Eliza Robertson is an award-winning writer whose first short story collection, Wallflowers, was shortlisted for the Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award, the Danuta Gleed Short Story Prize Prize, the East Anglia Book Award, and selected as a New York Times Editor's Choice. She joins other expert tutors from the University of East Anglia for our Creative Writing Online Spring semester, where she will guide students through the building blocks of writing a good short story. Apply now - deadline 19 December. 

Read an extract from Eliza's new novel-in-progress, Demi-Gods, scheduled for publication around 2018 (tbc), below.


I decided we should cycle into Ganges for ice cream because I didn’t like tomato soup, and Eugene had opened a bottle of Cointreau, which meant they would smoke in stiff silence until they ran out of ice and Mom offered to walk to the neighbours. Probably he would not leave today. Probably he would leave tomorrow, when his eyes ached and Mom refused to fry him eggs. 

We bandaged Luke’s cut and I wrapped his hand with a clean rag so he did not feel it on the handlebars. It was forty minutes to town— fifty with Luke, as his legs weren’t long enough to pedal fast. I used Joan’s bike, he used my old one. It was large for him— the wheels as tall as his hips. He looked like a cricket.

We rode down North End Road, between columns of trees that separated the road from farmland. Sun filled the leaves— the arbutus trunks plump with it, a warm gauze of light thickening the air between their boughs and the boughs of fir trees. There is a pigment where green becomes gold, I think. You see it in apples. And the gaps between branches. Between the branches, we saw brassy meadows and a pear orchard. The pears wouldn’t ripen until August, but already I smelled the hard green of new fruit. We passed the schoolhouse, then the north-east lobe of St. Mary’s Lake. Luke asked to go in. You could jump from the road, if you minded the nettles. I told him to wait until we bought ice cream. 

My den chief said not to eat and swim. 

I ignored him. I thought about how this island was the most beautiful in the world. More beautiful than California. Palm trees were unfriendly— their fronds like thin spears or paddle blades. I didn’t like avocados much either. I’d rather eat a pear from the orchard, or a honey crisp apple.

What’s your favourite ice cream? he asked.

I shrugged. The sun glanced off the lake and filled my eyes. 

I like chocolate peppermint, he said. 

I was not sure which I liked. I liked to say the words “burgundy cherry,” and I liked how Mrs. Lee used whole cherries, which I tugged from the cream with my teeth. 

Frozen custard with cherry, I said. 

Palm trees were unfriendly— their fronds like thin spears or paddle blades

The sea smelled different at Ganges. The seagull shit and salt off the docks smelled pleasant, somehow. Organic like dead crabs. The scent mingled with vinegar from the chip shop, and waffle cones, boat bilge, the musk of warm ropes. 

We ordered from the soda counter at the chemist’s. I chose cherry. Luke asked for fudge. We stood outside the shop in the sunshine. The road was not gravel here, but warm and silty, like flour between our toes. We sat on the curb and tried to lick our ice cream faster than it melted down the lip of the cone. The boy who delivered for the creamery had parked his wagon in the middle of the road. I recognized him. I think he brought our milk last summer. As he heaved a can off the cart, the sun lit the hairs that dusted his forearms. He didn’t look at me or Luke. Maybe we were too young for him to see. He was older than Joan, I thought. Eighteen. His shirt striped white and red like a boiled mint. His tan reminded me of the brothers, but his skin-tone looked more honest somehow, from hefting crates and chopping wood rather than surfing. When he bent to lift two more cans, the muscles in his forearms purled. I looked away as our eyes met. Blood flushed my cheeks. I felt embarrassed by my bare feet.

Willa, said Luke.

What.

Your ice cream. 

I looked to find it had melted down my wrist. A milky drip of it, drying into a band of taut skin. 

Can we go now? he asked. The boy had passed us into the pharmacy. Luke stood and petted his horse. The animal huffed and several flies sneezed from his nose. I stood as well and walked to the rear of the cart, where a blanket screened the bottles from dust. I lifted a corner of the blanket. Underneath, the boy had arranged the glass by size into rows: tall bottles for milk and squatter vessels for cream that cinched at the centre like hourglasses. I reached inside and freed a jar of cream. I tucked it inside my shirt.

 

We cycled back toward the lake. I pushed the jar of cream inside my waistband. If Luke saw the bulge, he didn’t mention it. We pedalled up the first hill, and I focused all energy into my torso— into clenching my navel, as though my solidity would stop the jar from falling. We tipped over the hill and coasted down. I placed one hand over my stomach. The glass warmed against my skin.  

Luke didn’t ask to swim, though I knew he wanted to. I felt bad, because I said we would stop, but I wanted to go home. I wanted to hide this cream under my bed, then tiptoe along the trunk of my arbutus tree and think about the boy who drove the dairy cart. We lived so far up the island. I wondered if he still delivered our milk. For the first time, I felt glad that Joan wasn’t there. They loved her so effortlessly, boys. 

Luke’s gaze hung on the lake, which glittered beyond the horsetails and spirals of blackberry. I nearly braked, but pretended I forgot my promise instead. The water glinted sharply— at that moment, it seemed a lake reflected more light than the sea. The ocean absorbed light, held the sun. A lake spat the sun at you.

It took an hour to reach home because I rode one-handed, cradling the jar of cream against my belly button. Luke didn’t say anything as we arrived. He walked his bike to the garden shed and slotted it neatly beside the skiff. I slid my bike next to his. On his way out, he unwound the rag from his hand and folded it inside his pocket. Chocolate had dried into the corners of his mouth. He continued outside and crossed the grass, pausing on the porch to collect his stamp album. I followed him inside. Eugene had driven to the neighbours for ice. Mom sat on the chair with an empty glass between her palms. Her lips were parted around a wedge of lemon.

(Photo credit: Sara Hembree)

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