Railway Train Tracks Railroad Rails  - sunojrajan / Pixabay
sunojrajan / Pixabay

For all the trouble Alissa and Wesley had, most of it was pretty good. The way they were, it suited him. He could come and go, knowing she’d always love him, hoped she did anyway, even when he treated the relationship like a pair of good shoes you could always take off.

He was eleven when he died, twelve when they brought him back. The paramedics laid him on a stretcher while kids and teachers watched, whispered, asked who could have done such a thing, the culprits amongst them saying, ‘Is he going to die?’

When Wesley arrived at the hospital he was unresponsive. His mother had always told him he was born at exactly 3P.M. When they revived him it was three minutes after.

The doctor walked in carrying a clipboard but didn’t refer to it when he said to Wesley’s parents, ‘Three broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, a fractured clavicle. He’ll have to stay a couple nights. At least he’ll have some scars to talk about.’ Yet no story was told, either from Wesley or his parents. The boys at school were never punished, and life went on for most as though nothing had ever happened.

On the way home from the hospital everything out the window was different, in the same way that you might look at a picture all your life and never realise it crooked until now. They stopped at Wesley’s grandfather’s house and his grandfather came out to meet them in brown slippers, checkered trousers and a brown undershirt. He was a short, stocky man with bowed legs, a result of years working a farm on horseback. 

Wesley’s father stubbed out the cigarette on his shoe and said, ‘It’s five degrees. Put a jacket on.’

His grandfather looked at Wesley and made him feel like a young child again, and he recalled days playing monopoly and watching cartoons with his grandfather, the house smelling of dust, oldness, medicine.

He had heard someone at the hospital say that when you are close to death you see life in its simplicity. Complications are no longer complicated. Daily life passes like a video set half a second slower. For Wesley, the cyclic nature of the world became apparent, and he lost his fear of the world before he ever had it. He knew at that instant, when his grandfather put his arm around him, that waking up now was like waking inside a dream.

‘How could you let this happen?’ said his grandfather to his father, to which he replied, ‘It happened at the school. We can’t watch over the boy all the damn time.’

‘No one’s looking out for him anymore. You understand that? He’s come back. You’re not supposed to come back.’

Life was never the same again. When he returned to school Wesley became increasingly distant and his grades declined, his motivation halted, and his parents believed he had started taking drugs. His family began to see him in the same way as the world would soon see him. He could never remember graduating high school.

When Wesley turned twenty his father had been gone for two years and his mother drank more than she spoke and showered less than she should have. Wesley worked odd jobs and drifted a lot, carried all his belongings in a duffel bag slung across his shoulder. When he settled in Gloucester he met Alissa, that girl with the bruised cheek, kid at her hip, probably could have made it big instead of shacking up with someone small. The kid’s father was dead and she had said good riddance, but Wesley knew she only meant it sometimes. She saw Wesley in a way most didn’t. She saw past the death he carried, saw a soul he swore had departed thirteen years earlier. They laughed, argued, hurt each other with words, broke a lot of furniture, yet the flames that pushed them apart came from the same fire that brought them together.

She would come back to him even when he let her walk out the door. She hated that. She hated that he didn’t run down the stairs behind her, grab her by the shirt, swing her around, plant a kiss on her lips and say everything’s going to be all right, I’ll change, baby, I’ll change. He couldn’t break a promise if he never promised at all.

For all the trouble Alissa and Wesley had, most of it was pretty good. The way they were, it suited him. He could come and go, knowing she’d always love him, hoped she did anyway, even when he treated the relationship like a pair of good shoes you could always take off.

He’d got up from the sofa and went out onto the balcony and listened to the cars on the motorway. The TV glowed in the dark living room behind him.

She touched his shoulder. ‘Everything okay?’

‘Why wouldn’t it be?’

‘Connor’s gone to bed.’

‘What time is it?’

‘Past eleven.’

‘I’m not that into films.’

‘We’ll do something else next time.’

She looked at the spot in the dark that had his attention. ‘He likes you. Why don’t you do something with him?’

‘He’s a good kid. I wouldn’t know what to do.’

‘Take him to a football game.’

‘Is that what people do?’

‘It’s what you and he could do.’

Wesley heard the leaves rustling in the breeze and smelled the earth wet from afternoon rain and looked up at the moon scattered with clouds, the moonlight chromium against the grass.

‘Are you listening, Wesley?’


‘I don’t know where you go sometimes. I hope wherever it is that there are people there who love you just as much as the ones here do. I’ll see you in the morning.’

‘You smell that?’

‘I don’t want to do this right now.’

‘Tell me I’m not the only one who can smell it.’

‘Good night, Wesley.’

He’d wake in the night, more often when the moon was full, and stand in the garden; and she would come out saying, ‘Wesley Blake get your butt back in bed this instant.’

Then slowly he’d turn and say the same thing: ‘Are you dead too?’

The last time this happened she touched his arm and quickly pulled away, covered her mouth, her eyes glinting in the moonlight. She tried but could not say what she was thinking: that his arm was emaciated, the muscle wasted to a mere covering over bone like old hide.

The day always burst from a single point in the sky. He would cover his face with the pillow, roll over and touch Alissa’s side of the bed, touching the coldness of the sheets, her indention, smelling her fleeting fragrance.

She liked to cook eggs because she could cook little else. Saturday morning brought the sound of sizzling oil and the popping of bacon fat and as Wesley dressed, his ribs ridged in the reflection of the mirror, he heard a click and the springs of toast popping up in a toaster.

She’d laid the table with geraniums and orange juice and a steaming pot of baked beans in the centre of the table. She looked at him once, looked away, and Wesley could tell by the puffiness around her eyes that she had been crying.

‘Did Connor go through my stuff again?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know.’

‘My jackets were on the floor in the wardrobe. I told you I didn’t want him going through my stuff.’

‘He just wants to see the medals.’

‘The medals aren’t toys, Alissa. They were my grandfather’s. He fought in a war to get them. People died.’

‘People don’t see war medals much anymore. It’s not like when we were kids. It’s different now. Different people. Different wars.’

‘He shouldn’t go through my stuff without asking.’

‘I’ll talk to him.’

‘Breakfast smells good.’

‘You don’t have to eat it.’

In the bedroom Wesley closed the curtains and switched on the ceiling light and commenced returning the jackets to the wardrobe, set the steel lockbox in which he kept his grandfather’s war medals flush with the shelf, and accidentally knocked a card zipping to the floor.

He looked at it a moment, knelt to pick it up: a birthday card handwritten by his grandfather. The last birthday card he ever wrote.

From Wesley’s earliest memory his grandfather gave him birthday cards. This particular card had an emblazoned picture of galloping horses. The card felt thick and heavy between his fingertips, made him breathe faster, brought grainy memories forth from his childhood as though they never went away. Funny thing, birthday cards: the way they make you feel as if you are still that same person you were as a child; the great connector through time, a tether keeping you from drifting away. When the cards stopped coming, so too did any sane semblance to his past, to the boy Wesley once was. Now he felt exposed, naked before the audience that is the world, unconnected to his life and friends and family and even just fellow people he encountered; but worst of all was that separation from his own memories and the person he used to be, the person he was yesterday, the feeling resembling a great balloon of helium floating away through the clouds.

He received the phone call midday Sunday. That evening he was on the bus to Hamilton to attend his great uncle’s funeral.Wesley looked out the train window at the countryside moving by and it reminded him of the speed at which time itself seemed to move. He could almost imagine that out there amongst the dark trees and the shadowed grass and the damp fallen branches his childhood waltzed as though no time at all had passed; the childhood he once experienced trapped in the haunting beauty of the rural country he grew up in, in a time when the world didn’t have to make sense, before creatures the living were never meant to see appeared at the corner of his eye, creatures that were now closer to him than even his own family.

The next morning he rode in a taxi to the cemetery. Wesley listened to the eulogy and to the rain falling on the black umbrellas and watched the muddy puddles churning. At last the pallbearers, wearing long coats and with mud-drenched shoes, lowered the beautiful coffin into the earth to rot away with the man inside. A mourner he didn’t know wailed like a banshee.

Then Wesley was confronted by Her.

She’d walked right up to him; she was thin and frail, except not from age but from poor habits. She chain smoked cigarettes as she talked to Wesley, in the tone of a government agent interrogating a criminal. A distant relative. He had already forgotten her name the moment she told him.

‘He mentioned your name once or twice,’ she said. ‘Wesley. Wes-ley.’ Saying it with that ashen voice, tasting the syllables. ‘From his brother Sean’s family? Never had much to do with that side of the family. Not right in the head they used to say. They shake their heads, cockroaches come skittering out.’ She finished off the cigarette and lit a fresh one. ‘I hope you’re not expecting anything. Your great uncle Sean was a poor man.’

‘I have no care for his money.’

‘Good,’ she said with hammer and nail, ‘because there isn’t any. Not even a will.’

After the funeral he was invited to his great-uncle’s house by other members of the extended family, to the old lady’s disappointment. He witnessed relatives taking whatever they could fit in their pockets and hands, some mumbling ‘right, see you lot around’ as they walked out the door with vases and kitchen utensils in their arms and satchels and rucksacks bulging at the seams.

He sat on the sofa looking at the faded squares on the wallpaper, at the stand where the TV used to be, the patch of soft carpet where a rug used to lay. Then he was asked to stand up by two young men, second cousins he believed, and the sofa went out the front door between them.

The cupboard behind him contained photographs and childhood pictures of a number of cousins, and he scooped up the boxes that contained them and asked around if anyone wanted them. In the end he stacked the boxes beside the front door and went to the master bedroom. First he found a pair of old work boots, similar to a pair his grandfather wore, but steel-toed. His father had a pair too, and Wesley always remembered them being so big he could put two feet into one. The boots reminded him of winter, probably because of the smell: his father had an odour he carried when he was working, like damp cloth or a cold sweat scented with a couple dabs of cologne from bottles Wesley bought him for his birthdays. His father would be gone sometimes for weeks at a time, and he’d come back with the beginnings of a beard and smelling of cut wood and bark and moss and earth.

Wesley returned the boots to the cupboard, later to be taken by his uncle who worked at a lumber mill started by the family but now owned by a conglomerate. Then he found it, in the same spot he kept his grandfather’s war medals, the one thing he was interested in possessing. It was on the top shelf above a rack of blazers and amongst a scattering of shoe boxes. He felt around for it. The wooden stock was smooth, the metal cold to the touch, stinking of old oil.

He sat on the bed and placed the shotgun on his lap and stared at it. It was old but clean and in good condition. He’d never used a gun before, but he was able to open the break and look down through the barrel and see the carpet on the other end. He caressed the steel trigger, eased it back.

Click. Just to see how it felt.

It was Wesley’s fifteenth winter when he and his family drove to the hospital to see his grandfather. The old man was there two days before he reached for Wesley’s wrist, pulled him near, whispered in his ear: ‘I see you as a boy. You’re waving to me, smiling. I wonder why you no longer smile.’

‘I have seen what life is.’

‘Then you don’t understand death.’

‘I’ve seen death, grandpa. Everyday I see it. The shadows and the places where light does not touch. I used to be afraid. Now I only wait for my time.’

‘There’s a gun under the bed. If one of those doctors comes in here I want you to shoot the bastard.’


‘My boy.’

Then his grandfather farted, his eyes paused, the heart monitor beeped, and nurses rushed in ordering Wesley to leave.

Wesley stood in the hospital corridor by the vending machine watching a can of Coke get stuck in the dispenser. His father saw him and came over and said, ‘What did your grandfather say?’

‘Told me to shoot the doctor.’

‘Those were his last words.’ He kept his hands in his pockets. ‘Your grandfather’s dead.’

Then his father walked away.

The night Wesley returned from Hamilton he placed the shotgun into a guitar case and took it on the train without trouble. In the kitchen he sawed off the barrel with a hacksaw. He ran a finger over the jagged and rough opening. Later he would file down the rim, push a shell into the breach with his thumb, aim the gun at his head, caress the trigger: the closeness of death, the smell of the earth, the touch of the trigger’s resistance.

And after he would put it on the top shelf in the cupboard, but not before seeing Alissa standing in the half-light of the room, one side of her face dark, her eyes silver, animalistic. He didn’t remember hearing her come through the front door.

She said, simply, plainly, ‘What are you doing?’

He lowered the shotgun. ‘Just tidying up.’

‘Where did you get a gun, Wesley?’

‘My great-uncle had it in the cupboard.’

‘He willed you a gun?’

‘I found it.’

‘You put it against your head.’

‘I didn’t pull the trigger.’

‘You put it against your head. Do you ever think about anyone besides yourself? Don’t you love me, Wesley?’

‘I didn’t pull the trigger.’

‘You thought about it, you son of a bitch.’

Then the front door slammed, and Wesley had done nothing to stop it.

They didn’t talk for a month, not until he saw her walk by the record store where he worked. He’d seen her through the window. He came out and called her name and she stood in the wind for a while, sometimes looking at him, sometimes not.

‘I miss you,’ she said, but her eyes had already said it.

The next night they went to their favourite sushi restaurant and sat opposite each other in the candle light.

‘The way you are,’ she said. ‘The way you make me feel. You talk about death as though you are already gone.’

And he said nothing in return, because he had nothing to say. He watched worms wriggling on his plate of rice and wondered why no one else seemed to care.

‘Connor’s father killed himself with drugs,’ she said. ‘His arms and legs were scarred from years of use. The holes became infected from poor hygiene. I watched him drift away, hopelessly, like I could physically see him getting smaller, weaker. He would spend days and weeks alone. I haven’t seen you eat in a long time, and when I do it’s a bite here, a bite there.’

‘You think I’m taking drugs?’

‘I did. Not anymore. It’s different. You’re there but you’re not. You used to be more here than not, you used to talk to me, you used to come home and actually laugh. But now it’s  like you’re not here with us. You need help, Wesley. Connor and I need you but you don’t need us in the same way. I can’t be here anymore, watching you fade away like I watched Connor’s father.’

‘What do you want me to do?’

‘To look at yourself, inside. You have a problem. You drift. Do you even remember what we were talking about?’

‘Your ex-boyfriend.’

‘Before that.’

‘You want dessert?’

‘I want you to listen to me, goddamnit.’

So he did, and she tried to hide her tears, like she always did. She was stronger than that. Tears were for cowards.

‘The problem is I don’t like walking away from a good thing,’ she continued. ‘Because when we are good, we are great. My mum used to say there isn’t life without problems. We should be lucky to have been chosen by God to overcome them. Maybe I don’t care about the God part, or maybe I do. Or maybe I just love you so goddamn much that I’m willing to hurt a few days every now and again.’

He listened some more.

‘I wonder if sometimes I’m wrong. That you’re never going to change. The idea of death, that you died, that all this is a half-dream you can’t get out of… I know that’s what you believe. It’s what you say, when you dream. Connor’s been asking about you. You have to get rid of the gun.’

‘It’s gone.’

‘I’m not even joking. We cannot be with you if there is a gun in the house.’

‘I have no attachment to the gun. It’s not my gun. It was just there. A stranger passing through.’

‘I also want you to start eating and see a doctor.’

‘If you think it’ll help.’

She drew patterns on her napkin with a pair of chopsticks. ‘Do you think it is possible for two people to start again? As though nothing ever happened?’

‘I think if two people want something, they can get it.’

Wesley had woken in the night and saw him sitting at the foot of the bed in his pair of faded jeans and a knitted brown sweater. He hadn’t aged a day: sideburns were unkempt, chin unshaven, the hand-rolled cigarette smelling of Drum tobacco behind his ear.

‘He’s a lot like you,’ he said to Wesley. ‘The kid. Strange. No friends at school. Got good hands but don’t know what to do with them.’

‘Where have you been?’

‘On the road. Can’t stay in one place. You risk getting attention. You don’t remember me telling you it’s best to keep your head down, make few friends, don’t draw attention to yourself, good or bad?’

‘I remember.’

‘It was your mum’s choice naming you. You should have been Ben. You could have been famous with a name like that. Men don’t get a lot of choice when it comes to kids. They hate you for it, but it’s better to let women do whatever they want. Your kid came to you ready made, so you don’t know that.’

‘Where’s mum?’

‘I don’t know, I haven’t seen her. I thought she was with you.’

‘I waited for you by the window every day but you never came back.’

‘I told you, I couldn’t stay.’ He removed the cigarette from behind his ear and lit it standing up. ‘Looks like you finally got yourself a family. You found someone who likes you. I’m proud of you for that.’

‘Are you going to be staying?’

‘Don’t count on it, Wesley. I’ve been here too long already. The shadows are moving. Whispers move fast.’

‘Will you be back?’

He took a drag off the cigarette and shrugged and said, ‘I mean, I guess you never really know what tomorrow brings. Hey, one thing before I go. Don’t sleep too long. It’ll be a lot harder to wake up if you do, and I think that’s where I went wrong. I didn’t pay enough attention and people got hurt. I’ll be seeing you, Wesley. Don’t fuck up the way I did. Don’t let others around you get hurt by your inattention.’

The next morning was unusually tranquil: the birds began to sing early, before the sun had even given a rumour of rising. Alissa was asleep facing the wall. The room smelled of tobacco and freshly burnt paper.

Wesley put on a pot of coffee and drank a cup in the kitchen listening to the hum of the refrigerator. When the sky turned grey just before the dawn, he knelt on the floor and woke Connor in his bed.

‘It’s just me,’ he said.

‘Is something wrong?’

‘Nothing’s wrong. I just wanted to say happy birthday. I wanted to say it before I go, so you know I care.’

‘What time is it?’

‘It’s going to be six.’

‘Where are you going?’

‘I thought I’d walk to work this morning. Change a few bad habits along the way.’

He stood up and started walking out of the room.

‘Wesley,’ said Connor. ‘Are we going to stay here forever this time?’

‘I hope so.’

He looked in on Alissa, her voice in his head: ‘I’ll be working late. Connor gets home at 3:30. I don’t want him alone for long.’ He’d be home before four. That was a promise, and not the kind his father used to make.

Connor arrived home from school early that day. His mother had told him to go to Wesley’s flat, and she gave him her key, telling him she would be home an hour later. In the fridge his mother had left him a ham and cheese sandwich and a carton of apple juice. He sat on the sofa in front of the TV and then left the used plate on the coffee table.

The day was windy, the sky was grey, and the autumn leaves were blowing across the window panes. Connor stood watching the trees bend and the balding branches sway. When presently he became bored he went searching for something to do. From his school bag he took out a plastic bag full of small plastic soldiers and he arranged them around his dirty plate, used his school books to build walls, pens and pencils as trenches.

Then when the good team had won, he went to the cupboard to award them with real medals, the ones in the lockbox; but in the cupboard he found something else, something more thrilling, and suddenly the war wasn’t over yet.

The shotgun was heavier than he expected, not like in the films, but he liked the weight of it, liked the smell of the wood and the sticky oil. He dragged it out to the living room and put it amongst the soldiers on the coffee table.

He said, ‘Your general joins you in battle.’

At four-twenty Wesley unlocked the front door and walked into his flat, smelling smoke and gunpowder. He’d hung his coat on the hook, felt a change in the room, like when he saw the shadows twitching the day he slipped off into that deep sleep from which he was never sure he’d ever truly escaped.

For reasons unknown to him, instead of checking the kitchen for the source of the smell, he watched for a moment the wind out the window whipping the clothes line, perhaps his mind distracting him from what was on the floor beside the coffee table.

When he picked up the phone to call the police his hand was shaking, and he stuttered when he spoke. He’d stepped into the hallway and leaned against the wall, thought about running away, anywhere in any direction. But he knew he’d be found, arrested, have to face his destiny sooner or later.

When Alissa arrived to police cars and an ambulance outside the building, she dropped the bag of groceries and a chocolate birthday cake with twelve candles spilling to the ground. Wesley tried to hold her but she pushed him away. She was yelling at him and the police tried to calm her but couldn’t, and she fell to her knees and screamed her son’s name. Wesley sat on the asphalt beside a police car and knew then that when he died thirteen years ago he never did come back, and that his hell had been waiting for him all along.

R. Weaver.