Kit Jenkin

Totems

The pews, the lilacs, their reflections on the casket’s veneer….

Let us remember Ross Colvin, the reverend said, the yellow cross on his robe rising as he lifted his arms to the mourners.

Randy stared into the cushion of the kneeling rack, with his thumb between his teeth and his cheek, spit seeping down to the knuckle. Water spells assigned to Squall’s ATK, he thought, that might boost the damage. He tugged on his tie and tapped the back of the pew with the tip of his shoe.

He’d been playing Final Fantasy for weeks, grinding through side quests for Turtle Shells and Star Fragments and defeating the boss of the Lunatic Pandora. He now stood at the cusp of the fourth disc, ready to cross that portal into the future. Three discs down – he couldn’t count how many times he’d died.

Stop it, his mother whispered, stifling his tapping with her hand.

I wanna go home, Randy said.

Her bottom lip trembled.

How many ways do we remember Ross, the reverend said. Teacher. Mentor. Author. Father. Friend. His essence was unique. You could say he was full of vim. One thing was certain about Ross. You never forgot him. As I’m sure many here will attest, no matter how you knew him, he hung over your life like a grand oak. I remember one conversation we’d had in the 70s about Oppenheimer and the bomb. Ross said he was spot on when the man said, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. His name would live forever tied to such destruction. Leave it to an anthropologist to see the sunny side of things.

The mourners up and laughed. Randy glanced at the laughter – jowls jumping, grey hair yellowing, bottoms lips encased in dried flesh. He hated the old sometimes. They all seemed deranged.

But Ross, unlike so many men of his generation, was generous with his heart. I’d never seen a man who loved his children and grandchildren with such –

Water damage. Water spells boost certain attributes, but is that the best he could do? Maybe a fire strategy would be better, all ATK and no DEF. But he had a soft spot for water. No matter the game, you could trust water types. He loved his water summon in Final Fantasy: a giant sea snake rising above the monsters you encounter and, in a flash of light, explodes into a tsunami.

I can’t breathe, Randy said, tapping the pew again.

Why are you doing this, his mother hissed, her rings cutting into his hands.

I wanna go home, he said, pushing at her wrist.

He wanted to be in front of his television, sinking into his bean bag chair, the controller bright in the spots where it had been touched.

I mean, anthropology, the reverend said. Who knew?

The wake was held on the bottom floor of his grandfather’s house. The caterers rolled out platters of carrot and celery sticks, radish slices and broccoli florets, and dip. Finger sandwiches and scones were brought out on multi-level tea trays, accompanied by tiny pots of jam. Coffee was made. Guests stirred sugar into their drinks with tiny spoons.

Randy walked through the forest of nylons and trouser legs, looking up at the underside of paper plates. In the dining room, he saw a woman feeding grapes to a man breathing in oxygen from a tank. He heard words from conversations like Athabasca, Haida Gwaii, Baja California: the sites of his grandfather’s digs. He stopped at a curtain and poked one of its folds, watching it sway.

Are you alone? a woman holding a glass of red wine said.

Randy shook his head.

Some party. Did you know Ross?

I don’t know.

You poor thing.

Do you know when is this over?

It ends when it ends. But, I know, you’re a growing boy. You probably want to be cutting through backyards.

I just want Final Fantasy, he said, tapping the curtain’s fold again. He could have sworn its movements were exactly the same as the first time.Do you know Final Fantasy?

I have fantasies. Who doesn’t? They’re useful when you’re sad. The woman’s eyes wandered as she took a deep sip of her red wine.

This was no good. ATK is fine, but water spells always boost DEF more, like, to the max, even. Maybe that was what his party needed. DEF. Swathe them in water, protect their soft spots, any danger dissipating into the whole. He’d drown them in it, this protection. His thoughts turned fuzzy, and glowed, like a pond.

Nothing can touch them.

Who?

Nothing can touch me.

Did someone touch you?

I mean the party.

She grunted and dove back into her wine.

Shame this isn’t that kind of party.

After the coffee had been served, and the adults felt comfortable enough to let the children outside, Randy retreated upstairs to his grandfather’s study. He fanned through the heavy art books by Joseph Epstein and Henri Gauthier-Brzeska, spun a book by Levi-Strauss between his fingers, and watched the other children play on the road from the window. He’d always loved this study. It was where he hid during Sunday visits, when his grandfather insisted on holding him in his lap, the tweed like sandpaper against his arms, the smell of Old Spice, waiting for the day to be over so he could go home.

In the corner of the study was a wooden mask, in the shape of an eagle, with bands of red and yellow and blue around the eyes, nose and mouth, the type of thing you’d find at the top of a totem pole. He hadn’t noticed it, really noticed it, until now. He picked it up, smelled the woodsmoke on it, put his face behind it so he could see through the eye holes. He stood in front of the window, hoping that one of the children below would notice the apparition on the second floor, and when they didn’t, he leaned against one of the bookcases, his face slightly raised so that he could balance the mask on his face without his hands.

He heard two women talking in the hallway.

Did you hear about the daughter’s divorce?

Right after Ross cancer.

Was he at the service?

Two bucks says he’s halfway to Siberia.

What’s wrong with men?

Can’t handle their feelings.

A cold vibration passed through Randy, down his neck and into his chest, like he’d felt once standing at the bottom of a toboggan hill in winter. What if he was a monster, a demon threatening his party? He raised his arms like the reverend, his thoughts still indistinct, save for a stream of water that was bursting from either side of him, shredding off his clothes and skin and flesh, dashing him into the background where all demons were dispatched, back into the world.

Then a memory.

What is it, a younger Randy said, holding the mask up to his grandfather.

Just kitch. It’s supposed to be the top of a totem pole.

What’s a totem?

It’s how the dead stay alive.

The mask slid from Randy’s face, bounced awkwardly on the floor and rumbled to the far side of the room. In front of him was a small triangle of yellow: the tip of the mask’s beak. He rushed to pick up the mask, tried to stick the fragment back on, but it wouldn’t attach (The inside of the wood was so fibrous), so he tossed the mask into the corner, shoved the piece of wood in his pocket, and opened the door to the hallway with a big sweep.

I didn’t do anything.

Both the women turned to him, dumb, their postures going from hunched and gossipy to fully erect. The shorter, stockier one dropped a cracker she’d been holding, the slimmer one almost lost her grip on her sherry.

We’re sure you didn’t.

Were you alright in there, the other said. I might’ve heard something-

It doesn’t matter, nothing matters, Randy said, slamming the door behind him. When he got down downstairs, he could almost hear the whispers from every part of the house: I can’t believe he’s gone I can’t believe he’s gone I can’t believe he’s gone.

Where have you been, his mother said, running up to him.

Nowhere.

Please behave today. I don’t want a repeat of last week.

Why wouldn’t I behave?

Dragging us out of the hospital with that fit. I had to apologise to the nurse.

I said I wouldn’t.

There are some things more important than video games, she said, pulling on his hand.

There’s not!

She recoiled and stood over him, lowering her voice.

This is your grandfather. What’s wrong with you?

Randy ran to the garage, lifted an old bike out from under a dusty tarp and rode out into the street, his mother calling after him.

After a long stretch of unconscious biking, he came to and found himself in Brewer Park, biking past the sand pits, play structures, and the row of tall oaks to the section of the park by the river. He rode by the river, brown and turbulent, the curves of its eddies sharp and glimmering. He biked through the overgrowth, under trees, past the lagoon where the river’s flood waters collected, and up to the highest path to look down at a section that was overgrown with fireweed and pampas grass and thistles – and other strange weeds he couldn’t identify, their thorns and confusion blocking the view of the still water underneath. He pedalled angrily down the path.

On the curb by the parking lot he saw a boy sitting with a stick next to a small pile of sand.

I know you, Randy said.

Adrian.

Right. You sat behind me. Adrian continued to dig into the mound of sand with his twig. How did you know Ross?

My mom’s his nurse.

Oh.

She liked him. Like, really, really liked him.

When Adrian said this, Randy felt more keenly the triangle of the wood in his pocket, digging into his thigh. As he gripped the black plastic of his handlebars, he could almost feel the keenness of the splinters poking into the pinkest part of his flesh.

Do you know Final Fantasy? Randy said, bouncing the front wheel of his bike.

Yeah, played it.

I’m on the fourth disc.

Adrian whistled at that. I could never get that far in. Too much world. He pushed the twig into the sand until it bent, until it sprung straight, launching grains across the cement.

Well, I did. I even got Eden, the last GF. You’ve never seen ATK as high as mine. Randy spun the front wheel of the bike at Adrian, hurling grains of sand in his direction.

Should you be out? If I was gone during my grandfather’s wake, my mom would cut my head off.

Doesn’t matter. Randy twisted the rubber of his wheel into the ground, killing an ant.

You know, my mom told me what happened.

Randy gripped the handlebars.

She said he fell. That that was why he died. Nothing to do with the cancer.

No.

What?

The table.

The table?

He hit his head on a table, Randy said. A chest of drawers beside his bed.

Oh, right.

It was his temple, he said, tapping beside his eye. He bled in his brain. Randy nodded and twisted the wheel again. Nothing bad’s supposed to happen in a temple.

Adrian dug back into the mound of sand.

What’s that on your leg?

It was dark by the time Randy headed back. As he went from cone to cone of light cast by the street lamps, the darkness around him played with the worst of his imagination. Images flew into his head: an arm under clear plastic, the bent stinger of a mosquito, the tongue of a praying mantis licking his feet. The closer he got to home the more he could hear something large and slithery rattling along near him, always keeping pace with the turns he made.

He wondered if he’d ever get home, if he’d ever step through the door, switch discs, take his party to the final stage. And then he wondered, would he even do it? So many games he played, so many stories unfurled, yet he almost never finished them. He always left that last snag of it, put down the controller, content himself with the memories of what he’d done. He never finished the last, hardest bit.

When he got to the end of their street, he could see the light from the banker’s lamp in his grandfather’s study, and his mother holding the mask, facing away from the window. Quietly, he snuck the bike back under the tarp and climbed up to the first floor.

Everyone had left. Small port glasses had been left on the coffee table with small squibs of liquor at the bottom, and the food in the warming trays was going cold. The stillness of the dark blue dusk meant that you could almost hear the smell of fading perfume.

He could hear her voice from the bottom of the stairs as he climbed them, careful to step on the sides, the parts that didn’t creak. He got to the study, and while he didn’t look inside, the lamp cast his mother’s shadow onto the wall of the hallway. Her form was hunched over, pressing the receiver to her ear.

He’s gone.

The squeaking-metal sound of the voice on the other end.

I can’t believe it, Roger. How could you. Don’t you dare feel sorry for me. If you cared…

Randy slid down the wall so that he was sitting with his back against it. Water spells, water spells. He wanted to forget ATK or DEF; he wanted to junction his water spells to every single part of him.

How could you leave?

That cold shudder again, swelling within him. His breath rushed, his eyes darted in every direction. He put his hand in his pocket, clutched at the piece of wood, the splinters digging into his thumb. He just wanted to be home, enmeshed in explosions of ice and fire, the chirp of each pressed button, the happy tune that played at the end of every battle. The shadow on the wall fluttered as his mother started to sob.

Then he felt it: something large bearing down on him, a presence he could sense but couldn’t articulate. No, it couldn’t be. There was no way. The image of a wave of water flashed before him: an immeasurable volume of water falling, spraying, consuming. He opened his eyes, frightened. This was an image from his game, but it also wasn’t; it was something else entirely. He closed his eyes again, tried to summon an unfurled ruby dragon, a rearing Behemoth. Instead, lilacs reflecting in the casket’s veneer. The reverend raising his arms. And water. More water. He clenched his fists so tight they turned white. He felt something large, larger than those waves, bearing down on him. His face collapsed into a tangle of skin and tears.

Here, take it, he said, bursting into the study, brandishing the piece of wood, bleeding from the wound in his palm. I just want it to be over.

Kit Jenkin was born in Canada and now lives in Manchester, UK. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing program at the University of New Brunswick. His fiction has appeared in The Selkie, The Wrong Quarterly, Storgy, Far Off Places, Transect and other publications.