Thirteen years later…
“Can… I… Stop yet?” I choked out; it felt as if my lungs were over inflated balloons ready to pop. As I ran I felt my long ponytail sway behind me like a metronome.
An overpowering spectrum of greys swirled all around me: grey buildings, grey asphalt, grey clothes, grey sky. This base looked exactly like the one back in Sweden (I guess that was because they were all standardized by the EU and Canadian government). It was so similar, it was as if we hadn’t moved again. In my peripheral vision I made out my trainer, Kohl, standing contently, only half watching as I forced myself to keep running. Five kilometres, more or less. He held a small black tablet in his hand, and I knew he was playing some kind of game, because every so often he muttered a curse under his breath.
My legs shook uncontrollably and my head throbbed, these were supposed to be cool down laps. But all it was doing was bringing my heart rate up again. Gym class had always been he worst part of my day in grade school, I had believed that now that I went to a small school on the base were gym was optional, I would be done the torture forever. That’s where I had been wrong: Mom had taken it upon herself to hire me a private trainer. Mom wasn’t the most athletically inclined, going through law school fitness hadn’t been her main concern, but she stressed how important it was for me to be fit (in no small part so that I could defend myself). For a two hour period once a day every day, even weekends, I suffered through Kohl’s anxiety-inducing judgemental stare. Each started and ended with a seven kilometre run, and everything between those was up to Kohl’s discretion. It ranged from obstacle courses, swimming laps, training with weapons— my personal favourite— and sometimes even studies on international affairs.
There was one major positive to all this, training always kept my mind preoccupied. When my body was being pushed like this, I couldn’t even think past observations. It felt nice not to worry for a few hours.
The sun was mercilessly hot behind a thick layer of dark clouds, I wished that the rain would just come down already. Kohl never made me run laps in the rain, mostly due to the fact that he himself didn’t want to get wet. Spring was my favourite season in a large part due to the rain, and how it gave everything new life. But it seemed more likely that the downpour would hold off until just after I’d finished.
I stopped suddenly, clamping my leg, as a tremor of pain shot down my calf. “Was ist los?” he asked incredulously, walking closer to me. “You’re not even on kilometer six.”
“I have a cramp in my leg,” I informed him.
“Well, work it out,” he replied shortly.
“Yeah, no, it’s not going away. Can’t we just cut it short today?” The pain in my leg wasn’t going away, so I moved from the side of the track into the more defined shade of the equipment room. The sun was frying the ground and the air was uncomfortably humid, but in the shade it wasn’t as terrible. “It’s like a million degrees out here, c’mon Kohl.”
“It’s like a million degrees? Ja? Because the thermostat beside me says it’s only twenty-one. But you would be more qualified to tell temperature then a thermostat, wouldn’t you?” He pointed to the little screen beside him, which did indeed say twenty-one, as if to further prove his point. I couldn’t help but notice how he wasn’t sweating at all, while I was dripping in sweat. At the moment, Kohl hovered his face inches over a little black tablet. He was a complex man: with ridiculously huge muscles, a thing for eyeliner, and a superiority complex. It took a while to get to know him, and when you did, you realized he was exactly as terrible as he first seemed.
Light splatters began to drop from the sky, staining the pavement and track. The rain soon picked up and a light crackle of thunder followed. After a while the cramp subsided, but I didn’t let Kohl know that. “Ja, fine, we’ll stop here for today. But that just means an extra two kilometres tomorrow,” he said in a bored drawl.
I smiled in relief and felt the cool rain drench me as I walked from the shade of the equipment room and began to walk home. I didn’t care what I would have to do tomorrow, I would burn that bridge when I got there.
In the distance, a crack of lightening momentarily illuminated the sky, and a roar of thunder soon followed. The storm was getting closer. The smell of soil filled the air as puddles began forming in the grass field. I loved rain, just everything about it made me happy: the sound of rain hitting the side walk, how everything suddenly became new and clean, and how the world was transformed into a beautiful and quiet place as people sought out refuge inside. The world became much friendlier when everyone was gone.
Our base in Germany was fairly small, since there were a several more situated around the country and even more around the continent. In fact, when I’d come here I’d heard a boy refer to it as Kleines Gefängnis (little prison) and the name had always stuck for me. Little Prison was basically the same as the base in Sweden, in which we had lived for a year, other than its much smaller size. All the necessities were present, like a school and offices, and our food was delivered to us on a weekly bases, but little prison wasn’t nearly as nice as the base in Sweden.
I slowed down a little bit while walking home, letting the water seep all the way through my clothes to my skin. My legs quivered form the sudden lack of exercise, and my pulse remained rather high, but my chest rose and fell deeply with the sweet scent of rain. Blue lights flickered from closed curtains and wide-open windows, people sat opposite their TVs; they looked drowned out and nearly mannequin-like through the window. I raised my hands to the sky and let the rain wash the sweat from my palms, the taste of salt filled my mouth.
When I got home, my house was a lot livelier than usual. Mom was running around from the living room, to the kitchen, to the dining room, while Lance— my best friend and crush— trailed after her with wine glasses. As soon as Mom saw me enter the house, dripping wet, her eyes went wide. “You’re soaking wet!” she declared. My eyes landed on Lance quickly and I could feel my face heat up, I tore my gaze away and looked again to Mom.
“Well, yeah. It’s raining and I walked home,” I stated as I took of my squeaking boots.
She continued her endlessly chaotic path of orderliness, shouting as she walked. “Go upstairs and get changed! And wear something nice, we have a guest coming!”
“My boss. Please, hurry, and when you’re done come help Lance set the table.”
“Why is Lance setting the table?” I asked, shooting Lance a confused look. He just shrugged.
“Just go get changed, you can talk after! Tonight is very important.” She stressed the word for extra emphasis, as she ran a cloth down the mirror in the dining room.
As I trudged up the stairs, I heard Mom shouting orders at Lance. Mom must have been very stressed out because she hardly every raised her voice, especially towards Lance. She’d always tried to be respectfully courteous towards him, she was just glad that I had a friend and didn’t want to scare him off.
“No! The good wine! It’s in the fridge downstairs… Yes— no… I don’t know, it looks like wine. You know what wine looks like, don’t you? … It’s dark red, the bottle is blueish… What does it smell like? It smells like wine... No, not the white, the red... Yeah, the one with the rose on it?” The conversation was quite humorous to listen to, because I couldn’t hear Lance’s responses, so it just sounded like Mom was having a lively discussion about what wine looked like by herself.
Fifteen minutes later I was ready to go. My outfit clean and mostly matching, my strawberry-blonde hair combed and dried, and even a pair of small diamond studs in my ears and a hint of mascara on my pale eyelashes. Walking back downstairs, I noticed that it was increasingly quieter then when I had gone upstairs.
When I saw Mom in the dining room, she was fixatedly looking at the set table. “Does this look symmetrical to you?” she asked worriedly. She pushed and prodded the plates and glasses around the table.
“Yes, Mom, everything looks fine,” I replied with a small, reassuring smile.
After staring at the table for a moment longer she finally seemed to recall my presence. “You look wonderful. Truly professional,” Mom said. Mom looked more dressed up than I had seen her in a long time: her red-brown hair was twisted up into a bun, she wore a dark grey suit, and her lips were bright red.
“Thanks. Is Lance still here?” I asked, Mom nodded in reply. “Relax, everything will be perfect.” Mom sighed shakily as I fled for the safety of the living room. I wasn’t used to being in the role of comforter, usually it was the other way around. Mom usually wasn’t one to worry, that came as my strength, and for the most part she eluded a constant aura of confidence and meticulousness. In some situations, however, Mom was more nervous, fidgety, and in need of constant vilification. I suppose she’s were I got it from. “Hi,” I greeted, slowing my step as I approached Lance. I hoped he would take notice of how well put together I looked, since in part, I had looked like this for him. My heart rate picked up as I looked him over, he looked more beautiful just sitting on the couch than I ever could.
Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to notice, he never did. Lance lounged against our dark red couch, his arm extended along the back. He looked as if he were deep in thought but his posture was completely relaxed. His blond hair spilled into his eyes and I wondered how that was at all comfortable for him. “Hey,” he replied, looking up at me with his slanted hazel eyes. Lance was a year younger than me, so he’d just turned eighteen; his father in the marines so wasn’t around often, and his mother worked at the main office.
I sat down on the edge of the couch beside him, purposely sitting close enough that I accidentally touched him. He must have realized what I was thinking, I was so painfully obvious. “Why’d you come over?” I asked. “I thought you’d be avoiding me for at least another week.”
Lance said nothing for a moment, then said, “I needed to talk to you. When I rang the doorbell your mom answered and said she needed me to help.”
“Well it was nice of you to help. I know she can be a little… Very hard to deal with when she gets like this.” I laughed slightly, but Lance gave no reply just gave a yup in agreement. “You could stay for dinner if you’d like. I mean, you basically helped make it.”
From the kitchen I heard Mom call, “No he can’t! We don’t have enough plates set out!”
“Mom, were you eavesdropping?” I demanded.
Lance stretched his arms out then curled them over his knees, before standing up. “That’s okay, Persephone. I actually just got a text from my mom, she needs me to help her with something back home.”
“You live alone…?”
“I’ll text you later,” he said before slipping out of the door into the pouring rain. I raised my arm in protest, about to grab onto the hem of his shirt, but I let my arm drop again. I muttered an okay as I watched him disappear out into the rain. When I walked into the kitchen, ready to get after Mom for being unhospitable towards Lance, she seemed to have picked up on the mood.
“He was acting weird, right? It wasn’t just me?” she asked pouring the powdered gravy into a small pot.
“So… Are you excited for graduation?” Mom asked, somewhat awkwardly; her eyes darting around the room every so often, not staying on one thing for too long.
“Yup.” My monosyllabic responses seemed to annoy her but the only hint of it was in her coffee stain eyes while she studied the room. Her lips were slightly pursed, but that could be due to a number of things that displeased her. Mom was extremely particular: she liked things to be in pattern, she liked order and discipline, and for things to be organised and efficient. Mom always made sure everything went the way she wanted it to.
It wasn’t that I was unwilling to talk to her, it was just that my looming graduation was not a favourite topic of mine. Besides, she’d been asking me the same exact question for months now. The thought of the having to make decisions that could potentially determine my future had me a nervous wreck (more so than usual). I didn’t have a clue as to what I wanted to do with my life— job wise. I was averagely smart, not overly talented in one particular area, or very passionate about anyone thing: this averageness scared me more than anything else. There was one thing I’d always really taken a liking to in school, but it was unlikely that I would be able to turn that into a job. Suppose I should be stuck in a dead end, normal job for the rest of my life? With nothing to break up the monotony, sharing my dull life with some other boring person. More than anything I wanted to have something special about me, I wanted to be extraordinary in some way. Anyway. A free year would be great, no classes and no job. Not having to get up at the crack of dawn every morning or fall asleep at night at my desk; being able to explore things that interested me in my own time. I thought what would be the best thing for me. But I already knew the thought of me taking a year off school would not bear well with Mom. Education was above all else in Mom’s books, and she’d be damned if her daughter ended up a freeloader. Mom had made that mistake, Aunt Lisa had made that mistake, and as a matter of fact so had my grandfather, but Mom wouldn’t let me carry on the tradition of dropping out of college or high school and never going back. Mom had gone back, and it had worked out for her, but for my Aunt Lisa and my grandfather, it hadn’t.
“That’s good…” The silence following the conversation was worse than the silence that had proceeded it. Mom hated silence and I was counting down the seconds before she started trying to make small talk again. Any kind of silence bothered her, even comfortable silence. Because to her no silence was comfortable, and if someone else wouldn’t initiate a conversation she did so herself. “I was thinking about painting the living room, any suggestions?” she asked.
“I don’t know… Yellow? I read somewhere that yellow is supposed to help relieve stress. Or maybe that was green,” I replied, looking down at the cualacino next to my plate and running my finger over the cold, damp wood.
“Well, we can go online this weekend and a chose a colour together,” Mom offered. She took a small sip from her wine glass, it was evident that it worried her how late her boss was. Ten past seven that meant… Ten, twenty, thirty… Forty-five, we had been waiting for her boss for forty five minutes. Mom’s apprehension was starting to wear off on me, and my leg began to bounce up and down on the hardwood.
A few painfully long seconds later the doorbell rang. Mom stood in a frenzy, preparing herself quickly: she ran a hand over her head to flatten hairs, a finger under her eyes to catch any smudged mascara or eyeliner, and took a deep breath. She flashed me a self-reassuring smile. “Oh thank God,” she muttered as she then ran to the door, her bare feet slightly gliding across the wooden floor. “Ms. Blanchard, how lovely to see you.”
I heard a set of shoes clacking against the wood, and I could just imagine Mom internally cringing at the thought of her precious hardwood getting scuffed up. “You don’t wear your shoes in the house?” the voice asked.
Finally Mom returned to the doorway with a woman beside her, this woman was undoubtedly the oddest human I had ever seen. For a moment I actually thought she was a mannequin: her skin was smooth, flawless, and lightly bronzed, and she seemed to have an impossibly proportioned body. Her hair was just to the tips of her ears and was all different shades of brown; she had pointedly high cheek bones, and an unnerving smile that was no doubt the result of far too much Botox. I began to fidget with my own hair, pushing it behind my ears and then pulling it up to cover my face. She walked to her empty seat at the table as if there was a pole up her ass enabling her from slouching or lowering her chin. “You must be Elissa’s daughter,” she said, broadening her smile to show startlingly blue-white teeth. “You don’t have to stare. Oh, I know. I had to rush while getting ready, I look just awful. And then that rain!” she said with a chirp like laugh. When no one immediately responded, she cleared her throat slightly.
“Oh, no, no! You look great, Ms. Blanchard!” Mom assured her, as she began bringing the food to the table.
Ms. Blanchard reached out a hand and I took it from across the table: her hand was smooth and soft. “Kathryn Blanchard, it’s a pleasure, and your name is?”
“Persephone, nice to meet you.” I took Kathryn’s hand, then began vigorously rubbing it with a napkin when it was hidden under the table again. After sitting, Kathryn pulled a white handkerchief from her suite pocket and lay it across her lap; her maroon lipstick left a crescent shaped stain on the wine glass.
Contrary to my assumption, Kathryn didn’t automatically turn the conversation around to herself. I’d kind of pegged her as that sort of person, but in fact she refused to share very much about herself at all. The most personal thing she spoke about was that she was married. When Mom started to ask questions, Kathryn simply stated that she’d met her husband through work.
After that the conversation turned back to my mother, and though I could see she was uncomfortable answering all those questions, I was just glad that I wasn’t the topic of discussion. I didn’t want a repeat of the all the awkward post-graduation discussions I’d had with my mother and just about everyone else. Sufficient to say, Kathryn was exceptionally nosy.
My father was hardly mentioned in conversations between Mom and I, he’d never been in my life and Mom didn’t like talking about him. It was very personal subject— which is probably why Kathryn brought it up. Though, reasonably, I knew there was no way she could have known all this. “Your husband, what does he do?” Kathryn asked.
Mom smiled uncomfortably, her ruby lipstick juxtaposed to her pearly white teeth. “I’m not married,” she replied. “Would you like some more wine? I think I—” Mom was half standing when Kathryn spoke again.
“You two are divorced then? That must have been hard on you.” At this Kathryn cast a short glance in my direction to gauge my reaction. It seemed she liked to say whatever tumbled through her fat head and see how people took it, then judge them based on that. When I thought this, I caught myself, of course Kathryn would be able to tell what I was thinking. Damn, I would cost Mom her job if Kathryn knew what I was thinking of her.
“Oh, I just assumed because…”
“He… He left shortly after Persephone was born.”
I looked over to Mom, who was still half standing half sitting holding her empty wine glass in one hand. She looked like she was about to cry, so finally I brought the attention to myself. I shuddered at just the thought of Kathryn’s hawk-like eyes fixating on me. “I’m graduating in a few weeks,” I said, not actually believing for that this would manage to change the course of the conversation.
It did. “Oh, well that’s so exciting for you. Any plans?” she asked. Mom breathed a sigh of relief and thanked me quietly as she slipped off into the kitchen.
“Nope, not really. I may take an astronomy class at a nearly by university but other than that… No clue.”
Kathryn laughed her chirpy laugh again. “Astronomy? What would you do with that? Oh, dear, in my opinion astronomy is utterly useless. We have to focus all our attention on this planet.” It took everything in me not to narrow my eyes and sneer at her: I didn’t ask you what you thought of my plans for the future. “A pretty, young girl like you. You could do whatever you wanted! Why not leave the science to the homelier people?”
It took me a moment but her words finally sank in. The words erupted from me before I could contain them, “Excuse you, but what gives you the right to commentate on other people’s lives? And why the hell would appearance have anything to do with whether or not someone should pursue science.” A gasp escaped my mouth when I had finished speaking, drowning out my last words. My eyes were wide and I stared in horror. Oh no, this was bad. Very, very bad. What had I done? How could I talk to Mom’s boss like that? I mean, it was true but still… I meant it, but… Did that mean I wasn’t supposed to regret it? Because I regretted it, yes, yes, I regretted it.
From the door way I heard Mom clearing her throat, she quickly walked to the table. A full bottle of wine in one arm and her full glass in the other. “Persephone is just a little touchy on this subject. Graduation can be scary and she’s always been the anxious type!” Mom laughed nervously.
“Well, we are always looking for new able bodied men and women in the IPC,” Kathryn declared as she began cutting into her dinner. The IPC— or International Peacekeepers Corporation— was the company Kathryn ran, the company my mother worked for, and also the last place on earth I wanted to end up. The IPC had close ties with a lot of governments, which is how Mom had ended up getting the job. It was supposed to be an NGO, but I wasn’t sure how that was all working out. Mom had started out in training for the Canadian Army part time (doing paper work), to pay her way through law school when she finally went back, and the IPC had found her from there. Mom worked for IPC, which is why Kathryn was at our house, but she also notarized documents for the Canadian Government occasionally. She didn’t get paid for it, but sometimes Mom liked to take up cases for the Canadian army, she said it was because she liked the challenge.
Anyway, I didn’t want to work for the IPC because it would either end with me stuck behind a desk or working on the field. Neither appealed to me.
What was so wrong with wanting to watch the stars and marvel at the formation of the universe?
I would have done anything to be anywhere but at that table. But unfortunately I was stuck with Kathryn, who was seemingly trying to recruit me, and Mom, who was trying to drown her nerves in wine.