Erika McNeil

© Copyright 2022 by Erika McNeil

Photo courtesy of Dreamstime.
Photo courtesy of Dreamstime.

My heart pounds the air from my lungs, and I have to stop and get out. The empty road stretches toward the border, and I feel grateful for this quiet solitude before we descend upon unsuspecting hosts. Sophie slumbers beside me, her head listing toward the window, trying to reconcile its weight with her exhaustion.

Fingers itching for nicotine, I stuff my hands in my pockets and pace between my open door and the exhaust pipe of the beat-up Chevy. I can’t ask her for money; she’s already paying for the gas. She stirs, the night air brushing her soft skin.

I climb back in and rev the engine, pushing from my mind’s eye the image of my father clenching the wheel, cursing like spitfire after I point out we missed the turnpike and have to double back.

I’ll be damned if I miss that turnpike on this trip.

It’s been twenty years since I’ve been down east. When my dad buggered off to BC, I was almost fourteen, and had no means of seeing my Maritime relatives without him. Sophie is the one who convinces me we should go. “It would be our first road trip, just the two of us,” she pleads. The funeral was a year ago, and I have to do something with his ashes.

We pass under a bridge and I am suddenly struck by the memory of my father hanging me by my feet off the Bloor Street overpass, the DVP traffic thundering below. He was drunk as usual, my mother screeching in his ear while she hammered his back with her useless fists. I was four. It was a miracle that he didn’t drop me to my death.

Once we are in Quebec, the sun quickly warms the inside of the car. We stop for gas and Sophie eats a breakfast sandwich that comes with a coffee for me. We share the hash brown, its starchy insides burning the edge of my tongue.

The St. Lawrence River comes upon us abruptly, and New Brunswick blends into Nova Scotia seamlessly. We will be in Glace Bay before nightfall.

My mother was seventeen when she had me; my dad, twenty-nine. I was the only grandchild with six adoring aunts, all wishing they had as good an excuse to leave home. My parents came to Toronto and lasted five years in Cabbagetown. “Don’t be like me,” Dad would growl, “Be better.” Once he moved out, my mom married a guy named Jack while I was away with my dad the summer of my tenth birthday. She moved us up to Brampton, where Jack owned a horse farm. I hated it. But if I hadn’t left Parliament Street, I’d probably either be dead or in jail by now.

We turn off the highway into a Tim Horton’s on the main drag. Sophie adjusts her tank top, fussing with the shawl tossed hastily across her shoulders. I glance over, arching my eyebrows, and tug at the edge of the bright orange cloth. She blushes and wraps herself more tightly. I whistle and squeeze her thigh. She blinks, smiling shyly into her lap.

I’d asked for three days off work and we’d spent the first day driving, leaving in the middle of the night to avoid traffic. The draw of familiarity urges me through the narrow streets, tracing a path back to my nanny’s board and batten farmhouse next to the cemetery. I was only seven when she died, but somehow I recall my way back to the safe haven of my childhood, with the dormer window overlooking the giant oak sitting on the front lawn.

The young couple who lives there now is happy to show us the leftover siding they had removed when they replaced it with an ochred brick. “Did you wanna see the renovations inside?” The do-it-yourselfer is eager to share. I peer up at my old sleepover room, reluctant, wanting my memory to remain intact. Sensing my discomfort, Sophie graciously declines, claiming dinner plans and family commitments.

We make our way back to the outskirts of town and pass the house my dad crashed into one summer with his old Buick. Rolling slowly against the curb, I can still see where the fence has been repaired, the shade of white paint slightly brighter on the newer pickets.

Our next stop is Betsy’s. She was my dad’s best friend and my first crush, though fifteen years my senior. She greets us with a shriek and a hug, her tiny frame pressing into my lanky one, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I can’t believe it’s you!” she exclaims, over and over. All my apprehension melts and I hold her tightly, shedding my fear of being a disgraceful disappointment.

We sit round the kitchen table, Betsy’s small dog yapping at our heels until she scoops him up and holds his snout shut. She fills a giant tureen with seafood chowder, teeming with freshly caught shrimp, crab and fish. Thick slices of baked bread steam in the basket next to the soup; we dip generous chunks into our ceramic bowls brimming with maritime hospitality. “You can’t be full already!” she scolds after our third helping has filled our bellies.

That evening, we make our way to the shoreline, clutching the small urn containing my father’s remains in my calloused hands. The sun is beginning to dip into the sea, and the sound of the waves lapping against the rocks echoes the clamour in my chest.

I thrust my fingers into the ashes and feel them tremble as the sandy texture sifts through. Sophie puts her arm around my waist and leans her head on my shoulder. She holds the urn as I lift the ashes from the container and scatter them downwind. I hear a splash in the near dark as I mutter my farewell to a man I barely knew, yet desperately wish was still here.

Dancer by training, teacher by trade. Mother of two grown-ups, owner of two mutts. Karaoke queen, paint nite junkie, bibliobug bookworm. Erika MacNeil lives and works in Newmarket, ON, Canada. 

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