"Whiteout" by Todd Babiak
About the Brief Encounters series: We asked ten Canadian writers to imagine a vivid meeting or confrontation: A "Brief Encounter" in 600 words or less.
In Todd Babiak's story, a chance run-in at a big-box store brings back painful memories.
by Todd Babiak
The man who killed my daughter was in line for chocolate truffles. His date leaned in close when he spoke, close enough to smell his breath. His breath that he still breathed.
I had seen him before, on the day it happened and later, at his trial, but we had sped past introductions and weather talk and straight to that place beyond intimacy where then-wives live.
Lily had been on the avenue waiting for me to lock the house. She wore her pink backpack and carried a drawing of a witch for Ms. Griffin. We had decided against the neighbourhood school, for reasons that now seem small, so we were in the car twice a day.
My daughter had been born with a cleft palate. No one had ever said so out loud but members of my then-wife’s family, who have long limbs and the skin of Norse gods, had blamed the malfunction on me. They were probably right. Full day kindergarten—the curiosities and cruelties of other kids—had quieted Lily. I mistook this for wisdom.
“A nice witch,” she had titled the piece.
She had asked me, while I made her lunch, how to spell "A nice witch," and she had moved too quickly on the W. She had made it an M and had then declared the drawing ruined and had cried.
My daughter’s murder smells like Wite-out®. I’m not allowed to call it murder.
His name is John Kellough. He’s a furnace man. A furnace man at Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, in line for chocolate truffles.
We made the M a W together. My then-wife said my delicacy would reinforce a pattern of behaviour that would only inspire more stubbornness and future heartbreak for Lily but at six minutes after eight in the morning I lacked a comprehensive world view.
He was on his cellular phone when he slammed into her, talking about—I don’t know—furnaces.
I’m allowed to say some of this.
John Kellough and his date talked about how hard it is to find a decent parking spot at Costco. They didn’t live in the same part of the city so they had different Costcos. But the same problem.
I sneaked another glance at the woman. John Kellough stopped talking and she asked him, “What?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“I'll tell you later.”
I pulled a photograph out of my wallet, her school picture. She was anxious so her shoulders were up. Ms. Griffin said Lily had wanted the photo taken with her hand in front of her mouth. I’m allowed to say some of this.
He saw what I held between my thumb and index finger.
“Please,” he said.
The woman’s eyes were bright green.
“We know each other,” I said.
John Kellough tried gently to pull her away. She wanted a chocolate truffle. She wanted to know. Certain muscles in his face failed him. Oh, to go back to that place where we could talk about, sincerely care about, parking lots at Costco. I had always held her hand in parking lots. You have to be so careful.
“I’m a client.” I ignored her scars. I looked right into her eyes. “We had the usual boring difficulties.”
It was cold outside. All the heaters in the city had popped on, good news for a furnace man. There was a skiff of dandruff on his shoulders. He pulled out his wallet, dropped it and picked it up.
“What are you having?” He faltered on the H. No one teaches us how to do this. “It's on me.”
Todd Babiak is the author of four bestselling novels: Choke Hold, The Garneau Block, The Book of Stanley and Toby: A Man. He has lived in Edmonton, Montreal and various cities in France, and was a columnist at the Edmonton Journal for almost a decade. His fifth novel will be published soon by HarperCollins Canada.