Feature – The Gravity-Assist Technique by Dalene Flannigan


About the book

Ella was just taking the dog to the woods. She didn’t intend on becoming a peeper, and she couldn’t foresee how it would alter everything, especially her friendship with Kevin.

In ‘The Gravity-Assist Technique’, Ella and Kevin each tell the story of their past, and map the small decisions and unintended consequences that led from then to now. It is a story about friends, family, loss, love, trust, and how our individual choices affect each other’s lives.


I didn’t intend on becoming a peeper. Surely intention is an important distinction. An accidental voyeur isn’t the same as someone in the bushes prepared with a thermos of hot coffee and a rain slicker. I just intended to take Scout to the woods; that’s it. But it’s like dropping stones as you go—you can only see the path when you look behind you. Ahead of you, nothing. Behind you, it’s clear how you got here; each decision an intentionally dropped stone.

I needed to get out of the house, and the poor dog hadn’t been on a decent walk since Samantha had left for university a week earlier. With Samantha gone, the clock-ticking, tap-dripping silence of the house was driving me crazy. Before I fully submerged myself in the familiar sinkhole of I’m a forty-three-year-old widow with empty nest syndrome, I grabbed the dog leash, as if it were a life preserver.

Samantha only had to reach for the leash, and Scout would immediately hop up and pace in circles like an anxious racehorse. I jangled it in front of her. She cocked her head, not understanding. I was the woman who let her out into the backyard. I’d never actually held the leash before, and we both knew it.

“Yes, wrap your walnut brain around that. Looks like we’re stuck with each other for now, so it’s time to take this relationship to the next level, Scout. Come on.”

She quickly put one and one together and dragged me along Beverly Street to the ravine. She pulled me down the hill toward the dirt path that went to one end of Pineview Conservation Area.

I tried to sound like Samantha. “Scout, no. Walk nice.”

She did. Amazing. I’d never had a dog before, so it surprised me when Scout listened to me. Perhaps I’d get the hang of this dog thing. You have to be firm, Mom. Dogs are pack animals. You have to let her know that you’re the top dog. Samantha had brought Scout home three months earlier. Kerry couldn’t find a home for her, and she can’t put her in the pound. I’ll do everything, I swear. Besides, you might end up enjoying the company when I’m not home.

Turned out Samantha wasn’t home a lot. And then she’d been accepted to Dalhousie University and had moved to Nova Scotia. Once I’m settled and soften up my roommates, I’ll take Scout.


Scout pulled and tugged, practically strangling herself as she stretched for the next-best smell. Once I was far enough into the woods, I decided to prevent her from crushing her windpipe—I let her off the leash. According to Sam, she always came when called.

“Okay, girl. Go on. Sniff your brains out.”

She darted off the path and into the brush. Should I have done that? Could a dog get poison ivy or poison oak? And what did either of them look like? Aaron would know. He always knew. It had been almost three years since he had died and still, every day, I needed to ask him something: How do I start the lawn mower? Should I put our money into a guaranteed investment certificate? What’s the best kind of furnace filter to buy? I ended up finding those answers on the Internet, but there are questions you can’t ask Google—what’s the name of that guy with the large ears who was in that movie with that woman who was wearing that blue dress I liked? Aaron understood the question and knew the answer, because he knew me; he knew us—the secrets, private jokes, hidden meanings and historical references of our lives together. I never had to fill him in on the backstory. I could ask, Am I being ridiculous? Because he knew all the relevant contributing factors, he understood the inherent question. Quite often he perceived me better than I did. He was my touchstone, where I turned to, to quantify and qualify my life.

I called Scout. She came bounding from the brush onto the path and looked at me, as if to say, What? I’m busy here.

“Good girl. Just checking. Okay, go on.”

Off she went. She really was a very bright dog. I felt a flush of pride that, at its height, turned into a familiar, dizzying wave. My throat tightened, and my eyes filled. Aaron would have loved Scout. He had mentioned a dog to me several times, and I’d always been against it. We like to go away on trips. It wouldn’t be practical. I don’t want the hair and the mess. What if it’s an annoying crotch-sniffer? A shoe-chewer? A dog with a thyroid problem, like Shirl’s? Do you know Shirl spends $200 a month on meds for Muffin?

He’d tried again when Samantha was older, but, by then, I had new arguments against it. We’re just about to open The Panhandle, and you want us to take on a dog now? We can’t have a dog in the store. Not everyone likes dogs. And Samantha won’t want to be home all the time to take care of the dog while we’re at the store. It’s just not practical, Aaron.

I struggled for a deep breath. Why didn’t I let him have a dog? In how many ways did I diminish his life? How many opportunities did I miss to give him more? Why did I argue about a damn dog when, in the end, here I was in the woods with a dog, all alone?

No, no. Take a deep breath. “Surface,” I said out loud. Surface—my lifeline word, the word I had said thousands of times over the past three years to pull myself out of the waiting undertow of my loss. It happened less often now, but I could still be blindsided by a wave. The first year I had lived inside the wave—slammed about and tumbled with no purchase, no grip or point of reference—so that now, looking back, that entire year seemed vague and echoey. Everyone had told me that the first year would be the worst—all the horrible firsts to get through: first birthday without him, first anniversary without him, first Christmas without him.

But it was the second year, when life without Aaron became “the norm,” when the extraordinary became the ordinary, that I felt the most physical pain. Gut punches and anxiety attacks over everyday occurrences, like bursting into tears in Food Basics because I passed the Coca-Cola display—no need to buy it anymore. Sam and I don’t drink it. Running from the movie theater before the opening credits were finished the first time I tried to go on my own. Standing in the parking lot of Shoppers Drug Mart, bent over as if in an appendicitis attack, because an old man had opened the car door for his wife, and she had said, “Thank you, sweetheart.”

Yes, year two was the worst. It was a minute-by-minute accounting of everything altered by Aaron’s absence.

Year three seemed to be the year of the surprise attack—less often and usually introduced with a deceitful twist of happiness. I could be yanked under, with my mouth open, in the middle of laughing at one of Sam’s jokes—a joke Aaron would have loved. A smile of pride could crest and turn, almost instantly, into a grimace of pain when I pivoted and found no one to share it with. Within one note, singing a once-favorite song in the shower could become keening.

“Surface,” I said again and took a fortifying breath. Scout barked. I could tell she was up ahead and to the right, but the brush was too thick to see very far. I then heard the snapping-twig, rustling, scurrying sound of her running. I called her. I heard her bark again. This time it was farther away. Oh, no. She was chasing something. Hopefully not a skunk. I called her again. Nothing. Great, the first time I take the dog to the woods, I lose her. I yelled her name as loudly as I could. I could hear her bark, very faint in the distance—the distance extending opposite the direction of the path. Fabulous. If I left, would she find her way home? I wasn’t sure. According to Disney, she could make her way cross-country on three legs to get home, but I wasn’t sure that she considered my place home. I had no choice but to go off the path.

I stepped gingerly, my hands out in front of me to ward off branches. A person could lose an eye. With each step I became convinced that my decision to be dogless had been a good one. Who needs this aggravation? I could still hear her bark. What the hell was she doing? Terrorizing a rabbit? Would she go after it? Would I find her with a bloody, twitching bunny in her mouth? I yelled, stretching Scout into three syllables. I looked around me. This was insane. I didn’t know the size of the conservation area. Could I get lost in it? I looked back toward the path. There was an old hollowed-out stump and a tree with a slightly S-shaped trunk. Okay. I will go a little farther, directly from this point. If I don’t find Scout, I can head straight back this way, and look for that stump and that tree trunk. Up ahead was an incline. I figured that, when I got atop the hill, I might be able to spot Scout.

Halfway up I decided I needed to get back to the gym. I’d start the next day—right after I took the dog to the pound. Truth be told, the hill was more of a gentle slope, but, if you factored in that it was twenty-eight degrees outside and I hadn’t been to the gym in almost three years, it was a steep hill. It’s all relative.

When I reached the crest, I was bent over and dripping with sweat. With each exhalation I renamed Scout something profane. Then, through my cursing and noisy panting, I heard a splashing sound. I straightened up slowly to release the stitch in my side and looked to my right; at the bottom of the hill, a fenced backyard. I didn’t know any houses backed onto the conservation area on this side. This house had a beautiful patio and a huge swimming pool. The water rippled at one end—someone must have just dived in.

A shape moved under the water and then broke the surface. A man, swimming smoothly and quickly. I stood, catching my breath and watching. I couldn’t help but admire his athletic grace. I don’t know how long I stood there nor how many laps he swam. After a few more I began to suspect he was not wearing tan-colored trunks. And that was confirmed when he finished and climbed out of the pool. He was nude. Yep. Naked.

I instinctively dodged behind a tree. If he happened to look in my direction, I didn’t want him to think I was ogling him. But I suppose I was. Although, in my defense, I was—at first—admiring his athletic prowess. And, really, if your house backs onto a conservation area, you might want to be more … conservative.

He began toweling himself, which involved some bending and jiggling, as toweling does. I was peeking out from behind the tree, still sweaty and panting from the climb, looking like a perverted character in a comedy sketch, I suppose. He stretched out on a chaise longue to sunbathe. I was transfixed. He wasn’t a centerfold. I estimated him to be in his early forties. With his wet hair plastered back, his receding hairline was pronounced. He was broad-shouldered, barrel-chested and had a bit of a belly—like a softened ex-football player.
And, even from this distance, allowing that the water was probably cool, he was quite … impressive. He clasped his hands behind his head and arched his back in a stretch. Oh, my. He looked great. I felt woozy. The climb, the heat and the view were too much for me. Besides a butt-shot in a recent DVD rental (I admit to pausing the film on that particular scene), I had not seen a naked man since October 21, 2010—the day Aaron died.

That awful morning, like a camera panning past the inconsequential on its way to something important, I had skimmed the moment. I was in a hurry. Samantha had already left on the school bus, and I wasn’t going into the store that day—I was manning The Panhandle booth at the local home and garden show.

I had knocked on the bathroom door. “Can I come in?”

“Absolutely,” Aaron said.

I wanted to grab the lipstick I’d left on the counter. I was frazzled. I said, “Shit, I’m going to be late.”

He’d just showered. He had a towel wrapped around his hips. I grabbed my lipstick and practically ran out of the bathroom. As I headed down the hall, he said, “You must be in a hurry if you can resist this.”

I reached for the stair banister, and, just as I took the first step to rush downstairs, I looked back down the hall. Aaron was in the doorway. He’d dropped the towel, and he was leaning in the door frame, striking a pose.

I didn’t turn around and go back to him. I didn’t run my hand down the slope of his smooth back or squeeze his lovely, racquetballer-ass playfully. I didn’t take thirty seconds to kiss him, to taste him—one for the road. No, I didn’t want to be late setting up my booth for the Richmond Hill Home and Garden Show. I remember I was worried that the tablecloth was the wrong color with the copper pots. I’d woken up at 4:00 a.m. worried about the color clash. I decided, if I hurried, I’d have time to stop in at The Panhandle and grab the ivory tablecloth, just in case. As I ran down the stairs, I called out, “Yes, well, I have tremendous self-control. See ya!”

I have tried to freeze-frame that moment hundreds of times, lock it in place and examine every tiny detail. The light from the bathroom window behind him, silhouetting him, as if he were a dark cutout against the bright light; the kind of contrast that stays with you for several seconds if you close your eyes. His hair standing up silly from being toweled. One arm on his hip, the other raised and extended, holding the door frame in the affected casualness of a catalogue model. Oh, Aaron. How do we know which moments to grab as they fly by? How do we know which to cherish? It all depends which side of pain you’re viewing from—before or after. The relevance of everything is changed in the few seconds it takes for a car to slide into a tree.

The sound escaped from me—the familiar gulping, guttural sound that had become my personal warning alarm. Back away, back away! Surface. Breathe.

The man on the chaise longue stood up. I froze. I wiped at my eyes and nose. Surface. He didn’t look in my direction. Suddenly, as if he’d just remembered something, he picked up his towel, walked across the deck and in through his patio door, affording me a long-lasting, blurry butt-shot. I didn’t move. I closed my eyes and pictured Aaron in the bathroom doorway once more, holding his silhouette against my eyelids, while I got my breathing under control. Then I opened my eyes and looked around. From this aspect, at the top of the hill, I could see a clearing in the distance and the bounce of a golden dog running through the grass.

“Scout!” My voice cracked as I called her. She sped up and altered her course slightly so that she ran toward me.

I waited for her, and we walked home together, each of us exhausted.


About the author
“For many years I thought my parents were teasing me when they said, “you were born in the rottenrow”. But, turns out, I was born in the Rottenrow. Rottenrow is a street in Glasgow, Scotland, and the address of the Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital (nicknamed by locals as “The Rottenrow”). It explains so much.”

Dalene Flannigan, a Canadian writer, was born in Glasgow, Scotland. Her novels include, What Katie Read, The Truth About Us and The Gravity-Assist Technique.

Her full length plays include Rescuing Elephants – 2nd place winner of the 2012 Samuel French Canadian Playwrights Contest and A Mournful Rustling – winner of the Playwrights of Spring New Play Award and finalist in the 2011 Samuel French Canadian Playwrights Contest.

She has written, Unheard Voices–an award-winning video on Hard-of-Hearing issues, and, Let’s Make it Clear…Clear Communication and Hearing Loss–winner of the Barbara Jordan Media Award.

She lives near beautiful Georgian Bay and is working on a new novel.

Where to find the author

Where to find the book

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