Safe as Houses

by Chris Benjamin

Chris Benjamin writes fiction, news, opinion, and features for publications across Canada. He is the managing editor of Atlantic Books Today and the author of three award-winning books: Indian School Road, winner of the Dave Greber Freelance Award; Eco-Innovators, winner of the Best Atlantic Published Book Award; and Drive-by Saviours, winner of the H.R. Percy Prize and longlisted for CBC’s Canada Reads and a ReLit Award. He has also published about 20 short stories in literary journals, magazines, and anthologies.

A discordant choir of fan-club voices spikes the high tone submerging Fen’s head. Louder now, more disjointed, the echo of echoes in a deep-sea cave. Fen looks up to see Aidan, his pro-wrestler physique hovering over him, splattered with blood. Two other boys in hoodies, track pants, low-tops and ball caps surround Aidan, their shoulders heaving away. They are Galen, who is Aidan’s younger brother, and Khrys. At the moment, Fen finds it difficult to tell them apart. One of them uses his phone to snap a picture of Fen lying on the ground. The phrase boy band gang comes to mind, a hip-hop dance routine with kick steps to his face.

“Thank god he’s conscious,” Galen says. “I almost called his dad. That punch was gangster.”

Fen heaves himself up but doesn’t make it. The ringing in his head choke slams him down again. He squints at the old-school light bulb hanging by a rope, or is it a wire, from Aidan and Galen’s basement ceiling. Aidan leans on Khrys and shakes his head, asks Fen if he’s sure he’s not dead. Fen spits on the concrete floor, tells Aidan to fuck himself. Tough like that. But he can’t hear himself say it. The ringing overrides the sound of his own voice. He only hears the others.

Aidan leans down close and whispers, “Quit or keep goin’?”

Fen nods his head. “Fuck it.”

Aidan announces it, “Fen says fuck it!” The fight is over.

Aidan reaches a gloved hand down and they link arms at the elbow so Aidan can pull him up. Sportsmanlike. Then he surprises Fen with a bear hug, says it was a good effort.

“That my blood?”

Aidan looks at Fen’s stomach and Khrys says, “Oh, shit.”

The ringing pulls Fen underwater again. He fights the current, stays upright, asks someone, anyone, to help him get his gloves off so that he can stop the bleeding. Galen pulls him back with a rough shoulder massage that makes Khrys laugh more. Galen, who like his brother knows boxing because their dad taught them, says chill, nosebleeds are normal. He puts a rag that smells like oil over Fen’s face, squeezes, and Fen shrieks, drowning Galen’s instructions to tilt his head down.

“God fucking damn, it hurts.”

“Something’s broken,” Galen says to Fen as he unlaces his gloves.

Fen is going to marry Katy Perry. Ashleigh Mackay doesn’t know it yet. This is good, because although Ashleigh Mackay is friends with all the right kids and is on the principal’s Gold List and makes oversized ’80s sunglasses look cool, she talks to him all the time about random things, always asking him questions about what new video games he’s into or if he’s seen any good movies lately. Also, importantly, she has promised to show Fen her boobs. She refused to send him a topless selfie, but for 50 bucks she’ll give him a live glimpse, one Mississippi. If he tells a soul, she’ll fillet him. Ashleigh’s father is a doctor and her mother is a high school principal. They ski in Colorado for Christmas and spend March break in Florida. She captains their junior-high girls volleyball team and the model UN.

Fen lives in the smallest house in the subdivision, delivers newspapers for spending money, and his single dad drives an ambulance. There is no doubting Ashleigh’s power to destroy him. He likes that they’ll have a secret. He only cares a little whether anyone else has seen them. He somewhat hopes he’s the first and, in his fantasies, she lets him touch their firm softness and ever-so-briefly kiss her lips, too.

Trudging through snow, delivering newspapers in the subdivision, he’s the last of his kind. The few remaining newspapers are mostly delivered by guys in vans. But Fen’s subdivision must have the highest per-capita rate of old timers and traditionalists in the world; they like seeing a young man unafraid of hard work and most of them are generous tippers. Maybe they know he’s saving for a car, so he can get the fuck into town someday. Maybe hit Neptune. His mother, when in certain softer moods, sometimes took him to see plays there. Maybe his customers simply like him that much. Maybe they feel bad for the half-orphan. Maybe they want him gone.

The ringing comes and goes. It leaves him at Blossom Lane and he’s relieved. It’s back by the time he gets to #21, Ian Zhao’s house. Ian is the white adopted son of Chinese parents. Their house looks like everyone else’s, except for the picture lettering under the house number. Fen had hoped it translated to something cool like “power” or “strength,” but Ian raised an eyebrow and told him no—it was just their house number in Chinese.

Fen would like to get Ian Zhao into Galen’s basement, wearing a pair of boxing gloves. Ian Zhao, hockey superstar, short and stupid and adopted, yet he made out with Ashleigh. Fen heard about it later. It happened at her birthday party, which Fen did not attend, because he was not invited. Fen makes a wet snowball. The six inches that fell this morning have turned slushy. The #21, plus the Chinese symbols underneath, make an easy target. He misses, hits the picture window with a low reverb, thwumm. Mr. and Mrs. Zhou don’t get home till late. They have the kinds of jobs that leave Ian to do whatever he wants after school. Mostly he’s out back practicing slap shots.

This ringing is pissing Fen right off.

Fen loves boxing, but he shouldn’t have fought Aidan. Aidan is a statue sculpted from that meteoric material harder than diamonds. Fen had never noticed it before, under Aidan’s Bieber face and bleached fauxhawk. So pretty. Fen feels pretty stupid, thinking he had a chance against a guy that big, a gifted, all-around athlete with a known penchant for inflicting pain on lesser beings—from pulling the wings off bees when he was little to giving younger kids wedgies and snapping the bras of girls at school. Psychopath. But Fen likes it at Aidan and Galen’s house, safely away from his father.

Fen is taking his time with today’s route. He’s savouring the anticipation. The fear.

In his dreams, one of Ashleigh’s boobs ambushes him with the promise of delight, delight which is putrefied when she forces him to bite it. It tastes and feels like last year’s all-too-real periapical abscessed tooth. A wisecrack, a crack back from father, and a “shit, sorry dude.” As if his scarred fist had just slipped. As if it would never happen again. Fen wakes from this dream waiting for the good part, the release from dread.

He curses his low pain tolerance. Always fighting the urge to whimper. Refusing to be the wimp his father thinks he is.

Fen is afraid Ashleigh won’t follow through. He is afraid her parents will be home early. He is also afraid she will follow through, and he can’t quite disentangle the two. So he takes his time, noticing the things he sees every day. He watches the crack in the asphalt running all the way uphill, wrinkles sprouting from it, like those on his mother’s face when she ranted or laughed. She had a hard, hyperbolic laugh that Fen always wanted to emulate because it seemed to be her most vicious defense against his father. She wasn’t one to yell, but she was a fast mover and no pushover.

Fen notices the sameness of the houses. He’s never seen that before. He never thought they were alike. But now he notices how each has a high side and a low side and a peaked roof, usually in the middle and sometimes off to the side. On one end, a picture window; on the other, two smaller windows. Some of the houses are bigger versions of the same, with an added floor and two-door garage.

This is the only place that Fen has ever lived, so he’s never given it much thought. In the version of this house that he lives in, the smallest version, Fen wishes for a bigger room, his own bathroom and shower, as separate as he can imagine from his father. Perhaps even a separate apartment to himself. His dad says it’s an older subdivision, slapped together with whatever was left lying around, built way back in the 1970s, all by the same guy. When you throw in the pastels—pale yellow, salmon-peach, light blue, and middle-grade blue—it’s amazing how many different looks the designer got out of that one look. You have to observe closely to avoid the feeling of floating between the lines of a page.

Fen’s dad once said that the neighbourhood felt like “oblivion sliced in half.” A semi-highway cuts through the middle of the ’burb, and it’s walled in by a ring road. The high-wail Doppler of the cars is a constant reminder that there’s somewhere more important to go.

Fen’s dad once said that the neighbourhood felt like ‘oblivion sliced in half.’

Even without the colours and patterns and house numbers, Fen would still know one house from another. The owners broadcast themselves with distinctive decorations—the Zhous’ Chinese characters, for example. The Chiassons with their tin Acadian star. The interlock walkway the MacGillivrays laid down every day of one sweat-soaked summer, now buckled by frost heaves. Mrs. Salah and her homemade prayer flags, cut into triangles from striped corduroy bolts she bought on a Lithuanian vacation with her ex. They pinwheel around the thin string tying them across the frame of her front porch. The Grahams have the faces of smiling old men tacked into their tree trunks, made of spray-painted dollar-store craft plastic. Mr. DeLorey, who reveres the trees as mystical harbingers of the eternal and would never penetrate their bark skin, hangs Coke bottles from their branches with candles burning inside. They puncture the early dark of winter days.

Fen has an erection observing these nearly identical, except not at all, houses. The ringing fades as he mechanically pulls each paper from his canvas bag, shoves them behind the screen doors and doesn’t think about Ashleigh except thinks of nothing else.

The first time Fen boxed, in a windmill arc he forgot everything Galen had tried to show him—he neglected to keep Khrys away with the jab, didn’t use his long skinny arms to create space or keep his elbows down fists high. His fist sailed past Khrys’s ear and Khrys missed with a responding uppercut, Aidan and Galen’s laughter the backdrop. Swish, swish, nothing—but the arc of it sated, spiced with a vision of his father’s sneer at the receiving end of it, obliterated. It was a haymaker on behalf of Mom, who had laughed herself to death watching stand-up on television at her friend Crystal’s place. The doctors called it a ruptured brain aneurysm, an infarction of the medulla oblongata. Brain stem.

Fen shoved Khrys into the plywood post and twisted yellow polypropylene rope around him—the post that Galen’s father, a real boxer and carpenter, had erected. Khrys didn’t bounce back. He sagged and reached to the back of his head with a “Hey, hey, what the—” Fen brought the rain, painted lightning across Khrys’s right eye, darkened his brown upper cheek, split his lip with a left hook. Khrys, who abided no enemies, ceded the fight, called Fen psycho. Khrys’s smile made the whole basement feel warm.

Fen lifted spent arms in a glorious V—it was everything Galen had promised when he’d invited Fen over after school, saying, “Yeah, it hurts but it makes you feel frigging alive man, like real-life alive. Not just a video game.” The implication was clear enough. They liked him enough to want to save him from his loner tendencies. Until then, he’d had one close friend—and that kid was a loser. He’d shrugged at Galen and said, “Whatever, sure.” Better to get beat by a couple of douchebags his own age than beat by his old man. Now he was smiling like an ecstatic minion at Aidan, for some reason needing the big psycho’s approval for the victory to count.

He didn’t get it. “You two fight like beagles,” Aidan said.

Fen doesn’t mention the ringing in his head to his friend, Grif—a kid a year younger than him, at one time his best friend, who lives next to Ashleigh. Grif’s house is the penultimate house on his newspaper delivery route. Fen is afraid that if he mentions his recent hearing troubles, Grif will try to stop him from going back to his new friends’ house. Grif hates Khrys, Galen, and especially Aidan.

Grif lives with his nan. She’s another of those adults who is at work—managing a hotel—more than she’s at home. Grif lives off pizza delivery and makes home horror movies with an old Super 8. He makes the pale, yellow front of his suburban house terrifying. Otherwise, it only stands out for its lack of personal touches and a white-door garage that takes up half of the house. In these movies, Grif overlays grainy images of kids wearing masks and sitting in rocking chairs, whispering lines lifted from his nan’s creepy old poetry books. The background noise is all deep minor chords, singularly pounded and sustained on his nan’s out-of-tune piano.

Grif, running his index finger across his straight-cut black bangs, invites Fen in for a game of video soccer and some Cokes. The first vinyl scratch of Run the Jewels’ “Mean Demeanor,” the video game’s theme song, overwhelms the overwhelming ringing in Fen’s head. Or maybe it’s the sugar and caffeine in the consecutive Cokes he’s slamming. He gets to trash talking, says no way no goth art nerd can do him in footie. Grif’s hands up, fake shaking like he’s so terrified.

“What are you if not an art nerd, Fen?”

Fen is Grif’s creepiest actor.

The sun sneaks down. Grif gets up mid-game and starts filming Fen scoring and raising the roof, singing, “Won’t be denied the pride won’t be denied my prize, all day any day every day.” Fen cracks and pulls on another Coke and says the lights in here are crazy. The stranger part comes when Grif’s nan gets home early, sits with him on the couch and takes over for Grif, playing video soccer. Grif’s nan, despite her age, feels to him like a young, super-fun aunt. He calls her by her first name: Amor. He fantasizes about her adopting him, though he’s not sure Grif is the kind of brother he’d want. She ties up the game and takes the lead lickety-split. She smiles at Fen with her lipstick worn like the girls he saw in a magazine full of partial nudity he found in the woods, next to an abandoned fire pit. One time, Amor kissed him goodbye right on the lips and he still wonders if that counts as his first kiss. He remembers about his deal with Ashleigh.

“What time is it?”

Fen usually hates leaving Grif’s—it means going home—but he’s motivated today. He grabs his schoolbag and paper bag and bolts into the early-evening darkness. There are no stars, no moon, just a glint from the headlights of Ashleigh’s dad’s Civic. So much for that then. A relief, but a disappointment. He imagines telling her about boxing, wonders if it’s better to talk about his victory over Khrys or play up his hard-fought loss to Aidan, maybe go for sympathy. Either way, she’d have plenty of questions so it wouldn’t be hard to know what to say, he’d just follow her beautiful lead. Fen fires the newspaper behind their screen door, waves to her dad and jogs downhill toward home, ears faintly ringing.

What happens here is nothing. Fen’s father says that’s why he plants flowers every spring; their blossoming is one thing to look forward to. Fen knows it’s really atonement for not appreciating his mom when she was alive. But his dad is right about the nothing—the nothing of 1,000 television channels, 100 of them audio only. Nothing is old movies and new video games and school and the city’s last weekday paper route. Nothing used to be Friday nights’ Yahtzee games with Grif. When they were little, nothing was damming the stream behind Grif’s house with rocks and sticks and mud. Nothing was better then, before it involved trying not to feel things.

Sometimes pain is oxygen, the feel of fresh air when you come up from the water after a long, deep dive in the pool. Back at Galen and Aidan’s house, Galen’s precise jabs are a heart jolt. They stagger Fen back, sucking in that leather smell, smiling, brain left on the stove too long. He flicks sweat from his hair. His biceps are weighted in fire.

Sometimes pain is oxygen, the feel of fresh air when you come up from the water after a long, deep dive in the pool.

It’s like in grade 3, when he and Grif dug up a knee-high bolder and lifted it together, veins outside their skin, and hauled it to the stream to dam it. Until he was nine, Fen thought “dam it” and “damn it” were the same. That boulder was the best piece of dam they moved. The sticks and mud and garbage they surrounded it with were washed away by the next day. The boulder stayed.

Fen jabs at Galen. Aidan, from the corner, “Yeah, yeah, stick and move. Seriously, you’re doing it.”

Galen knows exactly what’s coming, slips everything and counters.

Fen blocks a few and sucks a few into the ribs. He holds Galen by the arms to slow him down. Khrys makes them break. Professional. They hug it out and Galen tells him he’s improving.

When they split a beer in the kitchen, Fen almost spills about his deal with Ashleigh. Who cares what she does, fuck it. But, impressed as they would be, he keeps it for himself, reaches down and pets Aidan and Galen’s always-meowing cat. “Beer is making me hungry,” he says.

Aidan grabs the cat and throws it in the microwave, says his cousin told him cats are delicious. He’s always picking on little things. Still, Fen is shocked when he turns the microwave on and shouts, “Cat for lunch!” The cat is nearly 20 years old and half-blind. It sits there, rotating in the microwave, oblivious. It sniffs Fen out every time he’s over, leaving its white hairs all over his dark track pants. He loves that it’s survived 15 years of Aidan.

Fen charges at Aidan, shoves him out of the way and opens the microwave, pulls the cat out and strokes its head, whispering coochie-coos. The others give a kind of joint, singular laugh. The cat yowls and bites Fen, who yelps and drops it. He snarls and yells at his friends, asks them how they’d like it.

Aidan says, “Cat don’t like you, dude.”

Fen grabs Aidan’s hoodie and tries to drag him to the open microwave to shove his head in. Aidan shoves Fen back, punches him in the side of the head, no glove. Fen smells iron, tastes metal. He stumbles like a slow realization, grabbing at his head, wondering if this second hard blow will stop the ringing, like in a cartoon. He mutters a fuck-you excuse and, fighting tears, grabs his coat, backpack, and paper bag and stumbles onto the snowy deck. Blood spilling over his ear, no one left to cry to. Maybe Ashleigh.

How his mother used to rant. Thermos full of cold, black coffee, up for a swig and down quick. “That pipsqueak is a mimic.” Talking about some neighbour who hit the thrift store after she learned Fen’s mom went there every Friday night. The whole idea was that the store was empty. She bought day-old roses for Fen’s dad, who at the time had no interest in flowers. “Status-seeking phony” is what she called women she loathed, never bitch or witch or whore or anything biblical. She once said of Grif’s nan, shouting over the vacuum she controlled with her thermos-free hand, “That woman’s whole gluten-free diet is a sham. She don’t need rid of gluten. The only impurity she suffers is the scum clogging her brain.” Up-down the thermos. She sent Fen to grab a flashlight so she could inspect for any missed dust.

Staring at the darkness of Ashleigh’s house, Fen wishes for a flashlight. To inspect for danger. Ashleigh’s lights are off and it’s just past the darkest time of year. Fen stares at the void where her house should be, dreaming of flesh and thinking about his mother.

Fen stares at the void where her house should be, dreaming of flesh and thinking about his mother.

His mother died laughing at 44. You’d think she was a comedian. She had a hard laugh that turned her face into a watershed of wrinkles. She used it sparingly, preferring to shout. Still, she always found him quickly in the dark. He woke often from nightmares of drowning. Her voice Betty Boop singing, “I Wanna Be Sedated” like a lullaby, his peace bubble, his refuge. He thought The Ramones were a children’s group until Crystal played the original at the memorial. Fen’s mother needed him up by 7 a.m. and out the door by 8 a.m. so she could hit the phones, make her sales. Every day was an opportunity, every night a threat. She was climbing pyramids, selling telecommunications devices, insurance, financial services, health and beauty products, adult-only toys that he later realized had to do with sex. There was a Tupperware party where every lady wore a skirt and lipstick and had her hair up. Their individual characters showed only in how bright the apron they chose from his mother’s collection.

Staring at the void of Ashleigh’s house in the dark, he forces his mind off his mother. He thinks about the house in front of him, how it appears in daylight. It’s textbook: five rectangles and two triangles, one over the garage and one over the larger of the two upstairs windows. Grey vinyl covers everything. Framed in white gutters that Ashleigh’s dad cleans while the rest of the family is at church. Fen approaches the brown metal door, feels his knuckles on it, hears the ethereal creak as it opens.

He imagines his mother answering, her lipstick and apron a matching watermelon pink. Phone cradled between ear and shoulder, saying, “Everything’s a pyramid but this one makes you money and you get to be your own boss,” whispering, “What do you want for supper, Fen?”

A ring of light surrounds her then swallows her, and into her place steps Ashleigh, eyes repellent wonder at his presence on her doorstep, skin pale-yellow and so plain compared to his mother. She frantically waves him away like they never made a deal. Her father is there now, stepping in front of her, reaching at his head, Fen flinching. Ashleigh’s father’s hands are soft but steady, so unlike his father’s. He tilts Fen’s chin. “You’re bleeding very badly,” he says. “Come in and let’s see if I can fix that up. We might need to get you to the hospital.” Fen tries to say yes but he’s overcome with nausea and dizziness and tears as he steps into the house. If he can just avoid Ashleigh’s eyes he might be protected here.


Chris Benjamin writes fiction, news, opinion, and features for publications across Canada. He is the managing editor of Atlantic Books Today and the author of three award-winning books: Indian School Road, winner of the Dave Greber Freelance Award; Eco-Innovators, winner of the Best Atlantic Published Book Award; and Drive-by Saviours, winner of the H.R. Percy Prize and longlisted for CBC’s Canada Reads and a ReLit Award. He has also published about 20 short stories in literary journals, magazines, and anthologies.