The Unfolding Universe

Grandma had managed to get up on Spirit. The trouble was she was facing the wrong way.

November 19, 2013 | | Back Issues

Ethan couldn’t believe it. The world’s foremost potential girlfriend, Alice Purdy, was standing beside him without another person in sight. This was his big chance.

“Uh, what do you think of Mr. T’s latest project?”

Alice was in Ethan’s Grade 9 Canadian and world studies class, and Mr. Turner was their teacher. Ethan wished all his teachers could be like Mr. T. He was young, enthusiastic and crazy.

For their first project, every student had to draw a new world map. Most of the kids put Canada, the USA and Mexico together as one country. Boy, did that start a discussion. Today, Mr. Turner had given them another assignment: If you were in charge of the Canadian Mint, whose picture would you put on bills?

“I think it will be fun,” Alice answered. “Who’s on the money now?”

“Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Sir John A. Macdonald, Queen Elizabeth, William Lyon Mackenzie King and Sir Robert Borden.”

Alice smiled at Ethan as if to say, “Aren’t you smart,” and his heart did a triple backflip.

“I know Queen Elizabeth,” Alice said, “but who are the others?”

“Old prime ministers.”




“My bus! See ya tomorrow!” Ethan was already sprinting. He could see Mrs. Gallas, the bus driver, staring at him in the side mirror as the bus pulled away, but she didn’t stop, if anything she speeded up. Ethan sighed. Telling your bus driver she needed driving lessons probably wasn’t the brightest idea. But why hadn’t his pal Jenny asked Mrs. Gallas to stop the bus? Jenny must have seen him.

Having missed the bus, Ethan figured he might as well return to the world’s foremost potential girlfriend. Maybe he could wow Alice with some other piece of trivia. But he was too late there, too. She was already disappearing down the street with that weasel Max Reinhardt by her side.

Normally Ethan would have phoned home to ask for a ride, but this plan wasn’t going to work because he hadn’t laid eyes on his iPhone since Sunday. But even then, it wouldn’t have helped because his parents were lying on a beach in Cuba. Grandma was at home but she no longer had a licence. Then Ethan remembered that his younger sister Trudy was staying late at the public school and he was supposed to ride over to pick her up on Spirit, the Clydesdale. He started running again.

It took Ethan 40 minutes to jog home. He ran into the house to tell Grandma where he was going, but Grandma wasn’t there. Instead, he found a note: Spirit and I have gone to get Trudy. Be home soon. Love, Grandma.

OMIGOD! If Mom found out that Grandma was riding Spirit again, he’d be grounded like last Christmas, when Grandma and her friend Thelma took off on Spirit with Ethan chasing after them.

Maybe Grandma hadn’t left yet …

He found her at the barn. “Don’t you laugh, Ethan.”

Ethan tried his best, but when Grandma snorted, he burst out laughing too.

“I’m not exactly sure how this happened,” she said.

Grandma had managed to get up on Spirit. The trouble was she was facing the wrong way.

Grandma had managed to get up on Spirit. The trouble was she was facing the wrong way. Illustration by Shelagh Armstrong.

Grandma had managed to get up on Spirit. The trouble was she was facing the wrong way. Illustration by Shelagh Armstrong.

Ethan arrived at Boswell Public just in time to see Trudy jump on Blake Bottomsly’s back. Blake shook her off like a dog shaking off water, but that didn’t stop Trudy from leaping up and charging at Blake again. He swatted her away. Ethan slid off Spirit.

“Trudy, what are you doing?”

“Blake hurt Josh.”

Ethan’s eyes found Trudy’s friend Josh sitting in the snow. Blood was leaking from his nose onto his parka.

“Maybe you need to pick on someone your own size,” Ethan said, heading for Blake.

“Like you?” Blake Bottomsly pulled himself up to his full height. He was almost six feet tall and outweighed Ethan by thirty pounds. Before Ethan could regret not taking those tae kwon do lessons, Blake’s fist landed in his face and sent him sprawling.

Ethan scrambled up, angry now. He charged at Blake, aiming for his chest, but at the last second, he bent over and tackled, felling Blake like an oak. Over Blake went, with Ethan landing on his chest. Ethan’s fist was heading for Blake’s face when someone grabbed his arm from behind.

“Enough, Ethan.”

Grandma slid a plate of spaghetti in front of Trudy.

“Why did Blake hurt Josh?”

“Josh had a package of licorice and Blake wanted it.”

Grandma glanced over at Ethan. He was holding a bag of frozen peas to his eye, and she could tell he was still fuming. She pulled the bag away. The skin around Ethan’s eye was black, blue and yellow.

“We used to call that a shiner. Tell me again what Mrs. Thompson said.”

Mrs. Thompson, the principal, was the one who had grabbed Ethan’s arm. Ethan didn’t answer, but Trudy did. “She said, ‘Ethan, you should know better. Violence just leads to more violence.’”

Grandma felt bad for Ethan. Some of life’s lessons hurt more than others. Grandma decided to try another tack.

“Here’s a question. Why is Blake Bottomsly a bully?”

“Cuz he’s bigger than everybody else.”

“That allows him to be a bully but that doesn’t make him a bully.”

Trudy nodded at this and tried again. “His father died.”

“That’s right, Trudy. Last year, wasn’t it?”

Blake Bottomsly’s dad had fallen off the barn roof. Rumour had it that he’d been drinking, which didn’t surprise anyone. Drinking was something Bruce Bottomsly had been good at.

“So now I imagine a lot of responsibility falls on Blake’s shoulders and that can be hard when you’re just a kid. Does he have any brothers and sisters?”



“No. He picks on everybody.”

“So we shouldn’t take this personally.”

Ethan made a face at this. Grandma changed gears again. She knew how to cheer Ethan up.

“Ethan, did you tell Trudy about finding me in the barn?”

“Grandma was on Spirit, but she was facing the wrong way.”

“I couldn’t figure out how you kids get up on him, so I got the kitchen stool and jumped, but my right leg wouldn’t swing around so I swung the left, thinking I’d be able to turn around after I got up, but that didn’t work. And then I realized I’d knocked the stool over, so I was stuck up there. That reminds me, Ethan, why weren’t you on the bus?”

Ethan ignored this and instead told Grandma about his assignment to redesign Canadian money.

“Trudeau,” Grandma said. “I had such a crush on him.”

“What’s a crush?” Trudy wanted to know.

“An infatuation.” Grandma could see that Trudy didn’t know the word. “It means you’re hopelessly in love.”

Ethan thought of Alice.

“Why did you have a crush, Grandma?”

“Oh, well, he was the prime minister, you know, and so cute and so smart. He’d say things like ‘No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.’”

Alice Purdy was admiring Ethan’s shiner. Ethan told her the story. Alice latched onto the part where Ethan rode Spirit.

“You have a horse?”

“Two. A Clydesdale named Spirit and a Percheron called Noelle.”

“I love horses. At least I think I do.”

It turned out that Alice had never ridden a horse, but she was dying to. So Ethan invited her to come over on Saturday afternoon, and Alice said yes!

Grandma placed her left hand flat on the dining room table.

“Hand sandwich,” she said.

Trudy’s right hand landed on Grandma’s, then Ethan’s right, then Trudy’s left, followed by Ethan’s left and Grandma’s right.

“You know the rules. Anything said during a hand sandwich can’t be repeated.”

Ethan and Trudy nodded.

“I saw Helen, Blake’s mom, in town today and here’s the scoop. She’s behind on her mortgage payments. The bank is going to take her farm away unless she pays up, but she can’t get the insurance company to pay Mr. Bottomsly’s life insurance because they say he was intoxicated, drunk, at the time of the accident. She has to hire lawyers, but she hasn’t got the money. She wants to hold onto the farm so Blake can take over when he’s old enough. She thinks Blake is acting out in the hopes of getting kicked out of school so he can begin farming.”

Grandma waved her hand in the air, something she did when making decisions.

“I’ve made an appointment for Helen with Bob Sullivan, my lawyer. He says he can help her and Blake needs a friend, so I told Helen to bring him over on Saturday afternoon.”

Blake arrived first. His mom dropped him off at noon. Blake’s first words were, “Nice eye. What’s for lunch?”

Alice arrived at two. She was wearing tight jeans, leather boots, and a powder-blue ski jacket with matching headband. Her long blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail. Ethan was silently giving her and Emma Roberts ten out of ten, when Alice asked, “Who’s that?” Alice was watching Blake do wheelies in the snow using Ethan’s dad’s ATV.

“That’s Blake.”

“The guy who punched you?”


Before Alice could ask more questions, another car pulled into the driveway and out popped Max Reinhardt, aka the Weasel. Alice did a pirouette on her way to meet Max.

“Max wanted to come. I knew you wouldn’t mind.”

Ethan led the way into the barn. He was surprised to find Jenny there getting ready to ride Noelle, the black Percheron. Jenny lived next door, and when she wanted to ride, she usually phoned over first or checked in at the house.

“Hi, Jenny.”

Jenny waved, but didn’t look at Ethan. Then she heard other voices and turned to find Alice, Max and Blake staring at her.

Ethan said, “Alice has never ridden a horse before.”

“Me neither,” said Max.

“I have.” Blake climbed the stall wall and jumped on Spirit’s back. “We got reins or what?”

Ethan had spent all week fantasizing about his ride with Alice Purdy. She’d sit in front of him. He’d be behind, his arms wrapped around her waist. He’d smell her hair. When they soared over a fence, Ethan would hold on tight making Alice feel safe. And when it was over, Alice Purdy would kiss him …

“Here, Alice, come up with me.” Jenny patted the spot in front of her and Alice scampered up the stall wall and slid into place. “Max, get on Spirit in front of Blake.”

Jenny smiled at Ethan and Ethan knew the smile. It was the one the Big Bad Wolf used when he dressed up like Grandma.

Grandma found Ethan sitting on the deck.

“I’ve got hot chocolate and popcorn inside.”

“Thanks, Grandma. That’s great.”

“You don’t sound very happy. I’m sorry I invited Blake over. I didn’t realize you’d invited Alice and Max.”

“Just Alice.”

“Ah, I see. You like Alice.”

Ethan nodded. Grandma said, “She seems to like Max.”

Ethan nodded again.

“What about Jenny?”

Ethan gave his grandma a puzzled look.

“I mean, do you like Jenny?”

“Yeah, she’s, like, my best friend.”

“So, maybe Jenny’s upset that you invited Alice over?”

“Why would she be upset?”

Like all really smart people, Ethan could on occasion be as dense as a London fog.

“Maybe Jenny would have liked to go riding with you?”

Ethan stared at his grandma and suddenly the fog cleared.

“I think you’re right, Grandma.”

An hour later, the two horses reappeared. Jenny and Alice were laughing, but Blake and Max weren’t. They looked like popsicles.

“What happened?”

Jenny slid off Noelle and helped Alice down.

“Blake wanted to race, so we took the trail to school, the one that crosses the river,” Jenny said.

Blake exploded. “We were winning. Then the stupid horse stopped!”

Ethan could picture it: Spirit putting on the brakes, Blake flying forward, taking Max with him into the icy water.

“I’m fffff-frozen,” Max said just as his mom’s car pulled into the driveway. “Thanks, Ethan. I gotta go.”

Alice waved goodbye to Ethan and Jenny, then followed Max.

“What are you guys doing tomorrow?” Blake asked Ethan and Jenny.

“We’re going tobogganing.”

“Not me,” Jenny said. “I’ve been invited over to Alice’s.”

Ethan watched as Jenny walked away.

Blake’s final words were: “Don’t worry, Eth, I’ll come over. I like it here. Tell your grandma I’ll be here for lunch … Max! I need a ride!”

That night, Ethan showed Grandma his new Canadian bills. First was the five-dollar bill, featuring Sidney Crosby and Clara Hughes.

“A male and a female. That’s clever, Ethan.”

Next came the ten-dollar bill with Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling. On the most popular bill, the twenty, Ethan had highlighted just one person, Canada’s number one hero, Terry Fox. On the fifty, Avril Lavigne sang with Justin Bieber, and for the hundred, Seth Rogen compared hairdos with Alice Munro, who had just won the Nobel Prize.

“One more Grandma.” The mint no longer printed a thousand-dollar note, but this didn’t stop Ethan from making one. He slid it across the table. Pierre Elliot Trudeau had his arm wrapped around a much younger Grandma. Grandma hooted.

Just then the phone rang.

“Hey Eth!”

“Hi Blake.”

“I can’t make it tomorrow. Mom and I are going to see the lawyer. And Eth? Tell Trudy I won’t be a bully anymore. And … thanks for being my friend.” Click. Ethan put the phone down but now something else was ringing. He dug around in the basket stuffed with mitts, toques and scarves and found his iPhone. It was Jenny.

“I was just teasing about Alice. I’d love to go tobogganing.”

Ethan sighed. Maybe the universe was unfolding as it should.

About the Author More by John Denison

Erin author John Denison, former publisher at Boston Mills Press, writes novels for young adults. For the latest on John’s books, visit

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