Dale L. Sproule

I've had over 50 stories published in markets including Ellery Queen, Pulphouse, Northern Frights and Tesseracts. I currently have a story in the The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir. 17 of my best stories are collected in Psychedelia Gothique.

I've had over 50 stories published in markets including Ellery Queen, Pulphouse, Northern Frights and Tesseracts. I currently have a story in the The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir. 17 of my best stories are collected in Psychedelia Gothique.

Ladder of Ashes

I tried to meet Mom’s flickering, pixellated gaze as it skittered across the screen, and to parse meaning from snippets as her voice shifted in and out of audibility, “Lots of people asked about you… with this fever… won’t let me… bloodwork… don’t know how long I’ll be here… have to come home for high school in September if Dad can’t find you a tutor…”

The trip-planning sites all warned that Myanmar had the worst connectivity in Asia. No lie. We were waiting for delivery of a satellite dish, but in this part of the country, the electrical supply was as much an issue as the signal.

Mom had gone back to Toronto for cancer treatment, leaving me stranded in Mawlamyin with Dad as he carried on converting the old rubber plantation into a museum/hotel–certain that it would attract a steady and lucrative stream of cultural and academic tourists.

Twelve Oaks Estate sat in the center of a pegboard orchard of old and stingy rubber trees – a morning wagon’s ride west of the enclave of colonial mansions known as little England. As far as I knew, there wasn’t an actual oak tree within 1,000 klicks. The house was a vast block of stone that had long since lost most of its balconies and porches and canopies to rot and rust.

The day I met Lawrence, was the first day of the rewiring, so all the electrical power in the house was switched off – no air conditioning, no TV, no computer. The contractor doing the reno didn’t want the boss’ son “underfoot,” so I didn’t have access to most of the house. I couldn’t go outside because the gatherers didn’t want people wandering the grounds of the plantation – outside of organized tours – for fear they would get in the way of the tappers or inadvertently contaminate the cup things they collect the latex in. Even though Dad had let me shadow him one day, he made it clear that I was a big distraction that couldn’t happen often. And he didn’t trust me to go into town on my own.

Dad had augmented the library with books he’d collected for display at the hotel – antiques and early editions to augment the immersive experience of living in a British colonial mansion: Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Dafoe, Rudyard Kipling. I read them mostly because there was nothing else to do.

And I slept.

I dreamed of boarding the subway at Museum Station. There were no other passengers except for a young woman at the far end of the train. As I walked toward her, she stood and I saw that she was wearing a deep green Edwardian dress with lace across the décolletage, her long dark hair twirled atop her head with emerald combs. The air around her was a stale, slightly rotten potpourri of disquiet and despair. As beautiful as she was, there was no joy in her demeanor. Sadness clung to her, emanated from her. And need – an unfed hunger that sucked up the light as she put her hand on my shoulder and stared into my eyes. Darkness reached up in tendrils from between the seats, clinging to me, crawling up my arms, caressing my face. My breathing grew shallow.

“I can feel him near, my Henry,” she said, then handed me a coconut shell and sighed. “If you see him, give him this.”

The subway doors opened into jungle, I followed her out onto what should have been the platform, but she almost instantly vanished in the trees. The shell opened like a book. In its cavity, nested an India rubber ball, milky purple shading to amber, like a heart that’s drained of blood. It gave a larval twitch, squirmed, lengthened and dropped to the ground. I turned to get back on the train, but it had vanished and the platform had turned into a churning swamp of translucent worms that sucked me down. I woke up gasping for breath, face buried in a sweaty pillow.

Along Dominion Road

A blue street sign saying Mandela Avenue is barely visible through the mud-splattered bus window. Where’s Mandela Avenue? That’s not on your regular route to work. But then you remember, you’re not on the bus to work. You’re coming home from the field hospital, by yourself, because the fugue took Sierra, your stepmom, on the first pass, and your Dad’s still in the hospital in the final stages of the pneumonia called prescience that that claims so many survivors of the fever. He begged you to “Go home, while you still have one.”

Clarity is one of the last symptoms of prescience and this morning your dad was almost preternaturally wiser than you can remember him ever being. After days in a babbling sweat – reliving all the mistakes and miscalculations he had made growing up and all his failures as a parent, he’d lapsed into full blown remorse.

You’d heard all these apologies before: the “I’m-sorry-I-wasn’t-there-to-help-you-through-your-teens” spiel; the “I-only-survived-my-own-teens-by-chance” rationale; the “If-I-had-lived-with-your-Mom-any-longer-I-would-have-killed-her” defense. But this time was more poignant because you could tell from the look in his eyes that he finally did understand how you felt about it all. And you knew how sorry he really was. If you still cared the way you once did, it would have broken your heart when he said “It was always my hope that you’d come and live with me. You know I’m not lying.” And you have always known. And it means nothing. Sorry, Dad.

You held the water bottle to his lips with shaking hands one last time. He never noticed, which was a relief of sorts, because he also never noticed when you left him in an army tent in the field behind Central Elementary – still in the grips of the unforgiving truth.

Time to go home.

Its fugue house status will keep squatters out, you know, but thieves or soldiers or bureaucrats will ultimately find a way past all your locks and security systems to take everything you consider your own. And they’d go into your house with their hazmat suits and gas masks and surgical masks and cat burglar clothes and they’d steal all your valuables – the markers of your life right down to your photos and your books and video games. And since it is a fugue house, they might even burn it down when they’re done.

So you’re jouncing down the potholed street, going home – if you can remember the way. The fugue still has its emotional hooks in you, so it can be hard to focus.

The LED display behind the driver says Kiwanas Place, which is no more familiar to you than Mandela Avenue. To top it all off, the recorded voice says, “Next stop, Tyrell Road.”

What the fuck bus are you on? In fact, what city are you in? You thought the Dominion bus went straight to Mount Newcombe. But as you look out the window into an unfamiliar parkette, you decide to check with the driver. After an awkward aisle dance with a big Tamil guy in an afro, you squeeze past a pram, a thick-whiskered-man in a long billed baseball cap and a trio of new-to-the-workforce Asian girls in primary colored suits. And when you’re almost at the front of the bus, an old man reaches out from the bench seats and grabs your arm as you go past. You look down, surprised to see your grade 12 English teacher.

“Kasey?” he says, shaking your hand. “It’s been what? Three years? What have you been doing?”

“Mr. Olthius. Hi.”

“It’s Dean,” he reminds you and you smile at the memory of him insisting you call him by his first name back in school – the first of your high school teachers to do that. His formerly ruddy cheeks have become pale and veiny. The loose skin on his neck suggests that he has lost weight.

“Are you still painting?” he asks. You’re as impressed and amazed he remembers you paint as you are embarrassed you haven’t been doing any.

“I’m sorry, Dean,” you say. “I was just going to ask the bus driver what bus we’re on. This is the 34A, right?”

Dean shakes his head. “34E.” He snickers and nods. “I feel lost like that alla time. It’ll be alright. The bus turned off of Dominion at Milestone Mall. That was a few stops back. Long walk, but maybe better than staying on the bus until it comes full circle?” He squeezes past you. “Anyway, this is my stop.”
You are not feeling up to a long walk. As the door opens, you ask the driver, “How long does it take to do the whole circuit?”

“Forty minutes back to the subway,” With his round Hispanic face and thin white mustache, he reminds you of your Uncle Fred. He tears off a transfer. “But the bus coming the other way should be here any time. It will only take you five minutes to get back from here.”

For the first time, you notice a shopping bag on the floor where Dean was sitting – a shiny red bag with cord handles. You peek inside as you lift it up. The contents include a computer tablet and a couple paperback books. On closer inspection you see that it’s a story anthology with Dean listed on the cover as one of the contributors.

“Are you getting out, the bus driver urges.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Clutching the bag to your chest you step out, foot hitting the sidewalk, just as Dean turns a corner onto a side street. You run to catch up, but by the time you get there, he’s gone.

“Dean,” you shout, but no-one responds.

You look at the transfer thinking I have ten minutes and then you follow him.

He goes into a shop at the end of the block.

You follow.

The shops along this street are Tudor styled and brightly trimmed – quaint and twee compared to the fast food joints and boarded up tavern on the main street. There’s a confectioner, a bookstore, a men’s clothing store and a barber shop with an old candy cane style barber pole. At the end of the block is a store with a hand painted sign saying Memorabilia. You see Dean through the window and go inside. A little bell jangles as you enter.

“Glad I caught you,” you say to Dean.

“I’m sorry?” he replies. “Who are you?”

“You forgot your bag on the bus.”

He says, “That’s not my bag.”

You aren’t sure how to respond, so you stand there for a couple beats before remembering the contents. The book with his name on it. You pull it out.
“Isn’t this you?”

“Well, I’ll be damned. Where did you get this? I have one in the store just like it.”

“That’s what I’m telling you. This is yours.”

“Why did you bring this to me? Are you rubbing it in?”

“What?”

“That I survived and nobody else did? That I’m completely fucking alone.”

“I’m standing right in front of you. You recognized me on the bus a few minutes ago. You even remember that I used to paint.”

“Used to? Oh,” he smiles apologetically. “You should start again. I’m sure paint supplies are cheap these days. It’s Dean, right?”

This is getting complicated you think, wondering if you should even bother correcting him. But you do. “I’m Kasey. You’re Dean.”

He laughs out loud and for an instant you’re certain he’s just jerking you around. But the look in his eyes says otherwise. “Sounds like the punch line to a joke, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” you say because you can’t think of anything else to say. It’s time to extract yourself from this awkward situation. “Well it was nice seeing you.”
“Thank you for going to all this trouble, young man. You people don’t usually follow me all the way here.”

You back away smiling. “All the best, really. And congratulations on being published in that book.”

You nod at the book he’s holding and then you see what he has in the other hand – an old magazine that’s in truly pristine condition. National Lampoon. You’ve heard of it from those old movies but didn’t realize it was once an actual magazine. And on the racks all around it are displays of other magazines, with names like Look and Argosy and True Detective. As you gaze around the store, you realize what a wonderful vintage atmosphere they’ve created in here – it’s like a museum display from the 1970s. You’ll need to remember how you got here, so you can bring some friends. Sweeny would freak out about those old comic books.

Dean has wandered deeper into the store without a goodbye. Catching glimpses of him down each aisle, you call out but he does not stop or turn around. Back out on the street you start walking back up the hill thinking, I’ve almost certainly missed that bus.

There’s a record store with albums you remember from Dad’s collection–Blue Cheer, 13th Floor Elevators, Obsidian Planet, Amon Duul. Really old stuff.
And right near the top of the hill, there’s the store with the My Little Pony and the He-Man toys.

In a shop window at the top of the hill you see two Pokemon cards that must have come out after you stopped collecting them. It makes you smile. You emerge from the row of retro shops just as the 94E pulls up. And you root in your pocket for a token, transferring your bag from one hand to the other. You stop and stare at the red shopping bag, thinking, didn’t I give that back?

“You alright?” asks the bus driver. The way he lifts an eyebrow as if to ask if you’re coming on board reminds you of an uncle you haven’t seen in years. Uncle Fred.

“I meant to get on the 94A.” you say.

You step up and the bus doors close behind you.

“Sorry,” says the bus driver. “You missed that bus years ago. But you can ride with me wherever you want.”

You take a seat across from the bus driver and rub your face. Something feels wrong. You lift your head to say something and see someone you know coming up the aisle from the back of the bus and you grab their arm. “Kasey?”