“Just put the dishes on the kitchen table, I’ll put them away later,” Mom called from the hallway, where she was hanging and rehanging the pictures. Our new house in Ottawa was beautiful, certainly more charming than the house in Little Prison had been, and it was filled to the brim with amenities. It seemed no expense had been spared to make us as comfortable as possible. The cabinets and fridge were filled with food, the counters and tables covered in fruit baskets and fancy soaps. Whatever the Prime Minister did, it must have been bad. We’d already had several people in suits come by to bring papers for Mom and ask us how we were settling. They’d even referred to me as “Miss Adner” with not a hint of sarcasm.
As Mom hung pictures and arranged decorations, she hummed to herself: she seemed happy, which made me happy. I hadn’t left much of a life behind in Little Prison, and the universities here did seem promising— even if I still had no idea what I wanted to do. Still, I felt tired and overwhelmed by it all. Jet lag, probably. My meds had run out too, and the prescription still hadn’t been sent over from Germany.
“Where do you want me to put your books?” I asked, trying to stabilize the wobbling stack of books with my chin.
“Go upstairs, around the divider and straight. In the master bedroom,” Mom instructed, stepping back to inspect the pictures. I made my way to the stairs, using one hand and my chin to hold the books and the other hand to pull myself upstairs. My legs were wobbly and unsure under the weight of myself and the books.
The walls were white-washed and the floors were blanketed in a scratchy beige carpet. Wide windows bathed all the rooms in morning light, and a cool breeze circled through the upstairs. I stabilized myself on the divider and rounded the corner into Mom’s room; it was empty enough that the bird chirps from outside bounced off the walls. On the floor by the door I dropped the stack of books, they bounced slightly and then slapped together. Through the balcony window a purple leafed tree to the right and an evergreen to the left, red roofed houses beside us, shiny new cars parked front and back along the street. What a change from the grey-scape and chain link fence. I stepped onto the balcony and breathed in fresh air, I squinted into the sun and shielded my face. My fingers stretched over the wooden banister, feeling the peeling paint and unsanded wood.
Everything was weird: intense, disoriented, and wrong. Everything seemed far away, like I was looking through the wrong end of a telescope. It almost didn’t feel real. But it was real: the sunshine on my face, the wood sticking into my palm, the smell of twice-cut lawns. It was all real, and so was I. I was being ridiculous, that was all. Nothing new. “Persephone! Are you coming?” Mom called from downstairs. “I need your help hanging the chandelier.”
“I’m coming!” I replied, snapping into focus and heading downstairs.
“Alright, and you know the way? Did you set the GPS? Or print a map?” Mom asked, she leaned against the door frame and watched me suspiciously.
I held up my map and phone. “I did both. Though I don’t see much of a point, I’m taking the bus there,” I replied, trying to mask my slight annoyance. Did she not even trust me to take a bus by myself? I walked down the street toward the bus stop, my pride still stinging from Mom’s lack of faith.
Riverview to Parliament Hill. Take the 8, more walking but fewer transfers. 16 minutes, 15 stops. I walked to Alta Vista at Smyth, my nearly empty backpack bouncing against my back with the rhythmic movements. My eyes scanned the ground as I walked, looking up only every so often, I watched out for cracks and marveled at the weeds pushing through the concrete. How could such a small plant manage to grow where no one wanted it? I passed all the other beautiful houses on Roger road, my eyes flicking up in curiosity every so often. Who were those blue shadows behind the curtain? A couple sang off key too-loudly from inside a bright red car, were they dating or just friends? And the kids playing basketball? Did they dream of moving to the USA one day and playing in the MLB? All these people seemed so happy, so carefree. I wished to be like them one day, watching the world unfold behind the safety of a screen, and having someone to lift some of the weight from my shoulders.
I knew so little about my neighbours, about my new neighbourhood, it was probably wrong to pass judgement on their state of life. But just the appearance of happiness and normality appealed to me.
The bus pulled into the station, a swarm of people came off and I got on, dropping loonies into the machine. The bus was crowded but I found an empty spot near the back, beside a young boy wearing a fluorescent orange shirt and dark grey pants. I shifted myself so I was as close the wall and far away from touching him as possible, my eyes stayed glued to the window. Squat complexes and suburbs quickly turned into taller, older apartments and businesses. Strip malls flashed buy and Saturday morning shoppers moved throughout the street in unison like a wave, it was an organized chaos. Ten stops left.
“What the fuck did you just say to me? Remember who writes your goddamn paycheques, bitch,” a man yelled into his phone angrily. His suit was dusty and mud splatters covered the aging black fabric to the knees, his hair was all but no existent except for a half-ring at the back that was only lazily blond.
Eight stops, he got off.
A toddler screamed in his seat, kicking the air, his bald head covered by a pale green hood. The woman next to him eyed him and ran her fat tongue over her teeth; the mother sighed and forced a smile while she bent over. “It’s okay, here,” she cooed as she passed the boy her phone. He took it hungrily and was immediately absorbed in the flashing lights.
Five stops, they got off.
A group of tourists chattering in different languages, one of which I recognized to be German, got on. The fill half the bus and the row next to me. Their tour guide was bickering with the driver, trying to get a discount price, and finally the driver simply waved him away. “Where are we going now, Fritz?” a middle aged woman asked the man sitting next to her, through the noise of the bus I could still pick out their German words.
“Does it matter? Everything is the same in this shit city. Everything is too expensive. Next time I’m picking where we go,” the man replied curtly, the woman didn’t talk again. I wanted to speak up, and defend my country— my new home city, which certainly was not shit— but just the thought made my hands tremble, so I pushed the though away.
“Hey, lady. Hey, lady!” I turned to look at the boy next to me, his features indicated about twelve but his expression told me he compensated with unnecessary swearing and outdated references. My eyebrows raised in question but I didn’t speak. Had he really been talking to me? There were a lot of people on the bus. Maybe he was talking to the German woman beside us, maybe he was going to defend this city. “Could you move over? You’re sitting on my earphones.” The boy pointed to a thin white cable on the seat, my leg was partially covering it.
“Oh, s-sorry,” I replied moving quickly.
Parliament Hill, the voice said. I got up quickly, pushing my way to the door to escape before the swarm of people enveloped me. My feet hit the pavement and I distanced myself from the group of tourists behind. Glass glinted in the sun and all around me were mountains of skyscrapers, I felt like I was in a valley. Old and new buildings, old and new cars, young and old people, everything was intermingled. Perhaps it hadn’t been the best idea to walk through downtown Ottawa alone, after having only driven through once with Mom, but it was fascinating to see everyone go about their daily life. I didn’t care what that man thought. This wasn’t a shit city.
The capitol rose from the neatly cut lawn and pavement, it sprouted into the cloudless blue sky: like a statement of fact, as if it had always been there. Decades of history and change had taken place in that building. Under the bell tower and the stretching wings. It was busy, it was a Saturday. But you couldn’t see the full effect of the capitol without the people, without those that loved it so much. Mom would have loved this too, but she had to work. A red and white flag danced in the wind, nearly too small to see.
I lifted my phone and tried to keep my hand steady as I took a picture, someone pushed into me from behind, causing my phone to clatter to the ground. Instinctively I bent down and clicked the screen on, to make sure that it was still working. The man mumbled an angry “watch where you’re going” and I replied with a useless “sorry.”
The ropes ran along the pavement leading to the staircase, inviting me in. How good it felt to be back home, I’d been gone over a decade, but it was nice to be in my country again. To hear the harsh and soft syllables of English all around me, to see the mosaic of people who proudly called themselves Canadian: Germany and Sweden weren’t too distant from Canada in reputation, all were well liked. But when one thought of Canada, one thought of peacekeepers, of the fair and the just, it was the kind of reputation I wanted.
While a guard checked my bag, I walked through a metal detector, then a female guard patted me down quickly. Ever since someone had tried to bomb the capitol a few years ago, security had been increased ten-fold. It was still funny to compare how the Americans had reacted compared to how we had, we had been the ones under threat, yet the American newspapers had been the ones to sensationalize.
Stretches of stone hallways, and red running carpet, windows let in the rising sun and pale sky. I wanted to see the library, stocked full of the secrets of my country. Mom had said that every Prime Minister had kept a diary while in office, I wondered if that was true. What would John A. McDonald’s diary say? During the first years of Canada as a country. Or Mackenzie King during the start of the Second World War? It seemed so exciting, to be able to see the world through their eyes.
Maybe I could major in history. History and astronomy. What could I do with that?
Finally I found my way to the library, for a moment I stood near the entering stairway, letting the complaining people morph around where I stood. It was such a beautiful room that I could hardly believe I was seeing it. Light brown wood from the floors to the window, where it then rose to finish as stone, every wall lined with books— greens, red, yellows, blues, and browns stocked the shelves— tables with red velvet chairs, and in the center a statue of Victoria. I ran my fingers along the spines of the books as I made my way through the room, inhaling the scent of vanilla, almonds, and flowers. It smelled like heaven.
People were almost as densely packed into the room as books; it was almost perfect but for their loud voices and sharp smells. I settled on a book and pulled myself against a wall, I read the words with a need and found I was focusing so much on enjoying the moment that I hardly knew what the book was saying.
Suddenly a loud sound, like thunder, filled my ears. Books spilled from their perfect casings and scattered on the floors, bits of rock fell in clouds from the ceiling. The whole world turned on itself and I found myself lying on the floor along with nearly everyone in the room. My ears rung loudly and my head throbbed, it felt as if my ears were bleeding but when I checked for blood there was nothing.
“What’s happening?” One person screamed, over the thunderous sound. There was another crash and the walls began groaning, the floor shuddered, and the windows exploded in.
“It’s a bomb!” Another person announced in terror. Fear began taking hold of people as they screamed, cried, or began running for the door.
A blond haired man stood up, wobbling in place. “Everyone follow me!” he shouted, he wore a guard uniform and had one hand on his gun. Some people stood up right away, thankful that someone was taking charge, others looked paralyzed with fear. I fell into the latter category. “If you want to live, follow me. The ceiling here is going to collapse,” he urged. The person lying down next to me got up and reached down a hand, I took it cautiously and we all began running to the showers. The man had been right, chunks of plaster started falling from the ceiling like snow, covering the clean wooden floor. We poured into an exit on the other side of the room, and down a flight of stairs; the walls became more cemented and it became colder the further we went, orange-yellow light flooded our path. The guard pulled open a heavy metal door and people pushed to get inside, I didn’t know what was in the room but I didn’t stop to question it.
There were so many people that we were forced to stand shoulder to shoulder to fit. The woman next to me who had helped me up screamed so her voice would be heard, her green eyes bulged from her head. “What’s going on?
The guard tried his best to quiet everyone so he could talk, and finally a piercing whistle echoed through the room. “I’ll have to wait for conformation, but from the tremors and the sound I believe it’s a bomb. If that is the case, we have to stay down here until I get authorization to bring you back up.”
“Are we really safe down here?” a woman demanded, she clutched a small girl’s hand. The walls were still shuddering but not nearly as much, the noise from the outside was quieter too.
“This is an air-raid shelter, it’s one of the safest places in the building, ma’am,” then guard replied. Even if the room remained stable, what about the stair way? That hardly looked reinforced, what if we became trapped down here? Starving to death and wallowing in pain for days? Would they be able to find us? Were there really bombs being dropped on us right now? And what about Mom? Where was she? Did she know what was happening? Was she rushing here now, stuck in a mass of confusion and traffic, or was she hiding in a room somewhere too?
“We’ll have to wait for help to come,” the guard clarified finally. He stood vigilantly by the door, one hand still on his gun (this didn’t put anyone at ease, and only escalated the fear) while some others struggled to sit. I pushed through the crowd and leaned against the wall, watching as the light swung back and forth with each shiver of the walls. Already it was beginning to stink, and sweat pooled on the nape of my neck.
Panic rose from the pit of my stomach, it clawed through me like a hand until it grabbed a hold of my throat. My breathing hitched and cold chills enveloped my body. How could I be cold when it was so hot in here? Where was all the oxygen? I was going to suffocate! I wrapped my arms tightly around my stomach and squeezed my eyes shut. Not here, not now. Please, please, please. Not now. Not with all these tired, judging eyes around. A voice suddenly broke through. “Everyone move away. Give her space. Hey, are you okay?” It was the guard, he was sliding me down the wall so that I was sitting and he was crouching. I had hardly noticed it, but I’d begun to hyperventilate. Acknowledging it only made my stomach hurt and my lungs burn. “Can I touch you?” he asked quietly, I nodded feebly in reply. Everyone was looking at me and it wasn’t helping the situation. My hair fell as a curtain in front of my face, trying to block out the crowd. I focused on the guard’s voice. “My name is Jason, I’m going to help you, alright?”