Literary Prizes·CBC Literary Prizes

Acceleration by Anastasia McEwen

Anastasia McEwen has made the 2018 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Acceleration.

2018 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist

Anastasia McEwen is a short story writer, poet and high school teacher. (James McAvoy)

Anastasia McEwen has made the 2018 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Acceleration. She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and will have her work published on CBC Books.

The winner was Sandra Murdock for her story Easy Family Dinners.

You can read Acceleration below.

This story contains difficult subject matter.

It is September, just before the Labour Day weekend, and my last day as an ordinary 15-year-old girl. I'm wedged on our basement couch between a pink floral cushion and my neighbour, Clarke, a stocky boy with heavy Popeye arms and a chunky bottom lip that juts forward.

Teeth, gums, spit and slurp — we kiss with as much romance as a pair of manatees. Clarke slides his tongue across my front teeth then clamps his lips around mine and sucks every last drop of spit from my mouth. I try closing my eyes but I'm bombarded with childhood memories — Clarke, my brother and I crouched in the barn gawking round-mouthed at the curled damp pages of Playboys, riding our bikes in bare feet and bathing suits, swiping jaw breakers from the corner store, Mr. Freezes, mosquito bites, Bandaids, sunburns. Kissing Clarke seems almost incestuous, but somehow, with my parents at a BBQ and Andrew in the next town showing off his new moped, we end up chest to chest on the saggy couch that smells of potato chips and dog.

Clarke surfaces for air and dives back in, tongue first. I turn my head sideways as if avoiding a tablespoon of medicine.

"What?" he says.

"That's not how you do it."   

"Not how you do it?"

I can't tell if his tone is flirtatious or sarcastic, but I'm as certain as breathing that my cheeks should not be suctioned against my molars. "You're not supposed to suck," I say, leaving out the part that it's sloppy and gross.

"Okay, show me how you do it."

I open my eyes and he squints, sly and charming, hair rumpled with humidity and lust. I wonder if maybe he could be my boyfriend.

I squirm on top, couch springs creaking. Lying on Clarke is like straddling a tombstone — all brawn and dense and stiff. With a vacant flirtation, I softy brush my lips against his cheek, then hold a semi opened-mouthed kiss. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. I open my eyes and he squints, sly and charming, hair rumpled with humidity and lust. I wonder if maybe he could be my boyfriend.

"That's how I kiss my aunt," he says, then pulls me in before I can inhale a full gasp of air. We're interrupted by a knock on the front door.

I wipe my mouth with the bottom of my shirt before greeting two men in suits who shove police badges in my face. The tall one's arm is shaking. They're desperate to find my parents' whereabouts, which, no matter how many times I'm asked, I can't dislodge from my memory.

"Who're your parents visiting?" the shorter one asks.

"Their friends, the Mcdonalds."

"Do you remember the town?"

"I don't know. It's on a farm. With horses. Why?"

The taller officer crimps his brow, and in one terse breath tells me Andrew's been hit by a car.

"Do you have a photo of him?" asks the other officer.

A deep part of my brain takes over and I beetle past the three family portraits on the wall and dig through the pile of clutter on the dining room table until I find his Grade 8 class photo.

For a few seconds the officers huddle over it, then look up confused. "Which one's him?"

I tap the face of the boy in the middle of the back row, the boy with his first bout of acne, little goosebumps on his nose and forehead, the boy with an almost smile, happy but not too eager, the man-child with giant hands and feet and a geeky bowl cut that he has recently parted and styled. In a manner of months he's transformed himself from the dork his friends call chowder head to the tall, broad shouldered 14-year-old who was voted valedictorian by his Grade 8 class.

Finally my brain neurons calm enough for me to ask, "Is he okay?"

"No." The officer turns, grabs the phone book off the kitchen table and flips to the pages of Mcdonalds. The other officer hangs back, avoiding eye contact, scrutinizing the asparagus casserole on the Milk calendar that's tacked to the wall with a push pin.

"Is his bike wrecked?" Clarke pipes in. I can't help gasping, thinking about how mad my parents will be when they find out Andrew smashed up his new moped, especially when he was only allowed to ride it in the fields.

The tall officer slams the phone book on the table; his hard, red face makes us shrink back against the fridge like dogs in a thunderstorm.

The tall officer slams the phone book on the table; his hard, red face makes us shrink back against the fridge like dogs in a thunderstorm.

It's a valid question, I want to tell Clarke but I don't. Andrew only had the moped for three days and it took him two summers to sell enough golf balls to pay for it. He'd leave the house at sunrise in shorts and rubber boots and ride his bicycle to Twenty Valley golf course where he fished all the stray balls out of the water traps — Top Flights, Titleists, Bridgestones, some new and white, some bright carnival colours, others grass-stained or chipped, but most waterlogged and pretty much useless. They'd barely bounce if you dropped them on the pavement. He stores them in egg cartons stacked against the back wall of his closet, and when our uncles visit, they usually buy a dozen or two.

"Are you 18?" the officer asks. I can't remember — Clarke shakes his head no.

They need an adult to identify Andrew so they call Clarke's dad and leave for his place. I don't understand why they don't go to the hospital and just ask Andrew himself.

Yesterday, Andrew took me for a joy ride — I sat on the back of the moped as he sped up and down our neighbour's 200-metre driveway, purposely aiming for the water filled potholes. My arms tensed and relaxed on his hips as I clenched into a fetal position against him, ducking my head behind his to avoid the gnats pelting my face. He squeezed through the row of  pines to the ramp he built on our side lawn, a thick slab of chipboard resting on two cinder blocks. The bike lurched; my jaw rattled. My stomach buckled as the motor pitched and the vehicle accelerated over the grass. Just before we hit the ramp, I planted my feet on the ground, thinking I could defy physics and simply stand as the bike rode off from under me. I flew through the air and tumbled onto my collar bone which I thought I snapped in half. I never imagined how much pain a little speed could cause.

About an hour later Clarke's dad enters without knocking and we rush to the front door and stand rapt, shoulder to shoulder, as still as the macrame owl hanging on the wall behind us. Then he says, patient and calm, but with a voice grainy and wet, "I'm afraid he's passed."

Passed? My organs float as I try to untangle the meaning of the word. Passed? Passed what? A test? A medical exam?

Passed? The word churns in my mind like a twig trapped in a current. Passed? My organs float as I try to untangle the meaning of the word. Passed? Passed what? A test? A medical exam? Passed, as in passed away? No, Andrew's only 14 and I just talked to him — we fought. I knocked over his moped and it fell on the gravel. We stood in the driveway cursing at each other, his arms flailing, mine stiff with fists balled at my hips. He jump-started the bike, I hollered over the motor for him to "Kiss my ass," and he flipped me the bird and turned onto the road.

Then, I glance up at Clarke's dad, his weary, sepia eyes, his face braided with sorrow and age, and it registers — Andrew died.  Andrew's dead. Blood thrashes against my temples and with a flimsy wisp of hope I pinch the side of my leg to see if I'm dreaming.

As I lie in bed, staring at the stucco ceiling, night creeps in without me knowing it. I want Mom and Dad to come home, I don't want them to come home. Car headlights slide across my bedroom wall then gravel crunches under heavy footsteps. I shoot down the stairs and my parents are ambushed by me, Clarke and his dad who have been waiting in the living room for several hours.

"What happened?" my mom asks with a nervous quiver. Drawing stale air deep into my lungs, I force out the syllables curdled in the back of my throat, "Andrew died," then dash up the stairs, two steps at a time, before I can see their reactions.

Back in bed, I hear Mom's choking and wheezing from behind my locked bedroom door.

Hours later, Dad's sobs float through the bedroom window.

After the casket is buried and the lilies have withered, after the black stockings, cold cuts, casseroles, mass cards and memorials, every morning arrives with a fleeting wave of serenity but then a sopping wet blanket of grief plummets to my body and all I can think about is a highway, a van, Andrew's fragile head without a helmet.

I often retreat into the barn and lie on top of the hay bales, no longer afraid of spiders and horse flies. The cat climbs up and washes herself on my chest, then collapses in the crook of my arm, stretching longer and longer with each degree of sleep until her head is pressed under my neck and her back paws hang limply at my hip. I wonder if she can smell sadness, if she's trying to console me. There's something comforting about the weight of a living creature, the smell of hay and manure. The barn is dark apart from thin poles of dusty sunlight that rise to the gaps in the metal roof. Maybe Andrew's in them. Maybe this is a sign. I close my eyes and concentrate... if you're here, flick the cat's tail. Nothing.   

I was told to prepare for each step of recovery, denial, guilt, anger, bargaining… but Clarke and I plunged straight into recklessness. The few times he comes over I hop on the back of his motorcycle, and we thunder into the darkness of the night, bewitched by the rush of air, the cool roar of the motor, liberated from the house of memories that hang in every room. Wheels burn along a suburban river of asphalt as headlights dart by like flares. Wind and speed and danger — reality evaporates as we fly faster and faster along the border of an unknown realm. One wobble could end in death. So be it.

Read the other finalists:

About Anastasia McEwan

Anastasia McEwen lives in Fergus, Ont., with her husband, four children and four pets. For the last 18 years she has taught art, English and creative writing at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Guelph, Ont. Her poetry and short stories have been published in Canada and the United States, and her artwork can be found in the permanent collections of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, the Art Gallery of London and the University of Toronto.