CBC Literary Prizes

Leaving Moonbeam by Ben Pitfield

Ben Pitfield made the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Leaving Moonbeam.

2021 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist

Ben Pitfield is a writer, filmmaker and tree planter from Toronto. (Submitted by Ben Pitfield)

Ben Pitfield has made the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Leaving Moonbeam.

He will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and his work has been published on CBC Books.

Corinna Chong won the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize for Kids in Kindergarten

You can read Leaving Moonbeam below.

This story contains strong language.


"Rocks?" says their father, putting fork to melmac. "Two more years to study rocks?" Leave it to the man raised on a farm in Kitchener to criticize stone. 

He raises a glass of Beefeater, finger extended above the rim. "Why not move home? You've got the money, and the community needs you."

Migration, beyond the boundaries of the Gordon-Cosens Forest, is a sin. To go as far as Thunder Bay — like his eldest son, Doss, has — is downright heretical. Taiga doesn't move and neither will he, now that he's got his roots in.

"Engineers make more," says Doss. "And they get to work full-time in T-bay."

Tommy can't listen as his brother slips through the sticky fingers of their father's rationale. He's too distracted by the box wrapped in glossy green paper, "Tommy" scrawled on the side. 

Father frowns. 

Doss will never move back to Moonbeam. This is only the latest iteration of a 10-year conversation, the latest draft of an argument he will never win. His boy has become a man, decided.

Doss stands.

"Where are you going now?"

"Couche-Tard. For milkshakes." 

Tommy follows his brother but keeps his eyes locked on the mysterious box from the city. 

******

White and black spruce line the highway, here to Manitoba. 

It's 150 kilometres the other way to Timmins, 450 to Sudbury, 850 to Toronto. It will be a long time before Tommy understands empirically how far here is from everywhere else, but, already, he has a sense that one of the great centres of progress and governance, this is not.

Doss puts down the windows. Tommy's admiration is impossible to disguise. How can this be related to their father? Who has never listened to music, never appeared this alive. In fact, father has been extra foul leading up to Doss's visit, curmudgeoning himself to dust, battening down the hatches for his mutinous son's landfall. 

They drink milkshakes in the Shell parking lot across from the mill. It used to provide pulp to The New York Times. Consequential enough, 50 years ago, to warrant a royal visit. There's a picture of young Elizabeth II in Tommy's school, the famous wave in front of the stinky mill, Fermé pour Réception.

The smoke from Doss's cigarette curls around his hand.

"I don't think I'm gonna come back again, Tommy."

"When?"

"Not for a long time. Maybe never."

Tommy feels like crying. He won't — he's 10! — but he can't help it if his eyes get all wet by themselves.

Doss looks at the pavement. Tommy wants eye contact. Say it ain't so! 

But it is.

They go home. Tommy: devastated. His favourite brother: leaving. He is about to become an only child, in a town so small it isn't listed on any maps he's seen, even the fold-outs in the Flying J.

"You want to see your present now?"

"No." 

But he does. 

They rush inside to find the box missing. Maybe father has stolen it.

But, no, here it is, moved to the living room.

"Go on," says Doss. Father pretends not to watch, mother folds her arms at the door to the dining room. 

It's a computer. Mouse, keyboard, games. He sits back to admire his new treasure. 

"It's my old one. But the games are good, disks all work..." Doss scratches his neck, abashed now that the wrapping is off and his kid brother hasn't said anything. 

Then Tommy is around his neck. It is the best present he's ever got.

Doss peels away the sweaty little hands and leads the procession from the public space to the bedroom. They clear the desk and plug in the beast, the first computer in the house. As far as Tommy is concerned, the first anywhere. The coolest thing owned by anyone in town — ever.

Doss puts a disk in the tray and it disappears. Years later, in an upmarket subdivision in Mississauga, Tommy will own a machine thousands of times more powerful and so quiet you could forget it's even there. But, once in a while, he will take this one down from the shelf in the playroom, just to hear the rush of air, the squeal of plastic components. It will remind him of the games his brother is about to show him, the games that will represent the coming decade of his life.

******

For the remaining days of Doss's visit the boys confine themselves to the bedroom. 

Doss shows him how to navigate a digital world. Like their home IRL, the scenarios begin in a foggy wilderness.

They build cities.

They build armies. 

Vast, virtual empires rise in the morning and crumble after noon; span from capacitor to capacitor, evolving as quickly as the twirling hourglass of random access memory. 

They go to war, they study manuals, they discuss strategy. They go to the library in Kapuskasing to consult the forums. They lose more than they win but something new is growing in Tommy: control. In this domain — in his reflection when the screen is dark — Tommy is a general, an urban planner, a king, a diplomat. 

It is a basic setup, sure, but it does the job, a playground with near-infinite configurations and opponents ready whenever he is.

It is a basic setup, sure, but it does the job, a playground with near-infinite configurations and opponents ready whenever he is.

Their father is silent, but pressure builds with every hour they stay sequestered in Blue Fang's Zoo Tycoon, becoming Heroes of Might and Magic.

******

The morning of his departure, Doss rises early and takes everything he values from their room.

In the driveway, he takes a knee. His eyes have bags and his breath stinks: stale, adult coffee. He has a 640-kilometre drive followed by a flight to the mine. He and father got into it last night at the other end of the house. Tommy jammed the Esc key as soon as he heard his name.

"… to pay for it! He's going to expect me to buy him games and mouses and all that other stuff he'll forget about by next summer!"

"You won't have to," replies Doss, quieter, mindful of his brother eavesdropping. "And FYI: that was my old one. It didn't cost me a dime."

"Well, how do you like that? We've become a transfer station for my son's unwanted crap!"

"It is not crap! And, if you haven't noticed, he's happy. He's more interested in something than I've ever seen him —" Father snorts.

"As if you know; you've hardly been around!"

Doss says something Tommy doesn't catch. 

"You will not talk to me like that, boy, in my own house! I raised you!" 

"Barely!"

"I fed you!"

"I'm trying to give him something to fill his time! So he doesn't start smoking meth or knock up some tramp from Kap when he's 15 and has a kid he can't afford!"

"Watch your mouth."

"Stay out of this, Martha."

"Don't you talk to her like that!"

"Get fucked, dad."

They scrap, which explains the bruising on his brother's face and why his father went to the back-shed this morning and hasn't returned. 

"Look at me," says Doss. "I'm going away and I'm not coming back. I'll be in Thunder Bay. As soon as you're old enough, you can come stay with me. I put my number in the desk. I'm not there two weeks a month, but I have the machine, so leave a message. You understand?" 

The little man nods. His hero stands, cracks his back. Looks at his stepmother on the porch but doesn't smile, doesn't nod. "Take care of that rig. I'll try and send more games when I can."

The Jeep turns onto Highway 11 — Main Street, Ont. — and is gone, west. 

Tommy turns back to an empty porch, a riding lawnmower sputtering in the backyard. 

******

The morning after Doss leaves, there's a knock at the door. They rarely have visitors. OPP. 

The canyons east of Nipigon, they say. Veered into the other lane. 18-wheeler. Killed on impact. 

His father slides down the door frame, into a case of Sleeman Honey Brown. His mother puts a hand to her mouth.

"What's happening? What's happening?" says Tommy.

But he knows, he knows. 

******

The 25 per cent reduced family packs up Doss's apartment. Father wants to pawn the lot, but Tommy convinces him that some of his brother's things should be preserved. Uncharacteristically, father relents. He goes to the car, leaving Tommy — 77 pounds — to haul the boxes.

Leaving Thunder Bay, they pass the geology building. It is the colour of muddy sand. In the young boy's mind, it comes to embody the ambition Doss described, speaking as much to himself as to Tommy, side-by-side in the blue cathode light of the computer.

A goal arrives to Tommy, fully formed: he will make it here. Not after working at the mine, after high school.

A goal arrives to Tommy, fully formed: he will make it here. Not after working at the mine, after high school. 

******

So now he has two computers, a goal and no brother. 

As his parents retreat into feelings they can't express, Tommy games. For a year, he respects his brother's computer, his posthumous, perpetual dibs. Then he abandons the old rig. The new one is so much better. The monitor is as wide as the desk, graphics like real life. There are so many games for it that he wonders if his brother did anything but play.

He falls in love with the worlds he finds written on shimmering CD-ROMs. He just has to get grades good enough to get into university, have friends enough not to feel alone alone when away from his private pixel kingdoms. The rest of the time, he can live virtually.

The house crumbles around him, entranced at the desk in his bedroom. His parents drink and drink and drink. Mother fades into the wallpaper in the kitchen, burning meals so regularly that Tommy keeps a flat of Mr. Noodles under his bed. Father mopes like his legacy has been scooped. But it's Tommy who visits the gravestone at the Moonbeam cemetery, Tommy who pays homage at the alter Doss gave him, the key to a universe of diversion that will keep him on the road to Lakehead. 

******

Years go by in the time it takes to install an expansion pack onto the hard drive. 

Tommy gets a job at the convenience store, funnels his earnings into two accounts at the Caisse Populaire: savings and gamings. He hides his statements, afraid that if his parents discover how much money is accruing they will try to make him sponsor their lifeless lifestyle. 

******

On the day of Tommy's high school graduation, his father stands in the doorway, shoehorned into formal attire for the first time since the funeral. 

Tommy is skinny and taller than Doss was.

"Your mother and I... we're very proud of you, son. It hasn't been easy since...."

His father is uncomfortable. He extends a postcard. 

"We would have given it to you sooner but I — We didn't think you would take it well." The corners of the card are soft dog-ears. It's been read, many times. 

Tommy sees the initial at the bottom: Doss. He glances at his father. There is no remorse or apology. Just a man who had two sons when he might have preferred none. 

It reads, verbatim:

Tommy,

I'm at the Husky in Hearst. I would call but I want you to remember this and I know your memory little man haha. 

I am going to send you games. All of them. And if there's any that you want tell me. Or not games. Books sports gear, whatever. I have money now. Soon I'll be a student and then I'll be an engineer. I can help you… not get bogged down in that town. Distract yourself until you can be free like me.

love ya,

D.

He reads the letter three times. Who knew, his brother was a poet. The last thing Doss ever wrote trembles in his hand.

He would have followed his brother to the end of the Earth. Instead, he will have to follow him inward, downward, into the history of the world. If geology was good enough for Doss, it is good enough for Tommy. So he accepts his diploma from the école secondaire and turns his own beat-up car west, to the world of academia and Thunder Bay, terminus of the Marathon of Hope. 

He would have followed his brother to the end of the Earth. Instead, he will have to follow him inward, downward, into the history of the world

Tommy becomes a lab rat. 

Games are pushed aside, study is his new diversion. He finds his brother's fingerprints in the shear faces of 100-million year old sedimentary samples. Doss haunts the subterranean laboratories where Tommy discovers that rocks have a language of immense complexity. He learns to decipher it, character by character, and is surprised when the rocks start to speak, to tell him stories, primal epics of heat and pressure and, the most important ingredient, time. Each fine-grained, fissile layer of shale is a ring in a tree a billion years old, and he faithfully counts them, the world's freshest geochronologist.

He graduates in three years and takes a rotation at the mine. 

******

Three years on and Tommy is promoted to the Thunder Bay office. He rediscovers his gaming computer, almost untouched for six years. He is sitting at it when his cell phone rings. 

Father. His mother is dying, quickly. 

He skips turn after turn, tapping the spacebar so the game can continue without him. His online opponents take advantage of his lapsed attention, trash him in the chat.

He drives east, only the fourth time since high school, past his parents's house and south, to the hospital in Timmins.

His father is a small man now. Grey hairs. He steps forward as if to hug, but stops. 

"She's over here." 

She's unconscious. An embolism. A nurse translates the chart: hopeless.

They return to the waiting room. Father sits, Tommy paces. It feels like a return to childhood. Them, together, silent. His father is drained, paled in face of the coming years alone and the death of his wife. Tommy wants to be away from here, wishes it was over already.

The reflection of his father in a dark TV catches Tommy's eye. He spit-takes to see a contemporary. He looks again: a runaway like himself. Except his father is still running, at 50-something. Has sealed himself in a tiny town in the north, House Speaker of a parliament whose last standing member is headed for the exit. 

In a moment, all his father's pleas return to him, dating to Doss's last visit. Earlier. All the times father has suggested Tommy stay, the demands for a visit or visitation rights, the phone calls, the oddly formatted emails. It's not the substance of the message that's been the problem; it's been the framing. His father is afraid.

All this he sees in the reflection — seated, sad and unshaven. Tommy gazes at the TV, a blank screen the most revelatory broadcast it has ever delivered.

Then the pleather squeaks as he settles into the seat beside his old man, and together they wait for his mother to slip away.


Read the other finalists

About Ben Pitfield

Ben Pitfield is a writer, filmmaker and tree planter from Toronto. He holds degrees in literature and business from the University of Rochester and has planted 750,000 trees in northern forests. He is a staff writer for the U.K.-based art journal Sepia and his poetry and short fiction have been published in journals in Canada and the U.S. He is currently at work on a novel, a thriller, set in the world of remote communities and bush camps.

The story's source of inspiration

"Three things were in my head when I wrote this story: the PC video games I played as a 10-year-old and wishing I could play them now; how everyone seems to be running from something; and the ties that sometimes bind siblings with a significant age gap together in a quasi-parental relationship. Those, and a writing prompt from The Walrus asking for a story about the connection between humans and technology. The setting came because the remoteness of it would be freeing for some people and suffocating for others. And because I've spent time in the Hudson Bay watershed in the summers and it is a beautiful part of the country, serially underrated (and serially buggy)."

About the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize

The winner of the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.

The 2021 CBC Poetry Prize is open for submissions until May 31, 2021. The 2022 CBC Short Story Prize will open in September and the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize will open in January 2022.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now