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Author of queer, quirky sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Thursday, 18 October 2012

To Whom It May Concern: A Short Story

Hello hello!
Well, because I love you and because I promised, here is your story for getting me to the 150 likes point on the fanpage. No cartoons today, I'll let you get to it. Enjoy the silliness, and start thinking about what YOU want to see on the blog. As I'm growing, I want to hear from you! Put your comments and questions below, and you can bet I'll answer back.
Well, without further ado--here it is, a story based on my day job--which I love--and the little-known administrative wing of supervillain organizations. Enjoy.


To Whom It May Concern

Being the administrative assistant for an enormous evil supervillain organization is less fun than it sounds.
Sure, I’m a secretary for D.O.O.M, Inc, but working for them isn’t a guarantee of glamour. The strangeness of most things and the novelty wore off a long time ago. Still, as long as I’m writing my official defection letter with this job application, I might as explain why, and give you an idea of what I do around here.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. It isn’t for the faint of heart—if one is afraid of breaking a nail, working for supervillains is hardly an ideal career choice. That’s why I get the manicurists to give me titanium tips. I digress.
Why do I want to join the other side, you’re wondering, when I’ve spent so long interacting with you already? After all, I can guarantee that whether you’re an admin staff member like myself or a manager, you have probably heard my voice on the phone, requesting insurance information. I’m one of the front desk people, and you barely know my name, but you know me extremely well nonetheless. It’s the reason I’m not wording this as formally as usual for a cover letter. We’re on the same side, in a sense. I can’t ask you to think of me as ‘one of the good guys’ yet, I know that has to be earned, but maybe if you understand more about my job, you’ll see my reasons for defecting.
I have to admit that there are certain perks that never quite lose their charm. Calling down a batch of henchmen to the lower lobby to deal with the heroes who drop by does become routine. Watching an intrepid yet hapless captive romantic partner being slowly lowered into a lava pit full of fire sharks, however, always improves my day.
Then there are the benefits packages—perhaps the riskiest part of leaving this job will be abandoning my benefits. Full health and dental, complete accident coverage including vaporization, irreparable frostbite, evil clones, and alien abduction or enslavement in addition to the routine ‘dismemberment or death’ inclusions is a pretty sweet deal. The fact that they cover 50% of my salon visits and include a gym pass with ten personal training sessions a year—evil has to look good—is more icing on the cake.
So, all in all, it’s a decent package. Or, it was.
I should preface further exposition by mentioning my most unique assets. There aren’t many women who can calm a pack of ravening rat-wolves with a single look, and the titantium-reinforced skeleton and unique cybernetic enhancements mean that I’m technically a bit more than human myself. The interfaced network on my systems makes Google’s look like an infantile joke, even if it does mean that I’m technically mostly AI. It’s not a procedure you can request from standard health care coverage, and it was done for free here. You wouldn’t believe how useful an in-brain scheduler is for updating morning torture sessions and ensuring that minions are cloned on time.

Admittedly, there are downsides. I’ve been here for a year and a half, and that’s considered formidable. An uncomfortable number of my predecessors and coworkers have been eaten by unspeakable tentacled horrors—not just on dates. And, of course, we’re often in the line of fire when hero teams hit the building. Force-fields around one’s desk are only so effective, hence my upgrades.
Unfortunately, being partly computerized—bionic, if you prefer, though it’s more than that—hasn’t given me the godlike patience true computers and AIs have. You can only page the lab about a hyena-lizard-chicken escape so many times before the pall of cleaning up all that dung afterwards kills any excitement. Summoning the cleaners, forwarding our insurance bills to accounts payable every time The Strong Arm breaks the door down dramatically…it has become tiring.
Then, too, there’s the public vs. private image discrepancies with the villains. When El Destruyado, Hell’s Own Luchador, charges into the fray against La Esperanza and they smash the downtown core again, he seems terrifying. Thunder, lightning, and wrestling moves that would incapacitate anyone in the human leagues in a single blow are not to be trifled with. But when the same man comes into the office with a double-chocolate biscotti crammed into the lower half of his mask, latte in one hand and ePhone in the other, it’s a different story. When Dr. May Hem has once again unleashed the wrath of science on New New York or Toronto, she’s a sight to be seen. The way she awkwardly flirts with Venus Fly Trap around the water cooler, though, shows the body language of a different woman. And don’t get me started on The Merciless Blob’s Friday snack binges, or the time I caught The Frostinator crying deeply into the receiver as an awkward sex trade worker comforted him on speakerphone.
People—perhaps even some heroes—tend to forget that under the masks, the villains lucky enough to be full-timers are still people. They still have uncomfortable holiday parties where The Newt drinks too much. They still have board meetings to discuss strategies for the next quarter. Some of them still get very lonely.
I do wonder about my status among the supervillains I interface with. You can only bring so many lattes to the lab and tolerate the way they forget your name each time for so long. (Granted, these are workaholic scientists, and one needs to cut them a certain amount of slack for that.) Perhaps it’s the awkward sense of sympathy I feel for some of them, or the frustration of working around the time constraints of evil schemes, but in spite of my aggravation, I feel some guilt about this career move.
I’m worried that knowing too much puts my life in some danger, of course, but in a perfunctory way. We’re not quite family, but I’m more than a mere peon, or so I’d like to think. Obviously, I’m keeping my options open.

Incidentally, I still haven’t mentioned another of my primary qualifications for this position, namely, the time I’ve spent dealing with heroes. They tend to be very polite when they’re not destroying the furniture dramatically, though once in a while things get more interesting.
“I, THE STRONG ARM, CHALLENGE DOCTOR IMPERVIOUS TO A BATTLE TO THE DEATH, IN THE NAME OF SAN FRANCISCO!”
“I’d be happy to direct you to him, sir, but Dr. Impervious is out and you’ll have to make an appointment.”
He looked at me with the befuddlement only an entitled, unconsciously privileged hero can muster. “IT’S A CHALLENGE TO FIGHT TO THE DEATH!”
“And you’ll need to book an appointment. You can use the direct line on the platinum phone in the lobby.” I gestured at the glossy , old-fashioned phone on its marble plinth.
“THE SAFETY OF SAN FRANCISCO—NAY, THE ENTIRE WEST COAST—IS AT STAKE! HIS EARTHQUAKE GENERATOR HAS TROUBLED THE SHORES FOR THE LAST TIME!”
“Actually, sir, you’ve reached the Canadian branch. I’d be happy to assist you with a Vancouver-related incident, but I can’t help with San Francisco. You’ll have to try the D.O.O.M. Inc, office on location in San Francisco. If you have a concern for Canadian operations, however, you’re welcome to wait. I’d be happy to get an evil representative to assist you.”
The look of stupefaction on his face was magnificent, but it was quickly replaced by his default emotion, righteous meathead anger. “HE CAUSED THE QUAKE! HE MUST PAY!”
I used my intercranial wireless to access both the government and civilian seismic databases to search for info on the most recent earthquake. It takes very little digging, and .5 of a nanosecond later, I had my answer. I put on the seriously-annoyed face, the one that makes extraterrestrial diplomats pause. “It was a natural earthquake, sir, and I’m afraid that if you continue with that tone, I’ll be calling disposable security goons to see you out.” I slapped a sticky note with Dr. Impervious’ extension on the desk for him.
With a furious glare and an emasculated curse—heroes don’t really swear—he went over to the phone, dialed the number I’d given him, and scowled at me.
“NOW WHAT?”
“Please wait patiently, sir. An evil representative will be with you shortly. Otherwise, I’ll be happy to get you a complementary beverage.”
He glowered at me and reluctantly accepted a triple-shot skinny moccachino with lizard milk. They almost always take the coffee and wait, in the end.
This isn’t to say that all heroes are, in fact, assholes. Plenty will just arrive, politely issue their thundering challenges, fight through the goons, and go on their way. I’ve always liked the few corporate heroes that are emerging—the ones who show up in Italian suits to broker peace negotiations have a sense of style, of sophistication, that you don’t find with the old-school meatheads. Sometimes we still send goons after them for fun, but it’s pleasant to see the opposing side meeting us on our level.

I should return to descriptions of my qualifying features. I will also be a valuable addition to your team due to my experience with difficult situations and triaging calls. For instance:
“Good afternoon, D.O.O.M. Inc, how can we destroy you?”
“Yes, I’d like to donate to the orphans of evil villains—“
“That would be our evil fundraising wing. One moment and I’ll put you through.” Click click. “Good afternoon, D.O.O.M. Inc, how can we destroy you?”
“You’ll never win, D.O.O.M. Inc! Good will triumph! You may have destroyed my Bear Cave—“
“Can I interrupt you briefly for your superhero alias or false identity, sir? It will help me direct your call.”
“I am The Grizzly, and—“
“Ah, thank you, Mr. Grizzly. I’ll be happy to direct you to our damage claims department regarding your Bear Cave. Please ensure you have your claim number and insurance information ready.”
“I don’t want your money! I want justice! Your clearcutting—“
“Actually, sir, if I may interrupt, D.O.O.M. Inc is committed to sustainable evil. We have very strict low impact environmental policies. You may be looking for DEATH Cor.  I understand that the Fire and Inflammable Villain Associates Guild also has a branch dealing with forest destruction.”
“That’s not good enough! I demand compensation for the lives of innocents you’ve claimed! This is far more than a matter of destroying my Bear Cave!”
His stage growl, reminiscent of a tracheal-tube-using Bob Dylan, gives way to his real voice, the reedy drone only old men can muster.  
“Just one moment please, and I’ll be happy to connect you with the complaint department.”
Of course, at the end of that call, we had a mauve alert—class C hero invasion—and the acid sprinklers went off unexpectedly. Just then, the Gibbonator burst through the wall, screaming in agony as his new rabid gorilla-shark hybrid apprentice tore its master’s intestines out. Even before the implants and fractal programming that supplements my consciousness, I’ve always had the ability to keep a cool head and a smile under pressure.

Now, due to your equal opportunity employment initiatives, I suspect I have a better chance than most for a position at WorldSavers United. Nonetheless, I regret to say that I am still concerned about one aspect of my future career with you based on past experiences with D.O.O.M. Inc. At D.O.O.M. Inc, I knew I’d never be a supervillain proper; staff structures tend to be very rigid and hierarchical, for all that our communication protocols are the most progressive in evil industries.
I’ve been hoping to make more physical use of my implants and accessories in a future career. I’d like WorldSavers United to be that career-fulfilling directional change.
Sadly, you can’t be a cyborg half-composed of evil hyperquantum computing parts without picking up a knack for analysis. I know that any applications from candidates with evil corporations on their resumes have a rejection rate of 87.965%, rounding down a bit. Therefore, I took the precaution of stating my case in a more familiar style, for greater warmth and appeal. I needed to ensure that the letter would be distracting and lengthy enough that you’d fail to notice the letter bomb nanobots that have already invaded your office.
I admit this was my idea—what better way to hit heroes where it hurts than to disorganize them hopelessly? A fake defection letter…it’s perfect. With no one to forward your calls and log evil challenges and appointment requests, you’ll be helpless.
By now, of course, your seconds away from destruction in a fireball full of deadly neurotoxic smoke, but I’ll dispense a bit of useful advice before I close.
Never trust an evil admin applicant, but don’t trust admin in general. Perhaps you will disagree, Cheryl on the third floor, but I suspect you and I have more in common than you’ve been led to believe. You see, I know you forwarded this letter to your superiors, and that they sent it to the heroes before you’d even skim-read the third paragraph.
And so it is to you, La Esperanza, The Grizzly, and (oh, I hope) The Strong Arm, that I address my final message. Wherever you work next, whether I destroy WorldSavers United or merely cripple it temporarily, keep something in mind. As you replace your staff at this or the next organization, remember—no matter which side we’re nominally on, all secretaries are evil.
As well, I hope you’ll consider my application, and that you’ll call me on the cell number attached to arrange an interview time.




*****

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the good kind of crazy. Find me on Twitter, Facebook, and on Tumblr. Don't forget to check back for short stories, more politics, analysis, scraps of science, and even some reviews. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Monday, 15 October 2012

Breaking News: Amazon Reviews for "The Stolen: Two Short Stories"

Hello hello!

Well, You lovely, lovely people have gotten me to the 150 mark on my fan page, and as it happens, I finished my present for you just earlier this afternoon! I'll try to have it up by about Thursday. If you didn't catch my tweets, well, stick around--it'll be a pleasant surprise, that's all I'm saying. I've had my serious face on to tackle a few important issues, but the short story is going to be rather less solemn.

Okay, fine, you get two hints about the story: GLADoS and Jonathan Coulter. That's all! No moar! Now you must wait.

I also want to share a rather awesome review from my Amazon page for The Stolen: Two Short Stories.

This one is by rising horror star J.C. Eggleton, author of Brookhaven.

The Review:

"I must say, I rather enjoyed the short stories in this book. Ms. Browne does a great job of crafting a dystopian future of censorship and sexual repression. She hurdles the most common pitfall of the genre by avoiding staking too much on concocting futuristic technologies. There are a few gizmos, certainly, but they take a backseat to the oft-overlooked, all-important detail: People. The first story takes a gritty look at the growing sub-culture in the modern world, prisoners, and never deviates from the point.

The second was perhaps more interesting because it hits Ms. Browne so close to home and that's censorship. It's obvious from the text that Shakespeare is a passion and I was impressed by the genuine pain her characters go through while having to chop and delete and muddy the wording of our language's finest craftsman. The story focuses less on futurism and does a wonderful job of fleshing out the characters. A great deal of it focuses on their day to day lives, makes the horrors of their actions seem almost the norm, and I enjoyed that.

As much as I wanted to rate this a perfect five, I had to be honest. If there was any way I could rate the book four and a half stars, I would. I'm simply not a big fan of short stories in general, they always leave you wanting more. That's exactly what this book did: I left me looking forward to more of this rising star's work and I would recommend any fan of the genre to do the same."

There you have it, folks. If you've somehow skipped this story until now, wait no longer. Go forth to Amazon! Here is the Amazon link, on top, and the Smashwords link, below it.

The Stolen: Two Short Stories on Amazon

The Stolen: Two Short Stories on Smashwords

*****

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. You'll be getting a treat on Thursday, so tune in for the short story! In the meantime, you can keep an eye on me on Twitter and on Tumblr. Don't forget to check back for short stories, more politics, analysis, scraps of science, and even some reviews. This is your SciFiMagpie, over and out!

First World Princess Problems: Disney, Entitlement, and the Hipster Movement

Hello hello!

I am back once again with the blog post I promised earlier this week. With a fairly sizeable American Apparel store on the way to work, hipsters are pretty visible as a part of my daily life. The movement wasn't one that I understood at first. I saw the fashion, heard some of the music--unless it was too obscure, of course--and set my brain to work, trying to comprehend it.


Source. This is pretty much half of your basic hipster wardrobe; however, fedoras, oddly-fitting 70s blouses, ludicrously high-cut pants, and chunky plastic jewelry are also mainstays. Oh, and those goddamn mustaches. Mustaches everywhere.


Part 1: Observing Hipsters

I could tell there was a trend going on, and I recognized the impact of Japanese fashion on its style, but there, my understanding ended. Thick-rimmed glasses and a mishmash of stylistic references to different eras that were combined into a decidedly unique look, generally involving Apple products. Hipster fashion was everywhere, growing each day, and yet, to be called a hipster was an insult. The look is praised and derided in the same breath. It has managed to retain an exclusive cachet even as overweight North Americans everywhere are trying to squeeze into sterility- and embolism-inducing skinny jeans.

Just in case you, dear reader, are confused by the term hipster, I'll provide a brief description of the word's application in most modern contexts. The current hipster look and attitude are stereotypically characterized by exclusivity, streamlined clothing cut for those with a lower-than-average BMI, expensive electronics, obscure music by mostly independent artists, and the traditional snarkiness every cool group displays at its zenith. Skinny jeans and an androgynous look are generally the norm, and a pseudo-worldly display of international interests combined with affected quirkiness are hallmarks of the attitude that matches the clothing.

Of course, this description is leaving out the history of the hipster, which is an evolving movement that takes its roots from Jack Kerouac and other Beat poets, as well as from Andy Warhol's Factory crew. Still, don't let the description fool you--most hipsters are, as with any trend, far less extreme than in typical descriptions, and quite a few people can make the fashions work without having to display the less tasteful aspects of the attitude.

I'm going to touch on a previous column, which dealt with cultural appropriation and skimmed over how to avoid it. I mention it because affecting 'tribal' styles without a specific ethnic origin and using 'first Nations inspired' designs, such as feather headdresses, are common to hipster styles. A lot of important touchstones for non-Euro-American cultures that happen to look cool get borrowed and recycled in the hipster look. I don't think I need to explain why using sacred or culturally sacred symbols for casual fashion is bad and pretty disrespectful.

Still, because I don't want to rehash what most of the internet has been bitching about for the last couple of years, I'm going to skip ahead to the part that involves Disney. We all love Disney, right?


Source. There's your overlap. You've been warned.


Part 2: Disney Princesses

A few friends of mine have started to rear their own offspring, and the rest--including me--still use this and any other excuse to enjoy some Disney nostalgia. There's no getting around it--ostensibly evil, money-grubbing, exploitative corporation or no, Disney is a company that makes a good kid's movie. I'm not going to get full-bore feminist on everyone's asses, and we'll talk more about why Disney is both very good and very bad another time, but the fact remains that good songs and good animation resulted in some good movies.

The princess movies in particular have done a surprisingly good job of surviving their over-marketing. In spite of being saturated with merchandise and sequels related to the roughly grouped stories based on carefully retold fairy tales, we aren't sick of them yet. The beauty of The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, or even the somewhat condescending Princess and the Frog film still remain, even with the faults of the films.

I hate to gut something that formed such an essential part of so many childhoods, and I hate to restate the obvious or oft-said even more, but the princess films have also done a fair bit of damage to our psyches. In addition to the body issues, the presentation of love as the end-all and be-all of life, and the easy solutions, the princesses generally had to put in only token effort to have the world delivered to their feet. Perhaps it is natural, then, that movies associated with white privilege and the style associated with white privilege have overlapped so neatly.

The thing is, the princesses always sought 'more', a certain meaningfulness to their lives that they just couldn't put in place. Belle was unfashionably intelligent; Ariel, curious about a culture she was restricted from interacting with; and Jasmine, unwilling to hide from the world once she'd gotten a taste of life beyond her castle walls. The older princess films were made in a time when marriage was the only thing that mattered, and the newer films have been made with Disney trying to compensate for its past failures, so they lack the soul-searching elements that made the 90s era Disney Renaissance films so good.


Source. More dress-up time, to give your brain a quick rest and some fashion candy.


Part 3: The Point

You were probably wondering how these two were linked, and whether the entire post was an excuse to show these drawings. (It wasn't, I promise.) The hipster movement's roots had to do with disaffectation with privilege, and its current manifestation is both reliant on Western wealth and Western discomfort with this wealth. Yes, we're currently experiencing a job crisis in America, but up here in Canada and down in the States, most people still have enough money for that iPhone, and will still make sure that their second-hand clothing is fashionably tight.

For young women at the moment, then, whether we're comfortably swaddled in the illusion of security that university provides or out and learning the joys of long-term work in retail, these films still resound. Those of us who were born into the 90s or 80s, we 'millenials', were promised the world. And, having gotten it, or having had it snatched away by , we want 'more', a thing we can't put a name to but keep searching for. Like the girls wandering around their family's gardens and singing about their discontent, many of us feel incomplete.

The hipster movement soothes these feelings nicely, with its concentration on aesthetics and arbitrary acceptance and rejection system. The stories that resounded with us as children still resound now, well after their appeal should have expired, for the simple reason that we are trying to find meaning, and failing.

At times like this, it's hard not to scowl and point to people like Malala Yousafzai, one of millions of girls who would kill for the educational opportunities that we grudgingly endure and even squander here. What the hell are we complaining about, one might ask, and not without reason. Privilege, though, and the easy access to money, social supports, and parental back-up plans, are their own traps. The disintegration of these backup plans as the economy has failed hasn't really fixed the problem of growing up in a world where life is easy and hard questions are optional.

Am I saying that the answer to our desire for 'more' is activism rather than indifference? Well, possibly. It certainly beats settling into that sufficient job and sufficient house and wondering why being able to afford most of one's wants just isn't satisfactory. The thing that gives someone's life a meaning may be something big, like getting equal educational opportunities for women, or it might be something smaller, like making art. Still, if there's one thing we can learn from the princesses and the hipsters, it's that ambient levels of wealth won't keep us happy, or keep us from looking for something more significant. Romantic love alone certainly isn't the answer, but there are answers out there. Looking, and looking beyond the next iProduct upgrade or temporary entertainment, is the only way to find that vague yet recognizeable quantity, "More". "More"--it's the new American dream.

*****

Thanks for returning and patiently waiting for your late Sunday night fix. You can get "more" --and by that I mean MOAR, of course--Twitter and on Tumblr. Don't forget to check back for short stories, more politics, analysis, scraps of science, and even some reviews. This is your SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Just a Sip: A Preview of New Work


Hello hello!

Well, my darling fans and followers, you have shown your love and gotten me over the 100 mark on my fan page. That's here, of course: 
https://www.facebook.com/SciFiMagpie

Right! So, without further ado, here is a preview of "A Shot of Vodka", a non-science fiction work I'll be putting out this winter. Christmas is the projected date. It's novella length, but I may be including another short story or two along with it.





Source. Of course, thanks to wiki, you can have ALL the vodka. However, this story is about something much more disturbing than whatever happened on your last liquor story adventure. I can pretty much guarantee that.

Of course, no work is complete without a sinister origin...
It was inspired by my first-ever, feverish reading of Doestoyevski's Crime and Punishment some years ago. The story got under my skin in a way that's difficult to describe. I think anyone else who's been really gripped by a story will understand. At the same time, I had a rather maniacal and slightly insane English teacher, who encouraged us to 'tear the book apart' and applied a culturally incorrect reading of the siblings' relationship to our analyses. One thing led to another, and I pursued study of the text on my own. It was the beginning of my love affair with Russian literature, which has continued to this day, but it also sowed the seeds of this novella. 
While there is an overlap in the character's names, they aren't intended to be fan fiction versions of the title characters of the masterpiece. Rather, they're children growing up in the shadows of famous namesakes, connected by coincidence to literary tragedies, but otherwise remote. And, as you'll learn in December, their tragedy follows a far different course. 

I will forewarn readers that while there is little disturbing content in my excerpt, the story contains sensitive material. This may not be an easy read, and may not be for everyone. There may or may not be heads split open by axes, but I've heard from critics that this is one of my darkest stories yet.

Enough teasing--let's get to that excerpt. Here, Avya introduces herself and her brother, and we get a small taste of some of the undercurrents disturbing her family's ordinary exterior.

*****


Rod and I were close. I did love my brother, and rather a lot; it’s a difficult thing to explain, and I suppose that’s why I’m writing this. Though I looked on him only as a sister does, I did sometimes wish we weren’t related—to look at us, one-to-one, you wouldn’t have thought we were siblings. We looked nothing alike. Still, if he was not, you know, my brother, well…you know how it is.
People had remarked from the time he was very little, that he was handsome, and startlingly so. His name suited him. I suppose it’s all genetic coincidence, his resemblance to the other Raskolnikov; nonetheless, there was that fine build and dark hair and inky, oil-black eyes, but he was only of medium height, not exceptionally tall, like his namesake.
             I wished I looked more like him. I am the light-haired one in the family. Big brown eyes, slightly darker eyelashes and eyebrows, full-boned and sturdy, but not plump. Reasonably good-looking, I suppose, but in the ordinary way. To look at our parents it would be hard to see any trace of my looks in their faces. In the snow, though, we all hunch the same way.
It was, as it happened, very cold at the time of which I speak. Our parents were out, that weekend, visiting relatives in another town. We had decided not to go, and they left Rod and me to our own devices. The previous night had been a quiet one, as our evenings usually are; despite my brother’s looks, he had no close female acquaintances that I currently knew of, even though there were plenty of girls who would have been more than happy to get in the sack with him.
So, Saturday morning did not begin with my return at one in the morning, already hung-over and crawling on my knees. Let it go on the record that, as I walked into the day, my soul was mostly unblemished and I was sober.
I was in a good mood, too. However, when breakfast was sitting on the table before us, glancing out the window was enough to displace my equilibrium. That certain kind of snow was falling, steadily, heavily. I groaned about it to Rod, and he shrugged his shoulders.
“Avya, Winnipeg. Winnipeg, Avya. Have you met before?”
Da, darlink, but ees cold.”
He groaned. “It is much too early in the morning for that accent.” It was eight o’clock. No-one in the family slept in.
We crunched away at our cereal for a few moments. “Still have to do chores,” I said.
“Ugh. It’s time to handle some of the recycling, and it’s snowing like a bitch.”
“Wanna make a deal?”
“Yeah?”
“I’ll handle the recycling if you do the dishes and the laundry.”
            Crunch, crunch, went his cornflakes. “Fine, what’s the catch?”
            “None. I’m going out with the girls to a movie. You’ll probably get the house to yourself today.”
            “Not another horror movie?”
            I shrugged. “Wasn’t my first choice, but Parmi liked it and Nicole wanted to see it too. I’ll probably be out all day.”
            “Suit yourself.”
            I put the bowl on the counter, next to the sink, and walked upstairs to change. Outside, the snow continued, stolidly, with a certain Communist courage. Snow brings equality, I thought. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a Ford POS or a Benz, if it’s stuck in your driveway, you still need to borrow a shovel and possibly somebody’s arms to heft it.
            It was one of those mornings where a trite insight like this is followed by a string of meandering, stupid thoughts about shovels and which sweater to wear. Pulling off the plain blue pyjamas, I stared at the closet for a few minutes, glanced down at myself.
            The door opened.
            “Rod, go away. I’m in my underwear.”
            “Sorry. Whoops.” His footsteps paused for a moment and then, resolutely, padded back towards the kitchen.
            I had goose-bumps, at this point, and I was annoyed with him for barging in on me. I pulled out a grey sweater and thick cords, pulled on a pair of wool socks.
            My parka was in the nook by the door. I pulled it on and stuffed my feet into boots, hands into gloves. “See you!”
            “Bye.”
            I opened the door to the garage, loaded up the car, and drove out into the cold. 



            Notes about the year 1985: the Berlin Wall was still up. Gorbachev and Reagan were in power. New Coke emerged and died within a three-month time span. Nelson Mandela was still in prison. My heart broke. The IRA was still bombing the shit out of the police department. Route 66 died. They found Titantic. Windows 1.0 was released. Things were bombed and a number of natural disasters occurred. It was a remarkable year, in the ordinary way.
           
Teenagers don’t think about history, or not often. I handled the errands, and when that was done, went to a coffee shop to wait for the mall to open. That got me to ten o’clock—then I wandered around the mall for a while, and drank several cups of tea. Parmi and Nicole came at twelve, and the wandering changed to a plural tense. Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was on at one, so we went to see that.
After the movie, we loitered in the food court. I do remember Nicole, cracking jokes about the film—and it was awful, after all. Normally, I would have laughed, but I didn’t.  I do remember, though, that I felt a peculiar sense of unease, something nagging at me—an emotional blister. I stared past their faces and thought about the snow. Parmi asked me whether the movie had given me a case of the jitters, and I started.
“No, no, vos byad movie, darlink,” I said. “zat ees all.” Parmi laughed.
“Yes, it was. So why are you scared?”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m just cold!”
“That’s stupid. I’ll get you a hot chocolate.” Parmi bounced off with my two-dollar bill in hand.
Nicole patted my hand. “It’s okay to be scared.” I blinked at her.
“I’m fine, really. Just spacing out. I think I didn’t get enough sleep or something.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.”
“Hot chocolate!” Parmi grinned at me, set the cup down on the table. I smiled and wrapped my hands around it, and tried to ignore the anxious look in her eyes.
“Thanks.” I sipped it, but I couldn’t process the taste.
I wondered what Rod would say about this. He would laugh, probably—put an arm around my shoulders, tell me not to get so panicky—and yes, he would have bought me a cup of something hot and sweet. And—
“Are you okay? You’re really pale,” Nicole said.
“Actually, I think the movie kinda shook me up. Uh…I hate to be a wet blanket, but would you guys mind if I went home and took a nap? I don’t feel so hot.“
“Yeah, okay.” They looked disappointed, and I apologized, but, after all, being good friends, they didn’t make an issue of it.
I wished, later, that I’d said more, because it was the last time I saw them for years.


            By the time I got home, it was only four o’clock. It had stopped snowing, but it was still cold, and windy, too. Rod didn’t expect me until eight, I suppose; normally, I’d have made a day of it.
            As I let down the garage door and walked into the house, I realised that most of the lights were off.
It was so still. I called out again, and there was no answer. My pulse was speeding up, and my mouth was drying. I shouldn’t have been scared, really, but I was. It was cold, over-cast, and I’d just seen a horror movie.
There was no logical reason for Rodya’s silence. Then, it occurred to me that he might have decided to go to his room, instead of sitting on the couch in the den. That would have been a little more usual; he was a creature of habit. Still, to look for him meant I had to go downstairs, to the basement. I hate basements to this day.
As I opened the door and descended, the creaking of the stairs made me even jumpier than I already was. My feet seemed unnaturally loud, clattering loudly on the wood. I thought I could hear music—well, there was a percussion solo going on at the moment.
Sure enough, the music revealed itself as Soviet rock-and-roll—my pulse slowed. (To give you an idea of the sound, Gogol Bordello hadn’t formed yet, but if they’d been around, that would have been the sort of music Rod would have listened to.)
            Most of the lights down there were off, but a little light was seeping through the space between the door and the wall. I knocked on the door, and there was still no answer, so I opened it. 

*****

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