Growing up in Blue

Growing up in Blue / Zachary Fillingham / 2012

No one could recall there ever being two presidential candidates with such divergent platforms, not in the entire two-year history of the Order of National Salvation. On one side there was Stephen, who believed that the best policy for uncertain times was to re-assert the principles that had made the Order great: tradition, exclusivity, and a sense of duty towards building a better Canada. Pierre on the other hand was primarily concerned with the Order’s dwindling membership. He wanted to stop the bleed of members being lost to Scouts Canada and build the Order’s ranks back up to pre-1968 levels. One of the ways he sought to accomplish this was to extend membership rights to girls on the basis of full equality.

Seven boys were seated around the table, and all eyes were on John as he pulled tiny scraps of paper from his tweed cap and read out names. The mood was tense, and the only thing that saved it from being a downright nerve-wracking affair was the distracting plonk of David periodically dropping one of his marbles. The final vote came in at Pierre six, Stephen two. And once John certified the results with a solemn verbal stamp of ‘no re-dos,’ there was a sudden venting of pent-up energy such that the wooden walls of the treehouse visibly trembled. John gave Pierre a high-five, Marko and Tyler whooped, Carlos and Stephen clapped politely, Sam jumped up and down on his chair doing his best monkey impression, and David dropped down to his hands and knees to look for a marble. The ruckus eventually narrowed into calls for a speech, and Pierre abided with a few modest words in which he thanked Stephen for running an honest campaign. He then proposed they celebrate with a Rock’em Sock’em tournament- nickel buy-in, winner takes all. Amidst the ensuing din of yelling, jingling coins, taunts, and ripostes, Stephen excused himself to no one in particular and pulled the curtain aside to leave.

Stephen’s head was drooped for the entire ten-minute walk home, affording him a bird’s-eye view of his leather Buster Browns shuffling along the wide sidewalks of his neighbourhood.  There was a gloom about him that seemed to thicken as he recalled the string of events that led to his defeat. Only two weeks ago his prospects had seemed so much brighter. Back then Luke was still the president of the Order and it hadn’t mattered that Stephen was unpopular because he was one of Luke’s favorites. He had even risen to the position of official treasurer, being seen back then as a consensus candidate who could repair the credibility of an office still reeling in scandal thanks to John’s petty graft.

But it turned out that Stephen’s time in the sun was to be short-lived.  Luke was enrolled in Scouts quite suddenly by his parents, bringing his term to a premature end. Stephen had initially liked his chances for filling the vacated position. But thinking back on it now, he had apparently mistaken his comrades’ fear of getting on Luke’s bad side for a genuine fondness.

His Busters kept a steady pace as they ascended the three large concrete steps leading up to his house. He raised his fist to knock on the door but stopped when he saw a torn piece of paper poking out from the mailbox. ‘She’s out again,’ he thought, rummaging through his leather messenger bag in search of a key. Once inside, he carefully placed his shoes in the corner of the closet, and looked down at his two dirty socks as they climbed the thick, crimson carpet of the staircase. Just as he was rounding the top of the stairs, he froze mid-step and listened intently. It sounded like a muffled conversation was taking place in his room.

Now here we have a young boy who was all on his own and faced with an unknown and potentially menacing presence in the home. In this kind of situation, some boys would run, some would scream, and some yet would let their bladder do the talking. But Stephen’s initial gut reaction was none of the above. He dropped his bag and ran straight at the closed door, convinced that on the other side he would find either his mother rummaging through his stuff or his dad, home early from a business trip and eager to surprise his son. But when he swung the door open and yelled ‘gotcha,’ he discovered much to his chagrin that no one was waiting to be got.

Stephen made a quick sweep of his room, taking care to check any place that could conceal a parent. He noticed two things that were out of the ordinary:  his tape recorder was lying on the bed, and his birdcage was open. The bird, an African Gray Parrot that his father had given him a few years ago, didn’t seem too fussed by the prospect of freedom however. It remained on its perch with two little black eyes locked on Stephen.

Stephen picked up the tape recorder to put it away, and noticed that it was recording. He pressed eject, pulled the tape out and examined it. ‘Merry Christmas’ was written on the label in fancy handwriting; it was a holiday greeting that his dad had recorded for him last year. Worried that the original message might have been lost, Stephen replaced the cassette and played it back. He heard a high-pitched, shrilly voice that unmistakably belonged to Chatterbox, his parrot. It said:

‘The beaked shall inherit the earth… In-her-it the earrrrrrth.’

Stephen slowly turned to look at Chatterbox. The bird stared right back at him, its head bobbing continuously.

‘Chatterbox,’ he said in a voice that was nearly a whisper, ‘you can talk?’

‘Duh, Stephen, I say stuff all the time.’ Chatterbox screeched back.

‘But you’ve never been able to talk like this,’ Stephen said, feeling a little strange to be conversing with his parrot.

‘Maybe you just never knew how to listen,’ Chatterbox replied.

Though a talking bird was not the friend that Stephen would have chosen, given his lack of more conventional options he was glad to have someone to talk to. He and Chatterbox stayed up well into the night, happily discussing everything from the feel of flying to the day-to-day political intrigues of the Order. For the most part, Chatterbox remained in a lucid state, allowing for a good flow of conversation (piercing voice aside). But occasionally he would still burst into his old avian fits of repetition, at which times Stephen could only sit back and wait until his companion snapped out of it before nonchalantly picking up from wherever they had left off. Several hours later and on the brink of sleep, Stephen heard his mom come in through the front door. It didn’t even occur to him to be angry about it.

The next day marked the dawn of the Pierre administration. True to his word, Pierre introduced Mary, a girl with dark curls and puffy red cheeks, as the newest member of the Order. He even took a further step to narrow the gender divide by granting her the position of official treasurer. A round of polite applause followed the announcement, and Mary demonstrated her desire to make a good first impression by walking around the table and handing out two chocolate Kisses to each member. When it was Stephen’s turn, his voice audibly cracked thanking her. Some of the other boys snickered and Stephen felt his cheeks flush as he looked down at the table. But this embarrassment was of a different sort, having nothing to do with his increasingly unreliable larynx.  He was wondering why Mary had smiled so sweetly at him.

Pierre stood up and tapped the table for silence.

‘I have delivered on one of my promises,’ he said, inclining his head towards Mary who had taken a seat beside him, ‘and membership is already up by precisely twelve and a half percent. But it’s not only new members that the Order of National Salvation needs. We also need to reinvent who we are. Because Canada is changing, and if we don’t change with it, then our order will surely-’

A loud plonk interrupted the speech. David had dropped a marble.  Annoyance flashed across Pierre’s face and it looked for a moment like he was going to let loose on David, but then he noticed that Carlos’ hand was in the air to ask a question.

‘What do you mean Canada is changing? It looks the same to me.’

‘I’m glad you asked, Carlos.’ (And Pierre really did look happy to explain). ‘I overheard my parents talking the other night. They said there is a war going on between English and French Canada, with kidnappings, protests, and violence in the streets. There are even some people saying that Canada should be broken-’

A fracas broke out between Marko and Tyler as they exchanged a volley of kicks under the table. Pierre raised his voice to drown out the noise:

‘We need to prove that English and French people can live together in peace, so I’ve contacted a club at the Toronto French School that’s a lot like ours. They call themselves the ‘L’Ordre de la Rose Bleue,’ and they’ve agreed to come out for a joint friendship march down Lawrence Avenue next Sunday.  My mom bought us markers and paper to prepare for the event, so let’s get to work on some signs.’

Stephen and Carlos were walking home together after an afternoon spent writing ‘English and French: Friends Forever’ and ‘Salut Amitie’ in big block letters. Neither was particularly thrilled about the Order’s new direction.

‘And did it really have to be Mary? I mean, alright, let a few skirts in if we have to, but Mary and Pierre are like boyfriend and girlfriend. And then she gets to be treasurer on her first day? That’s not fair to the rest of us.’

Carlos kicked a rock and it skipped up and into a parked car with a surprisingly loud ding.  He tensed up and frantically looked around, primed to make a run for it if. But when it became clear that no adults were going to come running, he relaxed and carried on like nothing had happened.

‘You should vote for me next time then.’ Stephen said, smiling weakly.

‘I did vote for you, boss. Where else do you think your second vote came from?’

‘Oh, thanks.’ Stephen said sheepishly. He was a bit surprised. He had assumed it had been David.

Another note was waiting for Stephen when he got home. It informed him that his mother had gone to Buffalo with Mrs. Smith to get some shopping done before the seasonal sales ended, and that the freezer was well stocked with TV dinners. He crumpled it up and threw it behind the bushes in the front yard. The ‘I’m gone, love mom’ notes had always made him feel a little anxious about the long night to come, but this time it didn’t seem so bad because he knew he wouldn’t be facing it alone.

Stephen waved at Chatterbox as he walked into his room, and his greeting was met with the same vacant stare as always. He noticed that the recorder was once again lying on his bed with the record button pushed down. Stephen marched over and pressed stop. By now his smile had completely inverted itself.

‘I don’t know why you need to mess with my stuff. This is really expensive.’

Chatterbox stared at Stephen without making a sound.

‘Maybe there’s something you’d like to say to me?’ Stephen said, this time with a trace of uncertainty in his voice.

Chatterbox opened his giant beak and cawed, flapping his wings and marching his clawed feet while going nowhere in particular.

Stephen stared at the bird in silence, mouth agape. But just as the disappointment of having imagined the whole thing began to churn inside of him, Chatterbox piped up:

‘You’re too easy, Stephen.’

‘I am not,’ he protested, keenly aware of how childish he was sounding, ‘I just want to know why you keep messing with my stuff.’

‘I just hate my voice is all,’ Chatterbox replied, ‘and I’m trying to change it.’

‘Well next time switch the tape before you do your darned voice practice, because you’ve ruined my dad’s Christmas message.’

‘I’m sorry Stephen. I didn’t mean to destroy your property.’

The screechy quality of Chatterbox’s voice made it hard to know whether or not the apology was heartfelt, so Stephen opted to keep quiet.

‘Where is the old man, anyways? I haven’t seen him for a while.’ Chatterbox changed the subject.

‘He’s in the centre-east on business and I don’t care when he’s getting home. He’s a jerk.’

Chatterbox flapped his wings in agitation and hopped out of his cage and onto the windowsill. He raised a wing and motioned towards the neighbourhood visible beyond the open window.

‘You see those cars? They need gas to move. Without people like your dad, no one would be able to go anywhere- the whole country would just stop.  He’s out there in some hot, dry, and terrible place, working hard every day in order to make life better for everyone. Now the same can’t be said about your mother,’ Chatterbox began to stutter, ‘your mother…’

He lost his composure and burst into a bird fit:

‘Lazy tramp, lazy tramp, lazy tramp!’

Stephen wasn’t sure what a tramp was, but he did know that his new friend seemed to think he was some kind of idiot stick who didn’t know how cars worked. As Chatterbox carried on flapping his wings and squawking, Stephen’s attention shifted towards the rapidly darkening sky outside.

‘I guess you’re right, Chatterbox,’ Stephen said, and he got up and left the room without another word.

Stephen went through every room in the house turning the lights on, just as he always did when he was alone.  He then went to the kitchen to see about making some dinner. The note was right: the freezer was stacked with what looked to be at least a month-long supply of TV dinners. He took out a chicken and a turkey and put them in the oven.  When they were done, he shovelled the meat from both dishes into the garbage can. He then combined the vegetables and desserts onto one large plate and took a seat at the end of the table.

Just as his mouth was closing around the first spoonful of peas, he spotted Chatterbox bobbing across the kitchen floor with a folded sheet of paper in his beak. The bird flew up and onto the table and dropped it in front of Stephen.

‘I read your acceptance speech. It’s very inspirational, and better than Pierre’s by far, I’m sure of it.’ Chatterbox screeched.

‘Thanks, I guess,’ Stephen said, a little annoyed to have to dwell on his failure again, ‘but it turns out no one wanted to hear it.’

‘So you’re just going to give up?’

‘What am I supposed to do? The people have spoken.’

‘Stephen,’ Chatterbox began, bobbing his head obliquely as he screeched. ‘If there’s one thing that unites all of us, from the businessmen to the peasants, all the way down to the lowly parrot, it’s this: we all have the ability to speak. But just because we can speak, does that mean we have the faintest clue about what we’re saying?’

‘So you think I shouldn’t accept the election results?’ Stephen asked apprehensively.

‘I think you’re special is all, and sometimes special people need to stand up and lead so they can help others who are, well, not so special.’

‘But what can I even do about it?’

And thus the question that would irrevocably alter the course of the Order of National Salvation had been asked. As the bird gave a detailed albeit screechy response, Stephen unconsciously rubbed his acceptance speech between two fingers. He eventually became so engrossed in the plotting that he forgot all about the thickening darkness that lurked beyond the walls of his house.

Carlos was crucial to the plan’s success, so Stephen set about getting him on board before the Order’s next meeting. This was easier said than done however, because Carlos was known to maintain a fairly packed schedule. Stephen ultimately had no other choice but to tag along on his friend’s 6am paper route.

Beating back the constant urge to yawn, Stephen put out some feelers to make sure that Carlos was not a fan of anglo-francophone harmony. He was not disappointed. In fact, Carlos overshot the burden of proof by a wide margin when he rattled off a few things he’d heard his dad say about Hab fans.  Confident of a receptive audience, Stephen began to describe his plan to take down Pierre. Carlos bit his bottom lip as he listened, half-heartedly throwing newspapers in the general direction of every third house or so. Once Stephen had finished, Carlos said:

‘I’ll back you up in the meeting and everything, but what else do you want me to do?

‘It’s simple. Do you know any of those French kids?’ Stephen asked.

Carlos thought about it for a moment.

‘I don’t know any of them personally, but I know someone who does.’

‘That’s even better. All we need to do is pass word to the French kids that we’re going to be looking for a fight on Sunday. Get your friend to tell them, and make sure he plays it like they’re being tipped off on the sly. That way, they won’t come back to Pierre with it; they’ll think he’s trying to ambush them.’

Carlos whipped a paper against the rear windshield of a parked car. It landed flat with a loud and satisfying smack.

‘Sneaky sneaky,’ he said, grinning and shaking his head.

The next day, a gray and dismal Saturday afternoon to be exact, the Order of National Salvation assembled for one last meeting before the bilingual friendship parade. As standing president, Pierre controlled the agenda, and on that day in particular he had decided to make a case for the importance of club uniforms. When it came time for open discussion, Stephen raised a sweaty hand into the air. This was it; now or never.

He stood up and cleared his throat.

‘Tradition, honour, and brotherness- these words were spoken by the founders of our order, not trad-iss-ee-on, on-naire, or frat-air-nee-tay. And as for the ones doing all the talking back then, well,  I’m sorry to say it Mary, but they didn’t have any red bows in their hair.’

Stephen tilted his head towards Mary, who was seated next to Pierre at the opposite end of the table. She evidently hadn’t banked on a full-frontal assault that afternoon, because the only response she could muster was to sit quietly, hands folded in her lap, while her smiling, dimpled face slowly assumed the same color of the very bows that Stephen had just invoked. The weight of eight pairs of eyes didn’t have enough time to squish her however, because the spotlight quickly swung back to Stephen.

‘That’s because the founders were boys, and as the few of us who got a chance to hang out with James and Matt before they were enrolled in Scouts already know- these were two guys who were willing to fight for what they believed in.’

Stephen turned away from the table in a calculated moment of deep contemplation before continuing:

‘Well here’s the good news: their spirit is alive and well, because I’m still willing to fight for our order.’

Right on cue, Carlos jumped out of his seat and shouted ‘yeah,’ clapping his hands together hard enough to compel some of the other members to follow suit. An applause of disparate levels of enthusiasm followed. Pierre and John sat in silence, still reeling in the shock of Stephen’s ambush. By the time the clamor died down though, Pierre had found his composure. He stood up and extended a fist in Stephen’s direction, from which an accusatory finger quite suddenly shot out:

‘What the heck do you think you’re doing? I was elected by a fair vote, and now you’re trying to take over the Order? That doesn’t sound like tradition to me…’

‘Everyone has a voice, you know, it’s just that sometimes they don’t know what they’re saying,’ Stephen shot back, but when he saw some of the other members exchanging confused looks, he kept going:

‘You’re not protecting us and you’re not protecting what we stand for, and if you ask me that means you’re not much of a president. If you want to go out there all peacefully and get beat up by a bunch of Frenchies who are willing to fight for their traditions, then be my guest. Not me, though- I’ll be ready for a fight.’

Stephen kicked a chair over as he made his exit, followed by an entourage of Carlos, David, and Sam. The four of them were almost at the street when Pierre appeared in the tree house window and yelled ‘it’s a friendship parade, darn it,’ to which Stephen turned back and shouted: ‘just wait until tomorrow afternoon and we’ll see what friendship means to the French.’

The next day, twenty kids gathered at the Glendon College quad. The grass they stood on was a sock-soaking kind of wet, but the clouds that were to blame for it had already moved on, allowing a blade of sunshine to illuminate the green stretch separating the two groups.  On one side, the French boys were assembled in a compact line. They were talking amongst themselves in hushed tones and looking out across the quad at the Anglos, who stood in two groups slightly aloof from each other; one orbiting around Pierre, and the other Stephen. Placards proclaiming a new era of bilingual friendship were visible on both sides, though for the most part they were being used to conceal weapons.

Eager for an amiable demonstration that could quell the rebellion in his ranks, Pierre shouted a greeting to Remy, the leader of L’Ordre, and took a step towards the other side. Remy called out a response and came out to meet him, waving off someone who wanted to come along. At a distance of about four paces, Pierre extended a hand to Remy. His expression was one of complete openness and trust.

What happened next will forever be one of the most talked about chapters in the history of the Order, and despite the occasional disagreement over this or that detail, everyone could agree that it all seemed to go down in slow motion. Some were struck by the way Remy’s foot swung out behind him and hovered there for, like, a minute or something before rocketing forward. Others marveled at how Pierre’s shoes seemed to lift two; no, three inches off of the ground when Remy’s foot slammed into his crotch. On the French side, they dwelled on the impressive range of Pierre’s facial expressions, particularly the vividness with which his initial bonhomie gave way to shock and then terror. One French boy in particular, Jacques, never forgot the sight of Pierre’s outstretched hand coming down to meet the ascent of Remy’s foot. By Jacques estimation, his hand had very nearly managed to make the block; we’re talking a half-second or so quicker and the doctors might have actually saved Pierre’s left testicle.

There was a huge grin on Stephen’s face as he ran home, one that neither a bleeding face, nor a lost messenger bag could possibly displace.  He had pulled it off; there was no way he wasn’t going to be elected president now.

He was barely in the door when he heard what sounded to be another commotion coming from his room. He ran upstairs and down the hall, and opened his bedroom door just in time to see a large tabby cat jump from his window onto the outstretched branch of a tree in his front yard.

Stephen reflexively yelled ‘hey’ at the cat, which was carefully making its way towards the trunk. It turned to face Stephen, and a blood-streaked Chatterbox became visible in its maw. There was no question in Stephen’s mind- the bird looked dead, but he still ran to the window and leaned outside to see whether or not he could make the jump. It was too far though, there was simply no way.

The cat sat down on its hind legs, watching with indifference as Stephen’s despair quickly ratcheted into uncontrollable sobs. It then spat the dead bird onto the grass below and said:

‘Hey kid.’

Stephen’s sobs were brought to a sputtering halt by the shock of what he had just witnessed. He rubbed his eyes and looked back out at the cat.

‘Hey, you, kid.’

‘What?’ Stephen said with a rising pitch, half answering and half voicing his alarm.

The cat cocked its head to the side and said:

‘Stop crying and be a man for fuck’s sake.’

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