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First Look: Venco

Monday, January 09, 2023

This excerpt is part of our First Look column, where you’ll find exclusive sneak peeks of new and forthcoming books across all genres!

Cherie Dimaline is a bestselling author of Empire of Wild and her forthcoming novel Venco is on sale February 7th.

Before she moved into the attic of her grandmother’s apartment in the dilapidated East End of Toronto, Lucky slept in a queen- sized canopy bed scavenged from the trash.

It was what her mother called “a real score.”
“Holy shit, Luck. Would you look at this?”
Hauled out of bed early on garbage day to help Arnya do her rounds, Lucky dragged her worn tennis shoes across the sidewalk, grumbling. At seven, she was old enough to feel embarrassed by her still-inebriated mother’s “treasure hunts.”

“Hurry up, come check this out.”

Her mother was standing at the end of someone’s lawn, staring at a carved mass of curlicued oak coated in glossy varnish—the headboard and footboard of an enormous bed, propped against a small tree.

“Wow,” Lucky said. “Is that a bed?”
“Hells yes, that’s a bed. That’s a beautiful bed. A bed for a princess. No, a bed for a couple of queens. C’mon, Lucky, we have to grab this before some vulture does.”

“And we’re not vultures?” Lucky was genuinely curious.
“No, we’re bargain hunters. There’s a difference.”
“What is the difference?” Lucky asked.
Arnya sighed, thinking. “Well, vultures grab up shit all frantic-like. We grab up shit with style.” She snapped her fingers, then pointed at Lucky with finger guns.

Even with two of them, it was hard to wrestle the weighty pieces to the sidewalk. Then they spent a good ten minutes trying to figure out how to load them onto their borrowed shopping cart.

“Shit. We gotta make it work, babe.” Arnya St. James was no quitter, except at last call (one of her better jokes). Breathing hard, she extracted a bent book of matches from her jean shorts pocket, lit a cigarette, and scratched her forehead with a thumbnail. “Maybe we have to balance them across the top?”

Bigger pieces secured, they’d come back to get the four columns and frame for the canopy. Arnya carried them one by one to the dumpster beside the nearby elementary school, hefting them up and dropping them in, her ropey arms flexing with lean muscle.

“Gotta hide them. We’ll come back for those fuckers on a second run. Hope the damn truck doesn’t come. Should be okay, seeing’s how school’s out for summer.” Then she broke into the Alice Cooper song of the same name and sang it with a bobbing head, with air guitar thrown in at red lights when the awkward cart was coaxed to a stop.

Lucky was mortified when they went back; garbage runs were usually in the wee hours, and it was now approaching noon. They also usually didn’t involve her drunk mother hanging ass-end out of a dumpster screaming for Jesus and Mary and Joseph and some motherfucking help while the St. Brigid’s summer tennis league watched. But when the pieces were all home and the bed was assembled with the help of her mother’s latest man friend, Lucky forgave Arnya everything. It was indeed a bed for a couple of queens, one of whom immediately passed out facedown with her boots still on, while the other lay with her thin arms folded under her head, wondering what they would do for curtains. A week later, they arrived in typical Arnya fashion.

Lucky woke to Arnya’s blurry face in her face. Her mother gave her shoulders a shake. “C’mon, I need some help here!” She let go and disappeared.

Lucky heard uneven footsteps and something being dragged. More steps, then the sound of the front door closing. She drifted off.

“Goddamn it, girl, wake up!”

Lucky jerked so hard she rolled off her towel and onto hardwood. Must have fallen asleep on the front room floor watching TV. A little hard on the bones but better than being all alone in that big bed.

Her mother shouted from the bedroom, “In here. You’re gonna love this!”

Anxiety spiked in Lucky’s stomach. She never knew what was going to happen when Arnya got that excited.

She pulled herself up, scratching her bare bottom, exposed by the wide cut in the leg of her mother’s Budweiser one-piece bathing suit. The neckline scooped low and the crotch hung between her thighs, but it was the perfect pj’s for a sticky summer night.

She found her mother standing on top of the futon mattress they’d hauled up onto their new bed frame.

“Ma, you’re wearing your shoes!” Lucky pointed at her mother’s feet, still clad in her favourite pleather ankle boots, the uneven heels showing their plastic bones to the world. “Those are the nice sheets!

They take up a whole load at the laundromat.”
Arnya took the last drag of her cigarette, plucked it out of her mouth, and expertly flicked it out the open window behind her. “Oh Christ, Lucky, quit menopausing and give me a hand.”

Lucky finally noticed the voluminous bundle of red fabric spilling across the bed like a murder scene, its edges trimmed in every hue the rainbow could throw up. Arnya bent to lift a swath, throwing an arm out for balance, looking like a goddess statue in a fountain of cherry Kool-Aid.

“It’s a parachute,” she said. “Do you like it?” Arnya’s smile was so wide Lucky could see the silver caps on her back molars. Standing on their bed at four in the morning, with a head full of whiskey and a desperate plea in her dark eyes, Arnya was at her softest.

“Yeah, Mom, it’s great.”
“It’s the perfect canopy! Help me get it up over the bars.” Lucky hopped up on the bed, too, and they struggled with the slippery fabric until they managed to get enough of it over the two longer bars that they could yank it into place. Then the two of them flopped down underneath it to catch their breath, hair wild over their gritty pillows.

“Now we can go anywhere we like. Anywhere in the whole shit world—and we’ll have a safe landing.” Arnya curled into her daughter like a drying flower, the whiskey congealing into sleep.

Lucky lay awake in their shelter of red parachute silk, braiding pieces of her dark hair with her mother’s rusty strands. She had no idea where Arnya had found it, and she didn’t care: she took what was offered, when it was offered.

“It’s perfect,” she whispered.

It was one of the best memories Lucky had, the one moment in childhood when it seemed the whole world was in front of her, full of all the adventure she could handle. Soon after dragging that canopy home, Arnya was gone, and for a long while, it seemed like she had taken all the adventure with her, leaving Lucky behind with nothing.

“HOW DO I TELL STELLA they’re selling the building and we have to move?” Twenty years after the parachute score, Lucky sat at the bar, peeling the label off her second bottle of beer.

“Want another before I call it?” Harley was already reaching for the handle on the beer fridge behind him.

“Nah, I’ve got a job this week.”

Not a good job, just another gig the temp agency had set her up with. And tomorrow was only Thursday. That meant two more days in her shit cubicle, at her shit desk, before the weekend. And then Monday would come again, like a fresh hole in her life, one she could fall into and never get out of. Is it still anticipation if all you are anticipating is nothing? No, it isn’t, it’s—


“Huh?” Harley glanced her way as he leaned over the bar, using a damp cloth to wipe up the night’s layer of sticky.

“It’s dread, not anticipation,” she said to him, or to herself or to no one in particular.

“Preach,” he replied. He was used to Lucky’s general moping. “God’s gotta listen sometime.”

He tossed the rag into the small bar sink and put his hands on his hips, surveying the collection of functioning alcoholics and depressed divorcés. He checked his watch. “Time to end the dream, people,” he announced. “Back to the nightmare.”

He flicked on the overhead lights, and the bar revealed itself in all its Wednesday-night glory. A collective sigh replaced the hum and buzz of the neon lights, which had become audible in the sudden silence after the music clicked off.

Lucky stood, pulling on her hoodie and jean jacket. “Alright, then.” Harley came out from behind the bar to start the work of shaking a few people awake and politely pushing them towards the sidewalk. He left Darla, also known as Sweet D, for last. She’d come in after her drag show for her usual glass of milk and shot of bourbon, still in heels and padding. Darla was always welcome to stay until he was done mopping the linoleum.

“See you soon, Luck?” he said as she passed him.

“Probably.” The bells above her chimed as she made her way out into the night.

She stopped by the front window to put in her earbuds and pull her hood over her head. It wasn’t that cold, with spring starting to muscle its way into April. You never knew in Toronto. She could wake up to a blizzard. But right now it felt like walking weather. So with head covered and eyes down, she hit shuffle on her favorite playlist and started for home.

The East End of the city was like the aftermath of a love affair—broken and messy, shrieking at intersections, moaning in doorways. The parking lots were small and hard to get into. The shoe stores were run by grandfathers, and the bakeries featured meringues collecting dust in their yellowed front windows. A single block housed four different cell-phone repair stores. Sales posters were more often misspelled than not. The nail salons were suggestively named things like Finger Bang or Just the Tip. Lucky’s neighbourhood was a place people moved on from rather than into—a spot reserved for the very old and the very young, or the renters who couldn’t fork out a security deposit for a West End studio with underground parking.

The moon watched Lucky cut a small figure down the grey sidewalk, giving her a half wink from between the streetcar wires and eternity. Eyes on her Converse and the pavement, she missed the moon and she missed the tall woman in a salmon-pink tulle gown skipping into an alley ahead of her. When Lucky crossed the street to avoid two drunks fighting, she also missed the two foxes carrying a netted bag of oranges between them. She didn’t see a half-dozen bats careening from an open apartment window, looping calligraphy onto the dark sky then chasing one another into the parkette. Focused inward and down, she missed all the magic and chance.

Dread, Lucky kept thinking. Nothing ever happens except more of the same.

She turned up the volume on her phone to drown out the screech of an ambulance headed for the hospital where no one went if they had another option. She’d had to take her grandmother there last month after a bad fall. Thankfully Stella hadn’t broken anything, but the attending physician suggested that she needed full-time care. Who the fuck could afford a nanny for an old person?

“Not many,” the doctor had agreed. “There’s always the province-run homes.” Over her dead body, Lucky had thought, but now that they were facing eviction from their apartment, she had no idea what to do.

Her street was dark: half the streetlights were dulled to a muddy waver, and none of the porch lights were on. She stood still. She felt like if she turned onto her block, the quiet would swallow her.

I could just keep walking. I could walk to the bus station. Buy a ticket to Santa Fe. Sell jewelry on the side of the road. Live in a motel with my own key and thin towels. Be alone. Be happy.

The wind picked up, and soon she was shivering. Why was she stalling? It’s not like she had to tell Stella tonight. It wasn’t going to be easy. This was the place her grandma had lived in since the day after her wedding, the place she’d shared with the love of her life until his heart blew out. The only place that held happy memories of her son, from before he’d fallen in love with Arnya, moved out, and disappeared down an opioid drain hole.

She decided she’d look for a new apartment before she broke the news. Who knew? Maybe she’d live up to her name for once and find a rental in the neighbourhood, so Stella wouldn’t get too confused— even one with two bedrooms, so she wouldn’t have to sleep in an attic crawl space anymore. She’d probably have to take on another job to afford current rents, but she’d cross that bridge . . . Deep breath in. No, she wouldn’t tell Stella tonight. Lucky pushed all the air out of her lungs and started walking again.

It was only yesterday she’d opened the letter saying they had ninety days, but already the street felt like any street, not her street, the one she had lived on for more than half her life. It made her feel adrift, without the anchor of belonging. She was surprised how quickly it was happening. She almost passed the little walkway that led to her front door, not recognizing it, but caught herself and turned in. She stopped again at the foot of the steps.

If you didn’t look up, her building appeared normal, maybe even charming. Thin and tall, the Victorian had already been converted into apartments by the time her grandparents moved in. The glass in the windows was now wavy with age, and the shutters hung, lopsided, from the remaining hinges. The whole place had been painted bright violet, a hue that had scandalized the neighbours when this was a suburb set apart from the downtown core. Over the years, as the city thickened and poured into every available nook, the purple faded to a matronly mauve, the preferred shade of Easter bonnets and sweater sets, and then to a dull mushroom, darkened by the subway overpass that now swooped above the sharp roof like a concrete cloud. Now Lucky did look up, drawn by the sweep of lights as the train took the curve overhead. Since that bridge had been built, there was no sun for their windows. No moon to weep under. Just the train’s headlights at night, and the shuddering of its passing on the way to somewhere else.

Behind her, a bright yellow bird landed on a branch, hopping carefully over the new buds to the tip, then turning its head as if to get a good look at the girl. Maybe an escaped pet, so confused by freedom it was roaming at night. Lucky didn’t notice it, though, because her eyes had dropped from the bridge to the window at the top of the house, now glowing with light that flickered with movement. The window was propped open with a book, and a steady plume of smoke was streaming out.

“Oh, fuck me.”

Lucky took off up the steps in a rush that sent the bird flying back into the dark.

Inside, the smoke alarm was blaring. “Grandma, Jesus!” she screamed as she burst through the door. “What the fuck is going on?”

Black smoke and a horrid stench emanated from the microwave in the kitchen, the timer set for another twenty-three minutes. She pressed stop and opened the door. A blackened bag of popcorn hissed inside, too hot to touch. She went to the window and pushed it open wider, then pulled off her jean jacket, using it like a matador’s cloak to sweep the smoke away.

Jinxy, Stella’s one-eyed cat, came to wind his way through Lucky’s legs, meowing angrily.

“Fuck off, Jinx.”

Lucky was allergic to him, and so, of course, he wanted nothing more than to be with her. “Stella Sampson,” she shouted, “what the hell were you thinking?”

Lucky found her in the living room, sitting in her floral easy chair in front of the TV, where an old vampire movie was play- ing. Stella looked up, one eye—in the lens of a heavy magnifying glass—as huge and wobbly as an uncooked egg. She turned her face back down towards the Reader’s Digest splayed on her lap.

“Do you not hear that?” Lucky went to the smoke alarm and pulled it out of its socket, then flipped it over and took out the battery.

The alarm stuttered and stopped. That’s when Lucky realized her grandmother also had the stereo on—La Bohème, at a seven.

Lucky snapped off the music and plopped down in the love seat opposite her grandmother, more tired than she’d been all day, all week. “Seriously, Stella? It’s two in the morning.”

Stella put the magazine and the magnifying glass on the floor by her feet, and Jinxy promptly sat on both.

“I told him he should have the foundation checked.” Stella shook her head, the red pom-pom on top of her toque flopping back and forth.

“What are you talking about?”

“The landlord, Pinkerton. Old fool.” Stella rocked herself in her chair, pom-pom bobbing steadily. “There were cops everywhere. The fire department showed up, but the firemen just stood there, leaning against their trucks, laughing, watching the nurses lead all the patients outside. It was cold, too, an early spring night, but they didn’t help. They thought it was funny to watch all the carrying-on from the inmates, some crying, some screaming, others laughing. Once in a while, they’d even whistle at one of the nurses, skirts all hitched up, bobby pins falling out.” She reached up and touched her fingers to her own hair spilling out from under the wool hat. “We had big hair back then. I liked the French rolls. You know about French rolls?”

“Are you talking about the old hospital next door? Grandma, that place has been vacant for years now.”

“Pinkerton, he went over to see if we needed to evacuate. Me and Oswald watched out the window. Oswald was dying to get out there too. Just like a man. But I wouldn’t let him.” Oswald, her late husband—Lucky’s grandfather. He haunted Stella, and, in return, she facilitated his haunt with stories.

“So we see Pinkerton down there talking to one of the cops, the fattest one, which meant he musta been the most important. He talked for a long time, three smokes’ worth. Then he comes up to our place to fill us in.”

Stella got up and went to the kitchen window, where she stood looking out at the brick hospital wall. “One of the patients was locked up after he tried to carry off a mannequin from a department store, said it was his wife. He had tried to escape. He did, I suppose . . .”

She turned back to Lucky. “He’d quieted down after a few months inside, so they figured he was getting better. Ha. Fooled them, he did.”

She nodded, a faint smile on her face. Stella loved an underdog.

“He’d been sneaking out of his bed at night, down to the basement, where he was trying to tunnel his way out. Trouble is, he started digging on the east side, heading under the entire length of the building and out the west end towards our house. Poor bugger, but I guess if you’re deluded to begin with . . .”

She returned to her chair and sat. Jinx jumped up and draped himself over her lap like a luxurious fur stole. She paused while she stroked him. Then she picked up the story again.

“He cut through any of the studs that got in his way with what- ever he could find to use. Who knows what he did with the dirt, mighta ate it, maybe. He did such a good job, nobody noticed, but when he got all the way across the basement, the whole damn building collapsed—still standing, but with no foundation, all crooked and messy. It was pure luck none of the other patients got hurt.”

Lucky couldn’t help herself. “What happened to him?”

Stella held up a finger, instructing her to wait. “Afterwards, they shipped everyone to a new asylum out there in Collingwood. The old place here got boarded up and forgotten. Since they built the overpass, no one bothers to look under it anyway.”

She raised her voice, finally rounding the corner to her original point. “But I told Pinkerton, ‘Henry, you don’t know where that lunatic dug to. He could have made it all the way over into our basement. He could have escaped right through our back door while the cops were at the hospital shrugging their stupid shoulders.’”

Lucky also liked an underdog, and she liked a good story. She’d been parented by them both, after all. “So they didn’t recover his remains?”

“Nope. And by the time they realized his corpse wasn’t in the rubble, they figured he’d slipped away and was halfway to Mississippi. Me? I don’t think they even bothered to look.”

“Did you and Grandpa ever see him?”

“Nah.” Stella shook her head. “But I swore I heard him a couple of times when I was down in the laundry room, banging and scraping on the other side of the wall.

“I complained to Pinkerton. He told me I was imagining things. So one night I went to his apartment—he lived on the main floor where that awful woman lives now—and dragged his lazy ass off the couch. There was all kinds of rumbling and banging going on behind that cabinet down there in the basement—you know, the big green metal one that takes up damn near the whole wall. Well, Pinkerton listened good. Then he said it was just animals messing around.”

She clucked her tongue. “I wasn’t taking no chances, though. I made Ozzy put a padlock on that cabinet. I wasn’t having no maniac popping out at me while I was down there doing our laundry.”

“Did you guys ever find out what it was?”

Stella got up again, and the cat dropped from her lap onto the floor and stretched. She went back to the window. In the murky light from the streetlamp, a pair of raccoons huddled inside a window grate across the way. No human escape artists to be seen.

“Huh? Oh, nothing. The noises stopped.” She turned her head to look at her granddaughter. “You’re down there all the time—do you hear anything?”

Lucky shook her head. “Is the cabinet still locked?”

“Most likely. But that key’s around here somewhere. I’ll look, Ozzy. I’ll look . . .”

Lucky walked over to kiss her grandmother on the cheek. If Stella noticed, she didn’t let on.

She left Stella still staring out the window at her past. In the hallway just in front of the bathroom, Lucky reached up and tugged on a cord, and a set of stairs slid down. She climbed them to the attic, pulling the staircase up behind her.

Before the hatch clicked closed, she shouted down, “No more cooking tonight, Stella.”

There was no answer except from the TV: “A creature dwells within these walls.”

In the dark, cramped space under the slanted roof, Lucky felt around for a plug and then slipped it into the socket near the baseboard. The room jumped to life in the bright glow of a hundred white Christmas lights. Lucky stood in the one spot where she could stand up straight and pulled off her clothes. There wasn’t much up here besides the mattress—neat piles of folded clothes and a stack of journals filled with her writing. She grabbed the book on top, a pen stuck in the middle pages; then, down to her tank top and boxers, she slid under the covers to write. Before she opened the cover, she looked up at the faded folds of her red parachute, brought from her mother’s house and hung loosely over the rafters.

She opened the book and wrote one line before falling asleep—

What’s the point of a safe landing when you never leave the ground?

From VENCO by Cherie Dimaline, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2023 by Cherie Dimaline. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers


Cherie Dimaline’s 2017 book, The Marrow Thieves was declared by TIME magazine, one of the Best YA Books of All Time. This international bestseller has won the Governor General’s Award and the prestigious Kirkus Prize for Young Readers, and was named a Book of the Year on numerous lists including the National Public Radio, the School Library Journal, the New York Public Library, the Globe and Mail, and the CBC. Her novel Empire of Wild (Random House Canada, William Morrow US, Weiden and Nicolson UK) became an instant Canadian bestseller and was named Indigo’s #1 Best Book of 2019. It was featured in The New York Times, the New Yorker, GOOP, and the Chicago Review of Books among others. Hunting By Stars (Abrams US and Penguin Canada), the hotly anticipated sequel to The Marrow Thieves, was a 2022 American Indian Library Association Honor Book. Cherie lives in her home territory where she is a registered and active member of the Georgian Bay Métis Community. She is currently writing for television, adapting Empire of Wild for the stage and screen and has several new titles being released in 2023.