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"What's Your Story?" Read the Winning Texts of the 2018 OBPO Writing Contest Winners! Part One: Etobicoke

Kingsway theatre Etobicoke

It's that time of year again: when the weather gets warm and we get to celebrate brand new Toronto stories. Start your spring off right with the What's Your Story? literary contest: We've got four never-before-seen, original pieces from four talented Toronto writers, exclusively here and free to read on Open Book.

Presented by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization and Arts Etobicoke the What's Your Story? contest celebrates both the wealth of literary talent in Toronto and puts a particular spotlight on the inner suburbs of Etobicoke, Scarborough, East York, and North York.

We're excited to announce the winners from our first region, Etobicoke: Teri Vlassopoulosauthor of Bat or Swallows and Escape Plans (both published by Invisible Publishing), is our winner in the Established Writer category, and the three winners in the Emerging category are Andrew Anthony, Mary Breen, and Lynne Golding. You can see all four winning authors at a special event on May 16 at the Assembly Hall in Etobicoke, which will include writing workshops, readings, and more. 

Stay tuned for more free, exclusive, Toronto reading throughout the summer - we'll be spotlighting one neighbourhood (and one set of incredible writers) as we present all 16 winning authors over the next few months.

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Established Writer Category winner, Etobicoke region

River Walking by Teri Vlassopoulos

In high school my sister, Claire, and I had the same long, black hair. We also wore mostly black and because of this combination our mother was afraid that there was too much witchcraft, too much flirting with the devil under our roof, even if it was accidental. Sometimes we’d scare her on purpose — flip the wooden cross she kept in the kitchen upside down, leave a Ouija board on the dining-room table with the planchette pointed to the first letter of her name. She’d laugh, but still she’d insist, “Ghosts are real,” as if her duty as a parent was not to deny the existence of the paranormal, but to prepare us for it instead.

But Claire and I were both firmly rooted in the real world. If anything, we were dismayed that our mother was wrong, disappointed that we didn‘t have easy access to something beyond our reality. We searched for that portal.

Claire spent a summer obsessed with photography, a hobby that gave her an escape hatch. In response to our mother’s fears, she became obsessed with taking photos of things that didn’t actually exist — auras, spirits. I think she was secretly disappointed that our mother was wrong, so when nothing turned out and she was left with a useless stack of blurry, out-of-focus prints, she faked it by taking trick photos the way they did back in the 1800s when spirit photography was popular. The film was double exposed to layer on a second image and make it appear as though ghosts were lurking in the background.

Claire used me as her model. I didn’t mind since it gave me something to do. That summer, no matter how much we stuffed into our days — I had a job shelving books at the library on Weston Road next to a funeral home, Claire was a counsellor at a computer camp for seven-year-olds at a nearby community school — we were still somehow always bored. We started in our backyard. She dragged one of the velvet upholstered armchairs from the living room and took a picture of me sitting in it, wound the roll back, and then positioned me behind the chair. Because they were long exposures, I wasn’t supposed to smile, but occasionally I’d break into a grin and my teeth would merge into a murky white line that made me look even ghastlier.

Mom hated these photos, me with my ghost twin beckoning me to another spiritual plane. “I don’t like looking at you like this,” she said, pushing the batch away. While they were obviously fake, Claire’s photos were taken with real film, not digital, and that made them just a bit more convincing. I could understand how someone long, long ago might’ve been convinced they were looking at a ghost, how even my mother might be spooked.

 

One afternoon after my library shift, I found Claire waiting for me, sitting on the stairs of the funeral home.

“What’s that for?” I asked. She had her camera and tripod.

“I’m taking photos of you in the river.”

“What do you mean in the river?”

“I brought you flip-flops.”

I didn’t have anything else to do, so I followed. Sure, whatever. We walked toward the Humber River and then climbed down a small hill. We stood at the edge for a second, watching the brownish water flow over rocks. Claire, wearing shorts and sandals, took the first step in. She opened her tripod and dug it into the mud.

I’d walked along this stretch of the river so many times, but I’d never thought to go in. It wasn’t particularly appealing, all muddy and jagged with rocks. I’d see birds wading in it, sometimes raccoons washing off their food. Our father told us that salmon ran through the Humber in the early fall on their way to spawn, but I didn’t believe him. Like ghosts, fifty-pound fish were not of the world I lived in. This river, I felt, was a city river, a suburban one, not made for truly wild animals and only connected to Lake Ontario by a tenuous thread.

“I have a dress for you in the backpack,” Claire said. “Can you put it on?”

I pulled out a flowery sundress that our mother had bought me in an attempt to get me out of black and a pair of flip-flops. I kicked off my sneakers and changed. “Now what?”

“Go in.”

It was a hot day. Why not? I took a tentative step. The cold stung and where there weren’t stones and pebbles, my feet sunk down. While Claire fiddled with her camera, I waded farther out, taking big, long strides. The water rushing around my legs felt nice. It slowly crept higher up my legs and toward my knees so that the hem of the dress got wet almost immediately.

“What the hell,” Claire called out. “Where are you going? Come closer.”

I’d quickly made my way to the middle of the river. The opposite shore backed out on a ravine connected to someone’s backyard. I turned around and waved. The current was stronger when I started walking back, and as I took a big step forward, my flip-flop slipped off and floated to the surface. I watched it drift away, surprised at how quickly it disappeared. There was a split second where I wondered if something bad was happening, if maybe I shouldn’t have waded out this far, if this was the reason we never saw anyone swimming in the Humber River, not even salmon.

“Are you okay?” Claire asked.

I steadied myself. “Take your picture!”

She hesitated, but, in the same way that I’d followed her blindly to the river, she did the same with her camera and clicked. I stood there getting colder and wetter while Claire held up a light meter, focused her camera, took a shot, then another and another. She stopped. “It’s fine, just come back.”

“Are you sure you’re done?”

“You look cold! Come back!”

I leaned over, took off my other flip-flop, and then shuffled back, looking down to avoid the sharper stones. On shore, I pulled off the dress and stood there shivering in a bra and underwear. Claire had forgotten a towel so I stuffed my wet feet into my sneakers.

“Are you okay? Your lips are blue.”

“I’m good,” I said. And I meant it. I was good. Nothing bad had happened. I threw the remaining flip-flop in the trash when we climbed back up to the street.

 

For the next few days I waited eagerly for Claire to come home with the developed photos. The more I asked about it, the more she took her time. Finally one afternoon she met me again outside the library, this time without her tripod.

“Something went wrong,” she said and fished a photo out of her bag. The print was a glossy, snow white, although if you looked closely you could see edges of the river.

“What happened?”

“The roll got overexposed.”

I thumbed through the rest of the photos, worse than any she’d ever taken. They disturbed me more than the spirit photos that frightened Mom and while at first I thought it was because they were just bad, I realized afterwards that it was more than that. After we’d returned from the Humber, I’d released the memory from my mind in anticipation of the photographic version. When denied that opportunity and stuck with relying on my own memories instead, I was disappointed with the results. I could only summon feelings, not images, and I’d badly wanted to frame the image of myself standing in the middle of the Humber, alone and happy, cold and brave. Close to home but the farthest away I got from anyone that summer, or from anyone for the longest time.

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Emerging Writer Category winners, Etobicoke region

Silent K by Andrew Anthology

His nickname was “Silent K.” People don’t mind filling in the blanks if you leave them enough room; and Simon, a mute, left plenty of room.

“Silent K, Simon the killer.”

“Shut up, Joanne, it’s because he doesn’t say anything.”

“Yeah, because it can all be used against him in a court of law!” Joanne’s sharp laughter screeched along with the bus braking at her stop. She reached and lazily swung to hang off the vertical pole, waiting a moment for the doors to open. Simon wondered if a girl so kind to strangers would wind up dancing from just such a vertical pole some day, but the stop was outside Markland Drive — and only rich people lived in walking distance from there.

Simon would have to wait seven more stops before reaching home, at Mill Road and Burnhamthorpe, the exact border and line between Mississauga and Etobicoke; the very edge of his hometown. Behind his apartment building was an empty space, a patch of land with a creek slashing through it, separating his stomping ground from the next town over. But like any blanks that need filling, that patch of land didn’t take long to host a floral nursery; two years later, a billboard promising condos that cured impotence and erased gambling debt, and the year after would no doubt bring a mini-mall of convenience and fast eats.

“We can just hit the Mall for that, man!”

Simon recognized the boy getting on the bus; it was “Mo” (not to be confused with “Ahmed-Mo,” or “Mohamed-Mo”). At most schools in Etobicoke, the demographic leaned toward Somalians. The majority of kids in Simon’s school (Silverthorn Collegiate Institute) were practising Muslims, named as per the tradition of their people. A newborn son was gifted his father’s name or that of the prophet, but after a hundred years or so, variations were limited. The end result was a school with a single class that included: Mohamed, Mo-Mo, Ahmed Mohamed-Ahmed, Ahmed-Mohamed-Mohamed, and so on …

“What, the actual mall, or the ‘Mall’ mall?” Responding to Mo was his friend Ahmed-Mohamed-Mohamed, otherwise called “Mo-Mo.”

“The actual mall!” Mo didn’t seem bothered by this distinction, since anyone from Etobicoke knew that while everywhere else in the world had “roads,” “drives,” “streets,” and “avenues,” Simon’s hometown had two long, major streets known as “malls”: “The East Mall” and “The West Mall.” The East and West malls weren’t nearly far apart enough to merit rival gangs snapping in the streets for dance fights and singing “Maria”; rather, those major malls would serve as markers to bookend and directly lead you anywhere worth going in town (including the 427, Dundas, and The Queensway), and it was just another weird “ism” to the place that much reflected its people.

Mo-Mo and Mo from Etobicoke (with a silent “k”) got off the bus with a “Silent K” named Simon Knight (with an equally silent “K”). It was one more stop until he would have to do the same at the “Burnhamthorpe Loop.” The loop was where the bus dumped everyone before heading back east to Islington station. Simon didn’t have plans for the evening; if he stayed on, he knew that the second-best Jamaican patties in the city were back at Islington, downstairs in the bus area. He could consider such to be his dinner plans! Though, if he continued on Mill Road by foot, he would arrive to Centennial Hill where there were fireworks, ribs, and loud music. Usually he visited Centennial for exercise or winter fun on his own, but the appeal of big loud crowds was not having to be “Silent K” for an hour or so. When nobody could hear one another, how little or much you spoke didn’t matter terribly.

The loop arrived, the bus dumped, and Simon stayed on. He decided you could be just as quiet in a place that was dead and empty as any loud festival. He wouldn’t double back to the station for patties, he decided, but would hop off at the West Mall and walk south toward a donut shop on Bloor aptly named “West Mall Donuts.”

The glowing neon signs made promises of fresh hotcakes and the best coffee in the whole world; Simon couldn’t pass up such an opportunity, but there was something about a promise made in neon that felt like gambling for high stakes.

The underwhelming, scratched. and abused counter case housed piles of homemade baked goods tightly wrapped in cling film. They were imperfect and swollen, some dry and others sunken and moist. Simon bought a brownie and a chocolate milk to take over to his window seat.

“It’s addicting …” said a man Simon decided was a dollar-store Al Pacino. He invited himself to sit down across from him and furrowed his brow, wondering aloud: “Or is it ‘addictive’…? Either way … cheap friggin’ pastries, am I right? Holy shit … a man could go bankrupt,” said Mr. Pacino. “I’m Brian,” added Al, “but everyone calls me ‘Bry.’”

Simon began to peel the cling wrap from his brownie. “It starts with the brownies. That’s a gateway pastry — I mean fifty cents? That’s friggin’ grade-school fundraiser prices — and in a commercial establishment, no less!” Dollar-store Al Pacino had a point: the prices were incredibly cheap. If Simon hadn’t been mute, he’d have mentioned it was likely because they were made in the shitty kitchen of the apartment upstairs, where the owners slept and farted, and walked around naked from time to time. And if he believed Al to know sign language, he’d have gestured more than just a thumbs-up; though Al seemed to feel validated and encouraged enough by the motion to continue all the same.

“My wife? Kids? Pah!” He puffed his punctuation with fingers exploding from his lips: “Gone! I’m the worst with money. And it’s not just the gambling, or the vices, or the poor investments: it’s the hidden fees and micro-purchases. This place? It’s full of micro-purchases. I must have spent I-dunno-how-much on these pastries and coffees, because every time I’m like ‘well it’s so friggin’ cheap,’ but then you go and think that thirty, maybe forty times a day and you feel like an asshole after you hit the hundredth, maybe hundred-and-fifty donut mark! Oh shoot, it Maghdee. Don’t look at him, don’t say a friggin’ word, play it cool.”

Simon craned his neck slightly to catch a glimpse of the diner’s new patron. Maghdee, as it turned out, was someone Simon mentally called “The Mall Pirate.” He called him this on account of his one eye and a passionate refusal to purchase a patch to cover the other side. He had been changing out a square piece of white gauze every month for seven years; taped to drape down from his brow.

For Simon, the walls began to melt. He was not only beginning to realize that this was the spiritual Grand Central Station for the crazy and weird of Etobicoke — but that he may very well fit in and be a freak after all. Simon didn’t have time to mentally dissect this because Maghdee had suddenly spotted dollar-store Al Pacino and left the purchase counter in a determined, hot stride toward their window seats.

“Brian, you fuck!” he yelled through rolling r’s. Maghdee was the kind of pirate who hadn’t seen loot or a lush island in months; his men had whispered mutiny, his parrot had starved only days before, and the rations had left him gaunt. But that only made him one angry, tall, and lanky Somalian who would have good reach in a fight. “I saw you nab my fare at Sherway Gardens! Look at me you fuck. You thieving shit!” His words were threatening, but his face was smiling; it must have been how they regularly talked to one another. “You watch yourself,” Maghdee advised Simon, “he’s a sneaky piece of shit whose abortion didn’t take — he’s not supposed to be here taking up our space, and drinking our coffee and taking our fares.”

“Don’t forget taking your women!” Pacino blurted, immediately red-faced and angry with his loss of composure. Maghdee pointed at him as if to yell “gotcha!” and clapped his hands together, laughing.

Simon noticed his brownie was long since dominated by mould and was ready to go home; to stop doubling back. He rose from his seat and pulled out his Metropass — the neon-blue promise of a bus was coming around the corner.

“Lemme give you a ride, kid — free.” Pacino’s offer was kind, but Simon shook his head “no”; the bus meant he wouldn’t miss a thing along the way; he could take his time. How could Al ever appreciate leaving the night blank and open for the city to fill?

“Happy trails, then! Hey, it was real nice talking to you, man!”

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Graywood Drive by Mary Breen

My mother was convinced that Toronto — and civilization as we know it — ended at Jane Street. She had lived in the Annex since moving here from Montreal in the early fifties, sharing a flat on Bedford Road with a series of roommates, who decamped one by one to become wives and mothers. After a successful career as a scientist, it was her turn to cross the Humber into The Feminine Mystique.

On Graywood Drive in the sixties and seventies, the mothers didn’t work and our most exotic neighbour had a vaguely Eastern European accent. The kids ran free from the time we’d finished our Cap’n Crunch in the morning until the street lights came on at night. Like the other mothers, mine made Hamburger Helper, ironed in front of General Hospital, and probably washed down a Valium with some gin every endless afternoon. Unlike them, she didn’t care for bridge, so missed out on a vital weekly social engagement.

There was a pleasantly non-hierarchical system among the kids; that part I remember fondly. We all played Red Rover and British Bulldog up and down the unfenced yards, and jumped through somebody’s sprinkler when we got too hot. One or another of the mothers would feed us hot dogs at lunchtime, or egg salad sandwiches (Wonder Bread, no crusts). We raced homemade go-carts down the middle of the street, and routinely climbed up on the school roof at the end of the block to retrieve our Frisbees.

The kids on my street might have played together every day after school, but we didn’t acknowledge each other within the walls of that institution, where social boundaries were in force. My fate was sealed in grade two, when my teacher made me mark my classmates’ worksheets and spelling quizzes at her desk, while she read stories aloud and let the kids take turns massaging her bunions. A few awkward girls were my friends. These were the girls picked last for the teams in gym, as likely to take a ball in the glasses as catch it, like me. We all had good imaginations and spent a lot of time making up sketches and skits to entertain ourselves.

I was saddled with my brown-noser status right through elementary school. In an effort to help me fit in, my mum bought me whatever the other kids were wearing: Earth shoes, maxi skirts, toe socks. By the end of grade seven, I seemed to have gained a toehold on popularity.

My success hinged on the good graces of Judy Atkin. Since kindergarten, I had sat in the desk behind hers, because my name came next in the alphabet. Judy was every bit as successful as me in school, but she had a swagger and a way of rolling up her shirt sleeves that defied anyone to mess with her. She lived in a planned neighbourhood called Thorncrest Village: a kind of social experiment in snootiness, like an American gated community, but with fewer guns and more key parties. We lived just outside its boundaries. Good thing, too. I can’t see my dad flopping around on a waterbed with somebody else’s wife.

One glorious day at the end of grade seven, I was invited to a party with the cool kids, thanks to Judy’s intervention on my behalf. I remember it was on the street where Toronto’s disgraced former mayor, Rob Ford, lived. I contributed my portable turntable, which played both forty-fives and thirty-threes. My mother had won it in a contest, and it was the best gadget in our house. This party had everything: Pillsbury crescent roll hot dogs, Pop Shoppe soft drinks, slow dancing, and Seven Minutes of Heaven in the storage room with whichever gangly boy the spinning bottle indicated.

Necking was a hugely popular pastime for twelve- and thirteen-year-olds (this was before the advent of video games). These soirées continued every weekend, in similarly panelled rec rooms with green or orange shag carpeting. And I continued to be invited. At one of these parties, a boy named Peter had a go at squeezing my little apricot boobs during a Gino Vannelli song. I moved his hand around to the small of my back. He made a second attempt to cop a feel, which I also thwarted. After the song was over, I needed to talk to someone, and I made the mistake of telling a member of the in-crowd named Laura. Laura told one of the boys, who told the others, who rallied around their bro, accusing me of making it all up. And thus ended my season in the sun, as suddenly as it had begun.

My fall from grace was quite breathtaking. It was decreed by the leader of the pack, a precociously busty girl named Karen, that no girls were to speak to me. But my best friend Lisa did, anyway. She hadn’t been at the party, or I would have told her about the groping, and she would have believed me. We played the cello next to one another in strings, and hung out while one or the other of us was babysitting on the weekend, tasting all the kinds of booze in the families’ wet bars.

There was a steep hill next to the school playground that got very icy in winter, and it was the habit of the cliques with power to send kids they wished to humiliate hurtling down the slope before the bell rang. I would start the school day damp, freezing, and bruised, but adults didn’t get involved in these types of shenanigans back then, and no kid would think of snitching to a teacher.

I was mostly able to shake my untouchable status when I went to a big high school, but I was determined not to be pigeonholed as a nerdy girl, so I refused my math teacher’s offer to take part in the school’s Reach for the Top team, which would compete on a televised academic quiz show. Canada’s future prime minster, Stephen Harper, was the team captain. My teacher really wanted a girl on the team, and I should have been honoured to be asked when I was only in grade nine, but I saw it as a curse.

I found high school insufferably boring, so I stopped going very often. I found I could ace my exams with a minimum of independent study, and preferred to spend my days at the museum or the art gallery. Since my marks remained high, my mum didn’t object. It wasn’t that I was exceptionally smart; I just had a knack for memorization like my dad. Everything I learned fled my brain as soon as I’d regurgitated it onto a test sheet. I was more interested in literature and language, anyway, prompting my empirically inclined mother to tease, “You don’t actually know any facts, do you?” But she wrote me notes to get out of detention, making up creative excuses for my absence.

I eventually switched to an alternative high school where the history classroom had floor cushions instead of chairs, the walls were covered with graffiti and everyone was welcome to smoke in class. When John Lennon was shot, the students and teachers wore black arm bands; it was that kind of place. We had women’s studies three full decades before it was added to Ontario’s high school curriculum. A classmate who later became a TV star told People magazine he had attended a school for social pariahs, which wasn’t inaccurate. I loved it there.

When I was seventeen, something snapped, and instead of being angsty in the manner of my literary heroes, I started getting panic attacks that scared the bejesus out of me. They must have terrified my mother, too, but she spoke soothingly to me until they passed. Sometimes these incidents would involve wailing, and my father would stomp down the stairs to my room to ask, “What the hell is going on here?” He seemed annoyed that I was disturbing his daily twenty-two-hour nap, but I’m sure he was worried. My dad had been diagnosed with manic depression and OCD in the early seventies, and had spent much of my adolescence in hospital. He’d escape the ward sometimes to try to drown himself in Lake Ontario, but he was a really good swimmer and his instinct to stay afloat would kick in. He received a whole lot of shock therapy, which probably kept him alive, but his quality of life was never the same.

Sometimes I had that bottom-of-a-pit feeling that causes people to take whole bottles of pills, and that’s what I did one evening. I immediately felt sheepish, and skulked into the kitchen to tell my mother. She prepared a mustard mixture to make me throw up. It was by no means a suicide attempt; it was a gesture of rage and confusion. Maybe I was checking to see if I was as sick as my dad. Luckily for me, I wasn’t.

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Lessons from an Etobicoke Fire Alarm by Lynne Golding 

I wasn’t supposed to be in the apartment that morning. After a week of pleas, my fourteen-year-old daughter and I had the afternoon before we left the small lakefront lodge in which we were vacationing. We returned to our Etobicoke apartment amid the July humidity. “It’s only one night,” Ellie cried. “Everyone will be there!” Recalling my own adolescence, I allowed the insecurities of that age to trump those pertaining to my overindulgent parenting skills. It was a birthday party of a schoolmate — Ellie’s first mixed party. The apartment building where we lived was full of retirees. I didn't want to deny her the opportunity to foster those much-needed school friendships.

I’m here, I announced in a text sent from the road outside her friend’s home later that night. I added what I knew she would consider to be an unimaginative happy-face emoji. The face that greeted me moments later was anything but happy, but I soon realized it was from disappointment in the party itself rather than its conclusion. On our long drive down Islington, I learned, through monosyllabic responses to my many questions, that the party was assiduously supervised (good); that three of her friends were absent, their parents having refused to interrupt their holidays for the occasion (damn); and that the boy on whom she had a secret crush had spent all of his time in the basement of the house gaming (predictable). I gave her a quick hug as we silently rode the elevator to our floor.

Little did we know that the excitement she sought to have, the opportunity for her to forge friendships and the means to demonstrate my true parenting skills were all before us, that they would all present themselves in our own apartment building and that we would experience all of them before we returned to the lake the next day.

“Eek! Eek!” Silence.

“Mom! Mom! Get up!” Ellie yelled, running into my room. “The building is on fire!”

“Calm down, Ellie,” I urged, my words belying my elevated heart rate. It was 6:00 a.m. The alarm had woken me from a deep sleep.

“Eek! Eek!” It blared again before stopping. “Mom, we have to get out!”

“Really, Ellie. Calm down,” I repeated. “We need to wait for building management to tell us what to do.” I knew it was likely the alarm was false. I had lost count of the times that we encountered false fire alarms in the building where I worked.

“When will they tell us?” she asked, almost hyperventilating.

“Soon,” I replied with great authority. “It’s so humid outside. I bet that’s what tripped the alarm.”

But Ellie was stressed.

“Let’s get dressed,” I said. “Just in case.”

The alarm sounded again as we each donned a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, and our running shoes. But as I calmly walked out of my bedroom, Ellie bolted from hers, practically running to the door at the end of the hallway.

“Ellie!” I hollered between the alarm’s sounds. She turned to me, panic-stricken.

“Feel the door,” I intoned more gently as I walked toward her. “That’s what you’re supposed to do. Make sure it’s not hot before you open it.” We both felt the cool, heavy door. “Now you can open it,” I said and walked back toward the kitchen. I needed coffee.

“Anything out there?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard from the galley kitchen. “The Chapmans,” she said after closing the door, “and the Cormacks. They’re walking to the stairway.” Really, I thought. Didn’t they know that they were supposed to wait in their apartment for instructions?

“Mom, shouldn’t we go?”

“Not until we’re told,” I repeated. I was so glad that I was home and able to reinforce these lessons she had frequently been taught.

I lifted my cup from the coffee maker. Ellie opened the hallway door again. The alarm, which pulsated intermittently, was so much louder with the door open.

Clutching the mug, I reflected on our twelve-storey, 110-unit building, occupied mostly by people a generation older than me, contemporaries of my late husband. For the first five years of the building’s existence, I was its youngest occupant, a position I ceded only when Ellie was born.

I knew so many people in the building, being the grateful recipient of their casseroles, helping hands, and prayers, as I nursed my daughter in her first twelve months and, contemporaneously, my husband in his last. Staying at home with Ellie in the four years that followed, I participated in their tai chi classes, bridge sessions, and aqua fit exercises, Ellie by my side.

It had been years since I’d participated in any of the activities organized for the building’s residents. Between Ellie’s school and dance activities and my work, we didn't have time for much else. Our circle now was limited to the occupants of the other nine units on our floor, most of whom treated Ellie like a granddaughter.

In Ellie’s eyes, the building was deficient in only two respects: it had no other teenage occupants and it had a strict no-pets policy. I hoped that the indignation I outwardly expressed about the likely illegality of the policy masked my true support for it. The last thing we needed was to look after a dog.

My reflections were terminated by a piercing wail. “Mom!” Ellie cried. “They want us to evacuate.”

“Who wants us to evacuate?”

“Building management. That’s what they’re announcing from the speakers in the hallway.”

I set down my mug and picked up my phone. In the hallway? Why had they not announced it in the units?

As I entered the hallway, I could see to my right the Sullivans and the Smiths walking toward the stairwell at their end of the building. Ellie reported that the Hipwells and the Kents had already left. That left only the Elgies, and I recalled that they were away. At our end, everyone had left, she said, except Mrs. Green.

“Okay. Let’s go get her.”

“Get her? Mom, we have to go. Mrs. Green can make her own way down.”

Furrowing my eyebrows, I took Ellie’s hand. “Mrs. Green wouldn't leave you behind.”

Jean Green, a seventy-eight-year-old, 110-pound widow, opened the door on our first knock. “I can’t go, Beth,” she said. “I can’t walk down ten flights of stairs.”

“Of course you can, Jean. It’s been a year since your surgery. I’ve seen you walk plenty.”

“But I am so slow.”

“We’ll help you,” I said. The adrenaline was coursing through my veins, but I was not yet panicked.

The panic hit the moment we entered the stairwell. There we were greeted by two things: the unmistakable smell of smoke and a vanishing line of stair descenders. We were clearly among the last to evacuate. But we were not the absolute last.

“Hurry up, girls,” a woman from above us said before we reached the ninth-floor landing. Thinking she was referring to Jean, Ellie, and me, I turned to give her a piece of my mind. “The moving boxes are no excuse,” she said to the young girls, whom I could see were the target of her remonstrance. They appeared to be twins about Ellie’s age. “You should always know where to find a pair of shoes in a hurry.”

“Quick, move around these people,” she said. The two girls turned as they passed us, waving sheepishly. Well, I thought, if we get out of this, there will be two new friends for Ellie, but none for me.

“Need help?” someone asked a few minutes later. I looked up to see a small Sikh man exiting from the eighth floor. He looked older than Jean and smaller than Ellie. “We’re fine,” I replied with confidence greater than I felt. “You go on ahead.” He did.

As we neared the landing to the fifth floor, a fit retiree came upon us. “You okay?” he asked as he whizzed by. He didn’t wait for an answer.

“Beth, you and Ellie go on without me,” Jean said as we approached the fourth floor. The acrid smell of smoke was getting stronger.

“Nonsense,” I replied, restraining every urge to agree with her suggestion and wondering if I was right in insisting on bringing Jean down. I did have the safety of my daughter to consider. I resolved to release Ellie if another adult offered help. But we did not see another adult until we finally exited the building.

Gulping large amounts of fresh air, I looked around at the groups that had assembled outside the building. As I expected, there were a lot of older, white-haired people, but there were also brown- and black-haired people. Four people were wearing saris. Half a dozen people were holding babies. I saw a lot of pets. We would be returning to a building much different from the one I thought we had exited.

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The OBPO and Open Book gratefully acknowledge the support of The Ontario Media Development Corporation, The Toronto Arts Council, Arts Etobicoke, North York Arts, East York Arts, and Scarborough Arts in making this contest and these original pieces possible.
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Andrew Anthony was born and raised in Etobicoke, Toronto. His passion for writing — for page, stage, and screen — was born in the area’s schools and nurtured through its streets and seasons. Now an actor, he breathes words into life, and life into words.

Mary Fairhurst Breen grew up in Etobicoke and remains a west-ender, though she raised her family in a neighbourhood that was grittier and more diverse than the suburban setting of her youth. After a career in the not-for-profit sector and an adventure running an arts business, she is pursuing writing.

Lynne Golding is a senior partner at the law firm Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, where she works out of their Toronto office. She obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto before studying law at Queen’s University. Her first novel is historical fiction, titled Beneath the Alders: The Innocent.

Teri Vlassopoulos is the author of the Danuta Gleed Literary Award–nominated short-story collection, Bats or Swallows (Invisible Publishing), and the novel Escape Plans (Invisible Publishing). Her writing has appeared in Room magazine, Little Fiction, The Toast, The Millions, and Catapult. She lives in Toronto with her family.