Canada |

Conflict Zone

by Leesa Dean

edited by Carleigh Baker

Leesa Dean is a graduate of the University of Guelph’s Creative Writing MFA program and teaches English and Creative Writing for Selkirk College in Nelson, BC. She’s been a finalist for the Irving Layton Award, the Litpop Award, and the Quebec Writing Competition. Her debut collection, Waiting for the Cyclone, is available now. The following excerpt is courtesy of Brindle & Glass.

Leslie’s porch light illuminates Alex’s furled, snow-flecked hair and his thin coat. He’s wearing shoes, not boots, and they’re completely soaked. Snowflakes pixelate the night, and through that filter, the neighbourhood looks like a grainy photograph of some forgotten past. “Come in,” Leslie says, taking his carry-on bag. Alex follows close behind her on the stairs. When they reach the top, she tries to imagine her apartment through his eyes—dirty dishes, overflowing garbage, a bicycle in the middle of the hall.

“Merry Christmas,” Alex says, forgetting that she’s Jewish. She glances at her watch. 12:23 already.

“You too. It’s kind of strange, isn’t it? You being here?”

“Yeah,” Alex admits. “A bit.”

Leslie was surprised by his call, especially since he’s supposed to be en route to the Middle East. She imagines him for a moment on a plane with a black ocean below, or maybe by now a blue-blitzed dawn, halfway around the world. At first, when he called and asked to stay at her house because his flight was cancelled, she wanted to say no. For days, she has been hibernating, living off lentils and Sriracha, wearing the same jogging pants in and out of bed, letting her hair become a helmet. But the more Alex talked to her, laughing and joking about the mayhem at the airport and their own recent misfortunes, she felt a surge of emotion, the kind she hadn’t felt in months, not since before the trouble started with Kevin.

“Do you want a drink?” Leslie asks Alex, heading for the kitchen while he drops his luggage in her bedroom. She’s been drinking too much for weeks, months now.

“May as well,” he says.

“I’ll make you a strong one. God only knows what you’ll be able to get in the Middle East.”

His laughter echoes down the hall as she free-pours bourbon into each glass. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ll be able to drink in Turkey. I would never intentionally put myself in a position of sobriety.”

She puts two ice cubes in each glass and carries the drinks to the bedroom. She hands one to Alex who is lying on the floor, looking around her bedroom. She did a hasty clean before he came, but there are still dirty clothes in the corner and piles of recently marked exams she was supposed to return to the college.

“So are you going to tell me why you got fired?” he asks.

Leslie and Alex had been colleagues for three years, but Alex suddenly quit teaching just two weeks before the semester started. She hadn’t seen him in months until they ran into each other at a party where she found out his wife had left him. They smoked a joint together before he walked Leslie home, holding a broken umbrella to shield them from frozen rain.

“Nope,” she says.

Alex makes a pouty face. “How about later? After a few drinks you’ll tell me, right?”

“I punched a student,” she teases.

“Liar,” he says, grinning.

“Okay, it wasn’t a punch. I threw a textbook at him. Hit him in the head. Gave him a concussion.”

Alex laughs and pokes at her shin with his toe. There’s a hole in his sock. Men, she thinks. They can never seem to manage their socks. She blushes and takes a long drink before placing her glass on the bedside table.

“Right now,” she says to Alex, “I’m more interested in how you’re feeling. You’re going for six months, right?”

“Yep, six to start, but I’ll stay longer if things go well.”

“How does it feel, trading in your cushy life for a dangerous one?”

Alex pushes his hair, still wet from the snow, back from his face. He narrows his eyes, scrutinizing her.

“I’d hardly call my life cushy,” he says.

She knows Alex’s background. Rich doctor father and a mother who’d paid for his plane ticket. “Fine, but the Middle East is obviously more dangerous than Toronto. Aren’t you scared?”

“Not really. It’s not like I’ll be on the front lines.”

“You don’t consider Syria front lines?”

“I’m not going to Syria, Les. Just Turkey.”

“Still, near the border, right? Journalists get injured. Kidnapped. Have their heads cut off.”

Alex sighs. “I’m getting tired of trying to convince people that won’t happen to me. Seriously. I’ve been through hostile environment training. I’m part of an organization that protects journalists. I have proper safety equipment.”

“Like what? Chain mail? An invisible cape?”

Alex frowns. “No. I have a flak jacket.”

“Which is?”

“Basically a bulletproof vest.”

Leslie feels a stirring at the mention of bullets. “Really? Bulletproof?”

He looks at her quizzically. “Yes. Bulletproof.”

She has a sudden flash of Kevin, the time he gagged her with her own panties.

“Can I see it?” she asks.

“No. It’s at the bottom of my bag.”

“You can’t take it out?”

“I could. But not right now. Maybe later we can trade—my bulletproof vest for why you got fired?”

Leslie finishes her drink and wonders if he’s going to keep pushing the issue. Maybe she shouldn’t have invited him.

“Possibly,” she says, crunching on a whiskey-coated ice cube. “But probably not.”

I want her, Alex realizes as he watches her from his spot on the floor, triangulated between his backpack and a pile of her clothes. How long have I wanted her? They’ve known each other for a few years. He and Becca were newlyweds at the staff orientation on a humid August day, the kind where the silky lining of your suit jacket sticks to your bare arms. All the new hires stood on the college’s front lawn in the noonday heat, posing for a photograph that would go in a staff newsletter no one would read. Leslie was supposedly there, but his first memory of her was from a year later.

“There’s this sociology teacher,” Becca said one night, exhaling away from Alex. They were sitting on the back porch, smoking a joint. “She’s hot. I’d fuck her.”

In her early twenties, Becca had experimented with women before deciding that she was mostly into men. Eighty-twenty, she told Alex.

“Yeah?” Alex responded, trying to place Leslie in his mind. He was bad with names and faces.

“I would. I might even let you watch.”

The next day at work, Alex went hunting for Leslie’s office. He peered in the window from an angle so she wouldn’t notice. That day, she wore a red button-up blouse. He looked at her now, in her own bedroom, wearing a polka-dot dress, bare legs folded to the side. Becca’s right, he thinks. She’s hot.

“What do you want to do?” Leslie asks him, pouring two more drinks. “Are you tired?”

“No, I’m wired. Let’s talk. Tell me another story, like that one you told me last week. About the gummy worms?”

At the party, after the joint, Alex and Leslie stood by the snack table, eating everything in sight. Leslie began to laugh and wouldn’t stop.

“What?” Alex asked.

Finally, when she calmed down, she said, “Once, at a party, a guy asked me to chew up a gummy worm and feed him like a bird.”

“What? Why?”

Leslie shrugged. “I don’t know. Fetish? Boredom?”

“You’d never met him? He just asked?”

“Yeah, there were a few of us standing around and he said, I’ve often wondered what it feels like to be a baby bird.”

Alex laughed.

“So I did it. I chewed up a worm and when he was ready, I forced it into his mouth with my tongue. Here’s the interesting part—I wanted to give him an authentic experience, and I really felt myself becoming a bird. Like, suddenly I imagined myself as a cormorant or something, one of those types with a tiny blue eyes and a mohawk, taking care of a family. It made me want to have children.”

“Really? Strange time for maternal instincts. The situation sounds sexy, though.”

Leslie gave him a sideways little smile. Shortly after, they’d walked home together. On her doorstep, he hugged her a moment too long.

“I don’t have any other wild stories,” Leslie responds. “I’m not a wild person.”

“Bullshit,” Alex says, watching as she takes a cardigan from the floor and drapes it over her knees, avoiding eye contact. She leans against the wall, further from him. For a moment, he lets his mind drift to Becca. Where is she? Probably at her mother’s. They’d been there together last year. In the car, they’d fought about the usual subject: Alex wanted children, Becca still wasn’t sure. She was turning thirty-nine in January.

Two weeks ago, Becca called Alex and asked to meet for coffee. For months, she’d been ignoring him. He wore a nice pair of pants and a dress shirt, just in case.

“I’m pregnant,” she said, looking away. “Derek and I are getting married.”

Derek was another teacher in the Media Studies Department. The next morning, Alex booked a ticket to Turkey. The earliest he could leave was Christmas Eve.

Leslie watches Alex finish another drink and thinks about something he said the week before at the party—teaching is a performance. You size up the class and decide who you want to be based on how people need you to be. There’s no such thing as authenticity.

We’re not being authentic, she thinks. We are performing for each other. At the party last week, Alex’s hair had been greasy and he smelled stagnant. A psychic disturbance radiated from him, and she wondered if he could feel hers as well. She hadn’t left the house in nearly a week because the last time she took the subway, a little voice in her head said Jump. In the mirror, she could see the story of the past three months all over her face. Everyone saw it—colleagues kept asking, “Hey, are you okay?”

“It’s just a tough semester,” she lied. “Difficult students.”

The problem, though, was Kevin. Kevin, her former lover, a man she met on the internet. It didn’t take long to schedule their first date. Kevin quickly developed a sense of what might excite her, like putting a hand up her skirt while on the subway or flogging her with a dirty rope he found at Harbourfront. For months, he came to her house twice a week. Then one day he didn’t show up. She texted once, twice, thirty times. He never responded. Once, she called—no voicemail.

On the Tuesday after Labour Day, she walked into her sociology class wearing a blazer and dress pants. She set down her briefcase and took off the blazer, hanging it on the back of a chair. She wrote her name, Dr. Leslie Krone, on the board. Below, she listed her contact information and office hours. When she turned to face the class, she saw Kevin sitting in the second row.

“You can’t be here,” she told him after class.

“No?” Kevin responded. “Last I checked, it’s a free country.”

“I don’t want to see you back here.”

“I can’t take the class any other time because of my work schedule,” he said, holding her gaze.

She never did find out if he was enrolled in a program or if he’d just signed up for the thrill. His status was marked Independent, which could mean anything. Every week, he came to class. He called her ma’am and raised his hand to ask questions. She couldn’t teach with him in the room—not the way she usually did. Please, she prayed every Tuesday when she woke up. Make him go away.

Alex finishes another drink and moves from his spot on the floor to the bed, close to Leslie. She steals a glance at his watch—3:25 am.

“You know why I want to go to the Middle East?” he says. “Aside from needing to get away from teaching?” She doesn’t answer but he continues anyway. “I want to report on the rebel infighting. It’s pretty interesting. How many groups do you think are fighting in Syria right now?”

“Is that a trick question?”

“No. How many?”

After a pause, she says, “Three? Maybe four?”

“In a way you’re right because of alliances. But actual groups? Probably a thousand.”

Leslie’s eyes widen. “Seriously? That many?”

He nods. “It’s hard to know for sure, but there are definitely hundreds. The whole thing’s a quagmire. Like, you have ISIL fighting the Al-Nusra Front, who is fighting the Syrian Armed Forces. Most of them get weapons from the same places. Actually, no. A lot of weapons get made.”

“What kind of weapons?” Leslie asks, suddenly interested.

Alex laughs. “You’re so morbid. They make bombs, obviously. But anyone can make a bomb. We could make one now if you have fertilizer and kerosene.”

“We could bomb Becca’s apartment,” she says.

Becca lives in a house now, he wants to say, but realizes if Leslie doesn’t know she’s moved in with Derek, something has happened between the two women. He has no idea what the house looks like inside. When he stopped by earlier that week to pick up some books that had accidentally gotten packed with hers, she made him stand on the doorstep.

Alex rolls off the bed and crawls across the floor to his backpack. He undoes the clasp and begins hauling out gear—shirts, fatigues, mosquito net, boxers, headlamp, toiletries, a jar of Nutella, first-aid kit, notebooks—

“Alex, what is that?” Leslie points to a large pink crystal. The shape reminds her of a sea anemone with its flat bottom and tendril-like prisms.

“My mom is one of those New Age people,” he says, passing it to her. “It’s supposed to give me courage. You can have it.”

“You can’t give away something like this,” Leslie says. “You’ll jinx yourself.” She holds the crystal to the light and watches it change colours depending on how she turns it.

Eventually, Alex passes her a garment. It looks like something a grandfather might wear on a fishing trip.

“What is this?” she asks.

“The bulletproof vest.”


“It needs the protective plates, but yes.” He roots through his clothes, unwraps the plates, and inserts them into different pockets.

“Wanna try it on?”


Leslie notices Alex noticing a flash of her panties as she stands up. She is still as he guides her arms into the vest, conscious of its weight on her shoulders, his hand moving from her navel to sternum, past her breasts when he pulls the zipper. She has another flashback of Kevin, a night in August when he tied her to a chair.

Alex stands back and observes Leslie. “You look good,” he says.

“If you had a gun,” she tells him, “I’d let you shoot me.”

She watches his reaction, amused by how he tries to hide behind a neutral expression. People are always so afraid of their feelings.

“If you get me a knife,” he responds, momentarily letting his fascination show, “I’ll stab you.”

Leslie goes to the kitchen before he can change his mind. This behaviour, her therapist recently told her. Your attraction to violence needs to stop. She agrees, yet she feels a wave of euphoria when she takes a knife from the drawer and presses her finger to the tip. Am I crazy? she wonders. Probably. The numbers on the stove’s clock flip to 4:06 am. She doesn’t feel at all tired.

“How do you want to do this?” she asks Alex, back in the bedroom.

“I’m thinking we should be careful. Do a kind of trial run?”

“No, that’s boring. Just stab me. Make it real.”

Alex laughs nervously. “Whatever you say.”

While he stands with the knife, mentally preparing himself, Leslie thinks of the night Kevin tackled her in the hallway and cut off her dress with scissors. That was the best time. She watches Alex and wonders if she should keep her eyes open or closed when he drives in the knife. Open, she decides, so she can watch his face. How will he react? Part of her assumes aroused, the other part thinks ashamed.

“Okay,” she says, locking eyes with him. “I’m ready.”

Alex studies her torso and considers where to put the knife. There are weaknesses, he thinks. I know all of them. Leslie is watching him too intently and he feels under a microscope. He closes his eyes to avoid her gaze. How do I want to frame this? he wonders. Becca floats into his mind again, goddamn her. Becca in their old kitchen, hair pinned at the nape of her neck, blouse tucked into a pencil skirt; she’d made an effort to look good that day.

“Where were you?” he asked. She’d come home after midnight, saying she’d been out with Brigitte. He knew it wasn’t true.

“Liar,” he said. She ignored him.

“Slut,” he said.

She turned around, face etched with hate.

“Fuck you,” she said.

He’d been so in love with her cruelty, the way they brought out the worst in each other. In Leslie’s bedroom, he imagines it’s Becca standing in front of him. Number one rule, he imagines saying. Take a shower before you go home. He tightens his grip on the knife and thinks about where to stab. The gut where he felt her betrayal the most, or the heart? Gut or heart. Heart or gut.

Both, he decides.

“Go,” Leslie says.

Alex feels the blue veins rise on his hand as he grips the knife even tighter. He thinks of something she said the night she kicked him out: Your aspirations are tepid. They’re like weak tea. He could put the knife into the centre of her body and slit open her stomach. Gut her like an animal. He thinks about her stomach for a moment, how on Christmas morning last year, while she slept, he’d placed a hand on her belly and imagined there was a child growing there. He’d always wanted a little boy.

Alex opens his eyes. Leslie’s are still closed and she’s standing there with her arms open, almost in rapture. He puts the knife down.

“Sorry,” he says. “I can’t do this.”

Leslie gives him a curious glance before taking off the vest. “You’d make a lousy criminal,” she jokes. Alex sits on her bed and holds out his glass for another drink. She fills it and then her own. Alex feels the bourbon move through him, calming his nerves, but he can still feel the tension in his hands and jaw. What scares him most is how for a moment, with his eyes closed, the knife felt okay in his hand. Hurting someone seemed like a pretty easy thing to do.

“We should sleep,” Leslie says, stretching out in the bed. Lately, she’s been going to bed early and getting up late.

“Not yet,” Alex says. “You owe me a story.”

“About what?”

“About how you got fired.”

“Why do you care so much?”

“Because I can’t figure out why anyone would fire someone like you.”

Leslie turns onto her side and looks at Alex. She remembers so clearly when they first met at the staff orientation—she immediately knew she wanted him in her life. She reaches for his hand and holds it while she tells him what happened with Kevin. The only other person who knows anything is Becca—earlier in the semester, they went for a drink together and Leslie decided to confide. She realized her mistake as soon as Becca called her dynamic with Kevin “sick.”

“You have to report him,” she said to Leslie, cutting her off before she could finish explaining the context.

“For what? He hasn’t actually done anything. It’s the potential for him to do something that makes me nervous.”

“He’s blackmailing you. If you don’t give him good grades or play by his rules, he’ll show the photos to the wrong people.”

“He’s not blackmailing me. He does all the assignments, and they’re better than everyone else’s.”

“Why are you defending him, Leslie? You should have reported him the very first day. I can’t believe you’ve put yourself in this situation. God.”

Leslie didn’t respond. In a way, Becca was right.

“Whatever you do,” Becca said, “make sure you don’t sleep with him. You’ll get your ass fired.”

What Leslie hadn’t explained to Becca is that, over time, her anxiety shifted focus. At first, she worried every time Kevin put up his hand in class, wondering what he might say. But he never said anything wrong. He just answered questions with articulate responses. She could feel him watching her as she lectured and drew diagrams on the board. Over time, she came to enjoy that sensation of being watched.

One afternoon in November, Kevin showed up at her office.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“You know,” he responded.

She let him in. He closed the door and kissed her. He pushed her back onto the desk and spread her legs. “Shhhh,” she warned as he bit a hole in her pantyhose. They didn’t speak, didn’t make noise the whole time. He did everything slow but deep so the furniture wouldn’t shift and give them away. When they were done, she offered her scarf so he could wipe himself clean. It was the last time she ever saw him.

“What happened, exactly?” Alex asks. “Did anyone question you? Was there an investigation?”

“Nothing. I can’t be a hundred percent sure of what happened. All I know is that Kevin stopped coming to class. There was a departmental meeting later that week where the coordinator mentioned reports of inappropriate student-teacher relations without being specific. Becca hasn’t spoken to me since. I’m almost certain she reported me.”

No, Alex wants to interject, but he stops himself. After eight years together, three of which she’d been cheating, it’s still there. His pathetic loyalty. “What makes you think that?” Alex finally asks.

“Just a feeling I get, plus I saw her near my office when Kevin left. She gave me a look.”

Alex feels the dread in his stomach. He knows exactly what look Leslie is referring to. “But it might’ve been that guy. Kevin?”

“It could have been him, but my intuition says Becca. Whatever the case, when the time came to assign classes, the coordinator told me there’d been an unexpected decrease in enrolment and there wouldn’t be any work for me.”

“That’s bullshit,” Alex says.

“I know, but I’m on contract. They can do what they want. I’m fucked. My career is over.”

“Hold on a sec here. No one even talked to you about the situation, so there isn’t anything on your record. You could easily get another job. Most of the time, people don’t even call your references.”

“I know, I know. But I just . . . I guess I’m scared.”

“Of what? The college probably wants to let the situation settle. I bet they’ll hire you back in the fall.”

“No way,” she says. “I’m never going back there.”

“You shouldn’t. You’re too good for that place. And what happened isn’t so bad,” he adds. “Male teachers sleep with students all the time. I’m not saying it’s good. I’m just saying it happens.”

“Still,” she says, turning off the bedside lamp. “I wish it didn’t happen to me.”

Alex checks his watch—5:37 am. He’ll need to leave by eight because of the holiday bus schedule. For a while, he lays in bed with his eyes open, half-tempted to start something with Leslie. But he doesn’t want her to think it’s for the wrong reasons. Alex drifts for another hour, until the horizon begins to lighten, thinking about Gaziantep, the city where he’ll share a house with a few other independent journalists. Finally, around seven thirty, he decides to get up. As he quietly packs his bag, he thinks about what Becca said, that his aspirations are tepid. He imagines himself making connections in Kilis and eventually crossing into Syria where he’ll write articles about the rebel infighting. I’m going to break stories, he realizes. Be all over the international news. My name will be everywhere.

He thinks about waking Leslie but decides against it. She looks so peaceful, sleeping with her head turned to where Alex used to be.

At some point in the night, Leslie felt Alex let go of her hand. Now, she reaches for it but is surprised to find the bed empty. She opens her eyes and checks her phone. It’s 8:27 am. Two empty glasses sit on the bedside table. Outside the window, loose snowflakes shimmer as they hang suspended in the air. The storm is over, but Toronto has become a white planet in its wake. Today, she decides, I’m going to do laundry. She looks to where Alex’s clothes and first-aid kit and bulletproof vest were strewn about and suddenly remembers him moving around the room, the slight rustling, the final click as he fastened his backpack. None of it remains now except the strange pink crystal from his mother, sitting on her desk, its prism-like facets catching the early morning light.