Phantom's Gold

This is my first novel. It started its life as a film script which was optioned and attracted development money before the option lapsed. A friend, who is a school principal, urged me to turn it into a novel. I’m delighted to say that the novel was nominated for The Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Award and spearheaded the literacy campaign in Regent Park.

Press play to hear chapter one, or scroll down to read.

A Cry For Help

Sou’wester: wide brimmed, waterproof hat used during storms.

William was shaken awake and knew something bad was happening. The pickup his father was driving pounded down the moonlit embankment. His father was slumped over the steering wheel and his chest was blaring the horn. They flew over the retaining wall.

For that moment of weightlessness he thought he was still asleep and dreaming. The headlights bounced off the ocean’s surface til they ploughed into the oncoming waves. His seatbelt jerked him in place. Water snaked in around his calves.

His chest hurt but it was all that dark water that made William scream, “Dad”.

Waves reached over the hood, hissing steam off the motor. His dad’s sou’wester washed over his knees. His father hung over the steering wheel, his face twisted toward him. Fear coated William’s tongue with the taste of copper. He reached for his dad just as the headlights’ spill died underwater. The incoming tide rode higher up the windshield. It flooded the cab to his chest. They had to get out or drown.

“Dad,” he hollered, shaking his father. “The seatbelt’s stuck. Dad, wake up! I need your knife. The seat belt —” Freezing water gripped his neck and constricted his chest, making it hard to breathe. He could feel the cold draining the strength from his fingers. He pawed at his father’s pant pocket, caught the lanyard and pulled the rigging knife free. Brine washed over his mouth. He held his breath. He willed his shaking hands to pry the stubby blade open. It nicked his thumb. He winced as he slashed his seatbelt til it severed. He floated out of his seat til his head touched the roof.

He pulled his father’s seatbelt and sliced at it. Lungs burning, he spun around to the small air pocket trapped against the roof and sucked in air. “Dad, you’re too big. I can’t get you out.” His dad hadn’t moved. His eyes and mouth were frozen open.

He pushed the door. It wouldn’t open. Desperate for air, he pulled himself through the open window. His father’s rain hat floated out after him. He reached for the roof, which was still above the surface, dropping his whalebone-handled knife. He pulled himself onto the roof and pounded, yelling, “Dad, Dad, Dad. Get out. Please, get out, please.”

The last of the air burst out in a death rattle. A wave knocked him clear of the hood into the icy water where he half floated, half swam for shore. He stared back for a sign of life he knew wouldn’t come.

The tide pummelled him to the slippery shore where he lay shivering. The waves clickety-clacked small beach stones with indifference to one more life, one more death.

They had come to Nova Scotia for his birthday. He would stay for a funeral.

 

***

 

“Dad,” His cry woke him up like it always did. He gasped for air, relieved to see he was in his bed, back in Toronto. His hands clutched the bottom sheet. It had come away from the mattress again. His alarm clock read 11:02. He staggered to his bedroom window and inhaled the warm night air. The accident was a year old but his memory of it was still raw.

He looked out to the moonlit carport. That’s where his dad used to park the truck with its blue and red Jack McCoy Sails logo. Where was it now, he wondered? What had they done with it in the year since the accident? Had somebody tried to fix it, to repair the slashed seatbelts?

That night in Nova Scotia he had been in shock and barely remembered anything but the flashing lights. So many of them flashing around him from the police, the ambulance, and the fire truck.

The ambulance attendants had wrapped him in blankets. They wanted him to stay inside. William wanted to see the divers bring his father out, to see them tow the truck out of the ocean. He remembered an RCMP officer scolding the ambulance driver for letting him watch. Why? He needed to see his father’s body and the truck. He needed to believe it had actually happened. That it wasn’t just a nightmare.

The officer had ordered another police officer to take him to his grandparents place, a half hour drive away just outside Lunenburg. To have come so close to his grandparents’ house and not to have made it was unfair. He stopped shaking and fell asleep in the police car. He never saw his father being pulled out of the water. The next time he saw him, he was in a coffin. He looked like he did when he slept on the couch on Sunday afternoons. Except this time he wore a suit and his chest didn’t go up and down no matter how long William stared and hoped.

His father had been so proud of that truck. Like everything else it was probably ruined. His mom would know but he couldn’t ask her. All his questions about his dad and the accident made her cry. After a while he stopped asking her questions.

He looked from the carport to the newly-staked for-sale sign on the lawn. Yesterday a man from the real estate company had pounded that sign into the lawn, his lawn – without his approval. His mum said selling the house would help put the bad memories behind them. William didn’t think so.

He heard her turn down the radio. She had heard him yell and would be up in a moment. His nightmares weren’t as frequent and she wasn’t as quick to respond but she always came up. The anniversary of his father’s death was a few days away. Maybe that’s what stirred up the nightmare. Or maybe it was the fear of selling the house.

He looked back out at the carport and wondered why his memories of the truck and his father had begun to fade. He shook his head with annoyance, then stared at his hands to remember the exact location of his father’s calluses but couldn’t be sure. In the last few years he hadn’t held his father’s hands as much as he used to, say, when crossing the street, but there had been something reassuring about their size. The calluses had said he was a man who made things. No more.

“Will, are you all right?” called his mother from the living room.

“Yeah, I’m okay, mom. Just, you know…,” he answered.

Back in Toronto after the funeral, his school had made him visit with a grief counsellor. He asked him the questions he couldn’t ask his mother. His father had once told him he had a special place in his heart for William. What became of that special place now that he was dead? Did his father still think of him now that he was dead? Did all that die in the truck too?

The counsellor had asked William if he believed in life after death, if his family was religious? They didn’t go to church on Sundays and they didn’t talk about God or anything like that. The counsellor asked William what he thought happened when a person died. He answered that if he knew the answer he wouldn’t have asked the counsellor, would he? The man stammered and cleaned his glasses. William had other questions that the counsellor couldn’t answer. He still had questions.

Why hadn’t his dad cared enough about his family to take better care of his health? Why didn’t he know his death made them cry, gave him nightmares?

He got back into bed a moment before his mother knocked on his door.

She sat at the edge of his bed and patted his leg through the sheet. It was hot for early June. He couldn’t stand anything more than a sheet.

“It wasn’t so bad, this time,” he lied.

“You’re sure?” He nodded. “Well, if you’re all right, I have to get back downstairs, okay?”

“Is somebody here?”

“Brad just dropped in.” She stood to go and he scowled.

“I wish you wouldn’t make that face when I mention his name.”

“He’s a fake.”

“It’s not nice to say things like that about him. He likes you. He even takes you out to watch the Blue Jays, he-”

“He’s a fake, Mom. He smiles and puts his arm around me when you’re there. But as soon as you’re out of sight, he, like just gets all cold and weird. He’s a fake.”

“I think we’ll all feel better after we move. Even Brad thinks-”

“I don’t want to move. ”

His mom’s shoulders sagged. She sighed and tucked in the corners of his twisted bottom sheet. “This is one thing you’re just going to have to do. We have to get on with our lives. It’s important.”

“Isn’t that just running away?”

“All our tears haven’t helped us find your father. I’m just… trying to find us.”

“Me too. That’s why I think we should attend the memorial with granddad-”

She shook her head, no. “Sometimes a person can care too much. Drown in all that caring-”

“I know about drowning,” he replied. “But how is running away-”

She stood and smoothed out her skirt to indicate she was through with the subject. Her voice had gone flat like it did when the subject was too painful for her to be present. “Anyway, you’re going camping with Saif and his dad tomorrow and that’ll be nice. And then we’ll look at some new houses and Brad says he’ll help. Now, sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.” She blew him a kiss.

He listened to her footsteps pad down the stairs. Then he heard that fake laugh that Brad did when he pretended everything was okay. William reached for the slippers his father used to put under the bed for him. They hadn’t been there for a year now. He still looked.

He crossed the room, tip-toed to the landing and sat to eavesdrop. He heard a cork pop and his mom’s surprised, “Oh”. He snuck down two steps. He could hear better and see some of the living room from the mirror on the stairwell.

Brad handed his mother a glass of wine. She rarely drank during the week and especially not this late. Brad raised his glass to make a toast. “To a new start and a better year. And to the most courageous and beautiful woman I’ve ever known.” His mother rung her hands. She did that when things got awkward. Brad pulled a small case from his jacket and opened it. He was offering his mother a thin, glittering bracelet. “I wanted you to have this. It’s been in our family for ages. Can’t think of anybody who deserves it more.”

“Oh, Brad, I don’t know what to say.”

“You know what they say, ‘sweets for the sweets and diamonds for a diamond’.” He placed the bracelet on the mantle. It glittered.

William almost choked at the thought of his mother accepting jewellery from Brad.

No, no he thought to himself. Say no. Say no. Refuse the bracelet. He bolted back to his bed and covered his head with his pillow. It stood to reason that a wedding ring would be next. That would change his life for the worse.

His father warned him, “Invite the sun, expect a storm.” He hadn’t expected the storm that had become his life. His father’s death left him feeling like an outsider. His friends at school acted strange, as though death was contagious. One kid asked him if he was going to die, too. Then a bunch of them had run off laughing.

Saif, his only real friend, stayed, his arm around him. “They’re just stupid.” He didn’t feel like he belonged with his classmates anymore or even the neighbourhood. Before his dad’s death, on Wednesdays his mom went to the gym. He and his dad went to the pub. They had dinner and a game of Scrabble. Everybody waved and clapped him on the back. Dylan, the barkeep had the same joke when they walked in, “Two Guinness?”

William always ordered ginger beer. His dad had a Guinness. It was fun. Being a regular and having a regular life had died with his dad. He ventured to the pub a few weeks after the funeral, half hoping his dad would be there. He wasn’t. It was awkward. Some looked away or couldn’t wait to walk away. Some were polite. They asked how his mother was doing. He said she cried a lot. They got quiet or remembered an important call they had to make. Maybe it was just him. Maybe he wasn’t comfortable around them because his dad wasn’t there. Maybe because he wasn’t a regular anymore.

Their home had been the last safe place, a comfortable place where he was a regular. Now his mother was going to sell their house and his safety zone. Brad’s friendship with his mother was going to make him even more of an outsider. He got that dizzy feeling. The world was moving away from him. His mom moved toward Brad. If one adult could abandon you, so could another. Being all alone was dark and frightening.

He turned on the light and tried to read ‘Treasure Island’. He couldn’t focus. He looked around his room for something to stop this sinking feeling. The light reached across his desk. It lit a card his grandparents had sent early, for his thirteenth birthday.

William picked it up. Inside he read his grandmother’s inscription, ‘Happy Birthday to our Grandson, Willy-boy. We hope your thirteenth birthday will make us lucky enough to see you soon. It’s been too long’. She had signed it, “Granny and Granddad”.

Inside was a photo of his father’s parents. Mary and Daniel McCoy were two healthy and energetic people. They smiled in front of a rhododendron bush that burst purple flowers all around them. His grandmother’s elegant grey hair, turquoise pendant earrings, and beaming smile still held something of the glamour girl she must have once been. She had retired as a school teacher five years ago. His father said she was an awesome Scrabble player.

Anchored behind her was his grandfather in a chequered shirt looking strong more from shoulder width than height. His father had said Daniel McCoy’s faint smile was one that belonged to a confident man. One who’d earned the right for his friends to call him the Rock. It was a face, his dad said, that invited friends to shelter behind him in case of gale, gun or grief. That’s what William needed right now, a big, safe, solid rock to shelter behind.