Our December Silver Medal Winner

by - Sunday, February 18, 2018

Geraldine Mac Donald is a graduate of Queen's University, a former registered nurse, a medical/scientific translator; a writer, published author, and mother of four. One favourite memory of childhood was when she discovered that town libraries were public and anyone could get a card! It was a life-changing day. Her second novel for young adults has recently been released to rave reviews. Besides translating medical research, she writes fiction and creative non-fiction. Geraldine lives, works, and plays with her family in Kingston, Ontario.

The photo prompt:

The unedited story:

Under the Cobblestones

by Geraldine Mac Donald

The smell stung at the back of his throat, bringing with it a full rush of unwanted memories: teeth-rattling cold, growling hunger, knuckles raw from the scrap.

He scratched at the place where his rib was cracked, a bony protrusion of constant reminder that he always tried to ignore, and gave a wary rub over the tattoo under the hairline on the back of his neck that he'd agreed to getting in a state of uncontrolled fury, as if one light touch might erase it, make it vanish like that life he'd been forced to live. The pen tip seared with fire and punched its way through his skin leaving him marked forever as one of them.

Rotting leaves. Refuse. The stale odour of recycled beer.

He shook his head, let his hand drop back to his pocket, and scuffed in deeper. If the memories rushed in, so be it. That was his purpose in coming here after all, wasn't it? To bring it on. But his indirect aim, to find others, was pointless. They were gone. Shifted. Re-located elsewhere to make room for another luxury condo or hipster brewery on sub-prime real-estate.

Funny how things can change so fast, he thought, as the sound of constant traffic whizzed overhead. Everything and nothing all at once. The people standing on the ground and the ones under it.

In his day the space under the overpass was littered with kids like him: rebels, misfits, the discarded. Known around town as 'The Beach' he later learned it was more than simple irony, more than some sarcastic moniker to a place that no one really wanted to visit let alone inhabit.

"Hey, you lookin' for a cheap place to stay? Free accommodation, but ya gotta pay the price."  

He came across the real meaning as accidentally as he'd ended up at there in the first place: in a clash of sudden words and actions. It wasn't his choice for his mom to hook up with Montreal Claude who'd arrived on the Megabus for a buck. And it wasn't his choice for Claude to have been everything his lying, cheating, scumbag, online profile said he wasn't.

"What the hell, mom, the guy's an ass. Ditch him."

"He means well, honey, he's just rough around the edges."

But he learned quickly that his fifteen-year-old choices didn't matter, and that once a man like Claude moves in his stench fills more than a one room apartment.

That's how it works, he now understood. No one wants to be on the streets until the streets, with their stink of decaying leaves and stale piss, become better than the reek lingering inside the walls you used to call home.

"Sous les pavés, la plage."

He hated French, thanks to Claude's accent that his mom thought was sexy. He avoided it at all costs, the same way he neglected to look at his ribcage in the steamed mirror after a hot shower. So when he was at the computer that day, waiting for daily case reports to load, and he overheard Sophie nattering on, he'd intended to block her out, feign disinterest, but he couldn't.

"It was astounding. Brought the entire economy of France to a halt. May of 68. De Gaulle actually fled. They feared revolution you know, and in France that's something," Sophie said, in her perfect Parisian tone. They'd needed two bilingual social workers and Sophie was a new hire, fresh off the tarmac. Stylish. Not as uppity as she looked. Street work came in all shapes and sizes.

Lou had egged her on, making polite conversation with the intention to get somewhere other than office talk. But Jack didn't even look. He smiled at his own reflection staring back from the black face of his computer screen and shook his head, listening despite not wanting to, drumming his fingertips on the desk. He'd known Lou for years, since their Humber days, so it never surprised him when Lou flirted.  

"What were they protesting? Who started it?" Lou said in his affected, eastern provinces twang between sips of hot coffee.

"The students, of course. Always the students. But it spread like wildfire to factory workers, you know, union workers. Capitalism. Consumerism. American imperialist merde." They'd sauntered past Jack's desk and he caught a whiff of Sophie's flowery scent, knowing that Lou would mention it later.
But Jack was distracted, burying his thoughts inside the memory of a tough kid with a full bag of half-empty spray cans, high on something, angry with the same world that Jack had been angry with.

"So what does it mean?" Lou asked.

The kid: Jack couldn't remember how long he'd been sleeping there, what his name was, what his story was...but he could clearly see the words.

"Under the cobblestones, the beach. But it's really about escaping repression. It's about freedom for the oppressed," Sophie said.

He'd been ranting, pacing, twitching around their concrete underground and trying to come down from whatever it was he'd taken too much of, so when he first grabbed the spray can Jack had backed away, thinking he didn't want some freak to lace him in the face. You learn to stay on your toes when you live on the streets. You learn to see and hear everything.

He whipped out the can, tossed the bag aside, spat his cigarette out, and in bold, sweeping strokes wrote the phrase, never knowing that part of it would become a tag for so many, having it tattooed with sharp, hot pens into their skin.

"You spelled Cossack wrong you dumbass," a voice echoed from the shadows behind a nearby pillar. And in the weak light that seeped in from the edges of their reality, Jack knew it was true. High or not the kid was trying to be poetic, to give some kind of deeper meaning to a phrase he'd heard somewhere, sometime.

"Sous les pavés, les coaques."

They were all Cossacks. They were all revolutionaries.

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