Excerpt

The Break

Katherena Vermette

March 7, 2018 
The following is from Katherena Vermette's novel, The Break. On an otherwise quiet night in Winnipeg's North End, Stella witnesses a violent crime on The Break, the barren strip of land in front of her house. The Break follows the interconnected stories of those close to the victim—police, family, friends—in the nights leading up to the event. Katherena Vermette's first book North End Love Songs won the Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry.

Ziggy is fucking frozen all the way through by the time they finally find the party, by the time she and Emily get the nerve to open the door to the old rundown house that thumps with bass and rattles with people. Inside is wall-to-wall people, and the air is thick with the smoke they make. It’s warm, so warm, but Ziggy still shakes.

Ziggy knows about gangs, she’s not an idiot. Her brother, Sunny, knows who’s who and what’s what, and has told her all about it. She thinks it’s all stupid, but he said it was important that she know, so she sort of listened. These guys are all red. Some wear bandanas on their heads, or in their super-low back pockets, and some have thick name-brand hoodies in the same bright colour. Ziggy knows who they are. There’s a red gang and a black gang, and they don’t like each other. Something dumb like that.

She hovers a little in front of Emily. Emily is so clueless she probably doesn’t even realize they’ve just walked into a gang party. The pretty one, Ziggy calls her. Emily is so pretty and so oblivious. Em shakes with cold after their long walk here, all the way over McPhillips, but pulls her coat down a bit so everyone can see her tight T-shirt underneath.

Ziggy has another look around. No one so much as nodded when they walked in, but she isn’t about to admit she is scared. She sees Roberta Settee sitting with this guy, Mitchell, in the corner. They look high and giggle with their heads all close together. Ziggy’s known them since kindergarten but has barely talked to them this year. This year they all went to the big school and separated out into groups and gangs. Ziggy and Emily became geeks, good girls. Mitchell and Roberta and the others became a part of this gang.

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Ziggy knows it’s okay that she and Emily are here because her brother isn’t connected to anyone. He says he’s neutral and “beyond that shit,” but really he and Jake haven’t decided yet. They’re only fourteen, though, and they have time. They’ll have to pick something eventually. They’ve got to have friends somehow. Ziggy hates this shit, feels so glad she’s a girl and a geek so she doesn’t have to bother, for the most part.

Just when she’s ready to tell Em they should get the hell out, Clayton emerges from a dark bedroom, his eyes as red as his hoodie and his grin even more exaggerated than usual. “You made it!” he yells at Em too loud, not even looking at Zig. Emily falls over herself. She tries not to, but Ziggy can tell. People are looking at them now. Ziggy hates it when people look at her. Clayton is talking too loud and Emily is just being a mushy cow.

Clayton takes them around the living room, introduces Em to a couple of guys.

“And who the fuck are you?” The guy has hair slicked back into a long braid and looks Ziggy up and down with squinty eyes.

“Zegwan,” she says with her sternest voice.

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“What the hell kind of name is that?” the other long-haired guy says with a high-pitched laugh.

“Anishinaabe,” Ziggy says. “Like you.”

She is trying to act tough but might have been talking too quiet, and the guy just keeps on laughing.

Clayton shows Emily to an empty armchair with exaggerated gentlemanly hand sweeps.

Ziggy groans, but again, too quiet.

“Want a beer?” he asks them both. Emily nods. When he turns away, Ziggy just stares at her friend.

“Oh, just one,” Emily snaps, but quiet enough so no one else can hear.

Clayton comes back with three open beer bottles and more grins.

“Thanks.” Emily smiles back, but winces as she takes a sip. Ziggy takes one too, but just to hold and to look the part. Everyone is high or fucked up and talking too loud, trying to be heard over the music. Then Tupac chants, and they all know the words, Clayton too. Emily just smilesshe doesn’t know this music any better than Ziggy does. Sunny likes it, but Rita always tells him to put his ear buds in so she doesn’t have to listen to that “fuckfuck garbage.”

“Doesn’t he know any other words?” her mom yelled with a laugh.

Ziggy’s never liked that stuff. She likes real music, like with singing and instruments.

Clayton is super high and just keeps smiling. Ziggy’s not an idiot. He looks at her too long, so she takes a sip of the gross beer. It makes her retch, and she really just wants to get the hell out of here.

 

Emily nervously takes a drag and coughs a little. Clayton laughs. They’ve only smoked a couple times before.”

 

Emily sips and giggles at whatever Clayton says. Ziggy can’t hear. She just stands there. Some girl in a tank top stares her down, so she ducks her head but keeps looking. Girls in super-tight jeans and tighter T-shirts lean against walls. Their hair slicked down, straight and black on either side of their too-much-makeup faces. Big boys in still bigger hoodies talk with huge joints in their hands. Clayton goes off to get another beer and comes back bouncing around all over the place. He seems to know everybody. He clinks his bottles to theirs and smiles even wider.

Ziggy really doesn’t see the point and just wants to go. She taps Em’s shoulder, but her best friend doesn’t have to look at her to know what she’s going to say.

“Just a few more minutes!” she snaps.

Clayton asks if Emily wants a cigarette. Emily shrugs and takes one. Ziggy just shakes her head.

Emily nervously takes a drag and coughs a little. Clayton laughs. They’ve only smoked a couple times before. Jake and Sunny showed them how one night at Rita’s when no one was around.

“Just inhale like you’re scared or something,” Jake said expertly taking a drag. “Like you go—hah, real quick.”

“Nah, nah, fuck, just pretend Mom’s gonna see you with that smoke.” Her brother Sunny laughed at her and made a scared face.

“Not even!” Ziggy had cried out. But everyone laughed.

It had worked. She inhaled real quick and the smoke choked down her throat. She coughed and her brother kept laughing at her. She passed it to Emily who managed a drag, but the smoke came out in a puff, and Jake said she didn’t even inhale.

“You can tell?”

“You’re not exactly good at pretending, Em.” He shrugged.

Emily kept faking her inhales, but the boys never once believed her.

Here, she’s not even trying to pretend she inhales all the way, chokes. Clayton laughs at her again like he can’t stop.

A joint comes around, and then another, one after the other. Ziggy shakes her head and waves her hand, and just sits on the arm of the chair next to Em, trying not to look too uncomfortable. Emily keeps choking and inhaling for real. Everyone is coughing and choking so she is getting away with it. Her face grows red and her eyes look droopy, right away, but she smiles up at Ziggy.

Then she mumbles something to Clayton who just grins and says they should go outside. His voice is too loud, too happy. Ziggy follows them even though they don’t ask her to come. She never took her jacket off. Emily still has hers, too, though it’s pulled down off her shoulders.

Outside the snow is falling again. The cloud-packed sky reflects light so it is almost as bright as daytime. The snowflakes are huge. Ziggy thinks she can make out their patterns. She stands in the yard, and Clayton and Em sit on the stoop’s hardened snow. The fresh cold air feels so good. She likes winter and says so.

Clayton and Em just laugh at her.

“I think youse got a fucking contact high, neech!” Clayton laughs.

A what? Ziggy tries to say but the words don’t come out. Emily just laughs harder.

“Your face!” Clayton howls.

Ziggy is mortified. And scared now too. “Emily, we gotta go,” is all she can think to say. The words get all the way out this time.

“No ways, you just got here.” Clayton grins at them. He seems to talk louder as the night goes on.

“Well, I gotta get home by ten,” Ziggy says bravely.

“Ten-shmen!” Clayton laughs.

“Just a few more minutes,” Emily pleads.

Ziggy stands there. She wants to lie down, here in the snow even. She thinks it would feel so good, the hard snow at her cheek, the flakes softly falling on her eyelashes.

“The party’s just getting started, fuck.” Clayton’s eyes are slits.

Ziggy stares at Emily. “We can come back another night.” She tries so hard to be brave. She sees that girl in the living room window, the one who had been looking at her earlier—she’s pulled back the sheet to stare out into the yard. Another girl looks out too. She looks familiar but Zig can’t remember her name.

“But no, no, you can’t leave me,” Clayton jokes. He leans his head onto Emily’s shoulder and looks at her with puppy-dog eyes.

“I gotta go, I’m staying at her place.” She smiles such a big smile. The kind even Ziggy’s never seen before.

Ziggy shakes a bit and then can’t stop. She’s cold or nervous or both.

“I’ll take you!” Clayton says loudly.

“W-what?” Emily stutters.

“She can go. I’ll walk you in a bit, let’s just have another beer first.” He slaps his hand to his baggy knee for no reason.

“K,” Emily agrees before she even looks at Ziggy, and he nods like that’s the end of it, and goes inside.

As soon as the door is closed, Ziggy is at her side. “I’m not leaving you here!”

“Oh you’re just scared ’cause you hate walking home by yourself.” Emily is trying to act all tough. She’s probably fucking high. Ziggy could smack her, she’s so mad, but she just looks at her.

“Come on, Zig. Stay and loosen up. It’s Clayton Freaking Spence!!” Emily coos. She really is high. “And he’s nice, isn’t he? Isn’t he nice?”

Ziggy kicks at the snow. The girls in the window drop the sheet.

“One more beer. That’s it. I swear. Your mom will never know.”

“I’m not worried about her!” Her voice goes a little too high.

“Like hell you aren’t!” Emily giggles.

Ziggy smiles. She doesn’t want to but she does. Cheyenne. That girl’s name is Cheyenne. She is a year older but was held back in, like, grade four. That’s when Ziggy met her. When Ziggy first moved to the city, she used to go over to Cheyenne’s place to play Barbies. She had a long screened-in porch, and her mom was always laughing and fun. She made really good hamburger soup, Ziggy’s favourite when she was younger.

Clayton comes back with only two beers this time, and a warm gush of air escapes from inside. He looks just at Emily, and they talk so close Ziggy can’t even hear.

 

Ziggy looks at her boots and kicks at the snow again. The world seems slow, the snow falling thick and clumpy.”

 

Ziggy stands there with her hands tucked in her pockets, swaying around, trying not to feel cold. She feels so dumb and really wants to go home. It starts to snow harder, but still light and fresh. The big snowflakes fall on her hair and stick there, cold. Ziggy looks at her boots and kicks at the snow again. The world seems slow, the snow falling thick and clumpy.

The door squeaks open and four girls stand there, Cheyenne and Roberta and two others. Ziggy looks up just as the biggest one reaches down, grabs at Emily and takes hold of her hair.

Ziggy freezes all the way through.

“What the fuck, Phoenix?” Clayton yells. He wipes his mouth. He doesn’t get up or anything, just looks back at them, and then forward again, as if it is the most annoying thing in the world.

Ziggy is petrified, the cold rattles through her. Emily shakes the way she does when she’s about to cry.

“Who is this bitch?” The girl talks into Emily’s ear and grabs her hair harder and pulls her up to standing. Emily starts to cry but tries to be quiet about it.

Ziggy can only stand there, her hands out as if she can do something, but she doesn’t. Can’t. She’s frozen.

“Shit, Phoen, let her go.” Clayton looks exasperated, not frightened or angry. He still doesn’t get uphe just looks out into the street, the snow falling onto his hair.

Maybe he’s scared too, Ziggy thinks. The other girls look so tough. Cheyenne doesn’t look at her at all. Emily can only stand there too, being pulled at, trying to keep her balance. She looks pathetically down at Clayton, like he can do something. For a really long minute, the girl doesn’t let go of her hair. Then, finally, she throws Emily down the stairs. Ziggy thinks quick enough to grab her friend and stop her from falling over. Their boots squeak on the snow-packed walkway.

Ziggy can’t think what to do. These girls all look so mean, glaring down at them. Emily slowly stands all the way up and wipes the snow off her jeans, but she keeps her head down.

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” The first girl spits out the words. She looks so big, wide, and mad.

Emily shakes her head and keeps looking down. Snow keeps falling around them, and Ziggy still can’t even think.

“You think you can just come here and hang on to other people’s boyfriends?” People crowd around the open door to watch. Some guy pulls up the sheet again and looks out the front window.

Emily keeps shaking her head feebly. Run. The word just comes to Ziggy. Run. She’s a bad runner and can’t go that fast. But they can’t fight. She’s a worse fighter than she is a runner. “Phoen!” Clayton tries, but he still just sits there with his head in his hands, leaning forward. His shoulders getting white with snow.

“Shut up, Clayton, you little slut, you little fucking male slut, douche. This is my uncle’s house. You don’t go making out with skanks in my uncle’s house.” Ziggy guesses she is eighteen, maybe older. She looks a lot older than the other girls.

She turns down to Emily who looks down and shakes with crying. Ziggy holds on to the back of her jacket.

“Yeah that’s right, you little skank, what the fuck you think about that, you little skank, whore, useless slut? Fucking look at me!

Emily looks up, wincing, the snow falling on her face. Clayton’s hand is over his mouth, but he still looks more annoyed than anything. More faces appear at the window, the sheet pulled all the way up, and the light shines into Ziggy’s eyes. One girl with a black hoodie on, the one Ziggy doesn’t know, lights a smoke and looks right at her. They could run. They could at least try.

The older girl, Phoenix, keeps looking at Emily. Her glare doesn’t move.

“You should answer her,” the hoodie girl says to Emily. Emily shakes her head so fast.

“I didn’t know,” she says.

Didn’t know? Phoenix’s face looks even more evil when she screams. It gets all distorted. “You don’t seem to know nothing.”

Emily takes a deep breath. Ziggy can feel it, feel her best friend’s fear beside her. A quiet falls over everything. Ziggy feels like she’s waiting. Phoenix glares, and the other girls tower on the stoop. Clayton just sits there, looking small.

She looks at her best friend, who doesn’t look at her but can see.

Run.

Ziggy doesn’t know if someone had said it, or if she had said it, or if she just thought it, but the word echoes inside her, over and over and over—Run run run-run-run-run-run-run-run-run.

Ziggy pushes Emily in front of her, down the path to the street, turns her heel on the squeaky snow and runs behind, as fast as she can.

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From The Break. Used with permission of House of Anansi. Copyright © 2018 by Katherena Vermette.




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