The unopened envelope in Boy’s hands is thin and light. He’s not surprised. Lesser schools often pad their acceptance packages with welcome materials and pamphlets, a hopeful, last-minute attempt to sway undecided students. The best simply fold their letters twice, slide them into expensive envelopes, mail them to their selected few, and wait for the acceptances to find their inevitable way home. He turns it over a few times, inspecting every edge and seam, his eyes moving between the embossed Royal Military College seal and his laser-engraved name and address on the front. No question about what’s inside. One envelope, one offer of ROTP admission — the full ride, as they say — one acceptance form. Good news.
Should be, anyhow.
He draws out the consonants at both ends of the word, soft and hard, trying to savour it. But as soon it passes between his lips and teeth it feels wrong, painful, like hot coffee sipped too soon. A scalded aftertaste. He never swears — it’s too much like giving in. His voice, along with the whisper of traffic on the Queen Elizabeth Way behind him, drops the short distance to the water and disappears.
Feels better, doesn’t it?
— Not really.
A half-hearted response to Charlie’s question, but not a lie. He won’t lie to her. She came back after her death eight years ago to watch over him — the least he can do for her is find the truth. A measure of it, anyhow.
So what now?
He doesn’t know. His grades have been in a steady decline over the past few months, sinking like a plane that has lost an engine. Soon, RMC will find out and the letter in his hand will become no more than a broken promise to himself. Lukewarm reality poured into the excitement he should be feeling. It’s impossible to savour the tepid. All you can do is spit it out. He lays the envelope on the stone beside him and watches it a few moments, waiting for the wind to carry the bright paper towards the water. If it goes, so does the dream, right? A sign from heaven or wherever. But there’s no movement, not even a flutter.
How can a single #10 envelope holding two printed pieces of paper contain the best and worst of everything? The letter was waiting for him when he got home from school, sticking outfrom the mailbox like an obscene gesture. He knew it was coming, knew that the board would have moved his application to the top of the pile for early selection. Impressed by the grades he carried at the deadline, the excellent essay he wrote on leadership and dreams, his exemplary volunteer and air cadet service over the past five years, and the numerous accolades and recommendations from the officers at the squadron and his teachers at school. He lined everything up just so, sending it all off with dreams of the full ride. He crushed the deadline. No one had doubted.
And it should be simple today, too. Complete the form, sign the declaration on the requisite line — I, Boy Cornelius McVeigh, accept the offer of entry to RMC — and send it back. Next, complete this school year, collect a high school diploma with honours, start training in July and classes in September, and sail through university towards a career in the air force. As a pilot, of course — he secured his private licence through cadets to streamline that requirement — although his six-foot-two frame will limit him to the larger, heavy-lift aircraft.
Would limit him. If only.
He looks out at the water. Lake Ontario is calm, a slate canvas under a cloudy, late-winter sky. He sits at the edge of a stone outcropping at its highest point, his pale, skinny legs dangling like an afterthought. Here, the QEW swings close to the shore, bent around the orchards and vineyards that once filled the ground between the Niagara Escarpment and the lake. His rocks — he likes to think of the knuckle of exposed dolostone as his — are part of a forgotten length of shoreline pinched between highway and lake and fringed on both sides by low trees and brush. His favourite place. No one comes here.
— What do you think I should do?
From her customary spot a few paces farther down the rocks, Charlie, too, faces the lake. Boy waits for her to speak again, but she remains silent, her expression as resolute as the stone itself. In life, even to her annoying brother two years her junior, she was the spectre of pre-teen chattiness; in death, she often drapes herself in wise, patient silence. Boy is almost grateful — it’s up to him, after all. One hand on the control stick, the other on the throttle. Still, he wonders what advice she might offer. Surely she’d supply more than the common sense nuggets he’ll get from everyone else when they find out. Work harder. Keep up the grades. Chin up. Et cetera.
No response, just the same unchanging gaze out over the lake; the same defiant, folded arms; the same feet set shoulder-width apart, challenging. The same clothes she was wearing when she was killed eight years ago, a cream sweater and hip-hugger jeans both a size too large, as though she was hoping to fill them out someday. Hair in a perfect bun to impress the squadron officers and NCOs she never had the chance to meet. Their parents, Corny and Misty, had been shocked at Charlie’s declaration to join the air cadets. ,I want to do something different, she said. Misty said no, but Corny talked her into it, even offering to drive Charlie every week. Fine, Misty said, but you’re responsible. They never made it to the first parade — Corny swerved and flipped the car in front of a Niagara-bound truck. Charlie died. He lived.
Boy’s phone thrums in his pocket. A text from Mark, a former squadron mate and his best friend, asking if the RMC letter has come through. Boy glances down at the envelope, noting the expensive weave of the heavyweight paper. Elegant. Understated. Woven through with a million expectations. He taps out a response.
— nada. maybe tmw
He lays the phone on the letter as a paperweight, moves his backpack behind him, and eases back into a recline against it. He feels the beginnings of a chill.