Only about half the apartments were lit and fewer had Christmas lights, just like the last building. They must have walked around the block and ended up back at the same glassy, germless place. Even the Christmas tree in the white marble lobby was a twin, like it had come ready-decorated out of the box.
She asked Cory. “Weren’t we just here?”
He’d found cigarettes and a lighter in the coat pocket. When he answered smoke hung on his words, or the cold wrote them in the air.
“That was back by where we parked. Same builder probably. Half these condos are empty. They’re investments.”
He’d worked in construction, so she believed him, just like she’d believed when he’d said one party. Somebody had told him about it and she went along. Then, when they were leaving, walking all natural down the hall to the elevator in their new coats and shoes, they passed an open door where another party was happening. The loud music sucked Cory in.
Nobody spoke to her at the first party, but at the second this dude with sideburns came over and asked, “And what are you going to do to make your pretty little life sparkle in 2020?”
Now here they were when they should have been driving, but Cory was on a roll, going for three times lucky, whatever that meant. She’d never known it even once. An ache kicked her in different places. Behind one eye.
“What time is it?” she asked.
He hiked the coat up at the back to get at his phone. “Eleven sixteen.”
“I’m feeling like Cinderella here.”
“So let’s go. We’re good now.”
“How’re those shoes?”
She looked down at them. They’d picked a shadow to wait in, a spot between the streetlight and the light pouring out of the glassed-in lobby. Darkness drained the crayon colour from the shoes. Green with purple piping, buckles.
“I feel stupid.”
“Be careful how you walk. Don’t do that thing.”
“Half the time you look about to fall over.”
This made her want to sit down. She went over to the planter and sank her ass onto the cold cement. She’d left the last place with one of those shiny gift bags with string handles. It clinked when she set it on the ground.
“Feel this.” Cory held out his arm. “It’s cashmere.”
Meaning expensive. It suited him with his new haircut. The first few days without his dirty yellow ponytail, she’d kept forgetting. She’d be waiting some place and this dude would come along. He would only be Cory when he smiled. Or Kayla would nudge her. Kayla always knew him right away, would twist her hair around one finger and sigh. She thought Cory was sooo hot.
Two men walked past, one in a ski jacket, the other an overcoat, tall and short. Then a car drove by so slowly it was impossible not to feel watched. Looking for parking, it turned out. Cold in the thin raincoat, she curled over and hugged herself. Her gaze met the wine. At least she’d thought it was wine when she grabbed the bag off the table, but only now did she reach inside.
Wine. There was a card too, which she drew out and opened. An angel on one knee, like it was proposing. She tossed it into the planter behind her just as her leg spasmed.
“Cramp?” he asked.
She nodded, one foot off the ground, leg stretched out like she was admiring the gay-ass shoe. “You?”
“I’m fine. I’m pumped.”
The fingers of pain slowly released. I’m not doing this. She opened her mouth to say it, but just then a couple turned off the sidewalk and started walking toward them. Cory nodded as they passed.
He switched to his animal mode then, eyes focused on some point in the distance. He wasn’t seeing anything. He was listening to the beeping as the couple punched a number into the building’s intercom, then its amplified ringing. At precisely the right moment he made a dart of the cigarette and headed for the door. She picked up the wine and followed, lurching on the shoes.
The door buzzed. The dude, Indian or something, held it open for his white girlfriend. Cory came up fast behind them. “Going to the party?”
Dude hesitated, still holding the door. He had a goatee and a diamond stud in one ear. “Joe and Perry’s?”
“Yeah.” Cory smiled without the missing tooth. Farther back in his mouth, it only showed when he smiled for real. “But we can get buzzed in, no problem. We were just having a smoke before going up.”
Dude flicked his eyes over them, stopping on the gift bag hanging on her arm. His girlfriend was already in the lobby, their own wine jutting from her oversized handbag, just the neck of it, a twist of brown paper.
Shrugging, he let go of the door.
Cory caught it and kept two steps behind. She tripped along after them, heart having a fit now that they were inside.
At the elevator Cory lunged for the Up button. That way Dude would press the button for the floor. At least that was what happened last time. While they waited, they looked in four directions—at the white-baubled tree in the corner, the lobby’s white walls screaming for a spray can, the numbers lighting up then dying with the elevator’s descent. The girlfriend inspected her perfect nails. The elevator came and they stepped inside. Sure enough, Dude punched twenty-four.
She kept her eyes on the floor numbers lighting as they climbed. The weightless sensation should have can-celled out the dread. Dude’s spicy after-shave didn’t help. She put her hand on her stomach, feeling through the coat for the rectangular comfort of her phone.
At 12 Dude broke the silence. “So are you a lawyer too?”
His girlfriend nudged him. She had long, stiff blond hair and makeup that looked like it might flake off.
“Oh, right. That’s an inappropriate question. What can I ask him, Hon?”
“For one, you could have asked if she was a lawyer.”
An exhalation of scorn escaped her, though no one seemed to hear it.
Cory said, “Ask my favourite cereal then.”
“No. Let me guess it. You’re a muesli man, am I right?”
The woman rolled her eyes. “I’m Michelle. He’s Raj.” She gave him a jab, which he pretended in an actorly way hurt.
“I’m Scott,” Cory said.
She blanked on the name they’d decided for her this time. Different name, different coat, different shoes, different hair. Different people in the security video in the identical lobbies. But the name was gone, like Kayla. Where was she? Muesli was porridge, sort-of. Breakfast was a half-finished Starbucks drink fished out of the trash. Or did he have muesli this morning at his mom’s?
They were looking at her, waiting.
“I’m Angel.” It just popped into her head.
Cory stiffened beside her.
“I love your shoes,” Michelle said. “Are they Fluevogs?”
The elevator pinged and opened. Raj stepped out first. “See, I would find that an inappropriate question. What if she got them at Walmart?”
Michelle shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“What if I stole them?” she said and they all laughed.
The four of them headed down the hall, Cory squeezing her shoulder, holding her back. WTF? it meant. They could hear the party up ahead, the throb of music, shout-talking. A tingling broke out across her face.
She lifted her shoulder and tried to shake Cory off.
They both started to slow as they neared the party. The smaller gestures, like pressing the Up button first, like going ahead as if they knew the way—they’d talked about this. It bolstered their cred. But now Cory was squeezing. Don’t act like a nutcase, babe. If they’d been walking in front they would have blown it because Raj and Michelle sailed right past the party door. So they did too.
She shot Cory a triumphant look. He loosened his grip. Patted her back.
“We can drop in there if Joe’s sucks,” Raj said.
“This is our third party. We aren’t staying long.” She said it to Cory.
“Popular,” Raj said. “It’s our first.”
“We had dinner with my mom,” Michelle explained.
Joe and Perry’s was just two doors along, same side. Raj knocked pointlessly before opening the door and nearly hitting somebody standing just inside. Techno music poured out. He and Michelle went in sideways.
Now she said it, what she’d wanted to tell Cory out front. “I can’t. Give me some money.”
“In and out, like you said.”
“I mean at all. I can’t do any of it. I don’t want to.”
Cory took her face in his hands—clean now, even his nails—but still textured from the street. Forehead pressed against hers, eyes an inch away, he drove his resolve right into her. “Yes, you can… Angel.”
He opened the door and, hand on her back, guided her in.
Michelle had taken off her coat, exposing a meaty nylon bulge of thigh between her boot tops and skirt. She was staring at the footwear piled around the door.
“Do we have to take off our shoes off? It ruins your outfit.”
“I’m having sock insecurity,” Raj said.
Michelle said to her, “You’re not taking yours off, are you?”
She pointed to the people lingering at the end of the hall. Some were wearing shoes. Michelle smiled and, passing Raj her coat, strode off in her boots. Raj frowned at the hooks that lined the wall, already layered with coats. No vacancy in the closet either.
A woman in a fringed wrap stepped out of the room off the hall. “They’re putting them on the bed now,” she said. Raj ducked in with their coats, then out again empty-handed. With a wave to them, he went after Michelle, disappearing into the crowded main room.
She took off the raincoat. Under it, a short black dress with complicated sleeves, hardly sleeves at all, sheer nylon stitched to the thicker fabric of the dress. Below the elbow they flared so if she held her arms out at her sides that part of the sleeve hung down like wings. She’d got it for the kangaroo pocket, to carry her phone. Boxing Week at Winners. The harried clerks, past the point of caring, only counted the hangers before handing over the numbered plastic disc that supposedly matched the clothes you were trying on. Anybody can take off a security tag with a hair elastic. Kayla had taught her. Three Kaylas in the wings of the change-room mirror, ball cap and bra, ink flowers twining up her arms. They’d made each other friendship bracelets like they were eight or something. Their names made them sound like sisters. She wound the elastic the way Kayla showed her. The tag popped right off and Kayla smiled her own broken smile.
Cory was having trouble giving up his coat. Before handing it over, he held it by the collar and brushed at some unseeable speck. He showed her the label sewn inside. “See? Cashmere.” Draping it across her waiting arms, he said, “Good-bye.”
“I’ll be fast,” she said. “Don’t go away.”
“I’m talking to the coat.”
She stepped into the room, closing the door just enough that the music receded to a pulse. All the way would look suspicious, though she was less nervous about getting caught now than anxious to get it done. The only light was a lamp on the bedside table draped with some kind of cloth, as though to dim the room even more. Gradually, she made out a pile of coats on the bed, tossed theirs into it, then craned to see into the space next to the wall where the purses were stashed. She added the bag with the wine.
The first curdling wave hit her then. She shut her eyes and swayed, her hand pressing her phone, on fire and drenched at the same time. A blunt, bitter stab against the back of her throat—just a hint of what was coming. All of this was pointless. No way could she do it. Maybe Cory could. He hadn’t been around that long. Also, something was waiting for him on the other side, in that other life where she wasn’t welcome. She’d gone and seen it that after-noon, taken the Skytrain all the way out in her winged dress, soared over the different coloured roofs and shiny toy cars parked along the streets. His mother said he could move back in if he cleaned up. But not her. He’d been there two nights, had snuck her in so they could get ready for tonight.
“Holy, look at you,” he’d said.
His mother’s heavy tread crossed the low ceiling. Just a shitty bungalow with a basement suite that stank of bleach. But compared to the underpass? Or the tarp they’d rigged up over two carts until one of them got jacked? Last night, while Cory slept in his boyhood home, she went off with some dude who said they could crash where they impounded the cars. In the morning, she woke alone to crows croaking and rattling, condensation all over the windows, a silver nest made of her own breath. Her pants tossed onto the hood of the car, soaked with rain. She couldn’t remember a thing about how they got there. She missed Kayla so bad then.
The wave passed. She rubbed her arms through the sleeves. Something prickled the back of her neck—not sweat. Not a symptom. An instinct, or some higher numbered sense. Somebody’s eyes boring into her. She thought of Kayla’s eyes, the way they rolled back to show the red stitching of veins. Kayla splayed out on the ground, her cap three feet away. But where did they take her? she’d asked Cory. Where do you go after that?
Cory didn’t know. All he said was, “We’re getting out of here.”
Somebody was in the room. She swung round, saw a bulky shape filling the chair in the corner.
“God! You scared me!”
“Sorry.” It was a woman, half- whispering.
“I was just wondering if it was safe to leave my purse.”
Why had she made an excuse before she was accused of anything? She could have told the truth, that she’d stood there so long because she felt sick. She was out of the habit. True things sounded like lies. She didn’t even have a purse.
Again that hushed voice. “Stick it under there.” The woman pointed at something with her stockinged foot.
She came closer. On the other side of the bed was a portable crib. She looked directly at the woman then, first at her face in the shadows—dark hair, long nose. Then her bulkiness transformed to include the blanket draped over her shoulder and around the baby. A little toque perched on its head.
Who would bring a baby to a loud party? It didn’t seem that different from pushing a stroller down the alley looking to score—something she disapproved of too, though it was better than being passed from one non-mother to the next with your whole life stuffed in a garbage bag.
“I’ll just stick it in my coat,” she said, taking a step back.
She flitted her eyes around the room, trying to think of something normal to say before getting away. It didn’t seem that dark now. Curtains, furniture—all revealed. The bass in the music made the picture above the woman’s head vibrate against the wall like nervous teeth. She felt so bad for the baby.
“Three months,” the woman said. “Which is about the last time I slept. He has no trouble sleeping of course. Unless I do. Then he immediately wakes up. They’re funny things.”
A bell tinkled in her pocket. She took the phone out and gestured toward the door with it.
The woman said, “Would you do me a favour? Bring me something to eat? I sent my husband, but he’s gone AWOL.”
She stepped into the hall. Cory had already hung up, but was texting now.
How’s it going
Somebody’s in ther wher r you
He was supposed to be watching the hall. She thumbed in ??? Let’s go
Water trickled out of her nose. She pressed it with the back of her hand. Cory had the money and the cards. Otherwise she’d leave right now.
Another cramp. She braced against the wall to stretch it out. The coats hung there two or three deep, pockets begging to be searched. But there were people steps away at the end of the hall. They’d only have to turn their heads.
She tested the leg then walked straight into the party in the teetering way Cory apparently hated.
There was a fireplace at one end of the room, an open kitchen at the other. Square furniture that nobody sat on. People stood in pairs or tight groups, elbow to elbow, talking loudly over the music. She cut through their groupings. Nobody looked at her.
A long table of food. She lifted the tongs and started loading a plate for the woman with the baby, thinking of cardboard. Cardboard flattened on the sidewalk. A smorgasbord of things you eat mixed up with things you can’t. Jars of No Name p.b., mission sandwiches, binned and stolen crap. Broken phones, granola bars, Percocet. She piled cubes and rolls on the plate. What half of it was, she didn’t know. It looked like it would come back up whole.
Beyond the glass wall was a balcony almost as large as the inside space, and as crowded. Finally, she spotted him. With his boney face, he looked like a fake-junky model in his new mother-bought clothes. He was talking to a man in a suit with a shaved head, touching his arm, for sure calling him Bro. It bugged her when he did that. Why? He was a brother. He came from an actual family. He could go live in mommy’s basement, but not her.
Those condemning footfalls.
She’d hardly lured Cory. They met on Hastings with Dani and that girl with the birthmark, and Kayla. Until Cory, she and Kayla shared everything. She’d worn her friendship bracelet, just a grubby knotted string, until tonight. Cory used scissors to cut it off. He threw it in the garbage. Another guy had hung with them too, an older Spanish dude who tried to teach them to trill their tongues and made them laugh their heads off. He was probably dead, like Kayla and the birthmark girl.
She pressed her open palm against the window, willing Cory to turn around. Let’s go. Her own reflection superimposed on his, making one person. Like her and Kayla.
Turn around. Turn around.
Maybe thoughts couldn’t pass through glass.
She stepped through the sliding door.
It was cold outside, but not as loud. She balanced the plate on the railing, took out her phone. 11:34. She’d give him two minutes to come over. Or text.
Before her—silver towers and golden streets, a glitter-dusted far shore. The central darkness she knew to be water. It was dotted with lights from the tankers at anchor. Earlier that night, there’d been stars, but it had clouded over, erasing the mountains.
Somebody was smoking weed. With the first skunky whiff, she felt plucked in different parts of her body. Pinched. A thousand tiny hooks piercing her skin. She checked her phone.
This time when she lifted her eyes she could tell clouds from sky. The city lit them from below. One looked like somebody floating face down in water, except her hair didn’t spread but dangled like the stringy tentacles of a black jellyfish. Streaks of rain probably. How many floors up were they? The building was lifting her higher. Every darkened window in it, and in every building—blackness. Black as that beautiful moment before you open your eyes to the paramedic staring down. He’s shouting your name because he knows you from before. He knows your name. You don’t know his, but you recognize him by how his face glows with blue-eyed joy.
The needle is in your thigh. Then you woof.
And still Cory didn’t text or see her. He was somewhere on the other side of the balcony having a great time.
She almost forgot the plate of food. She picked it up and headed back inside.
The baby was hunched on the woman’s shoulder now. Small back, the little toque of t-shirt material knotted at top. Why did she think it was a boy? Had she said? No, the toque was blue.
She tried not to look at him. He was so small he made her feel like crying, which was a symptom too. Or maybe a memory. Yet there was nothing there, just the garbage bag and the things she was loading in it. Clothes. A Barbie. What did it say about you if the things you were allowed to love were packed up like trash? After so many moves, you just leave everything and go.
“Thanks,” the woman said. She patted the dresser for her to set down the plate. “I’m starving.”
She could grab any old purse and go now.
“Want to hold him?”
She jerked back, which made the woman laugh.
“I didn’t used to like them either, believe it or not.” She reached for one of the curls on the plate and let it unfurl into her mouth. Ham, it looked like. Her hand covered her chewing. “I didn’t realize there’d be so many people here. Now I don’t want to leave him. He’s just about asleep. Then I’ll go get his dad.”
She just stood there, arms limp, scalp prickling, desperate now to scratch. The baby drowsed like a baby.
“I’m Miranda, by the way. Joe’s sister.”
Oh, it was an angel that she’d seen from the balcony. She thought it might have been Kayla.
“That’s such a pretty name. Do you have a resolution?”
She gave in, grated her scalp with her nails. “What?”
“A New Year’s resolution.”
“I guess. We’re going away. We rented a cabin.”
Cory used his mother’s card. Tonight was for gas and supplies. Toilet paper and Gatorade. He’d got the list off the internet. They’d stop at the 7-Eleven on the way. Two weeks, Cory figured. New year, new life.
“Where is it?”
“What?” She hugged herself to stop from scratching.
“I don’t know. I don’t even want to go.” There were black strings hanging from the ceiling now. She swiped at one so it wouldn’t touch the baby.
Miranda said, “I hate travelling this time of year too. We just drove down from Penticton.”
“I’m scared of trees,” she said, and Miranda laughed again.
She’ll put down the baby and leave sooner if you leave. Said the angel.
“Well. Bye.” She backed toward the door.
“Bye,” Miranda said. “Thanks!” When she slipped into the hallway, the urge to woof came on strong. She’d seen the can earlier and now she pushed past somebody coming out, jabbed the lock. The sink was another aggravation until she got that it was magic. You had to wave your hand to turn it on. She bowed and retched. When she looked up, mascara was melting beneath her eyes. Pupils huge, leaking blackness. With her hair down she couldn’t find her real self in this stranger, which made her think of the twins cross-legged on their piece of cardboard. Nobody could tell them apart so they called them Twin One and Two. Then there was only One. Or maybe Two.
And if she did go to this cabin, which was probably just some crap motel? She leaned closer to the mirror. It was already starting to leak out through her eyes—what waited for her on the other side.
Somebody touched her arm. Fat Legs from the elevator, blowing wine breath in her face and nearly sending her right back into the can.
“Jumpy!” she said and laughed. “Michelle. I forget your name too. All I remember is Fluevog.”
Michelle saw her confusion. She pointed to the green shoes, just as a tall woman in dress pants and a shiny sleeveless blouse came up and kissed her cheek.
“Miranda!” Michelle squealed.
Standing up, Miranda looked different too. “When did you get here?” Michelle asked her.
“Like, an hour ago.”
“Now I remember. Angel! This is Angel.”
Miranda turned to her and smiled. “I know. She saved me.”
“Where’s that baby?”
“Sleeping. I have to find Greg. Help me. Bye, Angel. Thanks again!”
They walked off, two chicks with jingle butts. The only thing they had to cry about.
She stopped first to switch shoes, poking a foot in the pile until she spotted an approximate 7. An actual one; it was written inside in gold. Black leather flats, black leather bows. Somebody blew a noisemaker in the other room. Bye-bye green shoes. She stuffed them in the closet.
At the bedroom door, she paused. Waves of sweat. Castanet teeth. That weird plucked-at feeling. They were coming back with Greg. She went in, grabbed the first coat in the pile that seemed her size, a puffy silver parka, cold on her arms as they entered the sleeves. The coat Cory loved was just under it. He said he loved her but if that was true, where was he?
With the elastic from her wrist she tied her hair in a topknot. Stuck her head back out into the hall to make sure the coast was clear.
Because of the shaking, it took longer to strip the wallets and stuff her pockets. She worried too about the baby being there. Worried about him waking in a strange room.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
She looked up. A man—Greg?—stood in the open door wearing glittery 2020 glasses, a basket filled with party favours hanging on one arm. One of the credit cards fell out of her pocket. She nearly heaved.
He stepped inside and, using two fingers like scissors, picked up the card and handed it to her. “Jin Hua, Official Party Animal.” He lifted the glasses off. “I forbid you to leave. It’s ten minutes to midnight.”
It seemed then that dark hands started stirring in patterns above her. She was their marionette. She couldn’t think how to get past this man and away—from the party and Cory, everything. Yet her hand tucked the credit card back into the pocket of the silver parka and closed the zipper by feel. Some tiny part of her brain was still free though, the part that knew a baby was sleeping on the other side of the room. The strings tugged her toward the door, but was the baby okay? She would worry about him all night if she didn’t check, maybe for the rest of her life, which might be the same thing.
She brought her finger to her lips. The strings tightened. They wanted her to leave. Jin Hua didn’t understand so she gestured for him to follow, led him around to the other side of the bed.
Together they looked down in the crib.
“Oh my God,” Jin Hua gasped.
The baby was on his back, eyes closed, arms splayed out, hands in tiny fists. Was he breathing? She couldn’t tell. The strings were pulling hard now, trying to drag her away. She jerked her arms to break them. Then—duh. She had scissors! Snip, snip, snip went her fingers, like Jin Hua had showed her.
She reached down in the crib with the flat of her hand. Warmth poured off the baby. He exhaled, or Jin Hua sighed, or she did.
“So sweet,” Jin Hua said. “Whose baby is it?”
The relief. Strangely, it wasn’t like the needle. More like the beautiful feeling pouring down on her from the paramedic’s blue eyes. “Taryn? Taryn? Can you hear me? Hello, Taryn! Welcome back!” He always seemed higher than her and now she knew that he was. The dim room filled with lightness and brightness, with the tinkling of bells and her own pure wish.
Jin Hua whispered, “I think your phone’s ringing.”
—From CNQ 109: The Crime Issue (Spring/Summer 2021)
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