The Building Blocks of Her Dystopian World

Red flames burst out of the trash can in front of me. My fingertips are stretched out towards the orange-red heat and it licks them with warmth. Penniless and homeless, you can understand the dilemma I now face.  I can’t write a single word with no home, and no computer or laptop. Or for that matter, anything remotely technologically advanced. Even if I did have a computer device of some sort, no home, means no electrical outlet.

Even paper is hard to come by.

And pens.

And food.

Six sizes too big, the men’s full length black jacket hangs down and drags along the ground through the snow. The wool mitts I wear are peppered with small holes as if moths have taken special delight in chewing each part of the tattered cloth as if they were picking at a scab. There’s a pungent odor that drifts around me of rotting food, sweat, and alcohol.

Sixty-five years of age and this is my life. I had a husband at one time. Until he trotted off down the rainbow road with a blond bombshell, double-D, named Misty with bosoms the size of Texas.  On occasion a few years ago, before I lost everything, I would bump into them at the grocery store or coffee shop, and every time I saw them a part of Misty’s silky white breast popped out of whatever shirt she was wearing. (Even, if it was a sweater.)

But I can’t blame Misty. It was inevitable. I was a leech. I was barely able to financially support myself most of the time we were married. Combined with this, my struggles with depression where it became a situation of I-can’t-raise-one-foot-to-get-out-of-the-bed made me the worst sort of wife. When I was able to hold a job for some time, I would inevitably change them at whiplash speed in pursuit of some other opportunity that I felt may offer more challenges. Later in life, I hoped for a career as a freelance writer.

Let’s put it this way – that didn’t end well.

Writing, I believed, was my thing.

“Who saz u can be h’re, Cyndie?” He says with shoulders rolled forward and a bowed head as he staggers towards me.

All I need is one strong gust of wind, and he’ll be knocked off his feet and I can run away.

Dear God,

Did you hear me? One strong gust of wind?

“It’s Cynthia,” I say with my chin raised. Dwight’s the zip code bully to GRBG CAN. It seems only courteous that if Dwight’s going to force me to move somewhere else, he can at least have the decency to remember my name.

“I DUN’T CAREZ WH’ATZ YOUR NAMEZ!” He screeches at me.

Joe, Fred, Nancy, and Sandra who were warming their hands around the fire bend their heads forward and quickly glimpse up at me. But no one says a word to him. I can’t blame them.

Dwight is unpredictable at the best of times. He’s killed people before and he’s never been caught by the police. Poor Greta writhed around on the concrete as a knife protruded from her gut. She hopelessly placed a hand over the wound as sticky redness oozed from it. Anguished moans poured from her mouth. Tears streamed down the sides of her cheeks. She pleaded with me to help her, but I did nothing.   If I did anything, Dwight would end my life too. He said so.

I have a snappy line that spins in my mind that I want to say, but decide for the rest of the residents in the area it might be best to leave it unsaid.

I nod in the direction of Dwight and say, “I’m going.”

With that I slowly turn around and begin walking away.

“You’re nuttin!” He trudges behind me. The sound of his slow-moving words, shuffling feet, and his drunken words that are still somehow true – forces me to quicken my pace, and I hurry along putting some distance between us. Not because I’m afraid, but more out of annoyance.

After some time, I pass under a concrete bridge and something glistens on the sidewalk. I bend forward to pick it up, and let out a whoop of, “My lucky day! I found a toonie! I can go for a coffee.”

“Nah, that’z  mine!” He shouts from behind me.

I stare at Dwight frozen, wondering how the heck he managed to catch up to me, and why I didn’t hear him. Good god, even his breathing is loud.

I glance hastily at the two dollar coin and then back to Dwight. Surely, I can out run him. But then I begin to wonder what my life will be like if I decide NOT to hand him the coin. I could leave this city but I would need to walk. As well, there’s a good chance my situation would be the same and possibly worse, because some of those people around the garbage can are my friends, and they’ve helped me before.

Dwight continues a slow trot, odd lumbering motion towards me. When he arrives I have the coin in the palm of my hand and say, “Here you go, Dwight.”

I pull my coat tighter around me to block out the frigid December wind that drifts up my coat, and rips through my thin clothing stinging my skin. Protected a little more from the chill, I quietly ask, “Any chance I can stay at your garbage can tonight as I gave you the coin I found?” I glance away from him for only a second to do a sweep of the ebony streets to make sure nothing worse lives in the shadows than the man who already stands before me.

“No!” He screams spitting the word at me as his face reddens.

Jolted by his cry, I leap back from him! Surprised my eyes widen, and I quietly wonder, oh Christ! I’m going to be killed over a two dollar coin!

Red and blue lights suddenly begin a quick blink around us. Two muscular young police officers exit the cruiser and they assuredly march towards us. Dwight’s head bounces up instantly when he sees the lights and the men. He shouts, “Nah problem, offic’r.” Not even a second later, he wobbles down the street at a sad slow run.

“Ma’am, are you alright?” They ask me when they arrive. Four eyes skim across me as they do a quick assessment of where I belong, and what my story is. I tug at the collar of my coat. I don’t understand it. When I don’t want to be invisible, I am. And when I do want to be invisible, I’m not.

“Ye-yes officers, than-thank you.” I stutter at the two men. There’s a rush of an intensifying sense of doom. My eyes get misty.


I can’t escape that woman!

One of the officer’s face scrunches at me. “Mrs. Sandringham?” He murmurs.

My thoughts are broken and I’m back on 59th Street in front of the policemen. Squinting at the whisperer of the old name I used before, I answer uneasily, “Yes. But I don’t go by that name now.”

“Cynthia? You were married to Bert Sandringham?” He says. “It’s Jack. I shoveled your driveway, when I was a kid.”

This has never happened to me before. I’ve lived on the streets for a couple of years now, and I’ve never run into anyone I knew. After my divorce, I moved to another city a couple of hours away to start again. Things didn’t quite work out for me. This is where I had my final chance – and where I became homeless. I’d cut ties with family and friends mostly because I was delinquent in fostering relationships. My fault. When things got bad, I couldn’t reach out to anyone. Too embarrassed.

This kid, Jack…He’s a good boy. Sweet boy. He was nice to me, and my husband. And his parents, they were great.

I smile at the man before me. “Of course, Jack! Yes, I remember. How are your parents? David and Sue, was it?”

“Yeah! They’re doing great.” He says smiling. A moment later, his eyes scan my clothing again and his mouth drops open. He pulls his hat off, runs his fingers through his hair, and quietly asks as if he’s embarrassed, “Do you have somewhere to go tonight?”

I throw my head back. Laughing I say, “Well, I had a garbage can! But Dwight owns it, and he doesn’t like me much!”

Stunned Jack stares at me. The other officer, his partner, says, “There’s a shelter a few blocks from here. It’s a good one, run by a church. We can take you there.”

Jack’s mouth gapes at me. Then his words come out earnestly, “Yeah, really nice. Give you a hot meal, and somewhere to sleep tonight. Father Patrick – he’s a really good guy.”

I’m kind of hurt young man Jack didn’t laugh at my joke. I think I’m funny most of the time. His serious tone and desperate pleas causes puddles to form in my eyes. For the first time in a long time, someone cares about me.

The young man in front of me is a good kid. With no other options in front of me, and afraid of Dwight returning after the officers leave, I whisper, “Sure.”

“Great!” Jack beams. As we walk back to the cruiser Jack asks, “Do you still write?”

“Not these days.” I reluctantly answer.

“Oh right!” Jack answers as he nods his head, and his cheeks turn pink.

There it is again, that awkward silence.

Jack says, “I really liked your stuff when I was a kid. That you read to me. That fairytale you wrote, about the little girl, who only wanted to be smart.”

“Oh my, you remember that story?” I ask in a hushed tone of disbelief. “That was what, twenty years ago?”

“Something like that.” Jack says. “After you read that story to me, I buckled down and got my grades up. I was an honor roll student from grade ten onwards.”

I’m flabbergasted. I can’t speak. I mumble to myself only, “Maybe I should.”

Jack pulls the door open for me. Then he leans in and says, “I can bring you some paper and pens tomorrow.”

“That would be great.” I answer. Before I get into the car, I stare in the direction of the road Dwight wobbled down.

“Get me the paper, and I’ll tell you a story about a man named Dwight, and the murder of a homeless woman named Greta.” I say as my lips smack together in renewed anger at the death of my friend at the hands of the garbage can bully.

Jack’s jaw clenches. He gives me a tight smile and nods.  “If you do this Mrs. Sandringham, you can’t live on the streets.”

“Oh, I know. Maybe it’s time to find a home again.” I answer. “See if I can get my pension now that I’m 65. Clean stuff.” I give the kid a wink.

Jack roars with laughter.

“And after I write, The Murder of Greta Stonewall, I’ll write another story about a hero cop who saves an old woman from the streets.”

Jacks grins at me and says, “I can’t wait to read it.”

Mind Maze

“It’s not you.” He announces with the sound of annoyance in his voice mixed in with concern for my well-being.

I don’t say anything. I’m pretending I can’t hear him. The hairdryer buzzes in my ear with a high-pitched rumbling sound as heat burns my scalp. The hot air tosses long strands of brown bits in all directions.

When I’m done, I stare at myself in the mirror. My hair is windswept. Of course, windswept summons a romanticized vision of some breathtaking brunette beauty with silky hair. The beauty’s strands of tresses would be swirling around in all directions as if some fairy godmother placed each piece perfectly in the air; it would be the godmother’s final attempt to win over a passerby who may be doubtful of how utterly gorgeous the woman is.

I glance at myself through the mirror. Perhaps hurricane-swept hair is a better combination of words.  Frizzy, dry, and poufy hair tops my head. It stands tall, but also wide, making it nearly impossible to see my ears. I attempt to push some hair back behind my right ear and the rebellious brown strands instantly bounce out as if they are shouting, YOU WILL NOT CONTROL ME!

No kidding.

I huff at myself. Dark circles form underneath my eyes. It’s quite nice. Now I look like a raccoon that’s having a bad hair day.

I mumble, “I miss the days when I could wash my hair and go. No blow drying. No straightening required.  Just wash my hair, tie back with an elastic, and go!”

“Then don’t do it.” He says.

My eyebrows pull together in confusion.

Well – maybe it’s more annoyance.

I don’t want to go down that road – that road we’ve travelled down on so many mornings. Then again, I need to provide some explanation. Otherwise, I’m just a crazy woman with a scent-phobia.

I stumble on my words. As I begin to say them, I know it’s not going to be enough. But I say the words anyways. “I have to blow dry my hair. It gets the smell of shampoo and conditioner out.”

My eyes shift to the large assortment of products that stand at attention on my counter: the Aloe Vera moisturizer is next to the unscented moisturizer; strawberry perfumed deodorant sits beside the odorless one.  I stare down at the Moroccan oil that I slather through my hair on weekends. The hair product makes my locks a little softer, and smooths out the overwhelming waves that I adorn on my head that’s reminiscent of a 1960 bouffant hairstyle that I wear Monday through Friday.

But the Moroccan oil – it’s scented. So, it rests on the counter. Waiting for the weekend, when I can tip the bottle back, drizzle some on my fingertips, and run it through my hair.

Ahhhh….My brain purrs.

Oh my god. I’m a scent addict!   

My husband rolls his eyes at me and says, “There’s no smell of shampoo in your hair.”

Stubbornly, I counter his argument with an intelligent and well thought through statement of: “Yes, there is.” With my well-articulated response that a five-year-old could have said behind me, I reach below my cabinet and pull out my hair straightener, and set it to 440.

He edges over to me and sticks his nose towards my head and announces, “I can’t smell anything.”

I shift. Then I say, “Well, the hair dryer got rid of most of the scent. But the Flat Iron will get the rest out.”

My husband throws his hands up in the air, grabs his shirt, and begins tugging it over his head.

I do believe I won that argument.

Beep, beep, my Flat Iron chants to me. On its command, I reach down with my right hand and wrap my fingers around the hairstyling instrument, and use my left hand to grab big chunks of hair that I quickly run through the plates of the device. Within seconds, my nose twitches at the familiar whiff of singed hair.

Tired of the routine, tired of worrying about everything, I stare down at the woman I see in the mirror. I wish I could shut up the voice in my head. And it’s just in my head. No one has ever said anything to me at work. But I exaggerate everything. One sneeze, over yonder, four floors down from where I sit, and perspiration will gather around the back of my neck instantly as my breathing becomes more shallow and I wonder, oh no…. Is someone having an allergic attack because of some scent I’m wearing?

I worry about smells: fruit scented deodorant, orange perfumed hand cream, or lavender-laced cosmetics.

But it’s not only scented products. Oh no, my mind has had some fun in taking things to a whole new level. Because once you’ve removed all scents from your life, you only have what’s left. And sometimes what remains is that “wet dog” smell because Fido wanted to be affectionate just before I left to go to work, and brushed up against me and it leaves a lingering reminder that yes, I do own a dog!; or a chemical smell will sometimes ooze from new clothes I purchased when they heat up because of the sun. Then there’s also the worry that my fragrance-free deodorant will fail at work, and then my perfume for the day will be Eau de B.O.

I blink at myself.

Hair is slightly flattened. (Still frizzy, but I found my ears!) No makeup. (Oh lord, I can’t even think about it.) Black pants. Grey shirt. Blue circles under my eyes.

I’m ready for work!

I stare down at the Flat Iron. I flip the power button off, and yank the cord out of the wall. Before I walk away, I bounce my head back into the bathroom where my Flat Iron sits on the counter. I pull it away from everything so that it’s not touching my makeup bag, hairbrush…well, anything.

Because you know, I don’t want to burn the house down.

As I start to walk away, there’s a twitching that begins in my fingertips, and before I know it, I’m spinning around again to check the Flat Iron one more time.

I don’t have a problem.

I’m being careful. This is one of those times you can’t make a mistake. My Flat Iron can touch something like the plastic on my hairbrush causing it to heat up, and it could ignite, and because no one’s upstairs right now, no one will know there’s a fire until it’s too late, and our whole house will be engulfed in fiery red flames.


I’m just being careful.

My fingertips begin to twitch. I spin on my heel. I’m standing at the top of the stairs in my home. I have two choices:

 Option 1: I can go and check the Flat Iron again. But I’m certain I turned the power button off, I remember I pulled the cord out of the wall, and I know it had already started to cool down because I placed my hand on the straightener for several seconds and it was warm – but not hot.

Option 2: I can go downstairs, get my bags, walk out the front door, and get on with my day.

I take a deep breath, and turn around as a voice quietly says, Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…..

Then, I begin my descent.


There’s no wall where one should be and the roof is missing.

White clouds of breath dance in front of me. It proves my existence – even if no one else sees me. Wind lifts my hair stretching it out in all directions as dampness envelopes me. It causes a tingling sensation to creep slowly down my back. My shoulders roll forward and I tuck my tummy. It’s as if my body believes if it recoils, it may escape the cold and dampness.

My eyes search for something.  Against a tumbling wall, I see a place where I might take shelter for the night; the dilapidated remnants of a fireplace.

I step lightly over a broken wooden chair moving in the direction of the square enclosure. For a moment, I imagine parents and children gathered around a yellow-orange fire in that spot where they would talk, laugh, eat and sing songs. But I wouldn’t know anything about that. I’ve only seen it in movies.

The warmness of the imagined family heats me from within, and fends off the dampness and cold. It even works a little to stomp out the pain in my belly from not eating for a few days.

I tuck myself into the fireplace, peel off my jacket, and stretch it out across my body. Above me the man in the moon winks at me, and he, my only friend tonight, watches over me as my eyes slowly close to the world around me.

Into The Shadows: The Case of Maggie Shetland

It was February 10th, 1998 when the phone rang. When Diane Liscom answered it, Maggie Shetland’s voice was on the other end of the line, and it came across joyfully bubbly like champagne. It was consistent in terms of the woman’s character. Maggie’s words were concerning in that the call was meant to reassure her friend, Diane in a casual way, that she would be leaving for a little while but that her friend shouldn’t worry.

Maggie promised she would be back.

When Diane hung the phone up with “Mags” as her friends called her, she didn’t realize she would be the last person to speak with her.

Nearly twenty years later, there are no leads in what happened to Maggie Shetland.

To say the case has gone cold would imply there were leads to begin with. The phone call was the last contact anyone ever had with Maggie. Her bank account and credit cards have never been used. There were no additional calls to her family, or other friends. Even her car vanished.

She was the young woman who disappeared without a trace.

Occasionally, the police thought they had a lead. Someone remembered seeing Maggie briefly in a gas station, but when the security cameras were reviewed, Maggie did not appear in any of the footage.  Over the years there were other sightings of the woman, and sometimes of the car, but they never came to fruition.

In dark corners and hushed voices, some people said they were certain Maggie made the call under threat by a killer. That way maybe police wouldn’t look for her body for some time. Others said that Maggie may have simply walked away from her life in order to start a new one. Still other people would propose perhaps Maggie had simply driven off a cliff accidentally, or maybe on purpose.

But none of this is consistent with what we knew about Maggie. There was no nervousness in Maggie’s voice when she spoke to her friend. If she were under threat, would there not be some wavering, some pause – that indicated something was wrong?

Maggie was well loved by her family and friends. Every year she was one of the prime organizers for the local hospital cancer telethon.  She ran races for various charities and had an active social life. She was unmarried, but her marital status didn’t seem to be of concern to her according to family and friends.  If she ever considered suicide, she never appeared depressed.

Her friend Diane was under suspicion by police for years, and willingly agreed to a lie detector test and past it.  An old friend since childhood, Diane also participated in searches for Maggie in woods, and across various cities, and scoured the neighborhood with photos of Maggie in the hopes that someone would remember something.

Diane also willingly worked with the police turning over whatever information she had about her friend. One of the pieces she provided to the officers was an answering machine tape that accidentally recorded the last conversation between Diane and Maggie.

But what Diane hadn’t realized was that there was something else on that tape. Maggie’s voice came across clear and calm as Diane reported to the police. However, when the tape was reviewed recently, an officer with a keen ear noticed other sounds: the sound of wooden wheels turning and horse’s hoofs trotting, and words spoken in Latin in the background. A linguistic expert was consulted, and the man stated he thought it sounded like a marketplace where people were negotiating price for the purchase of fruits, vegetables, dishes, and pottery.

For this reason, police officers investigated a local Amish town.  When asked if the Amish people spoke Latin, the elders insisted they did not. Furthermore, no evidence of Maggie Shetland was ever found in the community.

Recently, some information came forward from an anonymous source. It was something that a friend recalled Maggie said to her as a joke. She referred to her car as a Shadow Car that allowed Maggie to be transported to other places.

I am a reporter, and I rely on facts. For this reason, I needed evidence.

In the last year of Maggie Shetland’s life, there were four separate occurrences where a mystery woman saved people in the area: a teenager who nearly drowned in a river almost 100 miles away from where Maggie lived; a two-year-old boy who was found walking down a street at 4 AM in -25 degree Celsius temperatures; and an unconscious woman was pulled from her burning house by another woman as reported by firefighters and police at the scene.

When I reviewed the witness reports of the heroic woman in each incident, several witnesses described her with dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, possibly Hispanic, standing around 5 feet 5 inches, and with a muscular build. In reviewing photographs – this is very similar to Maggie.

The final incident, Maggie couldn’t walk away from. It occurred on December 19th, 1997 when a woman pulled a man from his fire-engulfed single engine plane when it crashed in a field in -35 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. When the man woke a week later, doctors informed him that he was very lucky. The police found the plane the next day and it was a blackened carcass. If the woman hadn’t pulled him out he would have died from the fire, hypothermia, or his wounds.

The man insisted on meeting his savior and pleaded to local media outlets to run his story. To no avail, the woman would not come forward. But one particular newspaper wanted the big story. They offered a Security Officer at the hospital $300 to give them the tapes from that night. The guard did it.

Shortly after, the newspaper found an image of the woman on the video and also found her license plate. It wasn’t long before they tracked it back to Maggie Shetland and the newspaper released it to the world. The man who crashed his plane and wanted to meet the woman that saved him, found out her identity the same way as other residents in the city: through the newspaper.

Two months later, Maggie was missing. Did Maggie Shetland decide to walk away from it all, annoyed by the ever-present light that was cast in her direction by an unethical newspaper? Was she suffering from depression and decided to end it all?  Or after helping so many, was she randomly caught by a person who meant to harm her?

What would you say if I told you the first three incidents all happened in the same night, in different cities, and were hundreds of miles away from each other? Your next question to me would be: if the hero woman was Maggie Shetland, how is that possible?

I would answer you and say, that it’s not. It’s impossible for a single person to save multiple lives when the victims are located hundreds of miles away from each other – unless of course, she’s Superwoman.

For those of you who think Maggie Shetland may have committed suicide because the newspaper released her name, here’s one last piece of information for you. After her name was released to the public, Maggie voluntarily went to visit the man in the hospital. The man tearfully, through cracked words, apologized for what the newspaper had done to her, and said that he only ever wanted to thank her in person.

Maggie with a wave of her hand, and bright smile, consoled him and said that it wasn’t his fault and said quite emphatically, it’s not a big deal. Before she left, she wished him a speedy recovery and announced that she would see him again as she was a volunteer for the hospital cancer telethon.

Maybe Maggie Shetland never left?

Perhaps, she is the the quiet woman, who travels along the road in her Shadow Car saving lives amongst us.

Part III: Love is losing…

Love is when you’ve lost someone such as a parent, sibling, grandmother, grandfather, uncle or aunt, or a friend, and you cry and cry, until the well of tears has been emptied. After a few hours of wandering dark hallways staring endlessly into nothingness, the well has had time to fill up again, and the tears flow rapidly again down your cheeks.

Whether the passing of a loved one was expected, or unexpected, it really doesn’t matter. Even if you can’t summon any tears in the first few days, rest assured they will come days, weeks, or sometimes months later.

But everyone is different. So maybe you don’t shed a tear. You just wander aimlessly among other people in the world.

Because when you love someone like that, they are completely irreplaceable. You will never share a coffee, a joke, or have the chance to argue with them again. Your time with them is over. You miss everything about them: their non-stop yodeling, their endless talking, or the way they practiced tap dancing while doing the dishes. Or perhaps, it was the fact that they were the best at charades and kicked your butt on so many occasions you’ve lost track.

Yeah, it’s crazy what you’ll miss.

And it’s the blackness of it that will sometimes send those who loved them spiraling into darkness themselves. Friends and family rally around the sad wanderer from the sidelines, but the wanderer don’t see them.

Then someone says to the wanderer, maybe you need to talk to someone?

After months, or sometimes years of not getting past the death of a loved one, the wanderer begins to think, maybe their right?  

So, the wanderer visits a counsellor and she gives them the language of grief. What it means, what’s normal, and what should be cause for concern. Now that the wanderer has the grief dialogue they know they’re not alone, and it’s not so bad. And the wanderer knows someday, they’ll get past it.

The wanderer begins slowly at first to notice other things. They notice their friends who babble on about work and their relationships, and who bring an extra spring in their step about life. And the wanderer knows these people have been their hidden cheerleaders.

And the wanderer is grateful. Grateful for those that are still around: mothers and fathers, sisters or brothers, uncles and aunts, husbands and wives, daughters and sons, and friends. These people were the selfless ones that dragged them to movies, shopping, coffee, or for a drink at the local pub. They were the ones quietly pointing out: look, there’s still so much to do.

While you still miss the other person who left, the wanderer loves these other people and knows they’re lucky to have them in his/her life. Not wishing to waste time with those who remain, the wanderer keeps the memories of those who are gone alive, while slowly stepping back from the darkness, and turning towards the light.

Love is….