No Safe House

No Safe House

Fiction

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About the book

Jill and Blaine are twelve years old, poised between innocence and experience, childhood and adolescence. By the end of this summer, everything will have changed for the two best friends and their neighbourhood will have become much less safe. An elderly couple’s home is invaded, dogs are being poisoned. Who is responsible?

About the author

Poulin, Diane

Diane Poulin was born and raised in Montreal and graduated from Concordia University. She moved to Winnipeg in her twenties and considers herself passionately prairie.

Diane’s main occupation is journalism, and she spent ten years as a reporter, producer and director with CBC Radio in Winnipeg. She left to work for the Mayor of Winnipeg as political communicator managing the media.

She harbours a love for creative writing and even as a hard-boiled reporter could be caught scribbling poetry, which has been published in CV2 and Our Times magazine.

No Safe House is Diane’s first novel. She lives in Winnipeg.

Excerpt

from Chapter One

The girls are crouching over the metal grate, fingers sliding into the small holes, pulling at it. The concrete basement floor is cold under their hands, and knees.

"Here." Jill gives it a final yank, almost stumbling backwards as the metal clangs free. "Pass the stuff."

Blaine is leaning forward, looking down the sewer into the empty black hole. Her blond ponytail slides over her shoulder, almost touching the floor. She picks up one piece of the moldy bread piled on the basement floor, and drops it.

Jill leans in too, so she can hear the soft swoosh as it hits water, somewhere down there. She giggles nervously, as she always does when they are flirting with trouble.

"You take some of them," Blaine says, passing her half the stack. It almost makes them gag, pulling the green-black bread out of the waxed paper wrappings. It’s like crusty socks at the bottom of a locker, discovered days after gym class. They are shoving them faster and faster down the sewer. These sandwiches aren’t really sandwiches at all. They are just two pieces of bread with a hint of margarine in between. Jill carefully carries them to and from school each day in her lunch box, and simply does not eat them. She won’t even open her lunch box, because the bread is so foreign in its pure black ryeness . Her mother is not from here, she wasn’t born here like Jill, and she’s the one who insists this cardboard junk is bread. All the other kids at school eat clean white slices, or light brown sandwiches with peanut butter and baloney and Cheese Whiz inside. Jill’s stack of stinking, molding bread at the back of her bedroom closet has been her secret for weeks, and it’s making her panicky when her mother comes into her room. It is her best friend Blaine who comes up with the idea of sinking the black bread down the hole.

The girls are ten years old. It’s late May, and they want to be outside.

Jill wrestles the metal grate back in place. Each day, for the rest of the school year, she will come down here before her mother gets home from work and dump her bread. Jill is tall and skinny, with thin brown hair tied back from her bony face.

"Let’s get out of here," Blaine says, her eye catching the woman in the corner as she straightens. It always gives her a start, that mannequin, propped up against the cement wall, the blank eye sockets and white face. Jill’s mother tells the children she is a fashion designer, but really her job is cutting cloth at a garment factory downtown. They call her Bea. It makes her feel too old when she’s called Mother, or Mom. Here, in the basement, Bea creates her own clothes, at a long wooden worktable. Today there is a bolt of electric blue unfurled on the table. The mannequin is naked. It is always dark, and echoey down here, with nothing more than the lumbering furnace throwing shadows. It gives Blaine the creeps.

The girls run up the wooden steps, and across the shining linoleum floor in the kitchen. Jill puts her lunch box on the counter, catches Blaine’s hand, and they grin. Mission accomplished.

Delores opens her bedroom door down the hall.

"What are you doing?" she asks.

"None of your beeswax, "Jill says. Delores is only seven, and Jill mostly ignores her younger sister.

Delores takes the same hard bread sandwich to school every day and eats it. As soon as her lunch box is empty, she looks for things to take so she can fill it up. She steals paper clips, and apples, and staplers and chalk. She eats whatever she can, even the soft, gummy erasers. The rest she hides, mainly in her room, under her bed, and in the cracks in her closet floor.

"We’re going out," Jill calls, and they slam the front door. Jill makes her way home from school every day with the cool steel key slapping against her chest, on the string around her neck. Sometimes there is a babysitter waiting for them, but not often. Bea says not to tell people that they are alone, don’t let on. Blaine thinks this is great. She lives down the street, and her mother is always around when she comes flying in from school to dump her books.

"Let’s go to the graveyard," Blaine says, and they swing left, best friends heading out in the late afternoon sun, bursts of lilacs rolling over them as they pass the mowed and clipped front lawns. On bad days, when the wind blows strong from the south, the rotting smell from the slaughterhouse settles over Oakwood. No one hangs laundry outside and Blaine and Jill know they have to turn their backs. But today it’s lilacs, not pigs coloring the air.

"Hey girls," Laurel Murray calls as they pass her red brick house. Laurel is sitting on her front step. Blaine and Jill barely acknowledge her. There is no reason to, she’s old even if they do call her Laurel instead of Mrs. Murray, and her kids are too young for them to play with.

Laurel sighs. She’s twenty-five, or so she says most of the time. No one in Oakwood is sure, because since she arrived here last year she’s told different stories. She tells Blaine’s mother she is twenty-one, and she tells others, like Gary and Madeline next door, that she’s thirty. When she says she’s thirty she adds that she is a dental technician who quit working to raise her children. She stands up to go inside, frowning at the incessant barking of a dog nearby. This neighborhood is full of dogs and she can’t stand it some days, like now, when there is no one around to talk to.
Laurel wears her Levi jeans snug, with a T-shirt tucked in. Her brown hair is flecked with gold, exactly like her eyes. She’s good looking, and she knows it. Not that it matters. She’s stuck here baking an angel food cake, with three kids napping, most of the time bored out of her mind. Laurel can speed read a book a day, but she usually doesn’t bother.
She steps over the clutter of toys and sweaters in her hallway to get to the kitchen, where the oven timer is beeping. As she’s grabbing for mitts to get the cake out, she hears the car next door pulling into the driveway, the crunch of gravel and the slamming door, the hearty "Hi, I’m home".

"It just figures," Laurel says out loud in her kitchen. She timed this all wrong, and now Gary is already in his house, without exchanging one word. This is one of the highlights of her day, snatched away, just like that. Laurel slaps her cake down onto a mesh screen to cool.

Jill pokes Blaine in the ribs.

"Let’s go to her house," she says. They are in front of a two-storey wooden home. Ivy shoots out fingers and clutches the peeling paint. With the overgrown bushes and scraggly oaks, this place is like a forest in the midst of the manicured yards. It smells damp, and cool.

"Good idea." Blaine nods her agreement, and they veer left, down the back lane to the broken board in the fence, where they slither in.

Jill scrapes her legs but keeps inching forward on her belly. Blaine is already stationed in their spot, behind the bleeding hearts.

"We didn’t bring the book," Blaine says. "We need to remember it all. Look, she’s near the window."

They wiggle closer together, making their bodies like grass, flat against the earth.

The book forgotten under Blaine’s bed is a spiral, lined notebook. It’s where they record the results of their spying. It is filled with license plate numbers, the whereabouts of people in Oakwood at different times of the day, descriptions of strangers. But pages and pages are devoted to this house, and the woman inside it. They call her The Witch, maybe the good kind, maybe not. You can never be sure. The adults call her The Walker, among other things.

"She’s looking this way," Jill whispers.

"No, she’s not. Shhh," Blaine whispers back.

They see the drapes flutter, and the shadow move and glint behind the window.

"Remember this," Jill prods. "It’s your turn to put it in the book."

The woman inside sees the girls crouched outside in her bushes. It has been almost a week since she’s watched them, watching her. She decides to make it worth their while today. She picks up the floor mat in front of her kitchen sink. She edges her way to the back door, counts to ten, and then flings it open. She’s flapping her arms, shaking the mat, looking around wildly.

Jill jumps up shrieking and going right into her high-pitched giggle as Blaine grabs her arm, dragging them towards the fence. Her heart is pounding. They will never make it back under the fence; that’s too slow. In a split second she sizes up their chances of escape and starts bolting for the thick bushes at the side of the house.

"Run, run, run," she’s chanting to Jill, who always trips behind Blaine when they are in a panic.

The Witch gives the mat a good whack and goes back into her house.

The girls are fighting their way through the brambles on the side of the house, branches slapping up against tender skin, half blind with the urgent need to get away. Finally they see dappled sunlight spilling on the pavement of the street, and they run, clutching each other’s hands, run towards Blaine’s house at the far end of Water Street.

"Close call," Blaine pants. "I think she saw you."

"Did not," Jill wheezes.

They slow down now, passing the old Warbanskis, sitting on their hard kitchen chairs on their front stoop. The Warbanskis do not believe in spending good money on plastic lawn furniture. They pass the house where all the teenage boys hang out, where Tom lives, usually one of their prime spy locations but also the most difficult. They make their way down Water Street, past Blaine’s aunt and uncle’s house, and then finally, still slightly winded, they are safe, on their own turf.

"What’s up?" Blaine’s mother asks, as they barrel through the kitchen on their way to Blaine’s room upstairs.

"Nothing," Blaine says.

"Not much," Jill adds.

"You sure look like you’ve seen a ghost," her mother says. "Lemonade?"

"Yes," both girls say. "Please," Jill remembers to tack on.

"Can we take it to my room? We have something important we have to do," Blaine tries.

"No. Sit here and drink." Blaine’s mother is pouring them tall glasses, setting them down on the kitchen table.
Reluctantly, Blaine shrugs into a chair and Jill follows. Jill is staring at the bowl of fruit in the middle of the table.

"Have a banana," Blaine’s mother says, noticing the hungry look, pushing the bowl towards Jill.

"Ugh no," Blaine says, but Jill’s hand snakes out and grabs and peels almost in one motion. Furtively.

Blaine’s mother watches to see the colour in their cheeks return, the pinched whiteness receding, their breathing even out.

"So where have you been?" she asks casually, as if it doesn’t matter in the least, leaning her hip against the kitchen counter.

Jill and Blaine exchange quick, guilty glances, trying to decide what to say.

Blaine looks into her lemonade glass. "Climbing trees," she says, knowing her mother would have already spotted the scratches on their arms and legs. Her mother narrows her eyes, decides to let it go, for now.

"Well, it sure made you thirsty."

"Yeah," Blaine agrees quickly. "Thanks, mom." She’s moving, tugging Jill by the arm, and they get away for the second time in less than an hour.

 

from Chapter Two

Blaine wakes up with one thought instantly bursting through her.

"It’s my birthday. It’s finally Friday, and I’m eleven!"

She hugs this to herself for a moment, then flings off her covers and bounds down the stairs.

"Yahoo," she yells into the kitchen, where her mother is sitting with her cup of coffee.

"Well, if it isn’t the birthday girl," her mother says. "You definitely look older and wiser today. Happy birthday, honey." She gives Blaine a quick kiss, and Blaine is already skipping away. Her birthday is the most perfect day of the year, because it means it’s practically summer holidays. School doesn’t even count now, it’s just report cards and field days and you don’t have to learn anything new or do homework. Today there is only school in the afternoon because of teachers’ meetings, so she might go looking for Jill. Oops, can’t, Jill is supposed to learn about being a mother’s helper this morning.

"Yum," Blaine says, grabbing a juicy nectarine from the bowl of fruit in the middle of the table.

"And so, what did you decide for supper?" her mother asks. It’s a tradition in this household that the birthday person can choose the menu, including a trip out for burgers.

Blaine is ready. "B.B.Q’ed hot dogs and french fries and chocolate milk."

"And cake and ice cream?"

"Yup."

"And I take it you want Jill to eat over?"

"Yes, and sleep over. Mom," Blaine moves closer and twines an arm around her mother’s neck. "Best mother in the whole world," she wheedles.

"What am I bracing myself for now?" her mother asks.

"Can Jill and I sleep outside in the tent? Please, please, please?" Blaine holds her breath. This is a big treat, when her father sets up the nylon dome and blows up the air mattresses, and the tent is so far from the house in the back corner of the yard, it’s like another universe where adults don’t exist and anything can happen.

"Well, let me check the forecast and make sure there is no rain coming," Blaine’s mother says.

"And if?" Blaine pushes.

"If there’s no rain, yes, you and Jill can sleep out in the tent."

"Yipee," Blaine yells. "I’m going to tell Jill right now. Thanks, mom," and Blaine is off down the driveway on her bicycle. Last year on her birthday she did not get to try sleeping outside because they all went to a drive-in movie and conked out, Jill included, and had to be half-carried inside to bed at midnight. The year before, Jill had to go to her father’s house on that weekend and missed Blaine’s birthday. Blaine and her brothers tried sleeping in the tent but her brothers are such babies they got scared and as soon as it was dark they were blubbering until Blaine’s father arrived to bring everyone indoors.

This year would be different. This year she is eleven, practically a grown-up.

The forecast calls for a half moon, clear skies, and a warm summer breeze. The school day drags by, even though it is only a few hours preparing for the end of the year concert. Finally, Jill is arriving for supper and Blaine’s father is putting the tent up and it’s Friday night. They eat homemade chocolate cake with Oreo ice cream. Now the hardest part is waiting for dark.

"This is just like The Nest, isn’t it?" Jill says as they crawl inside, armed with their comics and flashlights.

"Except better," Blaine agrees.

"What do you mean?"

"’Cause we have a window and potato chips."

"And a whistle," Jill adds.

The whistle is to summon the adults. They have no intention of using it for real. They would rather die first.

"Maybe we should test it out," Jill says.

"That’s a good idea," Blaine says.

"You do it."

"No, you."

"Okay, pass it here."

Blaine puts the whistle to her lips and blows so hard, Mr. Warbanski, five houses away, straightens from tending his tomato plants in his yard, believing for an instant he is back at the rail yards and it is time to punch out.

Jill and Blaine have collapsed in nervous giggles.

"Well, it works," Jill says.

Inside the kitchen, Blaine’s mother and father look at each other.

"Here we go," Blaine’s father says.

"You take the first turn," Blaine’s mother says.

"Should I scare them?" he asks, pushing his chair back, getting to his feet.

"Nah, not dark enough," Blaine’s mother says.

The girls are still laughing when Blaine’s father appears at their tent window.

"Ladies," he says. "Trouble here?"

"Just testing," Blaine says. "The whistle works."

"That it does. I thought maybe it was a bear attack," he tacks on.

"Are there bears here?" Jill asks curiously.

"Oh no, I wouldn’t think so," Blaine’s father says.

"But you don’t know," Blaine says.

"I don’t know everything," he concedes. "Well, have fun. I must get in now, it’s getting dark." And off he ambles, into the dusk.

Jill and Blaine look at each other, wide-eyed, giggles returning at a higher pitch.

"This is fun," Jill says.

"Turn on the flashlight," Blaine says.

"Where were you this morning?" Blaine asks suddenly.

"What do you mean?" Jill says.

"I went to Laurel’s house but Laurel said she hadn’t seen you. What about your job?"

"I was there, but Laurel wasn’t." Jill pauses. She’s testing in her mind the words, Laurel was with Gary. Jill pushes this
away, she does not want it in the book and for the first time, she does not even want to share these facts with Blaine.

"So where were you?"

"I went to the Sev," Jill says nonchalantly.

"The 7-11? Just like that?" Blaine is incredulous. The 7-11 is on the other side of the highway and is to be avoided because it is mostly teenagers from the high school who hang out there. When they have to have Slurpees, they go together and wait and watch from across the road until there is no one hanging around outside.

"Were you scared?"

"Nah. Just some stupid boys there. No big deal."

Blaine rolls onto her stomach, pondering this. It feels like a big deal to her.

"Are you going to put it into the book?" Blaine asks.

"Man, I wouldn’t have even told you if I knew you were going to make such a big deal out of it," Jill says. Blaine does not answer, but she feels a quick sense of hurt. Worse, she feels suddenly alone in the dark night.

"Do you know any good ghost stories?" Jill asks.

"No. I’m reading comics now." Blaine turns away and grabs a comic book.

"Chicken."

"I am not."

"I know about an ax murderer," Jill presses.

Blaine covers her ears, and Jill laughs.

"I don’t really," she admits. "Pass me a comic."

They eat all the potato chips and read four comics each, lying on their stomachs, chins in their hand.

"Lasting longer than I thought," Blaine’s mother says. "It’s almost eleven thirty." She is standing in her darkened kitchen window, watching the glimmer of light wobbling in the tent.

"I think they’ll make it this year," Blaine’s father says.

"I’ll just bring them something to drink, then," Blaine’s mother says.

"I’m turning in," Blaine’s father says. "They’ll whistle if they need us."

Blaine’s mother picks her way across the black yard where her apple tree looms like a stranger. She’s carrying lemonade and left-over cake. She can hear the murmur of voices from the tent.

"Girls," she calls, far enough away to give them time to adjust to her approach. "It’s just me. Coming in," she adds. A quick silence, then Blaine is unzipping the tent’s front flap.

"Mom?"

"Just me." And now she has arrived with her tray.

"Isn’t it the middle of the night?" Blaine asks, incredulous. By their figuring, it is now almost time for the sun to come up.
Jill and Blaine are quite sure they have stayed awake all night long, for the first time in their lives.

"Not quite," Blaine’s mother says.

"Wow, thanks," Jill says, taking the cake and lemonade.

"We were starving to death," Blaine adds.

"I’m going to bed now," Blaine’s mother says. "Are you sure you want to stay out here all night?"

"Yes," Blaine says quickly. "I’m eleven now, Mom."

"Yeah," Jill agrees. "I’ll be eleven in three months."

"Okay," Blaine’s mother says. "Grab the flashlight and come use the bathroom one last time."

They trudge across the yard.

"Look up," Blaine’s mother whispers.

"Oh," says Blaine.

"Cool," says Jill.

The moon is a perfect half-pie against a sky studded with stars. It is so thick with stars, all shapes and sizes, it is almost glowing overhead.

When they step inside the hallway, still using the flashlight, it’s the house that seems spooky and silent.

"This is weird," Blaine whispers loudly, and her mother snaps on the hall light. The house shifts back into an ordinary place with ivy wallpaper and mint green walls. Blaine blinks. But it still smells different in here in the middle of the night; there is something that changes for real when all the people she loves are away dreaming, and the TV and the computer are off and shadows up ahead are swallowing the kitchen. The house breathes deeper, it claims more for itself. It makes Blaine shiver.

"Go wash up, girls," Blaine’s mother says.

Jill and Blaine brush their teeth together and even wash their faces, jostling and killing time, because now that they are inside it seems kind of stupid to go back across that long yard, to the tent so far away. They think this from the way their eyes meet in the mirror and slide away, but they do not say it out loud.

"I’ll watch you from the window," Blaine’s mother says, when they finally get out of the bathroom.

Blaine squares her shoulders. She’s the oldest now. She takes Jill’s hand and they step away from the house.

"It’ll be okay," Jill says, low. "I’m not scared."

"Neither am I," Blaine says.

Jill’s eyes are sharp in the night, picking out a path clear of rocks and roots, steering them while Blaine is still trying to adjust. It’s Jill who knows the ground, who leads them directly to the tent, then flashes the light three times.

Blaine is looking up again.

"What are you doing?" Jill demands.

"Let’s lie out here for awhile," Blaine answers. "Let’s watch for shooting stars."

Jill shrugs, but Blaine is determined, she’s pulling the air mattress out of the tent and positioning it just so, stretching out on her back.

"Turn off the light," she tells Jill.

The air mattress bounces as Jill stretches out beside her, the starry night pressing them down like a heavy quilt.
The sky is one shade bluer than black. Leopard frogs in nearby ditches fill the air with ribit-chants and the tips of trees rustle in a high up breeze. Down here, all is still.

"I see one," Jill says suddenly. "Look, it’s a shooting star," she’s pointing excitedly.

"I see, I see," Blaine says, watching the point of light travel in a perfect arc over them. This is not a shooting star, Blaine knows.

"It’s a satellite," she announces.

"What?" Jill says, keeping her eyes glued to her discovery.

"See how it goes in a line so straight? My dad says those are cameras. There’s lots of them up there."

"What are they taking pictures of?" Jill asks, skeptical.

"Us."

"I don’t believe you."

"It’s true. Some of them are taking pictures of us. Some are taking pictures of clouds and stuff, and some are spy cameras watching for bad things. That’s what my dad says."

Jill is silent for a moment.

"Can they see us when we are in the bathroom and everything?"

Blaine considers this new and awful possibility, which had not entered her mind before.

"I don’t think they can go through the roofs of houses," she says.

"Good." Jill echoes her relief.

They watch the satellite glide confidently between the stars.

"Should we wave?" Jill asks. "They must be watching us right now."

The girls wave.

Jill sits up and looks over at Blaine. "I just thought of something," she says. "Can the satellite see under the ground? To the rats under there?"

"Ugh," says Blaine. "Stop it." She looks quickly to her left and right. She has become so absorbed in the light overhead she has forgotten for a minute how inky black everything is around them. Suddenly it seems quite possible a bear will come out of the bush in the back yard, looking for a meal.

"I’m just asking. Seriously," Jill says, lying back down.

"I think the ground stops them, like the roofs," Blaine says.

"Too bad," Jill says.

"My dad says even the stars are not really real," Blaine goes on.

"My daddy says, my daddy says," Jill mocks.

This is a sharp bee sting to Blaine. "I didn’t say daddy. I said my dad." Blaine is stiff now. She knows Jill is mad at her because Jill’s father is not around much, and doesn’t say anything to anyone when he is, especially Jill. She can’t help it. It’s not her fault.

They lie quiet. Slowly Jill moves her arm, so that her fingers find Blaine’s hand. Icy, like when Bea hits her. After a while she says "How come the stars aren’t real?"

They glint with so much whiteness now, merging into each other like daylight.

"He says," Blaine is careful now not to say dad, daddy, father. "He says it takes so long for a star to shine its light down to us that by the time we see it, the star has already moved far, far away. The light up there right now means the real star is gone."

Jill is scrunching her nose.

"You mean our hand would go right through that star?" She points to the biggest one.

"Yeah. It’s not really there."

Jill frowns. "But we don’t know that for sure," she says.

"I’m going to find out for sure," Blaine says. "I’m going to be an astronaut."

"Yeah, right," Jill says.

"Am too," Blaine insists. "I’m going to go up in a rocket and see the stars and mostly I’m going to follow those satellites and spy on them and put it in our book." She has figured this out completely just before falling asleep at night, but it’s the first time she’s said the words out loud, so she says them again, to hear how it sounds.

"I’m going to be an astronaut." Pause. "What are you going to be?"

"I don’t know. A teacher."

"Not still. Come on," Blaine says. Since they were little they both said they would be teachers together and they planned to open their own school in the woods where children could play all day long.

"That was baby stuff," Blaine says. "You have to be something when you grow up."

"I don’t know, then."

"Wish on a star," Blaine suggests. "That’s what I did."

Jill studies the night, and she tries tilting her head the way the mannequin tilts, so she can see things both straight and crooked. Wishing as hard as she can, staring into her future in this fashion, Jill sees nothing. No picture of herself forms against the stars that are not really there. "I don’t know," she says again.

Blaine feels a hint of panic, and squeezes her best friend’s hand. "You can be an astronaut with me," she says. "You can come on the rocket, too."

Jill tries this on, then shakes her head. "I don’t think so, Blaine."

"We’ll build a school house up there, then. Space children need teachers," she’s trying hard now.

"Yeah, sure," Jill says too easily, and she’s slipping her hand out of Blaine’s, tucking her arms under her head as a pillow, tired of the sky.

Blaine looks up at the pinpricks of light so intently now her eyes blur. That star, there, is so close and so real, her father must have made a mistake. He’s smart and everything, but he must be wrong about this. Blaine sticks out her tongue, lying on her back in the yard on a June night, and her tongue touches the tip of the star. That is how Blaine knows for sure it is real, because a star tastes like birthday cake.

The girls make it through the night.

For some reason they cannot explain later, it is the milky stillness of dawn spilling into their tent that sends them running for the house, across the grass damp with dew, down into the rec room where they curl up like cats on the couch under the afghan.

***

Reviews

As the community's secrets slowly emerge, partly through Jill and Phoebe's spying, partly through the various community members' obsessive scrutiny of each other, the reader is given the sense of a highly dysfunctional world. As spring turns to summer, the… >>

The Winnipeg Free Press

Poulin comments on the role and effect of the media in a way that recalls Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Furthermore, she breaks down the varying emotions and dynamics present in any community, showing how growing fears of violence and… >>

Uptown Magazine


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