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Authors: James Grainger

Harmless

BOOK: Harmless
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Copyright © 2015 by James Grainger

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication is available upon request

ISBN: 978-0-7710-3669-9
ebook ISBN: 978-0-7710-3670-5

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover image: © Raimund Linke/Stockbyte/Getty Images

McClelland & Stewart,
a division of Random House of Canada Limited,
a Penguin Random House Company
www.penguinrandomhouse.ca

v3.1

For Laura, the love of my life

Contents
FRIENDS

T
hey made a nice picture: Franny and Rebecca, walking through the high grass in the July sun, the forest in the background, the bright blue sky above. Franny and Rebecca, friends since they were babies, keeping to a languid, almost liquid pace, impossible for anyone but an almost-fifteen-year-old to maintain. The girls swayed and nudged each other at the shoulders as if the ground kept tipping their bodies into collision. They pointed and laughed, evoking phantom enemies with comic-strip gestures, two giggling teenagers passing secrets and outrages, confirming what they’d learned about the world since their last meeting. Franny wore the short shorts Joseph hated and the shirt with too much “V” at the front but he’d kept his mouth shut, obeying the self-imposed, seventy-two-hour no-nagging policy in effect since they’d boarded the train that morning. She was fine. No one would see her out there, among the wildflowers, oldest friend at her side, furrow-browed dad watching from the kitchen window like a hidden entity, lightning bolts at the ready.

Such parental concern: if only he had an audience.

Fuck it
—he was here, wasn’t he? Their weekend in the country, a rare Divorced Dad Promise kept. Never mind that neither of their hosts was home to greet them.

He turned away from the window, trying to push his hangover to the margins. He should have slept on the train. It wasn’t like he’d pulled off his heart-to-heart with Franny, the dreaded conversation he’d rehearsed all week, committing his thoughts to mental cue cards, reminding himself what
not
to do: don’t lecture her; don’t try to be her friend; don’t deliver the equivalent of your weekly column. Just disengage her from several text-message conversations and begin: “Franny, I spoke to your mother, and we both feel …” Easy enough, but when the moment came he blew it. It was as if he’d spent a week rehearsing with a stand-in, only to freeze on stage when the leading lady stepped from the wings.

“There will be time,” he whispered only half-ironically, facing the big airy kitchen, which smelled like toast, scrambled eggs, and good coffee, a combination that pulled him back to the city, where he could be sharing an overpriced brunch in a faux-homey café with one of six people he knew well enough for that. The cupboards were painted a pale yellow that held the light, and he recognized a couple of Jane’s favourite art-gallery prints on the creamy white walls, the decorating touches marking the kitchen as her territory. Alex must be in charge of the grounds and outbuildings then, he and Jane claiming their domains like an old farm couple.

Joseph walked over to his wheeled suitcase and launched
a quip into the empty kitchen—“It is time to don my comfy pants for the weekend!”—reminding an idealized studio audience there was no situation he couldn’t joke his way out of.

A car was pulling into the yard.
Let it be Jane
, he thought.
Just Jane
. He wasn’t ready to deal with Alex.

He heard the car door slam and Jane telling the barking dogs to calm the hell down. He smoothed back his thick hair and patted it on top, a vain gesture she used to tease him about, and stood waiting next to the table. What he needed was an acceptable role for the weekend—prodigal family friend, big-city magazine columnist roughing it in the sticks, Chief Mythologizer of the Good Old Days. He wasn’t picky.

The front door flew open, letting two huskies into the narrow sunroom outside the kitchen, where they growled and leaped with such exaggerated abandon that he saw them for a moment as two children who’d found a pair of wolf skins to play in. Jane stomped on the front steps, sending the dogs’ rollicking sight-gag back into the yard, before she pushed through the sunroom door into the kitchen, her arms weighed down by canvas grocery bags, her piercing squint reminding him he’d waited five years to visit her in the country. She shook her head, twisting the knife in a little deeper, enjoying the old game, then handed him the two heaviest bags, warning him to be careful, the idiot at the store put the egg carton at the bottom.

“Why did I buy eggs, you ask? There’s a dozen chickens in the yard and I bought fucking
eggs
.”

The swearing was for his sake, a nod to old times and a reminder the kids were outside.

“Chickens,” she said, as if Alex’s latest agricultural enthusiasm was an embarrassing secret, like the knowledge of herpes or a sexually abusive uncle.

Joseph followed her across the kitchen. She opened the fridge and pushed her face toward him, her bright hazel eyes sending him scrambling for a funny line—even at his age, he still needed to get her laughing. “Fresh eggs are good,” he said, already smiling.

“So are the eggs I bought, and the carton doesn’t shit all over the yard and wake you up at six a.m.”

They laughed again, but her shoulders stayed locked in place as she repositioned the standing army of three-quarters-empty jars lining the fridge door, and her high forehead, which pushed her hair off her face like a scarf, was puckered. He had a thing for women with high foreheads, a fetish she’d planted in his senses when he was still a teenager.

“Liz and Mike and the kids are also staying the night,” she said. “They don’t want to drive home drunk. They actually live in town, but you probably know that.”

Liz had filled him in on that and more on the drive from the train station.
Jane’s waitressing again
, she’d told him, not hiding her anger at Alex for forcing Jane back into the profession she’d sworn off more than fifteen years ago. Alex’s custom furniture store wasn’t exactly raking it in, according to Liz, who couldn’t disguise the hint of triumph in her voice. She’d never forgiven Alex for inadequately disguising his contempt for Mike.

“Did Liz tell you who else is coming? Julian! Can you believe it?”


Jewels
? I didn’t know he was still alive.”

“Neither did I. Liz tracked him down. You know her.” Jane tapped at her head, indicating the detailed mental file cards Liz kept on their high school friends. “He’s not Jewels anymore, by the way, and he’s bringing his lover with him. What a
groover
, eh?” She smiled at the old-timey word. “We don’t call him Jewels, and we don’t say he works in a circus. And we don’t bring up his drug problem, which he’s over.”

Joseph arched an eyebrow, and Jane stifled a laugh by slapping his arm.

“What?” he said. “I always liked him.” What was
not
to like? Fearless skate punk, acid head, teenage Lothario, Julian was the blondest of the Lotus Eaters who’d gathered in the old bus bays at Eglinton station, warming up for the party with guitar noodling, spiked orange juice, and group back rubs.

“And don’t call this a reunion,” Jane said. “Since you finally decided to pay us a Royal Visit, I figured I’d ask Liz and Mike over—God knows she needs a drink. Then she told me Julian was working at a Renaissance fair nearby—don’t you dare laugh—so I said let’s make it a party.”

Alex couldn’t be happy about that. Bad enough that Joseph was here for the weekend, now he had to put up with Jane’s old wrecking crew, grown-up Party Boys and Girls hitting the booze and dusting off war stories, many of them no doubt new to Alex.

Joseph watched Jane stuff cans into the cupboards, his attention drawn to her full hips before his eyes even registered them. He’d seen her a few times since she and Alex and the kids left the city, but the lovely shifting of weight
to her hips and thighs might have happened last week. What else had he missed? Her hair was darker, the last of the blonde notes shrugged off like affectations once she hit forty.

What was he doing? Hungover in a strange house, ogling his ex-lover and dreading the arrival of her husband.

A collage of photos was stuck to the fridge door: Alex and their son, Liam, at a soccer tournament; a younger Rebecca on a pony; and, in the top-left corner, Franny and Rebecca at age eight standing on a dock, Franny holding the head and Rebecca the tail of a small pickerel, the girls pretending to strain under the weight of the fish. Behind them, Alex was offering his hand to Martha, Joseph’s ex-wife, as she stepped out of an aluminum boat.

Fucker
—as if it wasn’t enough for Alex to be a model father and husband for his own family, he had to play the same role for Joseph’s too. Joseph should be grateful that Alex and Jane had given Franny a few idyllic summers in the country after his and Martha’s marriage came crashing down, but he felt his own absence from the photo as if he’d been cut out with a penknife.

He drifted over to the crowded kitchen table, a massive structure of varnished boards flanked by wooden benches that Alex probably built from scratch. The breakfast dishes looked hastily abandoned, as though the family had been called above decks by an iceberg sighting, and a wasp circled a bowl of milk-bloated cereal. He imagined Jane cooking eggs still warm from the hen while Alex helped the kids with homework, a lovely image of bustling informality that only sharpened his headache.

He opened a bulging folder at the table’s far edge—property specs, blotchy house photos, fiercely affirmative introductory letters offering a free property appraisal, variations on a pitch to dowse the hidden equity in your home during a recession. Liz selling real estate; Jane back to waitressing; Alex making cabinets—Joseph was too exhausted to add his own lowered career and financial prospects to the list.

“Liz, eh,” Jane said, her arm grazing against his as she closed the folder. “Can’t be away from property specs for a day. Is she showing a house now?”

He nodded, distracted by the patch of tingling skin where Jane had touched him. “
You never know when you’ll get an offer
,” he said. “She actually told me that in the car.” He’d nodded politely when he realized Liz wasn’t building to a punchline, then listened to her rhapsodize about her and Mike’s three-bedroom Victorian house, which had cost them about a third of what they would have paid in the city.

BOOK: Harmless
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ads

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