In December of 2013 I brought out my second book with my own label of Celticfrog Publishing. The title is Playing on Yggdrasil, and though it is still fantasy, it is a very different kind of book. Instead of themes of independence and responsibility, I explore faith, hope and relationships. The cover of Playing on Yggdrasil is designed by the fantastic Wil Oberdier.
The novel is a form of spiritual fantasy that is not your usual Christian fantasy. It asks questions rather than giving out answer. It is about the possibility of hope and faith. The heroine, Justine, is a young girl dealing with bullies, and grief from the loss of her mother years before. Her father, Patrick is determined that she will have a good life, whatever it demands from him. After one particularly bad day at school Justine makes friends with a tree.
Here is an excerpt from Playing on Yggdrasil
“No Father wants to lose a child,” the preacher said. “In First Peter, we hear the faithful told to be patient as God does not want anyone to be lost.”
Too late, Patrick thought. He tried to look away from the box that held all that was left of Ingrid. Justine held his hand and leaned her head on his arm. He was all that Justine had now. He needed to be strong for her. He hadn’t been strong enough for Ingrid and now she was gone. Lost, in spite of what Pastor Daniel was saying.
There was a rustle as the people in the church all stood and Patrick saw the funeral director waiting for him and his daughter to lead everyone out of the church.
At the cemetery they put the obscenely small box of his wife’s ashes in the hole. He threw a handful of dirt in after it and the tears pricked at his eyes. He forced them back with an iron will. He was not going to cry in front of his daughter.
“Is Mommy in that box?” Justine asked looking at him with her blue eyes.
“No.” Patrick had to stop and take a deep breath. “No, Justine, that’s just what is left of her. She’s out there somewhere.”
“Is she lost? Can we help her come home?”
“She isn’t lost. Nothing we really love is ever lost.” Patrick had to take another breath and push back the tears. He could feel the weakness trying to claw its way out. He wanted to howl and tear his clothes.
“She can’t come home,” Patrick said, “She’s with God.”
He felt a bitter acid in his stomach at the G word. It was a cop-out, but Ingrid had given an ironclad faith in the big guy to Justine. He wondered what he really believed. All he knew was that there was a jagged hole in his life that no amount of words were ever going to fill.
“Say hi to God for me, Mommy.” Justine threw some dirt into the hole, then brushed her hands off. “I’m going to talk to Molly, OK Dad?”
“OK,” Patrick said. He watched her run off. Her blond hair streamed out behind her. He wanted to call her back and hold on to her and make sure that she was safe. Instead he looked back at the hole. “You can fill it in now,” he told the funeral director. She just nodded and a man in overalls quietly shovelled the dirt into the grave. It didn’t take long. Patrick wanted to let the tears flow, but the traitorous weakness mocked him by keeping his eyes as dry as the dirt covering his wife and lover’s grave.
It should be raining, he thought. The heavens should have opened and the whole world should be deluged. Let the clouds weep the tears that he couldn’t. He heard the squeals of Justine and Molly playing. He envied them at the same time that he felt bereft of company.
“If you need anything, just call.” The minister handed him yet another card. Patrick was sure he had twenty of them lying around the house.
“Give one to Justine,” he said. Then he thought how ungracious he sounded. “Thanks for all your help.”
“I heard what you told Justine,” Reverend Daniel said, “about nothing loved ever being lost. Remember that.” He patted Patrick’s shoulder and ambled off toward Justine. Patrick watched him kneel in the grass to talk to her. She took the card and ran arrow straight back to Patrick.
“Can we go home?” she asked.
“Sure thing, Justine.”
They walked back to the limousine he’d rented, not certain of his ability to drive, not wanting to put anyone else at risk. The driver was leaning against the door waiting for them. He didn’t say anything, but opened the door for Justine and closed it behind Patrick.
The ride home was lost in the fog of grief that threatened to overwhelm Patrick. Justine sat beside him and chattered about the service and the other people who were there. The fog followed him into the house. He couldn’t remember talking to people, though he was sure he must have said something in response to their endless words of sorrow and support.
“Justine wanted spaghetti,” Patrick’s sister was saying to him. “So I made her some. It’s ready if you would like some.” Patrick thought of the awful void inside him. No amount of spaghetti would ever fill it.
“Sure, thanks.” He was aware that she was shepherding the last of the people out the door before she went out herself. He followed the garlic and tomato smell to the kitchen as if he could get lost in his own house. Yet he felt lost.
“Hi, Daddy,” Justine said, “you need to eat something.” She was echoing what she had heard every other woman in the house tell him. She pulled him into a chair and climbed into his lap. She whispered in his ear, as if her words were the secret of the universe. “I know Mommy’s with God, but I’m still sad. The minister said it was OK to cry. Is it?”
Patrick looked into his daughter’s eyes and saw the same dry pain that he knew was in his.
“Yes,” he said, “it’s OK to cry.” The floodgates opened and he saw her tears as he felt his. Then she clung to him with all the strength of her eight-year-old arms. He felt her wet face against his and their tears and their grief and their love mixed.
“I’ll always be there for you.” Patrick whispered into the blond hair. “Always.”
Patrick finished assembling the sauce for their Friday spaghetti night when Justine came in. The smell filled their kitchen as it did every time, it reminded him of Ingrid. She loved this kitchen with the walls painted dark green and white cabinets. The old wooden table that was marked by years of being the centre of his family’s home stood in the centre of the room.
“How was your day?” Patrick asked as he set aside his memories to focus on his daughter.
“OK, I guess,” she said as she dropped her bag in the corner. “Ms. Palenz had chocolate chip cookies for snack today. Real ones too.”
“Did you bring me any?”
“No, silly, we ate them all, then we played Space Invaders,” Justine said.
“Yeah, it’s this dinosaur age computer game. It’s so old it’s kinda cool.”
“I used to play that game.”
“Well, you see then? Mz Palenz wanted me to ask if you needed anything. I told her your usual answer.”
“Thanks.” Patrick gave the sauce a stir sending up a waft of garlic and memories. Two years and it still brought him to the edge of tears. “How was school?
“Oh, school.” Patrick heard how his daughter’s voice changed. “We did reading and math. We’re starting a new book about a swan that has no voice. Ms. Hall was going to do Charlotte’s Web, but she was afraid with Charlotte dying at the end that it would bring up ‘issues’.”
Brother, Patrick thought, they were still at that. Justine had no problem reading Charlotte’s Web and weeping over the spider’s death at the end. She cried every time she read the book. While it didn’t bother her,; all through the last two grades her tears terrified her teachers. They had called him in a panic when Justine cried through Are You My Mother? She had tried to explain that the minister had said it was OK, but that didn’t go over well.
“And Kelly?” he asked.
“Kelly is just dealing with her depressed issues.”
“I think it’s repressed.”
“Whatever, she’s still a bully.”
Patrick sighed. He poured the noodles into the strainer and gave it a shake. He heard Justine setting the table behind him.
“How was your day?” Justine asked.
“Well, I got one client’s report done and the boss gave me three more to do.”
“What about Wanda?”
“Wanda is nice, but….she’s just nice.”
“Oh Dad, you aren’t getting any younger.”
“I’m not worried.” Patrick wished a curse on the writers of all movies and books in which the grieving father miraculously found a new true love by the end of the story.
“She doesn’t like spaghetti,” Patrick said as he piled the noodles on their plates.
“So that’s that.” Justine came over and slopped sauce on the noodles and put ‘shaky cheese’ on top. Patrick carried the plates over to the table.
“Thanks for the food,” Justine prayed, “and say hello to Mom for me.”
He twirled the spaghetti on his fork, while Justine tried to do the same. She managed a reasonable amount, but it fell off on the way to her mouth.
“O darn,” she said. Then she sighed and picked up her knife to cut the spaghetti into manageable bits. “Do you miss Mom?”
They finished their meal in companionable silence, then Patrick washed dishes while Justine did her homework.
“I could get you a desk for your room,” Patrick said.
“I like the kitchen table. It keeps me close to you.”
“And the fridge,” he said.
“And the fridge.”
She got up and helped herself to a glass of milk, then sat down with her book. Patrick smiled as memory and reality meshed. Ingrid had liked to work at the kitchen table as well. She’d have designs, fabric samples and paint chips all over the table. For a moment Justine’s blond head looked just like Ingrid’s and Patrick felt the pain of her loss like a dagger in his heart.
“It happens to me too,” Justine said. “I see her and think that she’s come back.” She came around the table and hugged him tight. He hugged her back and thought she had her mother’s empathy too. There were many times that Ingrid had seemed to know exactly what he was thinking.
Saturday morning Patrick got up to the sound of cartoons and the smell of coffee. He put his robe on and went to the kitchen. The coffee was just finishing up and he poured a cup.
“Let me know when your brain starts working.”
Patrick buried his nose in the steam from the coffee and let the aroma carry the grief away. Ingrid used to say that; now it was his daughter’s way of saying good morning. He smiled and took a long sip. The bitter heat flowed down his throat and he decided that it was a good day.
“So what are we doing today?” he asked.
“My room,” Justine said. “I can’t stand it anymore.”
“We just did it last year.”
“But it’s pink!”
“You wanted pink.”
“That was last year. There’s some paint in the basement. I can mix up some new colours.”
“I want to do some colour blocking on the wall by my bed.” Justine looked down. “I was looking through some of Mom’s stuff for ideas.”
Patrick came and sat beside her. He gave her a squeeze.
“That stuff is as much yours as it is mine. She was your Mom.”
“She is STILL my Mom,” Justine shouted. “It doesn’t matter if she’s dead. She’s still my Mom.” She ran out of the room and Patrick listened as she thundered up the stairs. Her door didn’t slam, so it was safe for him to follow. His daughter was lying on the bed looking at some pictures cut out of magazines, a folder with paint chips and fabric swatches sat on the bedside table. The room was very pink.
“So, you want to talk about it?”
“Just because she isn’t here doesn’t mean she isn’t real.” Justine said looking up at him.
“She’s real,” Patrick said, “and she’s still your Mom, but other people have trouble understanding that.”
“Yes.” Justine heaved a deep sigh then shook it off.
“Then this is what I want to do.” Justine sat up and patted the bed beside her. “I want to paint the whole room this dusty blue that I found downstairs. Then we need to tape off the squares and paint them these other colours, there’s a green and some yellow, I think some purple, and I thought I’d leave one square pink.”
“Your quilt won’t match.”
“There’s another one in the linen closet that will work. Please, Dad?”
“You start moving everything to the middle of the room, and I’ll go check to see if the paint is any good.”
They spent the day painting the walls blue except for the square that Justine had very carefully taped off. The trim got a new coat of white since they had some white in the basement. Sunday, Justine came home from Sunday School and started taping off the blocks for the different colours. They worked all afternoon. When they were finished Patrick had to admit that it was a stunning look.
Justine brought out the other quilt that she had found.
“Ah,” Patrick said, “I wondered if you were talking about that one. Your Gran made it in case we ever had a boy. It was the last quilt she ever made.”
“You were going to have another baby?”
“Well, we had so much fun with you that we wanted another baby. Gran just hoped it would be a boy.”
“Then Mom got cancer.”
“And she couldn’t have more babies.”
Justine buried her nose in the quilt. “It doesn’t smell like Mom.”
“I wouldn’t think it would. Probably more like the cedar balls she put in everything to keep things from smelling musty.”
“Remember when we hung a bunch of them on the Christmas tree?”
“Definitely. Wait here, I have something for you.” Patrick went to his room and pulled a box from the closet shelf. He carried it back to Justine’s room. “Look at this.” He put the box on the bed beside her. “This was your Mom’s stuff.”
Justine opened the box and squealed when she saw the tiny bottles of perfume and all the little containers of makeup.
“You’re a bit young to wear any of this yet, but Mom would want you to have it.”
Justine was carefully opening each bottle and sniffing it.
“This one,” she said, “this is the one she was wearing the last time she read me a story. I remember she was reading Pippi Longstocking to me and she smelled like this.” She dabbed a little on her finger and rubbed it on her teddy bear. “Mom used to do that so the bear would smell like her and I would sleep better.”
“I never knew that,” Patrick said.
“Oh, Daddy, I miss her so much!”
“So do I darling, so do I.”
“Do you think she’d like my room?”
Patrick stood and turned around slowly. The new paint had somehow not made her old white furniture look shabby, but just comfortable. The colour wall was striking, but not overwhelming. The new quilt fit perfectly to pull the whole thing together. It was like seeing one of Ingrid’s projects completed. The smell of her perfume seemed to add her blessing to the room.
“She’d love it. Mom would be so proud of you.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Justine looked up at him. “What did Mom always cook after she finished a job?”
Patrick had to think for a moment. Ingrid did have a special meal that she cooked to celebrate the successful completion of a contract.
“Meatballs,” he said, “I remember I used to tease her that meatballs belonged in spaghetti, but she liked them with this special sauce on rice. She said it reminded her of home.”
“Can we cook them? Please?”
“Let’s go look up the recipe.”
They went out to a twenty-four hour grocery store near where Patrick worked to find the ingredients they needed. Then went to work.
“Ewwww,” Justine said as she mixed the meat with her hands. “It’s just like play dough, but a lot grosser.”
“Your Mom would make a whole bunch of them and freeze them so she didn’t have to make them that often.” Patrick stirred the sauce and put it on a low heat. The rice was already cooking so he and Justine made rows of tiny balls to put in the oven to cook.
They watched decorating shows on TV while dinner gradually filled the house with familiar odours.
“Let’s do this again.”
“What, paint your room?” Patrick asked.
“No, cook Mom’s recipes. It smells like she is watching us. She doesn’t feel so far away now.”
“OK then,” Patrick said, “you choose the recipe when you get home from Sunday School. We’ll go shopping to get what we need.”
“Cool,” Justine said. “Are they really going to paint the room that colour with that couch?”
For a second Patrick was sure that Ingrid was sitting in her chair and had winked at him. Instead of the sharp stab of grief he expected he felt a warmth flow from his heart.
Monday morning Patrick watched Justine walk to school. When she turned the corner, he poured the last of the coffee into his travel mug and drove off to work. He went the long way around the block to avoid the church where Ingrid’s funeral had been and where Justine went to Sunday School. After two years the thought of God still made his stomach clench and burn. It just wasn’t right that Ingrid had to die so young.
As he pulled into the parking lot, Patrick though how fortunate he was to have a job that didn’t involve a long commute. He left his now empty travel mug in the car and pushed through the front doors of the five story office building that held the law firm for which he did research.
Patrick waved at the young woman behind the deck and made sure his badge was on properly. The elevators wouldn’t work unless he was wearing his pass. The first desk as he left the elevator was Wanda’s. She smiled at him and turned back to her computer. Patrick walked to the back of the open work area and admired his fine view of a sliver of sky and the top branches of a maple tree before he sat down to work.
He didn’t have a very big space. A picture of Ingrid from before she was diagnosed and Justine’s most recent school picture sat on a shelf over his monitor. It was hard to believe that Justine was in Grade Four already. The rest of his space was covered with post-it notes and index cards. Patrick picked up a note that had fallen down over the weekend and pinned it into place. He had all that information on his computer, but he liked seeing it arranged visually too. Patrick hung his jacket on the back of the chair and loosened his tie. Time to work.
Patrick enjoyed his job as a researcher for the law firm. He looked for hidden surprises in contracts or properties. Recently he had been researching titles to old properties . There were clients who wanted to develop land beside churches. Some of those churches had been around for more than a hundred years without doing any work or updating their deed. One company had started building on land they thought they owned, only to learn that a nearby church held a deed to the land and wanted a say, and compensation, for the project. Resolving the dispute had taken time and money that should have been spent on the development. It was Patrick’s job to ensure that didn’t happen to any of their clients.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said when Mr. Ball lifted his head. “I’m off to the land registry to look at old records, are there any other things on our list that I should look at?”
“Not that I know of.” Mr. Ball stretched and pushed his tie further askew.. “Bring back a coffee if you feel like it. The stuff in the office just doesn’t taste quite right.” Neither the wrinkled suits or buzz cut hair hinted at Mr. Ball’s management skills. Patrick didn’t mind picking up coffee for a boss who knew what he was doing.
The land registry was downtown and parking was tricky, but Patrick had a favourite lot where he knew the attendants. There were almost always able to find him a spot. Today it was easy. He waved at the woman and walked across the street to the office.
The receptionist buzzed for an archivist who led Patrick back into a cool dry room where it felt like time stood still. It always felt exactly the same. Sometimes after a long day Patrick half expected to leave the archives to discover that the city had vanished while he had worked.
He put on the gloves they used for the old books and began digging back into history. There were bits and clues as he read. Two of the three properties had been owned by a variety of people, but there were no surprises. The trail of purchase and sale was clear back to the original deed to a farmer for clearing the land. Patrick made a few quick notes, and turned to the third parcel.
Patrick wound his way back into history. The school that had occupied the land burned down and was never replaced since there was a more modern school close by. He went further back and found that the land for the school was deeded by a local church. There was a proviso that if the school closed that the land would revert to the church.
The original church had apparently moved several times and changed its name a couple of times. Patrick took as much information as he could and decided that he needed to visit the most recent incarnation of the church to see if they still held a deed for the property. It was the church where Ingrid’s had been. He hadn’t driven past it since, though it was only a block away from the house.
He sat in his car and stared at the doors before he turned off the car and climbed out. It wasn’t like he was going to go into the sanctuary. He would just leave a message with the secretary and be gone. He should have just phoned. He had a vision of the stack of cards that Reverend Daniel had left him. The man had tried. It was God that was the problem. They would be talking land not God. It would be OK.
The doors were unlocked and an arrow pointed toward the church office. There was no one at the desk. He was about to leave when he heard footsteps behind him.
“Hello,” Reverend Daniel said, “may I help you?” He hadn’t changed much in the two years since the funeral. He still wore a black shirt that looked broken in like a favourite t-shirt. A bit of the white plastic tab that he’d worn for the service poked out from his breast pocket. The frames for his glasses were black and the lenses seemed to magnify not only his blue eyes, but the empathy that rested there. If he weren’t a minister, Patrick could imagine him being a good friend.
“I’m Patrick Constance, Justine’s dad.”
“Right, Justine’s in our Sunday School.”
“I don’t come to church.” Patrick said and wondered why he had said that. He wasn’t here to talk about either church or God.
“Ah,” Reverend Daniel said, “we’ll be here if you change your mind. I’m not usually in the office on Mondays, but Grace is off sick and I have some reading to do anyway. I have coffee in my office.”
“That sounds good.” Patrick followed the minister to his office. The only wall that wasn’t either books or a window was an abstract painting that was odd lines and colours that looked like they were either fighting or dancing.
“That’s not the kind of painting I think of ministers hanging in their office,” Patrick said.
“It was a gift from a parishioner. He was dying when he painted it.”
Patrick looked at the painting again. It didn’t look different knowing a dying man had painted it.
He turned away from it and sat down while the minister poured coffee into a couple of mugs.
“Reverend Daniel,” Patrick said.
“Just Daniel will do,” he said.
“Daniel,” Patrick started again, “I was researching a property on King St. that had been a school. The land was deeded to the school from First Reformed, in 1872. When it burned down in 1936, it wasn’t rebuilt so the land should have reverted to First Reformed then, but as far as I can find out First Reformed had closed and moved over to Brock St. and become St. Aidan’s.”
“Then in 1976, St. Aidan’s joined us here at Redeemer.”
“I was wondering if you still had the deed to the property.”
“Let me look.” Daniel pulled open the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet that occupied one corner. “We have copies of all the deeds here. The originals are in a safe.” He pulled out several large envelopes. “Here we are.” He hand a brown envelope to Patrick.
Patrick opened the deed and compared it to his notes.
“This looks like it,” he said and handed the deed back.
“Can I ask why the interest?”
“I can’t say,” Patrick said, “I just do the research, but you may want to make sure that your deeds to all your properties are up to date and registered. A lot of the land registry only goes back forty years. If you haven’t done anything with the property in that time it can get lost. That causes problems down the road.”
“I will pass the word onto the trustees.”
“I’d better get back to work.”
“Thanks for stopping in. Say hello to Justine for me.”
Patrick climbed into the car and took a deep breath. Then he drove back to work, stopping at a drive-thru to pick up a coffee for Mr. Ball.
Justine set the table in stubborn silence. Patrick sighed and served out the spaghetti.
“Going to school is the law,” he said as they sat down.
“Is it the law that I have to listen to that big bully every day?” Justine shook the parmesan cheese viciously. “Kelly is mean, but the teachers like her so they don’t care what she does. Today, Kelly had her friends pretending I didn’t exist. They kept bumping into me and looking all shocked that I was there. I hate school.”
“You still need to learn, and sometimes we need to learn to deal with people we don’t like.”
“Yeah, right. You don’t have Kelly at your work,” she said.
“True, I’m lucky that I work with some pretty nice people.”
“I want to be home-schooled. Jeannette at church is home-schooled,” Justine said, “and she’s smart.”
“I can’t stay home all day. I have to work.”
“It isn’t fair!”
“You’re right,” Patrick said. “It isn’t.”
“So aren’t you going to fix it?”
“I don’t know if it’s that easy, Justine.”
“It should be.”
“I wish it was.”
Justine tried twirling the spaghetti, but kept catching up too much to put in her mouth. She cut the strands into tiny little pieces. Then ate in silence. She stayed silent through her homework then went to bed early.
Patrick finished cleaning up, then looked at the fridge. Maybe Justine had said something to Ms. Palenz. Justine always enjoyed her time there between school and when Patrick got home. Ms. Palenz answered the phone on the first ring and Patrick could hear the sound of people eating in the background.
“I don’t want to disturb your dinner,” he said, “but this is Justine’s dad. She came home in a real state today.”
“Oh dear,” said the voice on the other end. “She is having some trouble with the girls at school.”
“She only mentions one name to me. Someone named Kelly.”
“Kelly’s the ring leader, but the rest of the class follows her. I have another child from that class so I hear stuff that you mightn’t.”
“Should I be talking to Justine’s teacher?”
“Probably, but I don’t know that it would do any good. This type of girl is usually expert at getting the teacher to think that she is a perfect angel.”
“Thanks for your input. I should really let you get back to your meal.”
“It’s OK, I have a couple of kids who stay for supper, then Michael and I eat.”
“Right then, say hello to Michael.”
The voice on the other end of the line laughed.
“Michael is my dog, named after the archangel of battle. I’ll keep my ears open. Goodnight, Mr. Constance.”
“Call me Patrick.”
“Then you must call me Lee.”
Patrick hung up the phone and saw Justine watching him from the door.
“I told you that Michael was a dog,” she said.
“Can I have a glass of milk?”
“Sure, help yourself.”
“Did talking to Ms. Palenz make you feel better?”
“I’m not sure. Should it?”
“She’s nice, but she likes to tell me what to do. Sometimes that’s good, like showing me how to bake a pie.”
“You know how to bake pies?”
“Don’t interrupt, Daddy.” Their eyes met over the table and Justine started giggling. “I sounded just like her.” Patrick smiled at her.
“You’re right though, I shouldn’t interrupt.”
Justine nodded at him and sat at the table.
“She isn’t as helpful with things like Kelly. She means well, but Kelly is, well, Kelly. She has the teacher wrapped around her finger and everyone in the class is either in love with her or scared of her. It’s hard to even say what she does. It’s like she’ll say, “We shouldn’t ask Justine to bring cookies because she doesn’t have a mom to bake them and everyone will think How sweet, when Kelly’s looking at me thinking Your mom is dead, you poor sap. Justine finished her milk, but made no move to go back to bed. Patrick put some cookies on a plate and slid them in front of her. She looked up at him.
“I didn’t send you to bed early,” he said. “You just needed some space to be angry.”
“But it isn’t fair to be angry at you about Kelly.”
“No, it isn’t,” Patrick said, “but I can deal with it a lot better than Kelly.”
“Thanks, Dad.” She stared into her empty glass a while. “What do you think Mom would do?”
“I don’t really know.” Patrick picked a cookie up off the plate and nibbled at it. “But she wouldn’t have let Kelly get her down. I know there were people who gave her a hard time when she started as a designer, but she would just shrug and say they’d be sorry when she was on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens.”
“Was she? On the cover I mean.”
“No,” Patrick said, “she was just getting well known when she got sick, then it didn’t seem important anymore.”
“That’s not fair.”
“A lot of life isn’t fair.”
“I wish I knew. The minister would be able to answer better than me.”
“It’s Pastor Daniel,” Justine said.
“I know, it’s just…”
“You’re still mad at him.”
“I’m not mad at him. It’s just whenever I go near the church I start thinking about how unfair it all is.”
“Like me tonight, being mad at you instead of Kelly except you’re mad at God.”
“I think so.”
Justine nodded her head again.
“Thanks for letting me be mad sometimes.”
Patrick hugged Justine and they didn’t say anything for a while.
When Justine had gone back to bed he sat in the kitchen for a long time thinking. She was right. He was still mad at God. He didn’t know what to do with that knowledge and finally decided that there was nothing he could do. He washed the glass and the plate and went to bed.
He woke to the sound of the smoke alarm and was out of bed and down to Justine’s room before he was even properly awake. She wasn’t there.
“Dad, Dad?” He heard her calling from downstairs. “I’m sorry, I was trying to bake cookies and they got all burnt.”
Patrick went down the stairs and looked into the kitchen.
“We’d better open some windows and turn on the fan. Maybe you should ask Ms. Palenz to teach you how to bake cookies.”
“Really?” Justine ran to the phone. “I’ll call her right now.”
“I’d better go upstairs and get dressed then.”
By the time he was dressed and downstairs again the smoke had cleared and he could hear voices in the kitchen.
“Some ovens are hotter than others. It can make a big difference with cookies. Also some kinds burn very easily.”
“Good morning,” Patrick said. “Thanks for coming over.” He poured himself a cup of coffee and waved the pot in her direction.
“Thanks. Justine made me a cup, but I wouldn’t mind a refill.”
Patrick poured her more coffee then sat and watched them work. Lee was much younger than he’d thought. He had imagined some grandmotherly soul. His sister had recommended her and since she lived just a couple of blocks away it was convenient for Justine to go there after school until he got home. He couldn’t believe that he had talked to her on the phone barely a half dozen times in two years and had never met her.
She was good with Justine, showing her how to do each step of baking cookies. By the time they were done they had what looked like hundreds of cookies.
“I can’t believe we had this much baking stuff in our house.”
“Oh, I brought stuff from my place. This is my weekly baking for the kids,” Lee said.
“I hope you leave a few cookies behind.”
Justine and Lee looked at each other and laughed.
“You were right,” Lee said.
“I told her you would like the cookies,” Justine said. “Mom was a great cook, but she didn’t like baking, so Dad was always starved for cookies and pies and stuff.”
Lee grinned at him.
“Ah, so I know what to do to get on your good side.”
Lee ended up staying for supper and Justine cooked her meatballs and rice.
He and Justine were doing dishes after Lee had gone home to make up with Michael for leaving him all day.
“That was a pretty good day, for a day that started with a fire alarm.”
“I’m sorry about that. The recipe looked so simple.”
“Not everything that’s simple is easy. It turned out well, but maybe next time wake me up before you start experimenting in the kitchen.”
On Monday Patrick called the school and made an appointment to meet with Justine’s teacher. Ms. Hall had some time after school that day, so he left work early to go to the school.
The classroom was bright and cheerful with the same smell of chalk dust that he remembered.
“Thank you, Kelly.” The young girl who was cleaning the blackboards smiled and left. Patrick looked at her curiously. She didn’t look like a monster.
“Now, Mr. Constance, what can I do for you?” Ms. Hall said.
Now that he was here Patrick was at a loss for words. He took a second to organize his thinking and he was sure that Ms. Hall’s lips were trying to bend into a frown.
“Justine came home very upset on Friday,” he said, “something about Kelly saying that she shouldn’t bring cookies since she had no mom to bake them.”
“We are having a bake sale to raise money for a class project. Some of the kids were adamant that everything should be fresh baked and not store bought. Kelly was just trying to be thoughtful.”
“That’s not how Justine took it. She heard it as her lack of a mother being rubbed in her face.”
“I assure you. I was in the room and that is not how it was said.” She dusted her hands together as if that were the final statement on the matter. “I am glad that you came in. I do have some concerns about Justine.”
“I see. She seems to be getting her homework done.”
“Oh, it’s not about her work. She’s an exemplary student, but she doesn’t seem to be very emotionally stable. We are reading Trumpet of the Swan because Justine can’t read Charlotte’s Web without crying. It’s been two years. I think you might want to consider getting her counselling to help her move on.”
Patrick felt a spike of rage rush from his gut into his head.
“Is your mother still alive?” he asked.
“Yes, thank goodness.”
“Then you have no idea what Justine is going through. You don’t just ‘move on’ after losing someone as important as a mother.”
“Goodness, I’m just trying to do what’s best for Justine.”
Patrick stood up and tried to slow his breathing. Tried to find the right words to explain but the depth of his emotion was beyond words.
“Stop trying, and just teach,” he finally said, and walked out of the room. He passed Kelly and some other girls in the hall. He thought Kelly was whispering to the others, but it was hard to tell through the tears that were clawing their way out of his eyes.
The next day Justine came home and dropped her bag in the corner. She looked at Patrick.
“Were you at school yesterday?” she asked.
“You didn’t tell me.”
“I didn’t know what to say to you.” Justine nodded. “Kelly said you were crying when you left Ms. Hall’s room. Patrick just nodded. The memory of that conversation was enough to make his eyes sting.
“I know just how you feel,” she said, and wrapped her arms around him. “I feel like that every day in that place.” Patrick just hugged her.
“What can I do?” he asked finally.
“Nothing, I guess. It’s not like you could quit working.”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK, Dad. I’m getting used to it.”
You shouldn’t have to, Patrick wanted to shout, you shouldn’t have to.