TW: child abandonment, smoking, paranoia
The Civic Hospital emergency room is dressed in beige, white and blue, and the lights above flicker, desperately trying to provide light and warmth to a room that’s absorbed the unhappiness, misery and pain of countless people. Hospitals try so hard to be something other than they are. I can’t fault them. We all do it.
I can’t decide whether I’m dreaming or not. I can’t feel my feet against the floor, or the air against my hands, even though I know I should. One moment I think I’m seventeen and fully-grown and too, too aware of all the things I’m here to find out. The next moment, I’m fifteen, and my sister’s dying. And then I’m twelve again and Johara’s next to me, small and nervous and wondering why we’re here.
My brain skips the part where the nurse comes up to us and asks if we’re lost and guides us elsewhere in the hospital. I vaguely remember how she found somebody to keep us company, concern mixed with a desire to help. Instead, my dream keeps us in the emergency room.
A baby starts crying. I turn around, and I can’t see Jo next to me, even though I can feel her chubby hand in mine, sweaty and sticky—and between the automatic glass doors, I can see the little girl, in a borrowed coat too big for her and somebody else’s name stitched inside. She’s maybe three, four years old. The baby in her arms is too big for her, sliding out of her arms. She’s small and brown and dirty, and somebody’s tried to cut her red hair short so it sticks out at angles from her head.
The baby won’t stop crying. “You have to be quiet!” she insists. “Mama said she’s coming back soon!”
There’s somebody walking away from the hospital, a black windbreaker wrapped tightly around her thin frame. I don’t know if she’s my mother. But I find myself running anyway, hand stretched out, because I’m so close, so close this time. All I need is to see her face.
I cross the space between her and me in a single step. My hand brushes against her shoulder, but then suddenly I’m holding an empty raincoat in my hand. I stare at it. I look up again. The parking lot is full of ghosts, grey and misty.
Nothing but smoke and ashes.
I’d never woken up from nightmares with that catapult terror that you saw in movies or TV. Instead, every time, my eyes snap open, and I think I’m somewhere else for however long it takes for my nerves to unwind and my muscles to relax. It’s always been like that, and this time, it wasn’t any different.
“Jamal?” Jo sat cross-legged in front of me, the pose making her look a lot more solid than she really was. It helped.
“Mm. Hi.” I managed to move my hand up to the pillow, fingers digging into the soft fabric. The blanket below me wasn’t doing a lot to soften the hardwood below me. That was alright. It was helping me wake up faster.
“Which one was it this time?”
“Oh, just…” I shrugged. “The hospital.”
Even in the dark, I could see how her eyes softened. “Any idea why?”
I snorted. “Could ask that about a lot of things.” I sat up with a groan. “Can you get the light?”
“I can’t, sorry.”
“Right.” Two years and I still found myself forgetting she was—Yeah. I didn’t want to think about that right now. I considered getting up, but then decided just to sit in the dark for a while. The dark didn’t bother me. Not most of the time, anyway.
“Are you going to be okay?”
“Yeah,” I lied, or almost lied. I didn’t really know what ‘okay’ meant. Did it mean back to normal? Did it mean up to everybody else’s standards of normal? Did it mean having fifty percent less nightmares than normal? No nightmares at all?
I suddenly had the urge to cry. That was unusual. I managed to shove it away, and finally grabbed hold of one of the surrounding boxes, hauling myself to my feet and switching on the light. It was brighter than I expected, and I squinted, covering my eyes.
“You’re going to have to sleep in more than a t-shirt when Nathan moves in, you know,” Jo added brightly. I scratched my stomach in response.
My notepad from yesterday was sitting on the desk, and I stared at it for a few moments, letting the events of the previous day sink in. It hadn’t really occurred to me at the time just how much had happened, or how much of it had been weird as hell.
I picked up the pad, flicking through it and pausing at the last page. “Core—Celestial?” was scrawled on it, with “Fire, Earth, Air, Water” scrawled underneath Core, and “Sulfur, Mercury” scribbled underneath Celestial. At the bottom, in big and uncertain letters, was ‘SALT.’
Me. That was me. At least, according to two mind-readers with hidden agendas and a disturbing Trinity cosplayer with a vanishing act . The worst part was, it was more information than I had about myself currently.
Fueled by either nostalgia or self-destructiveness, I opened the top drawer of the desk and pulled out the very first thing I’d put in there. Jo was hovering a distance away, but she didn’t need to come closer. She knew what it was. The two of us had taken ourselves to the hospital one day five years ago.
I snorted. We’d been so excited.
I opened the folder. Two pieces of paper sat nestled inside. I knew their contents mostly off by heart.
Date of birth: unknown.
Age: three, probably. Same for Johara, except she’d been a six-month-old baby.
There’d been a lot of guesses made as to where we were from, especially since white people couldn’t hide their fascination with Jo’s hair (soft, bouncy ringlets that had a life of their own). As far as I had figured, Jo was part Black, part… something else. Probably the same whatever I was. That was the problem. Jo had her hair and her nose—even on top of light brown skin, people made their assumptions. And with me, well, nobody even got that far. Brown kids didn’t have red hair, and whether I was Middle-Eastern or Indian or Mexican or Native American—none of that mattered when ‘terrorist’ or ‘illegal’ summed up people’s feelings about me pretty neatly.
All of that—all the guesswork, all the desperate searching of our faces for phenotypes and stereotypes we could turn into something understandable—boiled down into less than half of a page.
Still, I found myself scanning the piece of paper, searching for some missing clue, some extra hint. I thought I’d grown out of it, but that one extra word—salt—felt like another arrow. I scoffed at myself. Not so much an arrow as a compass needle, spinning endlessly, pointing nowhere at all. I shoved the folder back into the drawer, probably more roughly than I meant to. I was over it.
Instead, I copied down the number from my arm (a little faded now) onto my pad of paper. After a moment, I dropped the pad into the drawer as well. I’d found Mr. Chaudhury. My job was done.
Speaking of… I glanced over at the clock. 5:30. Too early, still. But I imagined within the next few hours it’d be time to give Mrs. Chaudhury a call.
In the meantime—
“You’re not done, are you?”
I didn’t bother meeting Jo’s eyes. She’d be all flamed up and righteous and accusatory. “I did what she wanted me to do. And what Gurjas wanted. You’ll notice he’s not here.”
“But somebody killed him! And—what was all that yesterday?”
I paused, not sure what I wanted to say. Despite myself, I looked up—and in her face, I could see the same desperate need for identity written in block letters, on the slightly oversized nose we both had, the high cheekbones, the widow’s peak hairline.
“Don’t you want to know? Aren’t you curious at all?”
I did. “And what if it’s a trick, or a trap, or too big for me to handle?”
“For us to handle,” she said insistently.
The anger surged up inside me out of nowhere. It wasn’t worth yelling at her. It wouldn’t solve anything or make the dark bubbling cloud in my chest go away.
“I’m going for a smoke,” I snapped, grabbing a pair of plaid pants from the top of another box and yanking my box of smokes from the top of the desk.
I went down the stairs and outside, sitting down on the wooden steps and listening to them creak reassuringly underneath me. The house was old, but that wasn’t saying much—this was the corner of Hintonburg that had escaped the yuppie renos of the rest of this part of Ottawa. With the sun rising behind me, the street was bathed in the half-light of dawn, grey and slightly misty. It’d clear later. The autumn mornings always felt like oncoming storms.
I flicked open my cigarette case. Three left, and then I’d have to buy more. With money I didn’t have. The cash Mrs. Chaudhury had given me was going towards next month’s rent. The business I expected to drum up sometime between now and then would pay for food, and until then I was living off the cans and ramen my last foster family had given me as a gesture of goodwill. The boxes in my office were things they’d been trying to get rid of or the things I’d managed to hold onto, some donations from people I’d actually managed to learn the names of in school…
I glared at the three cigarettes as if I could conjure a fourth one into existence. Then I closed the case, and rested my head on the banister, eyelids burning with exhaustion and frustration. I had to call them, at some point. My old foster family, and the people at school I didn’t talk to anymore—everyone who had helped, sort of. They hadn’t been terrible. I just couldn’t work up the energy to talk to people I never had anything in common with. I missed them, sometimes, but not enough to get over the sinking feeling that they’d be happier now that I was gone.
I didn’t fall asleep, not exactly. But whatever trance I was in was disturbed by my phone vibrating in my hands. A text, labelled “Nathan Beaufort.”
Right. Between the murder, the psychics, and fighting with Jo, I’d forgotten about that guy. Another perfectly nice person I didn’t understand. I opened the message.
N: Hey! The lnadlord says its all good and I can move in this week! Is Thursday good?
God. Another person to keep track of.
J: yeah sure
J: dont touch my shit
N: Are you not going to be there? :questioning:
What was a good way to answer that? Nathan was clearly a bit skittish, but I wasn’t sure if he was ready for “socializing makes me want to kill myself,” let alone “that’s ironic, because I can talk to dead people.”
Which brought me full circle back to Jo. Great. Thanks, brain.
J: i have an inconsistent schedule
J: dont worry about it
It would have been great if I was the ghost and not Jo, I grumbled to myself, probably a little more morosely than the situation really warranted. All Jo wanted was to talk to people, and all I wanted was to be left alone. Instead, I got stuck being the one who had to deal with everything.
I dialed Mrs. Chaudhury’s number into my phone anyway. Best to get it over with.
“…Hello?” Right away, I could hear that she’d been crying, although she was doing her best to hide it.
I took a deep breath. “Mrs. Chaudhury. It’s Jamal, Jamal Kaye.”
“Yes, of course. The, um…” She paused. “The police were here last night. Thank you.”
Thank you? I’d been expecting screaming. Or coldness. I opened my mouth, trying to figure out how to respond—”I’m sorry. I—I’m sorry. For your loss.”
“You don’t need to apologize. You aren’t—” She sighed. “You did what you promised. You took my desperate hope and you followed through, and that’s more than I should have asked of any child.”
“Don’t start,” she chuckled wearily. “Will you come to his funeral, Jamal? I would be honoured to have you there.”
Now that I really didn’t have a response for. I wondered where on earth Gurjas had hopped off to—I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should ask his permission.
Then I caught sight of the figure walking down the street towards me, and my blood ran cold. “…I’d like to think about it, if that’s alright. I’m sorry, Mrs. Chaudhury, I have to go.”
“Oh, that’s alright. Have a good day.”
“Yeah. You too.” I hung up.
Mrs. Chaudhury stood in front of me, eyes dark and her hands empty. “Hello, Jamal.”