyptic messenger and club him off the horse and to the ground. The first man was trampled instantly. The crowd built itself into a
murderous frenzy around me.
“Julie,” I nudged my sister nervously, averting my eyes from the scene. “What’s going on? Why are we here?” My parents, I saw, were totally enthralled by the match, and she was in a similar state, though she broke her gaze from it momentarily to look my way.
“Auggie!” She smiled sweetly up at me. “Did you know? The canter and gallop are variations on the same gait. But while the canter has three beats to it, the gallop is faster with four.” She spoke as though reading from an encyclopedia, then turned abruptly back to the game, her curly brown hair swinging in cheery, delayed imitation. She had it up in a ponytail, I thought drily.
I brought fingers to my temples, felt the heat beating mercilessly down. Slowly, I began to pull back from the crowd, until I reached a relatively secluded corner of the field about fifty yards away. Above me, painted off-white and rising imperiously to either side, wooden fences blocked my view to anything beyond. I reached into my pockets, searching for a cigarette, but found them totally empty. And so I just stood, sweltering and unsure of myself, strident noise jumping the crowd to claw at my ears. It was in this state that I saw Savannah.
I knew it was Savannah, but at the same time, it felt somehow like that first time I saw her those months ago. That’s what I thought as my sleeping eyes drank her in. That was the way with this dream. She emerged from the parched mass of human grime and dust, purely cool and assured, moving in smooth steps toward me. Myeyes locked to hers and I found I couldn’t move. She had on acid wash jeans and cropped white t-shirt. She looked comfortable, somehow unaffected by the scene around us or the heat.
And then she was standing in front of me, a slim hand pressed gently to my cheek. “Why are you here?” she asked, and I told her I wasn’t sure. She smelled of fresh air. Pale blonde hair fell to her shoulders in sharp swathes, swept to one side like an unruly wave. “You don’t belong here,” she said, and I cast my eyes down. “Wake up, August.”
Then I was awake unexpectedly, wrapped in sweat-soaked sheets and gasping at an oppressive darkness. It took me a moment to understand where I was—at home, in my childhood bedroom, immersed in that skewed familiarity. Within weeks of leaving for college my parents had redone my bedroom, tearing down Slowdive and Radiohead posters in patient relief, and coating the walls in civil tones of beige. I feel like a guest here now, a stranger at home. As I woke and threw off my damp shirt, all I could make out were dark contours, given life by the dim light of orderly suburban streetlamps filtering in through a window next to my head. I stayed like that for a while, watching things as though they might shift on me. I glanced right to the street below, absorbing its hushed simplicity, then back to my old bedroom.
My throat was dry, and finally I swung my legs out of bed and stood to creep to the bathroom down the hall. There I filled a ceramic mug with water, drank it in gulps. The tile was warm beneath my feet, thanks to a well-positioned vent. I watched myself briefly in the mirror, eyeing the shadows in the hall behind me before turning to face them.
On my return I guided myself on a familiar, erratic path across the hardwood, memorized long ago to avoid creaking floorboards. It was an unthinking process, but when I finally paused to look up I found myself at the foot of the stairs to the attic, rising up into silky darkness, and not at my own bedroom door as I’d expected.
A chill swept unconsciously over me. Over a year, now, since I’d been up those stairs—and I could feel myself being pulled forward, as though by the breath of some massive beast as it inhaled, lying in wait on thick wooden planks directly overhead. My hairs stood on end and I turned myself away, forcing measured steps back to my bedroom. There I closed the door behind me and sat on the edge of my mattress for a moment, trying to remember how I used to feel only a few years ago in the very same room, until eventually I slid back under cool sheets and lay perfectly still. Watching unmoving patterns of light on the ceiling above.
I’d like to coat myself in civil beige, I thought, and slip into these walls. And I shut my eyes and pretended for hours to sleep.
Liam Keller currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is a part-time law student and works at a pet grooming and boarding facility, writing in his spare time. He began writing during his undergraduate studies in Toronto, pursuing it more seriously over the past year, during the pandemic.