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In the beginning ...

Most people know Don as an author of young adult novels, but he began his career writing short fiction for adults. His very first short story, "The Invitation," won first prize in the 1989 Atlantic Writing Competition and was selected by McClelland & Stewart as one of the thirteen best short stories published in Canada in 1990. "The Invitation" has since been published three times, and Don received a $10,000 Cross-Over Writer's Grant from Telefilm Canada to adapt the story to a feature-length screenplay. 

Between novels, Don continues to write short fiction, some for teenagers and some for adults. Several of his short stories have appeared in anthologies, literary journals, magazines, and classroom textbooks. Below is a sample:

  • "Scars," published in Nelson Literacy 10 (Nelson Education, 2011). Also published in The Landmarks Story Anthology (Nelson Education, 1996) and in Dandelion Magazine (The Dandelion Magazine Society, 1991).
  • "The Canyon," published in Live Ink: Don't Label Me! (Pearson Education, 2010).
  • "Intersection," published in Live Ink: Heroes or Zeros? (Pearson Education, 2010).
  • "The Labyrinth," published in Live Ink: Heroes or Zeros? (Pearson Education, 2010).
  • "Pull," published in The Horrors: Terrifying Tales, Book 1 (Red Deer Press, 2005).
  • "Everything Gets Dead," published in The Toronto Star (July 28, 2002). (A copy of this story appears below.)
  • "Do Like My Old Man," published in The Gaspereau Review (Gaspereau Press, 1998).
  • "The Invitation," published in Insights: Relationships and Responsibility (Harcourt Brace, 1994). Also published in The Journey Prize Anthology III (McClelland & Stewart, 1991) and The Pottersfield Portfolio (Crazy Quilt Press, 1990).
  • "The Ruler," published in The Pottersfield Portfolio (Wild East Publishing, 1993).
  • "The Test," published in Canadian Living Magazine (December 1990).


Everything Gets Dead

by

Don Aker

The runner passed them on the third quarter. He noticed how her back narrowed in a V to her blue spandex shorts, appraised her small, tight form, traced with his eyes her impossibly long legs from striated thighs to diamond-shaped calves. Tiny clouds rose from the track each time her feet thudded the dirt surface. Then she was beyond them, moving in a wide, silent arc at the top of the oval that would ultimately bring her around to them again.

"Messy."

He looked down at the child beside him, her face shiny with chocolate. The ice cream cone dwarfed her tiny hand, looked like a melting torch whose cold fire licked earthward over wrist, satin dress, white stockings, black patent leather shoes.

"Mama be mad," she said.

He sighed. Yes, Mama would be mad. But she had dressed the child. Knew they'd be going to the park. Like they used to. He had told her so when he'd called beforehand about the time. Disapproval in her voice. "She hasn't been sleeping well," she'd said. "I don't want her all wound up when she comes back." Like she was one of those spring-driven toys. A spotted dog with a propeller tail and a head that lolled back when it barked.

"It's Sunday," he'd said. His day. Although there'd been few Sundays since the separation. Always an excuse: the child was sick, the grandparents were visiting, a girlfriend was inviting them away for the weekend. It had been nearly a month since he'd seen her. She seemed smaller than he remembered, as though time had the same diminishing effect as distance.

"Let's get you cleaned up," he said. He pulled a Kleenex from his pocket and knelt down, wiped her face and hands until the tissue fell apart in his fingers. He rolled it into a cigar-shaped wad in his palm. Wanted to toss it into the trees that bordered the track but knew he couldn't. Not in front of the child. "There," he said. "That's better."

The child was dubious. "Fwont all stained," she said, her face creased with worry. For a moment she was the image of her mother, eyes like spoons. His heart staggered in his chest, surprising him with useless treachery.

"It'll come out," he said. "Don't worry about it." His voice was louder than he'd intended. Saw her draw back, lower lip quivering. "It's okay," he said. "Mama won't be mad." At you.

She looked up at him, searched his eyes for the truth. Seemed to find it. "Don't wan' any mo'," she said. Handed him the dripping cone.

He looked for a garbage can, saw one too far away on the other side of the baseball diamond that filled this end of the field. He turned, saw only the runner opposite them on the half-mile track. "It's bio-degradable," he said and immediately felt foolish. "We can throw this in the woods because the insects will eat it."

"They will?" she asked. Questioned everything. Did she do the same with her mother?

"Absolutely. It'll be their supper." He turned so she wouldn't see him pressing the wad of tissue into the chocolate. Flung the cone underhand into the woods. The ice cream hit the blackened trunk of a gnarled oak, clung to it for a moment, then slid to the ground leaving the Kleenex glued to its bark. He glanced at her to see if she'd noticed, but she was squatting on her haunches, peering at the dirt. The hem of her gaily-coloured dress folded over itself in the dust.

He squatted beside her. "Whatcha lookin' at?"

"Ants." She loved ants. Would watch them longer than Sesame Street. He remembered showing her an anthill in their back yard that spring. The mower had sliced off the top exposing hundreds of the red insects scurrying about with eggs in their pincers. She'd made the mistake of putting her hand in the middle of all that activity and they'd swarmed up and over her arm. He'd managed to brush them off before any had bitten her. Or thought he had. Later, during her bath, he would see the red marks some had left behind. But she hadn't cried, or even called out. They'd watched from a safe distance for a long time, the child curled like a question mark against him until all the ants and eggs had disappeared.

She'd been drawn back to that anthill many times. Despite his warnings. Afraid she'd be bitten again, he'd poured motor oil on it and set it afire while she slept. Buried the tragedy under a bag of topsoil he'd bought at the Co-Op. She never asked about it. Seemed to accept that things always changed.

"What are they doing?" he asked.

"They're black," she said. As if colour answered his question.

They watched for a few minutes as two ants tugged at a moth, moving it in increments across the dusty track. The child reached out and touched the lifeless husk. Gently.

"Why don' he fly?" she asked.

He wondered how to reply. Tried a couple answers in his head. Everything seemed important nowadays. And you only ever got one chance. As his wife had told him when she'd thrown him out.

"They're taking it back to their nest," he said.

She didn't look up. "To live there?"

"No," he said.

Now she looked at him. "Why not?"

He waited for inspiration. Which didn't come. "He'll be the ants' supper."

She frowned. "Suppew?" she asked. "Will it hewt?"

He put his arm around her. The two of them squatting in the dust together. "No," he said. "The moth's dead. He can't feel anything now."

"Why not?" Always the why not. As if his job was to eliminate possibility.

"When you're dead, you don't feel things." Then realized his mistake.

"Will I get dead?"

He held her face between his hands, her cheeks like silk in his rough fingers. "Everything gets dead," he said. "But not for a long, long time." He kissed her, took her hand and stood up. She continued to look at the dirt. "C'mon," he said. "Let's go have a slide."

He could hear the rhythmic pounding of feet as the runner came up behind them again. He turned and she smiled as she jogged past. Not at him, though. At the child. The runner waved and he could feel the child press against him. The warning about strangers. He was surprised at how well she'd learned that lesson, but not the one about the anthill. He waved back for her, followed the runner again with approving eyes.

Cracking sounds under the trees. Branches breaking. From out of the woods to his right, two deer burst onto the track, leaping in full stride as if pursued. By phantoms, though, since nothing appeared behind them.

"Look!" he cried, pointing at the animals. One larger than the other.

The child shrieked in delight, pointed excitedly as the two deer overtook the runner. The woman turned and yelped, her cry surprising the nearest animal, which leaped back into the woods at the side of the track. But the second one, smaller than the first, veered left toward the baseball diamond and the four-foot fence that surrounded it.

He saw it happen as if in slow motion, as if in separate, shuttered moments pulled from memory. The deer's front legs cleared the chain-link barrier with inches to spare, followed easily by its fluid hind quarters. But the tiny back hoofs clipped the top of the metal railing and the animal somersaulted, hitting the ground back-first, bouncing, then coming to rest in the dust behind first base. It lay without moving.

"He hewt?" the child cried.

He looked at her, knew immediately what he should do. "We have to go now. Mama'll be waiting for you." He tugged at her hand but she pulled away. Ran toward the ball diamond in her patent leather shoes. He ran after her, called her name, scooped her up in his arms. But she arched her back and wriggled free, dropped to the ground and kept going.

"Don't!" he cried. Wanted to grab her and run. Away from the narrative unfolding before them. But he knew this would only frighten her, make things worse. He followed behind her, thinking suddenly of all the times he'd trailed his wife in shopping malls, grocery stores, parking lots. His job had been to push the stroller, manoeuvre the cart, carry the bags. He'd heard a joke once about men shopping with women but had forgotten the punch line. Or maybe there wasn't one. Maybe there really was nothing funny to say about men and women, husbands and wives.

"Wait up," he called. But she was already there and calling for him to hurry.

The runner had slipped through the opening in the fence behind home plate and was crouching near the animal, stroking its head, murmuring meaningless words. The child grabbed his hand and tugged, then moved around behind him, urging him through the entrance ahead of her. Once inside, she clung to his leg, peered around him at the injured animal.

"I think she's just stunned," the runner said hopefully. The deer's eyes were open but unseeing, the tongue dangling from its slack mouth. Blood dripped from the tongue, seeped into the ground. Already there were flies.

He said nothing. But knew without knowing that it was more than just stunned.

The child squeezed his hand for courage. "He hewt?" she asked.

The runner smiled at her. "It's a she, honey. She's called a doe."

The child hid her face behind his leg, suddenly shy. "She okay?" she whispered, but only to him.

I think so, he wanted to lie. Instead, "We should be getting you home now."

Suddenly the animal jerked. The child squealed, her fear deliciously bright, and the startled runner leaped to her feet. All three watched as the deer pawed at the ground and tried to raise its head, then fell back. Pawed again like a swimmer in a sidestroke, its body rotating slowly around an unseen stake that pinned it to the ground.

"Maybe she needs help getting up," the runner offered. Up close, she was older than he'd previously thought. Late thirties, maybe early forties. She looked at him. He looked at the child. "My boyfriend lives near here," she said, unzipping a pouch that hung from her waist. She pulled out a cellphone and punched some numbers.

He knelt in front of the child. "Look, we've got to get going. We don't want to keep Mama waiting."

She raised herself on tiptoe, peered over his shoulder at the animal that continued to pinwheel slowly on the ground. She shook her head. "Wanna see hew up."

The runner clicked off the phone and returned it to her pouch. "He's coming right over." The three of them watched the deer as it drew and redrew a red circle on the ground.

* * *

The boyfriend was much older. Fifties. In the middle of his own divorce. "I don't think there's anything we can do," he said. "Must've broken her back."

The runner wouldn't agree. Begged him to call the vet.

The boyfriend took her hand, led her over to the pitcher's mound. Snatches of conversation, low tones: "... nearly dead anyway ..." and "... would cost me a fortune ..."

The runner turned on her heel and came back to the child and the man. He could see she was struggling not to cry. But he agreed with the boyfriend. It was pointless. He needed to get the child home. What would his wife say?

"We have to go," he tried again, tugging her hand, but she twisted away from him. Her legs like trees, rooted deep.

"She gonna get dead?" she asked. Lower lip quivering.

He groped for the right answer. You only ever got one chance, he thought again.

"There must be something we can do," the runner said.

"I already did it," said the boyfriend, who had come to stand behind them. "Right after you called."

As if underlining his words, a truck rumbled into the park and turned onto the track, following the oval around to the ball diamond. Department of Natural Resources lettered on its side. It pulled to a dusty stop and two men got out. They walked casually across the field and through the fence, talking and laughing about other things.

The child reached for his hand again, squeezed it. But she wasn't looking at him. She was watching the rotating deer. As if waiting for it to wind down.

One of the men wore a green cap with Natural Resources Officer crammed absurdly on it in white. "So," he said. "Whadda we got here?" He stood looking at the deer while the runner explained about the fence.

"Can you do anything for her?" she asked.

The officer knelt beside the animal, ran his hand over its side and back as it pawed its way north, then east, then south. Shook his head. "Only one thing," he said. Looked at his partner. His partner nodded and returned to the truck.

Cursing under his breath, the man pulled on the child's hand. "We have to go now," he said.

But he'd squeezed too hard and she started to cry. Not just about that, though. About the deer, too. "Don't wanna go!" she wailed. "Wanna stay!"

He picked her up and carried her kicking toward the fence. Passed the partner on his way back into the ball field, a long canvas bag slung over his shoulder. The partner looked bored. His eyes said Sunday people. Like all this was their fault.

The child was screeching before he'd gone ten feet. A three-alarm tantrum. He thought about the shopping joke and ached suddenly for someone to follow again. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the rifle already out, the partner lighting a cigarette as the officer took aim. The runner with her back to her boyfriend, crying.

The sound like the pop of a cork.

He started to run, the child now sobbing in his arms. Made it to the park entrance before he realized he was sobbing, too.



TheJourneyPrizeAnthology3cover.jpg
McClelland & Stewart 1991


Winner of The Toronto Star's 2002 Short Story Contest Runner-Up Prize for "Everything Gets Dead"

Winner of Dandelion Magazine's 1991 Short Fiction Competition Third Prize for "Scars"

Winner of Canadian Living Magazine's 1990 National Literary Competition First Prize for "The Test"

Winner of the 1989 Atlantic Writing Competition's Short Fiction First Prize for "The Invitation"

Nominated for McClelland & Stewart's 1990 Journey Prize Award for "The Invitation"


Review:

"Even for a country used to superb short story writers like Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Mavis Gallant, [the short fiction in The Journey Prize Anthology] is impressive stuff. As an example, Don Aker's 'The Invitation' plumbs the depths of childhood's loss of innocence as a man remembers exactly where he was the day JFK was shot. Social realities in small town Nova Scotia become achingly clear as a little boy--all too aware of his own precarious status in the playground pecking order--tries desperately to avoid a birthday party given by the class loser. The Kennedys--even in the midst of their tragedy--stand for the glamour missing in our lives, in ironic contrast to the disappointing Queen Elizabeth, 'an ordinary woman in a blue dress and hat that could have come from the Simpson-Sears catalogue.'" (The Globe and Mail)