By Tom Bauer
Author’s Note: Katimavik (Inuktitut: 'meeting
place') is a Canadian youth volunteer program. Since 1977 more than 30,000 Canadians have participated in the program all
across Canada. Funding for the program was eliminated by the Harper government in 2012. This excerpt is from a novel titled
‘The Donkey Prince’, about a high school grad going on Katimavik in early 1980s for the purpose of getting the
thousand dollar bonus at the end, with which he hopes to run away to Findhorn, a new-age community in Scotland, and become
I picked up some attention when I got on the train; black hair, across the aisle and two seats away,
noticing the bottles clink in my backpack when I put it under my seat. I’d picked one of those seats that get turned
around to make a four-seater at the end of the car. From where I sat by the window I could see his legs in blue jeans sticking
into the aisle. Celine was on the platform watching me with empty eyes, brown hair swept back. It was a grey cool day, damp,
and her white puffy down jacket was done all the way up.
I put my hand on the glass and she walked away.
She had driven to Vancouver without a word, stopping once at the liquor store. When we got to the
platform, that’s when she started.
“You can still change your mind. I haven’t told head office yet. And I won’t tell
them right away, for as long as I can. So think about it. Think about coming back and finishing the rotation. For your sake
and the group’s.”
Most of the group had seemed angry as we shook hands and said our goodbyes, in a line in front of
the house while Celine waited in the van. Except Alan, who cornered me in the basement on my way out and, weeping, told me
he loved me. I hadn’t known what to say to that. My heart went out to the guy.
“They’re mad at me,” I’d said to Celine.
“No, they’d love you to come back. They really would. Some of them are upset about you
leaving, that’s all. They’d be so happy if they saw you with me when I return.”
She was right, it was better to finish. But I thought first about their angry faces, then about
the bottles slung over my shoulder: six mickeys, various liquors, enough for a nice long trip by myself. And I had money in
my pocket, a thousand bucks.
And Findhorn. I had to get to Findhorn.
I’d smiled faintly as I took a step back.
“I won’t say goodbye,” she said.
I’d turned and headed for the train. Jerky, awkward.
Stupid. Staring at an empty platform.
The train moved, slowly at first, gathered speed outside the city. For the first hour me and the
guy with black hair played eye tag. Whenever I leaned back from the window his face came into view and we’d pretend
we weren’t checking on each other. He wore a red plaid shirt open over a grey t-shirt.
He watched carefully when I left to get a sandwich and coffee from the snack bar a few cars away.
It occurred to me he might hop over and nab some of my stash but all bottles were present and accounted for when I got back.
I started with the whisky, pouring some into the coffee. I tried to be surreptitious, but he must
have seen me do it, because after that he came over to introduce himself.
He leaned on the back of the seat beside the one where I was resting my feet and waved a can of
beer and lit cigarette.
“Mind if I join you?”
Fine with me, I thought, but I wasn’t moving my feet, and I wasn’t cleaning off the
wrapper from the ham and cheese sandwich on the seat beside me, which left him the seat he was leaning on. Which was fine
Outside the fir trees brushed against a glacial sky and the Rockies tumbled over themselves as the
train pressed on.
He told me his name was Pike and was heading east for work. His black hair needed a wash, and he
had a way of pointing with his thin grizzled chin when he asked something.
"Where you headed?"
I told him Montreal.
Pike had been working in Vancouver installing house alarms when the work had run out.
“There was a few robberies. Boss said he’d known it wasn’t me, but he had to fire
a few people to make sure. Problem is when you install these things you get to know how they work, you know?”
“Makes sense,” I said. “You know how the system works.”
“Exactly. But those are big houses, man. You really have to know your shit to take down one
of those. Now I got to find work. Figure I’ll try east.”
He asked about me and I told him about Katimavik.
“I wish they had something like that when I was a kid,” he said.
I told him about going to Findhorn to be a poet.
“I don’t know much about poetry,” he said. “But I guess somebody’s
got to do it.”
He wagged his chin at the backpack. “What do you got in there?”
I opened it and took out the whisky and poured some in his beer.
“Thanks,” he said. “Can I buy you a beer in the bar car?”
“Thanks,” I said. “Maybe later.”
He went back to his seat and I closed my eyes. When he came by later I told him I was too tired
to go along. He left me alone.
On trains I sleep in bits and pieces. That’s how it went. It got dark outside and the little
lights above the seats started going out, then the main car lights were dimmed and there was darkness all around. Speeding
through night the trees and mountains passed undefined across a dark sky, loping figures in an imperceptible landscape. I
drifted in and out of it, lulled and wakened by the clunk of the door and the rattle of the couplings.
Before dawn I started on the brandy to help me get more sleep. It didn’t work, so I got a
coffee, drank more. For a time we moved through ghost images in dawn light, then it was day, details more defined, morning,
and Pike came around with a beer.
“Got anything to help this?”
I gave him some brandy in it.
“I’ll get you back,” he promised.
I tried to read, then write, but neither worked. Slept again and woke sweating in the afternoon.
Went to the bathroom and washed my face, smiling at myself. Let him steal my booze, the money was safe, tight in my pocket.
And the bottles were there when I got back, Pike asleep in his seat.
That night I let him buy me a beer. We took up residence in the bar car. He got the first round,
I got the next, and after that we were buying each other rounds, two at a shot.
He kept talking about hockey. I told him I never watched it, didn’t even know how to skate.
Didn’t stop him from talking about it.
“What are you,” he asked. “Canadian or what?”
He was loud, made sure everyone heard him, laughing loud, talking loud. For a while there was a
couple two seats away by the window, until he said something to the woman and they gave us looks of distaste and left.
We closed the bar car and came back and got the mickey of rum out of the backpack. Off we went to
the observation car and found a couple of seats up there. Lying back, staring at a glass ceiling and all that sky got me dizzy.
I kept going over things that had happened in the bar, like Pike eyeing my wallet whenever I took it out, and saying something
about maybe getting off in Montreal.
I had never seen so many stars.
The land moved by like a dark river. Dark in the car and dark outside, and I was swimming, sometimes
flying, inside, outside, wasn’t sure which.
My head lolled. I made an effort to straighten it and it lolled the other way.
Then I was coming out of black sleep, Pike’s hand crawling across the seat towards my pocket.
I looked sharply at him. His eyes were closed, hands by his side, breathing like he was asleep. I looked around and my head
fell back against the headrest.
When I came to it was light and Pike was gone.
I felt sick and I was drenched in sweat. It wasn’t even hot on the train.
In the bathroom everything came out liquid. I thought I might throw up too but I held on. I washed
my face but didn’t smile this time.
I checked my wallet. Money was there, but my mind was racing. Had Pike’s hand been a dream?
More to the point, was he really getting off in Montreal. I imagined him following me into some alley and hitting the back
of my head, taking the wallet, the money Celine had given me.
He wasn’t in his usual seat. I grabbed my backpack and beat it back to the car connected to
the observation car, found an empty two-seater, put the bag on the outside seat, settled in to stare at the window.
I wondered if he had a knife. He could have killed me as I slept.
At one point he came to end of the car, looking around. I slid low, closing my eyes, leaned onto
the window, pretending sleep.
A moment later I sensed him standing there in the aisle, some disturbance in the air, a whisper
of movement. I opened my eyes.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” I said back.
“You changed seats?”
“Yeah.” I wanted to make some excuse about it being easier to sleep, but he saw the
effort to explain cross my face and I left it at that.
"Okay,” he said. “You want to get a beer?"
"No thanks. I'm pretty wrecked."
He nodded. “Toronto soon."
“In about an hour.” He backed away. “Guess I’ll see you later.”
First Toronto, then Montreal.
He knew too much. He had seen what was in my wallet. I had let him, more than once when I paid for
our beers, opening the wallet wide to show off the stiff pack of bills. A thousand bucks. A guy like him wouldn’t think
twice for that kind of money.
What if I didn’t get off in Montreal?
Kate was in Toronto. I could go see Kate. I could change my ticket, take a bus the rest of the way.
That’s who I really loved. I had always loved her.
There was a line at the end of the next car. Pike’s was the car after that. He wouldn’t
see me if he didn’t come by. I could get off and he would never know.
I went to the baggage rack and got the duffle bag.
It was around noon and the train was swaying as it chugged along, and I was feeling sick, dizzy.
The sunlight kept flashing through the windows, hurting my eyes. Finally the train stopped completely, sighing, and the door
clanged open and the cold air came in. The conductor shouted and threw out the step and people started getting off.
Then it was my turn. It seemed like a long way to the platform. Somewhere out there vehicles were
moving, horns honking, traffic. My legs were stiff. I lifted one. The conductor took my arm. “The last is a big step.”
He’d been saying it to everyone.
I held my foot over the small square step below on the platform. Then I leaned and dropped through
space, more than I expected, and my foot hit and I stumbled, duffle bag swinging, pulling me forward. I almost fell right
there, but after a couple jagged steps, one hand out, my right knee caught and held and I straightened and kept moving into
the momentum of the fall, heading for the exit without looking back.
Tom Bauer has worked in television, researching shows for Discovery and History channel, editing pitches for
various others, and sometimes coming up with his own ideas. He has a couple of short scripts and a feature script completed,
all in various stages of funding and development. Along the way he’s had fiction and poetry published in Maple Tree
Literary Supplement, Headlight Anthology, Numéro Cinq, and in the anthology In Other Words: New English Writing from Quebec.
His stories have also been short-listed for the CBC Literary Competition and the Quebec Literary Competition. He lives and
works in Montreal.