March 27th, 2017

Buried Treasure

by Paul Duncan, Learner, Writing Workshops

Going full whine, the handlebars vibrating like hammer drills, I had barely been able to make half the speed of the cars gassing past my two-wheeled vehicle. Lumbering trucks overtook me, downshifting in loud, unrestrained belches like those the locals indulged in on Beaujolais Day, a French holiday dedicated to drinking the cheap, young wine. A few miles later, off the main arterial highway and onto the winding roads, my regret at choosing a scooter for the trip died away. Passed by a pack of lean cyclists wearing colourful jerseys, and then surrounded by the smells of wood smoke and sun-warmed pines, I was glad I’d chosen the small, open transport to take me back up to the peak.

Six years before this return trip, my then-girlfriend (now wife) Hannah and I made that same hike up from a villa we were staying in with a friend, who had offered us accommodation while we were looking for work on the luxury yachts that ply the coast below. Our friend was acting as a caretaker of the villa, and in the evenings we shared bottles of red wine in front of a fireplace so large you could step into it without stooping. The days were spent chopping firewood, cleaning, and taking trips into the nearby town to top up on wine, baguettes, and cheese.

We made the climb on a startlingly clear day, Hannah unaware that a diamond had shifted from its hiding place in my backpack to the linty confines of my short’s pocket. I was leaving in three days to join a yacht in Florida, and the next time we would be together was unknown. Having neither enough time or money left to buy champagne, I’d tucked a carafe of tea and two mugs into my backpack. Together we ventured above the treeline, up to the very top of Les Courmettes. A question was poorly asked. An answer was generously given. It was an indelible day, and we lingered, drinking warm tea and making run-on plans; surrounded by the cascade of notes that followed this new chord. 

Eventually, with the afternoon running out, and the need to tell someone, anyone, our news, we began to make our way down. The lower section of the circular trail leads through owned land, in which scattered groups of sheep graze on scrabbly herbs and grasses. These woolly beasts are herded by dogs the size and colour of young polar bears, and as Hannah and I emerged from the trees onto a dirt road, we were surrounded by a pack of the ancient canines. Large enough to come up to our chests, they milled silently around us, pressing their weight against our bodies as the warm afternoon air filled with musty breath. Their fur was wild-feeling; matted and coarse they had the hides of free things. And, in their beauty, unknowability, and vague threat, the animals seemed to share a duality with life itself: that of being both the shepherd and the wolf.

Paul’s piece was written for Ann Ireland’s workshop: Creative Travel Writing (CWWR 952).

May 31st, 2016

Liz Krehm Mentorship in Creative Writing

Antique Typewriter (with lettering)

The following three students were successful applicants to the Liz Krehm Mentorship in Creative Writing, a 13-week mentorship that matches a writing student with a Writing Workshops instructor to work one-on-one. The students receive the mentorship for free, thanks to a generous donor. If you have taken at least one course in Writing Workshops at The Chang School in the last five years, you may be eligible to apply for the next round. Visit the Writing Workshops website or contact Ann Ireland, Academic Coordinator, at


Morning Mail

by Joanne Jackson, Mentee, Liz Krehm Mentorship in Creative Writing. Mentor: Ann Ireland

I’m in the lobby when the elevator opens and a group of people step out. They’re silent as they squeak past on their rubber-footed walkers and crepe-soled shoes, eyes looking neither right nor left. Like a school of fish they turn down the hall, stopping in front of a closed door. A shaky hand reaches out and rattles the knob; the door doesn’t open. The group melts back a few steps and waits in a huddle. I frown at this peculiar scene until it dawns on me what it’s about; the letter carrier’s due to arrive.

I remember decades ago when I delivered mail to places like these. There was always a crowd in the lobby waiting on my arrival, parting the way like I was Noah himself. They’d smile pleasantly and pat me on the back, feigning interest in me. But it was a ploy. The moment I turned that key and entered the mail room, they would crowd in behind me like they were kids at a rock concert heading to the mosh pit, bony hands and frail arms half carrying, half pushing me across the floor. There were times I was afraid I was going to gasp my last breath smothered by soft breasts and bald heads. Somehow they always managed to deposit me beside the mailboxes, then stand in a pulsing group of flesh — butterscotch breath and Old Spice mixing together in an ungodly odour — waiting for me to pull out my master key. I would slide that panel up, exposing all of the boxes at once to the same smattering of applause, as they commented on how marvellous it was I didn’t have to open each one individually. The moment I put my hand into my mail bag, like marionette dolls on one set of strings, the group would lean closer and squint cataract-clouded eyes at what I drew out. Then as surely as winter always arrives, someone’s arthritic fingers would reach forward and pinch a piece of mail from my hands with the words, “I’ve got one,” shouted out for all their peers to hear. I’d have to threaten them to back up or I’d leave, taking the mail with me.

Today the front door opens and the letter carrier enters. It’s a rookie: she has her Tilley hat on backwards — the Canada Post insignia is at the back of her head. The crowd murmurs with anticipation. She pushes her brim back and a look of terror crosses her young face. Then using her bag like a shield, she rushes the mail room. The group moves in for the kill, crowding her towards the knob. I hear the keys clang as they hit the floor. She bends down to retrieve them and for a moment I lose her as she’s swarmed by grey heads and crooked backs. Finally she stands and holds the keys high in the air, momentarily triumphant in her victory. With shaking hands she unlocks the door, and the crowd surges inside. The last thing I see is an age-spotted hand gently tugging the door closed behind them.


Novel in Progress

by Kim Murray, Mentee, Liz Krehm Mentorship in Creative Writing. Mentor: Susan Glickman

The problem with smoking was all the other smokers. Alexa had hoped to enjoy a quiet moment out on the terrace while watching the sun come up over the Edgewater grounds. Instead she found herself wedged against the door as one of her fellow patients blew smoke in her face. He had the desiccated build and rotted teeth of a hardcore meth addict.

“I miss those days when time had no meaning,” he said, inching closer until her back was pressed against the wall. “Days and nights that just passed by in this beautiful haze. Now it’s like I can feel every minute, every second passing, you know?”

She did. She was on day twelve of a thirty day stint, and Alexa wasn’t sure how she was going to survive the next eighteen days. Her stay was voluntary, they’d made that very clear when she’d checked in, but it had been made equally clear to her that her job depended on her completing the entire treatment.

“And the conversations! Such gorgeous conversations, you know? About life, real life…”

Alexa took a drag from her cigarette, enjoying the dark pull on her lungs. Before this week she’d been nicotine-free for six years, and it surprised her how easily she’d slipped back into the role of smoker. But cigarettes and coffee were the only vices allowed in this place and the distraction they offered helped to break up the monotony of the day, which always followed the same pattern – breakfast, followed by Yoga, group therapy, lunch, individual therapy, meditation sessions, more group therapy, dinner, “reflection” time and then lights out by nine o’clock. All of it conducted under the sharp-eyed watch of trained therapists and dozens of fellow addicts. She’d barely had a moment alone in twelve days.

“…you can only really know someone once they’ve unhinged themselves from the great, dark mechanism of the world and…”

Alexa nodded as the man rambled, and took a couple of steps to the left, hoping for some avenue of escape. Over her captor’s shoulder she spotted Verne, one of the orderlies from her wing, climbing out of his van. “I’m so sorry,” she broke in. “I really need to go talk to Verne about the toilet in my room. I had a bit of a…accident last night.”

“No problem, sister.” He touched the side of his nose and stepped aside. “I understand completely.”

Alexa crushed her cigarette beneath her sandal, not bothering with the lovely, hand-carved ashtrays they’d provided at well-placed intervals along the terrace. She managed to catch up with Verne just as he was heading through the back door towards the kitchen. “Hey,” she said, startling him enough that he almost dropped the box of assorted herbal teas he was carrying. “I need you to get me my phone.”


Excerpt from “The Geologist”

by Leah Sandals, Mentee, Liz Krehm Mentorship in Creative Writing. Mentor: Cordelia Strube

With her hands covered in tears and mucus, Lila went and stood on the balcony. Gazing over the large prairie city emerging from winter into spring, the land resembled a graham cracker, the grasses still light brown, with sunshine cutting through the downtown skyscrapers like a benediction, a blessing for the oil industry in which she and so many others worked. The mountains, large mounds of rock blue and white in the distance, said, “You are here for good reasons; we are watching over you; there is grandeur in nature; and great skiing, too.”

Skiing. Lila’s mother in old, faded, yellowed photos, poised in heavy, black leather boots with silver buckles, in bell-bottomed snowpants, in parkas with pointy, shirtlike collars. Her bottom lip a small, upturned smile, never too ecstatic—except for maybe the rarest of those old photos, where her teeth beamed in a laugh.

By the time Lila arrived, what with three kids to raise and a husband with a bum knee, there was no time for skiing, and then no husband at all. Yet when James and Melody were too teenaged and too cool to be seen with them, Mom would pack Lila into the rusting sedan with a packed lunch of waxy apples and brown-bread-and-orange-cheese sandwiches, and they would drive out to her beloved mountains, to walk them. The hard, city-life line of her mouth would flex, her eyes would soften and open, and Lila felt protected by her gaze. Once, when Mom was losing her ability to speak, they ran into a bear; she clamped her hand hard on Lila’s neck to tell her to remain perfectly still, and Lila waited until the bear walked away.

A fall from 12 stories up would bring stillness. The hardness of concrete might vary, of course—would be difficult to know if what they used on the condo entrance was a 5 on the Mohs Hardness Scale (Medium/Soft) or an 8 (Very Hard). No doubt, it would be hard enough.

Lila took her phone from her pocket. She’d felt it buzzing for an hour. Her screen was filled with messages from Dick:

Im sorry

let m xpln

we need 2 talk

don’t be stupid

don’t be crazy

you can always get so crazy

we can work ths out

at least let me back in 2 get my stuff

yur the only 1 for me

she meant nothing

where r u

ru listening?



October 23rd, 2015


by Nadine Arzumanian, Learner, Writing Workshops

“That’s not what I said,” I uncrossed my arms and looked directly into the screen at his face.

“Yes, it is. That’s what you said. That’s what you meant. You’re breaking up with me.” Lenny stared back at me unblinking. I let the air hang between us for a moment, unsure of what to say next.

“Are you sure that text you got was from me? Sometimes when you get international texts the numbers get all jumbled because of the area codes.”

“What are you saying?” he snapped back. “That I don’t understand how text messaging works? Don’t you think I’ve received hundreds of texts from you by now? From the same number?” His face was so close to his camera that I could see the spittle at the corner of his mouth. He gets like that sometimes. It’s annoying and frankly I’m kind of glad he took that job drilling for oil in Baku. He is too intense for me.

I tried to conceal my yawn. “What’s that Lenny? You’re breaking up. Can you call me back? I think we have a bad connection.”

“That’s funny Amy. I can hear you perfectly well. How fitting.”

I tried to keep my shoulders as still as possible while I clicked my mouse discretely to hang up the skype session. God, he is too heavy for me. Besides I had to go start my tennis lesson.

Nadine took her first creative writing course at The Chang School in 2014. She lives in Toronto with her family.

Nadine’s piece was written for Cordelia Strube’s workshop: ‘Short Fiction Writing – Level II’ (CWWR 411).

December 19th, 2014

Death on the Subway

by Caterina Valentino, Learner, Writing Workshops

Karen strode onto the subway car and plunked herself in the corner seat by the door. She tucked her knapsack between her legs, sighed and, as was her practice, began to study the faces of the train’s patrons mentally creating a Portrait Parle of intriguing facial features. It was in that silence of noting every nuance of visage that her eyes stopped dead. She tried not to stare but she couldn’t help herself. She snatched glances when she thought he wasn’t looking, when no one was looking. She surveyed him up and down. There was no mistaking it. Every detail Karen had ever read about death was etched in his facial features and carved out by his physique. Death sat in subway car 1929.

Bowed over, he cast the image of a vulture crouched in a treetop peering straight ahead searching for its next piece of flesh. Each of his twelve back vertebras curled up and hunched forward forming a smooth arch that met his seven neck bones that shot straight out parallel to the floor. His head’s high frontal bone curved down over what only could be a pea sized brain in an oversized cranial vault to settle at the bridge of his curved and pointed snout. His horn-rimmed glasses sat precariously on the bridge of his nose. In profile, his singular beady black crow eye looked straight ahead focused on the doors that would eventually open to Samarra. His dangly arms rested on his thighs. His smooth skinned hands unaccustomed to hard labour were folded. His fingers intertwined at the ready to snatch any desolate soul that happened by.

His ringless finger indicated he belonged to no one. His jet-black hair streaked with grey swept back off his face, over his ears and terminated in a greasy cow’s lick at the crown of his head. These daunting traits were minimized by the one solitary drop of mucous that hung from the tip of his pointed nose patiently waiting for gravity to draw it to the subway floor. It was that solitary drop of yuck that captivated Karen. Her eyes were riveted to that solitary glob of slime as gravity slowly elongated it for its descent to hell. Did she see his tongue arc to snatch the nose drool? Karen sat frozen in her seat, afraid to move in case Death swooped in and scooped her into his arms. An eternity passed before that bulbous mass of snot detached itself and plunged down between his legs to the car’s floor –splat – only to slowly regenerate at the end of his beak. Karen disappeared further into her seat. The doors chimed opened, she slithered away keeping her distance. Safe on the platform, Karen looked ahead, to the sides. Now a mere shadow in the crush of passengers, Death had escaped her. For how long, she was uncertain. But, for today she was safe.

Caterina’s piece was written for Ann Ireland’s online writing course: ‘Fiction and Non-Fiction Writing’ (CWWR 415).

December 19th, 2014

Excerpt from Consumed

by Sanober Bukhari, Learner, Writing Workshops

Sirens blared as the paramedics pulled up to the bus stop across the street. Amy stopped in her tracks on the sidewalk nearly dropping her bags of groceries. An elderly man was lying on the ground in the bus shelter; the paramedic performing CPR sent thundering waves across the man’s pale stomach, desperately trying to revive him. Amy’s eyes were locked on this man; she couldn’t tear away from him. So she held her breath.

The next few minutes were a blur. The man was no longer being pumped. The paramedic with a grim face moved his hands away to usher another medic to the scene. The body lay limp and still. His shirt still raised above his naval now revealed a still stomach, looking deflated, defeated. The second medic wheeled a gurney in and in one swift motion they placed the body on top. How easy it was to lift this lifeless body, Amy thought remembering reading something about the body losing 21 grams after death. 21 grams. The weight of the soul…didn’t seem like much. She forced herself to blink so she could snap out of her head. So quickly the scene had cleared, so quickly the crowd that had gathered around the dying man, intrigued by whether he would live or die, lost interest and dissipated. Once you were zipped up in that body bag, double doors shut behind you, no longer were you part of the living, breathing human race. We are a cruel people. She was angry at herself mostly, because while she had just watched a man die, at the back of her mind she was very aware that there was ice cream melting in her grocery bag.

Sanober’s excerpt was written for Ann Ireland’s online workshop: ‘Short Fiction Writing – Level I’ (CWWR 410).

December 19th, 2014

A Deckhand’s Lunch

by Jim Grindlay, Learner, Writing Workshops

The rhythmic rocking and rolling of the deck beneath my feet, on an undulating sea. The oily stench of diesel exhaust. And now peat smoke – astringent and saccharine – redolent of burning hay and scorched Guinness – wafting across the deck from the galley stove below.

I’m fighting the muzzy-brained, bubbling-stomach churn of seasickness. ‘Just do like they do – focus on the fishing…’

For the past six months I’ve been a hitchhiker. But for this one day, I’m a deckhand on a coastal trawler fishing Clew Bay, a salt water salient of the North Atlantic biting into Ireland’s remote west coast.

‘Lunch time, Lads!’ hollers the skipper. I’ve fished hard and I’m ravenous, despite my teeter-tottering equilibrium. Me, the two regular deckhands and skipper drop into the smoke-hazed galley and slide onto the wooden bench cleaving to the inside curves of the bow.

Then the skipper unpacks our lunch. I’m quietly stunned:  white, store-bought bread and cheap strawberry jam.

We take turns smearing our bread with the runny, sugared redness – one hand upturned as a plate. Then a thermos of milky, sweet tea makes the rounds. My lunch tastes like penny candy. I squelch my disappointment; I chide myself for my middle-class expectations of more.

Then! A startling spectacle. From a bucket at his feet, the skipper scoops out a handful of just-caught scallops and lays them on the stove’s hot metal top. Quiet h-i-s-s-s! of sizzling juices. Delicious aroma of seafood restaurant. One-by-one, each cooked scallop opens itself wide with a small puff of steam. The skipper hands me a spoon. ‘Try one, lad!’ he urges. Digging out the poached morsel, I do.

HOT! Then s-m-o-o-o-t-h…and buttery tender… a whisper of natural salt…then POW! The zesty piquancy of the sea. I laugh with delight and pleasure. ‘Wow! That’s fabulous!’ I exclaim.

Waiting for the next round of scallops, I chomp into my simple jam sandwich. A sudden Jolt! of freshly invented tastes electrifies my palate. Like lager with honey, like cheddar with grapes – the savoury aftertaste of seafood fuses with the sweet strawberry preserve to create a flavour entirely new – greater than the sum of its parts – as ineffable as heavenly manna.

I lean back against the gently swaying hull and grin with happiness.

Jim’s travel story was written for Ann Ireland’s online course for travel writers: ‘Creative Travel Writing’ (CWWR 952).

December 19th, 2014

Excerpt from On the Island

by Leah Sandals, Learner, Writing Workshops

Waiting for the ferry to dock, Julia was inspecting her mint-green manicure when a leaf fell into her cleavage. “Fuck,” she sighed.

Sea winds had already ruined her blowout, and dark clouds threatened to soak her through before she met Martin. She tried to fish the leaf out and scratched her sternum. A deckhand reclined against a bollard, smiling at her. She frowned and turned away, inadvertently crushing the leaf into brown flakes that spread over the front of her black silk blouse. Feeling herself sweating, she tried to brush them off but couldn’t get them all—would Martin think he’d made a mistake? Had she made a mistake? She reached into her pocket for the bottle of medicine the naturopath had given her. As she spritzed it into her mouth, its herbal, alcoholic taste mingled with the diesel smell of the boat exhaust and the salt of the water, and the elixir produced the Dumbo-feather effect she had hoped for. She wouldn’t crash into the ground. Not this time. She watched seagulls wheel over the bobbing steel hull, observing that their crap was nearly titanium white.

When Julia first applied to the residency, it had sounded idyllic: spend four months on an island off the coast of Maine. She’d be far from her dealer, who kept pushing her show in favour of works by younger, shinier artists; far from art fairs where her work resembled a polyester scarf at a mall kiosk; far from the art openings with cheap red wine and everyone gathered to congratulate and envy each other; far from the fertility clinic where the doctor stared steadily at her file, never at her face, while outlining the increasingly expensive options available to her; far from alleyways that smelled like piss and men who stood too close in the subway.

As she stepped off the ferry, clasping her dyed white-blonde hair (a colour which helped hide the grey) to the nape of her neck with one hand and dragging her small, silver rolling suitcase in the other, she felt elated. The sky was clearing. Pale beach grasses waved in rhythm in front of stunted pines and cedars, growing at an angle, hugging the rocky slope. Just above was a small, one-street town, where a drugstore/gas station/beer store/post office advertised ice creams, perched on the rocks. There, tourists from the mainland milled about, priming themselves to taste spheres in every colour of the rainbow.

Martin met her in the store’s parking lot, waving from behind the wheel of a forest-green Mercedes SUV affixed with a magnetic sign: “Byrd Island Residency Program.” They had only talked on the phone before, but she had seen his face in thick, glossy, perfect-bound magazines: “International tech magnate and art collector returns home to found residency centre,” these stories reported. “Believes creativity will revitalize childhood haven.” In those magazines he was often shown wearing a close-cut navy suit while standing barefoot in the sand, or posing in a plaid shirt and Carhartts next to a large, shiny metal sculpture that resembled a ball of fishing nets.

“Julia!” he said, stepping from the vehicle and kissing her on her left cheek, then her right. His hair—brown with white streaks—rose from his forehead in a pompadoured arch that somehow failed to shift in the breeze. As he leaned in, she could smell his cologne—sandalwood and black pepper. CEO-grade styling products plus lots of yoga equals xenoestrogen-compromised yet highly motile sperm? She wondered. “So glad you’re here. Great to finally meet you in person.”

Leah’s excerpt was written for Cordelia Strube’s workshop: ‘Short Fiction Writing – Level II’ (CWWR 411).

December 19th, 2014


by Christine Jarvis, Learner, Writing Workshops

Readers read not for plot, but for company.

That reminder hangs over my computer.

I don’t read fiction to find out what happens, but to meet the people who deal with what happens. Writers whom I invite back more than once are writers I feel comfortable with, writers who create characters I like to spend an afternoon chatting with over a pot of tea or a few glasses of wine. Writers more and more of bygone days more so than modern times (Hermann Hesse, Ayn Rand, Elie Wiesel, Susan Howatch, PD James, George Eliot). Writers who put their characters in situations I can see myself in, or who set their stories in places I’d like to live (the English countryside, coastal Holland, Canada’s prairies. Places with space, a history, salt-of-the-earth people, weather).

I read a bit of fantasy (JK Rowling, The Hobbit, Golden Compass, The Giver) in past years, years when reality was harsh and I wanted to escape for a while, but there’s nothing new to my bookshelves in that category. I have never read horror stories (life was horrible enough back then—why go through it again?). I don’t read sci-fi (my nature and interests lean toward what’s at least plausible), or travelogues (not financially possible for me any longer and other people’s luxuries don’t interest me). I don’t read “teen angst” stuff. Or any-age angst, for that matter. As a teenager I had no time for angst because both parents worked and I was the responsible “home help” so didn’t have time to get in teenage trouble. There were torments enough in the adult years, but why spend my precious time now with characters who bring me down in situations I no longer want to relate to?

There’s a time in people’s lives, I know from experience, when reality has to be endured. I read career books when I was in the work world, for example, and dementia theory for tips on coping with Alzheimer’s when it moved in. I didn’t read the “plan for retirement” books. There was no time to plan—retirement came suddenly for me, and now I’m in it, experience is teaching me all I need and to know.

I’m working on a memoir of the Alzheimer years, because those memories are in me and want out. But otherwise, for that part of the day when I open my door and my mind to the world, I want company. Quiet and pleasant company. That’s what I invite in to read and to write. To anyone who urges me to read / write outside my comfort zone, I say it took me a long time to find and move into that zone. I’m not leaving any time soon.

People who read fiction give you a few hours of their precious time. Don’t make them regret it. Write something substantial, something challenging, something inspiring, something that will get you invited back again. Readers read not for plot, but for company. Write company for somebody.

Christine’s piece was a writing exercise completed in Ann Ireland’s online writing course: ‘Fiction and Non-Fiction Writing’ (CWWR 415).

December 19th, 2014

Practicing Dialogue

by Paula Hunter, Learner, Writing Workshops

After dinner Jonathan drank most of Andrea’s vodka, then she took him to his bed. They tried. He was flaccid. Outside, the shouts and laughter from the other volunteers, drinking and playing cards. Andrea and Jonathan lay face up, naked, shared a cigarette, their shins covered by a portion his dirty sleeping bag, the ceiling lit by a candle on his bedside table. Andrea let out a laugh overhearing a conversation on the other side of the door. Jonathan looked over at her and smiled.

Andrea sat up and took the Lego Christmas tree off the shelf above his bed. “Where did you get this?”

“My sister.”

Andrea lay back down, passing the cigarette to Jonathan.

“Hhm. So you celebrate Christmas?”

“Yup”, Jonathan took a long drag of the cigarette.

“So you believe in God?” Andrea asked.

“I guess so.”

“Just in it for the gifts?”

“I like the story.”

“I like the story too. Do you believe in heaven and hell, that part of the story?” Andrea asked, turning over to face him.

Jonathan sat up, reached for the cigarettes at the end of the bed, lit another one, took a long drag and lay back down. “What do you mean?” he asked passing the cigarette to Andrea.

“I mean, do you think that if you’re fucking perfect you’re going to heaven and if you’re not, well, off to hell it is.”

“I think we’d better get some sleep. I need to sleep.” Jonathan rolled over to face the wall.

Andrea put the cigarette out, draped her arm over Jonathan’s waist kissing his neck, her other hand holding onto the Lego tree like a children’s favorite stuffed animal. “Well, I think you’re fucking perfect, nothing to worry about.”

Paula’s piece was written for Ann Ireland’s online short fiction writing course: ‘Short Fiction Writing – Level I’ (CWWR 410).

December 18th, 2014

Excerpt from Dear Joseph

by Elizabeth Moreau, Learner, Writing Workshops

She wasn’t expecting a photograph. So when it tumbles out of the envelope into her lap, for a moment she thinks the letter is from someone else. But there is the familiar deliberate script, blue ballpoint ink filling every line and both sides of the drugstore notepaper. Five, maybe six sheets this time. She sets the letter and the photograph on the coffee table and pauses, breathing deeply. Realizing she still has her coat on and keys in her hand, she stands and heads slowly to the closet.

Since the first letter more than six months ago, neither had suggested exchanging photos. He had not asked about her appearance, or she his, though from time to time she imagined what he might look like. Then she would tell herself it didn’t matter. There were images, though. How he put on shorts to go for a run in the yard. How he wrote his letters to her while sitting on his bunk. How he got down on his knees on the concrete floor to pray.

The newspaper clipping he sent with the third letter had no picture, but the headline quoted the presiding judge’s regret at not being able to deliver anything harsher than a life sentence. If I could, the judge had said, I would pull the switch myself.

She hangs up her coat, returns to the couch and picks up the photo. Four people—one man laughing and holding a small child, another crouching, a women with her arms around a teenaged boy. Mother and son, she imagines. She flips over the photo, but there is only a date: July 1986. Her first thought is how relaxed they look, except for crouching man, who stares straight into the camera with an intensity that almost makes her want to look away. Almost. It looks like any other family photo, but for the bars on the window behind them. She doesn’t need to read the letter to know which one is Joseph, but later she finds the reference in his letter.

I am enclosing a picture of me and a friend taken recently when his family was visiting. That’s me in front with the black boots. I’ll get a better one done soon.


Elizabeth’s short story excerpt was written for Ann Ireland’s online short fiction writing course: ‘Short Fiction Writing – Level I’ (CWWR 410).