“The thing is to make sure that no one gets maimed or killed. Gotta have all their fingers and toes! Same amount of limbs as when they started.” Darren laughed, the midday sun striking his features at odd angles, giving him a milky, washed-out appearance. He ambled forward in what the guys called his “70’s Walk”: bent back from the waist, spine hovering over the pavement like a badly scribbled question mark, legs swung out ahead of him, seeking purchase (and always nearly missing it), an affectation turned habit Kyle was sure Darren wasn’t even consciously aware of anymore.
They had always called him a character. Was it any wonder that Darren, impressionable, eager-to-please, otherwise friendless and all-around awkward Darren--Darren Lotts--became one?
Kyle sidestepped a scattering of oblong pellets only plant his shoe into yet another pile of the ubiquitous scat. He and Darren were discussing the latest town advent: hunting within city limits. The deer population in Brant had reached unsustainable, as some (including that old figurehead and former mayor, Boondoggle Bill) called it, ungodly proportions. Bucks, does and fawns wandered Brant’s alleyways and pothole-laden streets, invading backyards, ruining gardens, impeding traffic.
Numerous efforts--culling, poisoning, birth control involving tricked-out dart guns--had failed, and failed miserably. Each day, every year, still more deer. Hunting (bows only, Brant was a civilized town, after all) was deemed a welcome and necessary tactic that would enhance existing methods of population control.
Or so the thinking went.
Yet, there were those, a small but indomitable few, who welcomed the deer. Kyle’s mother, Debbie, was among such people.
“It’s so nice, having them around. They like marshmallows!” she whispered to him conspiratorially, as if someone hiding in the cupboard might burst in and steal her secret.
Her words reminded Kyle of something he’d read as a kid, about how, when you tamed something, you made the ordinary special. Made it yours. The idea struck him as counterintuitive and woefully sentimental. Not that he would call the deer of Brant tamed. They still came and went as they pleased; still were very capable of causing property damage and physical harm (no one had been gored, but a chosen few, Boondoggle Bill included, had been lightly stomped), and seemed ready to abandon Brant, their admirers included, should something better come along.
Darren clucked his tongue. “You can’t hunt in the city proper. Not in the downtown or anything. Aside from that, it’s fair game!”
“As long as you have permission,” said Kyle, thinking of the pastures that bordered the town like a fringe of stubborn mold.
Darren rolled his eyes. “Yes.”
Kyle suppressed a groan. It was hopeless. Brant was a hole, and you either clawed your way out, or you didn’t, and even then there were no guarantees.
There were the guys that left, never to return (Chris G., Willie Oh and Sticky Ron). There were the guys that left and came back, like him. And then there were guys that just never left. Lifers, like Darren.
What was Brant without people like him?
Darren clapped Kyle on the shoulders, his face a starburst of unmitigated joy. “It’s so good to have you home, man!”
As best he could, Kyle smiled back.
The town of Brant, Ontario.
Wait, no. Scratch that.
The town of Brant, Northern Ontario. Northwestern Ontario, to be precise. Very different, and the difference was key.
Ontario was a sprawling bulwark of a province. Bulky and thick at the top like the meat on a badly butchered porkchop, squeezed tightly, almost meanly at its approximate middle by the bulging bodies of Lake Superior, Lake Huron and James Bay before thickening again to an awkward, naked chicken wing that housed the nation’s capital, Ottawa, turning back sharply toward Toronto, and tapering to a crudely knobbed base somewhere around the border grazing Detroit.
Ontario’s cities were clustered in the south. The further north you went, the smaller and sparser they became until you were mostly left with towns and hamlets.
Including Brant, Ontario.
There was very little to do in Brant that wasn’t prescribed or otherwise mandated by the dictates and impulses of limited community.
Case in point: as a rite of passage, of sorts, Brant’s teens defaced the town mascot every few months, following the Brant Beautification Society’s dogged efforts to repaint it every time they did. The sullen, uninspiring fowl--whose only redeeming quality was neither its abundance in the area (it was rare to see a Brant goose in Brant), nor the brilliance of its plumage (dull brown, boring beige and lackluster black), but its sharing a name with the town’s founder, Thomas Brant--was a stout, blunted bird with call like broken nails raking down a battered washboard. Its likeness likewise was not a monstrosity or a work of art, but something in-between, a rambling, hodgepodge assemblage of twisted metal parts and recycled bits (pop cans, sardine lids, old bike chains).
Hard to blame anyone who took offence with it, although that was less a matter of local pride than it was a particular manifestation of community engagement.
It was a vicious cycle, offenders and offended feeding each other until all that remained was a truncated conversation without resolution:
WELCOME TO BRANT, proclaimed the plaque embossed onto the stone slab upon which Mr. B, the town mascot, rested his crude, webbed feet.
What’s good for the goose? Asked the graffiti, at times rendered in elegant loops and twists, at times badly scrawled, as if by an inexperienced or harried hand.
No one, to Kyle’s recollection, had ever come up with an answer.
Darren lead Kyle to the outskirts of the Bradley property, their old stomping grounds. It was a good spot with dense trees and tangled thickets--all sorts of places for them to hang out, drink, do drugs, bring girls.
Had there been any girls, to speak of…had any of them had the guts to try anything stronger than the skunky weed and sour beer their buddy, Shane, scored for them from his stepdad’s cousin, Chad (Home Deport Chad, not the Chad that worked at the school).
Old Man Bradley had died long before Darren and Kyle were even born. And though the Bradley family refused to sell or rent out their land, they had not been as motivated regarding its upkeep. Fields were mowed and crops planted, yes, but resignedly, the remaining Bradleys doing what they’ve always done because it was the way they’d always done it.
As they walked next to the clumsy rows of unripe corn, Kyle noticed something sitting amidst the struggling crop: apples stacked in a tidy heap. Near the mealy McIntoshes was a slanted wooden structure. Footprints, bullet casings and bits of hair were caked in the mud surrounding it.
He pointed at the deer blind. “That can’t be legal.”
“Who gonna call?” snickered Darren.
They tumbled from the corn, emerging onto the long stretch of depressed asphalt that was Thompson Street.
Notorious as being The Strip, that unseemly part of Brant where assorted riff-raff congregated under cover of dark (or so said concerned citizens and council members), Thompson Street was largely vacant during the daylight hours. A small black dog limped past as Kyle and Darren wandered down the sidewalk.
Darren made a face. “Filthy thing must have wanted in from The Rez.”
They watched the dog until it disappeared into an alleyway.
“How much further?” Kyle moaned. His feet ached.
“Almost there!” Darren led them past a fleet of abandoned flowerbeds, remnants of the Brant Beautification Society’s efforts to rejuvenate The Strip.
“Dude, where are we going?”
Darren whipped around so suddenly Kyle smacked into his chest. “We, my friend, are going to see the great Lady Sam!”
Darren ran ahead. “Pick up the pace, will ya? The Lady awaits!”
Lady Sam lived in a dilapidated bungalow near the bog, both of which sat, heavy and bloated, at the edge of town.
Three sagging wooden steps brought them to a crooked screen door. Darren rapped on it with his knuckles. They waited, insects buzzing their ears, until a tiny figure materialized in the dark foyer inside.
Darren bowed. “M’lady!”
The woman said nothing. Then, just as it seemed that she was about to slip back into the depths of the house, she slapped on the lights.
“Hey!” Blinking back tears from the sudden glare, Kyle glimpsed a set of hazel eyes set against warm, tan skin, long blonde-brown hair, and a most unimpressed mouth.
“Cut the shit, Darren,” it sneered.
That voice…high-pitched, yet edged like fine obsidian. Though he hadn’t heard it in years, he recognized it immediately.
“Crystal? Crystal Le?” exclaimed Kyle.
What the hell was Crystal Le doing hanging around Darren? Darren Lotts?
“Lady Sam,” she shot back. She came out to the porch, a look of utter contempt twisting her face into a tight, angry knot. “What the everloving fuck Darren!”
Darren flinched. “I know! I know! But I’m vouching for him!”
“You cannot be serious.”
“Dead serious!” When Lady Sam only glared at him, Darren retrieved something from the pocket of his cargo shorts and handed it to her. “My tips for the past month. Plus the fifty bucks I borrowed from Kyle here.”
Lady Sam weighed the money in her hand. “Kyle,” she hissed.
Who was this nasty little woman? The person Kyle knew from high school was quiet and unassuming, not furious and foul-mouthed. What happened?
“I can get more,” pleaded Darren.
Lady Sam sighed and pocketed the money. “Shoes off while you’re in the house.”
But as Kyle tried to make his way inside, past an overjoyed Darren, she grabbed the porch rail, blocking his path. “Give me your phone.”
“Just do it, man!” Darren waited until Kyle handed over his Samsung to Lady Sam, then removed his Crocs. Kyle reluctantly followed suit, cradling his sneakers like a pair of thin-soled twins.
Lady Sam took them through the house and out the kitchen door, where the back of her house met the fetid waters of the bog.
Kyle started, then stared.
Strewn all about the weeds and grass was a smorgasbord of salty, fatty, sickly-sweet treats. Gingersnaps, pickles and pudding. Pretzels, lollipops and camembert. Baloney, honeycomb. And what looked like…really?
Kyle squinted. “Are those hotdogs?”
Lady Sam pulled on her boots. “Chicken and beef.”
Were they that starved for entertainment? A flash of panic seized Kyle. He scanned the yard, expecting to see Darren wielding a bow, only to find him stuffing perogies into his jean jacket, shoving a few choice pieces in his mouth as he went.
Lady Sam shushed him. She titled her head. “Listen.”
They waited, Darren’s rough mastication their only accompaniment.
He heard it then, amongst the croaking of bullfrogs. A rustling in the bush, followed by the sounds of snapping branches and the pounding of kettledrum footsteps--big, heavy thuds that dropped the earth beneath him and left him scrambling.
The frogs fell silent.
Shadows emerged from the wilderness beyond, great looming forms that towered above them, easily dwarfing Darren’s ungainly height and virtually obliterating all traces of the diminutive Lady Sam.
Darren cupped his hands around his mouth and whooped. A few of the beings whooped back.
Kyle counted. Two, three…five. Five giants. The moonlight broke through the cloud cover; he beheld bright faces with short noses and dark, expressive eyes, wide torsos supported on long, graceful legs, and lavish coats of shimmering grey, brown, orange and black.
“Those are…Are they?” Visions of anthropology classes flashed across his mind, interspersed by old X-Files episodes, midnight internet searches and Expedition Sasquatch marathons on the Nature Channel.
Lady Sam shot him a pitiless glance. “Yes.”
“Quit staring, man!” Darren elbowed him in the ribs and, grinning, bolted toward the creatures, tossing dumplings into their waiting mouths as he reached them.
Years later, Kyle came to the slow realization that that had been it, the breaking point at which his eyes refused to betray him and his mind gorged itself on the possibilities before him: Darren frolicking in the junk-food laden bog; Crystal Le resurrected from his past and reconstituted into a weird, warped copy of herself; the walking legends there in the fucking flesh, chewing, gulping, gnawing their way through their sumptuous repast.
Lady Sam held up a hotdog. One of the beings took it between its gigantic thumb and massive forefinger, chuffing amiably, Kyle guessed, by way of thanks. Lady Sam reached into her fanny pack and retrieved some chocolates, which the creature accepted with an open palm.
It was, Kyle noticed, immaculately clean.
Kyle watched as Darren bounced on the balls of his bare feet, dancing to a steady beat pounded out by three of the creatures who, sated by the chips, liverwurst and Skittles provided by their benefactors, hunkered languidly against a fallen tree trunk.
Lady Sam sidled in beside him. “Who would you tell?”
“No one!” Kyle instinctively lied. “I don’t know,” he amended.
“Who would believe you?” One of the homins, as she called them, swayed drunkenly on its feet, crooning softly to itself.
“Who would believe me,” Kyle conceded.
The creature sang on.
She gave him his phone. “Belief is a choice, isn’t it?”
“Could be faith. Who knows?” She gestured toward the homins. “But they don’t come for just anyone.”
The truth of her words stabbed at him. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Lady Sam’s face went perfectly still. “Of course you will.”
She left him standing there, phone in hand.
And yet not every night was a banquet, not every banquet a celebration.
“How’s your shoulder?” Kyle asked.
Darren winced, mid-shrug. “Okay.”
It had not been the best of evenings. A homin slammed Darren into a tree as it stampeded toward a baked ham. Kyle dove into the bog just in time, splashing another homin with the brackish water, who growled so fiercely at him he retreated and fell back into the bog. He emerged soaked and reeking.
“You’re lucky it wasn’t a female.”
“How can you tell?”
“They’re twice big, Kyle.”
Kyle frowned and went back to gathering soaked buns and spoiled meat from the yard. It was tedious, disgusting work. He glared at Lady Sam’s bungalow as a wad of pumpernickel disintegrated in his hand.
“Why put out so much?” he groused. They’d been cleaning up for hours, but there was still so much food-turned-waste spread like bad cheese (actually, a lot of it was cheese) across the backyard.
“‘Better too much than too little,’” replied Darren, quoting Lady Sam. He shrugged. Winced. “It’s her house, man.”
In addition to his conscription into clean-up duty, Kyle accompanied Lady Sam to Brant’s one and only superstore, Darren preferring to hang back at the house.
“These,” said Lady Sam as she dropped several bags of Nibs in into the shopping cart. “And these,” she said, tossing Kyle a box of frozen spring rolls.
He chuckled at the chopstick script. “Your parents worked at that restaurant. The Jade Palace.”
Lady Sam grabbed some M&M’s. “They owned it.”
“Ever miss it?” The Palace closed years ago, after other all-you-can-eat places sprang up all over town. “Did we get beefaroni?”
“No,” answered Lady Sam. “Yes, to the beefaroni.”
Kyle grinned, wistful. “We ate there all the time. Me and the guys.” He remembered the streaming trays piled high with all his favourites.
He wasn’t an idiot. He knew the Palace fare of chop suey and chow mien wasn’t real Chinese food. Real Chinese food was shark fin soup, barbequed bat and baby chickens boiled alive inside the egg. But he wasn’t about to tell Lady Sam any of that. It wasn’t her fault.
“I saw you sometimes. At school,” he said instead, belatedly recalling the catcalls and dirty looks that trailed her throughout its hallways.
“I saw you sometimes at the restaurant.”
“I guess you would have.” The tips of his ears burned. How many chicken balls had she seen him cram into his mouth during those titular “Chicken Ball Challenges” he and the guys had all those Saturday nights?
“Darren came by back then too. Then a lot more after he quit the lumberyard.”
“Is that when you started hanging out?”
Lady Sam nodded. “I needed help with the homins.”
He almost laughed. “So that’s why you believe in him? Have faith in the guy?”
Lady Sam stopped the cart with her foot. The handle jolted out of Kyle’s grip and into his stomach.
“What are you asking me, Kyle?”
“It’s everything about this, okay?” he wheezed. “It’s fucking unbelievable! I mean, it’s Darren! Darren Lotts! And it’s you! How did I not know?” Kyle knew he was ranting, much like Boondoggle Bill out on yet another ripper of a night through Thompson Street, but he didn’t care. “It could have been, with the homins…” Kyle grasped for words. “I was here too.”
He ran his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. I’m pathetic, I know. Of course, you figured it out. You’re amazing. He peered over his glasses at her. “I’ve always thought so.”
Lady Sam regarded him so for long Kyle feared he had said too much.
“Sweet and savory,” she said at last. “That’s the secret.” She smiled and this time, it reached her eyes. “You have to balance the flavours. Otherwise, they won’t come.”
Kyle smiled back, ecstatic. “That really is it, isn’t it?”
He grabbed the cart and pushed it ahead.
The rain was expected, yet unseasonal, downpours that flooded the streets, clogged drainpipes and dripped through rooftops.
Their last evening at Lady Sam’s had been weeks ago, a gathering with three homins that lasted until dawn. That morning’s clean-up had taken most of the following day.
Kyle scowled. Lady Sam’s way was wasteful, costly. With so much food left out for them, it was no wonder the homins became logy, unfocussed. Boring.
Debbie strolled into the kitchen. “How’s the job hunt going?”
He glared out the window. “Same as always.”
“Looking for deer instead?” She laughed, pouring herself some coffee.
Kyle turned to face her. “Actually, I heard a secret about how to get the big bucks and does to come to you.”
Debbie brightened. “Yeah?”
Eyes shining, Kyle told her exactly what she needed to know.
Gossip travels fast in a small town, even a burgeoning mid-sized one like Brant, Ontario, and especially when it came to the resident deer.
Dick Henderson offered up kebabs with chocolate sauce, placing the dish outside his favorite deer blind (the one in the apple orchard purportedly haunted by the dispirited bones of Old Man Bradley). Debbie suspended Vienna Sausages in strawberry-flavoured Jell-O and left the quivering mass on her porch step. Boondoggle Bill, vengeance on his mind, riled against this latest display of hippie-dippy decadence and demanded the soft-headed folks among them to “stop givin’ hand-outs to those ungrateful ungulates!”
Others whiled away the remaining days in their own ways.
Kyle went to the superstore to stock pile his own goodies. His mom’s yard was bigger than Lady Sam’s, and better situated. Darren, he was sure, would have done this years ago, had he means and the wherewithal. Just another thing that set him apart from Kyle and which Lady Sam would come to appreciate in time.
In his basement apartment, Darren snoozed, headphones blasting The Crystal Method into his skull.
Lady Sam locked the back door and unplugged the fridge.
She finished packing.
She picked up the phone.
“Dirty Chinese Restaurant.”
Kyle rolled over, muddle-headed. “Crystal?”
It was three-fifteen in the morning. The voice on the phone was only faintly annoyed.
“Right…sorry.” He ran his hand over his face. “What’d you say?”
“That’s what you and your friends called the Palace. You called it your hangout, ‘the Dirty Chinese Restaurant.’”
“That…That, uh, was a long time ago.”
“The Dirty Chicken Ball Challenge. The Dirty Chinese Girl. Dirty, dirty, dirty.”
Kyle gripped the phone, fully awake now.
“But it wasn’t your place, was it?”
“We didn’t mean it--” Kyle faltered.
“I’m not Chinese, not that it ever mattered to anyone in this dumpy town.” She laughed. “Darren wouldn’t even speak to me until he believed I was, and not, as he put it, ‘out from The Rez.’”
Kyle groaned. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Call it a crisis of conscience. Or maybe I’m gloating.”
“Maybe. You hear about what happened to Char Klugman’s rose garden? Or how about Dick Henderson’s ‘hunting accident?’ And I hear the Karlssons’ poodle will never be the same.” She paused. “Listen, Kyle. I’m glad you came back.”
She hung up.
Kyle and Darren stood in the yard surveying their modest banquet: a thin covering of cotton candy, meatballs, yogurt and SPAM.
Darren fidgeted. “This feels wrong.”
Kyle said nothing. They were not wrong. And soon the whole town would know it.
“I can’t believe she split. Lady Sam--”
Footfalls in the tree line, mighty and resolute, left Darren’s words unsaid. Four of the largest homins Kyle had thus far seen emerged. They lingered, surveying the odds and ends scattered over Debbie’s back lawn. Kyle whooped, welcoming them.
A growl. They looked up, sneering.
“No,” whispered Darren.
The homins pounced, the smallest of the giants chittering its teeth in excitement, the largest rushing forward on all four limbs.
Darren shrank back, muttering unintelligibly. Kyle caught snippets of Darren’s garbled litany (‘nobadsobadnonobad’). But just as he reached for him, a cacophony of human-like voices sounded throughout the woods.
“Jesus shit!” yelped Kyle.
The second largest of the creatures, the whites of its eyes flashing, charged in earnest.
Darren screamed. Limbs flailing, he bolted into the woods, leaving Kyle behind him.
Sweat broke out across Kyle’s brow, his spine ice down to his toes, heart slamming into his ribcage. “Darren? Darren!”
The fourth creature, dour-faced and muscular in the way of Olympian bodybuilders, walked tall. There was something predatory in its slow, loping gait that ripped Kyle from his paralysis.
He ran to the house.
The homins followed.
The pillaging happened soon after that.
“Bears!” said some, not without precedent.
“Homeless!” babbled others.
“Teens!” bemoaned Boondoggle Bill, who was perhaps closest to the truth.
The people of Brant barricaded their homes and storefronts. Called skeptical authorities for help.
But it was already much too late.
The homins had learned simply to take what they wanted. There was little in the woods that they couldn’t get for themselves, and there was so much stowed away in all those pantries, cold rooms and refrigerators it was only natural that, feeling bold (not to mention cheated by their more recent outside offerings), they went ahead and took it too.
Shots were certainly fired, but it only took a few misses before that tract was abandoned--for example, a quick bite to the abdomen, or an arm wrenched clean out of the socket and the owner hurled along with it over a hulking, hairy shoulder.
Terrified homeowners found passageways and exits blocked by the massive interlopers. There were those who smashed windows (Char Klugman), blasted through drywall (Boondoggle Bill), and set fires (Eric and Thomlison Bradley) to escape, alighting the town in bright flames, blanketing it in thick smoke.
Kyle and Debbie piled into her Sebring and peeled out of town. Rumour was that The Rez was taking in refugees.
“Least they could do,” declared Debbie.
They passed Lady Sam’s empty bungalow. Kyle glimpsed a figure in the distance, bent low, legs shot far out in front of it, as it stumbled around the bog.
Perched upon his granite edifice, Mr. B. oversaw the chaos.
If he disapproved, he gave no indication.
WELCOME TO BRANT, read a plaque entrenched in the mud a few meters away.
What’s good for the goose?
Cindy Phan writes about the everyday fantastic, in which the boundaries between the tragic and the absurd shift, merge, transform and misbehave. Her fiction has appeared in The/tƐmz/Review, From the Farther Trees, Augur Magazine and others. You can find her on Twitter: @besidealife.