Gray Skies – First Place winner in the Short Story category for the Toronto Indigenous Writers’ Collective Poetry & Short Story Contest

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Gray Skies

Her feet pounded against the wet pavement beneath her as she ran down an
empty street. Her long brown hair was falling out of the clip she had put
it up in earlier.

Her lungs burned inside her chest with every step that brought her closer
and closer to her destination: a small one-bedroom apartment situated in
the shady area of the city she called home.
A million thoughts raced through her head and she clambered up the shitty
stairs to the old house where her apartment was located, fumbling in her
pocket for her keys to unlock the front door with her cold, shaky hands.

122 McKenzie Street.

The number was written outside on the house, which was probably once a
beautiful home for a wonderful family in a great neighbourhood. Not
anymore, though.

Now it was the rundown abode of three other tenants, all whom were
squeezed under its roof and were paying three hundred dollars a month to
live with leaky pipes and mice.
She slammed the door behind her, her brown eyes looked around the small
living room as she leaned against the door to catch her breath. The room
was a total mess; clothes were strewn all over the loveseat couch and
dishes and empty pop cans were sitting on the coffee table. She hadn’t
even bothered to turn the TV off that morning when she left.

Her heart was still racing as she let the keys fall to the floor, creating
a loud clang as they hit the linoleum.

She didn’t know what to do, and her stomach was still in knots.

All she could do was run that morning.

She ran all the way home.

Thirty blocks.
She felt a lump form in her throat, and her nose started to tingle. She
didn’t want to cry.

She pulled the clip out of her now messy hair and let it fall to the
floor, and she kicked off her shoes. She unzipped her black coat and
walked towards the door to her bedroom, leaving her coat on the loveseat.
She almost tripped on something as she went to push the bedroom door open.

She looked down and saw a yellow toy dump truck at her feet.
The knot tightened in her stomach, and she stepped over the toy and went
into her room. She had the shades pulled down over the bedroom window, but
it was even darker in the room than it usually was due to the grey skies
outside.

She climbed into her double bed, and pulled the white sheets up over her
head as she lay in a fetal position, tears welled up in her eyes as she
closed them.

What was she going to do now?

* * *

Born to an Ojibwe teenaged-mother, Elsie Gray spent the early part of her
life in her community known as “Oz.”

Her grandparents tried their best to take care of Elsie after her mother had
abandoned her, but it wasn’t always easy and they were growing too old and sickly to take care of anyone.
When she was five, she was sent to a big city to live with her aunt, but
that arrangement didn’t last very long.

Elsie doesn’t really remember what happened during that time with her
aunt, all she could ever recall was a man appearing in her bedroom when
she was trying to sleep at night.  Sometimes he took different forms in
her dreams. She could never remember his face.

It went on for about a year before Elsie was removed from her aunt’s care
and was placed in a foster home. Her mother wasn’t interested in Elsie,
and there were no other living options for the young girl.

During her younger years, Elsie was in several foster homes, and she felt
that she was never placed anywhere nice.

She recalled never ever having a peaceful sleep in those homes, not like
when she was still with her grandparents.

When Elsie was nine, she learned her Shoomis died.

It wasn’t very long afterwards that her Kookum had passed as well.

Elsie remembered being flown home for the funeral.

She remembered seeing her Kookum lying in the casket, she remembered that
her Kookum’s hair felt different, and that her skin felt hard and cold.
Upon returning to the city, Elsie ran away from her foster parents.

Running away was all Elsie knew how to do. She ran away from everything.
School, her foster parents, her friends, her caseworkers.

Where was she running to, anyway?

Elsie didn’t make it past the eighth grade. She had gotten into a lot of
trouble as a teenager, and found herself in and out of juvenile detention
centers.

Elsie remembered some older girls, both Aboriginal and white, in one of
the group home she stayed at, who were trying to make her turn tricks.

“It’s so fun, and easy. And you get a lot of money,” one girl had told
her. “And you’re not a virgin, right? So it doesn’t matter.”

Elsie had lost her virginity when she was only twelve years old to a high
school boy she met at a house party. It was the first time she had gotten
drunk, and much like the time she spent with her aunt when a man kept
coming into her room, Elsie did not remember what happened. She woke up in
a dark room naked from the waist down at that party. The high school boy
was passed out next to her, also naked from the waist down.

Elsie ran away from him, too.

In therapy, they often tried to talk to her about stuff like that. They
were trying to get to the root of Elsie’s problems. She was told once that
she was repressing all of the bad things that had happened to her. For
some reason, they wanted her to feel like shit about it.

She felt fine, though, so what was the point? All she needed was her
freedom, and money.

Elsie wasn’t about to start turning tricks for dirty old men for the
money, though.

Elsie preferred to steal things and try to sell them after. She liked the
rush that came with it.

Her bad habits always led her back to the courthouse, though.

After a lengthy stint in jail, a seventeen year old Elsie was given a room
a co-ed transitional house.

It was the first time she was ever exposed to her culture as an Aboriginal
person. She attended powwows with the group at the house, and listened to
traditional healers who came in to speak with them. She tried her hand at
beadwork but could never properly thread a needle.

Elsie made around thirty dreamcatchers, though. She was immediately good
at that.

She liked the idea that something could catch the bad dreams and bad
things that tried to attack her at night when she was most vulnerable, and
keep them at bay until morning.

Elsie started to sleep better after she hung dreamcatchers above her bed.
She often gave them away to people for free.

Eventually, she read more books, and attended classes to prepare for
writing a high school equivalency test.

A counselor at the transition house told Elsie that she was a survivor,
that she could do anything if she just put her mind to it. She told Elsie
she could achieve her high school equivalency and enroll into college, if
she just worked hard at it.

And Elsie tried, she tried to work hard and get into college but life
wasn’t about to make it that simple. Life was full of distractions, and
the biggest one came in the form of a young man.

Elsie was eating her lunch outside of the transition house one day when
she saw a new arrival.

He had a thin build, with brown skin and black hair. He dressed like a
skateboarder, and wore those really nerdy-looking glasses that somehow
looked cool.

His name was Thomas. All the girls liked him immediately, even the ones
who turned tricks on the weekends for extra spending money.

Elsie tried not to let her mind wander too much. She felt too plain and
too damaged to ever think she’d be worth his time.

That was until she was playing pool at a local pool hall with her friends
when Thomas came in. He was in the company of some of the pretty girls
from the house, and they were being loud and obnoxious.

Elsie slipped out back to have a cigarette when she realized Thomas had
been following her.

“I know you don’t know me, but I want you to know that I like the way you
make your dreamcatchers,” Thomas said to her. She could smell alcohol on
his breath as he stared at her. “They’re beautiful, like you.”

Thomas didn’t talk to her for weeks after that.

Elsie brushed it off as best she could, and she spent her time prepping
for big test. She was trying to avoid everyone as much as possible because
it was hard enough for her to concentrate, never mind the added pressure
of trying to be sociable.

Elsie was lying awake in her room the night her biggest distraction happened.

It was just after midnight when there was a knock on her door. When she
opened it, she expected to see one of the night shift workers but instead
laid eyes on Thomas.

“Can I come in?” he asked her. He smelled of alcohol yet again.

It was the first time someone had asked her for permission to come into
her room at night. Even though his breath smelled like whiskey, he didn’t
seem like a bad person.

Elsie let him spend the night in her room, and he was forcibly removed in
the morning by one of the staff members. It was a final strike for him,
and he was told he would have to leave the house.

Elsie occasionally saw him around the city when she was out, and he
sometimes acknowledged her. She heard from one of her friends that he had
moved away, but it didn’t bother her too much. She knew better than to get
attached to anyone or anything.

Elsie completed her test, and managed to acquire her high school equivalency.

Her dreams of attending college would have to be put on hold, though, as
people were beginning to notice the physical changes in Elsie, most
notably an emerging baby bump on her thin frame at just over 20 weeks.

“Who did you have sex with?!” one the house counselors asked her.

Elsie told him, and she tried not to notice the look of disappointment in
his eyes.

“Does he know?” he questioned.

Elsie shook her head.

“No,” she said, and then she shrugged her shoulders. “Thomas only talks to
me when he’s drunk.”

They didn’t let her keep her baby when he came.

“You have to get your own place, you have to prove you can give him a good
home,” Elsie’s caseworkers told her as she sat in the hospital bed.

Elsie was holding her baby in her arms after a painful thirty-hour
delivery. She stared down into his little dark eyes and wanted to run away
with him. He was her baby. She brought him here and now they wanted to
take him away from her.

It wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t have a home yet. She was only
eighteen. She didn’t do drugs, she didn’t sell herself, she tried her best
to stay out of trouble but they were still going to take him from her.

“Just let me take him home, I can take him to Oz,” she pleaded.

Elsie started to sob as they took him from her anyway.

“What’s his name?!” she cried as they left with her baby.

He was named Joseph Gray.

Elsie eventually moved out of the transition house. She managed to rent a
small one-bedroom apartment with her social assistance on McKenzie Street,
the same street her old friends from various group homes sold their bodies
to strangers on.

Sometimes Elsie would talk to her old friends if she saw them on her way
home from her daily travels to the library or dollar store. She worried
about them a lot, and often said prayers before bed for their safety, but
mostly she prayed for Joseph.

She prayed she would be able to have him with her soon.

“I got an interview at a Chinese restaurant,” Elsie had told her
caseworker during one of her supervised visits with Joseph. He was now six
months old. Her caseworker said it was a good step forward, but that she
had something bad to tell her.

What her caseworker said shocked Elsie. Apparently, there were reports
that Elsie was working as a prostitute on McKenzie Street. People had seen
her on the street with known prostitutes, and she was informed it wasn’t
helping her case when it came to getting custody of Joseph.

“But that’s where I live, I’m not a hooker!” Elsie stated angrily as she
held her bouncing baby in her arms. He was giggling away as he played with
an obnoxious rattling elephant toy.

Her visit that day with Joseph was cut short. Once again he was taken from
her.

Elsie wanted to cry, but she fought back her tears. She hated crying
because it made her feel weak. She told herself she would see Joseph again
next week and that it would be okay. She just had to stay strong and build
a proper home for him.

She kept thinking of that Guns N’ Roses song her aunt used to listen to
when she was staying with her.

“Said woman, take it slow, it will work itself out fine. All we need is
just need a little patience” or something like that. She always liked
hearing that song because even though it was sad, it made her hopeful.

Elsie went to a store and picked out a toy for Joseph; she chose a dump
truck that he could probably put his other toys in and push around. She
would give it to him on his first birthday. She would buy his toys one at
a time until then so she could give him a great first birthday party.

The following week, Elsie had returned to her caseworkers office to visit
Joseph. She was on cloud nine because she had just come from her interview
at the restaurant and they told her she could start as soon as possible.

Elsie was beaming as her caseworker came into the room and sat down in
front of her.

“I’ve just heard the best news, I can start tomorrow at the restaurant if
I want,” Elsie told her. “I can save up to rent a two-bedroom apartment in
a better neighbourhood and hopefully have Joseph home with me in time for
his first birthday!”

Her worker just stared at her, though, with a sad expression on her face.

“What’s wrong?” Elsie asked. “Where’s Joseph?”

* * *

Elsie wasn’t sure how long she had slept for since she got home that morning.

She felt something moving beside her in the bed. She slowly opened her
eyes; the sheets were bright, they were illuminated from the sun that was
shining in from the window in her bedroom.

Elsie heard a giggle, and felt something shuffling around beside her in
the sheets. She slowly lifted the sheet up a bit and smiled as she stared
at Joseph. He was lying on his tummy.

With bright eyes he smiled back at her, it was one of those great baby
smiles because he only had one tooth.

“Hi,” Elsie said quietly.

Joseph let out another giggle as he chewed on his fingers.

“I love you, Joseph. I’m so happy you’re here,” she whispered. “Things are
going to so much better. I promise.”

Joseph let out a mum-sound as he continued to chew on his fingers.

Elsie felt a tear roll down her cheek, she had never felt this happy in
her whole life.

She reached out to try to touch Joseph, but the sheet fell back down over
their faces and she lost sight of him.

Elsie quickly raised the sheet back up, and her eyes grew wide as she
realized he wasn’t there.

“Joseph?” she asked. She scrambled to her knees as she threw the sheets up
over her head and frantically felt around the bed for any sign of her son.
“Joseph?!”

Elsie shook the sheets and pillows, and tossed them onto the floor. The
room was no longer bright and sunny; it was dark and grey, void of any
colour.

Elsie felt the lump form in her throat again, and her stomach tied itself
back into knots. She looked up above her bed and stared at a purple
dreamcatcher she had placed there when she moved in. Elsie stood up and
tore the dreamcatcher down; a furious scream erupted from her throat as
she threw it across the room.

She collapsed back down in the middle of her bed, finally giving into the
tears that formed in her eyes and she left out a loud sob.

Joseph wasn’t there. He was never there, and he never would be.

“Elsie, I have something terrible to tell you..”

Elsie covered her face with her hands as she started to cry alone in her
room.

“What’s wrong?”

“Elsie, it’s Joseph..”

“What’s wrong?!”

“He passed away, Elsie. I don’t know what happened, but his foster parents
found him in his crib. He was unresponsive… He’s… He’s gone, Elsie.”

Elsie started to sob uncontrollably.

Joseph was gone.

That was it.

Gone just like that.

Gone just as fast as he came.

Elsie felt her heart and her spirit break inside of her.

She couldn’t stand the thought of Joseph, her warm loving boy, not feeling
the same.

She couldn’t stand the thought of his hair feeling different the way her
Kookum’s did.

She couldn’t stand the thought of his skin feeling cold and hard the way
her Kookum’s did.

She couldn’t stand the thought of him being gone.

“It’s not fair,” Elsie said as she cried. “It’s not fair. I only just met
you..”

Elsie laid back down on her bed and brought her knees up to her chest.

“It’s not fair..”

* * *

Paramedics responded to a call about an infant who was unresponsive in his
crib in a townhouse. When they arrived on the scene, it was quickly
determined that the infant had been deceased for a number of days. Police
officers were dispatched to the residence after the medics uncovered three
more children in different states of malnutrition. The four children, two
of them Aboriginal, were in foster care. The foster parents were taken
into custody to face charges of failing to provide the necessities of
life, abuse and neglect, and also manslaughter.

Joseph Gray died from blunt force trauma to the head.

He was only 6 months old.
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