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[Fiction] Host

by Terence Young

“Nobody’s home, Henry.”

“You are.”

“You want to see my parents, Henry, and they aren’t here right now. They’ve gone away. I don’t know when they’ll be back.”

“I hear someone,” Henry says, and he moves forward.

The door’s half-open. I’m blocking the gap with my foot, which I’ve jammed like a doorstop to keep Henry on the porch. “Just a friend, Henry. She’s a little sick right now.”

Henry looks past me into the hall. There are patches of stubble on his neck and cheeks. His raincoat bulges from the sweater-vests he always wears. It isn’t cold. It’s June, and the sky is the color of the jeans I threw on to answer the door. 

“I got married,” Henry says, his face closer, breath like compost. 

“I heard. Congratulations. Is that her in the car?”

“I want to tell your mum and dad about Evie.”

“Some other time, Henry. What do you say?” I slip back into the house and close the door. After a few seconds, the front steps sound off one by one. A car door clunks shut. When I finally peek through the hall window, Henry’s Cortina is turning the corner at the bottom of the street. 

“Who was that?” Barbara has her blouse off now, sitting in front of a dresser mirror in the TV room. 

“Family friend.” With my index finger, I make a whirling motion beside my head. Barbara is staring into the mirror. “It’s moving.”

“What’s moving?”

“I don’t know, but those are legs, and they’re moving.”

I peer into the mirror, thinking how easy it would be to slip back into bed for another hour, but she’s all business now. 

“Take a look, will you?” 

“Here,” I say. “Face me.”

To be in a room with a naked woman is a relatively new thing for me. I keep having to remind myself that just because a certain someone’s undressed doesn’t mean the other person has to break out the spermicidal cream, the condoms, the diaphragm—Barbara likes levels of protection.

The day before, we took Dad’s boat for a spin to one of the islands off Oak Bay. I’d packed a lunch for us—sandwiches, beer, some cheese, a couple of slices of cake. We spread a blanket on a bluff above the beach and watched the wild sheep and the eagles, even fell asleep for an hour. The sun was just going down when we got back to the house, and Barbara dragged me straight into the bedroom. She wanted to keep the ball rolling the next morning, too, and we would have except I saw this bullet hole in her shoulder, like a nasty zit as big as one of her nipples. Telling Barbara about it was like stepping on the emergency brake, and we disconnected as fast as one of those old switchboard operators pulling the plug on a crank call. That’s when Henry pressed the doorbell.

The spot on Barbara’s shoulder is angry looking, as though she’s been rubbing it in her sleep. And she’s right. There are some legs sticking out of the center. Her skin has swollen around them like maybe if I poke it with a knife, it’ll pop, something I’m not about to do, not even if she asks me.

“I think you have a tick,” I say.

“Christ!” she says. “Gimme a cigarette.”

I reach for my pack of Player’s, take one for myself, and offer Barbara one, but she doesn’t want it.

“Light yours,” she says. “Hold it close to the tick.”

“What’s that supposed to do?”

“They don’t like heat,” she says. Her eyes are closed, and she is waving her hands in the air like she does when she’s drying her nails.

“Isn’t that for leeches?”

“Just do it.”

I inhale hard on the cigarette until it’s glowing, then blow away the ash and put the tip close to the wound. For a second, I’m thinking her idea might work. The legs start moving faster, and I can see its body twisting. But then it stops. I hold the cigarette even closer, but the thing doesn’t move again, and Barbara pulls away.


“I think it’s dead.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it stopped moving. The heat killed it.”

“That’s because you didn’t do it right.”

She stands. The look on her face says she thinks a dead tick stuck in her shoulder is even worse than a live one. 

“Too late now,” I tell her.

I drive Barbara to the clinic. She doesn’t want to shower or fix her hair. Doesn’t even put on any mascara, she’s so upset. 

 “He has to get the head out,” I tell her in the car. “It’s very important.” My general knowledge of things tick-related is skimpy, and it’s easy to see my words aren’t all that comforting.

“Don’t you think a doctor would know that?” 

“I’m just saying.”

She’s holding herself straight, as though someone told her to be a soldier and tough this one out.

When the nurse shows Barbara to an examination room, I tell her I want to be present for moral support, and she waves me through like she’s doing me a favor. 

“Where did this happen?” the doctor asks.

“Does it matter?” Barbara says.

“I don’t see many ticks,” he says. “They’re kind of rare. I’m going to have to use a blade.”

Barbara takes a deep breath when he mentions the knife. “You mean a scalpel?” she asks.

“If you like,” he says. 

Barbara’s in no real shape to talk, so I fill him in. I tell him about the island, how it’s part of a reserve. “It’s a good deal for the five bucks of gas it takes to get there,” I say, “and the place is overrun with sheep they raise for wool, which makes it a little wild. If you sit on the east side, you can believe it’s a hundred years ago.”

“Sheep,” the doctor says. 

By the time I finish talking, he’s removed the bug, head and all. On the way home, I remember more about ticks, about how some of them carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease, but I decide the doctor would have told us about these things if they were important, so I don’t say anything to Barbara.


This morning when Henry showed up on the doorstep, he forgot he isn’t married any longer. There was no woman in his car. I just pretended there was because it’s better to play along with Henry than try to straighten him out. Even as a kid, I thought Henry was a bit nosy, but if I got bored with him, I just went to my room or out to the park. My parents started locking the place even when they were home, because if Henry found an open door, he’d walk right in. I’d see his car come into the driveway, and my mother would duck down and hide while Henry banged on the screen, and we would wait, the two of us, sometimes my dad, too, behind the sofa or in the kitchen until Henry went off to somebody else’s house. My aunt was sick in bed upstairs once when Henry came to her house, and she heard him come through the front door and search every room in the house until he found her. She said it was torture, lying in bed with a fever, hearing Henry call her name, like he was playing hide-and-seek. She said he smiled when he finally found her.

“There you are,” he said.

She finally had to ask him to go to the store for her, and when he was gone, she went down and closed the curtains and flipped the dead bolts, front and back.

The woman who married Henry was from out of town. Henry called her Evie, but that wasn’t her real name. Evie was Henry’s mother’s name. She must have done her research, my father said. She was after his house and would have got it, too, if my parents hadn’t convinced a judge to annul the marriage on the grounds it hadn’t been consummated. How they got Henry to swear to that, I have no idea. There was talk of throwing the woman in jail, but in the end, they gave her some money to leave town. My father said Henry never really understood what was going on. In Henry’s mind Evie is probably just one more of those people who never seems to be home when he drops in.

I should be clear. Henry isn’t a bad person. People call him simple, which may be true, but he’s also generous. He likes to tell silly jokes. In some ways, he’s quite smart. He’s supposed to be a sort of cousin of my father, but nobody has ever explained to me exactly how that works. My parents know him only because they’ve never not known him. Dad says it’s what a man gets for staying in the same town all his life. 

“You’ll leave this place if you know what’s good for you,” he told me once.

Henry lived with his mother till she died. Then he stayed on in the family home. A disability check arrives each month. There’s some level of government-assisted care, a nurse, cleaners. He isn’t useless, not completely. He can make a sandwich, open a can. He manages, with a little help. We should all be so lucky. For as long as I can remember, he’s been selling things. He sells magazine subscriptions, flags. He sells bulk candy for the Nutty Club, not a bad gig in this city, where half the population is a little crazy. People buy from him just to be kind. My father still has one of his flags somewhere. Henry even drives a car, a British Ford, some model they stopped making back in the eighties. I’m amazed they let him have a license. He flies a red ensign from the radio antenna, and the back window is covered in automobile association stickers. It’s hard to miss him coming, which is a good thing, because Henry is always showing up. He makes the rounds, my mother likes to say. 

My parents are in England. The trip of a lifetime my mother calls it. They’ve been gone a week, three left to go. Barbara and I are house-sitting. For me, it’s a break from the bachelor I rent, but Barbara likes to think of this time as an experiment in living together. There are things to do. Mow the lawns, pay a few bills. Playing house, as far as I can see. We make breakfast, go to work. We’ve even invited some friends over for a barbecue this evening—Barbara’s idea, the first step into coupledom. 

“We used to call that sort of thing a party,” I told her for a joke. 

“Parties are for punks,” she said. 

Even after a week, it still seems wrong to sleep in my parents’ bed. It’s a nice bed, only a double, so there’s not a lot of room to spread out, but the sex is a little twisted. At first it felt like I was getting away with something, the way I used to feel when I was a kid and searched through my parents’ bureau drawers while they were out. A bit of a thrill. But then Barbara made some joke about rolling around in the same sheets where I came into existence. Those were the words she used: “came into existence.” They sounded too much like science fiction to me, and after that, I’ve found it hard to keep certain pictures out of my head. It doesn’t bother Barbara—her parents are divorced, and the family home sold years ago—but I have to work to stay focused. My mother probably threw those sheets out years ago anyway. 

It’s a good house, not as old as a lot of homes in this town but built before all that seventies crap. I walk through the rooms, hit the doorjambs with the butt of my hand. They feel solid, real. It’s an easy lie to tell myself that one day I’ll have a place of my own. I have friends who do the same thing, talk as though they’re going to buy a new car or take a trip to Mexico when they haven’t a hope of ever saving that kind money. Barbara’s happy enough with make-believe. She likes finding games for us to play.

“Pretend we’ve never met before,” she’ll say. 

“Pretend we’re on our first date,” she’ll say. 

“Do we get to have sex on this first date?” I’ll say. “Because if we don’t, this game is over.”

“Depends,” she’ll say, “on how you play your cards. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

We’ll go to a restaurant we’ve never been to, book into a motel if we have the money. Like taking a vacation, except cheaper. These people coming over for dinner aren’t like Barbara and me. They’ve been together a long time. I’m the youngest at twenty, but I feel older. It’s going to be quite an evening, the four of us sitting around the dining room table with candles and wineglasses, Barbara playing hostess.


Apparently, it’s my job to turn steaks on the barbecue. The air is warm and still, and the smoke from the grilled meat rises straight up. Barbara’s in the house, talking to Peter and Yvonne. She put a beer in my hand earlier, and I’m happy to burn a little meat, look across to the neighbors’ yards, and listen to the goings-on. Some kids are playing street hockey. A girl is bouncing on a trampoline. The house behind us still has a hole in one of its bedroom windows from my first BB gun. Nobody’s ever fixed the dip in the lawn, either, from when I helped dig a trench to fit the new oil tank. Overall, I’m feeling pretty good. Most of my life I’ve seen my dad standing right where I’m standing, the same kitchen mitts on his hands, waving at flies, one ear open for my mother. Nothing wrong with that. 

“It was those sheep,” Barbara is saying. “They were covered in all kinds of shit. It must have happened when we were napping. One of them crawled under my shirt.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tick,” Yvonne says.

Peter says, “They can be lethal.”

“Don’t I know,” Barbara says.

We’re eating our salad when the front door opens and in walks Henry. I could kick myself. Twice in one day! He stops for a minute in the hallway to stare at us, and I can see there’s something about the way we’re all seated around the dining room table that confuses him. 

“Ron,” he finally says to me, which is my dad’s name, and then, “Michelle,” to Barbara. He comes over to shake our hands. “Wish me luck,” he says. “I’ve married a wonderful girl.”

Barbara stands to meet him; then so do I. In the candlelight, the dressing on her shoulder looks like a badge. 

“I’m so happy for you,” she says, and the way she says it makes me believe she is. The others get into the act, too. Peter pulls up an extra chair and asks Henry to sit down. “Join the festivities,” he says. 

It’s not really his place to go around offering invitations to a dinner I’m hosting, but I cooked a lot of steak, too much for the four of us, and there’s big bowl of salad and a platter of potatoes. Henry tucks into his food like it’s Christmas, and we all sit and watch him catch up. I even offer him some wine. Henry takes one sip and leaves the glass alone for the rest of the night. Mostly he talks about Evie and what a great person she is.

“That’s so romantic,” Yvonne says.

I could tell them the truth. I could spoil the picture, but I don’t.

“Where’s the honeymoon?” Peter asks.

“Will you get your mind out of the gutter?” Yvonne says. “That’s all you men ever think about.”

“Paris,” Henry says. “We’re going to France.”

“Better sell a lot of candy, then,” I say. I tell them what Henry does for a living.

“I’ll bet kids love you,” Barbara says.


“I sell to stores mostly.”


I bring out the Brazilian flag my father bought from Henry. He’s a soccer nut, follows the World Cup the way most people follow hockey or baseball.

“That’s one of mine,” Henry says. 

The flag is still in its original plastic dustcover. My father has always meant to mount a pole on the side of the house and display the thing during soccer season, but years have gone by, and he’s never done it. Peter and I spread out the green-and-gold silk for the girls to see. It’s a big one. 

“That’s a beautiful flag,” Yvonne says. “Way nicer than ours.”

“You shouldn’t keep it in a closet,” Barbara says. “People will want to see something like that.”

“So, let’s do it,” I say.

“You mean now?” Yvonne says.

“Sure,” Peter says. “Why not?”

“It’s a good flag,” Henry says.

“You’re drunk,” Barbara says. “The both of you.”

“So what if we are?” Peter says. “It’s still a good idea.”

“I know just the place.” I tell Peter to take the flag while I get a ladder from the basement. “Everybody outside.”

There’s a slight downward slope to the backyard, which means that the steel post for the clothesline has to be a tall one just to keep the clothesline level with the back deck. I extend the ladder to its full height and prop it up at a steep angle. “You stand on the bottom rung,” I tell Peter.

There’s still a bit of light left in the evening, only a few weeks into July and the sun just down behind the hills. I can see stars, and coming across the rooftops is the kind of wind that happens at the end of hot day. Other couples are out on their patios, happy to use them after months of rain.

“You be careful,” Barbara says below me as I climb. “It would be stupid to go to the clinic twice in one weekend.”

“Watch out.” I unhook the clothesline and let it drop to the ground. There isn’t a way to raise the flag and lower it like a real one, but I found some bits of nylon rope that will secure it, top and bottom. We’ll get the idea. Even as I’m coming down hand over hand on the rungs, I know it’s working. The breeze is taking the silk fabric and blowing it south toward the sea, and the end of the flag snaps as it furls and unfurls. 

By the time I’m on the ground, the others have gone up on the deck to see everything better. Henry stands between them, looking out at his flag like he’s arranged the whole thing. I lower the ladder and lay it on its side. Peter passes me a beer, and we clink our bottles together. Overhead floats a swath of green and gold and blue and a few words in Portuguese that make sense even if you don’t speak the language.

“Isn’t she lovely?” Henry says.

“People will think Brazilians are living in this house,” Barbara says.

 Somebody’s phone is ringing nearby, and it takes me a second or two to recognize my parents’ landline in the kitchen. It could be good news or it could be bad news. Or it could be nothing at all. 

Terence Young lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. He is a co-founder and former editor of The Claremont Review (1992-2017), an international literary magazine for younger writers. His most recent book is a collection of poetry, Smithereens (Harbour Publishing, 2021). More information is available at


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