A chapter excerpt from Trap House, Drew Evans’s novel-in-progress.
Three boys played on the corner outside the convenience store. Well, that was an understatement. Caroused, roughhoused, and not really boys, too old to be boys, but not what one might call men either, no authenticity behind their bluster as they threw shadow punches and puffed out their chests. They would have been easy takes. All Sasha had to do was put on the act that society desired, saunter out of the café towards them as if no one else existed in the world and be like, Hey, boys. I can’t seem to find anyone reliable these days. Think you could help me out?
They would line up like good little soldiers and she would hand out the dime bags. Take these. Sell them. Money by Friday. And if you don’t pay, you’ll be in a wheelchair faster than you can cry, We’re sorry, goddess.
If only. Those days were in the rear view.
She took measured bites from her bagel, avoided the awkwardness of wiping cream cheese from her lips in public. So dainty. Traded Docs for flats and the fight went out the window like highway trash. She missed that girl, boot smug and precocious. There she was now, a vision of that other Sasha, sitting alone in the next booth, long black hair framing hooded eyes that stared with contempt at the normies around her. There she was blowing thin streams of smoke at the no-smoking sign on the table. And there she was getting all up in the manager’s face when he told her to butt out. Who was this imposter Sasha wearing the skin? Mommy and Daddy’s little princess, out on the job hunt wearing an A-line skirt and a fitted sweater. She had fallen so damn far.
The money sure, that was transient, but the loft too? She had clung to it, toughed it out for that last shred of dignity, barely ate the last month she had it. Gentrification, that was the problem. All the legit neighbourhoods priced out the people who gave them their clout. Well, and the fact that the only hiring niche for that other Sasha—who was now standing on the table in the next booth in the process of hurling glassware and insults into the gathered crowd—was tattoo parlours and bars, and even those were overflowing with meek little subs who wouldn’t mind wiping cream from their lips if it meant a steady pay cheque.
She placed her bagel on its plate, took a sip from her coffee, and pushed a few of the application sheets about on the table. Department stores, shoe stores, restaurants. Sign away the personals: name, age, sex, marital status, previous work history, mental illness, star sign, name of first pet, favourite pope. Can’t be too thorough, only the best and brightest of the bottom of a barrel were accepted. It was all bull. This time last year she would have laughed at the idea of minimum wage, could and had spent a month’s worth of it over a weekend. She should have saved or gone to college like Russell had suggested on like a million different occasions. At least then she would have had something to show for her time, instead of an empty bank account, moving crates, and her god-awful parents standing arm in arm on the front porch with their, Oh Princess we’re just so happy to have you back in the house.
A waiter came over to refill her coffee with a weird hourglass carafe. She put her hands over the mouth of the mug and hissed at him. He looked shook and scurried away. Not how normies acted. Some of Spider’s feline qualities must have rubbed off on her. Like it was so hard to maintain this good girl persona. She hadn’t heard anything about a discovered body or any sort of foul play on Shaker Street, but if an investigation was in progress there was no way they would suspect the angelic daughter of a senior detective. Total deniability. If only it didn’t come with the sacrifice.
She downed the last of her coffee. Then, she pulled a sketch book from her bag to check the list. She was almost always making lists these days. They gave her something to cross out. Today was:
Organize clothes by warmth/colour, Make yogurt parfaits for the rents, Hand out resumes at Younge and Egg, Get new phone charger, Try café w/ stencils of No-Face as a barista on its walls, 2:30pm INTERVIEW – Shining Star Pre-school w/ _____ Dorian (find out first name), Do not step out into traffic.
She crossed out the café line and added a side note: coffee good, staff pushy, art cool, too uppity. She still hadn’t found her spot. All she did was go to cafés and restaurants and diners. There were so many in her parent’s neighbourhood, and none of them felt like home. None of them felt like her old spot on Queen.
She doodled devil’s horns around the interview line. She hated kids. All they did was pick their noses and put things in their mouths. Little germ bags. Some people were grossed out when others kissed their pets—like when she kissed Spider in front of Mother’s friends—but then those same grossed out people would kiss their children, which were like a million times more germ ridden. But her mother had set up the interview with, ‘A dear old friend,’ and so Sasha was bound by this newfound phase of behaviour.
It took two subway stops and a bus to get to Shining Star Pre-School. If it wasn’t for the Metro card—Thanks so much, Dad—she might not have followed through. The card was his idea, after the back wheel of her bike had been bent out of existence by an elderly neighbour’s Toyota. Well, his first idea was a car, but she didn’t need stronger tethers. Honestly, it felt like she’d been regressing ever since she moved back in with her parents. Taking handouts bound in emotional weight with a smile. What was she, twelve?
As it turned out, the pre-school was located on the second floor of a strip mall. Not the most inviting, but she wasn’t there to enroll. When she entered, the door erupted with a tinny rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. How did the employees put up with it? Eventually those plunking chimes would feel like drill bits. She climbed the stairs swiftly to get away from the noise and hoped that she wouldn’t get the job—specifically because of the tune—even though she desperately needed the money.
A man with a comb-over and large square glasses met her at the top of the stairs.
‘I’m Simon.’ He held out a hand. The nails on it were bitten to the—wait, what was it—hypo… hypo… a friend had told her one time… hypochai-something. Regardless, it was disgusting.
‘One and the same. And you must be Sasha.’ He squinted at her. ‘Wow, you look a lot like your mother. I haven’t seen her for a few years, but same nose.’
Sasha shook his hand with the tips of her fingers and gave her best fake smile.
‘Ha! And same smile.’
‘I’ve heard facial structure is hereditary.’
His chuckle was high pitched, almost a giggle. ‘We’ll do the interview in the room at the end there.’ He gestured down the hall behind him with his right arm and froze as if holding a matador’s cloak. She almost took the bait and went first, but his left hand had crept, palm upwards, to waist height as if he had planned to place it on the small of her back as she passed. The image made her cringe.
‘After you,’ she said.
‘A tough customer. I like that.’
Brightly coloured blocks, education books, and stuffed animals filled the office they sat in. With Simon in his chair, and all the animals behind him, he looked like King Pedo. They went over the obvious spiel. Work history? Self-employed. Why apply to Shining Star? Children are the future and Shining Star is one of the best blah blah blah. What applicable skills do you have? Organized, good listener, interpersonal skills, etc. Do you like children? Who doesn’t? But then the questions got a little extra. Are you a nurturer? Sure. Do you have children? Um… no. Do you want children?
She missed the beat on that one. Want children? Was that any of his business? Was he subtly implying he was on the hunt for a suitable baby factory? Fucking scumbag.
‘Excuse me,’ he said.
‘Sorry, I must have misheard you.’
‘I didn’t say anything.’
His eyes darted around like a person unmoored and he shuffled the papers on his desk. ‘Where were we?’
‘I think you were talking hours?’
‘Was I? Oh right! We’re looking for someone to fill in while Ms. Leda is away. She covered mornings, Monday to Friday.’
‘That works with my availabilities.’
‘Good. Good. Just need a background check, doubt you’ll have an issues there, and we’ll be in touch.’ He sat perfectly still for a moment, lost in thought.
‘Is there anything else?’
‘Do you dye your hair?’
‘Is that a problem?’
‘It’s just that.’ He stroked his chin as if the next thought was of utmost importance to the universe. ‘I think you’d do well as a blonde.’
When she got home the house smelled of thyme and paprika. Spider met her at the door and nuzzled her legs, accepted a few scratches behind the ears, and then darted off to do whatever it was cats did when no one was watching. Spider had been fine with the housing transition. Her parents didn’t like him much, but she felt like they would come around.
In the kitchen, Dad banged on pots and pans. He hadn’t even changed out of his work clothes, just thrown Mother’s damask apron on top. The butt of his service pistol clearly bulged the fabric at his hip. He jumped around, wooden spoon in hand, when she opened the fridge.
‘How do I look, Princess?’ he said, and laughed a hearty cop laugh.
His buzz cut and bristle brush mustache looked extra buzzish and bristly, as if he’d been plugged into a wall socket all day. ‘Like you’re making a statement?’ she said.
‘Maybe I am.’ He turned back to the stove and prodded something in a saucepan with the spoon. ‘Maybe I am.’
She pulled the water jug from the fridge, filled a cup, and drank the whole glass.
‘Your mother isn’t home yet. Want to give dear old dad a hand?’
Not really. There were a million and one things she’d rather do. ‘Sure,’ she said.
‘Plates and cutlery, if you would, please, your majesty.’
She pinched the bridge of her nose. Why did he have to be so… Dad. ‘On it.’
‘You wouldn’t believe the day I had.’
‘Ditto.’ She opened the cupboard. ‘There’s only one clean plate.’
‘Dishwasher. Anyways, double homicide today.’
She froze. ‘Uh… Wowie.’
‘Just north of Pape Station. Can you believe that?’
Breath returned to her lungs, and she put the first plate on the table and went to the dishwasher for the rest.
‘We went back for a second look because Terrell lost his phone and thought maybe he dropped it there.’
The dishwasher was full. Sasha sighed, then started unloading it.
‘Anyways, I went out on the back porch while he was looking around for his phone. I see this movement along the fence, and I was just like—’
Sasha grabbed a few cups from the top rack.
Sasha dropped the cups in surprise. Her father had jumped around again and landed in shooting stance, the wooden spoon raised like a weapon.
The cups shattered on the granite tiles.
‘I’m sorry, Sweetie. I just wanted to show how electric I felt.’
The shards of glass had spread across the floor and Sasha bent to retrieve them. The larger pieces reflected elongated snapshots of her features. A chin, an eyebrow, a freckle. She tossed them into a cupped palm, apologized to each one.
‘You’re going to cut yourself,’ he said.
But blood had already bloomed in the palm that held the glass.
“And then he said, ‘You’d look really good as a blonde,’” said Sasha. ‘Can you believe the nerve of him?’
‘Well you would, Princess,’ said Dad, one forkful of overcooked asparagus halfway to his mouth. ‘But you look good with any colour, even that witchy black doo you had for a while.’
‘I used to be a blonde you know,’ said her mother. ‘Back when your father and I first met.’
Sasha looked down at her plate. ‘Pass the mashed potatoes please.’
‘But.’ Her mother passed the serving dish. ‘Simon was— Is, a good friend of mine. I’m not elated that your interview didn’t go well. I really went out on a limb for you.’
Sasha pushed the potatoes around on her plate. ‘It went fine. He was just a creep is all.’ The cut on her hand stung, but she didn’t mind. It grounded her.
‘I was telling Sasha about today,’ said Dad. ‘Found a double homicide perp hiding in a doghouse.’
‘What on earth was he doing in a doghouse?’
‘I didn’t say it was a he.’
‘Yeah, but that’s beside the point. He hid there when he saw our squad car pull up. It sure gives credulity to the saying that criminals always return to the scene of—’
‘Credence,’ said Sasha.
‘What’s that, honey?’
‘It gives credence to the saying.’
Dad furrowed his brow and twitched his mustache back and forth. ‘What’s the difference?’
‘Don’t never-mind your father. We raised you better than that. Explain the difference between credulity and credence to him.’
Sasha looked at her mother. Her mother with the body wave perm and power suit, with caked foundation and muted mauve lipstick. Was that all that was waiting at the end of the road? Pick someone safe, have a kid, throw yourself into work when nothing else made sense, and walk around with a raised nose at anyone who broke from formality like some painted marionette of a proper woman?
‘Thanks for dinner, Dad.’
‘Any time, Princess.’
‘You sit there and tell your father the difference.’
Sasha stared her mother down. ‘I’m not twelve anymore.’
‘Well,’ said her mother. ‘Well. Well. Well.’
‘I’m going for a shower,’ said Sasha.
She closed her eyes and tilted her face towards the water. She felt her way up the tiled wall to the showerhead and twisted the dial. The water narrowed from a spray to a single jet that dug at the skin in the middle of her forehead. She imagined the stream carving a neat hole into her skull, through her brain, and out the other side. Maybe that would finally quiet the noise, would let her forget about wanting to be her own person, would erase the memory of what happened that night on Shaker Street—which took place almost six months ago, but never felt further than yesterday, today, now.
The contact spot on her head began to ache from the beating of the jet and the heat of the water, but she held in place as the tension built within her like a pressure cooker because she couldn’t get the images out of her mind. Kirk’s rat-faced grin as he drove the butt of his pistol into Charlie’s temple, the bright flashes as he pulled the trigger, and the bullets entering Russell’s head—the pressure hit its limit, forcing its way from her gut to her throat and she challenged the frequency of the water with her vocal cords. But her parents were within earshot, so she jerked her head back and the jet punched an eye, a nostril, and then gouged at the back of her throat. She choked on the water, her cries quelled, and she collapsed to the floor.
A coughing fit cleared her lungs and she pressed her face into the drain. There had to be a better way. She would be like dismantled if that kind of behaviour persisted. There had to be a better way to get over herself and move on.
She left the bathroom wrapped in the towel she used to dry off but had forgotten one for her head and could feel the beads dripping from her hair all over the hardwood planks of Cumaru teak with maple inlay that her mother had fawned over for months and referenced in every conversation deemed appropriate, as well as, at times it was not. Sorry, not sorry! She would have stopped at the linen closet to grab something to wrap her head, but a light shone from the crack under her bedroom door, when she knew—without like a fraction of a doubt—she hadn’t left one on.
With a quick twist of the knob, she lunged into her bedroom. A desk drawer was pulled out and her mother sat on the bed with an open sketch book in her lap.
‘Can I help you?’ said Sasha.
Her mother jolted to her feet and flung the sketch book at the open drawer. ‘Checking if you had laundry.’
The book hit the drawer handle and flopped to the carpet, its pages exposed unceremoniously to the world. Sasha looked at the book, made sure her mother registered the focal point and understood that Sasha was unimpressed. ‘I’m twenty-two, Mother. I do my own laundry.’ Sasha stepped further into the room and locked eyes with her mother, who tried to look anywhere else but didn’t succeed. ‘And I thought it would be different this time, me moving back in, that we were through with this.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Her mother grew an indignant look, snatched the laundry basket from the bed, and huffed past Sasha to the doorway. She spoke without turning. ‘Your father wanted a word, by the way. Something about a retired friend of his needing a secretary.’
‘Tell him to forget it.’ Sasha collapsed into the desk chair. ‘Tell him I’ll find my own job. And close the door on your way out.’
Her mother stood there for what seemed like ages. ‘I don’t know what’s happened to you,’ she said, and nodded at the fallen sketch book. ‘You used to draw such nice things.’
Sasha felt the urge to leap to her feet and throttle her mother, but the door slammed, and she was alone. Except she wasn’t. At some point Spider had slunk in. And now he jumped into her lap, curled into a ball, and pretended to sleep. He wasn’t asleep, but she humored him and scratched under his collar while she fumed. For fucks sake. The living arrangement was not ideal in the slightest.
She picked the fallen sketch book from the floor, rested it on the open drawer, and flipped through its pages. It was an older one, with imps and movie monsters and Lovecraftian creatures, with occult symbols and sorcerers and shadow people. Then on one page near the middle, a portrait of Russell with a rose-thorn frame. She traced the twists of the rose stems with her pinkie. She had done the sketch in a booth at the Steer-In—while Russell bitched about condo prices—a couple nights before the incident. He was always so radiant, the best kind of person, probably the best friend she ever had. He always told her to be her best self. Though also, if the path was too obscure, to keep dealing until she found it. A lot of good that did.
But she missed him, she missed those days, how she felt about herself back then. It had been all so very different from now, this absolute bull situation. She placed the book back in the drawer with the respect it deserved but paused with her fingers on the drawer handle.
‘Where does all this lead?’ Her voice rang with a hollowness. Deadpan. Flat. Deflated. She slicked her hair back, dragged nails around her neck. That other Sasha, wherever she may be, was probably shouting obscenities, scratching at the bars of her cage. ‘Some perverse version of Mother?’
Spider perked in her lap, either bothered by her words or the droplets of water spraying his back.
‘Sorry, baby.’ She stroked his fur. ‘I just— Is this the best I can do?’
The cat stretched forward, placed his front paws on the still unclosed drawer, then looked back at her. His ears slowly flattened against his skull. A new behaviour, and a little unnerving at that. Cats seriously needed to come with a manual. They were like way more complex than the hamsters she’d had as a kid. She tried to placate him with scratches, but his attention just moved to her hand on the drawer handle and he began to emit a low rumble.
She imitated his sound, poorly, and started to push the drawer closed. But one of his paws shot out and batted her arm three times in quick succession.
She recoiled and massaged the spot, checked for claw marks. ‘What the heck, Spider!’
In response, he sprang from her lap to the desk’s top and padded to the spot above the drawer. His pupils dilated, stretched wider than they should have. Two black orbs that swallowed every bit of their usual minty hue. She saw herself reflected in those pits. Slouching in her chair, still dripping from the shower, her features drooping. Her whole sad state framed by the room behind her, immaculately tidy and childlike in décor, too much of it white, the paint, the bedsheets, the stupid gauze tacked to the wall above the headboard, the bulbed fairy lights. She watched, captivated, as her reflection straightened its posture, pushed its shoulders back, and the skin on its face tightened. It felt more real, more familiar. A smirk spread across its face and it leaned forward in its chair. And then the reflection was gone. Spider’s pupils had returned to their usual slits surrounded by green.
Sasha blinked a few times. Her hand hovered above the drawer. She knew now what she wanted. But it would be different this time, more difficult, riskier. Her hand began to shake but she reached all the way inside the drawer until her fingers hit the back of it. Then they went over the back and she felt around for the piece of tape she’d placed there when she first moved back in with her parents. After a few moments of fiddling, she located the duct tape and tore it free.
In her palm sat the piece of tape with a sim card stuck to its glue. It was the last piece of evidence, the only thing linking her to that night, to that world. Her best connection to the boot-kicker of a woman inside her.
Spider purred, curled into a ball in the spot above the drawer, and went back to pretend sleep. Had he known the whole time? Some reincarnated spirit sent to set her on the path? Maybe Russell— No, that was a psychonautic level of crazy. Spider was a cat. A loyal cat, but still just a cat.
The card and tape separated easily, and she wiped the card clean on her towel. Then she swapped the card with the one inside her phone, waited for it to register, and scrolled through the old contacts.
Those boys, the ones she’d seen outside the café—roughhousing on the corner. All they really wanted was to be recruited as good little soldiers. They would be the best place to start.