Vasant 2023 Stories - Astrid Egger


The Unguarded Moment

By Astrid Egger


"Who’s with you?” A voice from behind asked.

Bruno Hartung turned around and saw his client, Gerald Davies, clad in a ripped camouflage-style parka, by the one-storey building with two recessed side wings. Big patches of silvery green paint peeled off walls, and the teal green window trims had smaller irregular peels; clumps of mosses and leaves peaked above the gutter and water pooled from where the downspout met the drainage pipe.

“No one. Remember, we were going to meet at your place. I can leave if today is inconvenient.” Bruno said, hoping that Gerald agreed, and that Bruno could go home and play with his daughter Marika. Any game but horsey. His lower back felt tender from the twenty-minute drive dodging potholes on the dirt road. A gust of wind spiraled alder leaves off a tree, and one landed between Bruno’s lips.

“Yuck,” he sputtered, spitting on the ground. He combed his fingers through his beard to make sure that another leaf wasn’t riding along. Gerald took a few steps in the direction of Bruno’s Subaru, then spun around and trained his eyes on Bruno.


“Didn’t think you’d ever make it, and it’s not even my purge day.”

What Gerald called his purge day started with a trip to the recycling depot, followed by a stop at the thrift store, and with his bicycle cart almost empty, he would pull up at the clinic for his appointment. Gerald would leave a few choice words for Bruno to put on his file, smirk and tell Bruno that he wanted to challenge his friend Roderick to a game of chess. Roderick wasn’t known to the clinic—unusual in a community with less than twelve hundred people. Bruno sometimes wondered whether Roderick was real.

“Follow me,” Gerald said and veered towards a tiny cabin behind the dilapidated lodge. Bruno ducked upon entry; at 6’2” he didn’t take head clearance for granted.

Seven boxes leaned against a wall, each neatly labeled with their contents detailed. A wood stove bellowed out heat. An iron kettle steamed on the top. Gerald had set three Naugahyde loungers around a Formica table. The smell of alder set off Bruno’s nose.

“Sorry Gerald. Allergies.”

Gerald waited for him to finish sneezing then pulled two mugs off the shelf by the sink and filled them with hot water.

Bruno was visiting Gerald in his cabin for the first and last time. After ten months of out-patient counseling at the clinic, Gerald had agreed to move into an assisted living home. Even though he expected Gerald’s place to be stripped of comforts, Bruno was hoping he would pick up some helpful clues for a more nuanced assessment.

“Black tea. It’s all that’s left. Hope it’s fine.” He handed Bruno a teabag, a cup, a nearly empty jar of honey and a milk tetra pack.

Gerald pointed to a chair for Bruno. A crocheted throw covered the backrest and a raised seat.

“Those people who built the lodge thought they were sitting on a gold mine. They made good coin from hunters and logging crews. But now, the value has moved to the land.”

“Is anyone staying at the lodge? I saw a curtain move.” Bruno said as he stirred the honey in his tea.

“I didn’t think you’d notice. It was me. I came out of the side entrance. I keep the place heated, make sure the pipes don’t freeze, but they will have a new maintenance guy in tomorrow.”

Bruno heard a crinkling noise beneath his thigh. He pulled back the edge of the throw to see ten or so adult diapers in a large Ziploc bag.

Gerald’s eyes followed Bruno’s hand. “The pillowy part adds to comfort.” Gerald spoke in a falsetto, imitating the clinic nurse’s voice and then chuckled.
“Tomorrow’s the big day,” Bruno said.

“Put your phone on the table.”

Bruno reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his cell phone, and set it on the table. Gerald picked it up and deftly turned it off.

“Now, give me your personal phone!”

Bruno lifted his brows as he fumbled and then extracted his cell from his pants pocket. He glanced at the lock screen. No messages.

“Need to make sure you aren’t recording us.”

“I’d have to tell you if I were. Professional ethics.”

Gerald waved him off, then opened the lid of a cedar chest and retrieved a cutlass shaped machete. He took off the leather sheath, brought it up to eye level and traced the side of its carbon steel blade with his left index finger.

“What are you thinking?”

“It’s toasty here by the wood stove, but drafty elsewhere. I’m thinking about your new home with a working fridge, a step-in bathtub, cooked meals and high-speed internet.” Bruno was talking faster than usual, then slowed down and said, “And, you’ll be closer to your friend’s house.”

Rain or sleet, Bruno had seen Gerald struggle up to the clinic entrance on his bicycle. So many adults prefer familiarity to safety, choosing to live at risk. Gerald might be one of them.

“I don’t remember saying that I needed that.” Gerald stared at Bruno. “But I’m moving on.”

Bruno put his lips to the rim of the mug and sipped. The tea singed his tongue. He pursed his lips and puffed out some breaths. Gerald leaned forward and moved the machete slowly in front of Bruno’s face.

A machete windshield wiper. What was he trying to do? Hypnotize Bruno? Bruno shifted slightly in his chair, sweat pooling in his armpits and soaking his flannel shirt.

“When I worked as a blaster, one careless move by anyone meant a danger to all.” Gerald said as he lowered the machete next to his teacup.

Bruno kept his gaze and nodded. When Gerald had come in for his first appointment, he didn’t sit down until he’d inspected Bruno’s office—the plug-ins, the shelving, the lighting, and the lock on the door. Only after he seemed convinced he’d eliminated any source of danger did he lower into a chair, close to the door. At the rumble of the janitor rolling a utility cart down the hall, Gerald had jumped up, his pupils dilated and had run towards the clinic entrance door.

Did Gerald plan to use the machete now? Should Bruno make a run for it and hope that Gerald didn’t follow? He had told the office staff not to expect him back before closing time. They knew he was out on a home visit at Gerald’s address.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Gerald said in an odd shrill tone Bruno had never heard him use before.

Bruno’s hands were clammy. His fingers on his temple felt his throbbing pulse. He adjusted his seat. He placed his hands palm up, loosely on his thighs to signal a relaxed pose. He needed to divert Gerald’s attention from the machete. He needed to increase Gerald’s sense of control. Could he overpower Gerald?

“Gerald, what are your most pressing issues today?”

Gerald shook his head and replied in that odd shrill tone. “Only one. You. Tell me something about yourself!”

“But we’re not focusing on me.”

“Says who?” Gerald said.

Bruno met his gaze, didn’t smile, and hoped that his face didn’t show his concern. Self-disclosure in therapy needed to be planned and balanced. It could help or hinder the therapeutic relationship. Bruno would start by talking about his hobbies. Calm voice. Respectful.

"I have always loved hiking and photography, and I had jumped at the chance to take pictures for my friend Matt. He had been working on an article about the Gold Rush. We’d agreed to meet in Field, but I had taken a detour so that I could hike the Emerald Lake basin. I got there by late afternoon and when I was halfway around the lake, I passed a woman with an olive oversized hood preventing raindrops from melding with her freckles.

‘Excuse me, how far is the junction to the basin trail?’

She looked up at the darkening clouds and said, ‘Unless you have a tent with you, you’d be wise to finish the Emerald Lake loop to make it out before dusk,’
I had taken pictures of the clouds, raindrops falling into the lake, and a stealth picture of her backside.”

“Very smooth,” Gerald was laughing, and he petted the machete handle with his right hand. “I hope you were wearing protection around your ring finger.”
“That comment is,”

“Inappropriate, you think? Gerald cut off Bruno then said,” Sorry. Go on.”

“I had met her again at the Emerald Lake lodge, managing bookings. She had her hair tied up in a knot, and her name tag read Nora L. I printed her name on the invoice that I submitted to Matt along with my business expenses when we met in his hotel room in Field the next day. Matt had draped a plan over the coffee table, according to which I was already a day behind. I excused myself and went to the bathroom. When I returned, he handed me back my camera.Matt is a friend I’ll trust with my equipment. Once he made his way past the pioneer buildings and pictures of gold pans, he would have found the picture of Nora L’s backside.

Matt’s editor accepted my pictures of a saloon and a comparison between fools’ gold and a nugget as illustrations. Once the article came out, we had held a small gathering of friends, and Matt introduced me to his new partner, who sported a red pixie haircut, but whom I recognized as Nora L.”

“You were moonlighting as a matchmaker?” Gerald said.

“Not really.” Bruno said. He remembered how after all the guests had left, Chelsea, his wife, had commented that Bruno was short with Matt; as if Bruno hadn’t wanted him to be happy with Nora. Chelsea had nailed him!

Gerald returned the machete to the trunk. He pulled out the damper, opened the door of the wood stove, and, with a poker, pushed another piece of firewood back into the belly. Once Gerald turned his back, Bruno inched his hand forward to reach for his cell phone, but then retracted it when Gerald pivoted, pointing the poker towards the cellphone and said, “Ah, ah, ah, ah,” then lowered himself into his chair.

Bruno pressed his lips together. He must not talk about his evening stroll to the lake. The air had felt damp, with few stars visible. Nora had stripped down to a swimsuit. He didn’t want to come across like a wuss, and he followed her. Once submerged, the water felt soft, like he imagined Nora’s skin extending to him through the water. They didn’t touch, didn’t even support each other climbing up the shore; they just gathered up their clothes.

He had invited Nora to his suite for a nightcap when her cellphone rang. A guest’s toilet had been flooding and she had gone to shut off the valve. How close he had come to cheating on Chelsea.Their marriage was saved by leaky plumbing!

“You liked her, didn’t you?” Gerald said.

Bruno now focused on the cast iron door of the wood stove: a stamp of three Spruce trees, in descending sizes surrounded the air intake under the heading of Fisher, the stove of his childhood. This one was the Baby Bear model.

"You don't have to say anything.” Gerald grinned; his grey eyes were half-closed.

“When you had said you were coming here, I wanted to show you what it’s like.”

Bruno stroked his beard with his left hand. Maybe Gerald feared being abandoned as a client and gave Bruno a good reason to pass on his file? A preemptive strike, to avoid future pain. Bruno wanted to say something about the machete, but his thoughts were swirling around in his mind, his throat felt clogged. Instead, he fixed his eyes at the fire poker near Gerald’s chair.

Gerald caught his stare and then said, “It got you talking.”

The wood hissed in the stove. After a few minutes of silence, he said, “My experience is different from yours.” Bruno’s bladder was full, but he would stick it out a little bit longer before he’d ask to use the washroom. Would he be safe, or would he feel trapped like his words in his throat?

Gerald’s chin had dropped to his chest and, with his mouth open, inhaled with a loud snort. He stirred to a rattling sound.

Gerald had pulled the door shut, but not used the deadbolt. Chilly air brushed its way inside and warm cabin air stacked above, the lines of pressure drawn. Bruno stayed put, to not startle Gerald.

“Hello there,” a voice said. “I came to check things out.”

A man with a tweed cap and suspenders above a woolen sweater approached them.

Gerald sat up and moved the fire poker away from his chair, and ,facing Bruno, backed up toward the door.

“You’re safe,” the older man said, a comment that applied to Gerald and Bruno alike.

Impressive!This man knew what he was saying. Why hadn’t Bruno thought of this soothing affirmation? He was long overdue for another session with his own therapist. He’d need to regain his confidence and competence.

Gerald nodded and said, ”Roderick, this is Bruno, he’s helped me find the apartment .”

Roderick held out his hand, and Bruno quickly wiped his sweaty palm on his jeans before he returned the handshake. “Pleased to meet you.”

Roderick shook his hand, then pointed at the boxes and said, “Well done! Looks like you don’t need extra help with packing.”

Gerald said,“I must have dozed off. Bruno, if you have a few minutes tomorrow, stop by my new place.”

Bruno gathered his cell phones and wouldn’t commit to another home visit so soon. He’d see Gerald again, but in the clinic, or at least with someone else present.He would add a risk assessment to his summary of the visit and decide whether to phone the police.A heaviness had settled on his whole body. Still, he had known when to stop sharing personal information. Though Gerald could have pressed him to reveal more of his story, and Bruno would have caved.

He relieved himself behind his Subaru then reached into the centre console of his car for an antiseptic towelette and wrestled it open, then wiped his hands, and reached for a second one to repeat the process. Never mind the potholes on his way home; he’d let Marika climb up his back and slide back down. Next,he’d embrace Chelsea, and offer a close-up of the man she had married.

Portrait photographers aim for the unguarded moment when a person feels relaxed in front of a camera so that they take a picture of their subject and capture their essence. With Chelsea, his essence surfaced easily. Then he’d wait for sleep to blur the clarity he now craved.


Astrid Egger lives in Daajing Giids on Haida Gwaii, Canada. She loves to watch the tideline and conjure up characters to follow through sticky situations. Her stories have appeared in Understorey Magazine and in Sleet Magazine, and in Haus:An Anthology of Haunted Houses. She is a long-term volunteer with the Haida Gwaii Arts Council.


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