I didn’t really begin regretting my decision until I made it to Toronto and realized I had no idea where to go. I stood in the middle of the station until a ticket teller got mad at me and chased me out. With my luggage rolling against the cracks, I shuffled to the door. A ping from my phone stopped me. It was a text message from an unknown number that read: To the IPO building with a location attachment. I clicked on it and my GPS started up. There was no time for regret now—Mom needed me. I tried not to listen to my thoughts and followed the directions best I could.
It was hard not to get swallowed in the crowd of people moving every which way, and going against the mass flow was nearly impossible. Tall buildings reached into the sky and glistened in the evening sun, street lamps flickered to light. My heart thudded loudly in my ears as I made my way through, I tried not to make eye contact but I also had to look up from the directions every second to make sure I wouldn’t walking into someone. The IPO building was apparently three blocks north-east from the CN tower, in an unassuming neighbourhood of office buildings. The CN tower rose proudly above the other buildings, and no matter how many blocks I walked toward it, it didn’t seem to get any closer.
My pace slowed slightly the closer I got to where my GPS said I was supposed to be. Suddenly, something struck me in the back, my phone shattered to the ground and I landed on my hands and knees. A shooting pain vibrated through my palms and up my arms. “I am very sorry, Ma’am,” someone said from behind me. Before anything else I reached for my phone, a few centimetres away. There was a new crack running along the side and an old crack on the screen had grown, but it still worked. I pushed myself up, swaying slightly and trying to ignore the pain. The voice spoke again. “Are you alright?” I was surprised to hear it again, since I’d assumed the person had just moved on.
When I turned around I saw a man standing in front of me, wearing a brown satchel and an apologetic smile. “I am running late and I was not looking.” The man had deep, deep-set grey eyes that crinkled when he smiled but betrayed dark circles.
“Uh… It’s alright, don’t worry about it,” I replied when I could finally speak again. There was an awkward moment, and then, wanting desperately to leave the situation, I ducked into the crowd.
A few minutes later I found the street where I needed to be, and it wasn’t hard to find the IPO building. It looked like any of the other hundreds of offices in the area, its windows glinting in the afternoon sun and shrubs manicured professionally. The only distinguishing factor was the recently polished white sign that read in exaggerated letters the name and founding date; from either side of the front door protruded flags, one Canadian and one International. People streamed through the sliding front door, all dressed either semi-formally or in business attire. I looked down at my own blue jeans, less sure in my clothing choice than when I’d left the house, but at least I wore a borrowed blouse and blazer from Mom.
People grumbled about my being in the way, but I needed more time to mentally prepare. My hands tightened around my bags and I felt the nails digging into my palm, with a steading breath I began to take tentative steps towards the entrance.
This is a bad idea, Persephone, just head back to the bus station.
And buy a ticket with what money?
What are you hoping to accomplish here? This won’t help Mom in any way, just leave it to the professionals. You need to take care of yourself right now, and this won’t be good for you.
That was probably right, and every part of me accepted that this was a bad idea, but I was desperate and willing to gamble on the hope that my presence here would somehow bring Mom back to me.
The floor of the lobby was shimmering marble, reflective enough to be used as a mirror; redundant beige-shaded lamps cast yellow light on mahogany tables, and couches of varying degrees of beige, sand, and mauve. There were a few people lounging on these couches looking very much like models to me, with laptops balanced on their knees, newspapers in their hands, or tablets or phones held closely to their faces. Shoes clacked against the marble as people walked briskly, everyone looked confident and poised.
“Good afternoon, welcome to the IPO Toronto. How may I help you?” A man with hair like metal scraps sat behind the front counter, he wore over-sized wireframe glasses, and his eyes shifted from me to the computer screen in front of him. That question sent me for a loop, what was I going to say? He seemed to sense my unease because he followed up with, “You must be here for the orientation, yes?” I nodded gratefully. He slid me a piece of paper, a confidentiality agreement, and asked my name, then he handed me a laminated name tag. Before I had time to question how there was already a laminated name tag readily available to me, the man began giving me directions to reach the orientation room. Floor six, room F12.
The elevator opened to reveal a handful of disgruntled looking people, some pushed through, but most stayed on. For the duration of the seemingly endless ride to the sixth floor, we stood in silence packed like sardines. Perfume and cologne intermingled with body odour in a most unpleasant way, and I felt a hand uncomfortably low on my back. I was only too grateful when the doors opened again to reveal a bustling corridor.
F12 was at the very end of the hall, with wide windows on either side to show the people milling around inside. I opened the door with a shaking hand, the bracelets on my wrist clinking; immediately the sounds and smells of all those people hit me, and I almost turned back. Soon after I’d been swallowed by the crowd, a high-pitched voice broke over the chatter. “Excuse me, everyone, may I have your attention, please?” The crowd dispersed a little and I could make out two figures at the front: one had waist-length dreadlocks and a shaky smile, and the other had a long, hooked nose and tightly hemmed pants. “If everyone could take a seat, we could begin this orientation.” The way she stressed ‘this’ and the tired look in her eyes let me know that this was just one of many orientations.
“I’m Lakyyn, and this is Shayna,” tight-pants introduced. “Now, some of you have already given a preference to your division, and will be tested accordingly, as for the rest of you—please take a seat at the table while Shayna shows the others out.” A group began accumulating by the door, to where Sheena made her way, while the rest of us sat. Once gone, the room was considerably emptier and only a few people were left standing without a seat. Lakyyn noted the group before continuing. “Each of you picked up your ID, yes? If not, you will have a chance to do so later. I have laid a form before each of you, for those of you in the back please pick one up from the side here. These are just a few simple questions to nudge you toward the position best for you.”
I looked down at the ivory paper below me, running my fingers over the soft surface. Name. Age. Address. The usual. Mental or physical disabilities? My mind raced for a moment, then came to the conclusion that disclosing my information at this stage wouldn’t be a good idea. I said no. Education level? Training? Medical abilities? Do you handle well under pressure; prefer to work alone; thrive on leadership; could you handle a potentially life-threatening situation; how do you deal with the sight or stench of blood? I wasn’t sure how to answer the questions, so I answered as vaguely as possible.
Lakyyn gave a brief explanation of the jobs of the divisions, and I came to the understanding that I was well underqualified for every position. Of course there were other jobs as well, which were just as important and in need of fill, but these three divisions worked together more-or-less “on the front lines.” There were also positions needing to be filled at specific locations around the world: personal assistants, office managers, etc. If one played their cards right, he promised, one could work their way up to one of the many positions of political influence. Such as the recently promoted April Ehirim, who sat down only last week with a high-ranking Nigerian minister to discuss education.
The final question on the paper we’d been given asked for my preference of work: medical, research, peacekeeping, office, volunteer work. Something in me checked off the box next to peacekeeping.
Some listened to Lakyyn starry-eyed, dreaming of days when they could sit down with foreign diplomats. Some wore determined looks or purposeful smiles, knowing they would make their own contribution to the dream of world peace. But me? Well, not to sound too cynical, but I’ve never believed in world peace. Maybe it was because of the lot I’d been given in life, which had given me the ability to mostly block out myself and objectively watch the world around me. I didn’t have a definite purpose for being in that room, my thoughts only focused on bringing Mom back to me, and not much else. If a war raged in a distant country, or terrorist organizations fought for control, there wasn’t much I could nor wanted to do. I just wanted to secure whatever happiness I could for myself, and honestly speaking, that wasn’t derived from helping others.
After about an hour and a half of Lakyyn’s monologueing, we were given a brief break—after which we would have a guest speaker. I could already guess who that was. A few servers brought plastic trays covered in fruits, vegetables, sandwiches, cookies, and the like, paired with a pots of coffee and pitchers of water. As soon as the trays touched the table, people jumped from their chairs as if they hadn’t eaten in days, pushing past one another to reach the mediocre dinner first; I waited until most everyone was seated and then made my way up. The trays had been pretty much picked clean, mainly celery, cauliflower, and melon being all that remained. But the coffee was hot and there were a few macadamia nut cookies left.
Coffee flowed over the edges of the cup and onto my skin when I bumped into someone, enough so it burnt but luckily didn’t spill much. I cursed under my breath then heard the person apologize. “It’s alright,” I replied quietly, trying to move on without having to interact with this person much more.
“It’s you!” the voice exclaimed, I looked up startled and a few people close by stared as well. Grey eyes met me first and then the smile from earlier, it was the man that had knocked me down before. “It seems we have a habit of running into each other,” he joked and then added, “What a coincidence.”
It wasn’t that much of a stretch. We were about the same age, had run into each other only a few streets from the IPO building, and there were a lot of other people here as well. But he spoke as if we had some sort of a history and it made me fluster, because the last person who had smiled at me like this had been Jason. I’d tried not to think about him, with everything that had been going on. Only, now I felt guilty, as if I’d tried to erase his existence from my life, wash over everything he’d done for me. “Yeah,” I said, feeling myself sink lower already.
“I’m Antonio, by the way.” There was a lilt to his words, but I couldn’t place the accent. He shifted his heaping plate of left-over food into one hand and held the other out, I held my plate gingerly and took his outstretched hand.
“Persephone,” I replied, his large hand curled around mine tightly and he smiled again.
Antonio repeated the name again and then commented on its uniqueness. Antonio was unique too, if not in name then in appearance. His sharp jawline was studded with dark facial hair and his cheeks spotted with raised, red dots. Swirling grey eyes, like clouds before a rainstorm, were set deeply in his head and guarded by thick eyebrows. A large nose, with a look of having been broken before, took centre stage on his face. I could appreciate his quirky kind of beautiful, and perhaps it relaxed me a little. He carried himself openly and was dressed consciously. “Do you mind if I sit with you? I don’t know anyone here,” he confessed, I studied his hopeful eyes for a moment before agreeing. He didn’t ask me why I looked the way I did, nor did he seem to even take particular notice of it. I’d noticed others doing as much, but had tried to ignore the stares and whispers.
The seat next to mine had been conveniently vacated, and we sat side-by-side eating in silence for a while. “Where are you hoping to work?” he asked finally.
I swallowed my coffee, which was quickly falling to room temperature. “I don’t know, maybe the peacekeeping,” I replied slowly. “What about you?”
“Well I have my practical nursing license, and I’d really like to work in the medical division. It’s where I think I could do the most good.” His response made mine sound rather lame, he was one of the determined people who knew exactly why they were here. This probably wasn’t just about the paycheque for him. “I’m still a little worried about the acceptance procedure though, I heard only seventy to eighty percent of people actually make it into the division they applied for.”
“You seem more than qualified, I’m sure you’ll be fine. Besides, seventy to eighty percent is a high percentile,” I said, but I had waning confidence in my words. For some reason it hadn’t registered in my mind that there was an admission process. What if I was in the twenty to thirty percent that got cut? What was I even doing here? This had all happened so fast, I’d had little time to process what was going on. The familiar questions buzzed around in my head.
Just then Lakyyn raised his voice over the conversations, stating that we would be moving to another room to meet up with the other half of the group. “I guess you’re right, thanks,” Antonio whispered as we got up. Our group joined the one headed by Sheena and in five elevator trips we rode up to the eighth floor; it all seemed rather unnecessary, why couldn’t the meeting have continued on the sixth floor? But when the elevator doors opened again I saw why. Immediately we were in a room very much like the lobby: with spanning marble floors, wide windows that opened onto the Toronto skyline, and a large, centered glass chandelier. There was an oak wood table that spanned almost the length of the room, thin TV monitors on either end, and the chairs were red and plush.
We took our seats, Antonio still beside me, and waited for this “guest speaker.” Before long she arrived. The doors opened almost dramatically, and 5’7 of narcissism walked out on sand-coloured heels. Kathryn’s eyes landed on me before long, and she gave a slight smile before continuing to her spot at the head of the table. Rather than sitting, she stood standing by the monitor. “Welcome everyone, I’m so glad to see you all here. My name is Kathryn Blanchard and I’m the founder of the IPO.” A smile stretched her thin lips apart, it seemed almost that her smile would reach to her ears—that’s how forceful it was. There was a round of obligatory applause, and the starry-eyed people nearly fainted from excitement. “I believe Lakyyn and Sheena have explained the different positions that need to be filled. Now, every job here is very important to the proper functioning of this organization, and you will make an impact no matter where you work here because we all depend on one another. However, we are severely understaffed in our medical and peacekeeping divisions, particularly in the voluntary positions.” Kathryn took a short break, probably hoping the idea of selfless voluntarism would appeal to someone if they had enough time to think. “Now, you’ve all probably heard rumours of the “entrance exam”, well I assure you it isn’t as daunting as it seems. Those of you hoping for payed employment must take a test, it will determine if you meet the standards of working for the IPO; those seeking a voluntary position don’t need to write this test. Nevertheless, every applicant must pass the physical and mental examinations. Once you have passed all of these you will simply have an interview, this interview will only determine where you are placed. However, just because you are given a certain position now, doesn’t mean there isn’t room for growth—I’m sure you’ve all heard of April Ehirim, well she started working here as a receptionist.” While she spoke I took a moment to look around the room, the dreamers seemed to have been brought to earth by Kathryn’s words. Was anyone else feeling as worried as I was? Not only an interview, but a written test, physical and mental examination? When was the last time I’d even exercised? Sure, I’d had my training with Kohl (I remembered those sessions well, and with some nostalgia) but I hadn’t kept it up after moving? Was my body capable of this, now? Was my mind? I looked beside me to Antonio, he didn’t look deterred. He would pass, easily, and then he would be set on his path. Why couldn’t I have conviction like that?
It took a moment, but an idea began to take hold. Kathryn had said that volunteers didn’t have to write the written test, and they were likely to be less scrutinized than job applicants. I hadn’t really come here looking for a conventional job anyway. If I applied as a volunteer, and then mentioned in the interview that I would prefer a position as a peacekeeper, perhaps that would be enough to get me in?
Kathryn laughed, a light-hearted noise I remembered from the night she came for dinner. It seemed so recently too, that’s what made the memory all the more painful. Mom had been sitting right beside me, trying to drown Kathryn’s words with her wine. I hadn’t appreciated then how much could change in such a short amount of time. I wished I’d discussed paint colours for living room with her in depth; I wished that the night we’d hidden in the basement with the loggers I had tried harder to remember her. That night Mom had driven me to the dark sky preserve, Mom had told me about Dad for the first time, about how much harder she’d had to work after I was born.
Most of all, I remembered the last fight I’d had with Mom, it hadn’t been too long after our move to Canada. Despite everything they had once done for Mom, her parents weren’t in her life much anymore. Her parents had been divorced about fifteen years back, and Mom had no idea where Grandma was now. Grandpa, on the other hand, made too much of a habit of making himself known. He was a drug addict, always had been Mom told me, and he bounced between lodging houses and carpeting jobs. For months at a time he would get “clean”, keep a job and a house, and not speak to us. But when he inevitably turned back to drugs, and he lost everything, suddenly family mattered. When Mom and I had still been living with her sister, and I’d been only six, Grandpa had showed up drunk or high (I wasn’t sure which) and violent. When Aunt Lisa had had forbidden him to stay, he had confronted Mom to try and change her mind. Mom had tried her best to say no to him, but he’d gotten angry and then started yelling at her for a box of his things that had burnt in the fire.
He’d picked up something off the coffee table and threw it at her, Mom’s head started bleeding, and I’d sawn. Needless to say, I didn’t care for him, nor could I find an ounce of mercy in me toward him—even if he was an addict. He was a toxic person, and I refused to deal with other people’s problems, I had enough of my own.
“Grandpa’s coming by,” Mom had mentioned over breakfast, she’d said it quickly before taking a sip of coffee, probably half-hoping I hadn’t heard.
“He’s coming here?” I asked, my tone low as I recalled my last encounter with him. “Why?”
“Don’t be like that, he’s my dad, and your grandpa,” Mom scolded, but then her voice softened. Mom was a good person, she always found it in her heart to forgive people. She forgave Grandma for all but abandoning her with Grandpa, she forgave her Aunt Lisa for cutting her out because apparently Mom brought too much stress into her life, and she forgave me for all the trouble I’d caused her. But I wasn’t like that, I couldn’t forgive and I definitely couldn’t forget. I’d seen what Grandpa had done to her, and I knew he could and would do it again if he got high enough. “He’s just coming by to pick up some old stuff for his new place.”
I raised an eyebrow, not believing her for a second. Last I’d heard, Grandpa had been slumping around downtown Winnipeg with his “friends”, sending Mom disturbing messages about all of his illnesses. I thought he was dying, or at least that’s what he’d told us. Apparently we weren’t that lucky. “Why is he really coming? Mom, you tell me everything, I know when you’re lying,” I stated plainly.
“He just got off a bender and he needs some money to get back on his feet…”
“No! Mom, don’t do this again. He does this to us every time; he doesn’t speak to us for months on end when he’s on top of the world, then when he’s low he comes crawling back for a handout.” Before she could finish I cut her off, my voice already strained with anger.
“He’s my father, Persephone, I can’t abandon him. That’s what you do for family, you help them whenever you can.”
“He’s not a good person, he doesn’t deserve your help!” I could see the anger in her eyes building, but I kept going. “He’s using you, because he knows that you’d give him your last dime, if he plays you right. Mom, you have to stand up for yourself.”
That seemed to end it. “That’s enough. I won’t hear any more of this. Your grandfather is coming, and you will be polite. Do you understand me?” As an answer I huffed to my room, slamming my door loudly.
Later that day he came by, death in carnet with the skin hanging from his face. At least he looked sick, but that was probably due to the drugs and not the caner he claimed to have. He didn’t look like he could last much longer, maybe if we were lucky he would just find somewhere to curl up and die, I thought angrily. Mom tried to call me down to see him but I refused, if I saw him there would be nothing I could do to stop the thirteen years of building hate.
It had taken days for us to fully recover from the fight, I’d over stepped a limit but Mom knew I was right. It made me angry that Mom let him use her like that, family or not. Being related to someone didn’t give them a right to treat you anyway they pleased. Either way, I wish I hadn’t wasted our time and had instead just forgiven her as easily as she forgave him.
“Are you alright?” Antonio looked at me curiously, questioningly. I looked down to see my hands clasped tightly in my lap and could feel the sting of welling tears, luckily I wasn’t crying yet.
I took a deep breath and steadied myself, loosened my hands, and forced a smile. “Yes, I’m fine. I was just thinking,” I replied. Antonio nodded and we listened to the rest of Kathryn’s presentation in silence.