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Authors: Heather Birrell

Mad Hope

BOOK: Mad Hope

copyright © Heather Birrell, 2012

first edition

Published with the generous assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council. Coach House Books also acknowledges the support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit.

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


Birrell, Heather

Mad hope / Heather Birrell.

Short Stories


I. Title.

56 2004——

Mad Hope
is available as an ebook:
978 1 77056 315 5.

Purchase of the print version of this book entitles you to a free digital copy. To claim your ebook of this title, please email
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For Joan Firmin, a.k.a. Nanny,

a.k.a. Mrs. Lady, 1917–2011

The Frog

What a wonderful bird the frog are!
When he stand he sit almost;
When he hop he fly almost.
He ain't got no sense hardly;
He ain't got no tail hardly either.
When he sit, he sit on what he ain't got almost.

– Anonymous


where Brianna, Susanna and Alana lived was a parkette in the form of a teardrop turned sideways. The parkette had a slide, two sets of swings (one for babies and one for big kids) and a climbing frame in the shape of a rocket ship. Brianna, at six, was not a baby, but still gave the big-kid swings the respect they deserved. Susanna, at ten, loved the big-kid swings, and had the soar-and-smash scars to prove it. Alana, at nearly thirteen, was
over swings of any kind.

Just above the parkette was a used-car lot, and next to that, an apartment parking lot, and next to that the apartment building itself, a brownstone of moderate proportions. Surrounding the brownstone was a well-manicured lawn that had been sectioned off in the northwest corner by yellow police tape. The police tape had been there for eight days and now appeared slack in places, fatigued.

From the observation pod at the top of the rocketship, Susanna had a good view of the goings-on around and inside the police tape. She observed, then reported her findings in urgent bulletins to Brianna and Alana. The former received these bulletins eagerly, if indiscriminately, jumping up and down below the pod, while the latter sat on one of the rungs of the slide yawning and peeling back the petals of skin around her fingernails. Still, whatever Susanna could tell them could not in any significant way diminish or augment what they already knew. The reason for the police tape was that somebody had been murdered.

‘I think,' Susanna said, lifting and twisting her chin with what she imagined was authority, ‘we should all think back to what we were doing the day of the murder.'

‘Whatever,' said Alana.'

‘Two, four, six, eight,' called Brianna, still jumping.'

‘There's a cardinal,' said Susanna, pointing to the top branches of a tall spruce across the street.'

‘Not a clue,' said Alana. ‘Not a clue about the murder.' She stood up, climbed to the top of the ladder and sat down on the platform.'


Alana had been walking home that day with her friend Zoe when three boys they did not recognize slouched out from behind a parked car.

‘Hey,' said one, and hiked up his pants, ‘my friend wants to do you bitches hard and anal.'

Zoe turned to Alana, giggling. ‘What should I say?'

Alana shrugged. She liked the look of one of the boys, his half-up, half-down mouth and red Nike jacket. He sucked his teeth at her, eyed her chest.

‘What should I
?' Zoe hissed.

Alana shook her head.

So they did not say anything, but let two of the boys follow them to a nearby Starbucks, where the girls bought chai lattes and sat down to sip at the foam. Two tables over, the boys lounged with their knees akimbo, flicking sugar packets at each other. Alana and Zoe began a conversation that required them to laugh and twirl their hair. They pretended they knew what they were talking about.

, thought Alana. We're doing

When one of the boys got up and began walking towards them, they leaned in across the table so their foreheads almost touched. They smiled at each other.

The boy pulled up a chair. ‘Hey,' he said. It was not Alana's boy.

‘Hey,' said Zoe.

‘Me and my boys're going to the ravine. Catch fish or somethin'.'

‘Yeah,' said Alana's boy, now standing behind the first boy. ‘Or somethin'.' He pinched his fingers together, drew deeply on an invisible joint.

‘Cool,' said Zoe to the first boy. ‘What's your name?'

‘I'm Darryl.' He looked for a green moment as though he might have said the wrong thing.

Alana opened her eyes wide because she knew she could appear almost Chinese if she relaxed and was not careful. And because some part of her felt more alert.

‘And this is Jordan,' said Darryl.

‘Cool,' said Zoe again.

The boys sat down and pulled more sugar packets from their pockets.


Susanna could not remember the day of the murder, nor could she invent it (although she cast mightily back into her mind). This was bizarre, since memories – their particular bents and textures – were usually her strong suit. At home they didn't really talk about it.
In our own backyard
, she heard her mother say on the phone.
Your friends and neighbours
, her father sighed to himself over the ­headlines. The problem with the mystery, in Susanna's view, was that the most pressing W questions (Who, What, Where, When) had already been answered. The criminal had been caught. The only leftover was Why. And finding Why after the death, after the arrest, was a problem. How did you dig up the clues that led deep into people's brains? The Motive, that's what Susanna was looking for.

What Susanna did remember was an afternoon two days
the murder, walking home by herself, thinking about the Motive and the Concept of Evolution. She knew that sometimes ideas in books that had nothing to do with the mystery at hand could loop you back towards a solution. There was a book she was reading now, one of her mother's, a science book about the origins of the human race. She didn't understand most of it, just read the words like a robot when she wanted to relax. But there were a few pages that had stuck with her, a section explaining our ancestry, way back before kings and queens and ancient castles. It was about chimpanzees, apes and humans, mothers all holding hands with their children around the entire earth – as if the earth were time, the distance years – then turning to face each other as cousins, as relations. What the author was trying to show was that blood and time could not really separate us from the animals we were and always had been. What it meant was that we were
animals. But animals who could write books about how we are actually animals. Animals who ­murdered for complicated reasons. This was confusing in the best kind of way. She liked it when she had to fight to keep things straight.

There were lots of leaves on the streets, but rain had clumped them up with mud and pollution. Even so, Susanna dragged her feet through the gutters happily. When she got home she would have the entire house to herself. Alana was at piano and Brianna had playgroup. On Wednesdays Susanna was a latchkey kid.


The day of the murder Brianna hid behind her favourite tree in the schoolyard at pickup time. She watched her teacher, Ms. Sawchuk, talking to her babysitter, Frances, who nodded, then shifted her shoulders up and down quickly. Then she saw Caroline – a fat, wily, lively girl from Grade 2 – skip up to the two grown-ups and point towards the tree. Brianna pressed her cheek hard into the bark. She turned her face and kissed the trunk with all the tenderness she could muster. ‘Goodbye, friend,' she said. Then Frances hauled her out and pulled her towards the car, which was a modern station wagon named Saturn.

‘That was very naughty,' said Frances, once belted in. She turned the key in the ignition and the car roared to life. ‘I was so worried.'

‘Hello, Saturn,' Brianna called from the back seat.


Outside the coffee shop, the light had begun to dim. Alana loved fall; it made her so sleepy and willing. She watched an old man on the sidewalk clutch his hat to his head, railing against the wind like something from a movie. Darryl and Jordan were still there, telling stories involving lockers and basements and cops. From the stories, Zoe and Alana understood the boys were from the high school. The girls, who were not from the high school, didn't tell many stories, unless they were about

‘We gotta split soon,' said Jordan. ‘You wanna come?'

‘Mmm,' said Zoe. ‘Just let me consult with my girl.' She tugged on Alana's sleeve and jerked her head towards the washrooms.

The women's washroom was a single, large and harshly lit, with metal bars on the walls for the disabled. Zoe looped her purse over one of the bars, and shimmied her jeans down her hips. Alana looked in the mirror. She was happy with the way her hair was falling in a smooth curtain down her cheek, but above her left eyebrow was the small rosy swell of a blemish.'

‘Undergrounder,' she said to Zoe, tapping at the spot.'

‘Do you wanna go with them?' said Zoe, standing up. She bounced twice to ease her jeans back in place.'

‘Sure,' said Alana, because she really did.'

But Darryl and Jordan were not back at the table. Alana looked out the window and spotted them climbing on a parking meter outside. '

‘Coupla monkeys,' said Zoe, smiling. '

On the street they paired off. Jordan asked Alana what kind of shit she was into, and she had no idea. Then he pointed to the earphones dangling from behind his ears.

‘Music,' he said. ‘What do you like?'

‘Oh,' said Alana. She liked her parents' old cassettes from the eighties and soft-rock stations that played people singing about love over mild-mannered saxophones. ‘Some old school, sometimes pop, you know.'

‘Cool,' said Jordan.

Alana wished he would plug in the earphones so they could just walk. ‘Yeah,' she said. She focused on Jordan's gait; it was purposeful and lopsided. His hip dipped and his arm swung like a creature who had chosen – righteously – to remain less evolved. His hair – jagged at the nape – had been dyed blond recently; there was a laissez-faire brown crop circle at the crown. Her cellphone began to bleat softly, rhythmically, from her coat pocket. She cherished the phone, its sleekness and weight in her hand, the flutter in her gut when she saw she had messages waiting. She flipped it open, pressed a keypad.


It was Frances, the babysitter. Alana was overdue at home. Brianna was waiting. They were both waiting. Alana thought about Brianna. She was twice the age and twice the size of her little sister. If she were a fish in a pond she would eat her, chomp, just like that. She closed the phone and slid it back into her pocket.

Zoe, who had seen the whole thing, tugged at Alana's sleeve. ‘What?' she said, then clenched her teeth together.

‘Gotta go get my sister.'

‘Lame,' said Zoe. She spat into the gutter and looked over at Darryl.

Alana began to walk away, then stopped, turned around and sidled up to Jordan. ‘Meet me later,' she said, and brought her lips close to one of the headphones. She whispered instructions. He nodded and snaked his hand up under her shirt, brushed his fingers against the skin above her belt.

‘Bye,' she said.


, Sunny!' shouted Susanna, as she pushed open the door. ‘I'm home! Susanna's home!'

Oh yes
, Sunny barked, skittering on the smooth floor of the hallway.
Oh yes, you are!

Susanna stroked Sunny madly behind his ears, then slapped his belly when he rolled over for more. ‘C'mere, you old mutt,' she said like a pro, then reached for his paws, holding them up in the air so he could dance, his legs splayed, the tender flesh of his underside and the nubs of his groin exposed. ‘Do you know the way to San José?' she sang, but he didn't like it, didn't even look at her. ‘Not so good on the old hind legs, eh, Sun?'

This was another thing that made humans different from animals: language. Not only our big brains, but also our breathing patterns – the ability and anatomy to walk and talk at the same time – made us what we are today. Sunny might be able to help Susanna with some aspects of the investigation – his nose, for example, was invaluable – but in the end, the human brain would prevail.

At school, news of the murder was passed around like an amulet; it was both excruciating and propitious to give it up to someone else. What they knew for certain was that the victim was the murderer's mother, an old lady who once baked carrot muffins for her neighbours in 3
. He had buried her in the small garden adjoining the apartment building. Plus, one night about three months ago, someone had overheard the killer – a quiet man who wore his salt and pepper hair army-short and drove a red Ford pickup – shouting the questions, ‘Why?' and ‘Do you think Dad ever really loved me?' in a choked, anguished voice. It was assumed he was drunk. There were rumours that a reward was being offered for more information that could, in the words of Jill Nelson, ‘really nail the guy.' The culprit, according to Jill, was a part-time plumber. ‘He only did a few jobs here and there,' she said to Susanna outside the gym doors. ‘He was, like, a temp worker,' she added, in a tone that suggested her father worked at a job distinctly full-time, professional and non-plumber. ‘They should lock him up and throw away the key.'

Susanna nodded. She had no choice; while you were within her range, Jill Nelson's proclamations were indelible. But when Jill was gone, Susanna wondered. Even the dog, who was now blinking up at her lovingly, divined things the rest of them couldn't, despite their big brains. For instance, when Brianna had her petit mals, Sunny predicted them. Susanna had seen him doing a panicked prance around her sister's feet just before Brianna's eyes pinwheeled back into her head. She had read that some dogs would go further for their epileptic owners: lapping urgently at their faces, pushing them with careful snouts into soft chairs, positioning their bodies in the paths of their falls. That was Love. Or else a Survival Mechanism. Too bad the dead woman didn't have a dog like that. ‘Loyalty,' said Susanna to Sunny, ‘that's what's missing in Today's Crazy World.'

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