Tag Archives: fiction

Fiction: Delphine

12 Nov

TRIGGER WARNING FOR OF SEXUAL ASSAULT

Before she does anything else, Delphine takes a moment to sit down and roll a joint. She does it slowly, carefully, savouring the experience. Every precise movement of her hands, from spreading the paper on her desk and carefully arranging the line of weed down the middle, to flicking her thumbs in just the right way to wrap the whole thing into a neat cylinder, is a distinct pleasure. In some ways, rolling the joint is just as satisfying as smoking it. Part of this satisfaction, Delphine believes, is because you enjoy anything you’re good at.

That’s sort of her motto, actually.

She sits by the window as she smokes, watching the way the late afternoon sun filters through the leaves of the sycamore tree outside. One of her neighbours is playing a Lou Reed album, the familiar gruff, wheezy voice floating across the still air of the courtyard. Delphine holds her breath for a moment, imagining that she can feel the smoke curling and spreading deep inside her lungs, then exhales slowly, luxuriously.

Afterwards, as her body begins to enter the slow, dreamy state that really good pot always brings on, she begins to get dressed. She has a Session today, so it doesn’t much matter what she wears — she’ll just have to change into whatever the Company has picked out for her today as soon as she gets there. Still, she chooses her clothing carefully, taking the time to put together an outfit that pleases her.

It’s nice to look nice, after all.

She digs an off-white baby doll dress out of her closet and pulls it over her head, tying a wide pink ribbon around her waist as a belt. Her tights today are wine-coloured and her shoes are a pair of scuffed-up brown ballet flats – boring, but she knows from experience that she won’t be able to walk in heels by the time the night is over. Last comes the jewellery, layers and layers of necklaces and bracelets; the clinking and swaying as she walks make her feel gaudy and mysterious, like a Hollywood gypsy. She slides rings on her fingers, three on each hand, and puts on her lucky earrings, big, round gold studs.

There’s no point in putting on much makeup, because they’ll just make her wash it all off, so she settles for bright red lipstick and an oversized pair of sunglasses. The finishing touch is her fur coat, a slightly-ratty, knee-length leopard skin affair, one of those remarkable Value Village finds that happen once in a lifetime. Some days the coat makes her feel like a 60s movie star; other days, it makes her feel like Kurt Cobain. Both versions of herself make her happy.

She has some time before the Company’s car arrives to pick her up, so she sits down at her computer and logs onto the oracle message board. Delphine discovers that there’s a new post from the early hours of the morning, so she clicks to open it. She’s surprised to discover a note from Sibyl saying that she’s resigning, effective immediately – the last she’d heard, Sibyl was enjoying her work and was being booked frequently for various Sessions. Sybil doesn’t give any reason for her resignation, either; her post is little more than a brief paragraph saying that she’s enjoyed her time with the Company and wishes them all well.

Sibyl is the third oracle to resign this year. They lost another one, Pythia, just last month. The turnover rate for oracles is pretty high.

Most women leave of their own free will, of course. The Company has to let some of them go, of course, but those cases are few and far between. The vast majority quit because they want to get clean, although a few have quit because of sexual assault or, in one case, rape and battery. Not that they ever come right out and say these things on the message board, which is the only way they’re allowed to interact with each other. They have to use code words, and in this way somehow manage to tell each other quite a lot even while saying very little.

Sexual assault isn’t really uncommon in their line of work; considering what goes on during the Sessions, most of the oracles consider it to be pretty much par for the course. Delphine suspects that it’s happened to her a few times – not penetration, but probably at least groping, maybe even more. She’s woken up to suspicious bruises and unusual aches, and once there was even the angry red imprint of a hand on her breast. It used to upset her, but she’s since come to the conclusion that it’s something she’s willing to accept. Like most of the other oracles, it’s a price that she’s more than willing to pay for all the perks that come with their job. Because there really are so many perks. None of them can say that the Company doesn’t treat them well.

The Company pays for everything the oracles have. It pays their rent, pays all their bills, and pays for the sleek black cars that shuttle them everywhere. It provides excellent health benefits, with full coverage for dental and prescription drugs. Speaking of drugs, the Company pays for those, too, or rather, it supplies them. They’re the best Delphine has ever had, and you can get just about anything you ask for.

Delphine’s drug of choice is heroin, which she realizes is passé in terms of recreational drug use. She likes to think of it as retro-chic – hey, the 90s are back, right? – and has become an expert at finding out-of-the-way veins and contorting herself into strange shapes in order to shoot up. It goes without saying that she can’t have track marks on her arms; that would ruin the look.

Track marks are not a part of the Delphine that the Company is selling.

Delphine wasn’t always Delphine, of course. At some point, in the now-distant past, she was Veronica, a round-faced, well-scrubbed girl from a nice family. She lived in a small prairie town, did reasonably well in high school, and had a nice boyfriend. After graduation, Veronica and her nice boyfriend moved to Toronto, a two-and-a-half hour flight from home, and got a cute little apartment together. Things were great.

Except then the nice boyfriend turned out to be not-so-nice and it wasn’t long before Veronica had nowhere to live and no way of making money. Too proud to go crawling back to her parents and her armpit of a hometown, she was determined to make her way in the big city on her own.

Things were feeling dire for a while. She lived with a succession of terrible roommates in a succession of tiny, filthy apartments while working a slew of miserable, minimum wage jobs. She blew all her money on bad drugs, which were still better than no drugs, and started to feel like she was never going to get out of the trap she’d found herself in. Looking back, she has to admit that she wasn’t far from reaching the point where she would flee back to the prairies, tail between her legs, when one day she came across a cryptic Craigslist ad.

The rest is, well, history. The Company rechristened her Delphine and, at the age of 18, she began her career as an oracle.

Delphine’s phone buzzes, shaking her out of her reverie, and she picks it up, expecting to see a text from her driver. Instead, she sees that it’s Andrew calling her.

“Hello?”

“Uh, hi Delphine. I was just calling because I wanted to make sure that you got the thing I sent you. You know, last night.”

Delphine picks up the little velvet box on her bedside table and flips it open.

“Yeah, I did, Andrew. They’re nice earrings. Really nice. Thank you.”

“Well,” Delphine hears his usual hesitancy, his funny shyness. “They’re not really from me. They’re from the Company. I wish I could say they were from me.”

“But you’re not allowed to give me stuff.”

Delphine walks back over to the window and sits on the ledge. Lou Reed is gone, replaced by The Smiths. She mouthes the words of the song and happily leans her head against the glass, that funny feeling that pot always gives her of being perfectly at home in her own body blossoming somewhere deep in her lower belly and hips. She feels good.

“Yeah,” laughs Andrew, “Yeah, I know. The Company is pretty strict about that kind of stuff. But it makes sense. I can’t let anybody think I have a favourite, right?”

“What were they for, though? I mean, I’m not complaining or anything. Just curious.”

Delphine knows exactly why the Company has given her a pair of expensive earrings, but she wants to hear Andrew say it, wants to have her ego stroked just a little.

“Just for being you. You’re the best that we’ve got, you know. The clients love you – some of them even ask for you by name. And your predictions are so clear that I barely have to do any translating.”

All of this is true. Delphine is doing three, sometimes even four Sessions a week now, and she knows that the Company is able to charge clients several hundred, maybe even a thousand dollars for a Session with her. They recently moved her to a new, more spacious apartment and gave her a healthy bonus.

The Company is never stingy when it comes to showing appreciation for the oracles.

“You’re really fantastic, you know,” Andrew continues. “I think half of your clients are in love with you. I almost am myself.”

Delphine smiles, staring out at the leaves on the tree bobbing gently in the still air.

“Anyway, I just wanted to make sure that you know that the Company is really happy with your work. Things are going great – in fact, one of the higher ups recently told me that you’re at the peak of your career.”

The last words out of Andrew’s mouth make Delphine’s skin prickle, as if it’s suddenly begun shrinking, shrivelling, drying and tightening across her bones.

She stands up quickly and walks away from the window, her necklaces swaying and clinking with the sudden movement. Her heart beats too loudly, too quickly. She struggles to think of what to say without giving away how panicked his words have made her.

“What do you mean?” she asks finally. “What does that mean, I’m at the peak of my career?”

“It – it just means that you’re doing really well. You’re the best.”

“It means that it’s all downhill from here. That’s what it means. It means I’m the best I’ll ever be, I’ve reached the peak of the mountain, and soon I’ll be over the hill. Right?”

“No, Delphine, of course not, I didn’t –”

“Sybil left. Did you hear about that?”

“Yeah, but what does that –”

Delphine can hear him fiddling with something nervous, his tie maybe, or else the collar of his shirt.

“What’s going to happen to me, Andrew?”

There’s a long pause before he replies.

“Nothing,” he says guardedly. “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean, what’s going to happen when I stop being an oracle?”

“Listen, Delphine, I can’t really talk right now, I –”

“I get that you might be someplace where you can’t say certain things, but just give me yes or no answers, all right?”

“I — fine, sure.” His tone is resigned. “Ask away.”

“I’ve been doing this for eight years now. Has anyone ever been an oracle as long as I have?”

“No.”

“Have any of them even come close? Say, five or six years?”

“No.”

“What’s the longest anyone else has ever lasted?”

“That’s not a yes or no question.”

Delphine exhales sharply through her nose, trying to contain her irritation.

“Just say a >number, Andrew, no one will be suspicious.”

Andrew hesitates, then quietly says,

“Three.”

“Has anyone ever gone on to work for the Company in another way, maybe in a clerical job or whatever, after they’ve stopped being an oracle.”

“No.”

“Can I put this job on my resumé?”

Andrew’s voice is growing smaller, more unsure.

“No.”

“Will you give me a reference?”

“No, you know that it’s against -”

Delphine is pacing now, her muscles tensing with anxious energy. She wishes she had time to roll another joint.

“Can I get clean and still be an oracle?”

“No, of course not, Delphine, don’t be silly.”

“Do you honestly think that living this kind of life is sustainable? Do you think I’ll be an oracle til I’m 50? How about 40? Andrew, what the fuck is going to happen to me when I can’t do this anymore?”

Delphine stops suddenly and stands in the middle of her bedroom. She takes a deep breath, and finds that she’s struggling not to cry.

“Listen Delphine, I — we can talk about this later, all right? I have to go.”

Andrew’s voice is gentle but firm. She’s not going to get anything else out of him.

“It doesn’t matter, I’ve already heard everything I needed to.”

Delphine misses the days when you could slam down the phone whenever you hung up on someone. It was so satisfying. Pressing the little square image that appears at the bottom of her phone’s smooth glass screen whenever she wants to end a call just doesn’t feel the same.

Delphine sits on her floor and draws her knees into her chest. Her hands are shaking. She takes a few deep breaths, wishing that she could take a hit of something, anything before the driver arrives.

Most days, Delphine is able to push aside her worries about the future and convince herself that she’s not walking along the edge of a cliff, liable to slip and fall at any moment. When she’s high (which is, admittedly, most of the time), Delphine truly believes that everything will work out fine. She tells herself that she’s not going to be fired, and even if she is, she’ll be able to find something else, something better.

But on cold, grey mornings when she wakes up feeling distressingly sober, she finds that she can’t outrun her fear any longer.

On those mornings, Delphine is forced to look the truth right in its cold, beady eyes:

She will not be able to do this forever. Not even for much longer, probably.

Delphine is a lot of things, but stupid isn’t one of them. She knows that this type of life isn’t sustainable. Sometimes she’s amazed that she’s been able to keep it up for this long. Sooner or later she’ll lose her youthful glow and the Company will decide that she’s too old, too used up to be an oracle. Or else the drugs, those wonderful drugs that allow her to float through her days, will finally take their toll and she’ll be forced to either get clean or die. And if she chooses to get clean, she’ll be out of a job, won’t she?

In the harsh light of those sober mornings, Delphine can see her future self clearly: an addict, homeless and out of a job, with absolutely no career prospects. No resumé, no references, no way to get free drugs.

The worst part is that there’s nothing she can do to change how this will play out. Sometimes it’s like she’s watching a slow, silent disaster, a train derailing and falling lightly, dreamily off a bridge and into the river below. And though to an onlooker it would seem like she has plenty of time to do something, anything to save the people onboard, the fact is that it’s impossible. The most she can do is try to forget about it for a little while.

Luckily, her lifestyle is very conducive to that.

Delphine soon hears her car pull up outside, sees her phone flash with a text from the driver, and, shutting her sleek silver laptop, walks down the stairs and out into the early autumn evening. It’s warm out, too warm for her coat, really, but Delphine doesn’t mind. The man holds the door open for her, and she slides into the car without saying a word. She forces herself to stop thinking about the future, and instead turns her thoughts to the upcoming Session.

Delphine settles back against the rich leather seats, straightening her skirt and pulling a pack of clove cigarettes out of her purse. The funny thing is that doesn’t even like tobacco, but she enjoys the act of smoking itself. She finds it soothing, calming. And the clove cigarettes are so pretty, with their thick gold paper and matte black filters. They smell good, too. Delphine lights one and takes a long drag, sucking the spicy-sweet smoke deep into her lungs, then exhales, admiring, as she does so, the bright red imprint her lips have left on the filter.

It’s not long before they arrive at the Royal York hotel, where the Company rents a suite of rooms. Delphine exits the car, coolly thanks her driver, and saunters nonchalantly into the lobby. None of the staff even bother to look twice at her. They all know her by now.

The suite has two large main rooms, one little side room and a bathroom. Delphine heads to what is commonly referred to as the Staging Area, the room where she will get ready for tonight’s Session. Kate, the makeup lady, and Sue, the woman who does her hair, have already arrived. Andrew isn’t there yet, but that’s fine – they won’t need him until later.

Tonight’s dress is a gauzy, white, semi-sheer affair, all plunging neckline and floating layers. Delphine strips naked and pulls the dress over her head; she’s not allowed to wear underclothes during a Session. Though the lights will be low enough that no one will be able to see through the dress, the Company wants her clients to be able to see the hint of a nipple, the vague shadow of what might be pubic hair. Suggestion is a big part of what they’re selling.

After getting dressed, Delphine settles into the chair by the mirror. Sue begins combing out her hair, making little tutting noises under her breath.

“What?” asks Delphine, already knowing what she’s going to say.

“You need to get your roots done. They’re showing, and it doesn’t look good.”

“But I like the way they look,” protests Delphine

“The Company won’t, though. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

Delphine knows that she’s right. That doesn’t stop her from putting up a bit of a fight before agreeing to come see her Saturday morning for a touch-up. Bickering with Sue makes her feel better, more normal.

Sue curls her hair, then piles it in an elaborate, vaguely Grecian-style on top of her head. She secures the mass of ringlets with a fistful of bobby pins, then begins carefully pulling out seemingly random strands of hair to frame Delphine’s face. She sprays the entire thing with several coats of hairspray before she begins adding the flowers, little pink and yellow ones stuck artfully here and there. Finally, she adds a beaten gold crown in the shape of laurel leaves. Although Delphine’s hair and clothing vary greatly from one Session to another, she always wear the gold crown.

Once Sue is done, Kate comes over and gets to work, spreading creamy foundation across Delphine’s face. She dabs highlighter on her cheeks and on her temples, skilfully applies false eyelashes and uses a multitude of brushes on her eyes, lips and brow.

Once her face has been adequately made up, Delphine looks a full ten years younger. Her skin is smooth, dewy; her eyes are soft and bright. She looks innocent and naïve, which is exactly what the Company is going for.

At that moment, as Delphine is admiring herself in the mirror with a vain little smile on her face, Andrew walks in. He’s wearing a suit – no elaborate costume for him – and his hair is, as always, parted neatly on the left. In his hand is the small vial of of liquid that will complete her transformation.

“Who is it tonight?” she asks him, trying to gauge where they stand after what happened earlier.

“James Vipond. A hedge fund manager, very rich, very successful. Wants to know about stock options.”

“A subject I’m intimately familiar with, naturally. This should go well.”

“It always goes well,” insists Andrew, “I told you before on the phone, I don’t know how you do it, but you always come up with top-notch stuff. I barely even have to bullshit it into something the client will understand. You’re gifted or something.”

Delphine just shrugs and looks past him, at her reflection of the mirror. She doesn’t want to be reminded of what they talked about on the phone. Not right now, not right before a Session.

“Oh, and,” Andrew says, lowering his voice, “I just wanted to tell you that you don’t have to worry about what we talked about on the phone. We’ll figure something out. You’re the best we’ve got Delphine, honestly. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Delphine ignores him and drinks the liquid all in one gulp, gagging a little on the cloying sweetness. It’s the consistency of cough syrup, and just as vile.

She’s not sure what the liquid is, exactly. Ergot, maybe, processed and re-processed until all of the nasty side effects are gone. Or it maybe psylocybin mushrooms, their effects distilled and magnified a hundred times. It could even be some form of acid, too – the Company employs some of the country’s top chemists, and she wouldn’t put it past them to come up with a brilliant new type of LSD.

Whatever it is, it’s the best fucking high she’s ever had.

Whatever it is, it makes everything else worth it.

As Andrew leads her into the room they refer to as the Temple, Delphine can already feel the drug beginning to take effect. Nothing has ever felt as good as Andrew’s hand on her arm; the sensation makes her shiver with delight. She suddenly laughs out loud, for no reason other than that she feels so good. Delphine feels her body expand, warm and glowing, until it’s big enough to fill the room. She has never been so happy. She has never loved life so much.

The Temple is a large, dimly lit room, all candles and smoke and sheer, draped fabrics. There’s an enormous, opulent Persian rug on the floor, and huge, overstuffed cushions scattered here and there. Andrew leads Delphine over to her seat, a gilded three-legged stool set in front of a brazier. As she sits, he begins to light the richly-scented incense in the brazier, and Delphine, still maintaining a weak grip on reality, watches the smoke rise in front of her.

The clients are supposed to believe that it’s the smoke that gives her visions. That’s not true, of course, and anyone who really thought about it would be able to figure that out, but it’s what they want to think, which helps. They all want a little magic, a little mysticism. Delphine is convinced that, more than anything else, they come here for the show.

Andrew makes sure that she’s settled, then goes off to the little side room, from which he’ll watch the show through a two-way mirror. He’ll come out later, to interpret her ravings in a way that ensure that the client goes home happy. He’s the liaison between Delphine and her clients, the bridge between whatever world it is that she goes too and this gaudily-decorated hotel room in downtown Toronto. He’s there to monitor her and make sure that she does what she’s supposed to, but he’s also there to protect her. In theory.

Delphine leans back on her little seat and gives herself up to the drug. The high comes rushing over her, like a wave, and soon she’s lost in a world of fantastic visions. She feels herself floating up and up and up, feels her nerve-endings stretching outward, through her skin and into the world around her, hungry for pleasure. She feels every single one of her cells drinking up pure, distilled joy. She feels. She feels. She feels.

One minute she’s floating, suffused with joy, then the next she’s slammed back into her body, cold, trembling and breathing hard. There’s a moment of confusion – why isn’t she sprawled on the bed in the Staging Room? That’s where she’s always woken up before. Today, though, she’s lying in a crumpled heap on the floor of the Temple, her body aching and strange. The candles have been put out and the main lights turned on, turning the oracle’s exotic grotto into an expensive hotel room filled with tacky, pseudo-oriental decor.

Andrew is crouching by her side, his eyes wide, frightened.

“What happened?” asks Delphine, struggling to get up.

Because she knows that something must have happened.

As Andrew helps her to sit up, Delphine realizes that her dress has been torn down the front, exposing almost everything. Her arms, belly, and inner thighs are covered in red marks and bruises. Her left breast has a deep scratch on it. Her lips feel strange, and when she reaches a hand up to touch her mouth, she discovers that she’s bleeding. Something is wrong with her right eye; it won’t open all the way.

She makes a movement to cover herself up, then realizes that Andrew has already seen everything, has probably been sitting here staring at her body for hours. She folds her arms across her chest and looks at him, waiting for his answer.

“You … you said some things,” Andrew finally says, his voice shaking.

What do you mean, I said some things? I always say things. It’s my job to say things.”

“Different things. Frightening things.”

“What do you mean<!–?”

Andrew takes a deep breath.

“You were doing your usual thing, and everything was going fine, when all of the sudden the client reached over and grabbed you. He started kissing you, touching you. You — you didn’t really put up a fight at first, but he kept going. He tore your dress. I don’t even know why he did that, because he could have just pulled it off, but he took it in both hands and tore it all the way down the front. And then he undid his pants and -”

Andrew stops talking and just sits there, opening and closing his mouth as if he doesn’t know what to say.

“And where the fuck were you? You’re supposed to be watching me, you’re supposed to protect me.”

“I – I didn’t know,” Andrew’s voice is shaking, so he pauses for a moment, takes a deep breath. “I didn’t know that he was going to go so far. I thought he only wanted to cop a feel. That’s what most of them want.”

“And you let most of them do that? You just let them do that?”

“You know it’s not up to me, Delphine,” Andrew says feebly. “The Company -”

“Fuck you,” Delphine spits out. “Fuck you.”

Andrew just sits there, looking down at his hands, until finally Delphine says,

“Tell me the rest of the story.”

“He pushed you onto the floor and started to, um … you know.”

“Say it.”

“I –”

Say it.”

“He started to – to assault you,” says Andrew, struggling to pick out least damning term. “That’s when you started to fight back. As soon as I realized what was happening, I swear I came as fast as I could. I – I … ”

“And then what happened?” Delphine’s voice is cold, emotionless.

“As soon as I got in the room, you sat up, and pushed him off you. I mean, you pushed him so hard that he – he kind of went flying and hit the wall. There was no way you should’ve been able to do that. No way you could be strong enough to do that. But you did. And then – and then your eyes sort of rolled back into your head, like you were passing out or something, but you were still sitting up. And — and this strange voice came out of you, really deep, harsh. Not your voice at all. It was like you were possessed.”

What did I say?”

“You said that there were planes coming, planes that were going to bomb this city out of existence. You said we were all doomed, every single one of us in this room. Then you laughed. You laughed like it was the funnest thing ever. After that you sort of jerked and twitched a few times, like you were having a seizure or something, and then you fell back on the floor.”

Delphine and Andrew look at each other for a long time, neither of them saying anything. Both are trying to digest what’s just happened. Both are reassessing the other person and their relationship to them. Neither knows what to do now.

Delphine is the one who finally breaks the silence.

“So what happened to the client?”

“The client left after that. He was pretty freaked out. I’ll have to file a report.”

“No,” Delphine cries, scrambling over to him, her arms and legs tangling in the remains of her dress.

She places a hand on his arm and looks at him pathetically, appealingly. She tries to keep a grip on her panic, tries to tell herself that she’s not in danger of losing everything.

“Please don’t file a report. The Company doesn’t have to know. Please.”

“I have to. You know that. And anyway, what if the client files a report? It’s better to get our version in first, before he can put his own spin on what happened.”

“Why would the client file anything? What’s he going to say? That he raped me?”

“No,” Andrew says quietly. “He’ll say that you attacked him. Maybe tried to rob him. It’ll be his word against yours, and I already know whose will win. You know it, too.”

Yes. She does.

Delphine changes back into her own clothes, and then Andrew takes her home. They barely speak. When Delphine’s about to get out of the car, Andrew leans over and kisses her, hard. He’s shaking, and it takes her a moment to realize that he’s crying. As if he was the one who was attacked. As if he was the one in danger of losing everything he owned.

Delphine stumbles up her stairs, half-falling and catching herself on the railing several times. Her head is spinning, a side-effect of the drug that sometimes lasts several hours, and she’s more tired than she’d realized. Fortunately, she only lives on the fourth floor, so she’s soon safely locked inside her apartment. She looks in the mirror and determines that she’s going to have a nasty black eye. She touches herself between the legs, wondering if the client had time to come, if she needs the morning after pill, or an AIDS test. She washes the blood off her face, smokes half a joint, then burrows into her bed.

She sleeps deeply, without dreaming, until morning.

When Delphine gets up and turns on her computer, the first thing she sees is an email from the Company. She’s suspended, it says, until further notice. There will be a hearing, and at that time her case will be evaluated. Until then, she’s not to leave the apartment.

There’s a second email, from Andrew, saying that the client had contacted the Company as soon as he got home and lodged a formal complaint against her.

Delphine tries to log onto the oracle message board, but she’s locked out. This doesn’t surprise her.

She starts rummaging through drawer on her bedside table, pulling out vials and needles and packets of powder. How much will she need to take in order to make sure that she’s past all resuscitation efforts by the time someone finds her? What combination will grant her the fastest, most painless death?

She opens her computer, types the names of the various drugs that she has on hand into a search engine. She hesitates for a moment, wondering if she’s being too rash, then adds the words “suicide options” and hits enter. She has to be quick about this. Surely the Company is already increasing their surveillance of her; no doubt they saw what she’d typed the moment it went through. Maybe even before.

How long does she have before they cut off her internet, send someone over to take her to the nearest mental hospital? Or maybe they actually want her to die – maybe this all part of their plan.

Delphine’s hands are shaking; she feels panicked, paranoid. Her breath is coming fast and hard. She’s worried that she might faint. She scrolls through the search results, but nothing she’s reading seems to make sense. She understands the words well enough, but when she tries to put them together they start to lose all meaning.

Fuck it, she thinks to herself.

Delphine starts digging through her kitchen drawers, eventually pulling out an enormous, heavy silver soup spoon. She wipes it down with rubbing alcohol, then carefully takes a new syringe out of the plastic and paper packaging. She fills the syringe with water and squirts it out into the spoon. Then she adds the drug, five times as much as she would normally take. She strikes a match, breathes in the birthday cake smell of sulphur and smoke, then the thick, yellow beeswax candle she keeps on a kitchen shelf. She holds the spoon over the sputtering flame, and watches the fire lick and darken the metal. She takes the plunger out of the syringe and uses that to stir the mixture. Once all the heroin has dissolved, she slides the plunger back into the syringe and, placing the needle in the spoon, slowly draws mixture into it.

Now that she’s doing something familiar, Delphine’s hands are steady, sure. Her breathing returns to normal; her mind narrows, focusses.

Deciding to kill herself was the hard part. Actually doing it is, it turns out, quite easy.

Delphine finds a rubber medical tourniquet and, as she wraps it around and around her left arm, silently thanks the Company for taking the time to consider all of her drug-using needs. She expertly tucks the end of the tourniquet under itself, tugging at it to make sure that it’s not going to come loose. Then she turns her attention to her forearm, slapping it until the veins of her inner elbow start to bulge.

There’s a knock at the door.

Delphine jumps, accidentally knocking the syringe off the counter; it falls to the floor and rolls under the refrigerator. Her panic returns. It’s the Company, coming to stop her, or else coming to make sure that she finishes the job. Of course they’d want to be here while she offed herself; they need to somehow dispose of the body and get rid of the evidence, don’t they? She’d been so stupid to think that she could beat them at their own game.

“Fuck off!” she yells, hoping to buy herself some time. “I’m busy!”

She hears a key in the lock. She gets down on her hands and knees, peering under the fridge, looking for her lost syringe. She hears someone come into the room behind her, feels hands on her shoulders pulling her away from the fridge. She sits back, hard, against her kitchen cupboards, looks down at her hands and starts to cry. The Company has her now. Or rather, they’ve had her all along. She never had a chance. There’s no way out.

“Delphine,” the voice is familiar, though the tone isn’t.

Andrew’s usually hesitant, deferential demeanour has been replaced by a firmness that she’s never heard before.

He kneels next to her, takes her arm in his hands and begins to unwind the tourniquet.

“What are you doing?” he asks, almost sharply. “You don’t have time to get high. We need to figure out a plan.”

Delphine just shakes her head. She’s crying too hard to talk.

He helps her to her feet and leads her to the bedroom. He glances at her open computer and pauses, taking a moment to see what’s on the screen.

“Fucking stupid,” he grunts, slamming the computer closed. “Do you think that’s going to solve anything? I told you, we need to come up with a plan.”

Delphine stares at him, slowly realizing that he’s not here on official Company business.

“What happened?” she asks. “Why are you here?”

“I’ve been suspended too,” he says, starting to pace around the room. “It happened right after I sent you that email. They’re unhappy about the Session last night, but it’s more than that. They’re worried that I’m too close to you, too involved. They don’t think I’ve been able to maintain a professional distance.”

“So?”

“So we’re both going down. We need to help each other if we’re going to make it through this.”

Delphine snorts.

“Right. Like you helped me last night.”

Andrew stops short and, for a second, looks ashamed. Then his face hardens again, and he says,

“I told you that I tried to help you. It happened too fast for me to do anything, and anyway, you seemed to be able to take care of yourself.”

“Well, why don’t you leave me to take care of myself again? I was doing fine before you came. Leave me alone.”

“Look, Delphine.”

Andrew comes over and sits beside her, taking her hand and softening his tone.

“You don’t know what we’re up against. You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. The Company – well, the Company could and would do both of us a lot of harm. And you know as well as I do that the inquiry isn’t going to go in our favour.”

“And you think there’s something we can do about that?”

“Let’s make a run for it. They haven’t frozen my bank account yet, and I’ve got plenty of savings. We could go somewhere else, somewhere they won’t find us. We could do the same oracle schtick, with me as your manager. We could make it work. I promise I would take care of you.”

Delphine’s chest starts to tighten again. She feels hemmed in, as if she’s running out of choices; either she leaves the country with Andrew, who proved last night just how trustworthy he is, or else she relies on the mercy of the Company.

Of course, she does have a third option.

She takes a deep breath, tries to shake off her panic, and says,

“All right, let’s sit down and talk about this. I’ll make us some coffee.”

If all else fails, the syringe is always there as a last resort.

She goes into the kitchen and grinds the beans, the light from the window gleaming off her sleek, vintage espresso machine. As she waits for the milk to steam, she looks around the room. This is her life. Her apartment. Her kitchen. Her espresso machine. Is she really ready to give all of this up and go live in some little backwater somewhere on the other side of the world?

Of course, the truth is that none of this is hers. Delphine doesn’t even belong to herself; she belongs to the Company, and if she agrees to go with Andrew, she’ll belong to him.

By the time Andrew comes into the kitchen to find her, she’s got the tourniquet wrapped around her arm again and she’s back on the floor, digging under the fridge. He grabs her, but it’s too late, she already has the syringe in her hand.

They fight over the syringe in a way that Delphine hasn’t fought since grade school, kicking, punching and screaming at each other. Andrew is red in the face, and Delphine’s cheeks are slick with sweat. Delphine grunts and spits at Andrew, trying to free herself from him. She feels as if she’s just about to get the upper hand and wrench herself out of his hands, when, suddenly, he throws himself on her, using his weight to pin her against to the ground.

A grin of exhausted triumph is plastered across his face as he tightens his grip on her wrist, finally forcing herself to drop the syringe.

The grin disappears a moment later. The loud drone of airplanes, many airplanes, distracts both of them from what’s just happened. In silence, Andrew helps Delphine to her feet and leads her over to the window. They stand there, watching aircraft in their tight military formation filling and darkening the Toronto sky. They hold hands.

The first bombs to fall are distant, down near the lakeshore. They float like snowflakes, and when they hit the ground they make a sound like fireworks. Delphine’s apartment shakes, and one of her pictures falls and smashes its glass on the floor, but otherwise they’re unharmed. For now. Both of them know that it won’t be long.

Andrew turns and looks at her, his face full of awe.

“You saw this,” he whispers. “You predicted this.”

Delphine smiles, squeezes his hand.

“I guess I’m a real oracle after all.”

They watch the destruction of their city in silence. Both of them know that there’s nothing that they can do, nowhere to run.

Somehow, there’s enough time between the moment when they hear bomber’s drone directly overhead and the instant of the brilliant, annihilating flash, for Delphine to have one, final thought.

It’s better this way.

The ending comes in a moment of pure, bright, unadulterated pleasure, a brilliant flash, a rush of warmth, and then nothing. It’s the best last moment that anyone could ever ask for.

Boeing B-17G

Fiction: Georgiana

17 Jun

*TRIGGER WARNING FOR SUGGESTION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT*

It’s important to find the perfect words.

Not everyone believes this, of course. People will often say that they don’t have the right words to explain or describe something, but in Georgiana’s experience, there is a perfect word for anything if only you’re willing to look hard enough for it.

Most people aren’t willing to make enough of an effort to find the perfect word. They’re happy to stick to the nouns, verbs and adjectives that they know, doing their best to to pinch and pull them into new shapes for new situations. This is, in Georgiana’s opinion, like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole – you might be able to do it, and you might even be able to convince yourself that it fits, but everyone else will still feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Right now, sitting at the kitchen table, she is testing out a new word. She does this by writing it out, letting her hand feel the truth of it as it guides the pen across the paper. First she prints COURTESAN in neat block letters across the top, then, after a moment’s consideration, she writes MY MOTHER IS A COURTESAN in elegant script half-way down the page. Georgiana’s handwriting is the best in her eighth-grade class. In fact, she won an award in a penmanship competition held at her school last year. Georgiana’s mother had snorted at this and said that it was ridiculous to give a prize for something no one cared about anymore, but Georgiana disagrees, and keeps the certificate they gave her in her second-best desk drawer. Penmanship, like baking bread or crocheting lace, is a skill that she has no immediate use for, but could very likely come in handy sometime in the unforeseeable future.

Georgiana slouches in her seat and stares at the paper, narrowing her eyes until her brow begins to furrow. My mother is a courtesan. Does it fit? Is it right? She tilts her head first to one side, then the other, then slowly lets her eyes drift out of focus. She’s feeling as though she’s getting quite close to something when the sound of her mother’s keys in the door interrupts her meditation. She quickly sits up and folds the paper neatly in half, then in half again before sliding it into the pocket of her skirt. A moment later, her mother, Peggy, appears in the kitchen and drops a quick kiss on the top of Georgiana’s head before heading over to refrigerator.

“Jesus Christ have I ever had a long day,” Peggy says to the carton of eggs on the second shelf. “I need about three drinks and then another drink on top of that. Honey, what do I want to drink? Do I want beer or wine?”

“I don’t know,” Georgiana answers, peevishly. “How should I know what you want? I’m not a mind-reader. You’re being stupid. You’re being stupid and you’re wasting energy by leaving the fridge open.”

“My thirteen-year-old daughter thinks I’m stupid. Quelle surprise. Next you’ll be insulting my taste in music.”

Georgiana twists a stray lock of hair around her finger as she watches her mother pour herself a glass of riesling.

“Mom,” she begins, keeping her voice carefully bored and distant. “Mom, what’s a courtesan?”

“Look it up. You know how to work a dictionary, and God knows that there are enough of them around here.”

“I tried, but I can’t find mine, and the door to your office is locked.”

This is patently untrue. Or rather, the lost dictionary is untrue, although Peggy’s office really is locked – it’s always best to add a little bit of truth into your lies, Georgiana has learned. It makes them that much more believable. With the right amount of fact and fiction, Georgiana knows that she can manipulate her mother into giving her some approximation of what the word means.

Not that she really wants a definition. What she wants is to see her mother’s reaction to the word.

Peggy sighs and rolls her eyes heavenward, as if deep in thought.

“Oh, I don’t know. I guess a courtesan is a woman who’s involved with a married man, and lives off the money and gifts he gives her. A sort of sex-worker, but not really in the way that we currently understand that term. She’s not exactly a prostitute, more like a professional mistress. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, though – it’s an old-fashioned word that no one really uses anymore.”

Like penmanship, Georgiana thinks, coolly maintaining her blank gaze as she watches her mother’s face. Is that a ripple of anxiety? Or embarrassment? It’s gone too soon for Georgiana to tell.

“Go change in to something nice,” says Peggy, ignoring her daughter’s stare. “We’re going to Eric’s for dinner,”

“But I’m already wearing a skirt,” Georgiana protests, conscious of the childish whine creeping into her voice.

“Well, I guess you’re going to have to put on a nicer skirt, then, aren’t you?”

And with that, her mother takes her drink into the living room and turns on the news, neatly ending the conversation before Georgiana can voice any other complaints. She sighs and begins to mount the stairs to her bedroom, dragging her feet as loudly and obnoxiously as possible.

Eric is her mother’s boss, and Georgiana is certain that the two of them are an item, as her grandmother would say. Although Eric has been a part of Georgiana’s life for nearly as long as she can remember, she has only recently become aware of his true feelings for her mother. After reviewing all of the evidence, though, Georgiana can’t believe she’s been so blind for so long.

First of all, there’s the fact that Georgiana and her mother should not be able to afford to live the way that they do. Take this house, for example – their neighbours all have high-powered, lucrative careers, and the street is dotted with doctors, lawyers and hedge fund managers. Peggy, meanwhile, is the arts editor for the small, left-wing magazine that Eric owns. Georgiana has heard Eric say more than once that the magazine will never be profitable. How, then, are they able to own this house? How is Peggy able to keep Georgiana adequately clothed and fed? How does the liquor cabinet manage to stay so well stocked?

Next, there are all the evenings that Peggy spends at Eric’s house, supposedly “working”. But why do they need to meet at night? They see each other at the office all day long.

Georgiana’s mother used to leave her with a babysitter on the evenings when she had to “work late”, but lately she’s been bringing her daughter along, forcing her to dress nicely and pick her way through so-called gourmet meals cooked by Eric himself. But where is Eric’s wife? She is always noticeably absent during Georgiana’s visits to his house. The official story is that Eric’s wife is frequently out of town, “on business”, a reply that is both vague and entirely unsatisfying.

And then there are the swanky vacations her mother takes, alone, if you believe what she says. At least once a year Georgiana is dumped at her grandmother’s apartment, left to navigate her way through a sea of porcelain figurines and doilies, while her mother flies off to Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Milan. Last year it was Paris. Paris! Who goes to the most romantic city in the world by themselves? It’s clear that, when thoughtfully examined, Georgiana’s mother’s stories are totally lacking in credibility.

There are other, smaller things, as well. There’s the way that her mother behaves during Eric’s late night phone calls, like a giddy schoolgirl who suddenly has the attention of the cutest boy in the class. There’s the mysterious jumble of soft, velvety jewellery boxes in her mother’s underwear drawer, a stash that has grown alarmingly over the past several years. Worst of all, there’s the way that Georgiana’s mother treats Eric’s thoughts and ideas as though they come from God himself. If Georgiana has to hear “Eric thinks…” or “Eric feels…” one more time, she might slit her wrists.

Up until today, Georgiana hadn’t exactly been entirely certain that something was going on between her mother and Eric. The problem was that she’d been missing the right word to describe their relationship. She’d tried out fuck-friend, but that was crass and uncouth and not befitting of two adults involved in an adult situation. She’d also given the term mistress a whirl, but it was too dowdy, too boring. The word courtesan, on the other hand, has a lovely sing-song rhythm that Georgiana can’t get out of her head. It sounds vaguely foreign, and yet is a perfectly respectable English word. It’s elegant, rich, sensual, and bordering on obsolete.

Exactly the term she’s been waiting for.

After pulling on a suitably nice dress, Georgiana stands in front of her mirror and braids her coarse, wavy brown hair. She stares at herself critically, then suddenly leans in towards her reflection and viciously whispers, your mother’s a whore and you’re a stupid, ugly bitch.

She stays suspended in this position, her mouth so close to the glass that her breath appears as a fog. The edge of the bureau digs uncomfortably into her stomach, but she doesn’t mind. It actually feels sort of good, in a strange way. She waits until the funny ache bisecting her abdomen becomes more than she can stand, then pushes herself back and turns to rummage around in her closet, pulling out a pair of well-worn ballet flats.

She steps into her shoes and then sits on the edge of her bed, her face as blank and impassive as a mask.

The drive to Eric’s house is short and silent. Georgiana slides as far down in her seat as possible, fiddling with her braid, clenching the end of it between her mouth and her nose to make a mustache. Her mother, who hates driving, stares grimly at the road, her hands clenched in a death grip around the wheel from the moment they leave the house until they pull into Eric’s driveway. Eric, as always, is waiting for them, ready to open the door before they can even ring the bell.

“Peggy, you look lovely,” Eric says, kissing Georgiana’s mother on the cheek as he takes her coat. “I can’t believe you’re the same person who was having a minor meltdown three hours ago.”

“Oh God,” Peggy laughs, “wasn’t that a nightmare? I need a drink. I mean, another drink.”

“And the young Georgiana, beautiful as always,” Eric continues as Georgiana shrugs her jacket into his waiting hands.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye, saying nothing, listening for the crackle of her secret paper, stealthily transferred from one pocket to another, as he hangs her jacket in the closet. The noise is wonderfully satisfying.

Dinner is paella, and Georgiana spends the first half of the meal picking out the vegetables and moving them to the edge of the plate. Once that’s done, she concentrates on the edible parts of the dish. She has her first forkful of beans, rice and meat halfway to her mouth when Eric says,

“So, Georgiana, what are you studying these days?”

Georgiana is hovering between answering his question and stuffing her mouth full of food when Peggy replies for her.

“Don’t bother asking her, she’ll just tell you she doesn’t remember. Gigi never remembers what she’s learned at school, it’s one of her charming trademarks.”

Georgiana drops her fork with a clatter and turns on her mother.

“Don’t call me that,” she spits out.

“What, Gigi? Don’t be silly, I’ve always called you that.”

Peggy rolls her eyes at Eric, a gesture so entirely dismissive that Georgiana feels her face and chest flush with rage. Part of her knows that she will later feel embarrassed by what she’s about to say, but right now all she can feel is the rush of it, the exhilarating sense of being swept up in her anger.

“It’s a stupid name. It’s the name for a dog. It’s so humiliating. No one calls me that but you.”

“What do your friends call you?” asks Eric.

It’s such an unexpected question that Georgiana is immediately disarmed. She looks between Eric and her mother, their faces both calm and inquiring, and feels herself deflate.

“George,” she says, neglecting to mention the fact that she doesn’t have any friends. “It’s nice and short and gets right to the point.”

“Ah, yes, but what is the point?” Eric wonders aloud.

Georgiana, unable to tell if he’s laughing at her, ducks her head and takes refuge in her dinner. After a few minutes the centre of her dish is clear, leaving only a ring of vegetables.

“May I take my dessert in the library?” she asks, pushing her plate away.

Eric looks at Peggy, who shrugs her assent.

“It’s the chocolate cake on the counter in the kitchen,” he calls out as she beats a hasty retreat.

Or rather, she beats what only appears to be a hasty retreat. After she’s taken several loud steps towards the kitchen, Georgiana does a quick pirouette on the hardwood floor of the hall and then creeps back towards the dining room. She lingers at the edge of the pool of light spilling from the doorway, her mouth hanging half open as she strains to listen.

God, I’m so sorry about that,” she hears her mother say. “She’s been so terrible lately. I’m trying so hard to just ignore her, because I know that at that age any attention is good attention, but Jesus Christ is it ever hard not to smack her sometimes.”

Eric murmurs something in response, but Georgiana can’t hear what it is.

She know that she should be upset over what her mother said, but instead she feels meanly glad. Good, she thinks, I’m glad she wants to smack me. I hope she does someday. I hope she does tomorrow.

Eavesdropping makes her hungry, and Georgiana feels entirely justified in cutting herself two enormous slices of cake. She carries her plate and a glass of milk down the dim hallway, towards the back of the house. The library, as Eric calls it, is really just a small-ish sitting room lined with bookshelves and furnished with two comfortably ancient armchairs, a couple of mismatched lamps and a sturdy but beat up old table. Most of the shelves are tall, reaching almost to the ceiling, but one of them is a squat, handsome case fronted by two neat little glass doors. This houses Eric’s collection of rare, first edition and out-of-print books, and Georgiana makes a beeline for it.

She spends an hour and a half with a 19th century medical encyclopedia, poring over woodcut drawings of syphilis infected genitalia and deformed fetuses. The pictures are fascinating and nauseating at the same time; looking at them makes Georgiana’s skin crawl, but she feels compelled to keep turning the pages. When she finally can’t take any more she closes the book and reverently places it back on the shelf. She feels strange, shivery and sweat-slicked, as though she’s just awoken from a bad dream. A thin, piercing headache is blooming right between her eyes.

She decides to go find her mother. Peggy and Eric will be upstairs, she knows, in the office, which is shinier and newer than the library. The office is probably where they do it. The thought makes Georgiana’s stomach turn over and causes her headache to spread until she can feel it pulsing through every vein, her scalp alive with tiny filaments of pain. The door to the office is closed, and Georgiana can hear her mother and Eric talking and laughing softly behind it. She is about to knock, about to tell her mother that she’s feeling sick and wants to go home, when suddenly she hears something. It’s her mother’s voice, contorted almost beyond recognition, groaning, sighing. Georgiana turns on her heel and runs to the bathroom.

She crouches over the toilet, sweat beading along her hairline. Her arms are shaking and her heart is pounding, sickness welling inside of her as she stares at the water. She wishes that her mother was there to hold her hair. She wishes that she’d never left the library, that she hadn’t been so rude at dinner, that she’d never started this whole stupid thing. Her breath comes in gasps, her stomach clenches hard and she gags, but nothing comes up. Her body, completely beyond her control, relaxes and then stiffens as she gags again and again. Tears begin to drip down her face, splashing into the toilet bowl beneath her.

Then, slowly, the nausea begins to recede, leaving her trembling and empty. When she feels steady enough, she pushes herself to her feet and runs cold water in the sink, splashing it on her face. Her head still aches, so she eases the elastic off the end of her braid and shakes her hair out until it frames her face like a mane. Between the cloud of her hair and her thin, pale face, the effect is distinctly pre-raphaelite, a wan Rosetti goddess, perhaps, or a despairing angel. She takes a step back and turns first one way, then the other. Her dress is made out of soft, stretchy fabric and she pulls it down over her shoulders, exposing both breasts. She lightly runs her hand across her nipples until they stand up like pencil erasers. Something begins to uncoil inside of her, like a vine, like a snake.

In her earlier haste to get into the bathroom she left the door ajar and now it begins to swing inward. Georgiana turns towards it, sort of almost accidentally forgetting to pull her dress back up. Eric is outlined in the doorway, bright against the dimness of the hall behind him. Georgiana gives him a look that she hopes is defiant, daring, her lashes lowered over what she thinks of as smouldering eyes. She expects him to be embarrassed, or even shocked at the sight of her breasts, but the expression on his face is frank, appraising. She shrinks back as he takes a step towards her, pulling her dress up over her chest. She is trembling again.

“I think I had too much cake,” she hears herself say, her voice childish and faltering. To her relief, he turns away.

She watches Eric leave the room, hears him call her mother. Peggy comes, lays a hand on her daughter’s forehead, then guides her out of the bathroom and down the stairs. Georgiana feels dreamily detached, like a spectator seated very far away from the action. She stands calmly as her mother rushes around, gathering her notebooks and folders together. She allows Peggy to help her into her coat and shoes while Eric hovers solicitously in the background.

At home, Peggy leads her daughter up to her bedroom and peels the dress off her feverish body.

“I’m sorry,” Georgiana says she burrows under her sheets, although she’s not sure what she’s apologizing for.

“My poor Gigi,” Peggy says, kissing the tip of her nose, “I forgive you, even if Eric and I were in the middle of something very important.”

Georgiana, her cheeks flushing pink and her mouth suddenly twisting into a snarl, uses the last of her strength to push herself up close to her mother’s face.

“I know what you do,” she spits, “I know what you and Eric do together. I know exactly what you are, and I think you’re revolting. You make me sick.”

A look of deep, frightened hurt spread’s across Peggy’s face, but is quickly replaced by a wintry smile.

“Go to sleep,” Peggy says calmly, “it’s late. Call me if you need anything.”

Georgiana sinks back, exhausted, feeling strangely empty now that’s she’s divulged her secret. Her mind is very still and quiet, the restless anger drained from it like pus from an abcess.

The next day, Peggy lets her daughter stay home from school, although she herself goes to work. Georgiana, for her part, enjoys her fever, the lightness and giddiness of it, and also the weakness. She spends the day in bed, eating grapes and reading comic books. The light outside is grey, soothing. She is safe, cocooned in her illness.

The day darkens into twilight, and her mother comes home. She brings a little tissue paper-wrapped package into her daughter’s room and lays it on her lap. Georgiana peels back the soft, thin layers slowly, revealing a small, lacquered wooden box. On the lid there is a young deer looking nervously over its shoulder, its eyes somehow both frightened and curious.

“It’s from Eric,” her mother says, perhaps a bit too casually, “he says that it reminded him of you. Don’t ask me why.”

Georgiana feels a small surge of triumph as she turns the box over in her hands. Triumph over what? She will have to untangle this later. For now, she contents herself with watching her mother’s face. Is that anxiety, creasing the edges around her mouth? Is that anger flashing somewhere deep in her eyes? Georgiana isn’t sure.

She settles back against her pillow and looks at the box, stroking her fingers along the deer’s back.

“Tell him thank you,” she says, finally. “Tell him that I know exactly what it means.”

Peggy gets up and leaves the room. Georgiana falls asleep, her flushed cheek pressed up against the cool painted wood. Outside her window, the streetlights come on and the world, for once, is very, very quiet.

1499481_3_l

After (short story/fiction)

15 May

After the plague, everything went silent.

It didn’t happen all at once, of course, but over the span of weeks, even months. Television was the first thing to go, disintegrating from panicked news reports into non-stop Seinfeld reruns, followed by the soothing white noise of static, and then finally nothing. The internet was next; websites went dead one by one, until the frantic hours spent hunched over my laptop brought up nothing but error messages. Not long after that the phone lines were down, and then a few days later the lights flickered suddenly and went out, leaving those of us still alive in the dark.

It’s not as frightening as you’d think. Even now, more than a year after those bloody, terrifying days, the absence of shrieks and sirens and bright flashing lights is still a relief.

John died. He was one of the first, actually. He came home sick from work, and then two days later he was gone. The baby died the day after that. I knew she was going to; from the moment the telltale rash started creeping up her fat little legs, I knew it wouldn’t be long. After both of their bodies had been taken away, I waited impatiently for my turn. I just wanted to die, wanted to hurry up and get it over with already; I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything so badly in my life. The rash was supposed to start on your feet, a network of fine red lines that traced their way up to the heart, and I must have taken my socks off a dozen times a day. I kept squinting and prodding at the space between my toes, looking for something, anything, but my skin stayed stubbornly clear.

About a week after the burial I had a fever and a cough and I thought, finally, but it turned out to be just a bad cold. A cold – can you believe it? The whole city is vomiting blood and pus around me, and I catch a cold.

John worked on Bay Street, which the media insisted on calling “Ground Zero”. The official story was that someone had come home sick from a business trip, then gone to work and infected everyone who walked by their cubicle. The disease spread quickly throughout the downtown core, jumping from building to building, pumping through the vents with the stale recycled air. For a while the news outlets were trying to figure out who this mystery businessman had been, as though having a scapegoat would solve the problem, but when everything really started going to shit they stopped caring.

It was lucky that John and the baby died so early, because in those days there were still government clean-up crews to take care of their bodies. The city had these big black vans, corpse-mobiles we called them, and they would cart off dozens of the dead at a time. My husband and daughter are numbers 37 and 38 respectively in Prep Fields East at Upper Canada College. The city bought the school’s grounds for an unheard of amount of money, and used its fields to dig a series of mass graves. You’d think that somebody would have complained, started some kind of campaign against it, but most of the people likely to do so had left Toronto by then. On the news they showed clips of the wealthy being flown out in chartered planes, their eyes darting and fearful, their mouths swaddled in those useless paper masks.

After John and the baby were buried, I didn’t see anyone for a long time. I stayed inside, eating, sleeping and reading. Hiding. Once everything edible was gone from my cupboards, even the barely digestible stuff like uncooked pasta and dried beans, I moved into the apartment next door, and then the next one. I drifted through my building, my body as light and intangible as smoke. John and the baby started to seem like something that had happened in another life. My sadness and emptiness began to change, mutating into a strange sense of calm.

I slipped inside the lives my neighours had shed, taking advantage of everything they’d left behind. I wore their clothes, ate their food, rifled through their personal belongings. I discovered that the man two doors down had had a passion for hunting and I spent an afternoon cleaning and oiling his rifle, lifting it to my shoulder and admiring my reflection in his mirror. I pulled on a pair of his threadbare jeans and lounged in his green tweed armchair, sipping stale beer and flipping through girlie magazines. I learned that the polite young man on the fourth floor had fancied himself an amateur artist, and I spent a few days painting still lifes of the toaster, the light fixture, the bowl of clementines mouldering on his table. After that was the apartment of the wealthy retiree on the floor below mine, where I lay for two dreamy weeks in a decadently wallpapered bedroom, wearing silk night-gowns and pearls, reading Jane Austen. I kept the heavy curtains drawn the entire time. Going outside seemed pointless, now that everyone else was dead.

That wasn’t true, of course. There were plenty of other survivors, and while I was squatting in my draughty old brick fortress, many of them were camping out at the university, in Trinity College, no less. Their little hive buzzed with activity as they organized committees and planned for the new society that would be born out of the ashes of the old one. Life would be better now, they told one another. We would finally be able to purge everything distasteful from our past and start completely fresh. The human spirit would triumph over adversity! The plague could be a blessing in disguise! They would go on like this, jollying themselves with proverbs and trite clichés, ad nauseam.

I have to admit that they were never short of ideas. One of their first was to have a group of people going door-to-door looking for other survivors, which is how they discovered me. They convinced me to come live in the “community” they were building, a word which I was to come to loathe. We slept in “community halls” and ate all of our “community meals” together, plus we had other “community activities”, such as the mandatory “building a bright future” lectures. The other people there were cheerful and outgoing, overwhelmingly so. They reminded me of camp counsellors that I’d known as a child, always wanting to engage you with a craft or a song. They would often stop me in the hallway or on the sidewalk and ask me how I was doing. How’s it going? they would ask bracingly, gripping my shoulder so tightly that it left an angry red mark.

I went to the community meetings and soon discovered that while they were good at coming up with ideas, they were less adept at acting on them. In fact, it seemed that canvassing for survivors was the only plan of theirs to actually get off the ground. The talk at the meetings was endless and detailed, rife with idealism. They were going to have elections, they said, start a new government, start a colony, grow gardens. They were going to found a university so that our new society could have doctors, lawyers, thinkers. They made sketches, wrote proposals, enthusiastically dreamed up ways to save themselves, but in the end they actually did very little.

I moved out just a few weeks after moving in. Being constantly surrounded by other people was really starting to grate on my nerves. On top of that, I’d been sleeping with Gabe, one of the community’s leaders, and then all of the sudden I wasn’t.

Gabe was among those giving talks in the evenings, and one night I was interested enough in what he was saying to go up to him afterwards and ask a question. He smiled sort of shyly for a moment, his eyes blinking thoughtfully behind his glasses, and then told me that he had a book in his room he believed might have an answer. As he led me out of the auditorium he accidentally brushed up against the back of my hand and I jerked back, as though a bolt of electricity had passed through me. I followed him down the dim, echoing hallways, shivering in spite of the oppressively humid summer night.

As soon as the door to his room closed, his mouth was on mine, and then on my neck, and then in the well between my breasts. My hands couldn’t decide where they needed to be first, so they went everywhere at once. The very act of touching him, feeling his warm resilient skin against mine, was like finding a tall glass of water and suddenly realizing how very, very thirsty you’ve been. Afterwards, I wanted to feel guilty, because of John, because it was so soon, but the only thing I felt was gratitude. Gratitude to Gabe, of course, but also, for the first time, gratitude in general for the fact that I wasn’t among the dead.

Gabe and I didn’t talk much. We met up every few days, spent an hour or two together, and then went our separate ways. We didn’t sit together during meals, and in fact barely acknowledged each other in public. Because of the talks he gave, I was able to watch him without being obvious. I memorized the way he tipped his head to one side and pursed his lips when someone asked him a particularly difficult question, and the nervous habit he had of taking off his glasses and cleaning them while speaking. I listened attentively and began to notice a trace of an accent, something different but undefinable. When, one night, he told me that he’d come to Canada from South Africa when he was young, I felt a funny rush of pride at having sensed that he wasn’t a native Torontonian. I played every minute of our time together over and over again in my head – the way he liked to run his fingers through my hair, the vulnerable, almost frightened look on his face when he came, the way his breathing altered as he slipped into sleep. I felt strangely, buoyantly happy.

And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, our relationship was over.

“The thing is,” Gabe said, obsessively polishing his glasses on his threadbare t-shirt, “the thing is that I don’t really feel as though I get through to you. I think you’ve put up a lot of walls around yourself, and you’re not really ready for this.”

“It’s okay,” he continued, cutting me off as I tried to say something, “I know it’s hard for you because you were married before and had a kid and all. I understand. And the thing is, I just think that I could help you a lot more if we weren’t, you know, so involved.”

This apparently heartfelt speech didn’t change the fact that he’d also been sleeping with a girl named Nadia, a yoga teacher who was convinced that she’d survived through the power of downward dog.

“People don’t know the healing power of yoga,” she would say, her face glowing with earnest zeal, “they don’t even know. If everyone practiced yoga, no one would ever have even gotten sick. I’m going to make sure that yoga has a really special place in our new community.”

Nadia was not very good at keeping secrets (or maybe she just thought it was bad karma to be discreet) and it wasn’t long before everyone knew out about her and Gabe. When I asked him about it, he looked embarrassed and then said stiffly that he and Nadia had a very deep connection. He said that she had done a lot of emotional work and meditation in order to be with him, and it was because of that kind of dedication that she was going to be an important part of the cultural rebuilding. That was the day I knew I had to get out.

It wasn’t long before they were gone, too. Another former member, Jessie, told me that the community had moved east after hearing a rumour that there were more survivors in Kingston, maybe, or Montreal. Gabe’s plan was to gather as many other people as they could and head north to Ottawa, where they would take over the parliament buildings and start a provisional government. The community left from Union Station, walking two by two along the railroad tracks, like Noah’s animals in search of the Ark. I ran into Jessie a few months later, and she said that no one had heard from them since.

Jessie and I weren’t the only ones who stayed in Toronto, but we were two of few. Those of us still here prefer to keep to ourselves, and I can go days now without seeing another person. This isn’t to say that the streets are empty – there are packs of dogs, formerly fat, contented pets gone feral. It’s not unusual to see them roaming around, or hear their howls as they suddenly catch the scent of their prey. There are cats, too, although I don’t see them as much. They prefer to skulk singly, their eyes luminous and huge in the dark. The rat population exploded after the plague, and the cats have all grown sleek and plump on their suddenly abundant food supply. The racoons and squirrels and chipmunks are more brazen than ever, and there’s an entire warren of rabbits populating the Eaton Centre. They’ve burrowed into piles of soft poly-cotton blends, shredding designer sweatshirts with their sharp little teeth, making nests for their young.

And then there are the horses. During the worst of the plague someone had the presence of mind to trek down to the CNE and throw open the gates of the Horse Palace, and they’ve been thriving ever since. They tend to stay around the parks and ravines, but I once had the surreal experience of seeing a herd of them out on the street. They were running at full tilt, weaving in and out of the abandoned, rusting cars, stamping, snorting, tossing their heads. The sun was low in the sky, and as they thundered past me one of them suddenly stopped short and reared up, lit from behind like some primeval god.

It’s clear that the city is taking its first few stumbling steps back to wilderness. Stately old stone buildings that once boasted a genteel tendril or two of ivy have been consumed with greenery. This past spring, there were flowers everywhere – not just on the ground, but growing out of the fare box of a marooned streetcar, spilling out of cracks in the sides of buildings. Since all its people have died, the city itself has become a living creature.

Gabe and his followers left in the autumn, and I spent the winter in one of the Rosedale mansions, huddled on a king-sized bed under a pile of hand-sewn quilts. I lived off of gourmet canned goods, crackers made from exotic grains and jars of locally-made preserves with labels declaring “Aunt Sarah’s Best Plum Jelly” in delicate, spider-like writing. I found jugs of filtered water in the basement, which I rationed until there was enough snow on the ground to melt for drinking. Burning antique furniture in the three enormous fireplaces kept the house warm until spring, and I found an unexpected satisfaction in taking an axe to the 19th century décor. When my substantial pantry began to look sparse, I started scavenging the neighbouring houses, stalking through the snow in a sumptuous fur coat. I liked its length and weight and also its smell, which was dark and warm and slightly musky. Sometimes I would spread it out across the bed and sleep on it, nestling into it the way a baby animal would curl up against its mother’s soft flank.

Now that it’s summer again I’m living in the Toronto Reference Library. The enormous windows let sunlight in long into the evening, and when I stand in front of the glass and look down Yonge Street, I feel like a sort of benevolent guardian spirit, sent to watch over this desolate city. I picture myself as a pensive old Notre Dame gargoyle, the one with the horns and the wings whose face is cupped in his hands. If I remember correctly, he’s sticking his tongue out. I imagine he feels much the way I do – thoughtful, foolish, not quite human.

I spend all of my free hours diving into the stacks, resurfacing for air only when necessary. At first I bounced from shelf to shelf, choosing books almost at random, gorging myself on the printed word. Lately I’ve been more selective. Last week I got on to this Chekhov kick and now I don’t want to read anything else. I’ve realized that The Cherry Orchard might be the most perfect play ever written, or at least the loveliest play about the inevitability of change and loss. I’ve read it three times already. Sometimes I feel guilty, as though I should be doing something productive, but other than making sure that I’m clothed and fed, I can’t think of anything else to be done.

I walked down to the shore yesterday, all the way to Queen’s Quay. I stood and looked at the boats left scattered in the harbour, rust slowly crackling and colouring their hulls. I looked out to the islands and thought how funny it was that even though they were so close, they were entirely unreachable. The air was grey and damp-tasting, and so still that I could hear myself breathing. Above me, the tall waterfront buildings creaked and groaned, settling themselves in for their long crumbling journey into decay.

I used to feel as though I was waiting for something to happen, as though I could be rescued at any moment. I pulled myself through my days, moving from activity to activity, determined to fill up my hours until normal life was miraculously restored. Now I carry on for the simple reason that I am used to carrying on, because I am better at living than I am at dying. If I can’t see the point of going on like this, then it’s equally difficult to see the point of ending it. I eat, sleep, read, write, watch and wait until the stars come out, until darkness impales itself on one of the needle-sharp skyscrapers and oozes through the streets and alleys, until every tiny bit of this city is consumed.

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On Writing Fiction

23 Mar

Let’s begin with the assumption that I am a fairly talented wordsmith.

Before I say anything especially important, I have a few small digressions to make:

Digression the first – why wordsmith? Why not wordwright, like playwright or shipwright? Wordsmith makes me think of blacksmiths hammering out cold, dead things like horseshoes and nails and old-fashioned hinges. Shipwrights make boats, the best of which have delicate wooden ribs, can slice through the cold saltwater like knives, and creak and groan like living things.

Maybe bookwright is the word I want. Think we could get that into the OED?

Digression the second – I say “assumption” because, of course, talent is subjective. For instance, reading Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone made me want to claw my own eyes out, but I know a lot of smart, well-read people who sincerely enjoyed it.

No, but seriously, that book is terrible. It was so bad that it went past good and then all the way back to bad again.

Digression the third – I also say “assumption” because even after all the positive attention, all the accolades and kind words, I still don’t really know that it’s fact. And yes, I Am Not Your Wife was reposted to the The Believer‘s tumblr, Thought Catalog, The Frisky, and Huffington Post, and yes, those things are huge, but I still don’t feel especially talented. Maybe the problem is that those things are too huge, and it’s overwhelming.

Like, fuck. The Believer. Are you fucking kidding me right now? Their contributor’s list is basically a list of ALL OF MY FAVOURITE LIVING AUTHORS EVER. Being published in The Believer is a writer’s wet dream. And I somehow managed to get on their tumblr without even trying?

And for sure there’s a part of me that thinks that all this recognition is fantastic, and it’s only going to lead to better things, and blah blah optimism blah, but there’s another part of me, and admittedly much larger part of me, that thinks that this is all a fluke. That I’ll never write anything as smart or interesting or touching as I Am Not Your Wife, and now, at the age of 30, I’ve reached my peak of greatness, and now I’ll begin my slow decline.

In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, etc.

But enough digressing. What I really want to talk about is my love-hate relationship with writing fiction.

So.

Let’s begin with the assumption that I am a fairly talented wordsmith.

I am also someone who likes to write fiction.

And I guess that for a long time I thought that talent was all it took to write a good short story, or poem, or novel. I didn’t really think about writing being something that you would have to study or practice or learn. I thought that you were either talented, or you weren’t, and that determined whether or not you were going to succeed.

Then, in the summer of 2007, I took a creative writing class at the Humber School for Writers with Miriam Toews and she was fucking amazing. She had so many nice things to say about my writing, and even recommended me to the Humber School for Writers’ in-house literary agent, and I left that program feeling like a fucking rockstar.

Anyway, on one of the last days of the program, Miriam and I were having a serious writer-to-writer talk (because I was sure that I was a serious, for-real, grown-up writer) and she told me to forget taking classes and workshops, forget trying to learn the craft of writing, and to just go home and write. And this seemed like excellent advice, because she’d never taken a creative writing class in her life and she’d won the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction. So clearly, she knew what she was talking about.

I took her advice, and I went home, and I wrote. I wrote like a motherfucker (digression the fourth: how does a motherfucker write?) and ended up producing a folder full of short stories and a novel.

And I couldn’t get a damn thing published. I mean, I came pretty close, but still. No cigar.

(Digression the fifth: when I was a kid my mother would always say “close, but no cigar.” This made me think that cigars were fantastic and wonderful and  possibly delicious, which, in turn, made me believe that if I could just get something right for a damn change, she would give me one and my life would be perfect)

After querying and re-querying every damn agent and publisher and literary magazine on the continent, I quit. I was done. I just couldn’t take the heartbreak anymore.

Now, when I say heartbreak, a lot of people think that I mean the pain of rejection – and that’s fair, because that’s part of what breaks my heart.

But the truth is that the bulk of my heartbreak comes from the thought that I’ve somehow failed my stories. Because it’s not the stories themselves that are the problem – in theory, they’re sound enough – it’s the wording, the structure, the believable setting and the fleshed out characters. In the hands of a better writer, these stories would have lived. But mine didn’t.

All my poor, innocent stories were all stillborn. I’d tried my damnedest to get them to live, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how.

I fell in love with each one, and each time I had my stupid heart broken and my foolish hopes dashed.

And I get that it’s about practice. I get that you have to hone your craft, and that suffering for your art doesn’t mean starving somewhere in a cold garrett but instead the grim misery of grinding away at your craft day after day after day. I get that no one is successful right away.

But what happens to all of those stories that I wrote and loved? Are they just collateral damage in the fight to become a good writer? Do I forget about them? Pretend that they never existed? Delete from from my hard drive?

How can I keep giving my heart away, over and over again, to stories that will never see the light of day?

But I want to write fiction. And (perhaps more importantly) I feel happier when I’m writing fiction. So I’ve started that up again, and sometimes it feels amazing, and sometimes it feels terrifying, and mostly it feels like both things at once.

But the thought of trying to get my stuff published again, the thought of going through all that rejection again, scares me shitless.

It doesn’t help that I feel like I’m running out of time. Most of the people my age have Serious Grownup Careers that they’ve been building since their mid-20s, and meanwhile here I am without a single published (fictional) word to my name. How do I ever catch up?

And, I mean, never mind catching up, how on earth do I ever compete with everyone else, all the amazing writers and wannabe writers on the internet? What sets me apart from them? Most of the time, I think that the answer is “nothing” – I’m just another faceless, nameless word-o-phile floating in a sea of fellow literary junkies.

These past few years have been rough. I’ve had a few friends and acquaintances, all people my age, die within the last year or two. There was Artem, of course, who was only 27 when he died of cancer. Then, a few months ago, there was Ryan, who I’d gone to university with; he died in his sleep of unknown causes. Most recently there was a friend-of-a-friend who died of a massive heart attack at the age of 32.

I think I might be running out of time.

So with that in mind, I’m going to try to find a good writing class. I’m going to find someone who can help me iron out the plot and pacing issues that plague all of my writing. I’m going to grind away at this like I should’ve been doing all along. I’m going to do this. Because as much as I love Miriam and think that what she said was right for her, I’m not sure that it was right for me.

In light of that, if anyone has any recommendations for good creative writing programs, preferably in the GTA, but I’m willing to travel, I would love to hear about them.

And to anyone who writes fiction – I would love to hear about your experiences, be they failures, successes, or something in between. I would love your commiseration. I would love to hear how you keep yourself going.

Most of all, though, I want someone to tell me to keep going, that this is worth it, and that I’ll get somewhere eventually. Because right now it feels like I’m driving round and round in circles, and I’m in danger of running out of gas.

Anne Sexton, at her typewriter

Anne Sexton, at her typewriter