New Work

By Cindy Matthews

Rain gels over the kitchen window. Hundreds of islands dot Georgian Bay, but on this Saturday morning in August a curtain of mist shrouds them from view. It’s a day destined for unearthing dust bunnies from beneath the couch, mopping spittle off mirrors and polishing furniture until the reflection of tomorrow’s promised sun is certain to blind the unsighted. The idea of menial tasks runs weak in my veins. I turn to my laptop and reread an old Facebook message from Caitlin—my co-worker, and my friend.

Hey Toby,

I had the dry heaves again last night. I thought once radiation was done I’d stop barfing. The tattoos itch like a son-of-a-bitch. You know how I hate to swear.

I put an update on that online site Bridges of Caring and got seventeen hits before bed. Have you ever typed your own name into Google? Try it. I stopped reading after seeing thirty references to yours truly. It’s reassuring that so many people care.

I wish I could talk to my birth father about my sickness. He’d be able to tell me if it’s the same form of neuroblastoma I had as a kid. I don’t recall having radiation treatments then. You’d think I could remember something important like that.

When I had childhood cancer, I used to write in a diary. My oncologist suggested it. But then my diary burned in that house fire, the one I told you my foster brother set. You know, I haven’t been back to Sturgeon since.

I’ve been thinking of hiring an assistant to update my websites. Bridges of Caring doesn’t take too long but the entries I write for Kids with Cancer Again and Sick Kids Unite are bloody time-consuming. Let’s face it, those sick children need me.

Anyway, got to go flush my IV lines. I should be able to stop having two drips next weekend but who knows what else might pop up in the meantime. I’ll see what my medical team suggests.

        Write when you get a chance.


Something has been preventing me from responding to her message. I’ve already taken several stabs at it. Last week I managed to write a brief answer to her question, admitting I’d never considered looking myself up on the Internet. The fact is, other people’s lives offer greater appeal than my own. I told her about a dream I had where I was trapped inside a whale. I kept jabbing it from the inside so it’d finally spit me out. The whale was damp, smelly and super scary. I woke with a start, clammy all over and afraid for my future. But, when I reread what I’d written, it sounded stupid so I deleted everything.

I used to be a size fourteen until Caitlin came into my life. Now I wear a ten. Even my shoes are roomier and I sure never predicted that would happen. I don’t miss wearing muumuus or Birkenstocks; those shoes do nothing to taper the look of a woman’s ankles.

Caitlin taught me how to avoid extra calories. She said to eat slowly and then excuse myself before the end of a meal and head for the bathroom. “Push a finger on the inside of your throat until you have no choice but to hurl. Two fingers work better than one. Remember to flush the toilet so no one hears.”

Ronnie doesn’t like me so skinny and says I look sick. He mentioned last week that we seem to be going through a lot more toilet paper than usual and he is, of course, correct. It’s those laxatives Caitlin got me onto.

A granola-bar wrapper sits beside my coffee cup. I pick it up to read the calorie count. Ninety, and one gram of fat. I force myself to take another nibble before I tap on the keyboard.


Dear Caitlin,

I know. So formal. What the hell? It’s been way too long since I last wrote. You’d be the first to kick me for being down on myself; I shall avoid self-deprecation. I downloaded a free dictionary app and self-deprecation is the word of the week. The ads on the app are annoying so I’m considering coughing up $1.99 for the full version.

Ronnie has been such a prick again. I’m very familiar with your thoughts on Ronnie. He wouldn’t like that I’m writing to you. It’s not like I’ve got so many friends that I can just throw one away. I feel like I can’t talk to Ronnie anymore. You used to say that men only like two things: blow jobs and sports.

I’ll admit you’ve been crowding my thoughts. It’s unlike you to not be in touch, and, besides, you wouldn’t believe the rumours. A girl at work contacted Human Resources to ask if they’d heard from you but with the privacy rules being so strict, HR wouldn’t say. So I’m asking. Where the hell are you? I called your niece to see if she’s heard from you. Funny, I left three messages and she hasn’t bothered to call back.

Since you’ve been gone, I’ve been showing signs of coming unglued. Last week, I stood in the grocery store clutching a cart and I couldn’t move. It was like my feet were frozen to the floor of the produce section. I stood there staring at the watermelons until I started counting them out loud. Then I remembered I needed tomatoes. I kept counting those goddamned melons while stacking hundreds of vine tomatoes into the cart.

The produce manager tapped me on the shoulder. “Everything okay here?”

The little tomatoes kept slipping through the cart and splitting open when they fell to the floor.

“Do you know that your tomatoes smell mouldy?” I said.

Sure, my voice was loud by then, and it didn’t help that the manager had grabbed my elbow. I managed to squirt away but I didn’t get far. I found myself in front of the store; it was like someone had fastened my chest with a bowline knot. You appeared out of nowhere and grabbed the end of the rope, tugging and tugging, until you set me free. I floated away and found myself behind the steering wheel of my car. I clutched the wheel and scanned the parking lot but you were gone. In the meantime, a chain of bruises sprouted along my arm.

I turned the key in the ignition and spun the dial on the radio. The announcer read, “Missy Masterson, aged 93, resting at Earl’s Funeral Home. Visitation Sunday afternoon. Lorne Lachine, aged 88, no funeral or visitation. Predeceased by a wife, Verna, and a daughter, Elsbeth.” I waited and waited for the announcer to say your name only he never did, so I drove home. Ronnie mustn’t ever know about this.

Remember when you lost your hair; you had the thickest, blondest curls. Did your lashes ever grow back? Your bald head looked like you’d waxed it. Your head has that perfect shape; you never did have to bother with a headscarf and it took forever to get that special artificial wig made.

Strangers are snoops. They just go right up and start asking what you’ve got. And you smile that gorgeous smile and answer with more detail than most of us could. Like when we were at Coffee Cultures and as sick as you were, you held the door for that guy in the wheelchair. He had a robot voice and when he thanked you, his monotone sat heavy in my ears.

Remember when Marita set up that website so everyone could share their thoughts and well-wishes about you. I was so pissed because, well, it should have been me who did that. We’re besties, after all.

Sometimes when you talk about your cancer, you sound like a doctor. Did you ever consider becoming one? You’ve got that incredible memory for scientific words. I know you didn’t finish high school but lots of people return to school later in life. Maybe when you’re feeling better. I have to say, your energy level is unsettling. Anyone else I’ve known with cancer is hunched over the toilet but not you.

Bridges of Caring has 2,100 followers. Frankly I think it’s those photos you post. The one at your step-sister’s is particularly touching, both of you wearing masks because you were afraid of catching anything. She rented that special hospital bed and placed it in her living room so you wouldn’t be stuck at Mill River Health Centre. She arranged for that practical nurse but you cancelled at the last minute saying you could manage your own chemo port. Nothing about needles freaks you out. The video with you in the oxygen mask is a bit blurry. I mean, I know it’s you. And those gasping noises—no one can keep a dry eye after watching that. To think you almost died.

Last week I called your sister to ask about you but she hasn’t returned my call.

Remember when you baked that double batch of muffins for the staff; you had just picked the blueberries and everything. Your get-up-and-go is astounding. You credit the Vitamin D supplements and the iron shots from the naturopath, but truthfully, you are simply an amazing woman.

Love you always,


P.S. I’m coming right back to write more. I just remembered I have to let the dog out.

I stretch out my lower back and do a few shoulder rolls. The fog has lifted and the rain has mostly stopped. I go upstairs and let Daisy out into the backyard for her first pee of the day. She pauses after every step as if to say Really? to the idiot who tossed her out in bad weather. Blackbirds call from the hedge that runs between us and the neighbours. I pour a second coffee before letting Daisy back in. She jumps onto her cushion by the window, circles three times, and groans before settling down for a nap. I take a sip of coffee before heading back to my laptop.

Dear Caitlin,

Part II

After your chemo last spring, I couldn’t resist booking that trip to Cancun for us. You begged me to let you pay but I wouldn’t hear of it. Ronnie says only a fucking loser would get sucked into such an arrangement. The fight that followed lasted a week.

Most patients drag someone along to the cancer clinic but not you. You’re so brave. You always resisted my offers to go and sit with you. You said I’d get bored and I get that. After dropping you off I’d head over to the park to feed the miniature goats. Later, you’d be out front, finished well before expected. You said it was because you had cooperative veins but I think you charm the hospital staff with that brilliant smile of yours.

Remember that time I took you to Pearson Airport so you could grab the red-eye to Philadelphia? That was the day we got the unexpected spring snowstorm. I was terrified to drive and truth be told, I should have cancelled but I chickened out. I just couldn’t bear to see the disappointment on your face. And after that three hour white-knuckle drive, we finally got there and you never said a thing; no thanks or see you or anything. When I offered to go in and wait with you, you waved me off. I thought it best to stick around in case the flight got cancelled on account of the storm but you insisted so I left. I followed a Challenger transport truck all the way home.

Mae from work cornered me a week before the Philly trip. We were on break and I was in the washroom washing my hands. Mae stood over me as I held my hands under the dryer and air-tapped my shoulder in that bossy way she has. “I want to talk to you about Caitlin,” she said. “No one having chemo could possibly find the energy to write a speech, travel overnight and speak to two hundred people. I’m telling you, there’s something about her that doesn’t sit right.”

But, here’s the thing. Mae brought up a good point so I have to ask. How did you make out in Philly?

I am terrified of running into Mae so now I tend to use the second-floor washroom. I borrowed a book about introverts from the library. The book says quiet people have to spend time gathering information before they can dredge up the courage to speak. People like me, the book says, have got great ideas but lack courage. Not like extroverts who blurt something just to hear their voices.

An assertive person would have stood up to her. You wouldn’t have taken her crap. People say a heart is tough and I guess it is, but strong things can eventually weaken. Anything that works hard to conceal itself can still sometimes find itself collapsing, like a perfectly risen dough. Elastic and smooth, that is, until someone pokes it; then it’s no longer what you thought.

Last week I felt safe refilling my plastic water bottle at the fountain in the corridor because I’d heard Mae was off sick. Turned out she only took the morning off. She crept up behind me and gripped my shoulder so firmly I thought I’d pass out.

“About that friend of yours, that Caitlin. The girls and I have been talking. We think she’s got that factitious disorder.”

I didn’t say anything. I listened for other people but all I heard was photocopier clatter coming from that room off the hallway, that annoying clack of the sheets as they enter the machine. Instead of looking at Mae’s face, I trained my eyes onto the top of her right ear.

I took a deep breath. “My friend, Caitlin.” I paused and thought about what you would do. I took another breath and exhaled slowly. It felt like a rope dropped from my chest. “You’ve got it right. Caitlin is my friend. Here’s the thing, Mae. I don’t speak to the likes of you about my friends.” Mae’s face turned as pasty as a bed sheet.

It took a few minutes to find my way back to my workstation. Since the boss instituted a no-talking-at-cubicles rule, by the time I got there, I knew I was out of harm’s way.

Remember that time we ate lunch at Coffee Cultures? There was that other couple sitting on the patio, too, who gave you the stink eye when you hurled the sushi out of your mouth. Later, when the guy lit up a joint, you and I shared a chuckle. Soon after he started talking to us about his early-onset MS and how the pot helped alleviate the symptoms. Then the topic switched to you and before I knew it, the couple started oohing and ahhhing about your cancer and I just wanted to crawl home.

Mae’s word-of-the-week. Factitious. It’s on my list of words to check on the dictionary app.

Here’s hoping I’ll hear from you soon.

Love, Toby

I hit enter. As the messages scroll away, fatigue grips me. I’ve spent way too long writing to someone I’m not certain will answer.

The door pops open. Ronnie sets a copy of the Saturday newspaper next to my cup where the tepid remains of my coffee linger. There’s a blurry photograph above the fold of a police officer holding the arm of a woman in a grey hoodie.

“Strange, but the girl in the picture looks oddly familiar. Something in those eyes reminds me of Caitlin.” My fingers linger under the headline. Police Hold Local Woman.

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Cindy Matthews

Cindy Matthews lives in Bruce County, Ontario. Her fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in literary journals and anthologies in Canada, USA, UK, South Africa, and Australia. Learn more at cindymatthews.ca.