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The Cottage Road

Connor Thompson

The Cottage Road curves along the shore like a bent spine. In the evenings Burt and Evelyn leave Cedarpine and walk the length of it. The word Cedarpine in cursive script is burned into a plank and affixed to the trunk of a tree at the end of their driveway that is neither cedar nor pine. Burt did it himself one Christmas—took a class and everything. All on the sly from Evelyn, who has her own secrets, like the gentleman at the riding stable just after she and Burt got married—gosh, that was fifty years ago now, but those hands still float like driftwood on the surface of her memory.

Their home has a name because Evelyn grew up reading novels in which homes had names: Tara, Norland Park, Wuthering Heights. The running joke is that when Evelyn explains to guests that Cedarpine is a portmanteau of two trees, Burt feigns astonishment and insists the name refers to pining for cedar. In response she huffs at him in a way no one is sure is entirely good-natured.

From Cedarpine to the edge of town is two kilometres, and at their age that’s far enough. It is Burt who reaches for Evelyn’s hand. She doesn’t mind, though his hand is pudgy and rough. Over the years she has held softer hands, hands more curious, more vigorous, more confident. She takes her husband’s hand as she might take a blanket on an autumn day, as an object that fulfills what is asked of it.

Their evening walks put Burt in a fanciful mood. As darkness approaches he makes a game of calling out the stars as they appear: Sirius, Arcturus, Vega, Betelgeuse. He calls them his reliable stars, and breathes their names with wonder. With his neck craned Evelyn must tug his elbow to guide him past potholes. Back at Cedarpine she leaves him on the lawn to carry on his observations and heads for the bath.

Between Cedarpine and town is the Bluffsview RV Park. Evelyn hates that park. She’s written letters about it to the Township Council, to the Herald, to their neighbours. She hates the sight of those lumbering behemoths all lined up. She hates the people who spill out of their screen doors: the barrel-shaped men with sunburned paunches and beer-logo hats, the bleach-blond women with leathery cleavage and voices like gravel. She hates the urchins that materialize as if from nowhere to scramble across the road and down to the Public Access—the stretch of beach where residents of the park are permitted—there to pollute the air with their guttural cries and curse words.

Burt does not stand in the way of Evelyn’s crusade, but neither does he abet it. And Burt knows better than to tell Evelyn that as she swims her daily strokes he watches the children play in the distance and imagines the children they might have raised, how they might have sounded when they played.

It is late summer, and Evelyn has deployed a cardigan against the chill. Burt reaches out and their palms slide together, fingers entwine. As they pass the park, Burt makes a point of tilting his head towards the bay, where the setting sun has turned the cliffs the colour of salmon. Grass-stained children ramble over the lawn hurling truck-stop insults at each other. Evelyn tingles in revulsion at the smell of charcoal, the faint, distorted strains of Van Halen. Burt’s hand in hers says it will be over soon.

Like a flock of starlings, at some unseen signal the children change tack and swoop towards them, towels trailing from necks and fists. Sandalled and sneakered feet slap the asphalt and Burt and Evelyn are swarmed.

Burt freezes. Evelyn’s fingernails dig into his skin. All summer she’s stewed and seethed, ten weeks of seismic activity just under her surface, and now Burt braces for the eruption. But before she can pop the flock is gone, across the road and barrelling towards the frigid water—save for one, a small boy, a straggler, who catches his foot in a pothole and goes down hard, skidding front-first across the asphalt. Burt winces at the sound of the friction. The child grinds to a halt at their feet.

There is a pause the length of a breath in which the boy’s blue eyes find Evelyn’s. Then his face collapses and he begins to wail, the scuffs on his soft knees seeping crosshatches of new blood; blood too at his lip where his tooth has gone through. Face slick with tears and mucus, tiny body trembling, he lifts his palms towards her as if in supplication: raw and torn, pebbles embedded in the skin.

Burt flinches towards the child and Evelyn clamps her fingers over his hand. She will say later it was a reflex of surprise, that she was not trying to stop Burt from helping the child, of course not. Burt will not believe her, will find himself, going forward, believing her less and less, though it will be some time before things come to a head and it all comes out. Calloused fingers extricate from delicate ones. Two strides and he is beside the boy, who by instinct lifts his arms around Burt’s neck.

Screen doors slam. Curious adults make for the commotion. Burt breathes her name like an admonishment, and she understands she’s been revealed to him in a new way, that he’s discovered at last that a heart’s nature is like a star, and in a certain darkness cannot help but appear. He stands in the road, holding the bawling child to his chest, but all Evelyn sees are his hands: how the left cradles the thigh, how the right strokes comfort into the shoulder. Ordinary hands. Reliable hands. Then he turns away.

About the Author

Connor Thompson (he/him) is a writer and actor from Toronto. He has work published or upcoming at TL;DR Press, X-R-A-Y, and Flyover Country. One time he was in a Kia commercial with Paul Anka. Find him at @cpethompson.

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