Adjustment by Frances Boyle

Adjustment was first published in Seeking Shade, a short story collection by Frances Boyle (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2020)

cw: death and sexual activity

The bulk of Chantal’s apartment building, black against dark sky, fringes itself with orange. Her bare feet, cold in rubber boots. That’s her home there, with flames shooting out of the roof, though just on the one side. And, so far, only on the third floor, the apartment above hers. A play of light, almost pretty, on the water arcing from the hoses. It smells. A smutty, clinging smell, with a smoky residue that’s scratched up her throat, left her eyes red and watery. She didn’t notice someone put a blanket round her, but here it is, heavy over her shoulders, like in a screenshot familiar from an old movie, or many movies.

And Milou. Her dog hasn’t a clue what’s going on, struggles, pushing against her collarbone with two paws. Another paw pushes into her stomach. She’d grabbed him but not his leash – well, that’s not too surprising. So, she’s holding him and he’s getting heavy in her arms.

The sound of fire hoses over gravel is like snakes slithering. She can’t think why snakes would come to mind. But the water – her ceiling must be getting soaked. Maybe it will collapse and end up like a soggy pancake.

The lyric pull of fire, its appetite, draws an after-midnight crowd of gawkers, slack-jawed and silent, to the sidewalk. Milou wants down. Poor thing can’t understand why they’re outside amidst circling red lights, the muscular sound of water. Chantal’s mind is jittering, like the dog in her arms. What’s next? She juggles his furry body; the 20 pounds is a strain to hold. Her shoulders are knitted tight, the scratchy weave of the blanket a weight on them.

One movie in particular left an impression of many blanket-draped shoulders. A Canadian director – she can’t think of his name. She’d watched it when she was still in undergrad, in her film studies class. That beguiling adjuster – will he come for her? His arm heavy around her, his grip tight. Smoke in her hair, her rumpled mismatched clothes somehow a turn-on for him, so he’d throw her on a bed in that motel, cover her mouth with his, fuck her until the shaking stopped.

No adjuster here now, just Ottawa Red Cross folks with coffee and sandwiches. Milou is struggling to throw himself from her arms, so she lowers him to the ground, stoops to loop a finger through his collar. View of her green plaid pyjama cuffs stuffed into the boots. Ash drifting might have been snowflakes, hovering in yellow streetlamp glow before alighting on concrete.

She recognizes the other tenants by their bedraggled looks, blankets dragging on the ground like hers. The guy from the upstairs apartment, the one that the flames are coming from, sits with the paramedics. He stumbled out of the building a few minutes ago, making it on his own steam with a firefighter leading him by one arm. Coughing, dopey and dazed looking. But alive.

Chantal straightens, grabs at the blanket to stop its slipping, catches it to her throat with one hand. Someone has given her a cord to tie to Milou’s collar, and he dances and jitters now at her shins. She reaches for her phone to take a picture of the fire, but slides it back into her pyjama pocket.

Eyes want to sink closed. So tired. Flames leave a reverse negative image on the inside of her eyelids. Slow burn of beams. Tumble of collapse, sparks flying. Sirens scream and lights turn, like the night Deanna and Greg died.

She had fumbled out of half-sleep in Jacko’s bed. She registered the sound, the bright flashes, in the way you count off lightning to thunder. The flashes were pulse-accelerating, though they had nothing to do with her – they marked someone else’s emergency.

The night before, she and Jacko had careened back to his place after Greg and Deanna’s wedding. They slept late. He pulled her back to bed whenever she mentioned returning to her dorm. They lingered with long, hungover kisses, appetites ranging over and through them. Pizza, and a few more quick hits off a bong before Jacko headed off for his shift at the gas station. Chantal settled back among rumpled sheets, dozing, wanting his tongue on her skin again. Her Democracy and Dictatorship exam wasn’t until Tuesday; studying could wait.

Those sirens cutting the quiet. Nothing to do with her, until Jacko’s phone rang. He’d left it charging, and she grabbed it in case it was him calling. But it was their friend Dave, his voice froggy, saying they were dead: Greg and Deanna. Dead in a fire. It made no sense – they had all been drinking and dancing at the wedding reception less than 24 hours before. Dee in frothy milkmaid-worthy pink and white, Greg in a brown jacket and tan pants, tugging his tie away from his throat all night.

Their apartment burned and they had, somehow, died of smoke inhalation. Chantal stared at the phone after Dave hung up, climbed back into bed with the overhead light on. Sitting up, quilt pulled to her chin while she waited to tell Jacko. Her skin taut around her eyes.

The flames have died down but jets of water are still splaying out from the hoses. Might the soaked ceiling of her apartment really fall in? Her father will have some thoughts on what she might have done better. His voice will tighten and he’ll raise his eyebrows when he learns she didn’t have an escape route mapped out, necessities for herself and “the mutt” at the ready. That she’d only bought minimum tenants’ insurance. 

Chantal already feels his fire-marshal rigour turned on her, here on the sidewalk limply holding a string with Milou on the end.

Back then, her dad hadn’t been the only one to wonder out loud, after he read the news reports, why Greg and Deanna, young and healthy, stayed inside the building and got themselves killed when all the senior citizens who lived there escaped, their lives intact. The fire wasn’t on his turf, which didn’t go much beyond the town where Chantal had grown up, but he knew people in the Windsor fire marshal’s office. Maybe he should ask?

“Shut up, please, Dad,” she had said, her throat constricting. “They were my friends. Just leave it.”

Chantal and Jacko’s wedding gift to Greg and Dee had been a bag of weed and a bulbous sex toy, lurid in purple – Jacko’s idea, not hers, though she fingered it, licking her lips and narrowing her eyes at Jacko. He had slipped the crinkly plastic bag to Greg at the reception with a back slap and a muttered “don’t open this here.” Chantal fretted – what would the firefighters think, and could the weed be traced back to her and Jacko?

Chantal fills out a short form, and a Red Cross volunteer tells her they’ll put her up for tonight, or maybe longer since she’s a student without family in town. She knows the drill, from that movie again – it’ll be some tacky but lush motel like the one where the adjuster ensconced his fire-victims. Most of her building’s tenants climb into a yellow school bus that pulls up. Milou balks at mounting the steps so Chantal picks him up again.

The bus is a mini version of the one she rode every day in junior high – she and Julia, her best friend then. Chantal only now thinks of it, and her breath catches – how could she have forgotten? Julia had died in a fire too, along with one of her little kids. The other child and her husband had survived, Chantal remembers Mom telling her. A candle in their window caught the curtains first, then their whole house went up.

Jules was the only girlfriend at whose house Chantal frequently slept over. They watched videos and talked about books and music until Jules’s mother told them it was time for lights-out; then they whispered. They sang in St. Vincent’s choir and took swimming lessons together until Jules flunked level five and they both quit.

Once they were in grade ten, Chantal started to walk past Julia and Magda and their chess club pals. She’d smile and say hi, but her eyes drifted elsewhere. She played volleyball, hung out with the boys on the basketball team, learned the rhythm of liking someone and how to show it. She tasted the fire-candy of kisses and discovered the way her body responded to being touched: a dissolution as if she were melting chocolate or, sometimes, spitting lava.

Afterwards, going away to university in Windsor, navigating classes and dorm life. Meeting Jacko Trudelle, a drama student who had his own apartment. Sex, regularly, in a real bed; finding out how to moan in the right pitch that meant “don’t stop,” or “lower.” When they made out, she called him by his full name, Jacques-Olivier, in her mother’s accent. He taught her French words she’d never wrapped her tongue around before.

Between classes, spending time with Jacko and getting to know his friends, Chantal barely registered her mother’s news that Julia had married her geeky boyfriend. She only remembered when she saw them in church at Christmas: him tall and skinny, his Adam’s apple straining against his collar; Jules still heavy, fat even, blonde hair pulled back and escaping its barrette, her pink face sheeny with oil or sweat.

Around midterms, when she and Mandy were working on a Political Theory assignment, Chantal told her, “The weirdest thing. My mom says my friend from elementary school just had a baby.”

“Holy crap.”

“Yeah, really, eh? It’s not like anyone has to get married anymore. But they’re Catholic – well, so am I. Or used to be. Damn, the church has such a stranglehold on people’s lives.”

“Fucking patriarchy.” Mandy nodded.

The funeral had been at Greg’s parents’ house. Jacko was a pallbearer. Greg’s mother had asked him to do it; she knew him because Jacko had acted in plays at the Windsor Little Theatre where she was artistic director and still played the lead in many of the productions. Jacko hadn’t been a groomsman or even an usher, but he walked alongside the casket with Greg’s closer friends, and Deanna’s three brothers.

There was a hard April rain. The wind cut Chantal’s legs in the same dress she had worn to the wedding. She took Jacko’s arm up the sidewalk to Greg’s parents’ front door and into a hot living room noisy with talk and china cups on saucers.

Chantal felt the polyester fabric of her dress bunch with sweat under her arms. The room smelled of egg salad mixed with cigarette smoke. She hadn’t been to a funeral before; “sorry” seemed such a lame thing to say, especially to parents like Deanna’s. Country-mouse people, little like Dee, they nodded and looked at their hands. At the wedding days before, Greg’s father had sat straight and proud in his wheelchair but she didn’t see him on this day of serious faces.

Greg’s mom, drama dragon in designer suit, upswept hair meticulous, bulky like her son (like her son had been, oh god!) but Spanx-moulded, touched Jacko’s collar as she thanked him. She turned to Chantal, took one of her hands between both of her own. Chantal’s pulse pounded in her throat as she murmured about “your loss” and Greg’s mother replied, holding Chantal’s eyes so she couldn’t look at the floor, “A great loss. There was to be a child, you know.”

Chantal hadn’t known. She had hardly spoken to Deanna recently. Dee had tons of labs for her chemistry courses so she didn’t hang out much. Greg with his big body and bushy beard was a bear – always friendly, a teddy bear maybe, but still. Wasn’t tiny Dee worried that he’d crush her?

“Did you know? That Dee was pregnant?” she asked Jacko when they left the house. 

He shrugged. “I guess. I mean, they’re students, and it’s right in the middle of the semester. Why else?”

Oh, that dildo! Chantal’s flush rose from her collar to her temple.

Chantal and Jacko moved in together when university started again the next fall, broke up the following summer. She finished school, waitressed for a while, and moved to Ottawa to start her master’s. Dated a few friends of friends and OkCupids, but there hadn’t been many sparks.

The Christmas before she left Windsor, Chantal and three girlfriends had booked a last-minute vacation in Cuba, so she must have heard about Julia’s fire when she got back. Mom’s voice on the phone sent quick hard pulses to her stomach. She took deep breaths until they stopped. She told herself it was like hearing about a stranger’s death; she hadn’t spoken to Julia for years.

One detail that stuck was how the Catholic church – probably that same priest at St. Vincent’s – had urged parishioners to put candles in their windows as beacons for a brighter new year in those dark times. But candles don’t shed a lot of light.

Julia hadn’t been playing with fire, like she and Chantal used to like to do, pushing candle wax around, lighting match after match and shaking them out once fire reached fingertips. Their fingernails singed rough and brownish if they held them a beat too long. It was a real fire, a raging fire, with a chemical-tinged smell. The idea of nylon nightdresses melting on little girls’ bodies was horrifying to think about. 

So Chantal didn’t think about it, managed to forget that she and Julia had ever been friends, willed herself to not remember the days they’d spent together, the speculation over what kind of jobs they might do – Julia with her piano, and Chantal obsessed with cats but not sure she’d want to be a vet. The menthol cigarettes that Jules used to “borrow” from her dad, how they’d light up each other’s smokes.

Milou on his string leads the way off the bus, but stops and sniffs every two steps as they move toward the lobby. Chantal takes the hotel room key, rides the elevator to the second floor and puts down the package of emergency toiletries and clothing she’d been given. Nothing wrong with the room: generic, neither tacky nor lush, two beds. 

Julia’s old room had twin beds. Chantal would sleep in the one where Jules usually dumped her schoolbooks and piled clothes up. Chantal knew Jules’s house almost as well as her own – its smells, the omnipresence of younger brothers wrestling or yelling over their Xbox games, the meals Jules’s mother liked to cook, the dinnertime routines. Some things took getting used to, others were more normal than her own family’s. In this house, they decorated a real Christmas tree, had a real Halloween pumpkin, not fakes like her dad insisted they use. There was a fireplace in the rec room, and no sprinkler system. And, unlike at Chantal’s, the décor in Julia’s basement bedroom didn’t include a fire-escape ladder, even one painted the same colour as the walls.

Chantal’s father was practically Smokey the Bear. But the last few times she had visited – it was only long weekends now that she lived so far away – instead of talking about prevention and regulations, he haltingly doled out sparse details of fires he’d seen. How a guy scraping up old linoleum created a spark that ignited an open can of solvent, so the whole house went up in flames. The appallingly large number of people who still kill themselves, and others, by smoking in bed. 

“Did you ever ask the inspectors in Windsor what happened in the apartment fire where my friends were killed?”

He shook his head. 

A couple of months ago, at a theatre opening, Chantal ran into a guy who she had known during Jacko’s time in drama. Her date went to fetch drinks while the guy, who’d only recently moved to Ottawa, filled her in on what people she’d known six years before in Windsor were up to. He’d never been a fan of Velma Randall, Greg’s mother, and the iron grip she had on the Windsor Little Theatre repertory, and seemed almost glad to tell Chantal, among other gossip, that Velma was in a nursing home now.

Then this guy half-whispered one thing he was sure of: Deanna and Greg had dropped acid the day after the wedding. They were so stoned they hid in the closet to get away from the smoke that filled their apartment. 

Chantal just nodded. Blood rushed to her head, and she blinked to clear her vision. Her date came back, and the three of them talked about the first act of the play. Lights flashed, indicating it was time to go in for the performance. In the dark of the theatre, what she had heard did make some sense, did at least partly explain why Greg and Dee didn’t get out.

Writhing, grey ghouls with tendril fingers and twisted mouths, oozing themselves around and under door frames, reaching for them. Chasing Greg and Deanna to the closet, where they must have huddled, shaking and clinging to each other until the creatures found them, sucked out their breath. 

Chantal steadied her own breath, tried to focus on the actors’ lines. Deanna was pregnant, and Chantal had never seen her take even a single toke. Stupid gossip-hound, how could he possibly be so sure?

She looks around the hotel room. No minibar, and the lounge downstairs is closed. Maybe she could watch that adjuster movie. It’s old and Canadian, so it isn’t on Netflix let alone the basic cable the hotel’s TV has to offer. She scrolls YouTube on her phone – Egoyan, right, that’s the director’s name. There’s just a trailer and a few scenes – fires, sex. She’d forgotten the wife’s job as a movie censor. Anyway, her charger is still at the apartment, plugged in where she left it. Or melted. She’d better conserve the battery. 

The guy who lives – lived! – upstairs from her, where the fire started, is standing at the ice machine when she takes Milou out for what she hopes will be his last pee of the night. Cigarette in his mouth, the dude asks if she’s got a light. Chantal just shakes her head and pushes the elevator button.

But, as it arrives, she pauses and turns around, asks him if he’s all right, if he’s seen a doctor. He thanks her, and says he thinks he’ll be okay. She gives him a smile as the elevator door closes.

Chantal and the little dog circle the building, him stopping to sniff. It’s a Travelodge, sterile and safe, not like the place where the adjuster kept his insured clients in limbo. Thank goodness she had saved the first chapters of her thesis in the cloud. Tomorrow, she’ll be able to check what shape her clothes and furniture and books are in. She can talk to her parents then. It’s too late to call but she’d better let them know; Dad still follows the news like a hawk, especially when there’s a fire.

Chantal can see her breath. She leans against a brick entryway pillar, and sends texts to her mother and her father: “don’t panic but…”

A singed, soldering-iron tang makes her mouth taste foul. The smell is still in her hair, on her shirt, on the hotel bedspread she’s wrapped around herself like a cloak.

About The Author

Frances Boyle is a Canadian writer, originally from the prairies but long-settled in Ottawa. Her most recent book, Seeking Shade, won the Miramichi Reader Very Best! Award for short story collection and was a finalist for The Writers’ Union of Canada’s Danuta Gleed Award (best debut collection) and the ReLit Award (best collection from an indie press). She has also published Tower, a Rapunzel-infused novella, (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2018) and two books of poetry.

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