‘All Mapped Out’ is a collection of stories by Edmonton writers, and each story is connected by the theme of maps. With approaches as varied as the writers themselves, stories cover arrivals, departures, and other life journeys.
Like our previous anthologies, all profits from ‘All Mapped Out’ will be donated to the Edmonton Public Library.
In order to celebrate this exciting new release, we will be releasing—tor the first time online—the story from our most recent anthology, ‘Edmonton: Unbound’.
This story, ‘A Good Place for a Miller’, was written specifically for the anthology, and touches on some topics that are unusually personal for my writing. It’s an anomaly of sorts, and I enjoy it for that very reason.
‘A Good Place for a Miller’ will be released in two parts. The first will be found just below, and the second will be released soon, along with updated information about where to pick up your copy of ‘All Mapped Out’.
-Brad OH Inc.
‘A Good Place for a Miller’ (Part I):
Jeremy Miller was 17 years old the only time he ever ran away from home. Slipping out the back door late in the evening, he’d passed the Youth Emergency Shelter, and loped out onto the grassy incline which fell away from the cracked sidewalk and sloped down into the cool green hills of Mill Creek Ravine. Jeremy had walked this little strip on his way to work and back many times in his short life, and had more than once contemplated taking the small step off the sidewalk and down into the valley below.
Today, he had finally decided to make that idea a reality—and not just as a detour on his way to work. Jeremy wanted to escape, to find himself, and more importantly, to find out if there was anyone else in the world feeling as desperate to get started on life as he was.
“Might not be what you’d call living exactly, but it’s half true at least, I guess.” The old man with the dirty toque scratched at his beard, and ran his index finger along a scar on his cheek.
Jeremy didn’t understand. “What do you mean? You live here, or you don’t.”
“Sometimes we sleep here, sometimes we sleep other places. Living means something different to each of us kid,” Dirty Toque spoke from the side of his mouth.
“That’s just the kind of thing I was hoping you’d say,” said Jeremy. “That’s why I came here today, to find out what life really means to other people.”
“I’ve got all I need to live right here,” said a younger man with dry, red skin and a stained plaid jacket. He held up a can of beer and burst into a chorus of dry, staccato laughter.
Jeremy had to bite his lip to avoid letting loose a sarcastic quip he might regret. Self-talk was a long-standing habit of Jeremy’s—perhaps a relic of his being an only child of two very busy parents, or perhaps more so the result of his self-imposed isolation and natural introversion. In truth, it was some combination of those, and no doubt other, more implicit reasons as well.
The older man inched his way forward—a nervous, perhaps predatory approach that made Jeremy squirm beneath his new jacket, which was admittedly too heavy for the meager, early spring weather.
“You have plenty more than you need to live by the looks of it kid,” he pulled at the sleeve of the jacket, “what are you doing down here anyways? ‘Find out what life really means’…what the hell is that about?”
Jeremy tugged away instinctively, feeling guilty about his sudden apprehension, yet unable to shake it. “I don’t live very far from here,” he explained, “but I’ve never really spent much time down in these valleys. All my life I’ve heard about the people down here, whole communities, who know and trust each other. They survive because of their connections, not despite them. You’d think that sort of thing would be more abundant out of the valley than in it,” he finished, and a shadow blew across his face even as the chill of night began to deepen.
It was true. Jeremy had often heard tales of this coven of the lost; a significant community of Edmonton’s homeless who set up makeshift shelters down in the woods of Edmonton’s River Valley—a series of park lands forming one of the continent’s largest city parks.
These gypsy-esque men and women often partied long into the night, despite their desperate circumstances. That kind of resilience had often struck a young Jeremy as brave…inspiring even. If any of it was true.
These tales had come to Jeremy through the complaints of his chagrined neighbours, whispers from children whose parents were police officers or probation workers, and the often-elaborated speculations of his rather distant academic peers—speaking of things they’d seen, or rumours they’d heard as if the River Valley was some far off and inaccessible source of fear and legend.
Mill Creek Ravine, though not a part of the River Valley proper, was close to Jeremy’s house, and he had determined it would be a good starting place.
“Yeah, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” mumbled the younger man. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Jeremy Miller, and I’d like to join you for a while, maybe have a talk. I hope it doesn’t seem rude or creepy,” this statement drew a series of inquisitive, raised eyebrows from the two men before him, “I just want to know what people live like when all is truly equal.”
“Can’t get more equal than nothing for everyone,” said the first man, with a chuckle.
“Miller, eh?” asked the second, “that’s a bit fancy for these parts, ain’t it?”
Jeremy scrunched up his face, but again held his tongue. “It’s just a joke, son,” the man with the toque cut in, “‘Miller’ is a beer, but a bit pricey for us. I’m Slick, and that there’s Lucky. Guess where he gets his name,” he finished, reaching into a bag at his side and passing Jeremy an unopened can: ‘Lucky Lager’.
It was cold in Jeremy’s hand, and heavy. “Thanks,” he said.
“So, just what is it brings you to a place like this anyway?” asked Slick.
Jeremy considered this for a moment. How could he take his whole life’s experience and present state, and sum it up for a stranger in the cold? He held tightly onto the can of beer, and pushed his finger under the tab. It popped open with a sharp crack and impotent hiss.
‘Why am I here?’ he ran the question through his head once…twice. It was a big one. Jeremy sighed, and brought the cool lip of the can up to his mouth. It tasted awful—thin and watery, with a strange, bitter flavour. He forced it down, and the aftertaste somehow brought to mind the smell of his mother’s fresh bread baking on cold winter mornings. Jeremy forced this down as well.
“I guess it’s been coming for a while now…I just needed to get out of there. I’m tired of having no control over my own life, and no ability to change anything around me.”
Slick grinned. Lucky took a long pull of beer from his own can.
Jeremy tugged on the sleeves of his jacket, self-conscious now as he gazed upon the crusty and tattered garments of his new friends. “Maybe it seems silly to you guys, I don’t know. I do everything right…I get the best grades I can, hold a job, try to be respectful around the house, but my folks still always think they know better. I wanted to go down to the States for a music festival this summer…I thought it would be a chance to figure out my place, and to experience a sense of community built around something other than common location. I’ll be on my own soon, and by then I’ll need to know how to build my own life, but I’ll never be able to do that with my parents constantly worrying about me and holding me back.”
“Doubt you’ve done much to solve that worrying bit tonight,” said Slick.
“You’ve got that right,” Jeremy agreed. “Still, I’ve never had to struggle for anything, I’ve never even known anyone who has! I don’t know how to trust strangers, or judge intentions, or what it takes to rely on anyone outside of my immediate family. In less than a year, I’m meant to be a man, and it’s high time I started acting like one!”
“So, you ran away to freeze under a bridge? Not many men I know choose that.” Slick rubbed at his scar.
“Why are you here then?” asked Jeremy.
“Not to prove a point. ‘Least ways not anymore.”
“It’s not about proving a point, it’s about being prepared,” Jeremy stared off towards the bright lights of downtown Jasper Ave, and spoke as if to himself. “When I’m out on my own, I want to be able to make a difference. I want to be able to walk amongst and understand all kinds of people, and I’ll need to do that if I want to change anything in this world. I know perfectly well that I have it easy, but that will only make it harder for me to have any real impact. I need to understand and experience all levels of society before I head out into it…how else can I know my place?”
Lucky chuckled at this, “I tried to find my place once too…ended up same place as you started. Funny, ain’t it?”
“Well,” said Jeremy, braving another sip of beer, “how did you guys end up here? Is it really like they say, is there really a whole community down in these valleys?”
Slick sighed. “Community is just any folks that can’t make do without one another kid. If I were you, I’d go back home to yours now. Be warm and happy—the choice don’t always last.”
“Go home, watch TV…be happy.” This time, Jeremy took a bigger swig of beer. He didn’t notice the taste. “What kind of happiness is it when you don’t ever know anything else? It’s placation, not peace! I want to know everything life has to offer Slick; how else can I ever know where I fit in?”
The men shook their heads vacantly, then nodded to one another. In an eerily unified motion, they tossed their empty beer cans on the ground, crunched them flat under their feet, and tucked them into a grimy plastic bag held by Lucky.
Jeremy gazed silently down to the creek below. On the far side of the little trickle of water which made up the creek was a dirty grey concrete wall—the dual struts of the bridge which shortly turned into Whyte Avenue proper. Whyte was another legendary Edmonton locale—but one which his lack of a fake ID prevented Jeremy from resorting to in his current moment of doubt.
Slick reached into his bag, tossed a beer to Lucky, picked one out for himself, then glanced up at Jeremy, who nursed his current one self-consciously. Slick smiled, and swung the bag up onto his shoulder.
“Better get moving.”
“Where are we going?” Jeremy asked.
“I’m heading to camp, I expect Lucky is as well,” said Slick. “Where you’re going, that’s up to you.”
Jeremy scrambled to his feet, nearly spilling his still near-full beer in the process. “But…can’t I come along?” he whimpered.
“Like I said,” Slick spoke over his shoulder as he walked, already turning left onto the path running beneath the bridge they’d been stationed under when Jeremy had slipped off the street and into the valley to find them, “that’s up to you.”
“So,” Jeremy rejoined, sidling up alongside the duo, “do you camp here every night?”
“Some nights I camp here, some nights I camp other places,” said Lucky.
“Different folks all got their own spots. Right now, we’ve got a lil place up by the bend in the creek. Not a whole lot, but it works,” said Slick.
“So, there are others there too?” asked Jeremy, surprised by the speed the men travelled at, and doing his utmost to keep up without seeming like he was trying to.
“Should be a few,” Slick said.
“And…they won’t mind either, if I join?”
“Not if you don’t cause trouble. The way you drink beer, you should be just fine, kid.”
“Yeah,” Lucky agreed, “leaves more for me! Haha.” …
To be continued…