For the past five months she held the same front page of the Globe and Mail in her right hand, a mug of English Breakfast in the other. His face never changed, though she noticed something different in his expression every day. He looked older from when she’d last seen him, yes, but also more matured — like he had lived through a thousand wars. There were battle scars in those dark eyes, trauma in the hallows of his cheeks. He hadn’t lived through a thousand wars, only one. She supposed the whole world was living through it too, from different depths, different perspectives, affected in different ways. They’re saying that Muslims from America, Canada, and Britain now are flying to Iraq to join ISIS. She knew it wasn’t exactly the whole world involved, but these were her worlds, places she’d lived in, places she’d considered home at one point or another. She couldn’t imagine these people living alongside her, going to the PA at Parc and Fairmont, the YMCA early in the morning, stopping into a Tim’s on their way to work. Did they drink tea while reading the paper too? Celebrate their birthday with friends and family? Drink red wine on a Sunday evening and commit acts of terror on a Monday morning?
BRITISH JOURNALIST PAUL MARLING BEHEADED BY ISIS
It had been five months, two days and four hours since she first sat down and read that headline. It had been three years, eight days, and nine hours since she had last seen Paul. It had been three years, five days, and two hours since he had phoned her from village in Syria to break up.
Paul was smiling in the photograph. Someone had shot the photo of him stepping out of a white minivan. She often wondered who that person was with him. A fellow journalist? A humanitarian? Another woman? Behind the smile there was fear. She knew because she had memorized every emotion in his face, every line, every wrinkle from the corner of his eyes to the edges of his lips. She could still hear him telling her he was going to the Middle East. He wanted to learn about the crisis first-hand, he’d said. He had touched her arm. She had pulled away. Now, all she wanted was to squeeze every one of his limbs so tight, press him into her, feel the warmth of his body as they lay on her futon on a cold winter night in her shitty Montreal apartment. She could taste him still, whiskey and mint chewing gum, the faint smell of whatever cologne he had been obsessed with that month. Often, she wondered if he’d been wearing cologne when they took him, if he’d been wearing his comfy boxers. She knew how he would have hated if he hadn’t been wearing those ones.
Her phone vibrated. She shuffled the table to find it hiding under the newspaper.
“Elena, it’s Angie.”
“Hi Angie, how are you?”
“Good, thanks. There’s a patient here to see you. Seems like it’s an emergency.”
“Is it Alice?”
“Tell her not to worry and I’ll be in immediately. See you soon.”
She hung up and stepped away from Paul’s smiling face to grab her coat and boots in a hurry. It was a chilly Monday morning, autumn leaves caressed the sidewalk in soft touches of browns and oranges. Elena usually wasn’t in on Mondays. She was grateful for the flexibility of her job, her ability to choose her own hours and the amount of patients she took on. She was doing her masters in Speech Language Therapy when she’d met Paul all those years ago. He was studying Political Science. Tall, British, and bearded, Elena had fallen for him almost immediately. Why did you come to Montreal? She’d asked him. He said he wanted an unfamiliar environment, somewhere where he knew no one and no one knew him. She should have known then that he would always take off, always strive for the next chance to uproot. When he had phoned her those three years, five days, and two hours ago, he had sounded like that Paul she’d first fallen for and part of her hated that she knew she wouldn’t love him the same way if he hadn’t stayed there. He had said he wasn’t sure when he’d be coming home, that he didn’t want her to wait. There was something bigger happening. Something he wanted – needed – to be a part of.
It had been after five pints and a basket of garlic chicken wings that they had found themselves walking down the lamp illuminated streets of downtown Montreal. A thin layer of snow blanketed the ground, and white specks dangled from the sky like a thousand strings of a chandelier. Paul had reached for Elena’s hand that was tucked within the sleeve of her oversized winter coat. Her cheeks had felt hot against the cold night air. She smiled at the ground, feeling his gaze turned toward her. So you want to be a Speech Language Therapist? He’d asked. Elena had laughed and told him, well yes, that’s what her program was. Boring, Paul had teased. He had pointed to the snow falling in front of them and told her that no two snowflakes were alike, they each had their own unique pattern. Elena said that’s what she liked about voices, that no two people sounded the same. Yet, Paul said. It’s all still snow, it all comes from the same place, and it all ends up in the same place. She said he was being too metaphorical. He kissed her. Their mouths were hot and wet, they tasted each other, they breathed in each other, devoured each other. That night Paul took her home where they felt each other’s bodies, exposed, in the darkness of his Montreal apartment.
It was now 10:00AM and most of the morning rush hour traffic had stopped. When she entered the office, Angie smiled at her from the reception and nodded her head in the direction of the waiting room. Call Alice’s father, Elena mouthed. There were a few others seated, an elderly man, a young boy with his two parents, and Alice, sitting patiently with her hands folded in her lap, a red backpack on the floor in front of her.
“Alice?” Elena said. “Would you like to come to my office?”
Alice slid out of the chair and nodded. She followed Elena down the long hall right to the end where she entered and sat down in front of the oak desk. Elena shut the door behind them and sat down across from her.
“Now, how did you manage to get here on your own?”
“My school’s just down, down the street Doctor Bradford. My dad usually…walks me from there, so – so I know the way.”
“Right, well Alice, you know you’re not supposed to leave school on your own like this. Does your father know you’re here?”
“I… had to leave Doctor Bradford.”
“I had a, a, a presentation today… I –I couldn’t do it Doctor Bradford. Thinking, thinking of, well, talking in front of, of, of all those kids. I’m not, not ready yet.”
Elena leaned forward. “Alice, there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. You have come so far from two months ago. You know what I think? I think that you’re just very nervous for this presentation and it’s making you second guess everything we’ve gone over.”
“I’m different, Doctor Bradford…I sound, sound different and they’re all going to laugh and make fun of me.”
“Don’t think about the kids watching. Think about your presentation and how hard you’ve worked on it and how proud of yourself you are. How proud I am –”
The door to the office flung open.
Callum was tall and clean-shaven. His suit was freshly dry cleaned. Elena had gone with him the other day to pick it up, sat in the passenger’s seat of his black Audi with the windows rolled down and CBC Radio 2 Drive’s Rich Terfry talking in his velvety radio voice. Elena was in tune to voices now, they had become embedded in her way of experiencing the world. Alice’s disfluency. Angie’s friendly tone, energy in each inflection. The calmness in Callum on the phone before bed saying goodnight. Paul reading from a script right before the footage blacks out. His voice strong, but she can hear the quaking in each breath between sentences.
Callum bent down beside Alice. “Honey, is everything okay?”
Alice nodded and looked at the floor.
“Alice, why don’t you go wait for your dad in the waiting room? We’ll be just a minute.”
Alice nodded again and got up from the chair, Callum touched her shoulder as she left the room.
“She said she had a presentation. She seems scared to speak in public still.”
“Why did she come here? Why wouldn’t she come home or to my work?” He sighed. “She likes you, you know.”
Elena said nothing but watched as Callum ran his fingers through his hair and leaned on her desk.
“I don’t want her to feel this way. I want her to be normal.”
“She is, Cal. And she will be. Soon. We’re making a lot of progress. She just needs to work on her anxiety. She really needs a comfortable environment, nothing right now that will add excess stress.”
“Like telling her about us?”
Elena said nothing but walked over to the window where she looked out at the trees. How sad autumn is, she thought. The leaves fall and the branches become barren, the whole city like a wasteland. A squirrel sat at the base of a tree, fumbling with an acorn between its tiny fingers. Its head perked up at the sound of an oncoming car on the road a few feet away. A metal barrier separated the traffic from the grass. Often, she stood there at the window watching the world below, watching the same cars passing at the same time every day. Routine. Even the squirrels had routine; harvesting food for the coming winter, darting up the trees. It was all about survival for them. In her world, everyone seemed to have forgotten what it meant to survive. She could feel Callum standing behind her now, his fingers grazing her hip, chin nestled into her shoulder. He smelled like chlorine from his morning swim at the gym. Callum never smelled like whiskey. He never chewed mint gum. He never craved getting drunk and dancing into someone’s arms at 3:00AM on a Wednesday, naked, howling at the moon from a balcony of a shitty Montreal apartment. Callum would never uproot and go halfway across the world, right into the midst of a crisis. The squirrel hovered now at the edge of the bridge between the road and grass. It seemed drawn to the concrete road, watching, listening.
“What are you looking at?” Callum said.
The squirrel darted out across the street and at the same time, a blue sedan whipped into view. Squirrel and vehicle met in the middle of the road. There was nothing left but blood and brown fur, a tail protruding from the flattened corpse.
“Nothing,” Elena said. “I’m not looking at anything.”