Wren clutched a lukewarm coffee to her chest, trying to absorb the last of its warmth into her bony hands, as if she could create a reservoir of heat that would sustain her for the next eight hours of sitting on the cold, hard concrete. Maybe then she would stop shaking.
“Work, work, work,” Wren muttered to herself as people marched and stomped and strode past her without a second glance. The busyness of downtown always reflected the condition of the economy, its steel and glass offices constructed in good times, only to be vacated and left for dead in hard times. She guessed things were on the upswing recently, as the streets were starting to fill up again after a couple years of eerie emptiness.
The state of the economy had little effect on Wren, as far as she could tell. People, in good times or bad, didn’t care about those lining the streets with cups and signs and toques, asking for something—anything.
“Like they care how I got here,” Wren mumbled. “They only care that they aren’t sitting next to me.” She watched a power couple click by, intent on their mission to buy and sell more crap the world didn’t need.
She had been told before to simply get her shit together by a counsellor at the drop-in centre. He asked, what was so fucking terrible in her past that she couldn’t get over it? Hmmm? It came with raised eyebrows, smug looks, condescending sighs—the works. One particular counsellor asked if she shoved needles in her veins and powder up her nose for shits and giggles. And in the next breath asked if she gave blowjobs for a hit. Wren threw a stapler at him, immediately being escorted outside the building for her inappropriate behaviour.
They would never understand how she had to silence the ghosts, any way she could. The voices and stories that haunted her day and night. In their generosity and eagerness to share, the ghosts often brought Wren more than images. They brought searing pain and suffocating loneliness. They made Wren feel their virginity ripped from them at nine years old, and forced her to long for a mother lost in the middle of the night. They asked Wren to understand—if only for a minute—what it felt like to welcome death after a lifetime of men looming over them, controlling every aspect of their lives.
Anyone in Wren’s situation would seek the silence only a good high could produce. But no one cared to understand that.
Alex slammed her car door and turned sharply to exit the parkade. She had just narrowly missed sideswiping another car in the cramped quarters of the parkade, and as she drove past the guy in his sleek, red BMW, she clearly saw him mouth stupid bitch.
She admitted to herself, as she stepped out onto the street, that her depth perception was indeed fading as she got older, but it was the automatic insult that irritated her. She knew most men thought women as useless behind the wheel as a teapot made of chocolate. Or a knitted condom. She snorted, reminding herself to tell that one to Lawrence. He’d be proud of her snark.
She pulled her wool coat’s collar up around her neck and tucked her mouth inside it, regretting the ponytail that left her ears exposed. The icy winter wind whipped through downtown Calgary, collecting speed and chill as it squeezed between the tall buildings. “Heaven forbid a woman screwed up in a man’s presence,” she muttered into her collar. She knew that if you weren’t hot, you better be pretty damn perfect in a man’s eyes to avoid insults like stupid bitch for almost hitting his stupid, precious car.
She walked toward her office building, her long stride and upright stance merging with the rest of the downtown crowd. She, like the rest of them, had a busy day ahead of her.
Wren looked up to see a clump of people approaching her. With one hand, she held out a dirty styrofoam cup, her coffee in the other. In the midst of the crowd, she saw a woman walking confidently, eyes boring forward. She had a warm-looking grey coat that Wren wished for a moment she could steal. As stupid a thought as it was (the woman probably had a foot in height and fifty pounds in weight on Wren), she envisioned herself punching the woman in the gut and pulling it off her, making off into the alley where the woman wouldn’t dare follow.
Wren shivered. Looking at the coat as the woman got closer only made Wren more aware of how goddamned cold she was. Only a few feet from her, the businesswoman suddenly stopped and turned her head to look directly at Wren, Exorcist-style.
As they made eye contact, a weird sensation filled Wren’s body. Almost like a tingling. Kind of like when the CTrain winged past and Wren felt the vibrations come up through the sidewalk and into her body. But this time, it was coming from the top down. Wren blinked in an effort to break the woman’s intense gaze. Wren saw that her face was blank, as if someone had said something to her she didn’t understand, but slowly she saw a line grow between the woman’s dark eyebrows.
Wren squirmed and dropped her head, trying to blend into the group of men surrounding her. She didn’t want to see how the woman looked at her any longer. The way she knew they all looked at her. With disgust for her representation of the female gender.
It was easier to disappear. She focused intently on the cup in her hand and not the woman staring at her. She flinched as she saw some toonies fall into the cup. She knew it was the woman who had put them in, but did not look up to acknowledge her. She wanted to say thank you, but apparently all that would come out was a whispering, “Goawaygoawaygoaway.”
Just move on, Wren urged the woman silently. You gave me the money, now go! This was a good start to the day’s collection, and Wren hoped she could afford smack instead of a pill. Heroin was the best way to become invisible. There was a reason it was known as sweet dreams.
And to create silence. She pictured the ghosts running, one step ahead of the amber nectar that would hopefully surge through her body soon.
Alex had dug into her purse and dropped the change into the woman’s cup without a thought, which was highly unusual for her. She stood there, trying to will the woman to look up at her again. I want to see your eyes. As she approached the group of homeless people, she planned on plowing past them, but the lone woman in the middle caused her to screech to a halt.
She normally ignored the junkies and homeless people. Continually being asked for money was (she hated to admit it) annoying. She could think of so many other ways she would spend her time than sitting in the same spot for eight hours begging for money, even if she was an addict. Picking bottles, cleaning up garbage, looking for items of use. Guilt swamped her thoughts. She knew that these people likely had problems bigger than cashing in a couple of juice boxes could fix.
People brushed past her as she stood frozen to the spot. Her inner voiced yelled at her to get moving, that she was acting incredibly weird, but her legs wouldn’t budge. In a far-off sense, she realized that she couldn’t feel her ears anymore. But what about this woman? How could she not freeze to death sitting on the concrete like that? The homeless woman didn’t appear to have an ounce of fat to spare. Alex heard a high-pitched buzzing in her head. Damn tinnitus, she thought vaguely.
The woman finally looked back up to meet Alex’s eyes. The thrum of noise surrounding them muffled. Time seemed to slow enough for Alex to see her. Alex couldn’t decide how old she was. Maybe in her forties or her twenties. She was thin and hunched over. She had scabs on her face, unkempt hair, and dirty, worn-out clothes. But as Alex held her gaze, it occurred to her how much more this woman was than what she could see.
After twenty years of walking the same path to work, seeing the same people lining the sidewalks, a thought occurred to Alex. She is someone’s daughter. And possibly someone’s sister, aunt, cousin, or even mother. Alex felt her throat constrict as her brain went into overdrive. How does a person find herself in this situation? If not now, this woman must have once been dearly loved by someone. A mother or father? She wondered what broke this woman and brought her to the street. How did she go from being a perfect, innocent baby resting in her mother’s arms to here? Or had she ever been that? What was the exact moment someone let her down, causing her life to spiral out of control? Alex’s mind swam with the questions that bombarded her. She blinked quickly several times as if trying to clear them out while the woman watched her.
The bubble around them suddenly popped and time started back up. Reluctantly, Alex started walking away. She shook her head and tried to focus on what she had to accomplish today. It was Monday and the first day of the merger. She had to make herself known to any new would-be usurpers keen on making a name for themselves amid the transition.
But even as her heels resumed their rhythmic ticking—a metronome set to about one-twenty—she couldn’t get the woman out of her mind. The image of her staring back while her cracked lips moved minutely, muttering to herself, was burned in place. Somehow, Alex felt responsible for the woman’s situation. Which was ludicrous.
This was supposed to be a dog-eat-dog world, everyone responsible only for himself.
A man’s world.
Wren had watched the emotions work over the businesswoman’s face with interest. She wondered if the woman stopped because she had felt the same buzzing. Of course, that was a dumb idea. There must have been something about her that the woman felt required further inspection. Wren touched the big scab on her face that she couldn’t stop picking at. “No one actually cares about you,” she hissed. “No one ever has.”
She put her head back down but watched through a part in her hair as the businesswoman disappeared down the street and into the crowd. Wren tried to ignore the excited nattering inside her head from those damn women.
The ghosts whispered among themselves, excited that the time had finally arrived. They had been contained for so, so long. It was hard to submit your individual desires for the bigger picture. This was the mother of group efforts. A sequence of lives that had been planned out long before each of them actually existed.
They knew exactly how many times and in which ways women had to be broken to rebuild themselves—precisely prepared for this moment.
Later that afternoon, after Wren scored, they giggled as the heroin sent them scurrying into the recesses of her mind. They let her think she was free of them, if only temporarily. It was what she needed to get through, and they let her have it. But they could not contain their joyful anticipation fully.
The time was finally here.