This story is by Susan Liddle and won an Honorable Mention in our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Susan Liddle lives in Ottawa, Canada, and has been playing with language as an editor and translator for decades. In the early mornings she hugs her coffee cup and writes short stories, works on her first novel, and blogs about finding the good at GoodbyeGrumblings.ca.
The pedestrian walkway under Rideau Street smelled of weed, beer and urine. Shannon hesitated, then walked on with brisk steps.
This route would get her to the bus stop a good fifteen minutes faster than the crosswalk. Nerves spurred her on. Let’s go, let’s get this done. Her heart sang her hope. Hurry, hurry, hurry and see the grandbabies!
She knew this place. She’d been here often, sleeping off a bender in a dank corner, invisible. She’d hated the people who walked by, unaware.
Odd to think she was one of those people now, someone separate from the street life. No one could tell by looking at her that her dress and sandals had come from Sally Ann and her purse from Value Village.
She was less than a minute from the steps up to the daylight when the two young women burst out of the shadows and circled her. She stopped walking when one pulled at the shoulder strap of her purse. Did she know them from peer counselling? No matter. They didn’t seem to know her.
“I don’t have much money,” she said, voice calm. She pulled her purse back. “I’ll get it.”
“We’ll take the fuckin’ bag too, ya old hag!” said one of them and punched her arm, then yanked the strap down and kicked Shannon’s feet out from under her.
Shannon sat up, and the other woman kicked her shin.
Shannon reached for her attacker’s leg, hoping to throw her off balance.
“Bitch!” hissed the first woman, then swung the bag hard and hit Shannon’s head, knocking her over. Shannon lay on her side for a moment, listening to the sound of their feet as they ran towards the steps.
She sat up painfully and crawled to her feet. Her hands were shaking almost as badly as they had when she’d first stopped drinking.
She walked to the steps, careful and slow. At least her Presto card was in her pocket. She could still get on the bus.
She tried not to think of what her dress must look like or how it smelled. She hurt all over, but the worst was her head where the corner of the book in her purse must have hit her.
She paused partway up the steps. The book!
She took the rest of the steps quickly, pain forgotten. Where had they gone? Could she convince them to give her the diary? She had to try.
One or two people gave her a second look and asked if she was okay. She brushed them off.
No time to stop. No time to think about when she’d been beaten for her afternoon’s coins and passersby had looked right through her.
She had to get the diary.
She leaned against the bridge’s big stone railing and spotted them right away: they’d gone down the spiral stairs and were sitting on a bench beside the canal, looking through the contents of the bag. One of them held the diary with its distinctive lime green cover.
She called down, voice hoarse, “Please, just leave me the book!”
The women looked up at her, then the one holding the diary tossed it into the Canal and shouted, “Fuck you!”
Shannon didn’t watch them run away. She moved towards and down the stairs fast, eyes fixed on the diary as it floated briefly, its bright cover shining in the water.
As she drew close to the water she heard a deep rumble. Out from under the bridge a huge cruiser chugged past, slow and inevitable. In its wake, fumes and bits of paper swirled. Shannon stared in disbelief at a small shred of lime cardboard. Then came a second boat.
The diary was gone.
Shannon stood on Crystal’s front step for a full minute before ringing the doorbell. She stared at the marigolds and nasturtiums, the climbing beans. It smelled like Kool-Aid and clean dirt and growing things. I don’t belong here.
It had been just over a year since she’d seen them, right after Essie was born. Just over a year since her widowed daughter had forbidden her to visit unless she was sober. A year since she’d stopped drinking.
Crystal came into sight around the side of the townhouse holding Essie, who was squirming to get down. Then Oliver rounded the corner and dropped the truck he’d been holding.
He ran towards her and hugged her legs. Shannon’s vision blurred with tears and she rested a shaking hand on his hair. He remembered her! Her heart ached with gladness.
“Hi, Mom.” Crystal’s voice was hard. Who could blame her?
Shannon looked down and brushed at the dirt on her dress. She saw blood trickling down her calf. Bruises were already forming.
Crystal inhaled. Was she sniffing? Shannon wanted to cringe. Crystal had every right to be suspicious. How many times had Shannon come to visit reeking of alcohol?
Crystal’s tone was guarded. “What happened?”
“Crys, Honey, I could sure use a drink.”
At Crystal’s sharp glance she added, “A glass of water. Please.”
Oliver took Shannon’s hand and pulled her along the side of the house towards the backyard. With every step, Shannon felt her self-control crumbling.
Crystal gestured to a bench in the shade. “Have a seat. I’ll get you some water.”
Oliver stood back and looked Shannon up and down intently. “You have boo-boos, Gramma?”
“Oh, Honey,” she said, “I sure do.” She wiped at the tears that had started again.
Crystal came back outside with Essie, set her down, and handed Shannon a tall plastic glass of water.
Oliver pointed at the spot on the bench beside Shannon. “You sit there, Mummy.”
Crystal glanced at Shannon, then sat, Essie clinging to her knees. Oliver came over and stood in front of Shannon. He leaned in and brushed his small hand gently over a couple of her tears. One small arm reached up to wrap around Shannon’s neck and the other went around his mother’s neck. He pulled them towards him until their three foreheads touched. Essie bounced.
Shannon’s hand feathered over Oliver’s back and the other hand rested in her lap. Tears dripped continuously down to her chin.
Crystal sighed and sat up, and Shannon knew now was the time.
Her voice shook. “Crys, I’ve been sober for a year now. I’ve been to counselling. I’ve worked hard, harder than ever before in my life.”
She took a deep breath, then continued.
“I didn’t want to tell you until I knew I could make it to a year. But I thought of you and the little ones every single day. I started a diary. I reassembled myself word by word. I wrote it all out for you, everything about how it was before things went bad. About how much I love the three of you. About all the work I’ve done over the past year. It was a love letter to you and to your beautiful children, and it filled a whole book.”
Her voice broke on the last word. Oliver patted her shoulder.
She cleared her throat and continued, trying not to rush the words. “On the way here my purse was stolen. The diary too. They hurt me and they t-tossed my chance to show you how I’ve changed into the canal. I’m a mess and I reek. But I haven’t been drinking!”
Shannon blinked hard, then spoke again in a low voice. “I don’t know if I can write it all out again,” she said. “I wanted to show you—it was to show you—that I’m worthy to be around Oliver and Essie, and you.”
Crystal glanced into her mother’s eyes, then looked down as she pulled Essie onto her lap. The toddler wriggled her way onto Shannon’s lap and planted a wet, open-mouthed kiss on her chin.
Shannon’s heart opened to the joy. She tried to record the feeling so she could treasure it, just in case.
“I’ll do it. I’ll get another book and write it out again,” she said. “You deserve to know, to understand.”
Oliver stepped back and said with authority, “Mummy, Gramma needs band-aids. And something to make her feel better.”
He looked at his mother and whispered, “Something like cookies.”
Shannon and Crystal exchanged slight smiles.
“You’re right, little man,” said Crystal. “She could also use an aspirin and a cup of tea, if I’m not mistaken.”
Crystal said, “Let’s go see what we can find, okay?”
“Cookies!” said Oliver, jumping up and down.
“Ookeez!” shouted Essie, watching her brother and bouncing.
The kids tumbled into the house, and Crystal and Shannon followed.
At the door, Crystal stopped and murmured, “Mom, they love us whether we’re worthy or not.”
She took a step, then turned back and placed a gentle hand on Shannon’s damp cheek. Shannon saw tears glinting on Crystal’s eyelashes.
Crystal whispered, “I’m sorry the diary got destroyed. Why don’t you just tell me instead? We’ve got time.”