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KATE lets the seawater lick her toes. Waves slap against the hull of the sailboat as it sways in the afternoon breeze. The sails flap against the mast far above her head. She takes a slug of red wine and looks out at the arbutus trees that line the nearby beach, their bark peeling off in long, curled strips that expose the milky yellow wood underneath.

“You know that used to be a leper colony,” Sebastien says, in that pretentious voice Kate hates. He plucks at a small banjo in his lap.

She has already heard this story. She knows she’s looking at D’Arcy Island, that the lepers were primarily Chinese immigrants, and that this all happened less than a century ago. She knows this because Sebastien told her the last time they came here, but he always repeats himself when he’s stoned.

“I wonder if they had music,” she says.


“Music. I mean they’re out here all isolated with no family, no government or anything. I just wonder if they had music.”

“You’re missing the point,” Sebastien says.

Kate doesn’t want to fight. She wants to enjoy the sun on her shoulders, the music drifting up from below deck and the pleasant rhythms of the ocean surging underneath them.

“What’s the point, then?” she asks. “Why don’t you go ahead and tell me what the point is, Sebastien?”

She might be a little drunk.

“I’m talking about human suffering here.”

She’s had to pee for a while, so now seems like a good time. She rises to her feet and braces herself against the mast. Across the water she can see Cadboro Bay, the marina and the seaside mansions that lead up the hill to the University of Victoria. Between her and the beach the ocean swirls and crashes and roils up into frothy white waves. The wind is picking up.

“Should we head back?” she asks.

“Soon,” says Sebastien. “I wanted to go for a swim, maybe.”

“It’s starting to look rough.”

Sebastien ignores her. She makes her way back along the deck, stepping carefully in her bare feet. She rests her half-full bottle of wine beside the motor, shimmies out of her underwear, hikes up her dress and crouches over the railing. She watches Sebastien rise up and sink down in front of her. His long blond hair flutters around his head and brushes against his pink, freckled shoulders. Sometimes she forgets how young he can look. She knows that sooner or later she’s going to have to break up with him. But not today.

The boat bucks unexpectedly. Before Kate can react her legs are above her head, her ankles tangled in her underwear. There’s a brief second where she can see everything upside down, the sun-glinted waves posing as stormy sky. The island is like a cloud with arbutus trees hanging down into an empty blue void. Her face glances off the engine as she falls, then she feels the water close its arms around her and for a moment everything is silent. She breaks the surface with a gasp and takes in a lungful of sea air. Her body has been jolted awake. Her eyes furiously try to blink away the streams of water running down her face.

“Kate, you okay?” Sebastien yells. “Kate?”

She waits for a moment, buffeted by the waves, to answer him. She listens to the wind and feels her body being carried, weightless, away from the boat.

• • •

Kate moved to Victoria from Hamilton the year she graduated from high school. She wanted to live beside the ocean and she wanted to go to university far away from her parents. The first time she walked down to Cadboro Bay and took off her shoes, she let her toes sink into the sand and knew she had made the right decision. She loved the saltwater smell in the air.

She met Cliff at a bluegrass concert downtown about two months after she started school. He was playing stand-up bass and she liked the way he closed his eyes while he fingered the strings, the way he stomped his foot and smiled as he rocked his head back and forth to the music. She brought him back to her residence building and let him take her in the communal showers. Afterwards he sat on her bed and played the guitar. She rested her feet in his lap.

Cliff introduced her to mushrooms during a weekend trip to his cabin on Gabriola Island. The experience floated by her like a dream. Late at night they sat together at the top of some jagged rocks and watched the waves slosh through the barnacles. She loved the violent roar of the purple water, the way the mist drifted up and tickled her face. She felt like she understood everything.

Cliff invited her on tour with him during reading break. His band was called The Saltwater Sultans, and they traveled up the Malahat Highway in an old bus. They played their instruments the entire way, passing a joint back and forth and taking deep swigs from a bottle of Jamieson’s. There were three other girls on the trip, but Kate barely noticed them. Instead she noticed Shane, the lead singer. Shane had effortlessly messy shoulder-length brown hair and ocean-blue eyes. His voice was a plaintive wail, as most of their songs were about being down and out, poor and lonely. Cliff noticed the way she looked at his friend and later in the parking lot of their venue he screamed at her and grabbed her by the arm. “You can’t fucking treat people like this,” he said.

That night, while Cliff was passed out in his motel room, Kate fucked Shane on the floor of the bus. They smoked pot and laid naked together in a pile of ratty old blankets that were covered in oil stains. Kate played with the curly hair of his beard and listened to him talk. She watched him lick his lips, watched his tongue flick inside the cavern of his mouth, watched him form his words and breathe them out like a song.

• • •

Kate mops the surface of a small table with a wet rag. She picks up a few empty glasses, foam still bubbling in the bottom, and balances them on her tray as she sweeps back towards the bar. Above her countless bras dangle from the ceiling, stapled at random amidst flyers, stickers and crumpled pornographic playing cards. Kate shoulders her way through a crowd of students and makes her way past the regulars, who sit slumped on their bar stools and stare blankly at the dark ceiling. It’s not too busy tonight. She maneuvers around the counter and slides her tray down. She taps her foot to the Johnny Cash tune blaring from the speakers mounted in the rafters.

“Table four’s looking a little low,” the bartender mutters. He fills a pint glass with a foamy, dark-brown lager and doesn’t bother to look up.

“On it,” she says.

Kate loves Big Bad John’s. She likes the intimacy of the tiny space, the feel of peanuts crackling under her cowboy boots, the familiar faces in the shadowy corners. When she’s not working she sits with the elderly regulars and listens while they push drinks in her direction. She’s intrigued by the wrinkles around their eyes, by their raspy voices and their meandering stories. She asks about their families, about their wives at home. She swings by table four and asks if they want refills, but they wave her off. She’s about to sneak outside for a smoke break when Shane walks in the front door and starts searching above the crowd. His cheeks are sunburned and he’s wearing crooked sunglasses with black electrical tape around one arm.

“You think you can just walk in here?” she says.

Shane cocks his head to one side and grins. He opens his arms and she slinks into them with a smile, nuzzling up to his stubbly neck. They hug for a long moment, and Kate smells his overwhelming musk—a mixture of campfire and body odor, and maybe the slightest hint of marijuana.

“What’d you do to your eye?” he asks. He leans back to gently touch the half-healed wound. “That looks like a nasty one.”

“Three stitches. Fell off a fucking sailboat,” she says.

“Of course you did,” he says. He rustles her hair.

After work she comes outside to find Shane kicking angrily at a lock attached to his bike wheel. He curses under his breath while a cigarette dangles from between his lips. She looks at his filthy denim jacket, his bright red plaid sweater and his filthy jeans.

“Sorry, I keep forgetting the code,” he says. He fumbles with the lock for a few more moments until it finally releases.

As they bike through the empty streets, Shane hums quietly into her ear. Kate can tell he’s been drinking all day. She sits perched on his handlebars, her hands over top of his. She can feel his chest against her back. Her feet dangle over the pavement that whips by underneath them. Tears from the wind tremble in the edges of Kate’s eyes. They descend into James Bay and head towards her house, randomly wobbling on and off the sidewalk. The handlebars dig into the backs of her legs, but she still feels like she’s floating. It’s been over nine months since Shane went away.

“How was Nicaragua?” she asks.

• • •

The Saltwater Sultans broke up after Shane and Kate got together. He started played solo gigs at restaurants and Kate would attend each one. She usually got some free food and she relished the sidelong glances she got from the stage. Afterwards she would get shit-faced with Shane and stumble into his tiny apartment half undressed. She got a job teaching swimming lessons in her second year. She was only taking three classes, so she spent most of her time at the swimming pool or at Shane’s gigs. Though she slept at his house most nights, he didn’t like the idea of having her move in. So she kept her small apartment, which was usually empty, cold and full of dirty dishes. She only cleaned up when her parents flew out to visit.

She met Neil during a late night shift on a Monday night. The pool was mostly deserted and they stood on deck gossiping about the other lifeguards. He seemed awkward and a little nervous around her, but she liked the way he tapped his fingers on his leg while he nodded along to the music. Sure enough, it turned out he was a drummer. A month later Shane’s percussionist quit and Kate suggested Neil as a replacement. Neil didn’t have much of a background in bluegrass but he could keep a beat. Shane and Neil had a quick chemistry, and pretty soon they were playing every gig together. Kate watched her two friends and felt like she was building a family. She liked being part of their trio.

Then one day Shane asked Kate to perform with them. He needed female vocals on a few songs and they spent a week practicing. She bought a cute white dress and a new pair of boots, and during the songs she wasn’t needed she just danced beside him. She loved the way her hair swept across her shoulders, how it flew into her face and tossed up into the air in time with the music. She could feel Neil’s eyes on her as she bounced. His timing was flawless and she let his beats carry her back and forth across the stage. Shane looked at her like she was a magical creature, his eyes full of affection. She felt like a gypsy.

They toured the Gulf Islands and up to Nanaimo, playing gigs at bars and restaurants. They named themselves The Islanders. One night they played on a beach, with the moon glinting off the water. Shane strummed his guitar and Neil banged on a drum between his knees, both of them perched on a piece of driftwood, while she danced in the sand. She liked the cold air on her bare legs.

But then Shane announced that he was going traveling. He felt cloistered and stifled in Canada, and he needed to move on. At first Kate wanted to ask if she could come with him to South America, but then she thought of her parents in Ontario and how disappointed they would be. She only had two more years left of her Psychology degree. Neil drove them both to the airport and Kate cried as she watched Shane disappear down the ramp.

Neil held her and she liked the way his hands felt strong on her lower back. That night they got stoned and had a bath together. She traced her fingers along his moist skin and felt his eyes on her naked body. They had awkward sex on the linoleum of her kitchen floor.

Over the next few weeks she watched Neil change. When he drummed his fingers against the steering wheel it had a heavier staccato. But without Shane around, Neil stopped playing gigs. Sometimes Kate would come over to his house to find out he hadn’t slept for two days. She found empty pill bottles in his jacket pockets, wadded up balls of aluminum foil were scattered around his apartment, and there was powder crusted around the edge of his credit card. One day she found him on the floor of his bathroom foaming at the mouth. When the paramedics arrived they loaded him on to a stretcher and rolled him out into the street. They wouldn’t let her in the ambulance. The flashing lights disappeared around a corner.

• • •

Kate watches Sebastien pace across his living room. He is clenching and unclenching his fist and periodically punching it against his thigh. She wonders what would happen if she stood up and walked out of his house. She could call a cab and never talk to him again. But instead, she sits and waits for him to say something.

“This is so predictable,” he says. “I mean, of course.“

His voice catches in his throat.

Kate can feel tears oozing down her cheeks but she figures it’s from stress more than anything else. She has known all along that when Shane returned from Nicaragua she was going to end things with Sebastien. But she’s never been any good with conflict. Her feelings never get properly expressed in words and most of the guys she’d been with over the years could out-talk her in every situation. She stares at the carpet.

“I don’t want this anymore,” she says.

“Sorry?” says Sebastien. “Sorry? I couldn’t hear you, Kate. Sorry?”

“I should go.”

Before she realizes what is happening, Sebastien has grabbed her by the arms and slammed her against the wall. She whimpers. She can feel his hot breath on her face. His fingers pinch into the skin of her arms. She opens her mouth to scream but he forces the meat of his palm into her open mouth. Her head bounces off the drywall and she feels dizzy.

“I fucking love you, do you hear me?” he says.

She should have brought Shane with her.

“How could you do this?”

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs through his hand.

Kate can’t figure out another way to handle the situation, so she grabs the waist of Sebastien’s jeans and flips open the button. He blinks at her, surprised, his chest still heaving. She can see his face trembling and she knows how much she’s hurt him. She undoes his zipper.

“You’re sorry?” he says. “That’s what you’re saying?”

She slips her hand inside his boxer shorts and closes her eyes. He moans a little, releases his hand from her face, then thrusts against her. She closes her eyes and sinks to her knees. She feels his fingers clasp behind her head. She feels trapped and considers sprinting for the door. But she takes him in her mouth instead.

Sebastien fucks her on the living room couch, and she keeps her eyes closed the entire time. She wonders if he’ll let her leave afterwards. She feels uncomfortable and he’s hurting her, but she closes her eyes and tries to hear musical notes. She fixates on the rhythm of his hips and pretends it’s the steady beat of a drum. When he finishes, he leans into her ear and whispers, “There’s something wrong with you. Something missing.”

• • •

Kate spent three days in the hospital while Neil was recovering from his overdose. She slept with her coat over her head on the uncomfortable waiting room benches. She nervously walked laps around the corridors and repeatedly went outside to chain-smoke cigarettes. Neil’s roommate Tyler was listed as his emergency contact and he relayed most of the information to Kate. He couldn’t take time off work, so he just made appearances in the morning and the evening. One night, before he headed home, he touched her face.

“This isn’t your fault,” he said. “You were good for him.”

On the third day she met Neil’s parents, the Solomons. His mother was tiny and didn’t look much older than Kate. She hardly spoke and stood slightly behind her husband. Neil’s stepdad introduced himself as Scott, and squeezed Kate’s hand a little too hard. While they were talking, he repeatedly checked his cell phone.

Scott informed her that Neil was being transferred to a psychiatric unit on the Mainland. He told her it probably wasn’t a good idea for her to visit. He shook his head apologetically and Neil’s mother began to cry. Scott ushered her away, and Kate never saw any of the Solomons again. She walked out of the hospital, went straight home and slept for nearly twenty hours. She spent the following weeks in a constant state of inebriation and nearly failed her classes. One night she got into an argument with a bartender and was about to be thrown out by the bouncer when Sebastien stepped in. He dropped a twenty-dollar bill on the bar and explained that Kate was his sister. She was too confused and drunk to interfere and she let this total stranger lead her out on to the street by the shoulders.

Kate woke up the next morning while he was having a shower. She saw a banjo leaning against the dresser and decided it was a sign. He was unemployed and a year younger than her, but she liked knowing she wouldn’t have to sleep alone. She went to some of his gigs, which were underwhelming, but then one day he took her down to Cadboro Bay and showed her his parent’s sailboat. It was small, and they had fallen behind on the maintenance. But as soon as she stepped onboard and felt the way the deck shifted under her feet she knew she could be Sebastien’s girlfriend.

• • •

Kate rides the bus into James Bay and looks out the window at the marina. Tourists are listening to buskers and taking pictures as hundreds of sailboats rock in the afternoon breeze. She watches the seagulls flap their wings lazily as they soar far above their heads. She wants to find Shane, get stoned and disappear for a while.

When she gets to Shane’s house, a bored-looking teenage girl answers the door and tells her he isn’t home. Kate walks around to the backyard and finds his bike chained up where they left it. She remembers the code from the other night and she takes it. She pedals calmly through the suburban streets, up and down hills, as if she’s in a trance. She doesn’t realize she knows where she’s going until she coasts down the hill past the university and bikes into the park near Cadboro Bay. She chains it up and follows the beach to the small rowboat that Sebastien keeps tethered to a tree. She drags it down to the shore, throws her purse and her shoes into it, then jumps in and starts yanking on the oars. When she reaches his sailboat, which is moored half a kilometer out, she fastens the rowboat to the side and climbs in. She knows where he keeps the keys to the motor. Within a few moments she’s slicing towards D’Arcy Island.

While the waves crash against the hull and Kate squints into the sun, she thinks about the last three years. She thinks about all the people who have come and gone, and wonders if she has any real friends. She feels like an outcast. She wishes she felt something like guilt for the way she treated the men in her life, but she feels numb. She thinks about the words Sebastien said to her, his breath hot against her ear. There’s something wrong with you. She shudders while she steers. Something missing.

She anchors near the island and sits quietly for a while, looking at the waves and the trees. She thinks about the lepers who lived out the end of their lives here. She wonders where they were buried. Then she goes below deck and retrieves a bottle of red wine and Sebastien’s banjo. She has to stop herself from hurling it in the water. She’s decided she’ll row back and leave the sailboat out here, a few kilometers from shore, just to fuck with him. In the meantime, she sits with her feet hanging into the water and starts to pluck at the banjo. At first she’s clumsy and the strings hurt her fingers. But then she finds a pick and starts to figure it out. She murmurs under her breath for a while and then she starts to sing. She opens up to the wind and her voice is carried away.


Will Johnson is a writer, journalist and photographer from Victoria, B.C. He lives with his girlfriend Darby and his pet budgies Hemingway and Miriam.

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LF #031 © Will Johnson. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, December 2012.


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if they had music

by will johnson