“Are they …?” Colin muttered.
“Best not to ask,” Jesse muttered back. “It’s not like we can tell – holy jeez!” he said, louder than intended. The tableau had shifted again. Kima was climbing up the anchor rope of a sailing ship and stealing glimpses of books about astronomy and navigation and natural history, all in Greek. The perspective shifted with the rocking motion of the boat.
“Oog,” Colin muttered, and looked away. If he wasn’t driving, he got car sick very easily.
Kima’s voice reached them without effort. “I didn’t know George and Michel then. They hadn’t been born. I met their mothers, and their fathers. Phokas taught me Greek and the Greek alphabet. It took a couple of years, but I became literate in a human language for the first time, and started to learn. Something shifted inside me as I read.”
“I learned more and travelled the world looking for knowledge. I met Michel, and through him I met George and the three of us agreed to share what we learned about humans and science. We weren’t very careful about how we did it. Humans got hurt.”
“I’m not sorry, they were bad men, and you’re not getting a phoney apology,” Michel yelled. He wasn’t amplified, but it didn’t matter. He could bellow like a mythical beast.
“We wouldn’t expect it, Michel,” Jesse yelled back.
“You two be quiet now, you’ll get your turn,” Kima said, irked. “George and I intend to apologize to all of you for hurt we’ve caused to humans. If we don’t then we’re just oppressors with a good backstory.”
There was a pause.
“I don’t remember that part,” Kima said.
“Sorry,” George said. “I should have taken it out again.”
Colin and Jesse and Anh, shoulders shaking, made little gasping noises. Their suppressed giggles were promptly drowned out.
“That isn’t what I wanted to say, that isn’t it at all!” Kima said, very loud. The quiet water of the cove appeared to boil and foam, and a large, red and orange bouncy-castle version of a cuttlefish popped up out of the disturbed waves like a cork, leaving the water entirely and then settling, off kilter. The eyes swivelled. Paolo could be heard stuffing himself into his father’s coat again.
The giant cuttlefish addressed George and ignored the humans, and Michel, relishing the opportunity, assisted her.
“It was humans who gave me back the science and mathematics that are the birthright of our species. It is humans who are helping me understand what my body is made of. Humans are teaching me that each of us is a song.”
An immense rubber sword fell out of the sky into the inflated cuttlefish. It exploded. A thousand parachute flares leapt into the sky above the celebrants, pushed by the flailing, deflating arms of the cuttlefish, and accompanied by a cracking noise and a hissing of red sparks over the water.
“Who the hell’s the art director?” Anh muttered. “This’s nothing like the storyboard.”
George’s voice, much quieter, said, “Show them.”
The parachute flares vanished when they fell to three metres above ground, which was a relief, because they looked all too real. They were replaced by sheer blackness – a blackness so dark that after the brightness of the flares it felt like being shoved into a cave.
A yellow star appeared in the middle of the screen. It got bigger and bigger and bigger, until, using the latest research satellite data in an incredibly detailed false colour view, it consumed the screen.
“Sol,” George said. The point of view flew past Mercury – rendered in false colour – and Venus, a cloudy blob. They came up to Earth from the dark side of the moon, speeding over the surface at such a low altitude Jesse felt like he could have stuck out his hand and scooped up moon dust. Then the point of view halted in a stationary position from perhaps a thousand kilometres above ground. Every satellite currently orbiting Earth, including dead and damaged ones, was picked out and named, with the nationality and ownership marked with little flags. Some of the tags were red.
“Everything marked in red is in a decaying orbit and a risk to Earth,” George said calmly. “I intend to take out the orbital trash.”
The point of view showed George, in his Sixer form, humming a English music-hall tune (Finck’s Gilbert the Filbert), bouncing between the satellites like a pachinko ball and knocking them out of orbit, away from earth. Some of them crashed into the moon, making little screaming noises as they did so. The rest got shoved toward the sun.
“But what I really want to do,” George said, in the same warm, conversational tone, “Is to prevent this from happening.”
They saw George’s reconstruction of the Chelyabinsk Event in three quick vignettes; from orbit, from 20 kilometres above Russia, and, in the most eye-popping special effect any of them had ever seen, riding the superbolide down through the atmosphere at 69,000 kph until it exploded with a flare that was, briefly, brighter than the sun. The ground shook. Paolo sobbed into his dad’s shirt.
“Will you help me try to prevent this from happening?” George asked.
“I will,” said the old lady.
“We will,” said the other Unitarians, who were used to liturgy on the fly.
“We will,” the rest echoed.
“I will,” Paolo said, hiccupping, officially becoming the cutest little un-indicted co-conspirator.
“I pledge my aid to you for as long as I am on earth and alive,” George said solemnly.
“I pledge my aid to you for as long as I am on earth and alive,” Kima said solemnly.
“Whatever, as long is it’s not too inconvenient,” Michel said.
“Figured,” Colin muttered. A couple of other people giggled, mostly to release tension.
“There’s food and drink. Let’s eat together to seal our commitment,” George said. The three aliens stood together, half in and half out of the water. Michel dragged Kima’s bucket up to the food service table, and started to laugh. She was herself, but had perched a ludicrous virtual chef’s hat on her ‘head’ and was now turning filleted salmon into sashimi and offering it up on the end of her very sharp knife. There was vegetarian stew and rice, steaming hot; various kinds of classy finger food, and Jesse, wasting no time, broached the ale keg and opened the tap.
The dancing and drumming began; George sang, which amazed everyone who hadn’t heard him sing before. People talked, ate, laughed, wept. Kima, after she was done with the salmon, shook everyone’s hand. George hugged some people, cuffed some people, and turned himself into playground furniture for Paolo with a short but sincere apology, which Paolo accepted with aplomb. Michel wandered around and showed everyone the gold coin Kima had given him.
The Sixers formed a receiving line, and greeted all the celebrants by name, and thanked them personally. Michel managed to be civil to everyone, which established, as Anh commented to Avtar sotto voce, some kind of record.
By midnight, everyone was a blend of stuffed, drunk and exhausted, and the cleanup began. The Sixers and the Midnite Moving Co. boys loaded everything onto the lighter in less than half an hour. The tide had come up and Sparrow moved the boat closer to the shore. As they were boarding, some getting piggyback rides from George and Michel (who would flip them over the railing in a variety of scary ways – without hurting them), others climbing up from the lighter, George addressed everyone, “Thank you all for coming.”
“When is O-day?” a woman’s voice called.
“Soon,” George said. “Soon.”
“You guys live for hundreds of years, George; soon’s meaningless,” Jesse said.
Lights flickered across George’s midline. “Less than two years,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done between now and then. It means a lot to me that I have your help, and trust.”
“And they’ll have the babies, too,” Michel said, in Greek. “If you two ever manage to get busy.”
They were forty-five minutes late getting everyone debarked; Michel, who only took charge when he was too disgusted by incompetence to do anything else, grabbed some humans off the boat and hauled them ashore, with the people complaining the loudest receiving the most unsettling version of the experience.
“Buck up or fuck up,” Michel called to George cheerfully as he passed, a rude slap accompanying his comment on George’s state of mind, which to a Sixer could be smelled a hundred metres away as “distraught but managing”.
Michel put Anh down on the slender, rocky beach before her coloratura squeaking got any louder.
The rehearsal was not optimal, George thought, and now we’re running late.
Someone on shore could be heard to start singing the theme of the Muppets Show, and was shushed.
“Damn Unitarians!” George exclaimed. There were giggles, and more shushing.
George appeared to turn into a lectern, and a sweet-faced old lady with a dandelion puff of white hair walked up to him, and then climbed him as if treating an alien like a staircase was something she did routinely. She faced the natural amphitheatre provided by the trees nestled into the shoreline, standing where she could see everyone. There were forty people assembled. Nobody was laughing now. A child’s voice could be heard saying, “Where’s George?”
“He’ll be back soon,” said his daddy’s voice. “We should try to be quiet.” Jesse, knowing what he did about Sixers, thought that bringing a child was a damned stupid thing to do, but he also knew why George had allowed it.
“Welcome,” the old lady said. She didn’t introduce herself. George’s hair, fully engaged and cooperative for once, made her voice seem to each person standing before her as if she were speaking directly to them from a conversational distance.
“I’ve spent my whole life looking up at the stars and waiting for aliens,” she said. “I never thought I’d find them walking down my street. What would be the good of thinking that? Any aliens who came would want to talk to the humans who run this world, or pretend to, or claim to; not the people who live in it without wanting to be boss. We’re fortunate, in this meeting, to be able to think of ourselves as being somehow of equal status.”
“You’re not!” Michel heckled.
“Sez you,” said the old lady. People from her church giggled. Unfazed, she continued. “Tonight we gather where the tide and the forest meet; where the salmon of wisdom is sheltered in its first morph as an alevin by the cedars of our home. We gather on the lands of the Coast Salish and their kin, who share it with us without ever having given over their collective bond to it.”
“At the end of the ceremony, we will share food and stories, and drum, and sing, and dance. Let us hold each other close as sharers of a great and troubling secret. Let us create in ourselves a space for awe, and wonder, and the questions that are our bridge between knowing and unknowing.”
She stepped down and took her place among the group.
Out of sight in the trees, Jesse heard a chorus of men’s voices, singing. It resonated in his chest. He could feel tears springing into his eyes, and laughed inside, wondering why he couldn’t save some for later, as he thought might be required. Women’s voices, sweeping upward, sang, sometimes in harmony, sometimes with a staccato pulse. There were words, but Jesse couldn’t understand them.
The illusion was perfect. The celebrants turned as one and saw a line of hooded and cloaked figures approaching them, walking slowly in time with their singing, and carrying torches.
“Who are they, daddy?”
“They aren’t really there, Paolo,” his daddy said.
The singing grew louder and lower, and stronger, but never moved faster than a slow walking pace, with spaces for silence that made the singing seem like an act of defiance, although against what, Jesse could not say. He hadn’t come to understand, though; he had come to witness.
Each of the phantoms drew nearer and nearer. With a reflex as old as humanity, the crowd moved to face them and to put the children and the elderly in the middle.
The song ended on a long chord woven across their shared space as a protective canopy. The phantoms, moving as one, threw their torches into a pile, which blazed into a bonfire and then died back into embers and sparks. Each phantom was touched by a spark and like a spark blazed upward and vanished.
While everyone gasped, looking as the phantoms flew up into the trees, a simulacrum of Kima crawled out of the embers.
Almost everyone gasped again at how the embers shone through her almost transparent body, before realizing that it wasn’t truly Kima.
“She’s in the water with Michel,” Jesse whispered.
“I’m the oldest person here,” she said. Her voice was still quite mechanical, but Michel had been coaching her and her prosody had improved. “I’m so old I don’t know how old I am. This sometimes happens with humans too. You can be so old you survive everyone who could tell you the truth, and lose the papers that prove it, if you ever had them.” She gestured with one arm toward the ocean.
The cove vanished; Kima and Michel completely cut off the celebrants’ view across the water, and replaced it with an enormous, marvellously detailed projection of the sea bottom.
“The first thing that I remember that ties me to human history is an earthquake.” Strange music, discordant and jaunty and somehow ominous, began to play. (author’s note: https://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/music/) “I was swimming in the ocean, not knowing that I would be two kilometres from the epicentre of an earthquake that would be felt from Syria to Italy.”
They watched the chaos on a projection the size of a building, and felt in their bones the wrenching roar of the earth tearing itself apart. Paolo hid himself in his daddy’s coat and sobbed, but could not be heard over the clamor. Half a dozen people put their hands over their ears. The rumbling died away.
“I was lucky to be where I could not be crushed by an underwater avalanche,” Kima said. “I wanted to know what had happened. The first time I went to dance at the shore, which was in 1825,” and now the projection faded out and revealed a rocky beach in the Mediterranean, “I met my people for the first time and learned that if I wanted to understand the world I lived in, I would have to learn a human language.”
There was brief tableau of perhaps half a dozen landmorphs and a dozen watermorphs frolicking in the water at sunset.
That’s my boast. I got LITERALLY 7 minutes away from my desk. I did not eat after my coffee and (cunningly) 2 cheese biscuits. I stayed at my desk for 8 hours.
Since I do want to stay employed, I won’t go into details. It’s more a systems and process thing. Software crashes. People leave incomplete messages. Life sucks sometimes.
On nights, the phone rings between 25 and 80 times. It’s housekeepers clearing or progressing the beds they’ve been assigned, or saying they’ve delivered soap to the nurses’ station; it’s angry ward clerks wondering if the spilled bodily fluids on 2E are ever going to be wiped up; it’s people from hospitals my employer no longer serves who have to be given the toll free of their new service provider; it’s a fitful stream of people needing clean up after human misery, discomfort, life – in the Labour rooms and death – pretty much everywhere.
The door locks, and I’m happy about that. Twice a shift the security guard rattles the handle to ensure that I have locked it. I leave it open until about 11:45 because otherwise I’m leaping up to let in housekeepers who are signing in or grabbing a new swipe card/pager/ID/piece of paperwork. After that the only people who want ingress are the lead hands.
Folks are pretty nice. I’ve been living in a rather isolated little world and so it’s good to be hearing people talk about work and their lives again. There’s the usual backbiting, and the inevitable comments about how one housekeeper or another is the laziest sod who ever lived – or the hardest working. People’s opinions on these matters (unless you’re the poor sod involved) are consistent. Sometimes I say nothing when they give me a long explanation of why they can’t do a bed, and at the end I say, fine, I’ll page it to the supervisor, and fifteen minutes later they tell me to progress the bed. Snicker. I have that white lady voice, that scornful voice, and it has its gruelling effect.
The housekeepers are from every quadrant of the earth; East Africa, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, the Dominican, Chile, and of course there are a few women who look like me. Some of them even walk like I used to; I can’t tell you how happy I am that I found the exercise for pubic symphisis pain and actually DO it, standing up and lying down. My gait is much bouncier, and I’m walking faster without really thinking about it. I’m a Daily Breader now, I’d be missed if I didn’t go to work. And since I’m not running around my house barefoot all day I’m wearing my orthotics much more and holy crap my back feels better. In fact, everything feels better now that I’m working. I’m sleeping better, which is not credible, but there you are. I slept from 8:30 – 11:30, swithered for an hour, got up, stayed up for about four hours, and crashed again until 9:30.
I may get a swipe card for the side door. It would make getting to work on time, since my connections are so very tight, much easier; I wouldn’t have to run up the stairs to the main entrance and stooge about for five minutes while attempting to get the attention of the security guard so I can get to the HCC elevators.
Sad to relate, the gal whose car accident has given me many more hours than I might have reasonably expected after my training has chosen not to return to work until after Christmas. I will work what shifts I’m assigned without complaint but ten bucks says I’ll be working at least one and probably two stats. Overtime is calculated in an absolutely insane way but that’s somebody else’s problem. The timekeeper is somebody who used to work on the food service side of the company and I spent a lot of time buying food from her when I worked up on SFU hill in Discovery Park.
Sad to further relate, I’m going to be doing a lot of day shifts over the next two weeks, and they are exhausting and very very busy and I kinda prefer the sheltered workshop that is nights.
I need time off to write, but I only get one day off this week and only two days off for the weeks after that. I’m writing this at work, but it doesn’t matter if the phone rings. For the writing, I much prefer my laptop and my little writing nook.
The final offloading for the ceremony brought George to the point of collapse many times. He remained courteous throughout even when he thought he was going to fold up.
Michel and Kima were too busy finalizing the photons to assist, and they’d already done the bulk of the work setting up the awnings, screeching at other in Greek through the trees while Michel tried to entertain Kima by finding novel ways to scale and exit the trees, mostly Douglas firs and cedars, as he found attachment points. George was afraid of missing something or messing up, and the worry chewed through his normal list-making and list-completing prowess.
There had been no-one to delegate sound to, so he had that running in the background, whether or not he was conscious, and strangely, a week before the ceremony his hair took a special interest in it, poking about and being opinionated. “Whenever your morning is,” George finally thought hard at it, anger, jealousy and stupefaction being tamped down into a beggar’s plea, “Why don’t you take over the sound effects and music and leave me alone except to barf a report into my good ear once a day.”
“Take over sound, report once a day.”
His hair rarely repeated back instructions/requisitions/earnest pleas/grovelling. It was impossible to tell whether it was taunting him or being helpful and compliant, the better to seize the chance to make earthquake noises. Michel, who was as close as the phone he mostly refused to answer, would have made a good speech on why not both? George, staggering under a tangled and burdensome cognitive load, was happy to delegate something. Within seconds he felt more energetic. In fact, he felt springy. It was always dangerous, that springy feeling. It made things more tangled by the time it faded away into his normal state of bureaucratized terror.
Have fun, my good, strange hair! George thought at it.
No reply was required. The hair was variably moody and capricious, difficult and tremulous, but George had long since come to believe that everything non-compliant about his hair was as a direct consequence of George being such an ineffectual person. Yelling at his hair would be as useful as yelling into a mirror. And yet, sometimes, when people are alone, they do yell into a mirror.
The music might be disastrous. It was a chance he felt he had to take.
It was going to be at night, and the weather, in human terms, was somewhere between ‘you gotta be shitting me’ and ‘ass-freezing cold’. No precipitation was expected, but on the coast that was possibly one of the funniest things you could say without swearing. When Jesse had learned of the date he said, “The only good thing about it is that it won’t be mosquito season. But the first week of fucking April man, at night, are you nuts?”
“I am not a man, please stop saying that even as a joke, it’s racist. We’re trying to have the ceremony when there aren’t flotillas of summer sailors in pleasure craft motoring up and down the inlet. As for your tender heinies, there will be seating and braziers and places where people can congregate and stay warm while experiencing the Sixer part of the ceremony.”
“Do humans get speaking parts? I thought you only wanted me as a mule,” Jesse said.
“I’m thinking perhaps it should be recorded,” George said, as if he hadn’t heard him.
For a second Jesse was offended, and then Paddy’s face swam into his memory. “Oh, I can think of the perfect person, a former client, she would love the opportunity,” Jesse said. A heftier punishment for bewitching him and then turning out to be a complete goddamned phoney he could not imagine.
“Really,” George said.
“Yes, she’s a documentarian. She loved the idea of Midnite Moving Co. so much she said she’d do a free mini-documentary and we could use as stealth promo.”
“You never said anything about this.”
“I guess it was a mis-communication on my part,” Jesse said.
“Jesse must not tell lies,” George third-personned him, deadpan. With more emphasis, “Did she annoy you? You know you smell different when you lie.”
This brought out the toddler smile, his eyes almost closed, his mouth compressed. “It’s like having god in your pocket, a friend you can’t fool,” Jesse said. There were things about George that were uncanny and inconvenient, but not being obliged to lie to him always felt good.
“For me to be able to tell that you’re lying I have to both know you and share your space; God is apparently not disadvantaged that way,” George said.
George diverted himself from his reverie. It was taking a very long time to unload the passengers. The Sixers had worked like oxen at a mill, trying to get all the shelter and firemaking apparatus offloaded and set up the day before, while Sparrow rode at anchor just offshore. Michel and Kima had bickered all the way through the work in a fashion that would have heartened him if he’d had a thought to spare.
“I’m going to need you to help offload the boat on the day,” George said.
“Yes, but he refuses to come ashore,” George said. The annoyance was obvious.
“He says the ceremony held previously between myself and Kima and his people was everything he needed and he’d be happy to do logistics. Participation was not advised as it was not consistent with the independence of his people.”
There was a long pause while Jesse ran this new fact through the accumulation of prejudices he called his brain. “Credit where credit’s due, the time to ask for favours is while your friends still like you,” he finally said.
“I think the Musqueam have figured out the shitstorm that’s coming, but are too proud not to support us in some way.”
“Do you think I’m gonna die?” Jesse asked in an overly placid voice.
“You’re far too entertaining,” George said. “Somebody will spare you to prevent a child from crying.”
“I’m childish enough, god knows, according to my sister,” Jesse said.
“About that,” George said. His skin stiffened and his hair started to rock from side to side.
Jesse frowned. “Everything okay? You look fucked up.”
George’s voice matched his body. “I am. I’ve been lying to you.”
Jesse’s expression went from worry to broad, drunken mischief. “Only question is, you wonderful critter, whether it’s something I know about already or not.”
“It’s about your sister.”
All the mirth vanished. “No.”
“I met her without telling her I know you.”
This time the silence went on for a long time.
“What do I need to know,” Jesse said tonelessly.
“I’ve been spying on her and I’m very infatuated.”
“Holy fuck.” The emotion came back.
“You’re taking it very well.”
“You’ve got a crush on my sister? Does she know you’re an alien yet?”
“No. But by one of those stupefying coincidences that living in The World’s Biggest Small Town encourages, she’s the former lover of the scientist and academic whom I have chosen to carry the Sixer’s research water.”
“Brendan,” Jesse said.
“You know him.”
“He was my sister’s boyfriend while I was living with her, so, yeah, I knew him. I really liked him, a lot and all that bullshit about her choosing to quit UBC after some fucker reported the affair to the university really grated on me. I’ve kinda hated on him ever since, but at the time I thought he was the coolest guy I’d ever met, and we smoked a lot of dope together.”
George looked at him pityingly.
“What? what? I was seventeen!” Jesse said. “What the fuck had you accomplished by the time you were seventeen?”
“I’d gone through three morphs already,” George said.
Jesse splayed his hands. “I have no idea what that means. You and Michel talk about morphs but you never stop to explain.”
“Imagine going through puberty and completely changing your shape and the way you think and process information three times in seventeen years when you have a lifespan of four to five hundred years.”
Jesse considered it. George let him do it.
“No, I really can’t,” Jesse said.
“While being forced to watch horror movies and getting yelled at by angry relatives and you lose control of your bowels and bladder and you lose social contact with everybody you know because you go from being sentient to non-sentient.”
“What the hell?” Jesse said.
“Welcome to my childhood,” George said.
“Having a bad childhood is not a contest,” Jesse said, almost as a reflex. “We experience these bad things as individuals, and share them in words. Does the person with the best words win?”
“Not in my experience,” George said. He was thinking of the language of light, and of course that was not what Jesse had meant. There are a million avenues, he thought, for miscommunication.
Jesse pressed on. “No, because success in dealing with your past doesn’t come from talking about it, it comes from knowing yourself and making meaning from the life and energy you have left.”
“I had a therapist,” Jesse said. “He was amazing. I wanted the benefit of the life experience of someone who wasn’t a sexist asshole and who wasn’t a woman, nothing wrong with that,” Jesse said. “He taught me lots of things, like not to talk about the abuse without clear ongoing evidence that I was in a safe space first, which has turned out to be really good advice, because every time I ignored it, I paid for it. He told me not to let loneliness and alcohol loosen my tongue. He told me there are lots of people who take advantage of the damaged ones, and I’d have to learn to see it coming.”
One could argue that I’m one of the advantage seekers, George thought. “You didn’t see me coming.”
Jesse kept it light. “No surprise there – since you are invisible.”
“I’m hardly ever invisible,” George said, offended.
“No, not like Michel, who seems to think that a day without invisibility is a crime against Sixer-kind.”
George smiled. “He sleeps invisible, which is traditional, and I don’t. Took me almost twenty years to learn how to keep my human appearance while asleep; when I was living with humans before, I had to sleep all kinds of crazy places to prevent them from tripping over me in the morning.”
“When was that?”
Always so keen on the details. “Back in Europa, in the gay mad revolutionary times before the Great War,” George said. When I was living with a sex worker and her asshole revolutionary wannabe boyfriend.
“And when else have you lived with humans?”
“You’ll find out during the ceremony.”
“Which is when,” Jesse said, his head sagging.
“I don’t know for sure, except at night, to suit you, my photophobic chum, and not for at least a couple of weeks since we don’t have all the bits and bobbles rented yet. I’ll be asking you to help with that, too,” George said.
“Sure, whatever you need. Can I sleep on the sofa tonight?” Jesse’s face split in a yawn.
“Yes. You snore, you know.”
“I’m sure you can ignore it, and so can your hair.” Jesse thought about giving George’s hair a condescending little pat, but knowing it could rip his hand off without effort killed the urge.
“So it has context, content and closure,” George said.
“Same diff,” Jesse said dismissively. “You just say it prettier.”
George heaved a great sigh. His deft representation of eyes, large, liquid, brown and guileless, gazed with reproach upon Jesse.
He would never have laid the burden of being his human conscience on anyone; Jesse was the person who came closest to taking on the role voluntarily. The man with the rolodex had been correct when he said George’d have to work, at a job, with human beings, before he could understand them well enough to trust them. Figuring out how to hawk artifacts for various kinds of money, and then working through proxies, would only get him so far.
His new friend had been the emblem of hospitable calm. He’d taken George into his home. Normally this wasn’t a problem, but if his hair said it was a problem, there’d be mayhem and possibly injury, and loath as he was to admit it, possibly even the death of a someone like his new friend here – until his hair said it was all clear and went back to sleep like a great unsnoring hedgehog who lived on your head.
He had to live with the terror that it would happen. It hadn’t happened yet. Most of the time he had to yell at it for fifteen minutes on an internal, private channel, before it would even wake enough to shudder and acknowledge its own existence.
Every once in a while, like on the night Jesse first got a gun shoved in his face, it would quietly partner up and help! and keep a perimeter – and keep an eye on Jesse. Being so useful and welcome and wonderful that he felt awestruck and happy and filled with the certainty that everything would be fine.
It was the way he felt when he embodied mania. It was a run of emotion and sensation that made the normal barriers between himself and others dissolve; he felt in that crystalline state of perception that no problem was insoluble, or behaviour unacceptable, because wasn’t he required by history? Who needed him more, humans or the planet most of them squatted on like a plastic turd? He rarely got that honest with his human friends; the man with the rolodex died, four days after he met him. The grief he felt was not assuaged at all by the gift of the connections on that whirling piece of paper and plastic; he threw the grief into investigating every one of the connections he’d been left with; there’d been cryptic and hilarious annotations, so he knew where to start.
And Kima had said, “It’s a loss. A profound loss. You wanted his oversight.”
It was terse, but so kindly meant that he came close to locking up every time he thought about it. At the time, he had approached her and awkwardly started to pet her the way he imagined Michel did it.
“You hate being underwater so much,” she chided. “It breaks your ability to concentrate.”
He admitted to himself that she had gotten much better at criticizing him.
“I know it has to be on land,” she said with one of her diaphragms. He pulled away from the link. The language of light and the Greek were completely at odds with each other.
Nothing like the way his new friend had accepted his story with calm, his true appearance with a sincere, “Wow, do you ever look cool!” and his request for assistance with consideration.
In four days he’d done more to help George than any of his Sixer friends and, as he liked to think, allies.
It’s their planet, they can help pay for defence, he thought, and it was under that operating principle that he first started co-opting humans.
That friend was gone, and now, as if humans would continue to mindlessly and mechanically make offerings to him, it was Jesse, Jesse with his sly, self-deprecating humour, his almost unquestioning acceptance of the consequences of his friendship with George, his delicious-smelling sister, (and sooner or later he’d have to make his confession about that), and his thoughtful attitude toward work, and kindness, and complete and utter laziness when he wasn’t working, or working out, which made him seem more like a Sixer than virtually any human he knew, it was Jesse who sat in front of him, a man fondly smiling at a hurricane for being so awesome.
“I hope,” George said sadly, “That you will bring a somewhat more serious frame of mind to the ceremony.”
“You haven’t told me what I’m s’posed to do yet,” Jesse said, scratching himself in a way he wouldn’t have done with more people present.
“Refrain from scratching your ass, for starters,” George said.
“I can behave myself in public,” Jesse protested, “And this won’t be public.”
“Fine. We’re going to gather together, say why we’re helping each other, pledge to keep doing it, and then go eat,” George said.
“With effects storyboarded by Michael Bay,” Jesse said.
“Who’s Michael Bay?” George asked, to annoy Jesse. Then, cutting him some slack, he said, “He’d be taking notes from us if he was attending.”
“So in the middle, explosions?”
“I asked Kima to go easy on replicating the surface of the sun. It’s amazing how much light she can make when she’s linked to Michel.”
“There’s a brief bit where the attendees cruise around the solar system and fall into the sun,” George said.
“Show me, don’t tell me,” Jesse said, annoyed.
“You’ll see,” George said placidly. Jesse’s knuckles itched.
“Are you practicing for the cameras on O-day?” Jesse said. “Something about you doesn’t feel right.”
George was gloomy. “You haven’t asked what Kima sees in me. I don’t know why Kima’s chosen me. It’s as if she’s compelled to, even though it was against her best interest.”
That’s weird. “Was. As in used to be?”
“It was tempestuous. We’d spend time together and then she’d, as you put it, bugger off.”
“Is that a gendered slur?”
George delivered his opinion with his usual urbanity. “I can’t tell; human rules about sexual activity in and around the anus appear to me an immense pile of self-contradictory dogma, with the Don’t Do It Party ahead in the polls over the Gosh It’s Nice Done Right Federation. My views may of course have been affected by watching humans enjoy it on video.”
The beer spoke. “I can die happy now, I’ve discussed porn with an alien. Although I suppose I should say something to make it a conversation. Did you enjoy it?” Jesse said, giggling.
The tone became quelling. “It was research, damn you! I don’t want you to die, happy or not; I’d prefer you hung around for the thrilling dénouement. Of course, you know you’re as free as you can make yourself,” George said. Jesse shook his finger at him. These days George was always checking if Jesse was in the LARP voluntarily.
George took up the thread, narrating his fruitless love life. “She quit squirming when she decided she wanted to live in the Salish Sea, and that she would try to have children with me. Then I asked her if she felt like thinking about some of my problems if she had energy to spare and she did, and I benefited.
“I turned that benefit into technology to assist her in learning various subjects.”
Jesse started moving puzzle pieces around in his mind. “Which include wireless engineering, if Avtar’s to be believed.”
“Yes. She did all of this on a cell phone, by the way. She tears through things, when she wants to learn, with a heated concentration. Literally! – she runs hotter, a couple of times I thought she might be dying and burning from the inside out, and poor Michel got a scare once when she put her thinking cap on. Once she said she already knew how to do all of it but she had to be presented with the problems to understand that she could solve them.”
George shrugged. Calling Kima’s behaviour creepy wasn’t useful. Untoward, unusual, eccentric. All that applied. “Especially math – she said her experience feels like she’s remembering it and learning it at the same time. When I tell you she’s bigger on the inside, I mean it.”
There was a little pause.
“If you two love humans, do you s’pose your kids will learn to be that way too?” Jesse asked. “Will you teach them that?” He tried to imagine what the kids would be like, and his heart gave a little premonitory thud.
“I won’t teach them long; I’m not planning on hanging around this planet longer than it takes to put the resources together to leave it. Kima will; and I imagine any child Kima gives birth to will get Michel’s rough and ready support, once they’re old enough.”
Jesse gave his shock immediate voice. “Once they’re old enough? What? I thought you looked after your kids, you talked about your mother helping you hunt and teaching you to take the trail over the mountains to the Mediterranean!” Jesse said.
George shrugged, seemingly embarrassed. “Kima’s a water morph. Babies go in the ocean, to fend for themselves using nothing but their inbuilt survival instincts until they put on enough mass to grow a brain.”
“Are you telling me that you’re probably not going to meet any of your kids?” Jesse asked, distressed. Never having met his father was one of his on-going trials. It hadn’t occurred to him that George was going to enact this vacuum of grief on any kids he might have. They’d have Kima, but maternal was not the first thing that popped into his head as a descriptor for her.
George shook his head. “Not likely, no. Let’s talk about the ceremony.”
“Your human buddies go to the beach for a light show put on by Michel and Kima and we all get a participation trophy, the end,” Jesse said obediently.
George popped his eyes, but Jesse had braced for it. “Crap,” he replied. “I hadn’t thought about a swag bag. Well, it’s not like this is costing me a lot of money. I suppose I could put together something. And I’m getting help from a Unitarian lay chaplain,” George said.
“George, you’re an atheist,” Jesse said, tenderly, as if telling him for the first time after he’d had a stroke and forgotten.
“Well, yeah,” George said with annoyance. “I am. But I’ve been going to church in North Van, for various reasons.”
“What. The. Fuck,” Jesse said.
“It’s all part of the intersectional, international, interplanetary wackiness that is my life. The Catholics may be more catholic, but Unitarians have integrated atheists into how they do things, so I thought they’d be okay helping me with our little show, and there were quite a few on the contact list so I had a range to choose from.”
“So you go to church.” He felt like his poor little human brain was just a bony meat bucket for reality to sink its axe into.
“I told them I wouldn’t join. They’re used to that. I like the music,” George said. “It’s one of the many ways I differ from other Sixers. To return to our little stray logistical sheep, ceremony is different things to different people. For Sixers it’s novel. For humans it’s ordinary. I needed human help to shape it into something acceptable.”
“So it has a beginning, middle and end?” Jesse said.
“Oh, I know perzackly how messed up my memory is, I have PTSD,” Jesse said. “I dunno about anybody else, but I realized that a lot of what humans call memory is just what sticks in your mind from whatever it is that bullies yell the loudest.”
“I have no response to that,” George said. Jesse was three beers in, and getting a slight shine to him. It was good that he’d eaten something more substantial than the nachos. Most Sixers wouldn’t even be in the same room as an adult male human who’d been drinking, if they’d even managed to power through their distrust of indoors while managing sociability. Disgust and fear create a powerful barrier. There was that steady buzz of danger, danger, that flowed from Jesse with every vaporous exhalation. Sixer lore firmly held that drunken humans were the only kind of human you needed to fear. Sober humans, given a demonstration of Sixer capabilities, usually went yipe yipe yipe over the hill; drunks could be hard to predict, and on that basis alone were the most successful at killing Sixers. There were not often smart enough to avoid killing themselves in the process. But it had been done, or so George had been told, and he held it to be true.
There were always plenty of drunks with hunting experience; if the last Gianni killed himself while taking you out, his kid or nephew would pop up like one of those mole heads in a carnival game, seemingly made of chipped enamel and concentrated loathing.
So he sat with Jesse and watched him drink, and was pleased that he felt safe while he did it. Jesse would never deliberately or voluntarily hurt him, and he wouldn’t give up on him either. The idea of having an attachment point in his life more important than his illnesses and family history had proved too seductive to Jesse. In one way it was a relief. In every other way, it seemed like the warmup for a spectacular betrayal.
It’ll be years before I go into space, George thought. Plenty of time to warn people about what could happen after I leave.
Jesse wasn’t upset at the comment; from what he knew of George it was more likely confusion than some variant of politeness that had made him say that. He shot out his lower lip. “It’s what I experience. A response isn’t really necessary. I have always felt very isolated because nobody experiences the world the way I do, and they show they don’t experience it like I do in the words they use to describe it.”
“Some English words seem to guarantee the dopiness of the user,” George said. It was classic George derailment, but he went with it.
“Let’s pretend I know what they are,” Jesse said.
George made a small, non-committal noise.
“Shouldn’t be too hard, right? And let’s pretend that you won’t point them out to me when I use them.”
“I’m teasing. Words rise and fall out of fashion,” George said.
“I have a question,” Jesse said after a while.
“Really? A question.”
“I’d like you to answer something now, and you know it’s not just one question, it’s more gathering information toward a deep conversation on issues of substance.”
“I suppose, having taught you to be even vaguer than you already were, I can’t shudder when I get the same treatment. Ask away, young human.”
“Did your species have love before you came to Earth?”
“We had sexual predation and lifelong friendship. Not exactly a one for one mapping of how humans manage things.”
“I’ve heard you say that you love Kima,” Jesse said diffidently.
“No doubt you’ve heard Michel ask why’d he’d try to lean his feelings up against a word so small. ‘I love Cheez Whiz’, he’d say, ‘and I love Kima. They don’t belong in the same thought let alone the same language’.”
“He did say that, although I really don’t think he likes All-Purpose Industrial Paste. I was asking about you.”
“A man I know whom you haven’t been introduced to said that I was the Apollonian lover, and Michel the Dionysian one.”
“Except that doesn’t really take anything about Sixer sexuality or gender expression into account,” Jesse said, and redeeming himself for his tiresome question. “It’s the kind of things humans say when they’re trying to dodge the responsibility for seeing Sixers as they are… mind you it doesn’t help that you assume a human appearance all the time.”
“What do you think?” George asked bluntly.
“I think I don’t know Sixers well enough to know. I do know that you’re closer to each other, somehow, than humans manage to be, even when you’re not in agreement. I think it has something to do with the language of light, and something to do with how matter-of-fact Sixers are, mostly, about their own abilities and sex lives.”
“I don’t disagree,” George said.
There was an uncomfortable pause. Jesse persisted. “If you do love Kima, why do you love her?”
“I can’t give a true answer to that in a human language.”
“That sounds kinda ominous,” Jesse said slowly.
“She’s a predator with her brain as well as her body,” George said. “She’s smart, fast, deadly and though she’s got an ego, it’s small and easily stroked.”
Jesse heard this as, She’s useful and easy to manage.
“The physical attraction, given your differences, is hard to understand.”
“Humans should be able to have sympathy for Sixers about attraction; it’s always a matter of surprise to all but the participants who bangs who if all are free to make their own choices, without regard to the wide human range of strictures, taboos, relative fecundity, laws and religious hangups. If I say a lover smells good and likes me, that should be more than ample reason for me to feel an attraction, and to subject my love to a media ‘means test’ of her attractiveness would make me puke, were I capable of puking.”
George was rarely so animated. It felt wrong, odd.
My youngest child is 28. If I ask you how the hell that happened, you’ll just stare at me, right?
Since I’m cooking dins for the horde no writing today. Don’t know when I’ll be back at it, but it won’t be until tomorrow noon at the earliest.
Then he waited for a more intimate intimation of the role he was to play in this ceremony. He had perhaps half a dozen meet-ups with George before the subject arose, and the ceremony came up because it was now March, and his face and throat were clogged with pollen, so it was spring, and there was still no sign of a date. They were sitting on George’s balcony. Jesse had asked for a date, again, and George had again fobbed him off.
“Are we waiting for a special tree to bloom?” Jesse asked in annoyance. Water had wick’d into the ass of his chinos from his chair and he was cold from lack of sleep.
“There are tides to be considered. We need a relatively flat location with no oversight by humans, and Michel’s come up empty so far.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want it to happen.”
“You don’t know him as well as you think. The chance to partner with Kima in the production of a light show designed to blow the minds of everyone watching is quite an inducement. They’re working their asses off, or would do if they had same,” George said.
“A light show.”
“We’re Sixers. Michel and Kima and I have shown you a fraction of what we can do when we wish to play with light and colour.”
“I figured you could do pretty much anything inside whatever your personal light bubble is.”
“Is that what you call it?” George said.
Jesse shrugged. “You can make light stop in its tracks and run in circles. I can only visualize this by thinking of the works being inside a bubble, maybe not a perfect circle but as close to one as the ground lets you be.”
George nodded slowly. “We can make the bubble larger by coordinating and linking. Under some circumstances, one Sixer can ‘manage’ another’s light bubble, and in the process widen the scope of the display to almost terrifying lengths.”
“That actually sounds kinda cool.”
“I’m warning you. I was terrified, personally terrified, when they did the earthquake segment. I’m having trouble imagining how most humans would perceive it. I’m afraid many people would think it was really happening and blow an aneurysm.”
“They put on a light show that scared you,” Jesse said, finding this unwelcome and thought-provoking news.
“My hair woke up and stilt-legged me into Indian Arm, and me with my chubby legs hanging in the breeze. How it thought that running us into the ocean during a violent earthquake was the embodiment of ‘Safety First’ my imagination and rhetoric cannot unravel.”
“What were you expecting?”
“For it to stay asleep, as it mostly does.”
“So it woke up in a panic and fell over backward when it thought the earth was opening up and swallowing it?” Jesse permitted himself a giggle as he tried to picture it.
“It came up with a somewhat more elegant solution than dragging me along the ground like a tiresome afterthought, as it has done several times in the past when it perceived a threat,” George said mildly.
“Go go George’s hair,” Jesse said.
“It isn’t funny. My hair could ruin everything,” George said. “I keep trying to maneuver us into a situation of mutual assistance and trust. I fail. I hope that a solution can be found. I don’t know what to believe.”
“How is it, with all of your smarts, that you keep filing Pep Talks under Suicide Notes,” Jesse said.
“So I can hear you chide me about my mental health problems,” George said.
“Ayoille!” Jesse said, performing a creditable Michel, and then returning to his normal tone. “You have to tell me when I’m in friend mode, otherwise I just ignore you until you issue a direct order,” Jesse said. “It’s the Canadian way.”
“I’m having a little trouble with –“ but Jesse was inexorable.
“And I’ll tell you something else for free – Canadians never work harder than when it’s at something they weren’t actually supposed to be doing.”
“That is supported by my observation, so I’ll let the impudence pass.”
Jesse found himself silent, eyebrows raised, mouth pursed.
“Ah, you’ve gone all quiet,” George said in condolence. “Jesse, I don’t know when the ceremony’s going to be. I’m not dismissing your right to ask. I find humans are crazy for calendars, and it’s not really the way Sixers work, or not the way we’ve worked for the past few millennia. Who knows what our true state is? – we came into being a long way from here. Our attitude is: We get there when we get there. It’s the first thing that gets beaten out of conquered peoples, their language and their ways of dealing with time; humans are going to have trouble beating it out of Sixers, because you won’t be able to conquer us.”
“You sleep in four hour blocks,” Jesse said, looking skeptical. “I’d say you’re fully invested in how we manage time on Earth.”
“There’s a difference between a daily practicality and the great mass of time,” George said. “Especially when you’re juggling nested rings of variables muddled with flaming torches of egotism and bathtubs full of the lime green Jell-o of special interest.”
Jesse continued to be politely disbelieving. “You’re juggling bathtubs full of lime-green Jell-o.”
“I was told it’s a science fiction fandom reference which will please the discerning.”
“It would, if you weren’t missing the most important part,” Jesse said. Raven, of course, had told him the story.
“The naked underaged redheaded twins, yes, I understand that. I thought it would be implied once I mentioned the bathtub and the Jell-o, which would allow me to not have to say anything about the redheaded twins.”
“I s’pose that’s most of the fun of being a hipster. Saying something douchey that only your friends will understand,” Jesse said. He drained the beer he’d had the self-care to bring, and finished the bag of nachos.
“I forgot to tell you,” George said. “I got real food.”
“What? WAWWWWWT?” Jesse bellowed.
“Mind the neighbours!” He said something in Greek that sounded like what Michel had translated once as ‘you great ox’. “There’s beef and broccoli and garlic prawns in the fridge.”
“You’re fucking kidding me!” Jesse cried in joyful tones.
“Shh! No! There are chopsticks too,” George said, smiling.
“Did you put a bag in the kitchen trash?” Jesse asked in a more subdued tone.
“I knew I forgot something else,” George said. “I’ll use the bag the food came in.”
“That’s the ticket,” Jesse said sliding open the balcony door as fast as was safe.
“How is it that you forget anything, when your memory is so good?” Jesse said, as he stood by the microwave. He stayed inside to eat; the wind was too rude to be a dining companion.
“The memory is still there in a sequence, but sometimes I can’t find my way back to the memory I want. Sometimes it feels like something in my thought processes is actively blocking me.”
“Must be weird not to be able to trust your memories.”
“Must be weird for you not to understand how fragile human memory is and therefore be able to produce such a beautiful assumption without irony.”
Jesse got up one afternoon in early January, 2014, and found an email from George waiting in his LARP inbox. It appeared to be a mass email, but there were no other addresses visible.
It’s about getting away. I don’t know how it can be about anything else. I wish to seal, with wax and lyric poetry, with ceremony and gratitude, the story; to give it to you plain and without missing anything important.
I know I don’t belong on Earth. I doubt anyone who feels that way could love Earth as much as I do. Sixers had to come to Earth to learn to feel love of place (or any kind of love that doesn’t align with personal convenience and self-will, come to speak of it.)
The feeling of not belonging on Earth is not connected to this love. It is in resolving my love for Earth, and my being forced away from Earth by an instinct so strong it sometimes knocks me out, that I have perceived my exit from the impasse.
I can help Earth and leave it at the same time, and I’m asking you to continue to help make it possible. Already everyone who’s ever helped me is at a disadvantage; I only told four people, two human and two Sixers, what I wanted to do from the outset, and the rest of you joined my crew without informed consent.
I’ve had to learn about informed consent. It isn’t really possible for my species, while so much happens when we aren’t truly conscious – while so much happens in the background of our consciousness, where footling dragons from millennia past burn holes in our mental maps. One could argue, given the nature of human consciousness, that informed consent is a social chimera, an imaginary beast with real world significance. I understand the argument, but I give it no purchase.
I’m no longer worried about how bad I’ve been at obtaining informed consent; most humans are terrible at it. I’ve made my attempts, and whether I’ll forgive myself for past lapses and future errors remains to be seen.
I’ve learned so many things. I never used to consider myself as a moral being. When you’re already perfect, you never have to get better. I’ve been mocked for assuming the appearance of a healthy, well-educated white man, with all the privilege that comes with it, but for a moment, please consider how my conspecifics and relatives have reacted to my lengthy impersonation. I’ve fallen a long way out of my clade; from my unnaturally perfect ancestors, through my own sadly deformed and malleable body, into pretending to be something that lives 80 years among bones housed with droopy, papery skin.
In my attempt to deal with humans honestly, I’ve learned how empty of ceremony Sixers are. We have our memories and our ways of sharing them – but we use them more for entertainment than other purposes; as we reach through each other’s memories, there are always favourites we return to over and over.
But that isn’t ceremony. Ceremony is public; it’s held in front of everybody it concerns. But it’s also private; if it doesn’t concern you, you’re not invited. Watching an ancestor’s memory, perhaps of an event that only you have ever watched in many lifetimes of Sixers, is not ceremony; it’s riffling through picture books on a rainy afternoon.
To enact a meaningful ceremony, one that would make it possible to move through the world as one for all those present, is a real challenge when you’re mixing up Sixers and humans. Generally humans have lots of people to call on, in planning and executing something this ambitious, and it’s just me, Michel and Kima. I don’t want any other Sixers here, to be candid, and even if there were more I loudly doubt they’d help me.
They don’t buy my reasoning. I’m exposing Sixers to publicity which may result in their extermination, according to them. It’s a foregone conclusion to them that humans will never rest until we’re all dead. That’s the flapping, painted backdrop of my story. Humans understand that I’m trying to deal with an existential threat in hunting asteroids; Sixers think I’m actively seeking one out on their behalf by exposing them.
None wish to come to Vancouver to help me. Only an insane person would do that. An insane person… like you.
Humans are doing what my people, with two notable exceptions, won’t. All of you are. I can no longer put aside how important it is, that I pause and give thanks. And say sorry. And ask for more help.
I want to say all that – to enact it – in a ceremony. It will take place somewhere in the Lower Mainland accessible by boat, sometime in the spring, and as ghastly as this sounds, it will involve rehearsals.
Do you want to be part of it?
Jesse took a long slug of his coffee, and typed, “Hells yeah.”
“There’s no challenge to it,” Jesse said, looking at Colin sadly.
“You’d hate it if I teased you,” Colin said, irritated.
“But you’d hate it worse when I didn’t respond the way you wanted me to,” Jesse said. “I vote we shut up like manly men and put a real push on here.”
“I thought Abbie was s’posed to help you,” Cary said, looking around slowly.
Colin and Jesse glanced at each other, and turned up the speed. The last of the boxes were on the truck half an hour later, and the furniture was done an hour after that.
The whole time Abbie sat in the cab and cried, and the wind and the rain never ceased.
Colin had paused and spoken to her a couple of times.
“I feel like such a bad person for abandoning him,” she said during one such conversation.
“Maybe this will force him to get the help he needs,” Colin said. He felt awkward, but he normally did, so the awkwardness held no lessons.
“I think he’ll kill himself,” Abbie sobbed.
Jesse had once joked that Colin only did emotions on alternate Thursdays by appointment, and Colin was thinking about that as he spoke.
“As much as we can love other people it’s damned hard to predict what they’ll do. Does he have any other friends and family who can bang on his door or call him and check up on him?”
“Not me,” Abbie said. She stopped crying, but looked like she could start up again at any time.
“I’m thinking, no, not you,” Colin said.
“Well there’s his mother, but she can’t do the stairs anymore.”
“Is there a social worker or public health nurse or something?”
“I’m done. I’m not going to arrange it. I’m hanging by a thread here!” Abbie said.
“I understand,” Colin said. He got down from the cab and grabbed a furniture blanket from the back. He brought it to the cab and tucked Abbie in, commenting that she must be freezing.
“You guys have been wonderful.” Colin took out his hanky, which was folded, clean, and warm from his pocket. He probably wasn’t getting it back, but he’d just found his grandmother’s stash of them in the basement in North Van, package after unopened package, like a display in a retail store, carefully sealed in a storage tote against the depredations of time. He didn’t imagine that his grandmother would grudge this one.
“We’ll be done soon,” he assured her.
Jesse meantime was being followed around by Cary.
“Why isn’t she taking everything?” he groused. “I don’t want to get stuck taking care of her shit.” He aimed a half-hearted kick at a red and orange sofa.
‘Taking care’ was not the phrase Jesse would have used to describe Cary’s interactions with physical reality, but he didn’t speak to that.
“Abbie’s leaving everything your mother gave you when she downsized her house, which she’s told you at least once because I was in the room when she said it,” he said gently. “She’s not going to steal it from you.”
“It’s not stealing, I don’t want it,” Cary said. “You have to take it with you.”
“She doesn’t want it and she’s the one paying for the move, which she organized overnight for your convenience, or have you forgotten that part?” Jesse said. “She’s leaving the tv in your room, and she paid for that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Cary said, aggrieved, “I can’t afford to pay for cable. I can’t afford to pay for this house either without Abbie so all this shit will be sitting in the rain soon enough when I’m evicted.”
“I’m sure it all seems very overwhelming,” Jesse said.
“Don’t patronize me, you musclebound punk,” Cary said, shifting from tonelessness to stilted crankiness.
It wasn’t the worst he’d been called. “Fine, stop talking at me and complaining non-stop,” Jesse responded.
“I’m suffering from depression,” Cary said.
Jesse lost it. “So’s everyone around you, ya jackass. I’ve got two chronic medical conditions, one mental, one physical. I just turned twenty-four, and you know what? I take care of business. I work, I have friends, I have a love life, I eat properly, I wash my fucking dishes. That’s what adults do. If you can’t manage it then you need to get someone to look after you until you can, and if you can’t ask for help I don’t know what to say. If you’re actively suicidal –“
“Is that what Abbie says?”
“She said she’s afraid you’ll kill yourself, yeah.”
“Does she sound like it would make her sad?”
“Of course the man she’s loved for five years and lived with for two years is somebody whose suicide would make her break out in three cheers, what the hell kind of question is that? Nobody wants you to kill yourself. Shut up and quit whining, sure, but not kill yourself.”
“Now you’re being hateful,” Cary said.
“I’m not a professional, and you’re needling me. What do you want?” Jesse asked flatly.
“Take all my mother’s crap with you.”
“Not unless Abbie agrees,” Jesse said.
“She’ll say no to make me suffer,” Cary said.
“What about her suffering?”
“Her? She acts like an angel when someone else is watching.”
Mentally making the Neil deGrasse Tyson jazz hands gesture, Jesse made no response and continued moving trash bags full of blankets and clothing. Colin came back inside, looking pinched.
“You’re going to ignore me. It’s like I don’t exist.”
“You’re too inconvenient to be non-existent,” Colin said, pushing a wave of cold, damp air into the room. “So cheer up, you still exist,” he added.
“My depression is not something I have for your entertainment,” Cary said doggedly.
Good, because it’s not very entertaining, Jesse and Colin thought at the same time.
“Nobody asks to be depressed,” Colin said, trying to sound less like a jerk.
“Adults take charge of their mental health problems and work toward better quality of life,” Jesse said.
“You think I should cure myself,” Cary said, staring at both of them with his dead, pouched eyes.
“Do you need help?” Jesse asked.
“Not according to you!”
“Right. Twist what I say so it fits your world-view, externalize responsibility, demand assistance, show no insight,” Jesse said.
“Now you sound like the world’s worst psychiatrist,” Colin said, looking at Jesse in alarm.
“What do you know about psychiatrists?” Cary asked. That creepy smile was back.
Colin took a breath, and Jesse put an advisory hand on his arm. They returned to their duties.
“Quit talking to me, how adult,” Cary said.
Colin took another breath, and this time Jesse forestalled him. “Colin, we’re both making things worse.” Speaking directly to Cary, and using every bit of his twenty centimetre height advantage, he said, “We’ll be leaving in about ten minutes. Please go back to your room in the meantime.”
“You’re in my residence without my permission,” Cary said. “I’m calling the cops.”
“You’re not on the lease,” Colin said.
Jesse got his wallet out and produced the business card of a senior RCMP officer. It had been stolen for him by Michel, but he wasn’t going to say that. He held it in front of Cary long enough that he could read it.
“Our firm,” Jesse said, “Is informally recommended by local law enforcement for moves impacted by mental illness or domestic violence. Go ahead and call the cops, but I suspect your hospitality options are going to be a hard jail cell for uttering threats or a soft observation room in the local psych emergency for uttering threats. I’ll send you to the nearest ER in a cab if you’re in crisis.”
“I didn’t utter any threats,” Cary muttered.
“Who do you think the cops are going to believe, especially after they check the history at this address?” Jesse said blandly.
Colin was appalled. “I’m not lying to the cops for you, or anyone else,” he said, brows meeting.
“You self-satisfied goon,” Cary said to Jesse.
“Go back to your room,” Jesse said.
“Dude, please,” Colin said.
Muttering all the way, Cary made his slow, troubled return to his lair.
“I’m never helping you on a move again,” Colin said.
“Blow off a chance to work with Michel? I don’t think so,” Jesse said. They did a last walk-around to ensure they hadn’t left anything, and then to be sure they called in Abbie.
“Yeah, everything’s on the truck.”
Jesse and Colin bundled her out of the house as soon as they heard Cary’s voice calling for her.
They unloaded the truck into her step-dad’s garage in Whalley. He came out at three in the morning to greet them, and to assist.
“Craziest thing I ever heard, moving in the middle of the night like this,” he said to Abbie, after a long hug. “I’m glad you scraped that duffer off your shoe, though, girl.”
The offload went like clockwork. The wind and rain died down.
Jesse let Colin drive. When they got to the normal spot to park the truck, half a block from Jesse’s apartment, Colin said, “Can I crash at your place? Don’t feel like moving anything anymore, not even a gas pedal.”
Jesse said, “Sure.”
“Was I really that much of an asshole tonight?” he asked after a minute.
“Truth. I just don’t have the energy to bitch you out about it,” Colin said. Jesse pulled out the sofa bed and tossed him bedding.
“Now for that shower,” Colin said.
“Nope. How privileged you are! Landlord won’t let me shower between 11 pm and 5 am. Whore’s bath for you.”
“So I have to get into grandad’s car and go all the way back to North Van if I want a shower.”
“You coulda had one in the rain if you’d brought soap,” Jesse pointed out.
“I’m officially so tired I don’t care,” Colin said. He stretched out the bottom sheet, snapping it on the corners, and threw himself down. The sofa bed made eerie noises of protest, including a long, low, ‘ga-wunga-wung’.
Jesse went to bed.
When he woke up there was a text from Abbie asking if she could friend him and Colin on Facebook.
Glad you can’t see my face, sister.
He texted: Can’t speak for Colin, don’t have Facebook.
Can u ask him?
If you only knew he spells everything out when he texts, and would maybe even shudder if he saw that ‘u’. Good thing I have a backstop.
If you didn’t get his phone number, that’s on you. I’m not giving out a coworker’s number. If he didn’t ask for your number, that’s on him, and probably means
He tapped enter.
he thinks grinding on a woman who sat in a cold truck and cried for hours is super bad manners.
Find your breakup toy at the library, sister, Jesse thought.
Guys like Colin are hard to find.
Jesse burst out laughing, one of the advantages of text over shared space.
I concur, but not for the same reasons.
He considered his response.
Your story has touched me deeply. I will consult with him.
He texted Colin.
Abbie wants your phone number.
He was glad Abbie couldn’t perceive Colin’s response.
Good God, what for?
Took a shine to you.
It was not mutual. I was trying to provide respectful support to a client. Is this how desperate women are to be treated like human beings?
Maybe you look like breakup sex to her, what do I know. I don’t specialize in grieving women. You could always friend her on Facebook and leave it at that.
I can do that. We’ve met, we’d recognize each other in the street. I’m not ashamed to know her.
Jesse cracked up again. Cool Mr. Smooth, he thought.
My work here’s done.
Fuck you, came Colin’s cheerful response.
Two hours later there was a ping on his phone, a single word text from Abbie: Thanks.
He immediately texted Colin. You chump, did you start messaging her on Facebook? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
You’re an asshole.
Nope, I’m only *part* asshole, just like errybody else. Set good boundaries! Carry lube and condoms! You can talk to me anytime!
See previous communiqué, peace out.
He was quoting George. Colin recognized the quote; he’d heard his grandad mention it.
“But you can’t bring people used to thinking of themselves as superior to a different understanding of that superiority without making them mad, and so a good chunk of feminism is press rather than activism, although you need both to get anywhere.” He paused as they slid the bookcases along. “And the whole getting mad thing accounts for all the bullshit things white men who identify as feminists say to various individuals who are minority women when They call HIM on his narrowly constructed and self-serving and dismissive, condescending and slur-filled take on contemporary politics.
“There’s information to correct the misinformation, but in the same way a Jesuit priest can get a PhD in astrophysics and believe in the Trinity, a white Canadian guy can dismiss a rational argument from a Nigerian black woman simply because he doesn’t believe she could be well educated enough to argue with him, and thus does not actually pay attention to what she’s saying, and can continue to abuse her over the internet because in his mind she’s inflexibly stupid and needing to be yelled at. That’s what racism is. He is allowed to believe that he need not improve himself for something worse is his to abuse.”
“And you think I’m like that,” Colin said coldly, stacking rickety diner-style metal tube chairs.
“When’s the last time you abused a woman of colour on the internet?”
“I corrected all the spelling and grammar in her post, found her email address and sent it to her and she immediately replied that I was never to communicate with her again, which seemed easy enough to do.”
“You at least make an effort not to stalk.”
“Oh, I do stalk. It’s not good.”
“I stalked Lark for a while,” Jesse said.
“That must have been awful for you,” Colin said. It wasn’t possible to tell from his tone of voice whether he understood his self-reproach or was being a complete fucking prick. Colin had surprised him many times; he was mostly soft-hearted, but prickly, and fuck George and his gendered slurs.
“You’re doing a lot of talking and not much moving,” Cary said, appearing out of the gloom.
Colin said, “You’re doing a lot of talking and not much paying,” and Jesse sucked his breath in and held it, trying to aim calm at these two mismatched souls.
“I’m going to tell Abbie,” Cary said.
Neither mover spoke, and both started moving toward the back bedroom, which was strictly off limits to Cary.
“You’re just hiding back there, you’re not moving anything. What were you talking about?” Cary asked. Jesse turned. He thought he might have compassion for Cary, when he wasn’t thinking of what Michel might do to him, so he answered with what he hoped was a face of shining honesty. It was hopeless to think his face could shine, though; he’d never been in a house so dimly lit. The house of his childhood seemed like a Diwali celebration compared to this dump.
“Women, sex, LARPing, manners, feminism and him somehow thinking meeting my sister is a good idea.”
Cary followed the most recent words. “You don’t want him to meet your sister.”
“Socially he’s way way above us,”
“Hey!” Colin said.
“Although there are now mitigating factors which er, have to do with the LARP, and are boring past belief to the novice, like there’s an eight hour orientation and if you skip it or miss it you NEVER get to play no matter how you beg, and there’s like two hours of on-line reading which is a snap of course, but the hard part, I mean the really holy shit is this how it’s going to be from now on part, is just how mentally ill everybody who plays the game is.
“How mentally ill?” Cary said, with professional interest.
“You have to commit to behaving as if something you know isn’t true is true, and be prepared to die defending the lie,” Jesse said.
“That’s just being a spy in wartime,” Cary said, dismissive. “Not mental illness, it’s strategy.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Colin said. “The game makes ever-expanding demands on time and energy – though most of the cost is being subsidized by a rich crazy person.”
“Must be nice,” Cary said, although his voice never left its monotonic rut.
Jesse adopted his gently chiding voice, which made Colin want to dent him in the shins, a sordid feeling to have while blue and purple marks remained on Jesse’s face. “Colin, crazy is a pejorative word. It’s not useful in describing real world situations, it’s not respectful, and it isn’t helpful.”
“What it is is terse,” Colin said.
“Oh, now you’re manly,” Jesse said. “Let’s move furniture then. Cary, wanna help?”
“You’d have to pay me,” and he smirked. For a moment he looked like an artist’s rendering of the first Vampire-Sloth hybrid. Jesse wanted the smirk to go away,
“You’ll have to pay us if you want to watch. We could get affectionate if you pay extra.”
Note: chapter title stolen sideways from Virtualis
The two movers had to pass repeatedly in front of Cary’s open door. Colin, fastidious and judgey as he was, went straight to it in a series of likely audible whispers.
Jesse said, “Whispering shit that’s rude just lets people know you’re rude, but it’s okay if you’re of limited capacity or a child,” and smiled, because his mimicry of Colin was full-bodied and he was proud of it.
“Fuck you, and you say I’m judgemental,” Colin replied. “You’re seven years younger than me and you treat me like a child.”
“I could go on and on about why that’s so, and for a fair bit about how you let me, and yet I don’t. Seriously, dude, you’re going to have to stop treating your posture as an afterthought.”
“God, you sound like my grandmother, when she was still talking.”
Jesse turned from teasing at the mention of his dying relative – as Colin no doubt knew he would. “Maybe she’ll speak at the end. Humans often do, they are wired for it, if it’s a reasonably natural death.”
“What?” Colin said.
“It’s something George said, and Michel agreed when I mentioned it.”
“You spend a lot of time checking what one says versus another.”
“You know about the wiki. If we don’t stick in everything we know that we’ll be able to rapidly vet and share with the appropriate people come O-day we’ll end up spending hours and hours in interrogation rooms.”
“I don’t like thinking about that.”
“George is striking a deal with the cops and other interested parties so we’ll have special status under the new regime as experienced Sixer wranglers.”
“I hate that term, it makes the Sixers sound like brute animals,” Colin said.
“What are you guys talking about?” Cary said from his room.
“A LARP,” Jesse and Colin called back in sync. “It’s a kind of game,” Colin said officiously.
“I know what it is,” Cary said. They left the house with two boxes apiece and fucked with the ramp by bouncing on it as they walked up it, which combined with the wind and rain made a noise that was rhythmic, unnerving and rather catchy. It also made the two of them howl with laughter, which echoed in the carport. The regular truck didn’t have a ramp, but the regular truck was in the shop after a possum-related incident which had involved smoke and flames.
“I didn’t know possums lived in Vancouver,” Colin said, when Jesse told him. “They aren’t common,” Jesse said, “Which is good because I think they’re creepy as fuck. I know they’re one of god’s critters but, brrr.”
“You know Cary’s gonna try to engage us in conversation and require our cooperation,” Colin said. They stopped outside the door, to continue the conversation.
“Yup. I started carrying cuff-straps as part of my kit last month.” Colin made a noise that could have been disbelief or approval. “They’ll probably get used against me, given my shit luck, but the point is that if I need to fasten him to something I have the power. I know he’s physically sick right now and it’s hurting his brain, which is making him really yucky to be around.”
“When I get home I can shower and remove the stench of total loser, which is the thought that’s keeping the harsh off my wallies,” Colin said.
They went back into the living room. They commenced to staging more awkward objects, things and appurtenances, having among their number floor lamps, hutches, rather too many flimsy bookcases which would likely not withstand the rigours of being reassembled, corner cabinets, an antique spinning wheel, seven wheelie bins of craft supplies (all very well organized and labelled, but daunting in their scale) “I mean look at these fuckers,” Jesse said as soon as they went back outside. “Stick hats on ‘em and leave ‘em in an alley and even Michel would run the other way.”
“You know you have the most amazing rural BC accent and yet you speak like you got a university education.”
“You didn’t live with Raven when she was going to school,” Jesse said.
“When will I meet her? She sounds intriguing,” Colin said.
“Why would I do that to you?” Jesse said. “She’d bite your dick off, spit it in your face, and then argue that you were better off.”
“You’d say that about your own sister,” Colin said in disgust.
“Yeah,” Jesse said, “But only to hear her delightful laugh. I mean once she got to know you she’d have no interest in you – I certainly know her well enough that you wouldn’t be her cup of tea.”
“And you’re going to tell me why,” Colin said.
“Oh no,” Jesse said. “You wanted to meet her, you’ll get your wish.”
“But I’ll wish I hadn’t.”
“No, no,” Jesse said, sounding just like George for a second, “If you decide to be in friendly puppy-dog mode you’ll survive first contact with nothing worse than a light glaring.”
“You’re having me on.”
“Do you have a sister?”
“Damn, I knew that. But if you had a sister, would you let me date her?”
“This. Is a trick. Question,” Colin said.
“Totally,” Jesse said, waggling his eyebrows. “But can you articulate how?”
“It’ll have something to do with feminism,” Colin said grimly.
“Which is a philosophy devoted to digging up the roots of inequality between men and women, and replanting life with practical and humane solutions to that inequality.”
“You make it sound so reasonable,” Colin said.
“English can make anything sound reasonable,” Jesse said.