Volume 5 Number 3
Working nights in the summer is much better than working nights in winter. In the winter, stepping out of work at midnight plunges you into a dark so cold and indifferent it feels as if it's been there for centuries and will never leave. There are no windows on the factory floor, no way to tell when darkness comes. But I step out the door into a winter midnight, and my very bones know the night is old.
In the summer it feels completely different. It's warmer, of course, and by midnight it's fully dark, but it's a younger dark. Friendlier. It even seems lighter, if dark can be lighter. People are still strolling around, laughing and visiting, as if they haven't noticed the sunshine has faded.
I met Ross on a summer night.
I'd stopped to pick up my walk-home snack, anything with no nutritional value and a vaguely chemical aftertaste. I'm not even sure of the store's name, but I stop there most nights. The clerk and I share the unspoken fellowship of night workers, though we know nothing else about each other. I wasn't surprised to see customers in the store when I arrived — like I said, summer nights are more friendly — but I was surprised to see that one near the checkout was a boy, maybe five years old, in a faded Spider-Man shirt and denim shorts a size too big. As I turned toward the cashier, our eyes met for a moment. His were huge and blue in his pale, round face. I smiled reassuringly.
The man with him — they looked so much alike they had to be father and son — seemed tired, with rumpled clothes and plum-smudged eyes under careless hair. He was looking down at the child with an anxious frown.
"Ross," he said. "Ross, do you want an ice cream?"
The boy turned his solemn face back to his father. No answer, not even a shake of the head. He simply looked at the man.
"It'd make you feel better," the man said, his tone somewhere between a promise and a plea.
Still the boy didn't respond.
Sighing, the man turned back to the clerk. "That's it, then." He handed over his money, collected his purchases, and left the store, murmuring to the boy, herding him forward. The last thing I heard the man say was, "Hold Daddy's hand, now."
The clerk and I gave each other our usual greeting.
"Kind of odd," I remarked, with a nod toward the door.
The clerk grimaced. "I know. He's in here most nights, this time of year. It makes some people uncomfortable, but I say give the guy a break."
"It does seem kind of late for ice cream."
The clerk shrugged. "He never buys the ice cream. It's just something he says. Used to come in here so much I got to know the routine, you know? Then the next thing I know, the papers have his picture all over the place. It's weird when it's someone you've met."
"Sure. He's the guy, maybe two months ago now, was walking with his kid along the river just a block over, you know, by the marina? The kid takes off running, and next thing, bam, he's in the water, can't swim, gets carried off by the current."
"Oh. I think I remember that. But he's okay." I remembered the boy's solemn eyes. He'd looked healthy enough.
"Well, I don't know about okay — gotta be pretty traumatic, right? He watched it happen. And it must've been terrible, not knowing," the clerk said. "It was three days before they found the body. It'd gone 'bout twenty miles downstream." He handed me my change, shaking his head. "Parent's worst nightmare."
The summer night felt cooler when I stepped back outside, but still young, full of promise. A group of young clubbers jostled past, shrieking with laughter, smelling of drink.
In the distance, I saw the father look down at the boy beside him and take his hand. The Spider-Man T-shirt blazed red, as if new again, under a streetlight before the two of them disappeared into the welcoming dark.
BIO: B.D. Ferguson lives in central Ontario, dividing the days into teaching, writing, and sleep, but always sparing time for comfort food.Her work has also appeared in Dark Recesses, Word, Sage of Consciousness and a few increasingly archaic print publications.