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Hayley Mah: the futures that never come

This morning’s shimmers trickle from the icy sky and pool in the garden, their golden hands gently prying open basil leaves as they thread around the stalks of tomato plants, wrapping Mira’s son in warmth against the November chill. Mira watches as her little boy, with his mother’s dimples and his father’s frown, crouches in the dirt with sticky hands. Grimacing, she plasters another bandage over the cuts and scrapes on his knees, adding to the layers standing out against his dark skin like patchy foundation. She knows he’s annoyed by the plastic between his skin and the soil, as though his bones are itching and he can’t scratch them, but it has to be done. And in any case, the mess of bandages seems to complete him, a picture of disorderliness with scraped-up knees and Mira’s staggered stitching securing the pockets onto his shorts. Crumbs of earth from his dad’s side of the garden and his mom’s delve into the messy seams, the only place where they will ever embrace. Mira notes the five crayons her son pulls out of these pockets today: an off-brand orange; the last sliver of an earthy green (a result of too many depictions of obnoxiously large trees); a deep red one he received in a Valentine, broken in half from the force of his little fingers; and two from a Crayola set Mira brought home for him, a hot pink and a muted beige. Mira knows he can’t read the label of any of them—he’s only five, the word “periwinkle” means nothing—and besides, the dampness of soil has seeped into the wrapping too often, causing the paper to warp and peel. The boy selects the green and gets to work sketching his mother’s wilted flowers, though there isn’t much green to colour. She’s glad her son seems to embrace it, but Mira hates to admit she’s never been good at keeping flowers alive. She always finds herself watching helplessly as brown creeps up each petal until the flowers look like burnt, dehydrated onions. Nonetheless, she keeps them rooted in her garden, averting her eyes from the kitchen window overlooking it while she wipes down her counters, and hoping, every time she unlatches the gate, that she’ll step into flourishing petals again.


However, the garden seems more barren every day, and her husband has decided it’s his duty to remind her. A month ago, at the dinner table: “You know, Paul from IT was telling me his wife makes this wonderful cucumber salad from her garden. Imagine that—” he twirled Mira’s store-bought lettuce on his fork “—cucumbers. Right from the garden. They’d probably be perfectly crisp when they’re that fresh—not like the soggy ones from Safeway. Or that banana cake you make when you let the bananas go to rot. Too mushy.” She makes banana bread, not cake. And everyone else loves it—she’s been asked for the recipe so many times that it’s the only post on her Facebook. The only person who refuses it is him. Why does that bother her so much? Two weeks ago, lugging this thought with her, tucking it into her suitcase along with all the others, she left for her hometown of Calgary alone, entertaining the idea of roleplaying her life before her husband, tasting the past and the future in one spoon. It was painfully easy to let her life slip out of her fingertips—night after night of lying awake next to him in bed had given her plenty of time to plan an escape route. Though she doesn't remember thinking of it in this way when she left, she can see that she did know, even then, that what little trust she had left in him was gone. He checks his watch often but seems chronically late. He changes his mind quickly, forgets every highlighted date in the hallway calendar, and worst of all, he’s a lawyer. The tension peaks in the evenings, so much that she often expects to find scratches in the walls the next morning from the talons unsheathed by the flurries of aggression in their living room. Yes, when she left for Calgary, letting go of that was simple, but grabbing hold of another life wasn’t. For Mira, flying back to her hometown felt a lot like being thirteen and waking up from a sleepover to open the front door to her mother’s face—strikingly unfamiliar yet almost embarrassing after only one night spent away. Cowtown was for Thanksgiving and Christmas, not a place to go running from the life she’d chosen, and stepping onto the plane felt like giving up, like the aged rings of her trunk were rotting, cracking and peeling off. Every night away, she lay precariously near the edge of her queen bed, careful to avoid the centre since that felt like she was taking up the space for two, lying on the shadow of her son. 

Yet, while Mira slept in her childhood bed inside the familiar walls of her parents’ house, her PhD suddenly seemed like it could do more than help with spelling homework. She no longer spent her time wiping applesauce off the walls, combing her son’s hair, and googling “how to trick your toddler into taking medicine.” She still didn’t turn off the alarms for 4:57 and 5:01 on her phone (she hasn’t in a decade), but when she woke up, she stretched and watched the sun, instead of listening to the incessant hum of her refrigerator while stuffing a lunch bag with almond butter sandwiches and banana bread. Still, every moment seemed wrapped in the guilt of absence, her ankle unstable and fragile without the weight of her son clinging to her leg, dragging behind her. Gaps between her fingers where those sticky hands no longer intertwined, her wrists felt limp without her son pulling her to soccer practice and art class. When it came down to it, she didn’t know if she could let go of another future. Sometime during that week, drunk and delirious on cheap wine, Mira wrote a rambling letter to her husband, chucking it into the mailbox and slamming it closed. In the morning, she took a walk of shame across the tiny front lawn and brought it back into the house (placing a light yet purposeful kick on a smirking garden gnome holding two knobby thumbs up). The letter remains in between the slats of their bed and the mattress, the saliva seal unbroken. She’s thought about what she wrote so often that her memories have begun to warp and decay, the letter's details changing with the sheets, indeterminate, an inky Schrodinger’s cat. 

Even now in her garden, the past seeps into the present once more as she lies in the soil next to her son, staring up through a lattice of yellowing stems. They fragment the smear of clouds into a stained-glass mosaic as she morphs the letter again, tracing the greying leaves that blanket the soil she used to work so hard to maintain. Perhaps, on those pages, there is the story of a life without husband and son, the undiscovered end of the highway well beyond her exit. On her fifth birthday, her new fish died; an hour later, watching the flaming wax cascade down her five candles, she first gripped onto the idea that she was running out of time. Since then, she's always clung fiercely to the past, leaving claw marks in it as she wrestles with time while trying to grab back the present. She never wants to see today in a box neatly labelled “past.” As though in accordance with her thoughts, the sun seems to be setting quicker than ever tonight. The shadow of her son lengthens into the bushes as the sun dips below him. As he hands Mira his drawing (“Looklooklooklook!”), the shadow extends his own arm. His garish drawing makes Mira grimace. It’s a tasteless work, portraying him and Mira in clown makeup, watering the dying flowers. Her husband is obsessed with the circus—maybe it’s his dull, white-collar job, or his suburban

evenings. Their house is decorated with circus memorabilia, and their son already has a wardrobe full of stripes and polka dots. She imagines the boxes she’ll have to pack if she goes through with this—flamboyant clutter, probably making a honking sound and cream-pieing her when she tries to close the cardboard flap. Looking at the hideous drawing, she was suddenly struck by a thought: why did they call them paintings? They should be called painteds. She began to giggle uncontrollably. Perhaps she, too, was a doomed paradox, aging forever yet always-already done. Reaching thirty felt a lot like arriving at an expiration date, her youth souring, but also like she was reaching a deadline—the point beyond which she could no longer change the life she had chosen for herself. She told her friends she didn’t need any gifts, for how could they purchase time back? 

“Gorgeous drawing. It’s your best clown yet, son.” Her husband’s grating voice pulls her eyes down from the sky and her thoughts back into the garden. He waves a hand in her direction. Why are his nails so neat? What kind of 30-year-old man cares about having well-manicured hands? Her own nails are crusted in dirt and dry from immersing her hands in scalding dishwater. She conjures a smile and prays it looks natural. “I cancelled the reservation tonight. I’m exhausted.” He picks a piece of dirt off his pants, “How much could’ve happened in two hours?” Mira turns her cheek away from the sun, raising her son’s drawing to shield herself. “Lots. I thought about Bubbles today.” 

“Who?” he asks, not waiting for a response as he points to the drawing. “Did you see how he used the softer colours for the Auguste clown and the hot pink for the Pierrot? Anyways—” he drops his bag onto the soil, reaching a stupidly refined hand into it, “—doesn’t sound like much to me.” Furrowing his brow, he unzips another pocket. 

“Fine. Well.” Mira takes a breath. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. “Why don’t you ask—why don’t you ever ask?” And Bubbles was my FISH. My short-lived fish.

“I’m calling them and asking for the reservation back,” he says, locating his phone and slipping it out of the bag. He turns, slamming the kitchen door behind him. 

Mira chokes out a laugh. Another scene for her son to draw and embellish with clown makeup: the latch on the back door closing. The cars rushing past on the Henday. His stupid clown music blaring from his phone in the kitchen. Her son’s voice, sickly sweet: “Mom, can we get ice cream?” Calgary (failure). The suitcase upstairs, tucked in the back of her closet. A Wikipedia article about the Netherlands, sitting open in an incognito tab. “Will, it’s November.” The sun hastily weaving a tapestry of light and dark, her son’s shadow already spread thin across the yard. A thorn working its way through her sock. The letter, shapeshifting underneath their mattress. Fragile sprouts under the decaying leaves, pushing through the soil and reaching for the sun.

“Get in the car.”

About the Author:

Hayley is currently 15, and a Chinese-Canadian emerging writer living in Vancouver with a remarkable sense of humour. Oddly enough, her least favourite subject is English, though she adores writing.


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