The House - Kate French

Time is dead in the shop. It sags beneath its jaunty green paint job, applied by well-meaning relatives, the placard announcing its lineage untouched. Inside is a cataclysm of things; tossed, jumbled but resting still as if placed. Jangly 70s paisley shirts inside yellowed film, legless chairs, smattered nails, coffins.

But most of all, the ships in bottles.

You like it there. You always have.

At night the sky yawns open and the stars make you reach your hand out to steady yourself, though there’s nothing to grasp. The tide turns out, the smell of headless cod for dinner, the dying squid as they mete their final gushes onto the rocks. People walk by, crunching through the dried weeds to impale the squid, zig-zagging headlamps betraying their intentions. “Good night for squid b’ys,” they say. Sometimes you don’t like their reserved tone, don’t they know how they’re supposed to be?

One night you walk up the road to go visiting, dad calling the names of the families out who used to live in the houses. He’s being funny, but you like the round names and the way they sound. You think no one has names like that anymore. Too curious to even make up.

You stumble on the unpaved road, twist your ankles in the potholes filled with fetid, salt-rimmed rainwater. You haven’t got a headlamp, no, because you’re city, you’re mainland. Your breath comes out in rum-filled gusts and lingers in the ocean air, it’s cold in August.

Across the bay you hear the loons calling to each other, then nothing but the gravel crunch of steps. And then you pass it, the final house, and you understand. “A pervert used to live there,” she says, her mouth closing in a line. She passed it down to you, that line.

“He showed it to me once,” she says.

And then some more, the morose crunch, and you make it to your aunt’s house. The light is warm here, and you eat things like canned Vienna sausages and mustard pickles, and drink glass after glass of London Dock and lemon-lime. You look at old photos, unstick them from their pages, and see the familiar 70s paisley prints, that shared line of mouth. You watch them lean back in unison, wipe crumbs from the placemats. You wonder what else they share.

Walking back now, you’re drunk, quite drunk, she’s annoyed with you. This time, when the stars make you dizzy you have something to hold on to. Her cold, clean hand.

The shop is illuminated by the warm light from the sliver of the house’s opened door. You palm the ornate key, you swiped it, you like holding it, knowing you have access. The clunk of metal and it opens, and you see the things again, a grotesquerie from a fever dream. The ships in bottles are too intimate, with their tiny portholes and spider-web rigging. You think about something you read: a myth, of oarsmen naked, and on fire.

You’re holding the best ship, the best bottle, tiny pebbles of dust under your smooth city fingers. You listen for the loons but you can’t hear them.

You hurl the ship and watch it disappear onto the rocks that could be waves, the deception of tide, the fiery oarsmen run aground. It shatters in the distance and you ignore the alarm from the house, in the slot of orange light. Standing still, when you listen carefully the squid are all around you, pitching smaller arcs like whispers as they are finally quiet.

Kate French is a post-secondary employee and writer living in Calgary, Alberta. In 2015, she was a finalist for the Howard O'Hagan Award for Short Fiction through the Writer's Guild of Alberta. She enjoys beer and sad stories, preferably at the same time.

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