Featured Story for the week of 10/07/2015


by Julie McArthur

I wake under a spider’s web of wires to the sound of monitors—blip, blip, blipping. I look at a camera hanging from the ceiling and give a half-hearted wave. It must be the middle of the night. I hope it is, but before I can close my eyes again, I hear a knock at the door.

“Come in,” I say, feeling silly.

A man in a grey coat enters. “Veronica, it’s six o’clock.” He turns the light on, and I read the tag on his pocket: Clarence TECHNICIAN. My mouth is dry. My head throbs. Clarence peels the electrodes from my legs, arms, and scalp. He pinches the plastic clip off my left index finger and untangles the wires around my middle and chest.

My new doctor, Dr. Wells, forced me to this sleep clinic. She’s a recent grad who is eager to help and make a difference. Eventually she’ll become inundated with patients, rush them through, and not remember a thing about them without looking at their charts. I can’t wait. She’ll stop asking about my job, my boyfriend, my smoking—“No, I haven’t asked for a raise yet. Yes, he’s still sleeping on the couch. No, I haven’t quit.”

“I’ll leave you to change,” Clarence says.

I wipe off blobs of waxy goo that held the patches on. After I get dressed, I use the washroom. My hair is full of the gunk. I scrape at clumps with my fingernails, wrap a scarf around my head, and brush my teeth. I wish I’d taken the day off, but I need money and Allison lives only a few blocks away.

I’m dizzy walking down the hall to the doctor’s office.

“How do you feel?” Dr. Yee, the respirologist, asks.

“Not good.” “I’ve looked over your polysomnogram. You were in the deeper levels, three and four, and had two cycles of REM. You slept almost six hours.”

I don’t believe him.

“There’s no evidence of a physiological disorder such as sleep apnea or restless leg. I think it’s anxiety related.”

“Dr. Wells won’t prescribe more pills. She thinks I’ve been on them too long.”

“I’m not worried about that. Your dosage is low, and they’re not a benzodiazapine. I’ll write you a script.

Dr. Yee doesn’t mention St Johns wort, Valerian, hot milk, baths before bedtime, meditation, Melatonin, or visualization—all the crap Dr. Wells had suggested. All the crap I’ve tried in the last twenty years.

I feel like barfing on my way to work. I look after a little boy for his single mom and think if you have children you must be older than me. People half my age, like Allison, seem older.

My shift starts the same as always. Allison tells me the new words Jasper knows. She tries to pull them out of him with flash cards. “Jasper, look. Look, Jasper! Show Vee. What’s this? Okay, try this one, look, look!”

“It’s okay, maybe he’ll say it later.”

“Mommy is going now,” she says. Jasper is unresponsive. “I’m leaving,” she says over and over, pushing her separation anxiety.

“Bye, Mom,” I say to her, smiling.

Before leaving, she reminds me about a playgroup at a downtown café.

Their small apartment is filled with toys too young or too advanced for Jasper’s sixteen-month-old brain. Many have batteries and blurt out bothersome sounds and words—“cleaning-cleaning, moooo, B-A-T, hola, I’m hungry.” I read one of his books aloud as he walks around the room pushing buttons and looking for the remote.

“No TV, Jasper. Let’s get ready.”

I look in the bag Allison has left and take out half its contents. She packs for a week, not a couple of hours. I take the café address and stuff it into my pocket. Jasper crawls into his stroller, and I cover his legs with a blanket.

Jasper yawns.

“I’m tired too, little buddy.”

I recite nursery rhymes as we roll along.

The café is located in condoland behind the sports arena. I frown at the motorcade of strollers lined up outside. Jasper has fallen asleep. I enter, order an Americano, and park myself at a small table. Moms are sitting on multi-coloured foam tiles on the floor. They chatter while their children toddle and crawl about. The women wear fancy clothes and salon hairdos. I turn to look out the window when I see one of them approaching.

“Why don’t you come down and join us?” she says.

“I’m fine here, if he wakes up—”

“He’s sooo precious. He looks just like you. Are you still breastfeeding?”

“No, he never took to the boob, it was a horrible ordeal,” I say.

“Oh.” She walks away.

The truth takes energy.

After five minutes, I get the hell out.

I take him to our park which houses community gardens, a petting zoo, and a playground. The trees are almost bare and the leaves crunch under my feet. I wonder why people want to sit in cafés when they can be outside, outside themselves. I push the stroller a ways into the park before Jasper wakes. He follows me to the swings, where I lift him up and into one with a T-bar.

“Zoom, zoom, zoom, I’m going to the moon. If you want to take a trip, climb aboard,” I sing.

He points to the swing beside. I sit in it and pump my legs, synchronizing our movements. I reach for his hand but can’t quite connect. He smiles. The sun emerges between cirrus clouds as I take off my scarf and comb my greasy hair back into a ponytail. A pair of moms, with kids in tow, are headed straight for us. I put on my big-bug sunglasses to hide the bags beneath my eyes.

“They’re everywhere, Jasper. We must escape.” I scoop him up and run away, laughing. I let him down and hold his tiny hand in mine, clumsily pushing the stroller with my other. He drinks from a bottle of pumped breast milk.

“Do you want to see the dogs?”

“Dog,” he says.

We approach a valley where pet owners gather. Jasper is afraid to get close, but he likes to watch, as do I. We usually sit on a bench halfway down. Today a man is asleep on ours. His torn overcoat hangs off one shoulder. He wears one shoe.

I look down the hill to see the dogs sniffing, jumping, and chasing each other. They ignore the humans that surround them. I contemplate whether to sit further down, on the grass, or to go home early. My mind drifts as my eyes lose focus.

Jasper has toddled over to the bench. He points at shiny buttons that are sewn up and down the seams of the man’s trousers. Jasper touches his socked foot.

“No, Jasper,” I whisper. “He’s sleeping.”

The man stirs, coughs, and opens his eyes—blue eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

He pushes himself up sideways and rubs his scruffy greying beard.

“I was a daddy, I was a daddy to Sean,” he says in a sing-song voice.

“This is Jasper. I look after him for his mom.”

“I was a daddy once. I was a daddy to Sean.”

“How old is Sean?”

“He must be . . . hmm . . . eighteen or so.”

“Do you mind if I sit beside you?”

He pats the bench with his palm.

Jasper sits in a pile of leaves, tossing them above his head.

Silence is broken with the honk of Canada geese flying overhead.

“They will leave soon,” the man says, looking up. “I will miss them.”

“We feed them sometimes,” I tell him, “but they can be aggressive.”

“Too much human interaction,” he says, playing with a piece of string.

I hand Jasper grape halves from Allison’s bag.

“I was a daddy, I was a daddy to Sean.”

When the sun begins to sink, I tell the man we must go, that his mom will be home soon. He yanks a button from his trousers and hands it to Jasper.

“Thank you,” I say.

As we wind up along the path, I turn back twice, and the man waves both times.

Jasper walks for a couple blocks outside the park and then raises his arms. I carry him on my hip a short distance before settling him into his stroller.

In the apartment, I repack Allison’s bag. Jasper rolls the shiny button around in his hands and then pops it into his mouth.

“Dirty, Jasper.” I say, digging it out. It’s almost dark and Mom is late. I think about my home, my bed. I must remember to stop and fill the prescription.

When Allison returns, she asks about the café. I tell her it was a lovely group of women, that we went to the park after. She shows me new toys she bought—more terrible noisemakers.

“Daddy sleep,” Jasper blurts out.

“Vee, did you hear that?” she asks. “Why would he say such a thing?”

“I don’t know. It’s good though. Words are good.”

“Wave goodbye, Jasper,” Allison says, shaking his hand up and down.

I fumble through my purse for fare on my way to the streetcar stop. After climbing aboard, I teeter to the back of the trolley, slide in to a seat, and lean my head against the window. I push the transfer into my pocket and feel the shiny button from Sean’s dad.


Julie McArthur was born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario. Her stories have appeared in The Antigonish Review, Broken Pencil, Joyland, Little Fiction, PANK, and the fable anthology The Lion and the Aardvark (Stone Skin Press). Men and the Drink is her first, yet to be published, short story collection. She works as a freelance editor in Toronto. juliemcarthur.com.