Looks Just Like the Sun

“Hey, Dan. Borrow your twelve-gauge? Gotta go shoot up a house.”

Yeah. Like that would fly with a guy you haven’t seen in three years. Maybe put “Merry Christmas” first?” While he waited, Marcel shifted kindling from the porch’s woodpile into his backpack and crammed the day’s Northern Times in on top. He zipped up just as the door opened.

“Marcel. Thought you was in rehab.”

“They let me out for the holidays.”

He was supposed to be at Odelle’s in Hearst already, two dry weeks for the recovering drunken Indian. She’d be pissed when he didn’t show up, afraid he had veered into the first bar instead, but this side-trip was her Christmas present. She’d understand.

He followed Dan indoors, dropping his backpack and parka on a chair. He kicked the snow off his boots but kept them on, against the cold and the decades of dirt on the hallway floor.

“Borrow your twelve-gauge?”

“You going bush in this weather?”

“Nope. Gonna shoot up a house. You can have the shotgun back right after.”

Dan peered at him, unsure about the humour. “That’d make me an accessory. They’d throw both our asses in the can.”

“No place else to go until spring.” Marcel pulled a chair toward the gray-topped table, nudging aside a sleeping mutt with his boot.

“You’re still fuckin’ nuts, man.” Dan got the drip pot going and sat down opposite. “If you’re staying in Kap, wanna join our old-timers hockey team? Fifty’s the cutoff.”

They shot the shit awhile over mugs of Dan’s crappy coffee. Marcel paced himself, waiting.

Sure enough, the sixty-year old’s bladder couldn’t outlast the third refill. As Dan waddled down the hall, Marcel lifted the spare key-ring off the fridge, unlocked the gun cabinet, and was halfway down the block when Dan yelled from the porch.

“Fuckin’ asshole. I’m calling the cops.”

“I coulda stole your truck, too,” Larry hollered back, waving the key ring. “Give me twenty minutes head start?”

“Fuck you, Marcel LaRiviere.” He’d wait, though. Too nosy not to.

Marcel slowed as the cold air chewed into his lungs. He should have quit smoking in rehab but it seemed pointless when second-hand smoke choked the buildings. The clouds out here were the same sooty gray as the cafeteria ceiling. Snow soon. Dusk soon too, this close to the winter solstice. Odelle liked to say the sun would come back on the solstice, promising a new start. This amend from him would be a new start too.

He trudged past empty lots and boarded up houses. This end of Kapuskasing was not so much empty as left high and dry, like the tide went out and forgot to come back. Each time the paper mill changed hands, more people up and moved, either away or closer to the town core.

Maybe the house would be gone, overtaken by economics or the meadow at its back. He could return Dan’s gun and hitch back to Hearst, and Odelle wouldn’t worry where he was.

He swung east at Mrs. Mills’ old place, lived in still but not by her, the swing-set long gone from the yard. The lot beside hers was vacant already, leaving a gap through to the meadow. A maze of skidoo tracks spread out to the tree-line, flowing over dips and bumps, skirting the blobs that were larger bushes. A whole world lived under the snow, going quietly on with its winter life. He stopped a moment to breathe and connect, could almost hear the feet of mice and other small life scurrying along their grass-and-snow tunnels. Going bush would be good for him, let the rehab coffee and the stale rage freeze out of his body and his spirit. Maybe he didn’t need to do this. The house was only a symbol, after all.

Having come so close, he would just look at the house. Then he would give back Dan’s gun and head for Hearst. Maybe tell Odelle what he had been going to do for her. Telling wasn’t the same as doing, though. Drunks were good at big talk.

He tramped along the drifted-in road past three boarded-up houses, and there it was, surrounded by undisturbed snow. Smaller, but he expected that. Paint peeling off the porch across the front, windows half boarded up but intact. The local punks couldn’t be bothered breaking all the available windows in this end of town. The puke-green siding he remembered had been replaced with pinkish vinyl, warped now from the twisting boards underneath. Cold gnawed the nails out of unheated buildings in the north.

This house used to be owned people as cold on the inside. They had warped him, and Odelle, and little Larry, almost beyond recovery. If he had recovered. Those months in Migisi might have sweated out the booze and a lot of shit from his drinking decades, but the cleansing exposed a rotten, stinking layer of childhood beneath it all. Rotten like this house.

The house had to pay, even if the people were long gone.

Past thigh-high drifts he lunged toward the porch, the old, helpless rage boiling up with every drop of his foot through the snow crust. He scrambled onto the porch, where the wind still blew the same cleared spaces. Always that choice at this house: stand in the ever-renewing snowdrift with your feet freezing or out in the wind with your face freezing. Three little kids locked out in the cold. No freezing outside today, although it would be no warmer inside.

A couple of knocks with the scuffed butt end of Dan’s shotgun and the front door’s knob fell off. He stepped across the threshold, back to the Sixties.

Six years old, standing with his arm over Odelle’s shoulder, staring down at the reddish-brown baby asleep on the couch. Their new brother. Debbie sat at the kitchen table, telling Mrs. Mills all about it in her hard, ugly voice.

“Born in jail. What a start, eh? Laurent, she called him. He’s more Indian than French, you can tell by looking. Hell, he might not be any French, the way she lives. Just another bastard for the taxpayers to feed. Damn Indians breeding like pigs.”

Mrs. Mills, turning her cheap Kresge’s mug in her hands. “Why’d you take him if you’re so against Indians? Why accept any of them?”

Debbie smirks, not that Marcel knew that word back then. “Stan wants to pay off his truck early. The money for the older two pays all our groceries. The baby, well, he gets to be with his brother and sister, and I get the extra from Children’s Aid to do what I want with. That Marcel, he’s old enough to change the diapers.”

“He’s too young for that responsibility.”

“He can do it or go back to his Rez, wherever that is. His momma should have gone when Rene LaRiviere ran off, instead of sticking in town on welfare, hooking for booze behind the Kap Inn.”

“Ssh. They’ll hear you.” Mrs. Mills, always trying. She never ripped on her foster kids, or their parents. The only good example in a lifetime of bad ones.

In the deep cold of the barren living room, Marcel watched the ghostly children fade away. So quiet, those ghosts. Did they ever raise their voices in this house, in anger or in fun? Not in anger. If they had, if he had, he would not be here now with his old rages freed by sobriety. And the gun. He chambered a couple of shells. Then, giving the head of the basement stairs a wide pass, he unbolted the back door and walked out.

The meadow stretched out to the bush, its surface a dozen shades of blue in the midwinter dusk. It breathed peace into him. He could forget the house, walk off into the trees, build a shelter and live a couple of days on his box of granola bars and the teabags he’d lifted from the truck-stop last night. His bush skills weren’t up to a longer stay, but maybe his kin down at Constance Lake could teach him. He could be there by midnight.

That dream disappeared when he looked at the garage. He was responsible for that garage being built. Had he helped at all, or only delayed the inevitable by a few months? Either way, the garage was part of the acid eating his guts, and he would not leave here without finishing his business.

He raised the shotgun to his shoulder, sighted on the big window where the kitchen table used to be. Debbie sat at that table day after day, dumping her ignorant, racist bullshit on him and Odelle and Larry. It was important to do this from outside, blow a hole into the sneering white morals that had punished his whole family for being born to a Native mother. Back then he had no facts to back him up, just shame and a burning sense of injustice. He lowered the weapon, groped for the words he had rehearsed since the day in Migisi when these memories came scalding back.

“Our mother couldn’t go back to the Rez,” he told the house, his breath frosting every word.

“She lost her status by doing what white folks told her was right: marry a white man in a church. She lost the right to live on the Rez, not only for her but for us too. That white man, he ran off and left us all. She hooked to feed us. More honest than what you did, Debbie, feeding us macaroni and oatmeal while your kids ate meat and chocolate bought with our Children’s Aid money. You were a mean, racist bitch and your house was worse than your Christian Hell. This is for my mother.”

The window exploded inward, cracking Debbie’s shell of white lies at last. Crows racketed up from the nearest trees. The shot roared back from the next house, echoed off another, then faded into the darkening day. Not much risk in a single blast. Nobody could see him with all those empty houses, and one single shot they’d think was someone hunting in the bush.

Inside the back door, the basement stairs gaped, their coldness creeping toward him. He marched past, crunching over glass on what used to be Debbie’s tile floor, and stood at the front door, ignoring the cold wind that crept through the twisted house. Three small ghosts huddled on the sidewalk out there, ambushed between snow-banks higher than their heads, staring up at gold and red Christmas decorations and the white folks’ promise of what they called normal life.

Mom went back to jail for knifing a john who was beating on her. She was only defending herself, but the cop saw a Native with a knife and a bleeding white man, and did what came naturally. The social worker, pushing them forward, told them in her cheery matter-of-fact voice how lucky they were to be back at Debbie’s.

“She’s the only one willing to take all three of you, and at this season, too. Santa Claus will find you here, I’m sure.” Marcel snorted, at ten already surly, but he shouldered his garbage bag of clothes and led the others on. If the place had changed, if Debbie had changed, then he might believe in Santa Claus.

Three days later, when Debbie was out Christmas shopping with her two girls, Mrs. Mills drove by and spotted the LaRiviere kids bunched up in the corner of the porch, with the snow drifting in around their feet. She took them home and fed them hot chocolate with marshmallows in.

When Larry and Odelle went to watch TV with the houseful of other foster kids, Marcel stayed in the kitchen, helping her put mugs in the dishwasher.

“Please, can’t we stay here instead? Larry and Odelle, anyway?”

“I’m sorry, Marcel, but I’m at capacity. If it was another time of year, maybe.” Forty years later and he could still smell her soap, feel her arms around him. “You’re a good boy to look out for your little brother and sister.”

She took them back when Debbie’s car went by. Sending the younger two downstairs to get tidy for supper, Marcel stayed on the stairs, listening. Mrs. Mills said, “You can’t lock children out of the house in this weather. It’s twenty below.”

“I wasn’t taking those scruffy brats to the mall,” said Debbie. “And no way I’m leaving them alone in my house. They’d burn the place down, or steal stuff. Savages.”

“They don’t have to be scruffy. You got money to buy them new winter coats.”

“No point buying them new. They’d only wreck it. I get their stuff at the Sally Ann.”

“What do you do for receipts? You’re supposed to fill out the form to show where the money went.”

“My kids need new clothes too,” said Debbie. “I’ll use their receipts, like before.” Scruffy and cold the foster kids stayed, with ripped and patched coats whose puff was beaten flat by washing machines. Debbie quit locking them out, though. Instead she billed Children’s Aid for baby-sitting and got her younger brother to come over after school, so she could take her girls to dance class unencumbered by a pack of half-breeds.

The teenaged Barry pinched and poked little Larry until he cried. He pinched Odelle, too, but differently. Sometimes he’d pull her onto his lap and squeeze her legs. Marcel couldn’t leave them alone to do his homework at the kitchen table. He kept going into the living room to call Odelle away. She would look at him with sad, scared eyes and say, “At least he’s leaving Larry alone.”

After a few weeks of that, Marcel abandoned homework and took the younger ones outside whenever Barry came over. He got them digging a snow shelter in the back yard, beside the old garage, to keep the worst of the wind off them. When spring came, he took them to the meadow and the bush, making up names for plants and bugs and anything else they asked him about. In summer they went to their aunt’s at Constance Lake while Debbie and Stan took their kids on a holiday.

But September came and they were stuck at Debbie’s for the winter, eating oatmeal and macaroni, shivering in the basement bedrooms where Stan had taken the knobs off the baseboard heaters because, he said, they were running up his hydro bills. Another winter, another spring, another summer, and another Christmas of the gold and red decorations, the tree piled with presents for everyone but the foster kids. Marcel stole toys at the mall and wrapped them in his room for Odelle and Larry.

No Christmas decorations in this house this year. No gold and red tinsel, no coloured lights around the picture window. Just the plywood and some spray-painted swearing. Maybe Debbie had other foster kids, and that was their symbolic return. He should blast the room to bits, make sure the front door could never close again, never lock little kids out in the bitter winter afternoons. Or inside with child molesters.

Not now, not yet. He was here for Odelle. If the police came to check out too much shooting too early, the amend would not be done right.

Life back with Mom lasted nearly four years the next time, good years. They were all used to looking scruffy so the lack of new clothes didn’t hurt anyone except Odelle. She liked pretty, never had pretty until their aunt came, bringing her a pink t-shirt with sparkles on it. They were looking forward to Christmas until Mom forgot about a social worker visit and had a booze-up with her sister. The kids got off the school bus to see both women screaming at the social worker.

They had twenty minutes to pack their stuff, a last sight of their mother wailing on the steps, and a lecture about how lucky they were that their old rooms at Debbie’s were available.

Marcel turned sixteen a couple of months after the move and Debbie threw him back. He was bigger than her, and she said he looked mean. What she meant was he didn’t back down any more, but the end result was the same. He was out, and he couldn’t protect Odelle and Larry.

He got a student allowance and a room, but getting to school on his own was hard with nobody to wake him up, and he gradually forgot about going at all. Student allowance was cut off and he drifted, first back to his aunt’s at Constance Lake, then out to Hearst or Longlac or Cochrane because somebody said there might be work for him.

There wasn’t, or it didn’t last, or he got drunk and forgot to go. Whenever he passed through Kap, he stopped by Debbie’s to check on the younger ones. Odelle was keeping Larry out of trouble, making him do his homework, babysitting down the block for money to buy him moon-cakes as rewards for good schoolwork. Nobody knew where their mother was. Marcel came the next Christmas with presents he said were from her.

The memory of that visit surged into his throat. He was working nights, unloading trucks for the Woolworth store, and bought Christmas presents instead of stealing them. First time ever. He was a successful big brother when he stepped onto that sidewalk with the snow piled high on either side, walked toward the tinsel and the lights. He knocked, got the usual grim greeting from Debbie. She pointed him to the living room and stomped back to the kitchen. Larry was quietly building a machine with the kit Marcel had lifted for his birthday. He looked up.

“More presents?”

“These are for Christmas. You and Odelle can open them together.” He helped Larry for a bit.

“Is Odelle off babysitting?”

“Nope. She’s sick. Won’t come out of her room.”

Won’t, or can’t? Everything depended on Odelle being strong, keeping it together for Larry. If she was sick, they were both defenceless.

As Marcel moved through the kitchen, Debbie was yakking on the phone, cigarette in hand, coffee cup and ashtray on the table. He hit the back stairs and got three steps down when he heard Odelle’s name. He stopped.

“Took her straight over to Dr. Paterson and said her periods had stopped coming. He knew what I meant, all right, but if either of us said it we’d have to report to Children’s Aid. So he just booked her in for a D&C and that was that. It’s not like she could help herself. Those Indian girls, they just gotta have it. Maybe she thought Barry would marry her. Well, I’ve got news for her! My baby brother is not getting tied to a knocked-up squaw, especially when it might not be his. Uh-huh. He says she took two of his friends too. They were at it right in our garage. My girls could have walked in on them. I’m never gonna look out the kitchen window without thinking about that dirty little slut screwing half the neighbourhood on that filthy cement floor. I oughtta send her back but it’s over now. And there’s the money. Christmas gotta be paid for.”

Burning with rage and shame, Marcel slipped down the rest of the steps and went straight into Odelle’s cold bedroom. By the light seeping through the frosted-over little window, he saw his sister curled up under her covers, face swollen from tears that were still seeping. She couldn’t be that upset over a lost pregnancy, not at fifteen with so many dreams for her life.

“It was Barry, wasn’t it? He forced you? I’ll kill him.” Fury kept him moving, striding up and down beside her bed, ranting in the low voice that would not bring attention from upstairs. On and on, back and forth, until she put out a hand and caught his pant-leg. He dropped down beside the bed. “You should have told me. I’d have stopped him.”

She sniffed, clutching his hand. “He said he’d hurt Larry, beat him up every day I fought him off.”

“You’ve got to get out of this place, both of you.”

“I asked the social worker. We’d be separated.”

“If you told her why.”

“We’d still be separated. It’s only for another school year. When I graduate and get a job, Larry can come and live with me. I’ll be his foster mom. Please, Marcel. If you go after Barry, he’ll get to Larry at school, where I can’t stop him.”

“Is he gonna come back after you?”

“He isn’t allowed over here any more.”

“But he could force you to meet him out back, in the garage.”

She cried again, slow, hopeless, silent. Eventually he agreed to leave Barry alone. He fetched the Christmas presents he brought and pointed out the box of chocolates. She could eat those and stay in bed through supper, not have to sit there with Debbie for one night, anyway. It was all he could give her, and it wasn’t enough.

On his way out, he lit the garage. All Stan’s oil cans and old paint, Debbie’s new nylon lawn chairs, blazed up against the bleak winter sky, gold and red outshining the Christmas lights and the tinsel. Like a second sun rising in the cold night. Odelle would not have to meet Barry in that garage any more.

The Marcel of today would report Barry to the police, Debbie to the Children’s Aid, and get a real job to make a home for his sister and brother.

The Marcel back then washed down his powerless rage with the nearest rotgut, blacked out for three days and woke up to no job, no rent money. He hitched down the road to Timmins, where there might be work in the gold mines, but found instead a hundred and four bars selling booze to gold miners. It took him a decade to get thrown out of all the bars, and then he was on down Highway Eleven to North Bay. Not as many bars but more Indians to keep each other from freezing in the gutter. He wasn’t proud of those years, nor of losing track of Odelle and Larry for so long.

Now Larry drove a truck and Odelle was some kind of Medicine Woman. Chanting and smudges. He had laughed at that stuff until Migisi, but eventually started to wonder if Odelle had used Medicine to make him get sober and go there. Now he was expected in Hearst for Christmas, when he had no money, no gifts, nothing but a repentant heart for not protecting them better when they were little, for letting his rage and thirst lure him away. And this, coming to this house to kill what should not have been left to rot for all these years.

He stood in the cold, bare living room with the west wind whistling in the front door and out the kitchen window, still afraid to go down to the basement and see for himself the ghost of Odelle in that bed, weeping but accepting that being raped was the price she would pay for keeping Larry safe. This house was always bitter cold, a hell frozen over. He should have burned it down instead of the garage.

Time to remedy that. He’d intended to blast up the place, yell his rage to the heavens and correct every one of Debbie’s racist, redneck slurs against him and his family. Empty his bellyful of rage onto their silent rooms. Now here, he was afraid to go down those basement stairs, and now he understood that the biggest crime and shame was Odelle’s wound, not his.

He had been insulted, ignored, put down. Odelle carried scars from years of being abused verbally by Debbie and sexually by her scummy brother. Maybe she had already smudged that torment out of her spirit. If she hadn’t, it was hers to face and nothing Marcel did here could free her from it.

He cracked the shotgun and shook the second cartridge out. No more shooting. He could still end the house, release all the hatred and bigotry and shame it had witnessed. That had always been his goal, if the police didn’t show up and shoot him first.

He built a tidy fire by the kitchen door frame, where the through-draft would feed it. As flames rose from the crumpled newsprint, licking at the kindling and the peeling paint, he slung his backpack, picked up Dan’s gun, and retraced his thigh-deep foot-holes back to the road. The hot rage of his arrival was gone, leaving the peace of the meadow deep in his chest.

At the road, he turned to look at his handiwork. Above the spray-painted plywood on the front window, the living room ceiling glowed gold and red like the old Christmas decorations. He watched until the first flames licked the glass, until the black smoke covered it, until the window cracked and set the fire free. It blazed up over the eaves, hungry for the sky. Golden firelight spilled onto the snow around him, the house’s spirit warming him at last. A ball of flame shot upward, looking just like the sun before it flared out against the clouds.

A new sun rising for the winter solstice. Odelle would have something to chant, some arm-waving of welcome for it. Marcel settled his backpack and the shotgun case, and trudged away through the blue winter evening, not looking back.

Jayne Barnard’s short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies since 1990, winning a Saskatchewan Writers Guild award, a Calgary Writers’ award, and a Bony Pete. In addition to leading writing skills and voice-training workshops, Jayne Bernard has served on the boards of Mystery Writers Ink and Crime Writers of Canada, and served on short fiction juries for the Derringer Awards and the Bony Pete. Jayne Bernard’s YA novella, “Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond,” was released by Tyche Books in 2015.