July 14th came and went, and with it came guilt. It was Mom’s birthday, but I still wasn’t ready to talk to her or see her more than I already had to. I was being childish, I know, but I couldn’t seem to control my emotions and just when I thought I had cleared my mind, I saw Mom and everything started all over again. If I had been practical about it I would have spent every last second of the day with her while I still could, but I wasn’t being practical. It’s painful really, how much you can regret stubborn decisions.
It had been two weeks since the bombing, and though I was trying hard to deny the world around me, I couldn’t completely ignore the quickly changing atmosphere. There was no direct action taken, though I was hardly paying attention at that point, but people adjusted themselves to the new world we lived in. A world where the country we had always believed to be so far from harm, a home so removed from affairs, that we would never be a target for anyone. Though I was trapped in my mind most of the time, when I went out I became exceptionally good at people-watching. Watching people from afar suited me much better than interacting with them anyway. It was amazing to me how people interacted, when you stood back to appreciate it, especially in times of crisis. The slight shifts of shoulders, the way veins pressed against paper thin skin, watchful eyes and light feet. No one knew who was in on it, no one knew who to trust. Unfortunately, bad habits die hard, and racial profiling always found a way to slip in when everyone was too scared to notice.
On Sunday, the following day, I was curled up on the couch, my arms wrapped around my knees under the silky orange blanket. Wide eyed, I watched the pictures of stars, nebulae, and the vast universe flash across the screen; seeing this kind of beauty made me wonder how there could be so much hatred and fear right outside my door. Car Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. I wished everyone could see the world the way he did, I wished I could see it that way. “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”
When the downstairs door creaked open, I was pulled from the world of stars and science, and sent crashing back to my reality. For a moment I almost hopped from the couch and ran for the stairs, but by that time Mom had reached the top step. When Mom saw me she paused, looking as if she were seeing a wild animal on her lawn rather than her daughter on her couch. To be fair, with the way I’d been acting, the chances were probably just as high for either. “What are you watching?” she asked, hanging her coat in the closet and trying to hide the look of surprise on her face.
I paused the show so she could see the title but didn’t actually answer her. Moments later Mom sat on the other couch, exactly where I’d been sitting when she’d told me she was leaving. I pressed play again and tried to focus on the TV, trying to recapture the wonder I’d felt only seconds a go. It wasn’t Mom’s fault she had to go, but to me it felt as if she were abandoning me, and I suppose I was trying to ready myself for the actual thing by being distant. “Persephone, at some point we have to talk,” she said, a little more commanding and Mom-like than I’d heard it in a while. “I am not going to leave you like this, I won’t have you resent me for abandoning you.”
This got my attention. “I don’t resent you, Mom.”
“Then why are you acting like this?”
“I’m just mad, am I not allowed to be mad now?”
“Don’t take that tone with me, I’m only asking you a question.” Before her voice rose any more she caught herself, taking a deep breath she tried again. “We’re going out, go get dressed.”
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see when we get there.”
“That’s not a proper answer,” I replied, but I went upstairs to get dressed.
An hour in and Mom still wouldn’t tell me where we were going. The signs were of no help, since for a large portion of the ride they simply pointed out suburbs of Ottawa, break checks, or gas stations. I watched the landscape as we drove in silence, changing from wetlands to forests in the blink of an eye. It amazed me whenever I got to see this much nature. There hadn’t been much more than farmer’s fields and developments around Little Prison, and though there certainly was wildlife in Germany, I never got to see it. Gothenburg, the city we lived in for a year in Sweden, was better but I’d always missed my home. Well, now I was back just in time for it to be attacked and for the people to turn on one another.
Personally, I think my fear of death was amplified by the fact that I felt, up to that point, my life had been fairly meaningless. I mean, what had I really done? I hadn’t made any sort of impact that would benefit, or even cause detriment to, the world. I was scared of dying, not so much because of what came after, but because not only would I have been forgotten, I would have never been remembered. Dwelling on death sent me, like most people, into a loop of existential questions. Most prominent, did I even deserve to live? I rationed to myself all the time that one day I would do something, be someone, and my existence would be worthwhile. But what if that day never came, and it had all been for nothing? What if I passed through life not even scratching the surface? I wanted to live passionately, I wanted a job I loved, I wanted to not always be so fucking scared. All those people who had died from the attacks, all the people who died every day, they were probably worth a million of me. So why was I still here? While they decomposed back into the universe.
A simple answer would be entropy. There is no reason. Pure chance. I happened to survive because conditions were favourable for me and not favourable for others. But that didn’t mean it felt right, didn’t mean I felt any less guilty simply for being alive.
In some ways science made me feel better, I was part of a greater whole. Nothing that spectacular, nothing that would last very long, nothing that mattered that much. In some ways it took the pressures off. But I couldn’t help but wonder, were we all that existed? Would my eyes just close one day and then… Nothing? What would that nothing be like? Unimaginable, unfathomable. It’s nearly impossible to wrap your mind around the concept of nothing.
Finally Mom broke the silence, pulling me from my trance. The world took a moment to snap back into focus, but when I looked at Mom I felt as if I were looking at her for the first time in a long time. How had she changed so much in only a few days? Her hair was neatly held back in a ponytail, and her features were softened with makeup, but I could see the signs. Mom bit her nails when she was worried, her fingers flexed over the steering wheel with jag-tipped ends. There was a vein that bulged in her neck, I saw it every time she moved her head towards me, and it stuck out as if her jaw were constantly clenched. Had I done this to her? “I’m sorry for the way things have been between us. This is a difficult time, and this wasn’t how I wanted to tell you or how I wanted things to turn out. I can’t change the fact that I’m going, it’s my job and my responsibility as a Canadian. I’ll be leaving in only a couple more days, but what I do between then and now is up to me. Can you understand?” Before I could answer, she followed up by saying, “We’re here.”
The car pulled to a gentle stop and the gravel settled beneath the tires; Mom pressed off the ignition key and got out, I followed. The air was slightly cooler than before, but the ever present summer buzz still electrified the air. When I shut the car door behind me, I let my fingers linger on the smooth metal. I stretched my arms over my head, feeling the pull in my sides and the crack in my spine. A melting sun dripped behind the black-green evergreens that reached into the sky. It was moments like this that made me feel omnipresent and infinitely small at the same time. The beauty and simplicity seemed to almost mimic the thoughts I’d had earlier: I am here now, and I am temporary, just like these trees and this sunset. There was the slight rustle of voices hidden by trees, but it was quite for the most part. It was also dark, relative to what I was used to anyway, there were no street lights or artificial lights of any kind. “Where are we?” I asked.
“North Frontenac Dark Sky Preserve. I wish I could give you the stars, Persephone, but letting you see them is the best I can do.” I looked around me, listening to the silence and watching the creeping darkness. As the sun fell to its knees, the stars seemed to come out of hiding. Mom lay a blanket on the cool hood of the car, and we sat on the hood. It took a few minutes for the last of the sun’s rays to disappear; then the stars twinkled like fireflies against the blackness. With the beauty of the universe unfolding like a story above us, I almost wanted to cry from the overwhelming feeling of it all. “Even from our house, which is a short while from downtown, the best you can see are the North Star and the Big Dipper. Here you can see the milky way and thousands of stars.”
“It’s beautiful,” I muttered. I remembered watching the sky with Mom when I was younger from our backyard in British Columbia, but even then I had never seen this many stars. It was almost sad that it had taken me nineteen years to see something right above my head. “Mom, when you were a kid, could you see the stars from your backyard?”
It was hard to read Mom’s features because of the dim lighting, but it almost seemed as if she were smiling. “I couldn’t see many, by the time I was born Saskatoon already had pretty strong light pollution. But my Dad used to drive Lisa and me out to see the stars sometimes. Your aunt didn’t seem to care much for the sky, she would rather have stayed home with Mom, but I was always fascinated by it.” My tooth found my bottom lip and chewed it softly, I smiled at the story but I felt guilty. Sometimes when I got this caught up in my head, it was hard to remember that other people were people too—that they’re lives were just as full and complex as mine. Every time I heard a story like this from Mom, it reminded me of how little I knew about her.
Mom liked watching the night sky the same way I did. We had that in common. I could store that bit of information and pull it up again if I needed a reason to smile.
There was one other question, it had been burning in the back of my mind for as long as I could remember. I had never dared to ask it before. Could I risk it now? Surely Mom wouldn’t get mad at me. “Mom… What was Dad like?” I asked, half expecting her to get angry or shut me down immediately.
Instead she took a deep breath, she didn’t seem surprised exactly but her response was careful. “I loved your father, I really did, and he wasn’t a bad man. I suppose he just wasn’t ready for this sort of a life, for such a commitment. Your father was an actor, believe it or not, I met him while I was going to university in Vancouver. He was very handsome and charismatic, he used to save me front row seats to his shows and sometimes he would sneak into my lectures to surprise me. He got me kicked out more than once. Your grandparents didn’t like him very much, they wanted me to find a Greek husband and grow up the traditional way they had, but I realized from an early age that traditional wasn’t what I wanted. Even though your grandparents didn’t exactly approve of all my choices, they moved to Vancouver for us and they watched you while I finished my Masters. It took them a while to get used to Vancouver after having lived in Saskatchewan their whole lives, but they helped us out a lot.” Another bit of information, another puzzle piece about my life. Now I knew a little about my father. I knew he had been an actor, and I knew Mom had loved him.
It was silent for a long moment after that, the silence wasn’t uncomfortable to me and Mom actually seemed to enjoy it too. I felt peaceful and almost happy. “I don’t want you to leave,” I said, keeping my eyes trained on the sky.
Mom put her arm around my shoulder and pulled me into a side hug, I let my head fall on top of hers. For a second I was brought back to that moment, thirteen years ago, when Mom and I had been sitting on the back of an ambulance kind of like this. Only then my head had barely reached her shoulder, and I could never have predicted that Mom would be leaving me like this. “Persephone, you are the strongest person I know. You can do anything, I know you don’t believe it, but I do. Everyone has hard moments, moments that test them, only those who can live through them get to experience the beautiful things in life. This is your moment. it's not going to be easy, for either of us, but when this is all over everything will be better because of it. The outcome of this meeting has the potential to affect millions of people, not just you and me. You see why this is important, right?” I nodded, an awkward gesture with her head beneath mine. “Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the greater good, but that’s the best kind of legacy we can leave behind.”
It was hard to tell now where the earth ended and the sky began, the stars and moon were the only light. I’d never seen darkness this way before, it was mesmerizing. Mom’s words echoed in my ears, mixed with my earlier train of thought. The world beyond this place, beyond this time, seemed a distant dream. All I thought about were the sky, Mom’s arm around my shoulder, and the story of my actor father and Greek grandparents.
A few days after that Mom left. In light of recent events, Mom and the others would be flown to a secret location in Syria from a secret take off point somewhere in Canada: that somewhere in Canada was Ontario, but that was as much as I was allowed to know. I wasn’t able to go with Mom to see her off, so I had to say goodbye to her when she left home. Mom told me that she had called my aunt Lisa to check up on me on their way to Quebec, and that her next paycheque would be forwarded to me for rent and groceries.
While she was finishing her last minute packing, I tucked a picture into her suitcase, protected by lays of clothing. It was of Mom and me at Carnival in Hamburg a few years ago.
Then she gave me a tight hug, and I tried not to cry. The last thing she needed was me making this harder on her than it already was. All too soon, she was gone, and all that remained were a pair of taillights rounding the street off Roger Road.
It was only five thirty in the morning, but already I felt exhausted.
Later that day I called Jason, I couldn’t stand the emptiness of the house any longer. I had to keep myself from thinking, and social interactions often seemed the best way to distract me.
I went through all the rituals of clearing my mind, then began to put myself together for the day. As I took a shower, I let the cold water run over me, raising goosebumps in its search for the floor. A shiver ran through my spine and hot water definitely would have been more comfortable, but something about the alerting coldness helped me keep calm. I pulled cool air past my dry lips and into my lungs, I imagined it filling every crevice of my lungs and swirling through every cell in my body. Foot shaped puddles followed me as I meandered through the bathroom: drying off, combing my damp hair into a braid, and swiping soft powder brushes and mascara wands over my face and eyelashes.
Jason picked me up, looking much healthier than the last time I saw him. He told me he had taken my advice and told his parents, who had of course been upset, and had taken him to the hospital again. There he had gotten pills that, when ingested regularly, stimulated the clothing factors in his cells so his wounds could heal properly. He said I looked better too, all my bruises were gone and my face had more colour in it. The colour was because of the makeup. I certainly wasn’t feeling any better than a week ago.
We went to an Italian diner, and I used the last twenty dollars I had on me to buy a lazy Greek salad. The diner was fairly empty and the staff looked absolutely bored, the chef was leaning through the window to catch the news playing on one of the flat screens in the corner. The diner had a mural of the Sicilian country side and washrooms with dull plaques that read Donne and Uomini. Jason wore a plain sweater that said Oxford on the front, and I vaguely remembered him saying something about it. I decided to start there.
“When are you leaving again?” I asked.
“I’m going to take an early course that runs about a week before the semester actually starts—my ticket is for August 20th. I’ve been putting off packing because it’s still a month away, but at the same time it’s only a month away. I got into the dorms there, so I don’t have to worry anymore about finding a flat of my own. Have you thought about what you’re going to do in the fall?” Jason had finished off a slice and a half of pizza in the ten minutes we’d been here, and I’d hardly made a dent in my salad. I wasn’t hungry, though I hadn’t eaten all day. There was a sinking, heavy feeling in my stomach and it was uncomfortable to swallow. I couldn’t seem to distract myself. All I could do was worry about Mom. She should be in Syria by now, would she find a way to let me know? Was she safe? How long before I saw her again?
“I haven’t thought about it much, maybe taking a gap year isn’t such a bad idea. I’m not really sure what I want to do anymore,” I replied honestly. The thought had been crossing my mind, but I had yet to bring it up to Mom.
Jason smiled, his dark lips revealing even, white teeth. His smiles always reached his eyes, they made you feel like he understood you. “That’s smart. Don’t go to university just for the sake of it, make sure you know what you want to do first. It took me a while too, I was actually starting to worry that I’d never find what I’m passionate about. For a couple years after I finished high school, I worked as a security guard and then I was lucky enough to get that job at the Parliament building. I want to protect people, save them from harm. And yeah, I suppose I could stay here for school but I actually got in—I would be insane not to go. And the best part is my boyfriend got a transfer with his work, so he can come with me. I’m so relieved, because now we don’t have to try the whole long distance thing.” I could see Jason’s future unfolding before his eyes. The clarity and certainty, the passion. I envied him for them.
The volume on the TV suddenly increased and we all got a loud shh from the chef. We looked to him and then to the TV. My heart dropped and my skin went cold.
“… Though their current positions are being kept secret for security reasons, it has been confirmed that the Canadian representatives, led by Elissa Adner and Avi Varma, touched down in Syria sometime within the last hour. We are unable to get interviews with the representatives from either country, nor their respective governments for the moment. But, as can be seen here on the ground, there many mixed emotions. Most believe this is an important step in keeping action from acclimating, however many fear this will only further aggravate the Brotherhood of the Faithful and Redeemed, also known as the Salvation Society. This active terrorist group has had a strong hold on northern Israel, Lebanon, as well as much of Syria and Jordan. Josef Iren, the suspected orchestrator of the bombing at Parliament Hill has been vocal in his and the Salvation Society’s disapproval of having Adner and her team in the country. Though no attacks nor threats have been made, civilians are rightfully worried—many are even preparing for situations in which they may be forced to leave their homes.” The shot panned back and forth between a woman wearing a hijab and thick, round glasses and views of nervous looking civilians. The reporter held a thin microphone up to people who looked rather unwilling to be on camera.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to calm myself, the smell of the diner suddenly making me nauseated. “Persephone, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I just—” My reply was interrupted by an explosion. It sounded almost identical to the day I had been in the Parliament library. A loud scream erupted from my lips and ripped open my throat on the way up. The walls started shaking and the TV fell from its perch, glass shards scattering across the floor. From the kitchen pots, pans, and glasses clattered to the ground. People screamed, the glass exploded, and from somewhere I heard gun fire. Jason grabbed my hand and started pulling me along, we rounded the corner into ambient light and he pushed me toward a door that read Personale. “What? Why?” I stammered as he let go of my arm.
“Hide in here. Lock the main door, turn off the light and hide in one of the stalls, make sure you lift your feet off the ground,” he instructed.
“But I—what about you?” I asked.
“I’ll come get you when it’s safe, don’t come out before that; if someone asks to come in, don’t open the door.” With that he ran around the corner again, from where the screaming and gun fires resonated. Fear and confusion paralyzed me for a moment, and my vision ebbed to red. Before I had time to faint, or even think much more, I followed Jason’s instructions. I ran into the washroom and turned off the light, using my phone, I made my way to the far stall and locked that too. I dimmed the screen and tentatively started tipping out a help message.
Please help, I am locked in a room in the back of the Italian Affair diner on Elgin Street. There was an explosion a few minutes ago and now there are—
Another explosion. The building groaned and I felt plaster rain from the roof, the mirror fell and shattered on the ground. I dropped my phone and it hit the floor, the faint light casting a reverse shadow onto the roof. I had to bite back the scream that threatened to escape. When I picked it up, it nearly slipped from my shaking fingers; somehow I managed to hit send.
Where was Jason? What was he doing? Why wasn’t he in here with me? What was going on out there? Was the building going to collapse on me?
Before I could think much more my mind was quickly preoccupied. The sound of someone pulling on the door handle and pounding on the door echoed through the small, dark room. Someone knew I was in here, and if they got that door open, it would be seconds before they found me. I clamped a hand over my mouth and bit down hard on my bottom lip.
This was how I would die.