Irene | Dave Gregory | The Piltdown Review

Irene

Irene

Hiking in Switzerland, she tripped, she fell, she landed in this grave, I say to myself, summing up the last chapter in Irene’s short life as her casket is lowered into the ground.

The highly polished coffin, reflective as calm water in a backyard swimming pool, is a bright reddish-brown. Looking away, I’m reminded of Irene’s hair. It was a similar colour but that must be a coincidence.

Fresh earth—rich, brown and moist—is shovelled upon the casket. Why do cemeteries have such ironically fertile soil? During the burial, I focus on the carved monument. IRENE McINTYRE, 1968 – 1997. Headstone math is a grim, human habit. Twenty-nine is too low a result.

Soon a mound forms and is quickly laden with wreaths and arranged flowers: lilies, gladioli, chrysanthemums and more. A single red rose. It smells like a potting shed in spring. Early fall sunlight brings out brilliant hues of gold, violet, red, yellow and white. Irene would’ve loved to see this, I tell myself, though I don’t know for a fact. She certainly wouldn’t want me standing here weeping, slipping into an inconsolable depression, a debilitating funk.

Yet I’ve been diagnosed with colon cancer. Before the turn of the millennium, I’m told, I will also leave a life half-lived. Like a young girl at her big sister’s wedding (with thoughts dark and sombre rather than joyous and beautiful), I can’t help picturing my day. Will my own funeral be as well-attended and accompanied by as many tears? Will my casket be as shiny? Will any of the same people attend?

Unlikely. Irene and I had friends in common but most have moved on. I expected Ben and Ryan would come but they’re nowhere to be seen. Maybe they haven’t heard the news. Perhaps that’s for the best—it would be uncomfortable catching up on lost years. I’d have to tell them about my health. As if the day isn’t depressing enough.

To cheer up, I remind myself Irene isn’t far away. Her spirit lives on and so will mine. She taught me that ten years ago, on a day melancholy as this.

I take one last lingering look at Irene’s grave and turn away, toward the main entrance of the cemetery. This is not how I want to remember her.

Instead, I think of the day we met. 1986. High school. New to this Ontario town, in my final year before university, Blessed Trinity’s labyrinthine hallways, crowded with strangers, overwhelmed and intimidated me. For the first month, I struggled to fit in, to meet new friends, in an institution three times the size of anything I was used to.

At the end of September, the school newspaper came out. Never having seen such a publication, I decided to get involved. My first assignment was covering a visit by a young woman named Alison, a member of SAGE—Students Against Global Extermination. The cold war was in full swing and the student body extremely politicised. At my old school, such a visit would’ve been an excuse to get out of class for an hour but, at BT, rival factions developed. Proponents of Reagan’s Star Wars technology—what a lark that was!—booed and hissed announcements promoting SAGE. Letters to the Editor were written, plans were made to disrupt the presentation, banners painted, buttons passed round.

On the day of the visit, Irene had the job of escorting Alison around campus. Just like Irene to be at the centre of the storm. Approaching the guest speaker for an interview, I couldn’t help notice the young woman with fiery red hair standing next to her. She had presence and intensity. I’d seen her in the hallways but we hadn’t met. Before asking my first question, Irene introduced herself. I recognized the name—Irene McIntyre was all over the first edition of the Blessed Trinity Review.

“Hey, we write for the same paper.”

She nodded, then looked me in the eyes. Sizing me up. “I wondered who’d cover this.”

Irene stayed close during the ten-minute interview. She listened, not so much to Alison’s words, but to my questions. Smiling once or twice, I gathered she approved.

As students filed into the main gymnasium, Alison began setting up her film projector and testing sound equipment. Irene took me aside.

“Look, this is important. Alison is trying to save this planet.” My blank expression must’ve signalled impressionability, and Irene sensed my sympathies could be cultivated. “We all have a job in this. All it takes is enough little voices like ours, speaking in unison, for our view to be heard. Right now there are enough nuclear weapons to destroy this planet five times over. We’ve got to make world leaders see this insanity.”

How could I argue? Already an apostle, I nodded in agreement; this would be the angle my article would take. Not only would I report the news, I’d promote world peace.

“Listen carefully,” Irene instructed. “That’s the best advice a journalist can get. Are you taking notes?”

I held up my pad.

“You’re all set.” She nodded, then climbed on stage to introduce Alison, while I found a seat in the bleachers.

Throughout her presentation, Alison faced persistent heckling but was intelligent and articulate enough to win over most of the audience. Writing feverishly, I filled four pages.

Ryan sat beside me. We barely knew each other then. Like Irene, he also wrote for the paper and was on the committee to promote Alison’s visit. Citing conflict of interest, the staff moderator refused to let either cover the story.

I’d met Ryan in history class. Brooding, intense, he was the first person I knew who’d actually read The Communist Manifesto. He befriended the strange old man who met school buses in the parking lot at least once a week and handed out socialist propaganda to anyone who’d take it. “Captain Commie,” everyone called him. Ryan was the only one who spoke to him, often inviting him to have a cigarette while they talked politics.

Ryan thoroughly enjoyed Alison’s presentation. “Right on,” he said each time she made a point. For this, he was the target of spitballs, but weathered the attacks just fine. Determined to meet Alison, Ryan rushed the stage once her presentation was over—he wanted to invite her for a cigarette and talk politics.

Ryan knew Irene was a smoker, but it was a guess, and a good one, that Alison smoked as well. Ryan’s best friend, Ben, followed along. So did I, hoping to get more quotes for my story.

Smoking was only tolerated in the parking lot, but Ryan led us the opposite direction, toward the old Tudor revival mansion that sat imposingly on the western edge of school property. “Grey Gables,” we always called it. The former owner had donated the surrounding land so a high school could be built there, but no one knew what to do with the house, so it was abandoned and left to decay.

“What are we doing here?” I asked. Alison looked confused as well.

“This is the only decent place to have a cigarette,” Ryan explained. “Can’t get rained on, and at least there’s a place to sit.” It had been pouring all day, but the wide portico at the main entrance kept the steps dry.

“Is it all right for students to be out here?” Alison worried a scandal might tarnish the clean-cut image of her disarmament campaign.

“I come here a lot,” Irene replied. “It’s no big deal.”

Ryan added: “Ben and I have been out here every day this year, most of last year too, and no one’s ever said boo about it. We face away from school, and there’s no reason for teachers to come this way, so it’s ignored.”

Alison took a seat while Ryan fired off one question after another about disarmament and nuclear holocaust. Irene, meanwhile, read over my notes and said it would be a good time to verify my quotes with Alison. Irene had taken me under her wing; I was a cub reporter getting lessons from the master.

Once the butts had been stamped out and I’d read my quotes back to Alison, we said goodbye. Rushing home, I started writing as soon as I got to my desk.

At the next newspaper staff meeting, Irene replaced the previous news editor, who no longer had free time after landing the lead role in the school play. She ran my story word for word.

“We gotta stick it to those right-wingers,” she told me. “They can bark all they want in the cafeteria or parking lot, but whatever we print gets delivered into the hands of each and every student. We can’t waste this opportunity to make an impact.”

When Grey Gables itself was under threat, Irene and I took a stand. The school board applied for a demolition permit, but we felt the choice was simple: either preserve one of the oldest and most beautiful houses in Welland or make room for another row of portable classrooms. Determined to save Grey Gables, Irene and I interviewed municipal officials, local historians and architects, then drafted an article detailing its long, complicated history.

We made this our lead story and included a picture of the building in all its grandeur, which Irene uncovered in the city archives. The photo was decades old, taken when Grey Gables opened its doors as an elite private boys’ school.

Irene told me the principal handed out the student paper at school board meetings. I loved the idea of our article being dropped, literally, in the trustees’ laps.

In the end, the vote to hire a demolition crew was soundly defeated.

Following Alison’s visit to Blessed Trinity, I often joined Irene, Ben and Ryan on the front steps of Grey Gables. All four of us met there between classes and at lunchtime. Frequently, we used a school pay phone and had pizzas delivered to the front porch.

We regrouped in the same spot at day’s end to prepare for whatever we had coming up. Ben played football and basketball, Ryan was on student council, Irene played in the school band and led the debating team, and I had started helping out with the yearbook.

Though many considered the crumbling, vacant building an eyesore, the place became our hideaway. Without leaving school property, it was like being in a different world: sitting with our backs against columns of carved stone, we gazed upon green grass, twisted trees and an overgrown garden to the right of the narrow, winding driveway. We could say what we liked, do what we wanted, and no faculty member was going to come along and hassle us. It was perfect.

Disparate as we were, we became a close-knit group. Ben was tall, athletic and solidly built, with a good sense of humour. Ryan was also funny but dry and sardonic. He complained about being the only lefty on student council. He wanted to change the world but couldn’t even get his colleagues to agree on a symbolic resolution declaring our school a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.

I think Irene was attracted to Ben, but she normally went out with older guys from other high schools, or from Brock University. She was discreet and never introduced us. Ben preferred women who were mousier and less outspoken. Ryan was secretly attracted to Irene. Then again, he was secretly attracted to half the female population.

In my case, I merely looked to Irene as a mentor. Blindly, I’d have followed her into a war zone just to watch her work. She could turn out a story in less time than it took me to arrange my first interview. Her command of language was flawless—she carried a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style in her backpack. She knew the right people, she had the latest information, and there wasn’t a single quote she couldn’t get.

It astounded me, the things she uncovered—buzz from the school board, gossip from faculty meetings, even rumours from Welland City Hall. Her penetrating but charming nature won people over. Strangers opened up to her. She inspired trust and never betrayed anyone’s confidence.

Her enthusiasm for reporting rubbed off on me as she quickly moulded my efforts with the school newspaper into a mission, into a career. (At university, I enrolled in the school of journalism and have been in the business ever since.)

She was a true inspiration, yet this isn’t how I want to remember Irene, either. Yes, she plotted a course for my life, but she also plotted a course for my faith. Confronted with my own mortality, that is what I cherish most.

I think of another time:

“Don’t go in there.”

I remember the exact tone Ryan used when he said that to me. Ominous and foreboding. I was just on my way to school; what could he possibly mean?

“A student died. It’s like a morgue in there.”

“Anyone we know?” I asked.

“No, some girl from grade ten.”

“Jesus.” That meant she was fifteen.

That’s how I was greeted, coming to school on the last day of May—the day before my final month of high school. I had a spare period first thing that Monday morning, so it was past ten when I arrived to find Ryan and Ben sitting on the stone steps of Grey Gables.

“She died yesterday. They mentioned it on the announcements but everyone already knew.” Ben’s voice was hushed and respectful. I wasn’t used to hearing him speak that way. He was the loudest of us all.

“I heard it on the bus on the way in,” Ryan added. “People were crying.”

“Do you know how she died?” I asked.

“Drowned in her swimming pool,” Ryan answered.

It was a little early for the swim season, but warm temperatures had driven many outdoors over the weekend. Ben, I noticed, was already tanned.

“So, how long have you been sitting here?”

Ryan said he’d been there all morning.

Ben had joined him twenty minutes earlier. “I asked Dwyer if I could go to the washroom. When I went in, these three guys were bawling about it, and I decided I couldn’t go back to class.”

“Are we going to sit here all day?” I asked.

“It’s too depressing in there,” Ryan said. “I can’t face it—and I didn’t even know her.”

“Well, I might just go see how things are.” But I changed my mind as soon as I spoke. Dreading the sepulchral hallways and mournful faces, I took a seat next to Ben.

“What do you bet Irene will come out between classes?” Ben asked Ryan.

“I’m surprised she isn’t here already.”

With warm sunlight on my face, I leaned into the shadows to appreciate the solemnity of the moment. Gloom encircled, swirling as menacingly as wisps of smoke from Ryan’s cigarette. I imagined the same gloom infiltrating classrooms, getting into everything, touching everyone.

With fifteen hundred students at Blessed Trinity, it was hard to feel a strong sense of community. Physical, cultural, political, sexual, musical, and social barriers segmented everyone. We formed tiny cliques as a defence mechanism, but these posed yet another barrier. One student’s death, however, erased all those walls and united everyone in grief, shock and fear. People weren’t supposed to die that young. There we were, learning, growing, finding out about ourselves, dreaming how to make our mark on the world, when one of our own was suddenly cut down in a tragic accident.

As predicted, Irene met us less than a minute after we heard the bell signalling the end of first period. “Anna Chivorski was the girl’s name. She was filling up the family pool. After the long winter, she was excited about finally going swimming and dove in before it was completely full. She smacked her head on the bottom and knocked herself unconscious. It was that simple—that’s all it took. She was floating face down when her mother called her for lunch.”

“Did you know her?” Ben wondered.

“I met her a few times. Her sister’s in the band with me.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“We’re all sorry.”

Irene said that.

We remained on the steps of Grey Gables all day. Irene did most of the talking, as she often did. On that quiet afternoon, she gave us the full story on life and death. She’d already done the research and interviewed the right sources.

“Death isn’t final. It isn’t the end people think it is. And the dead can influence us as much as we can influence them.”

“You’re going to tell us,” Ben predicted, “loved ones live on in our memories, and the good works people do live after them.”

Irene nodded. “That’s true. But there’s more than that. Do you remember Alex Mayhew?” She invoked the name of another Blessed Trinity student who had died suddenly. Despite the bright sun, a chill swept through us all.

“You weren’t here then, were you?” Irene asked me.

“No, but I heard all about it.”

Two summers before my transfer to Blessed Trinity, I worked at a small variety store in Port Colborne, fifteen kilometres away. Every day, a copy of the Welland Tribune was set aside for an old man named Mayhew. Late that summer, my boss pointed to a front page story and told me it was about the man’s grandson. Cycling home after a baseball game, Alex Mayhew was hit by a truck and knocked into a nearby ditch. The article described his parents’ sixty-two-hour bedside vigil before he died. Alex’s classmates and teachers described him as bright, friendly and well-loved.

Coverage of the tragedy didn’t end with that article. A few days later, another front-page story reported the ransacking of Alex’s house during the funeral. No clues were found. Everyone in town knew about the memorial service, and those interviewed were appalled someone could stoop so low during a time of suffering.

“His name is still mentioned a lot,” I told Irene. “His death had a big effect on me—and I never met him.”

“He had a huge effect on me,” Ryan admitted. “Only months before he died, I ran against him for student council vice-president. He beat me badly. Dwyer helped count the votes and wouldn’t say how much I’d lost by; said it would be too humiliating, especially since Alex was a year younger than me. But I wasn’t upset. I can’t say much for Alex’s politics, but he was the greatest guy. After hearing his speech, even I was tempted to vote for him.

“That fall we had a by-election to fill the vacancy, but I didn’t think of running. I knew everyone would compare me to him, and I couldn’t fill those shoes. I waited a whole year before trying again.”

“He’s still with us, isn’t he?” Ben said.

This was Irene’s cue. “Even more than you think.”

Irene explained that Father Longley, the school chaplain and friend to everyone, comforted the Mayhews during their grim vigil. “The bereaved parents relied heavily on him. Alex’s mother kept telling Father Longley she refused to accept the death of her only child and vowed to keep his room exactly the way he left it, making it a shrine.

“And his father insisted, coming home from the hospital, he saw a vision of Alex riding his bike up the driveway—as though finally returning from the baseball game. Mr Mayhew believed he was merely seeing what he wanted to see but it wasn’t just visions: before the funeral, the Mayhews felt Alex watching them, trying to communicate, like the way you can tell someone’s standing behind you, waiting to use the phone booth you’re occupying.

“When they invited Father Longley over and told him about these sensations, he had to admit he felt them, too.”

Ryan looked uncomfortable. “You’re scaring the heck out of me,” he admitted, gazing across the wide lawn, afraid Alex’s ghost was listening in, lurking behind the gnarled old tree dominating the yard.

“It is scary, but I haven’t come to the frightening part yet. Remember how the Mayhews’ house was burglarised during the funeral?”

Another cold chill swept through me. “Yes,” Ben and I said together.

“Nothing was stolen.”

“Nothing?” Ben asked.

“Not one thing.”

“But I read the whole place was trashed,” Ben insisted. “It looked like a pack of vandals had been through it.”

“No reporter actually went inside the house but Father Longley was there after the funeral. He arrived with the Mayhews. They confirmed nothing had been stolen and the damage confined to Alex’s room. Mr Mayhew called the police to report the crime but Father Longley watched Mrs Mayhew and could see she thought the same thing he did.”

Irene paused, waiting to see if we’d arrive at the inevitable conclusion on our own. It was there, ready to leap from my tongue, but I couldn’t say it.

Ben also had trouble voicing his thoughts. “You . . . you don’t mean . . . ?”

Irene nodded, then turned to me. “They both thought Alex had done it.” Irene scanned my face for doubt. Seeing none, she turned to Ben.

“That can’t be,” he said. “How can you know this? Did Father Longley tell you?”

Irene shrugged.

Ryan knew Irene would never reveal her source but didn’t need verification. He believed. “You’re the one who said he’s still with us,” Ryan reminded Ben. “I can feel it right now. I feel it at every student council meeting. The guy must sit right beside me.”

I automatically looked to Ryan’s left, then right. Ben did the same. A slight breeze blew, jostling nearby branches, rustling young leaves. It suddenly felt cold for a sunny spring day.

“That wasn’t the only time things at the Mayhews’ house were disturbed,” Irene continued. “It happened quite a bit after that. The Mayhews woke up hearing noises in Alex’s room. Any time Mrs Mayhew straightened things out, they were messed up again during the night.”

“But none of this made the paper?” Having lived in the next town, I wondered if I’d missed something.

“Of course not. How could they tell anyone except Father Longley? Who would believe?”

“You,” Ben commented.

“Of course.” She added, nonchalantly, “I’ve got a good source.”

Ryan said: “It must be Father Longley.”

“Not necessarily,” she responded.

“So,” Ben said, “you’re news editor. Would you run a story like this?”

“Never. It would sound ridiculous. But I believe in the power of the soul, always have. Alex’s story adds credibility to my convictions. His spirit survived the death of the body. So can yours, so can mine.”

Irene looked at Ben as she said this. None of us knew how to reply.

“So, what did they do,” I asked, “about the supernatural occurrences?”

“They asked Father Longley for help.”

“And what could he do? Pray? Perform an exorcism?” Ben wondered.

“No. He sought proof. He set a tape recorder in Alex’s room, pressed record and closed the door behind him. Then he and the Mayhews left the house for an hour.”

“Was there anything on the tape when they came back?” Ryan asked, rubbing his forehead with the palm of his hand, bracing for what he was about to hear.

Irene nodded as she shifted position. The hard stones of the porch were growing uncomfortable. “The tape recorder shut off automatically, so they brought it to the living room and pressed rewind. No one said a word. Once rewound, Father Longley pressed play.

“There was nothing at first, just an eerie silence and the soft hum of the tape recorder. Then they heard wind blowing and a bird chirping. From where he sat, Mr Mayhew saw through the doorway into Alex’s room and noticed the bedroom window was closed. He mentioned this to Father Longley and asked if the microphone was especially sensitive. Father Longley shrugged. He said, ‘It’s a cheap tape recorder. Maybe the wind was stronger or the bird was right on the windowsill.’

“The bereaved parents looked at each other. ‘Alex seems restless about that window,’ Mr Mayhew said. His wife nodded in agreement.

“Mrs Mayhew asked if the window was open when he’d put the tape recorder in the room but Father Longley didn’t recall.

“For the next few minutes, there was nothing except the odd noise from outside: the bird, a barking dog, trucks passing on the street. Twenty minutes into the tape, a slow scraping sound began. No one recognized it until it grew louder and ended with a soft thud. Mrs Mayhew burst out: ‘That was the window closing!’ The two men looked at each other. Mr Mayhew nodded his head until the chaplain did the same.

“The tape continued, quieter with no outdoor sounds, but they heard faint noises no one could pinpoint. Perhaps they were from the tape recorder itself. Then they heard the floor creak, a book close, and a sound like fingernails scratching on wood.

“Next, came something else: a human voice. Beginning with a soft moan, an unintelligible mutter followed a weak cough. Then the voice became clear. They listened to only a split second—without hearing a full word—before Mrs Mayhew leaped up and shut off the recorder. ‘Stop it, stop it!’ she shouted. ‘I can’t sit here. I can’t listen to this!’

“After calming her, it was agreed Father Longley would play the rest of the tape—alone at home. When he heard the whole thing, he knew exactly what was haunting the Mayhews and how to help them.”

“But what was on the tape?” I needed to know. We all did.

“Was it Alex?” Ryan asked.

“Yes, definitely. Father Longley said the voice was clear, loud, and unquestionably Alex’s.”

“What was he saying?” Ben asked.

“Alex was screaming at his mother, he was shouting: ‘Let me go. Let me go. Mother, Mother, just let me go!’ He was chanting that, over and over. That’s all he kept saying until the end of the tape.”

I felt a shiver down my spine. Ryan’s eyes were wet and Ben’s mouth hung open. We sat a long time in silence.

“Did you ever hear this tape?” Ryan asked.

“No. Father Longley played it for two other priests and they recommended he destroy it but I didn’t have to hear the tape to know it’s true; and I can tell by the looks on your faces you believe it, too.”

“You’re right. You’re absolutely right,” I confessed. Ben and Ryan also nodded. “But you said Father Longley knew how to help them. What did he do?”

“He told them what was on the tape, then explained Alex couldn’t leave earth until his mother agreed to let him go. Her stubborn denial of fate pinned him down. She had to face her son’s death and get on with her own life. So, he counselled her; he helped her to grieve, mourn and accept.”

Irene never revealed her source, neither did she mention whether the Mayhews were still haunted by their departed son. Possibly, she didn’t even know, but that made no difference. Irene made it clear death has no grasp on our boundless souls.

We spent another few hours on that porch. The sun moved across the sky and a soft breeze steadily blew. Irene put us in a storytelling mood. I can’t remember the stories we told but our outlook was drastically changed by day’s end. Instead of talking about death and our own fears, we talked about strength of the human spirit and the power of love.

Not stories but feelings are what I remember. Less than a year after switching schools, I felt I’d made lifelong friends I couldn’t bear to lose the way Anna Chivorski and Alex Mayhew were lost. But it was foolish to think that way; the end was practically upon us. A horrible tragedy wouldn’t pull us apart. All it took was a graduation ceremony.

Twenty-six days later, I saw Irene for the last time, on prom night, the day following graduation. The best part of the evening came after the dance, when the four of us ended up at Grey Gables. We didn’t plan it. It just happened.

Some would’ve been frightened by that old mansion in the dark but we were at home on the front step. Ben brought beer and handed it out as we sat back and relaxed. The night was warm, the sky full of stars. Ben noticed the front door was unlocked. He pushed it open and we followed him into the blackness. It wasn’t the first time we’d been inside. School board officials sometimes went into Grey Gables—for what I can’t imagine—and forgot to lock the door on their way out. Irene believed they did this intentionally, hoping vandals would trash the place or, better, burn it to the ground.

We used Ryan’s lighter to find our way upstairs and the four of us gathered in the master bedroom. Our thoughts turned to the future.

“So, where do you think we’ll all be in ten years?” Ryan asked.

We answered in turns. I hoped to be a foreign correspondent. Irene, who said nothing about hiking in Switzerland, wanted to be a social worker in Toronto. Ben dreamed of a basketball scholarship in the States and someday playing professionally. Ryan intended to be the first Communist Prime Minister of Canada.

Then there was silence. “We’re all going separate ways,” I commented.

“You’re right,” said Irene, sadly.

“Hey, you know what we should do?”

It was Ryan asking. I figured he had another grand scheme brewing—like converting the Department of National Defence into a giant environmental cleanup agency—but he offered a simple suggestion:

“Every year on this date, we should meet right here. All four of us. Just so we can keep in touch.”

We enthusiastically agreed but it was a promise no one would keep. It wasn’t that we forgot, at least I know I haven’t, but our priorities changed. Within a few months, we were all leading different lives.

As dawn broke, we left Grey Gables and walked behind the school to the abandoned section of the Welland Canal, where we sat on a steep grassy bank to watch the sunrise. It wasn’t the best view. The skyline was dominated by the dirty, rusting buildings of a steel factory always laying off workers and in danger of shutting down. Slightly south was the city centre: two boarded-up hotels and a main street crowded with empty storefront windows. As the sun climbed higher and showed us these things in the light of day, we knew the time had come to move on. Brighter horizons lay ahead, somewhere, but not there.

Five years later, the forces of evil finally triumphed and pulled Grey Gables to the ground. Ignorant of this sad event, I was in Vancouver, writing for an alternative weekly newspaper. Just a year ago, I moved back and now contribute to various newsmagazines and other print media. Short of my goal, perhaps, but the work isn’t bad. Thanks to Irene, I’m still a champion of social causes, still stringing out words for the printed page.

I get phone calls from Ryan now and then, though the last came more than two years ago. He’s a city councillor up north, some place whose name I can never remember. Ben sells computers in Toronto—or is it Montreal? Irene simply slipped off the radar—until the day her obituary appeared. Five short centimetres of text with one detail shining like a beacon: Irene, it read, received her masters degree in social work from the University of Toronto.

Leaving the cemetery, I make a right turn. My plan is to visit the old high school. There’s a grassy lawn where Grey Gables used to stand and I’m in a mood for lying at its centre, for reflecting, for finding what’s lost.

The short walk leaves me exhausted. I throw myself down and roll onto my back. The grass needs cutting but feels fine. Staring at the hot sun, glaring so brightly this September afternoon, beads of perspiration form on my brow, only to be cooled by a slight breeze.

At last I discover what I was hoping to find: Irene is with me, her body stretched beside mine in the long grass, radiating warmth and light. I can’t picture Irene’s spirit confined to a single household but imagine it roaming free, wherever her energy lingers.

I feel a gust of wind, like breath in my ear. Irene is speaking but her message is opposite Alex Mayhew’s. I can’t hear her voice but if I had a tape recorder, it would capture three words:

“Don’t let go.”

Don’t let go, she’s saying, over and over. This is how I want to remember Irene McIntyre: here beside me, where Grey Gables used to stand, urging me not to let go—of her, of memories, of friendship, dreams, hope, love, and of the life I have.

She speaks for several minutes—or is it hours? When she gets up to leave, confident she has imparted her message, I feel another presence. Lying still, I’ve attracted a large raven, a jet black bird with piercing, hungry eyes. I sit up and flick my wrist, dismissing it with a gesture. The bird jumps back, then turns away, no longer interested. It takes flight and disappears behind a stand of trees.  

            
2018 Fall/Winter Fiction Contest—First Prize $500

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