B-Sides: First Impulses
B-Sides are short stories based in the world of Bytown. Every so often, I take a request from a reader and see where the story takes me.
Three days later, Béatrice finally summoned enough courage to open the letter and make it all real. It took her less than a minute to read, after which she folded it back up, set it on the table, and put a smile on her face that she prayed would hold.
Mrs Leclerc glared at her as she came in the back; the shop had been open for two hours already, and the pile of unfinished work was growing more and more unruly by the minute.
“So nice of you to stop by,” said Mrs Leclerc. “At what time does the sun rise in your house?”
“Oh, much later,” said Béatrice, browsing through the pile of dresses and coats in the pile. “Our sun was out drinking last night. Refused to get out of bed.”
The customer, a middle-aged man waiting on a shirt, chuckled. Mrs Leclerc glared at him, and then at Béatrice.
“Must be nice to not need to work. Buys you luxury, and lip.” She waved her shears toward the pile. “Now get to it. I’m done making excuses for you. Keep up or find another hobby.”
“Yes, madame,” Béatrice said with a little curtsy that was anything but sincere.
She started work, cutting and sewing, trimming and hemming, until her fingertips were that perfect kind of numb and her shoulders stopped aching from the posture, and her body became a kind of machine that would process whatever fabric and thread you put in front of it. It let her turn off her mind for a while, which was exactly what she needed.
By noontime, the pile was half-gone, and Béatrice wasn’t slowing down.
Mrs Leclerc swore under her breath, knelt down next to her. “Heavens, child, are you _crying?_”
Béatrice hadn’t noticed. She didn’t even believe it, until she wiped her eyes, and felt the tears. She put the smile back on. “I’m fine.”
“No you’re not,” said Leclerc, taking the dress away from her. “You’re soiling things.” She pointed out the back. “Go compose yourself. Whoever he is, forget about him while you’re working, or you’re no good to anyone.”
Béatrice nodded meekly, and hurried out the door.
She took a big breath of air, like she was coming up from the very bottom of the ocean, and wiped her eyes clean. Things carried on around her like she wasn’t even there, but that was a relief. A mercy.
“Mornin’, Bea,” said a young man in a bright blue coat, tipping his cap to her. In a world of French, his English cut through like a flaming sword. People would’ve stopped and stared, but they knew him well enough by now. “Lovely day, isn’t it?”
She made sure her eyes were dry before turning to give him a smile and saying, in English: “Mr Valance, poor timing as always.”
“Oh? Aren’t you well?”
“Well enough,” she said. “But I’d rather—”
“Because I know what could take your mind off your worries,” he said, and offered her his hand. “A stroll.”
“A stroll,” she echoed.
“Aye. Such a lovely day, it deserves a stroll. Nothing too far, mind you. To the cliffs and back.”
Béatrice looked north, toward the cliffs overlooking the Ottawa River, where Bytown had not yet grown, and trees made for an...intimate environment. By the smile on Valance’s face, she could tell the intimacy was its main selling point. On any other day, she might’ve felt differently, but today...
“My father would disapprove,” she said, not taking his hand.
“Oh, he’s not even back yet,” teased Valance. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
Béatrice felt suddenly ill. She took a step back, then another, and then started walking deeper into the Canadien district. Valance hovered at the margins, cupping his hands to his mouth and calling: “Bea! Bea, wait! What is it? What’s wrong?”
She had no idea where she was going, where she meant to end up. Every time she caught sight of someone she knew—which was everyone, everywhere—she turned down the nearest alley to avoid being asked questions that would end up at the doorstep of the nightmare she’d left at home.
After a few too many turns, she realized she was heading back the way she’d come. A handful of Canadiens lads spotted her and called her on over, while Valance paced up ahead, waiting for her return.
“Béatrice!” called the lads.
Valance saw her, a hopeful smile on his face.
“C’mon, Béatrice! Come say hello!” called the lads.
Valance held out his hand, like he could guide her free.
She turned suddenly, pulling open the door to an abandoned building and closing it behind her and pressing her back to the wood as she fought to catch her breath. The panic was crawling up her chest, trying to get free, trying to turn into a cry she wouldn’t be able to explain away.
“Are you alright?” asked a voice, and she gasped at the sight of a strange man there, standing in the back, dirty rag in his hands. He seemed just as shocked to see her as she was to have company.
He set down the cloth, took a tentative step toward her. “Did someone—”
“Stay,” she said, holding out a warning hand. “Just...stay there.”
He did as he was told, waiting patiently.
“Who are you?” she asked, eyeing her surroundings cautiously. “Why are you here?”
“I was going to ask you the same,” he said with a smile, but when he saw her expression stiffen, he changed his tone to something gentler, kinder. “My name is Émile,” he said. “And this is my shop. Or will be, anyway.”
She stepped away from the door, and he took a matching step back, to give her room. She took stock of her surroundings: the open, empty oven, the dusty shelves and dingy walls, waiting for a new master to make them whole again. Evidently they’d found him. “You’re a baker?” she asked. “What do you bake?”
“Any number of things,” he said. “Is there something you’d like? Because I—”
“No, I just—”
“—I’d love to take my first order.” He smiled. “If you’re game.”
She took another step forward, and he took another step back, like he was being kept at a distance by an invisible force. She couldn’t help but grin. “Why do you do that?” she asked. “Are you afraid of me?”
“No,” said Émile. “You just look like you could use some space.”
“Hmm,” she said, and crossed over near the oven. Émile matched each step, keeping as far from her as the room would allow. It was like a very peculiar dance.
The countertops were thick with dust. Dust and debris. She ran a finger through it, staring down at the line she’d made like she was lost in a dream. She opened her mouth to speak, then caught herself.
“What is it?” asked Émile. “What were you going to say?”
“First impulses are usually right,” he said. “They tell us what we really want.”
She frowned, looked away. “I want...”
“I want scones,” she said, voice croaking. “Can you make scones?”
Émile smiled, shifting slightly. “I didn’t expect that.”
“It’s fine, I—”
“No no,” he said. “I think I remember how. It’s just—”
She took a sharp breath, turned away from him, battling the tears.
Émile paused. “Are you alright?”
“Baguettes,” she said. “I want ba—”
“No,” he said, kindly but firmly. “Scones it is. And you don’t have to tell me why. I just—”
“My mother made scones,” she said, and he stopped, waited in silence for her to find the will to continue. “Once a month, she made me scones. To eat with tea. And I...” She wiped at her eyes. “I never liked them. Never wanted to eat them. Said I hated them, said I’d rather die than have them.”
“She’s English, your mother?”
She nodded, said nothing.
“Your French is very good,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought—”
“My father is Canadien,” she said. “Always said I had the best of both worlds.” She switched to a flawless English and said: “To have both sides of me at once.”
“He’s right,” said Émile. “It took me years to get half as far.”
“I hated it,” she said. “I hated the sound of it. Resented my mother for forcing it on me. Every month when she started baking those damned scones, I would find a reason to be away. To be out anywhere but home, where she’d force me to...to...”
She trembled with something that felt like grief. Émile watched her, always from a distance, expression stuck between pity and sadness.
Béatrice wiped her eyes again, though there was nothing there. “Are your scones good?” she asked, sniffling.
“To be honest, probably not,” said Émile. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“I’m fine. I just...I need a little silence. A little less everything for a while.”
Émile nodded, took a step toward the back, where a makeshift door was half-open and drifting in the wind. “Take all the time you need,” he said.
“Wait,” she said. “Don’t...don’t go.”
He saw the look on her face, and stopped moving without saying a word. The two of them stood there in silence for a moment.
“I don’t think I can stand people leaving anymore,” said Béatrice, a weak smile on her face. “Even if they’re strangers. Not for a while, anyway.”
“I’ll stay as long as you need,” he said, and she believed him.
“There’s this village, east of here,” she said, tracing her finger through the dust again. “Quiet little place. Winding stream, a few houses, beautiful sunsets. Doesn’t have a name yet, but we...” She winced. “My parents thought we might move there. Build a house, figure out a life. Escape there.”
He watched her, but said nothing.
“They left a month ago,” she said. “A month and a day, today. And at first, I was happy to be free. I saw who I wanted, I went where I wanted, I did what I wanted. In the language I wanted.”
She felt wetness on her cheeks, and wiped it away like it offended her. “But they didn’t return on time. Didn’t write, didn’t even...” She fought a sob, kept her back to Émile so he wouldn’t see. “And I—”
The door opened and one of the Canadien lads from the street leaned in, wide grin on his face. “Hey Béatrice! When’re you coming back?”
“We’re closed,” said Émile, sternly.
The lad ignored him. “We miss you, Béatrice!” called the lad.
“I said we’re closed!” shouted Émile, storming toward the door so suddenly, the lad stumbled back and ran.
Émile locked the door and let out a long, calming breath. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have—”
“No, no,” said Béatrice, pulling herself back together. “I should go. You’re busy. I interrupted you. I should go.”
“Where is the village?” he asked, and she stopped, met his eyes.
“I can go see,” he said. “Check up on them. Your parents.”
She couldn’t quite decide what to make of him, this Émile. “W-why would you even...? You don’t know me. We just met.”
“I know your name is Béatrice,” he said. “I know you speak two languages. You don’t like scones. And you need to know your parents are alright.” He shrugged. “What else would I need to know?”
She couldn’t find the words to express her feelings, so settled on: “How do you know I’m worthy?”
“I could tell the second you came in here,” he said. “And first impulses are usually right.” He headed for the back again, grabbing his coat off a stool and checking inside his pack. “Now, how do I get to this village? How do I find your parents?”
“You can’t,” said Béatrice, and he stopped, turned to face her. She shook her head, eyes closed tight. “I already tried. Sent a messenger to find them, to bring them a letter. And he...”
She sunk to her knees, and Émile dashed to meet her, catch her before she curled right up into herself.
“They never made it,” she said. “Never got close. He found their bodies a half-day’s ride from here, off the side of the road, and—” She sobbed, and he held her tighter.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, rubbing her back gently. “So, so sorry.”
“I can’t tell if I need scones, or if I hate them even more, now that they’ve left me.”
“A bit of both,” he said, like he knew all too well. “And I can’t promise my scones will solve anything. I doubt they can. But I promise you this, Béatrice...” She looked up, and saw his kind eyes gazing down on her, and felt oddly comforted. “If you need me, I’ll be right here.”
“But why? We just met. You don’t know me.”
“We’ve been over this.”
“Life is much more complicated than that.”
He wiped a tear from her cheek with his thumb and said: “I think you’ve earned the right to simplicity. For as long as you need it.”
Béatrice curled into his embrace, and let the simplicity of the moment wash over her. She knew she would have to go home eventually, to face the messenger’s letter again....
But not now. Now she wanted to enjoy feeling safe, for as long as it lasted.