Late afternoon was my favourite time of the day, it was especially nice enjoying it from the balcony. A breeze blew through the still, hot July air, the bright purple and green leaves rustled. Cars lined the streets so thickly there was barely space to drive on the actual rode, but the sidewalks were empty. There were no people outside, they were all hiding inside behind closed curtains and TV screens. I sat on the empty balcony running the leaves of the potted plant beside me between my fingers, my eyes bore into the wooden banister across from me.
From downstairs Mom’s mumbled voice floated to me, I could just catch snippets of her voice, but not enough to piece together a conversation. Since I’d returned from my trip out with Jason, Mom hadn’t gotten off her phone for longer than ten minutes. I wasn’t sure to whom she was talking, but they were clearly important: each time she received a call she closed all the windows and doors, banished me upstairs, and spoke in a low, rushed voice. It made me anxious that she wouldn’t tell me what was going on, it worried me that nothing major had happened yet in response to the bombing at Parliament hill, I just wanted someone to do something. This state of stillness and quietness was driving me crazy, everyone seemed to know something but no one knew anything. No one had done anything, even regular people like us were scared to speak too loudly.
My mind was so preoccupied with worry that I could hardly even appreciate that I had come out of this largely unscathed, and that Mom and I were together again.
“Are you alright?” Jason asked, leaning his elbows against the table edge. My attention snapped back from the ladybug crawling across my napkin to him, I realized he had been saying something and I had no idea what. Jason looked very different that day compared to the few other times I had seen him: the stubble crawling up his chin indicated he hadn’t shaved in a few days, his eyes were slightly blood shot, and his cheeks moved rigidly as he ground his teeth together. In the library and in the bunker he had seemed so calm and sure, he had been as sweaty and confused as the rest of us but he hadn’t let it show because it was his job to protect us. Lying in the hospital beds, with the IVs crawling like snakes up and down him and his bruises as bright as paint, he had still tried to assure me he was alright— even though I could tell he was suffering. Perhaps he had felt like it was still his job to protect me? Either way, sitting across from him in a suburb restaurant as desolated as a grave yard, I could finally see the toll this had taken on him. I didn’t know Jason very well, we’d petty much skipped the whole small-talk step of getting to know each other, but when you go through an experience like that with someone you come to feel connected in a way. It seemed to me like Jason wasn’t doing very well, and for someone reason I felt as if it were my fault.
My eyes happened to trail across his arms and I noticed the discolouration of skin tone between the spots where there were bruises and the skin around it. Was that why his bruises looked so healed? “Are you wearing cover up?” I wondered, I hadn’t meant to say it aloud because it really wasn’t any of my business.
Jason followed the direction of my stare to his upper arm, he pulled down the sleeve of his T-shirt as much as it would allow. “It’s nothing. My parents are worried, especially my dad, and they want to send me back to the hospital. I don’t need to go— I would just be taking away space from people who really do need it— so I’m just trying to show them that my wounds are healing normally. Which they are, the bruises are just taking a while to fade.”
He was lying to his parents. How would they feel when they found out? I’d lied to Mom before, but she usually found out relatively quickly so there was no point in it. Sometimes you needed time to figure out what to do. But Jason’s kind of hurt and my kind of hurt were very different, I didn’t feel like the same rules applied here. Wasn’t it dangerous for him not to tell his parents? “You’re haemophilic, right? I think your parents are right, you’re in more danger than the rest of us. Just because you look better doesn’t necessarily mean you are, sometimes you can’t even see the worst wounds.”
“I appreciate your concern. But I really am fine, nothing hurts, there’s probably just some blood trapped under the skin.” Jason thought for a moment then continued with a new topic. “How have you been holding up?”
“Me? I’m much better. My prescription came over from the last place I lived… So, everything’s good now,” I replied. Talking to Jason still made me anxious, he’d seen me at my worst and most vulnerable, he hadn’t said or done anything about it yet but I couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t. I was constantly terrified he would start ridiculing me at any moment. “Do you think you’ll get a new job?” The air in this part of the city was much different then downtown, the tallest buildings were two stories, and you could hardly believe it was the same city that had been attacked so recently. I wanted to scream, to disturb the silence.
“… To London, I’ll be leaving soon.” What would happen if I just stood and screamed? As loudly as possible until my lungs were empty and my throat burned. I really wanted to do it, something told me it would feel good. But another part of me knew it was ridiculous. “Hello? Persephone?” Jason’s voice echoed in my mind, but I was too far away to come back just yet. Maybe leaving the house had been a bad idea, because I only wanted to do all the things I wasn’t supposed to. I wanted to scream and break something, I wanted to know who was responsible and what was going to happen, I wanted to hit someone. God, I wanted to hit someone so bad. I’d never wanted that before. Why now? I didn’t want to hurt Jason, that was for sure, or even the disgruntled wait staff behind the counter. I wanted to find someone with blame, and if they weren’t guilty I’d appoint them a crime, then I wanted to hit them and kick them until blood started to flow from them like little streams. I imagined the scream that had been pushed inside me since the first bomb had gone off, since I’d first felt the hand close around my windpipe, and felt the hot breath of my nightmares. I imagined that scream flowing into my fists and I imagined it would feel good to hear something breaking inside. “Persephone!”
“Huh?” How long had I held my breath? My fists were balled under the table around my skirt and my eyes carved holes into the table. Air filled the vacuum in my lungs and my hands slowly uncurled, one painful finger at a time, until all that was left were crescent moon craters in my palm. Jason studied me with wide brown eyes, I hadn’t understood anything he had said. This had been a mistake. I was not ready to meet people. The ugly thoughts I had just let myself think proved that.
“I said I’m starting at Oxford in the fall, so I’m moving to London. There’s really no point in finding a new job here since I’ll be leaving so soon.” His words were slow and paced, he spoke but what he meant to do was ask me a question. Are you alright? That always came up in our conversations.
“That’s great, I’m happy for you. I-I have to go. Thank you for my phone and for… Everything else, but I— bye.” The chair creaked and clattered against the pavement, I left five dollars on the table and turned. Jason called out again but I kept my head low and my feet moving fast.
The intrusive thoughts didn’t go away, I felt the burning desire to act on them all the time. They were harmless enough, so I ignored them. Mostly I felt the thing clinging to me like a shadow, its presence became a constant factor from the moment I came back into the house. I hadn’t gone out since and even if I’d wanted to, something told me I couldn’t and that voice was loud and compelling.
A few days earlier I had seen a doctor, just to make sure everything was really okay. The hospital nurses had assured that I was healthy, but they’d only done physical checks, and that wasn’t what I was concerned about. Later I met with Dr. Raubenheimer, a psychologist, had a thick South African accent, wore his blond hair in spikes, and had an angular jawline and high cheek bones. His office was decorated in pro-vaccination posters and pictures of African wildlife. Dr. Raubenheimer had assured me that what I was experiencing, the lethargy and depression, were common in patients who had just been through a traumatic experience. I wasn’t alone in how I felt, but if the symptoms persisted I should come by for a follow up. Exercise, sleep plenty, and do things that make you happy. Nothing made me happy at the moment. I hadn’t told Mom about visiting Dr. Raubenheimer, she shouldn’t have to worry about me anymore than she already did.
Hopefully the intrusive thoughts would go away soon, I just wanted everything to go back to normal.
I stretched my legs across the wooden beams and into the shifting sunlight, it felt warm and comforting on my skin. At least I could still enjoy this, and being with Mom, it assured me that soon I would get back into the rhythm of things. “Persephone!” Mom’s voice called, louder than I’d heard her in days. I got up quickly and ignored the head rush, then I made my way downstairs. Maybe she was done talking on the phone? I needed her, I needed her so much, and she couldn’t be there if there were always other people to talk to.
“Hi, sweetie,” she greeted as I sat on the couch opposite her. “Are you feeling well today?” she asked. I could tell she wasn’t telling me something, it was coming soon but not yet. I braced myself.
“I’m the same as yesterday, and the day before that,” I replied cautiously. “What’s wrong?”
Mom put the tablet in her hands onto her lap and picked up the cup sitting on the coffee table between us, she studied the cup for a moment and stretched her fingers around it. Maybe it was just my imagination, but something looked very different about Mom. Not one huge thing, but a lot of little things. Like the fact that her hair was neatly combed and tied back in a pony-tail when it had laid limply against her shoulders for days, the way her lips were set and her tongue ran over her teeth, but mostly it was the fidgeting. Before she even said anything I began to worry, my mind jumping to the worst possible conclusions. “I’m glad you’re doing well, I was very worried those days you wouldn’t leave your room. Believe me when I say, I wouldn’t be doing this if I had another choice,” Mom began slowly. “I have to go on a business trip for a few days. It’s nothing to worry about, I’ll be home by next week, but they’re sending me to Syria. I’ve sent you enough money for the next few days, and if you like I can call someone to stay with you. I don’t want to leave you, especially not in light of everything that’s just happened, but that’s exactly why I have to go. The Prime Minister has requested I go along with a few other representatives in his place, we’re hoping a peaceful resolution can be reached if we respond soon enough and can deescalate the situation. Please, sweetie, can you understand? Persephone? Please, say something.” Mom looked at me expectantly, wringing her fingers around the cup, her tone was calm and she spoke slowly. She had spoken quickly, her words nearly tripping over one another, as if she hadn’t wanted me to hear them.
The words didn’t register at first, I had to take a moment to let them fit into place. As if she had spoken another language and I had to scramble to translate the words. It felt as if she had spoken another language. Going to Syria? Surely Mom had misspoken somehow, she must have, there was no way she could have just said what I thought she said. She hadn’t just told me she was going to one of the most dangerous places on the planet to try and reason with extremists while I stayed trapped in my own personal hell. Finally a rush of hair escaped my lips in what sounded like a scoff, I ran my hands over the sides of my head to clear the hair from my face. Even a moment after I couldn’t speak or do more than study my hands. “You’re leaving me,” I stated.
Mom blinked, surprised at the bluntness of my response. “No-no, don’t think of it that way. I’m not going away forever, I’ll be back in a few days.”
“And what if you’re not? What then, Mom? What am I supposed to do if you’re not here?” I demanded, my voice broke on the last words and tears threatened to spill out. I wasn’t sad, I was angry, betrayed, and even a little furious. Why did I always have to cry? It was so Goddamn annoying. Crying really takes away from how seriously people perceive you, so when you always cry people just assume you’re over emotional and they never take you seriously. I stood up abruptly and made my way to the stairs, not saying anything, my legs wobbling so badly I feared falling down.
I’d just pulled myself from the pit, and now Mom had all but pushed me back down.
“Where are you going?” Mom asked.
“I-I need to think.” I sprinted up the stairs before Mom could say anything more. When Mom heard the trembling in my voice, saw the waves of panic roll through me like an ocean, Mom usually stopped me to begin sighting some holistic vitamin commercial about deep breathing or enjoying the sunshine or whatever. But this time was different. She didn’t stand to stop me this time, or even call after me. But I wished she had.
I wish I could say that things got better from that point. I wish I could say that we talked about it, maybe if I had acted like the adult I supposedly was, Mom would have understood me. But things only got progressively worse. Mom didn’t try to talk to me, because for once she didn’t know what to say and wasn’t worried about filling the silence; I didn’t talk to her because I felt betrayed, and somehow harbouring the feeling seemed right.
The next few days were all a blur, every day like the one before it. I ate when I had to, slept for intervals of one or two hours at a time, I was up while the rest of my street was asleep and asleep when the sun cooked the earth. I left my room only a handful of times and saw Mom even less. She was constantly pacing around the living room on the phone having a, seemingly, one-sided conversation. I walked to the fridge and grabbed an apple, being as loud as I possibly could. When I walked by her again Mom looked up, she didn’t look angry or hold the speaker and tell me to be quiet like she usually did, rather she gave me an apologetic look and went back to her phone call.
I made my way to the stairs, the apple loose enough in my hand that it could have fallen any second. “You could not go, you know. No one can force you to do anything,” I said, mostly to myself. I didn’t have to look back to imagine what her expression was like, and she momentarily stopped talking. She’d heard me. Had I meant for her to? Would I have spoken if I hadn’t?
For the first time in a long time I dreamt, rather than had a nightmare. It was a memory from long ago. It had happened when I was around six years old; the colours in my mind were faded like an old picture but I remembered it clearly. Mom and I were taking a road trip in the summer, she thought it would do me well to see new things— according to a magazine Mom had read, it was supposed to help me “overcome” my anxiety. We had taken a trip to the Athabasca glacier on the Columbia ice fields. The mountains were dusty brown and jagged with thin sheets of white sloping down the sides and crowning the tops, they reached up into the cloudy sky from all angles. The puffy grey-white clouds looked thicker than the snow, and stronger than the ice. Several kilometres behind us was a lodge, and the tourists poured out of buses, cars, and walked on tennis rackets. People walked onto the ice tentatively or they rushed onto it, some trying to overcome fear and some trying to prove they had none. Despite all the snow and ice it was a cushy ten degrees, which scared me all the more. Through the thick clouds the sun shone so brightly that you could hardly tell it wasn’t a clear day; I tasted the crisp air as it carried various other flavours over my tongue.
“Persephone, come onto the ice!” Mom urged, she stood with her feet buried in thick winter boots and snow but only wore gloves other than that. A family walked by us, chattering happily in some foreign language: as they walked they looked like colourful marshmallows, with their faces buried in scarves. I wore only runners and thin gloves, I could imagine what the cold ice felt like under my jeans. What would it be like to sink beneath the thick layers of clear blue ice? The snow dusting the top layer like powdered sugar would circle in the snow as I fell. Would it hurt? Burn? Would I feel cold or hot? I knew I didn’t want to find out, but I was curious. If I fell through the ice my body would sink to the bottom of the water, would there be fish to keep me company or only pitch blank sand fields? “Sweetie, there’s nothing to worry about.” I could hardly hear her over all the noise, her voice absorbed by snow and drowned in voices from all around.
I reattached my arms to the telephone poll beside me. “No, I don’t want to go! The ice is going to crack! You’re going to fall!” I called out to Mom, my eyes grew wider as I considered the possibility of Mom falling through. I hugged the poll tighter; a few of the families looked over giving mixed looks, a couple children became unsure themselves as they watched my tantrum. “Can we go, please? Mommy, the ice is going to break and you’re going to fall in.” I imagined the swirling waters underneath, ready to pull down anything that was unfortunate enough to slip in. To me I imagined it like drowning in blankets, they pushed you from all around until you’re swallowed, your breath gets hot, and your throat gets dry. Only, unlike the blankets, fighting your way out wasn’t an option.
“Everything is fine, sweetie, this ice is hundreds of thousands of years old,” Mom assured, trying to urge me from the telephone poll. “Millions of people have been on this ice, and nothing has ever happened.”
“That’s why it’s gonna crack, it’s old!” I responded, not letting up my grip.
“Come on, we can do this together, okay?” Mom asked, holding out a hand. “If you come onto the ice with me I’ll pick you up ice cream on the way home.”
Reluctantly I took her hand after a moment. “Okay… B-but if the there’s a loud noise we have to get off the ice right away, okay?” One shaky foot followed another as I followed Mom onto the ice, the traction was unlike anything I’d experienced and it didn’t take two seconds for me to lose my balance. If it hadn’t been for the iron like grip Mom had on my arm, I would have gone down. The snow felt gritty under my runners, and I could feel the salt that had been sprinkled onto the ice. “This isn’t so bad, right?” Mom asked.