Lessons in Cartography

I don’t like it when people say I’m growing like a weed. In Madabec, weeds grow beside the highway. They get buried in dirt and choked with road salt. They get stuck living out their days under power lines while everyone drives past on their way to some place better. Weeds don’t go places. I’m no goddamn weed.

Neither is Simon but he keeps forgetting.

I guess it’s hard for him to imagine on account of his grandma always going at him. She’s meaner than a snake and calls him stupid and useless because he did grade eight twice.

Simon is the tallest boy at my school. And the oldest. He likes to wear a Captain America t-shirt and his nails are bit clean off. I’m getting him to stop. He still has his baby fat but he’s basically an adult even though everyone at school goes around treating him like a kid. It gets him frustrated. He hates being told what to do. When to talk. When he’s done. Other stuff makes him mad too.

You can tell when he’s had enough of something. His eyes go dead. Maybe he’s just messing with people but once, I swear, if his eyes could have been shooting lasers, right now Mrs. Roxborough would be a pile of sludge and ashes. I smelled a burned sparkler for an hour.

Sometimes, he says, he has to pick fights or the teachers will walk all over him. He’s got no one to stand up for him. His mom lives at least two Greyhound buses away and his grandma says she already does plenty for him, especially seeing as she doesn’t get enough money from the province to cover his food.

I tell him to stop thinking about his life now. To think about what his life’s gonna be, but I guess he can’t. Back in grade six, I got a t-shirt that said IF YOU CAN DREAM IT YOU CAN BE IT on the front written in big puff glitter letters. There was a sparkly unicorn, too. It was my favourite shirt of all time. It was like I could feel the words filling me up whenever I put it on. I wore it all the time. Even when it got too tight and Mom said it wasn’t decent anymore. I wore it until she threw it out.

I’ve been dreaming all the ways out of Madabec ever since. Thinking my way out of the scrub, away from the dirty pick-ups and the one shitty mall and the sound of tires grinding down the highway. I dream about all the things that are possible. Maybe I’ll work at a makeup counter. Maybe I’ll be a nanny for someone famous. Maybe I’ll get discovered.

But I am for sure never, ever going to dream about working the Dairy Bar. I tell Simon about my sister who smells like fry grease when she gets off shift. How she used to talk about fashion design but now she’s making Ultra-Meatys. “I’m going to respect my dreams no matter what,” I say. Just as Mom walks in.

The words hang in the air between us, like a bird waiting for the next gust of wind to decide where it’s going. There’s no telling. Then, Mom figures out what we’ve been talking about. Her lips get all pinched up like the edge of a pie. She starts saying I have no right to be judgy about Josie because I don’t know shit about life. That Josie doesn’t work the Dairy Bar because she wants to and that I could end up there just as fast as her.

I doubt it. Because I’m never going to give up on myself like Josie did. I say, “Right Mom.” Because I’m allowed to think my own thoughts and I want her to stop judging me. I guess it’s the wrong thing to say because Mom is walking in and out of her bedroom, telling me off while she’s changing out of her work clothes. Like this is about her when it’s about Josie. It’s embarrassing.

I say, “What’s wrong with knowing what I don’t want?” and Mom looks at Simon.

“Just use that big brain you say you have,” she says, “finish school and don’t hitch your stars to an idiot’s wagon. You’ll be fine.” I’m not sure but I think she’s talking about Simon. Simon’s shaking his head, like ‘that’s effed up’ so I guess I’m right.

Simon texts me later from home to say he doesn’t like the stuff my mom says. I think ‘Right?’ Because if I was my mom, I would be happy one of my kids wanted to do better than the Dairy Bar in Madabec. When me and Josie were little, Mom would always tell us about people in town trying to cut her down. Now, she’s like them. This town doesn’t want anyone to do anything different than them.

Like my makeup tutorials on YouTube. I was totally doing them for free samples. I never thought anyone would watch but then I got 118 subscriptions and people started leaving thank yous and comments like ‘you’re hot’ which—whatever—is not why I did it. Like, yes, I put some thought into what I was wearing and I cleaned my room but not to deep fake levels, even though some of the girls at school said that. They’re super childish but I was able to let it go. I guess having a boyfriend forces you to mature faster.

Anyway. One subscriber asks to come over and my mother totally loses her bananas. She points her phone at him, she takes his picture and yells at him to leave before she calls the cops. And he’s trying to do that but she won’t let him get away. She chases him to the curb and calls him a pervert. She’s screaming at the top of her lungs that I’m thirteen—in front of our house! I am so embarrassed. Her rudeness is over-the-top extra.

He’s long gone but she’s being like our old dog and not letting go of her stick. She points towards the front hall like he’s still standing there, trying to build up this drama about what could have happened if she hadn’t come home. “A total stranger just shows up at the door and asks if you’d let him shoot a video of you,” she says, “and instead of telling that piece of garbage off, you invite him in.”

Photo by Liz Breygel on Unsplash

Photo by Liz Breygel on Unsplash

“He was a producer, Mom. Do you even know what that means?”

“How do you know he was a producer? Because he told you? Because successful people wear shitty sneakers and stained shirts to impress clients? What were you thinking?” She flings her purse down like it’s disgusting and stupid. I guess it’s supposed to be me.

“Okay. So I didn’t know 100% he was legit but who’s always saying not to judge people by the way they look? He offered to do a video of me. A professional video. For free, Mom.”

She makes a face. I hate it. I know she’s winding up. “So what you’re saying is in his off-time, a kind stranger off the internet figures out where people live to come offer them professional caliber videos. For free.”

It sounds stupid when she says it but it’s totally her making it come out that way. I am not dumb. I get high seventies and low eighties.

I tell her that her problem is that she’s suspicious of everyone. She doesn’t like that but something sticks to her. I can see it. I’m not sure why.

“You might be school smart but you’re life dumb. You don’t know thing one about the real world. Your producer’s studio? Is probably in his apartment. He’ll lead you right into his bedroom where the light is perfect. He’ll see you’re nervous, calm you down, make you feel like you’re some real star. Once he sees you lapping that up? He’ll point to your shirt. The colour’s all wrong and he’ll ask you to take it off. For the shoot. And the minute he sees you hesitate, he’ll tell you a pro would do it. What do you, Audrey? Huh? What does all your life experience tell you to do then, Audrey?”

Mom’s eyes are shiny. She looks wild and strange.

“You make everything ugly,” I say.

“I don’t make it ugly. It is.” She turns away.

“Not everything, Mom,” I yell. Because I’m tired of her standing between me and the world I’m trying to get at. “You see it ugly because you’re damaged, Mom. You’re damaged.” The words I’m using aren’t mine. They’re Josie’s from a big fight she’s had with Mom before she started at the Dairy Bar.

Mom goes quiet. For a minute, everything seems to have drained out of her, the anger and the righteousness. It’s like she realizes all she has left is sadness and emptiness. I watch her pick herself up. I’ve seen her do it before. She tells me that until I’m mature enough to realize how people are watching my videos, I can’t make them anymore. I try to argue with her but her voice cuts through everything I say. “I’m trying to protect you,” she says, over and over again, quiet and persistent. Even while she’s looking through the refrigerator for the hamburger, even as I slam the countertop with the dishes, like the volume she’s talking at should be enough to make me believe what she’s saying is true. She says she’ll tell me stuff someday when I’m old enough but, now, I don’t care. She’s never going to change how she feels about that producer. Mom’s done nothing but rage against guys since she caught her ex-boyfriend trying to sell her car online.

Jackie, her girlfriend, comes over. They sit in the back yard and talk until late. I watch them a while from my room. Mom nurses her beer. Jackie flicks her flip flop while she says something off the top of her head to Mom but then her foot goes quiet and she listens to Mom say something serious.

The next day, Mom lays out new house rules. No more makeup. No steady dating until I’m eighteen and Simon is barred from our house on account that she doesn’t like that he’s intimidating. There’s no discussion. It’s: “from now on, this is the law and you’re doing it.”

Simon comes over to explain she’s not being fair. If she’d listened to him, instead of telling him he needed to leave over and over again, she’d have understood he was upset and he was expressing his feelings the one way he knows how. And I don’t know who keyed her car but it’s not him and she shouldn’t say it is. Now I feel bad for Simon because I’m the only nice person he knows and now he can’t see me except at school.


Simon texts me later that night. He’s using cuss words and angry Ninja gifs. He says he’s coming over. For sure, my mom won’t let him. She’ll shout him down even if I tell her to just let him talk, she won’t. He’s being so weird and persistent. Wanting to know what side I’m on. Why I’m not fighting for him. I tell him I’ve tried, but when Simon gets upset he stops thinking right. He asks me to meet him at the parkette and I say okay. Even though tomorrow’s a school day.

I sneak out through the backyard as a huge gust of wind comes up. It tugs on the screen door. The air smells like fried metal.

The parkette is fifteen minutes away, across the street from my school.

I’ve walked there on my own for almost eight years of my life but I’ve never gone this late before. Everything around me feels super sketch. The world looks upside down, inside out. The wind and the clouds are making everything feel extra crazy. I start thinking I see people in the shadows but maybe it’s just Mom who’s gotten inside my head and made the world uglier. My feet sound like they’re walking a second behind where I am. I walk faster. I hear the rumble of thunder. I’m walking towards it, I think. But it could be an empty truck, complaining as it hits a pothole. I don’t know for sure.

I spot Simon in the parkette, near the bench, checking his phone. I can tell from far away he’s happy to see me but once I reach him, he’s just as anxious as he was before. He gives me a hug and breaks it off, quick. Sometimes, he holds me against him hard. Mostly, though, he doesn’t stand still. In school, the teacher lets him pace at the back as long as he doesn’t disturb anyone. So, I sit on the bench under the street light and let Simon walk back and forth. Back and forth.

The transmission tower behind us is buzzing and popping. I wonder if rain makes it go crazy. It seems to match the way Simon is feeling.

“I hate her so much,” he says.

“Your grandma, right?”

He nods. I’m surprised it’s not my mom.

“I wish I didn’t have to stay with her.”

There’s a long awkward quiet. His eyes lock onto mine to make sure I understand. He’s looking for me to say something I know I can’t. His eyes look really green today. Some days, they’re more brown. I think that’s what his grandma means when she says he’s changeable like his mother. She’s said it a bunch of times but Simon burned all his family pictures of his mom, so I might never know for sure.

“What did your grandma say?”

Simon keeps his eyes down to get to his words. It’s like they’re locked away behind a steel door and he has to tunnel through rock to get there. After a minute, he spits out his grandma said he couldn’t get seconds at dinner anymore because he’s getting to be a big old tub.

“If I keep staying with her,” he says, “I’m gonna do something bad. I will. You watch.”

I understand about his hurt feelings and all that but I don’t know what to say about the rest of it.

“Could you move back in with your mom?” I ask.

He looks like he doesn’t like his own answer. “Her boyfriend doesn’t like me. Craig is a fuckknob,” he says. He brushes his hair back. His grandma usually forces him to get a brush cut. His face looks hot. He looks miserable, messy.

The transmission tower starts to hum.

It all comes spilling out. His plan. Like a ribbon of tomato vegetable soup. He knows his grandma’s PIN. He’s figured out where she hides her car keys, and he’s been practicing driving whenever she goes to mass. He says he’s going to take me to Galaxy’s Edge, then he talks and he talks about all the things him and me are going to do.

Simon’s mouth moves but I all I hear is the transmission tower, humming louder. I swear I can hear electricity rushing past us. I wonder how fast it’s moving. And where it is now.

Lucie Pagé is a television writer on Another Life and Slasher. Her fiction has appeared in This Magazine and on RobotButt. She’s just completing revisions on her first novel Lost Dogs and is looking forward to her next new project. Lucie loves humour, urban legends, photography, chocolate, and science documentaries. She lives in Toronto. @LuciePag2 on Twitter.