Terry Wallen always imagined being a father someday – someday being the keyword. He would put in 10-hour days of furnace repairs until he had saved enough money for an engagement ring. When Chrissy graduated college, he would pop the question. They’d get married, he would work his way up to a better-paying management position, and maybe then, when the time was right, they would have a kid. Someday. Then one night in December, the two are watching Grey's Anatomy in their apartment (well, technically it’s Chrissy’s student housing, but the school hasn’t realized that Terry’s been squatting there for the last year). It is only seven or eight, but the sky is already dark as midnight, and snow is flurrying beyond the closed blinds. The TV casts more light than the lamp – Terry means to get around to replacing the burnt-out bulb one of these days -- and reflects off of Chrissy’s reading glasses. She’s staring at her law textbook, but her eyes aren’t moving. Terry realizes she hasn’t flipped a page since they’ve sat down after the supper comprised of leftover spaghetti Bolognese that Chrissy hardly touched. He wonders if he should ask if she’s alright, but Chrissy always tells him when there’s a problem. She’s no-bullshit, and it’s one of the countless reasons he loves her. Then, as if reading his thoughts, she whispers: “I’m pregnant.” Where Terry should see his plan, his future, unravelling, he only sees Chrissy. The TV has gone silent. The snow continues to fall. Terry’s heart beats on, pumping blood through his body, and the world keeps turning, sending them into a new tomorrow, but Terry is oblivious to it all. He only sees Chrissy, clearer than ever. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” is what comes out of his mouth. Thoughts are not computing in his brain, but travelling straight to his lips. Chrissy squeezes her eyes shut and a tear runs down her face. “I mean it. I’ll go to the ends of the fucking world for you. Anything, Chris.” Finally, she makes eye contact with him. Her lips are pursed together, the way she does when she’s trying not to cry. But it is Terry who breaks first. “I’m going to be a dad?” It comes out half a question, half a laugh. Chrissy’s small, tense body deflates with relief, and she submits herself to her tears, laughing, crying, scared out of her mind. “If you want to be.” Terry tackles her into a bear hug, knocking her book to the floor, taking in each curve of her body, the warmth between her shoulder and her neck, her damp breath on his shoulder. “I’ll be the best fucking dad in the world,” he mumbles into her hair. Smiling, she pulls away. “You’ll have to cut back on the ‘fucking’.” “I’ve heard that only happens after the kid is born,” he says, devilish grin. Chrissy giggles as he peppers her with kisses on her cheeks, her neck, the thin white skin above her pulse that seems to sing with every beat: a dad, a dad, a dad. *** I’ll be the best fucking dad in the world. This becomes Terry’s mantra. His prayer. When doubts and fears creep into his mind he promises to do better than his own dad. Terry is from what the teachers at his childhood schools would call “a rough family,” usually accompanied with a sympathetic frown. Not having a mom seemed to be the primary requirement of this label; plenty of kids didn’t have dads but for some reason, it’s the feminine influence that makes or breaks a child. As much as Terry would have liked to have a mom, he wanted a good mom. If his mom was anything like his dad, it was probably best she split while he was a baby. Better to have only one parent drinking away the disability cheques. Wallen was an infamous name around the town and still is, though Terry has tried to stay as far away from that reputation as possible. Terrence Senior and his four brothers seemed to have a talent for producing hell-spawn and getting into trouble. The result was a decades’ worth of Wallens – all boys -- who terrorized authority figures, had a penchant for misbehaviour, and generally treated women like shit. In older age, they were the thieves, the scammers, the drug runners. If you ever saw someone in the back of a police car, odds are, they were a Wallen. As the youngest Wallen boy, Terry was no stranger to the exhausted looks that would cross teachers’ faces when they got to his name on roll call. They were afraid he would be like his brothers and his cousins. He made friends easily enough, because kids don’t care about your name, but he was never invited to their birthday parties or sleepovers, not that he would have been able to show his face without a gift. Still, this meant that all of his free time was spent with his brothers and sometimes his cousins. Any reasonable adult could have seen they weren’t the best influences, but Terry’s childhood had a sorry lack of those. He made the best of what he was given. Being a Wallen had its perks, mind you. No one expected too much of Terry, which meant he could get into trouble without really getting into trouble. So, what if he continually flunked English? Just graduating made him a success story, and Terrence didn’t really care one way or another. He was constantly inebriated in some way or another. Terry learned young how to tell what he was on; sleepy eyes and slow speech meant alcohol, which made Terrence an asshole. Weed was the safest because he was mostly functional on that and could at least cook a meal or two for the boys. But the harder stuff, characterized by a nervous twitch and dilated pupils, meant that you were best to keep your distance. He wasn’t violent – Terry’s older brothers compensated for that – but he was erratic and unpredictable and scary. His children seemed to be a side effect of life, which is where being the youngest was a blessing. Terry’s brothers, Frank and Richie – despite their many, many flaws – managed to keep him fed and groomed, until he was old enough to figure things out for himself. And when you’re baptized by fire like Terry, that day comes early. Terry never knew how his brothers, who were seven and eight years older than him, survived their own childhood. He was too afraid to ever ask. And with Richie in prison and Frank in the ground, he will probably never get a chance to ask. Chrissy knows about his background. Her parents, Clint and Monica, were horrified when she brought home a Wallen last Christmas. Apparently, Clint had hired one of the uncles to his fencing company a few years back, which resulted in complaints of catcalling followed by a DUI with one of the work trucks. The meal was uncomfortably silent, and as he got ready for bed, he could hear their intense whispers in the next room, debating on whether or not they should put away some of the more valuable items in the china cabinet. It had been three years since Terrence’s funeral and two since Frank’s. He hadn’t seen Richie since the sentencing, which was shortly before he met Chrissy. It was becoming far too easy to forget who he was, he realized, especially when the world never would. “We’ll just have to start our own family someday,” Chrissy whispered, as they lie face to face that night in her parents’ guest room. It was the best idea Terry had ever heard. And of course, someday was the keyword, but here they are, not yet 22 years old, at the four-month ultrasound. Four months, could it really be? But they had sex frequently enough that there was really no saying at which round the condom failed, and Chrissy was soft around the edges to begin with – something else he loved about her – so yes, there really could be a four-month-old fetus in her rounded tummy. Chrissy’s brown eyes are wide with fascination as she stares at the screen. Terry squeezes her hand and tries to match her excitement, but in truth, he has no idea what he’s looking at. The blob was supposed to be his child, but he couldn’t even tell which side was the head. “Baby has a strong heartbeat,” says their doctor, a kind middle-aged woman with red hair worn in a thick bun. “I’m not seeing anything abnormal or out of the ordinary. Do you want to know the sex?” This time Chrissy squeezes Terry’s hand, and he nods. They both want to know; there were enough surprises lately to last a lifetime. But if Chrissy wanted to wait, Terry would have done that too. End of the fucking world. He meant that. “You’re having a little girl,” says the doctor. “Congratulations.” A girl. Terry hadn’t even allowed himself to consider the possibility. He was sure that he was doomed to create another Wallen boy, with that stupid auburn Wallen hair and the worthless Wallen shit-eating grin, another branch to his lightning rod of a family tree, another generation to royally fuck up. But a girl… Chrissy tightens her grip on his hand, looking up at him with wet eyes. “A girl,” she repeats. “A girl,” Terry confirms. Then, it’s not Chrissy who begins crying first, but Terry, overjoyed and overwhelmed. He kisses Chrissy’s hand, making it wet with his tears. A girl. A daughter. I’ll be the best fucking dad… *** With his life plan taking a mind of its own and ambushing him at warp speed, Terry decides to propose to Chrissy before she graduates – especially since she intends on lightening her course load once the baby is born. Terry has no doubts in his mind or his heart. He never has, mind you, and nothing says “forever” like a baby, but Chrissy is so much more than just Terry’s baby mama. He wants her to know that he chooses her. He wants the world to know it. He will not propose without a ring. He’s sure her parents already expect that white-trash move from him – if they even dare hope for a proposal at all – so he promises to prove them wrong. Dimly, he wonders if a Wallen has ever purchased a wedding ring before. Seems unlikely. Given that he is the sole earner of their little family, he is also the one to do the budget. He’s good at math, a leftover skill from a childhood of stealing neighbours’ coupons, keeping spreadsheets of bill dates and knowing the purpose of every dollar that entered the premises. Now, he has a list of everything a baby will need, on top of having to find a new place once Chrissy drops down to a part-time student and isn’t eligible for housing anymore. Somewhere on that sheet, he’ll need to fit a ring. The numbers are big, but Terry is crafty. He spends his lunch breaks checking the classifieds, and his weekends strolling garage sales. He finds a used stroller on Facebook Marketplace for $20 that would have retailed for nearly $200 at Walmart. A change table at a garage sale runs him another $20. The woman even throws in a bundle of bibs, nursing blankets and unopened soothers for free. Chrissy insisted they buy pumping equipment new, which sets them back a bit, but seeing as she’s the one with the breasts, Terry didn’t see it fit to argue on that one. When Christmas rolls around, they go to Chrissy’s parents’ place again. “They’re really sorry about last time,” she explains. “They want to make it up to you.” Still, Terry’s guard is up, and Clint and Monica are clearly aware of that. Clint greets them at the door with a massive smile, embracing them each in a hug which Terry takes awkwardly, hands at his sides, unsure how to react. Clint takes their coats, and ushers them to the kitchen where Monica is preparing a dinner that already smells more heavenly than anything Terry could dream of cooking himself and offers them a drink as they get comfortable at the kitchen island. “Just a water,” Chrissy smiles. “Or a root beer, if you have any.” “What about you, Terry? We’ve got beer, soda, and I think some rum and whiskey in the cabinet. I know I’ll be indulging,” he says with a wink. Never turn down free alcohol was a rule Terry developed in his childhood, shortly after never turn down a free meal. But not wanting to seem like the Wallen he is, he mumbles that water is fine. Once his water is in front of him, Terry zones out, idly sipping away so he has something to do with his mouth. He wonders what next Christmas will look like, if their baby will be spoiled rotten or if they’ll even be able to get a decent dinner on the table, giant screw-up that Terry is. No. Don’t think like that. You’ll be the best fucking dad in the world, you’ll do everything you can… Clint clears his throat and Terry looks up from his glass to see Chrissy and her parents looking at him expectantly. “Terry, we uh, owe you an apology,” says Clint, looking at Terry’s neck rather than his eyes. “For how we behaved last Christmas. We were rather hostile, and that wasn’t fair of us.” “You’re a good kid,” pipes in Monica. “You’ve been good to our Chrissy. We misjudged you, and we promise to make that up to you.” Terry has never been apologized to. “It’s okay,” he says, even though the events of last Christmas upset him quite a bit at the time. Truthfully, he had never expected anything so sincere from the two people who had branded him just a year ago, but they were the same people who raised Chrissy into the person she was, so if they could give him a chance, he supposes maybe he oughta give them one as well. And make it up they do, when they hand Chrissy and Terry a solitary envelope as their lone gift, following a delicious dinner of turkey and more potatoes than Terry can eat. Chrissy opens it and quietly gasps. Terry peers over her shoulders, and when he reads the number, his eyes nearly bulge out of his sockets. “It’s not much,” says Monica, like it isn’t the most money Terry has ever held in his life. “We cashed the rest of your RESP and threw in a bit extra as a present. You can use it to finish school if you want, but you can also put it towards a down-payment on a place if that’s what you want.” Chrissy is speechless; likely biting back tears, as the second trimester has made her particularly weepy. “Thank you both so much,” Terry manages. “This is so generous. I’m just – wow. Thank you.” “You’ve been good to her,” says Clint. “You kids are gonna be great parents, I’m sure of it.” He doesn’t look so sure, but Terry can handle his doubt. After all, he’s been proving people wrong for years. “Thank you guys so much!” Chrissy exclaims, launching herself into her dad's open arms. As Clint hugs his daughter, he makes eye-contact with Terry over her shoulders. He points to his ring finger and winks. *** There is a little house on High Street, painted pink, surrounded by a white picket fence. It’s small and a little bit old, but as of February 15, it officially belongs to Terry Wallen and Chrissy Dobre. They’re ecstatic, but for different reasons. Chrissy is absolutely in love with the house, shabby as it may be. Terry, however, has balanced the budget, and there’s just enough left for a ring. Sure, he could wait another few months and save for something better, but waiting is the hardest part. He would marry Chrissy tomorrow if he could. He buys it from a pawn shop. He can feel the wrath of Monica and Clint judging him from a thousand miles away, but Chrissy has a soft spot for old and used things – hence the house – and she can picture the way her face will glow, eyes misty and apple-cheeks tinged pink with glee, when he presents her with the golden band. He keeps it with him at all times; partially because he doesn’t want to lose it in the move, but also because when workdays are long or he thinks too hard about what kind of dad he’ll be, he squeezes the box through his pant pockets and reminds himself that the best is yet to come. Deciding how to propose is the hardest part. He only gets one shot, and what he lacks in money he wants to make up for in romanticism. The trouble is that traditional romanticism and money often go hand in hand. They met shortly after Terry joined up with Atco. Chrissy’s furnace was on the fritz, and even though it was early March, a cold snap had just gone through the city. It would have taken the school three days to send their maintenance guy, so Chrissy outsourced the problem, which brought Terry to her front door. He remembers how timid she seemed when she opened it just a crack, her small frame a good half-foot shorter than his stocky one, brown eyes peering wearily at him. The phrase vulnerable woman was what popped into his head, and he took extra care not to do anything that could be considered creepy. He barely glanced her way after she finished showing him to the furnace room, and probably didn’t speak two words the whole time. It was an easy fix – the wind had blown out the pilot light, which is why he was so confused to be called back a few days later. That time, she threw open the door and welcomed him in immediately. “I think I smell gas,” she declared. Terry’s heart froze in his chest. If there was a gas leak, he would be liable and have to report it back to his boss, which was a pretty severe fuck-up on such an easy task. But when he ran the levels, nothing was out of sort. “I’m so sorry,” said Chrissy, battering her mascara-coated eyelashes. “I completely wasted your time. Maybe I could take you out for a drink sometime, to make up for it.” Terry was no stranger to blunt women. In fact, they were the only type that could stomach much time around the Wallen boys, who, according to past suitors of Frank, Richie and even Terry, were quite attractive even outside of Hood standards. But in Chrissy’s living room, dressed in work coveralls and in need of a shower, he didn’t feel attractive or cocky or even like the hood boy he knew he was. He was the vulnerable one; scared in a way he had never been before. Who knew a simple girl could hold this much power? And powerful she was. Clever, but soft. Plain, but intriguing. They sat at a booth in the corner of the campus bar, matching each other Guinness-for-Guinness as she explained what it was like growing up in Saskatchewan, her desire to apply to law school, how she loved music but had no particular attachment to any one genre, and as a result, knew the words to nearly every song that had ever heard airtime on a radio station. He could have listened to her all night, and maybe he would have if they weren’t interrupted by the last call. “I don’t think I’m in any shape to drive,” Terry admitted once he paid the bill. Beyond the fog of his buzz, he had been horrified at the idea of not having enough money in his bank account for a cab, and he wasn’t sure if the busses would be running so late. But Chrissy, for the first time out of many, would save him. “Good thing I’m a walking distance away.” When they got to her little duplex, she turned on the radio before she bothered with any of the lights, reaching the radio through the dark out of habit. The song playing was by a Canadian band, Terry thought, though he couldn’t figure out which one. “Know this one?” He asks, slipping off his shoes. Chrissy’s face doesn’t shift as she finishes taking off her coat, jumping into the pre-chorus. “And why mess up a good thing baby? It’s a risk to even fall in love. So when you give that look to me, I better look back carefully, cause this is trouble…” She trails off, meeting his eyes and smirking ever so slightly. Maybe it’s the buzz or maybe it’s the tugging sensation behind his bellybutton, but Terry remembers thinking that little grin was the sexiest thing he had ever seen. “You’re good,” he said. “At least give me a challenge.” And then they were kissing, quite aggressively, and through the dark, he could feel Chrissy’s mouth tugged upward in a smile and as they stumbled to her room, which turned into a laugh as she fell backward onto the bed, Terry never once letting up. It was a bit awkward, in the way all first times are, and Terry’s wallet was in his jacket pocket which meant running back to the living room half-naked to retrieve a condom, but it was also fun in a way Terry never knew sex could be. Usually, it felt like an obligation, the mechanical need to get off and go about his life until the next easy girl came along. But Chrissy wasn’t like those girls, or maybe with her, he wasn’t like those guys. She was a song that he could listen to a hundred times and find something new to appreciate every time. And over time, he did. So maybe technically, there wasn’t anything romantic about getting drunk on stout and hooking up on the first date, but it was the day Terry began to wonder if love was more than a myth; that maybe it could be a possibility for someone like him. If the world was kind enough to send a cold snap in March, kind enough to write songs for every sort of moment, well, who could rule anything out? The romance – the type of romance he could tell their kid about someday – happened the moment she turned on the radio, soft voice singing along to the first song that graces the airwaves. And that is how Terry gets his idea. It requires just a bit more budgeting, but thanks to a 40% off sale at the end of the month, he manages to get a new turntable for dirt cheap at Chapters of all places. The record takes a bit longer because, for the life in him, he can’t remember the name of the band that was playing on the radio that night. Can’t even remember the lyrics of the song, just how pretty Chrissy looked in the dark as she sang along. After Googling “modern Canadian bands” he is about 70% sure that it’s Arkells he’s looking for. When he swings by Sunrise Records on his way home from work on Friday, they only have one album in stock, so he buys it and hopes it’s what he’s looking for. Even if it isn’t, the ring has been burning a hole in his pocket for months. He’s done waiting. Chrissy’s class goes until 6:00, so by the time he gets home he has a forty-minute window to work with. Their living room is still in shambles, but he works it to his favour, plugging the player into an empty socket, lighting little white candles over the barren floor. He drapes bedsheets over the boxes that litter the corners, and at the last minute, remembers the handful of flowers he snuck home with groceries. As he tosses the petals over the floor, he laments that roses would have looked a tad less piteous than the evidently dyed multicoloured daisy petals, but it’s too late now. He here’s a key enters the lock and jumps to attention. Chrissy tosses her bag to the floor and kicks off her boots before she notices the set-up before her. “Well, isn’t this a sight for sore eyes,” she says, shrugging off her coat. At seven months, her stomach is huge, and her confident stride has been reduced to an adorable waddle. “What’s that?” She gestures to the record player. “A gift,” Terry explains, placing the needle on the record. He’s never used one before and places it right in the middle, so it starts at a random point in a random song. But it has the intended effect; Chrissy looks tickled pink as he takes her hand and leads her towards their living room. They dance a bit, but the song is quite upbeat and Chrissy’s tummy makes everything clumsy and awkward and silly. “Know this one?” He asks. It’s an old game at this point. The rhythm slows down as the bridge approaches, and Chrissy matches the singer's drawl word for word: “Those bodega lights at three a.m., fluorescent and bright, just like a movie set. And Jules was dancing…lit an imaginary cigarette and said, ‘man, why you feeling sorry for yourself?’” She does actions too, lighting an imaginary cigarette. As the bridge booms towards the chorus, she takes Terry’s hand and has him spin her in a circle. When she’s steady on her feet, Terry drops her hand. Then he drops to his knee. The music goes silent as the record continues to spin. Terry’s heart beats on, steady and sure of every moment that’s led him to this one. The earth keeps turning, sending them into a new tomorrow, but the only world Terry cares about is Chrissy. “I thought you’d never ask,” she says, leaning down to kiss him like it’s their last night on earth. *** It turns out the song from their first date was actually by Neon Trees, not Arkells. Neon Trees aren’t even Canadian, so Terry completely fudged that aspect. But it wasn’t for nothing. On June 2nd at 9:42 p.m., a chubby little girl comes screaming into the world, red-faced and ferocious, and so deeply loved. They name her Jules. And the three years that follow are the happiest of Terry’s life. But the world that gave him that fateful March cold-snap, the first of many nights with Chrissy, the most beautiful daughter in the world is the same world that allowed him to grow up in fear of hunger-ridden nights of sleep and of blows from his brothers when they felt he wasn’t pulling his weight. It was the world that bred him to believe that people like him didn’t deserve happy endings because he had never seen one for himself. Jules was the answer to the prayer he never knew he made. She broke the curse. Or at least, it seemed she did. Then, shortly before Jules’s fourth birthday, the world placed a tumour in Chrissy’s brain. The day she got the diagnosis was scorching hot. They hadn’t assumed the news would be bad, so they didn’t think to hire a babysitter for Jules, who was cranky on the drive to the hospital because the A.C wasn’t working in the car, and her thick hair was plastered to her neck with sweat. But on the way back, she sat in silence as her Daddy gripped the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white, trying not to scream every curse to every. Terry remembers calling one of the neighbourhood kids and paying them extra for the short notice, kissing Jules on her damp forehead, and speeding back to the hospital, holding Chrissy’s hand as they talked over their options. After that, it gets a bit blurry. It happened very quickly. Looking back, Terry supposes that’s for the best. She didn’t have to lose her hair, so at least that dignity was allowed to her, but her mind was an entirely different story. But at least Jules doesn’t have to remember the way her mommy deteriorated, forgetting little things and then big things, angering easily, talking nonsense and crying in pain. She simply had a mommy, and after a confusing couple of weeks that consisted of plenty Grandma-and-Grandpa sleepovers near the end, she didn’t. Terry was not so lucky, but even his memories are muddled together; holding her hand during the prognosis, snuggled at her side during the nights, being rushed to the hallway as a flurry of doctors responded to the insolent whine of the heart monitor that never found its rhythm again. Some nights he’s there again, in the cold hallway slumped to the floor, trying to scream and nothing comes out. In these dreams, it’s his heart that stops. In these dreams, it’s easier. But when he wakes every morning, he isn’t alone. There’s a little girl at the end of his bed, poking him awake. She has his frizzy auburn hair and his smatter of freckles across her nose, but her eyes are Chrissy’s, and they look at him with her sternness, seeming to ask: “What are you going to do now, Terry?” The answer to this question is the only clear thing in his world; the only thing that keeps him going. I’m going to be the best fucking dad in the world.
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Kendall Bistretzan was born and raised in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and now resides in Calgary, Alberta where she will spend the summer working as a full-time investigative reporter and a part-time barista. You can follow her creative writing journey on Instagram @kendallbistwrites