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The Heart's Landscape

Chapter Text

Hands are the heart's landscape. They split sometimes
Like ravines into which an undefined force rolls.
The very same hands which man only opens
When his palms have had their fill of toil.
Now he sees: because of him alone others can walk in peace.
Hands are a landscape. When they split, the pain of their sores
Surges free as a stream.
But no thought of pain—
No grandeur in pain alone.
For his own grandeur he does not know how to name.

— Karol Wojtyla

Aurora clicked off the light in the little hotel bathroom, the whir of the fan going silent with it, and padded across the carpet. She was just barely wrapped in one of the towels (too small, itchy), but after she passed by the window she let it drop. Dance of the seven veils. In the dark, she slid back into bed beside the boy and combed her fingers lightly through his hair. It was long, sandy-blond, the first thing she'd noticed about him in the club. She'd noticed other things after that, of course: he was a mutant, and under the long hair his ears were pointed, edged with a strange soft amber-and-charcoal fur, like a caracal cat. A few piercings in those ears, little silver rings that were warm against her fingertips -- the ears twitched and he stirred, rolling over in bed to look at her.

"Hi," he murmured, giving her a smile in the dark. Pointed teeth, too, just the canines. "You smell good. Nice and clean."

"Did I stink before? Was I grossing you out?" She let her cheek rest against his chest, which was hairy -- not fur, just regular hair, tawny and dense. She liked it.

She'd found him at the Velvet, an underground club in the basement of the Auberge Saint-Gabriel in Vieux-Montréal. Mutant Night...she hadn't got in free, because the doorman said you had to be visible or else have ID, but once inside she'd chosen a couch-full of lurking mutants to befriend. No, me too, she'd told them, cozying up to the blond boy.

She let her hand drift down across his belly. Hard muscle, nice. "What's your name?"

He lifted his head off the pillow. "Did we seriously not do names?"

"Mm-mm." The club had been loud, and they'd been busy in the cab.

"Holy shit that's hot," he said, lying down again. "Wow. I'm Kyle, anyway."

She smiled, reaching down to run her fingers over his upper thighs. "You don't do this often?"

"Yeah, not to be weird? Or anything? But this is wildest dream stuff, for me." He shifted, rolling to his side, which not-coincidentally pushed his cock into her hand. "You?"

"Not often." Her fingers slid over the silky skin. "Why only wildest dreams? Because of this?" She moved to straddle his hips, reaching up to touch his face, the bristles of stubble along his jaw, the ears. "It's sexy."

"Huh," he said, sounding doubtful.

"What, you think I'm lying?" She moved slightly southward until she felt his cock pressed against her cunt. "Still think so?"

He laughed, his long teeth gleaming in the dark. "Don't get me hard again, c'mon. I should go home, I got work in the morning."

"That was a really short wildest dream."

"Ouch." He sat up on his elbow. "Sorry, okay? I gotta stay in my boss's good graces, I'm lucky to be there. Gimme your number, I'll make it up to you."

"Oh, I don't think so," Aurora said, detaching herself from him. She sat up and pulled the covers back up from the foot of the bed. "I mean, this was fun, but I don't like to do numbers."

His face sank, but he nodded, trying to play it off. "Too bad. For real, I wasn't planning to...my friend wanted to go to Velvet, I didn't think anybody would pay attention to me--"

"Hey. Don't worry. Not a big deal." She pressed a kiss to the curve of his shoulder. "Just leave me the keycard, okay?"

"Sure, yeah..." He was pulling his clothes on, but then looked over his shoulder at her. "Wait, do you not have anywhere else to stay?"

"Not in the city." It was true. "I'm playing it by ear."

"Aw, geez..."

"Well, don't sound like that." She flopped back down on the pillows. "I'm working some things out. I could go home, I just don't want to. Mutant stuff."

"Okay...well..." He pulled his shirt back on. For a few moments he seemed like he was going to drop the subject, his back to her as he put his shoes on. Then he stopped and said, "Look, I'm just saying if you can't line anything else up...you know about the House, right?"

"What house?"

"For mutants. Anyone can stay there, it's really chill. Let me just..." He leaned over to the bedside table and picked up the hotel-branded notepad and the pen, writing down an address. "I used to stay there, so -- now I'm telling you, the circle's complete, whatever. Do I still get to know your name?"

She smiled, a little touched that he'd bothered, against her protests. "Aurora."

"That's pretty."

"Thank you."

"You're pretty."

"I know."

"I gotta go." He got up and checked his phone, the screen filling the room with weak cyanotic light for a second, and then went to the door. "Thanks for tonight. You're really -- thanks."

"Goodnight, Kyle." She gave him a little-kid wave, one hand clapping, but was already snugging herself under the covers. Probably for the best that he was going, actually, because the bed felt nice and warm. And big. Yes, this was just fine. "Thank you too."

* * *

Jeanne-Marie woke up in a strange bed, in a strange room. A small room, but the bed was big -- it felt hard, the springs too springy, when she was used to the saggy, squashy mattress of her own bed at home. No, oh no. Not again.

Someone was knocking at the door. "Housekeeping."

"No -- no, thank you," Jeanne-Marie said to the closed door. She groped for the lamp switch and sat up, nude between the sheets, her hair falling down over her shoulders. It had dried in strange, cornery waves, so she must have slept on it wet. "I'm fine."

"It's three o'clock, madame. Checkout time."

Oh no. "All right, sorry, sorry," she said, scrambling out of bed and looking for her clothes. "Just five minutes, please, I'll get my things and go."

Her clothes were gone. Or at least her clothes were gone, the clothes she'd been wearing on Friday, her skirt and her new sweater. There was a little pile of black fabric on the floor, and she thought it was a blouse until she held it up. No, that was meant to be a dress. It was just very, very short.

Her watch was missing. Aurora might have lost it, being absent-minded. Or she might have sold it, or even had it stolen. Her little gold miraculous medal was gone too. Jeanne-Marie had no idea what day it was -- Saturday evening? How much time had gone by? The last thing she remembered was sitting down in her green armchair in her room with a blanket and a Louis de Monfort book. That was Friday, the end of her first week teaching. Of course she'd come back to do this now. I should have known.

Lacy black panties, buried in the sheets. No stockings anywhere. Cosmetics in the bathroom, which Jeanne-Marie never wore. The black heels were hers, things she'd bought for the May formal last year, and they at least were chaste-looking, unadorned and the heel not too high. Her feet hurt, the arches aching.

A condom was floating in the toilet like a lost jellyfish. Jeanne-Marie slammed the bathroom door closed again, her eyes hot with tears.

She put the dress on, because she had no choice, and put her coat on over it. She went to the window and looked out: from here she could see the elaborate red-and-gold gate of the Quartier Chinois, a useful geographic clue. It was snowing, cars sloshing through the street below, cranes perched above the skeletons of new high-rises on the horizon.

She searched the bed again, tearing the blankets away, hoping to find at least a pair of stockings somewhere in the tangle of sheets and covers. Maybe a bra, but that was probably expecting too much from Aurora. As she was pulling the bedspread over, she caught sight of a note on the bedside table.

St. John of God House,
3426 Rue Sainte Famille
(Place-des-Arts Metro)
- Kyle

Well, it might help. She grabbed the notepad and stuffed it in her coat pocket. She left the hotel room, gave a tight smile to the maid and her cleaning cart, and tried not to look at her own reflection in the mirrored walls of the elevator. She tugged at the skirt of her dress under her coat, trying to make it longer by sheer force of will.

Outside, on René Lévesque, the snow was packed down on the sidewalk, uneven and slippery to walk on in her heels. Her legs were bare in the snow, and she was starting to entertain the idea of fashioning a longer skirt out of newspaper or plastic bags. Anything.

She crossed the intersection and entered the Place Desjardins shopping centre on the other side of the street. At least it was warm. She found a bookstore, a quiet place with a preoccupied shopgirl who didn't try to sell her anything. She passed the time in the mall as long as she could, putting off the inevitable.

In her right coat pocket, she found a handful of receipts and scraps of paper. She went through them: a clothing boutique, a charge of $214; a Jean Coutu drugstore downtown, $94.13; six ATM receipts showing a balance crawling down to $5.47, withdrawals of a hundred at a time; two phone numbers in handwriting she didn't recognise, one on a torn envelope and one on a piece ripped from a photocopied biology article.

So Aurora had gone into the city and spent every cent that Jeanne-Marie had in her savings. She couldn't return the dress, because she had nothing else to wear -- what had Aurora done with Jeanne-Marie's skirt and sweater? Thrown them away? Left them in some other hotel? The dates on the receipts said at least a week had gone by.

A week.

In the left pocket of her coat, she found a cardboard STM temporary metro pass -- who knew how many days were left on it -- and a handful of small change. Maybe she should go to the Gare Centrale and call the school from there, throw herself on Madame DuPont's mercy. From there Madame could arrange a train ticket back to Deux Montagnes.

No, that wouldn't go very well.

And she had the address on the notepad, St. John of God House. She had no idea what that might be, but she did know the name of the saint. John of God, a 16th-century Portuguese bookseller who had a mental breakdown, and devoted himself to sheltering the homeless and the insane. So this was probably the address of a street shelter, a Catholic one. She didn't know why Aurora would have taken note of it (thinking ahead wasn't her style). Very possibly it was a men's shelter, or maybe it was too late now and they wouldn't let her in. But she could try it, before resigning herself to calling Madame.

She wouldn't even need the metro. Rue Sainte Famille was only a few blocks away, just past UQAM. All Jeanne-Marie wanted at the moment was to beg someone else to help her, to take her hands off the clay and her foot off the treadle. Enough, enough. Everything was ruined, every alarm was going off, and she was the cause of it. Let someone else begin the work of picking up the pieces.

She left the vestibule and started walking up Rue St-Urbain, shivering. Dark, the sky was lit brown outside the window, sodium streetlights reflected by the thick snow-clouds. How did Aurora get around the city, dressed like this in winter? Did she take cabs, with Jeanne-Marie's money? Did she have her men drive her around? Probably yes to both. Don't think about it. She kept her head down, her stride stiff and jerky, determined not to hear it if boys on the street catcalled her. Her face was hot and her legs were numb. This will all be over soon, she told herself. In just an hour you'll be inside somewhere and this will all be in the past.

When she'd passed through the UQAM campus, the tall apartment buildings gave way to greystone row houses. Number 3426 was a duplex on high ground with an imposing limestone wall at street-level, crawling with bare brown vines. Jeanne-Marie went to the door, cringing as her feet sank in the snow on the steps, and rang the bell.

A long wait. Now her feet were feeling the cold, or rather they weren't feeling it, and she wondered morbidly if she might lose a toe from this little adventure. She shifted her weight back and forth, then stopped, fearing that frostbitten toes might snap off like icicles.

No answer from within. Maybe they were closed -- she had no idea what time it was. Maybe they were just something like a soup kitchen or a reading room and wouldn't be able to help her at all. For one mad moment, she thought of breaking a window. There were no lights on inside that she could see. She was about to give up when she heard a thump and a creak within, and the door opened.

It was a young man in a black sweater, only a little older than Jeanne-Marie herself, tall and very thin with reddish hair and freckles. He took one look at her and said in French, "Wow, you look cold. Come on in, I'll put the kettle on."

She followed him in, through the dim front hallway, the staircases cornered round each other, stairs going up and going down, dark wood banisters piled with coats and hats.  On the wall was a picture in an elaborately carved wood frame with white silk roses and curls of dried palms stuck behind it, an old paper-lace postcard with an engraving of the Virgin Mary holding several little birds in her hands.  The caption read Elle aime les faibles.  She loves the weak.

At the back of the house, the kitchen was painted pale yellow, with flowered mouldings along the ceiling that clashed with the utilitarian steel stove and formica countertops. A transit map of the city was tacked to the wall over the table, beside a poster of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On the door was a whiteboard scribbled over with bilingual messages, magazine clippings and holy cards taped up beside it. A clock on the wall read quarter past twelve, and Jeanne-Marie felt bad about her impatience with the doorbell. Where had the time gone? Had she lost a few more hours in the mall? Probably. Yes. "Did I wake you up?"

"No, it's fine. I was up anyway, I had a paper to write." His French was good, just a trace of an accent around the corners of his words, suggestions of the syncopated rhythms of English. He plugged the kettle in. "I'm gonna get you a blanket, okay?"

She just nodded, and he went off upstairs. There was a newspaper sitting out on the scarred wooden table, and she glanced at it, looking for the date. When she saw it, her throat closed up with a clicking sound.

Not one week. Two. Two weeks. Two weeks had gone by. Two weeks of her life, to say nothing of the money, gone with no explanation and for no good reason. So her job at the school was definitely history now. Madame might let her stay on washing dishes or refilling inventory in the pantry, but Jeanne-Marie could forget about teaching.

Her skin felt too tight. She couldn't even get back at Aurora...could she? What was there that Aurora cared about as much as Jeanne-Marie cared for her job, her reputation at the school, even her soul?

I never did anything to you, Aurora whispered from within. You self-righteous bitch, I'm just trying to exist. You can't expect me to live like you do.

"Stop it," Jeanne-Marie whispered out loud, but nothing stopped. She was alone as an animal in a trap, but even alone she was watched, and she could not look back at the predators and scavengers gathering in the trees. And with a mental jerk like the sensation of falling just before sleep, she felt dizzyingly un-herself, her body and brain feeling strange, unfamiliar, contemptible. It seemed impossible that she'd ever really existed.

The boy in the black sweater returned with a blue fleece blanket and a pair of flannel pajama pants, thick white gym socks that still had their paper label stuck to them. "I don't know if you're hungry or you just want to lie down..."

She was hungry, but she didn't know if she could face a meal right now. "I don't know -- um, is your name Kyle?"

He gave her a quizzical look, as if that were a really weird question. "No -- wait, are you looking for Kyle Gibney?"

"No, just...I met a lot of people over the last two weeks and I can't remember them all," Jeanne-Marie said, which was very true. She put the socks and pajama pants on, moving stealthily under the blanket for modesty. She gave him the hotel notepad. "Somebody gave me this address, his name must have been Kyle..."

"Oh, okay, yeah. That's his writing -- you met Kyle, eh? I haven't seen him here in a long time, I thought he must have moved on. My name's Joel, anyhow."

"Jeanne-Marie Beaubier." She kept her hands balled up in the folds of the blanket. "Is it really okay if I stay here tonight?"

"Sure, we've got an empty bed. I can take you up there now and if you get hungry later..." He opened the fridge, looking inside. "Uh, if the container's not labelled, you can have it, basically. Or anything in that cardboard box on the counter, that's some random stuff we got from Food Not Bombs, so people gotta eat it before it goes bad."

"Thank you -- I really just want to sleep, but thank you so much..." Jeanne-Marie got up, wrapped in the blanket.

"No problem, yeah. Follow me."

He led her up two flights of stairs to a small bedroom on the third floor of the house. The ceilings were sloped under the roof, small windows at knee-height with thick panels of coloured glass. The bed was next to a big old-fashioned steam radiator, and heat was breathing out in waves like water. Jeanne-Marie sat on the bed, feeling herself curl forward like a wilting plant.

"So, bathroom's at the end of the hall," Joel said, pointing out the door for her. "There's a nightlight in the outlet there, if you don't like the dark. The door locks. Breakfast's at seven. Anything else you need, I'm awake for awhile yet. You okay?"

"I'm okay. Thank you."

"Good. See you in the morning." He closed the door gently. Jeanne-Marie kept the nightlight on, grateful for it -- she hated the dark. She took off her coat and climbed into bed, where she fell asleep quickly, curled up in foetal position under the blankets. Warm and dry, miraculously. Outside, the wind rattled the windowpanes and whistled in the chimneys, but she was safe.

* * *

Joel gave up working around one, but got up early the next morning to finish his paper. He wasn't in the habit of getting up early, since he needed a lot of sleep to keep seizures and disappearances at bay, but he liked the grey silence of the city in the early hours. From his bedroom window, he had a view of snow-covered roofs and white backyards, the edges of the sun turning the bricks of the other houses coral red. Mackerel scales in the east: more snow soon.

The door opened, and Paul shuffled in, looking sheepish. He was about Joel’s age, black-haired and very pale, his skin a translucent milky colour. A dark blot like a port-wine birthmark hovered over one temple, but it faded and twisted, changing shape and colour from plum-red to pale green shot through with threads of indigo, dispersing like a group of tiny tetra fish in an aquarium, bright and flickering. Unhappy colours.

"Are we still fighting?" Joel asked, trying to be cool and not look up from his work, and failing.

"Yeah, sorry. I was a prick."

"No, you were right." It was always easier to be generous when Paul was in the mood to make concessions first, but this time it really had been Joel's fault. "I shouldn't have put that on you at the last minute, just because I was procrastinating on getting my own stuff done. I do take you for granted."

"So we're good?"

"We're good. How's the basement couch, to sleep on?"

"Not great." Paul wandered over to the dresser and pulled down his lower eyelid, looking at the white. "I think I have jaundice."

"You're fine." Paul's hypochondria was business as usual, so Joel turned back to his essay.

"Did I see someone new downstairs, the girl with the black hair? Is she the one who rang the bell last night?"

"Yeah."

"Who is she?"

"She's new."

"Uh-huh." Paul's favourite "you're not being helpful" tone.

Joel gave up, saved his file, and turned his chair around to give Paul his full attention. "Her name's Jeanne-Marie, and that's about all I know. She showed up last night barely dressed and almost freezing, so I didn't ask questions. I guess Kyle gave her the address."

"She's a friend of Kyle's?"

Joel shrugged. "I got the impression she only met him once and forgot, or something like that."

"He's a hard guy to forget. That's weird, I'm surprised he's still in town," Paul said. "I would've thought he'd gone back to Vancouver. Are you seriously not done with that paper yet?"

"Almost."

Paul sighed and came to look over Joel's shoulder at the screen. "Man Against Mass: The Challenge of Ricoeur's Hermeneutic of Revelation to Marcel's Ontological Personalism -- seriously?"

"Yeah, I know the title sucks, okay? I really am almost done, I just have to fix the last paragraph and fill in...well, there's a few thin spots." The paper was already a day late, so he might have to just give up and hand it in as it was. "I'll do better with the next one."

"Hey, I don't need excuses," Paul said. "It's not my degree and it's not my vocation, what do I care? If you don't want to take it seriously, go ahead."

"Right, here we go." Joel got up to go brush his teeth. Paul followed, leaning in the doorway. "Don't start this again. I am taking it seriously. I don't know what's gonna convince you."

"Does Hodya know the whole story about this yet? Because that would convince me."

Joel had been seeing Hodya Eitan, the daughter of an Israeli diplomat friend of his father's, off and on for a little over two years. It was a long-distance relationship, as she was in microbiology at U of T, and more friendly than passionate. They were both fine with that, but for some reason Paul had the ability to make that fact sting like Borax in an open wound. "I'm not going to fight with you about my love life at this hour, Paul."

"We're fighting?"

"Yeah, that was kind of a low blow, man," Joel said around the toothbrush.

"Sorry."

"Sure." He spat into the sink and wiped his mouth. "I'm wondering about maybe having separate rooms."

Paul immediately became more subdued, blushing a dusty purple the colour of a bruise. "For real?"

"Yeah, for real. I know we thought it was more important to keep an extra room free, but at this point..."

Paul said nothing. He didn't like to let Joel trail off.

"At this point I feel like you're picking at me a lot, and we need some space."

A long silence. Joel didn't dare look over to see what colours were moving across Paul's face, so he busied himself with the Listerine, ignoring his peripheral vision.

At last, Paul said, "I don't do that. Not on purpose."

"I know you don't." Joel had to unlock the medicine cabinet to get his daily meds; the lock was an unfortunate necessity, and they'd found out the hard way. His pills were in a days-of-the-week container with the little doors, something that Paul had resisted doing so far with his own meds. Topiramate, lamotrigine, clonazepam, and a garnish of buspirone. His neurologist wasn't sure what the buspirone was even doing, but it seemed to help the cocktail work better overall. And a prenatal multivitamin, despite his lack of a uterus, because the anti-convulsants depleted his body of folic acid and vitamin D. He knocked them all back with a few gulps of water. "Neither do I, not on purpose, but it happens. This is just -- we're bouncing off each other too much, and it's affecting the atmosphere in the house. Don't tell me you wouldn't like some privacy, some days."

"No," said Paul, sounding perhaps more earnest than he had intended to. "I wouldn't. I like -- I like rooming with you."

Joel risked a glance over at Paul in the mirror. Green, which usually meant agitation and embarrassment. Paul couldn't lie to anyone who knew him well, and he generally didn't try. He was honest by nature, and quick to catch deception in others, aided by an odd, olfactory form of empathy that went with his mutation. So he meant it, and yet Joel couldn't resist saying, "Really?"

"No, it's a joke I made up. Yeah, really." Annoyed now, and that was more in character. Joel relaxed.

"Well, fine. Just stop riding my ass, okay?"

"Whatever," said Paul, pushing off from the doorframe and going to the dresser. Back to normal. "You're doing breakfast, right, comrade?"

"Yeah, yeah."

Downstairs in the kitchen, Joel started the oatmeal while Paul rustled through the front section of Le Devoir. More snow was now coming down, small flakes that were almost invisible unless you looked hard. Pouring the salt for the porridge into the palm of his left hand, Joel suddenly felt his body become somehow more real, more physical, every cell biting hard on the air. It was a feeling that came over him sometimes just before a seizure, so he put down the box of salt and waited, but nothing happened. He felt either very happy or very empty, and at first he could not quite tell which.

Empty, Joel decided. Empty to the corners.

The kids were mostly awake, including Jeanne-Marie, who was still wearing her winter coat over the pajama bottoms, sitting in a corner with a book and trying to be very small. Joel understood that, if he understood nothing else, and his first instinct was to pretend not to see her. But he'd learned that his instincts weren't really a reliable guide in these situations. "Want to help set the table?"

"Oh -- of course, yes, I can do that." She put the book aside and ventured closer. "I don't know how you like to do it."

"There's twelve of us, so give everyone a plate and a bowl. The cupboard's on your left -- that one, yup." The cutlery was in bins on the counter island, and people served themselves, but Joel felt it was important to set the plates on the table first, one at each chair. It was a way of saying not just that food was available, but that a place was set for everyone. He wasn't sure if any of the kids noticed or cared, but it mattered to him. "Did you meet Paul already? This is Paul Laliberté, my -- he works here too." He often said partner, but sometimes backed off from the word when he thought it might be misunderstood. "Paul, Jeanne-Marie."

Jeanne-Marie gave him a tiny wave. "Bonjour."

Paul gave her one of his appraising looks, but then just smiled, as if she'd passed some private test of his. "Salut."

"Whenever you feel like it we can talk about why you're here or what you need," Joel said. "If you want, anyway. You don't have to."

"I do need to speak with you," she said, setting her stack of plates down on the table. "I'm ready, just...if we could talk privately..."

"Okay. Paul, make sure the porridge doesn't burn?"

"Ouais," he drawled, turning a page of the newspaper.

Joel led Jeanne-Marie through the kitchen door to the other side of the duplex, where the house office was. It was a refurbished dining room, with a four-bulbed brass chandelier and a large bay window looking out over the backyard, the radiators on either side painted black with complex Moroccan-style grilles. In contrast, the furniture was shoddy Naugahyde donated by the rectory of Saint-Sulpice, and the filing cabinet was made of cardboard.

Jeanne-Marie sat down on the tattered loveseat and Joel pulled out the computer chair. "So what's going on?"

She stared down at her knees. "I go to -- I teach at Madame DuPont's School for Girls in Deux Montagnes."

She stopped there, as if he should find this fact significant. Madame DuPont's, Madame DuPont's...oh. Oh. "Not the school run by the, um, the--"

Schismatic was a rude word to use, and splinter group was a little dismissive too. Joel decided to wait and let her supply him with a label.

"We are traditional Roman Catholics," she said primly. "We're attached to the Petites Soeurs de Notre Dame de Fatima. Madame DuPont isn't a sister, of course, but some of them teach at the school."

"Right. Okay. Notre Dame de -- so you guys are connected with the Pères de la Société de Notre Dame de Fatima?"

"That's right."

"That's pretty hardcore," said Joel. The SNDF were a weird group of sedevacantists who rejected Vatican II and the current pope, and had elected a pope of their own in Quebec City. The guy had stigmata, or so Joel had heard. "Okay, sorry, go on."

"But I left. Without telling anyone."

He didn't blame her. The SNDF were rumoured to be abusive, and in a small, reactionary group like that he would have been more surprised to learn that they weren't shitty. "Yeah?"

"No, you don't understand," she said, some heat coming into her voice. "I left. That's where I'm from. I was a student there, an orphan, since I was tiny. I didn't just leave a job, I left everything. And now I don't have anywhere to go."

"That sounds really rough." It was one of the first things Joel had learned to say to kids who came to the house, the simplest form of validation, and even when he thought he sounded unbearably fake and clichéd, somehow it still seemed to make people relax when they heard it. A basic acknowledgement, something he wouldn't have known to give if he hadn't been taught. "And you definitely don't want to go back."

"No. Well...no."

She wasn't sure, he thought. Sometimes it was hard for him to draw even simple conclusions like that about people -- he got flustered and couldn't think about anything but himself and all the things he was doing wrong. But now, letting his physicality relax just a little into the Aphanes, he managed to really look at her.

She sat with her back straight and her lips closed, not looking him in the eye but in the nose, her gaze sometimes drifting over to his shoulder or the wall behind him. Her face was sharp and pretty, with huge blue-grey eyes and very long black hair, braided over one shoulder. Her hands lay in her lap, folded and still, but he saw that her right elbow was moving, convulsing slowly and rhythmically, as if she'd always been nervous and twitchy but someone had trained her out of the habit. But never completely. "Is that what you do?" she said, watching him. "Your mutation?"

He'd gone too far into it. He hadn't meant to, but lately it felt good. Too good, like napping while sleep-deprived. Joel slipped back into solidity. "Sorry. Yes. It is."

"You looked like a ghost." She looked down at the carpet. "I'm a mutant too."

"Well, yeah. I mean, I assumed," he said. "Which I shouldn't do, I guess, but this place is for mutants. Sometimes baseline people show up and we help if we can, but we try to centre mutants and give them priority."

"I don't know anything about this place. I just came because I thought you were Catholic."

"Uh, we are?" he said, not sure he was being critcised or not. "Like it's not a homogenous group and we don't make people subscribe to any belief system, but the house is still a Catholic Worker house. I'm Catholic."

"You believe it, in all of it?" she asked. "You're not a dissenter?"

Joel hesitated and then said, "I think that word probably means something totally different to you than it does to me. I'm not an SNDF type, I'm a lefty anarchist peacenik. But yeah, I believe. Why?"

"I want to know if I can trust you," she said.

It felt a little like a dick-measuring contest, even though her tone was completely civil. "Well, we probably disagree about a lot of stuff, but you can still trust people while disagreeing with them, right? Uh, I'm in discernment with the Dominicans, if that helps establish my Catholic cred here at all. I go to L'Institut Pastorale, hacking out a theology degree."

"Really?" It did seem to help, and she sat back in the loveseat. "All right, that's good. The Dominicans aren't too bad."

Usually Joel had to reassure kids that they weren't missionaries, that no one was going to push religion on them, that it wasn't about saving souls. He had to play the opposite game with diocesan representatives, of course, convincing them that they weren't secularists and should still get community support from Saint-Sulpice and the other local parishes. The whole business made him uncomfortable, and he knew that nothing about the house would impress hardliner traditional Catholics.

The girl licked her lips and said, "I'm asking because I'm not...not completely sure I'm a mutant. Maybe something else is happening to me. But I don't want someone who's an apostate to be giving me advice about mutants or anything else. I don't mean that as an insult, just..."

"I think I get what you're worried about," said Joel slowly. "I just don't know who to refer you to. Like I could connect you with a local priest here at Saint-Sulpice, or one of the Dominican friars, but..."

"They're conciliar."

"Right." Conciliar meant the whole mainstream Church, after the Second Vatican Council in the '60s. "So you only want to talk to a traditionalist about this, but you don't want to go back to Madame DuPont's."

"I want to talk to you," Jeanne-Marie said, a little impatiently now. "Because you're the one in front of me. But I don't want you to just dismiss everything I say because I'm traditional and you're not."

"Oh, okay. I got you." That was easier than trying to track down and vet a TradCat priest in the city. He'd been overthinking this. "Look, don't worry. I'm not trying to sell you on anything, I'm just here to listen. Can we backtrack for a second here? Why do you say you're not completely sure you're a mutant? You haven't had your DNA checked?"

She shook her head. "We didn't...no, after it happened we didn't go to the government. I know there are forms and tests, but we didn't do them."

"We can get that process started for you, if you want help with it. But you think it might not be a mutation, so -- can you walk me through what happened? What abilities do you have?"

She shook her head again, a glimmer of tears appearing in her eyes. She made a couple of attempts to speak through the tears, then whispered, "I'm not dangerous or anything. I never use them."

"Nobody here is worried about dangerous powers, okay?" This was true. One of the kids in the house was the most dangerous mutant in the province and maybe the country, but somehow they all slept through the night just fine. "It's all right."

"I'm sorry I'm so--" She stopped, and quickly plucked a tissue from the box on Joel's desk. She held it to her face as tightly as if she were trying to stop a flow of blood, and said nothing more.

Joel wanted to comfort her, but he still wasn't good at guessing what other people found comforting. Whenever he touched people it felt oppressively purposeful; he couldn't just casually hold someone's hand or touch a shoulder, and people picked up on his nervousness. He'd been running the house for five years, and his social skills had improved a lot since his days with Professor Xavier, but he still didn't know what to do when people started crying. He usually sat in silence, hoping that the mere presence of another person was at least a little helpful. That it was better than nothing.

Finally he said, "Listen, how about we take this up again later? You might feel a little safer talking about it once you know us better. And you can stay here as long as you need to."

"I hope I can," she whispered. "Thank you. Um -- my clothes--"

Practical things were easier to deal with. "We're low on clothes for young women, since we got cleaned out last week. Arlette's free today, I think, so she can probably take you around to Value Village or somewhere to get a few things."

"I spent all my money," Jeanne-Marie said, an edge of hysteria creeping into her voice. "I've got nothing left. I had everything I needed at Madame's, and money besides, and now I've got nothing, nothing..."

"It's okay, it'll be all right."

"No, no, it won't..."

"Yes, it will. You need clothes, you'll get them. We have a discretionary fund and that's what it's for. Don't worry about that. But your things at Madame DuPont's, is there anything you really want to have back? I can go back there and tell them you've left, pick up your stuff, you won't have to see them at all."

They made a list of things that she needed, including her glasses and a couple of books that she'd bought with her own money. "Most of my clothes were issued by the school," she said. "I had a couple of outfits for teaching, but Madame bought those. They aren't really mine."

"Well, when you go shopping with Arlette, whatever you buy really is yours, okay?" Joel said. "Go ahead and get some breakfast, I'll be there in a few."

When she was gone, he slumped back in his chair and looked at his class schedule, taped down on his desk. The morning was free to take a banlieue train to Deux Montagnes, and then get back to the city for the Gospel of Mark lecture in the afternoon. And...oh fuck, the paper. Well, it was going to be turned in half-baked and that was that. Paul was right that he'd been half-assing his school work lately, and he was probably also right that Joel just didn't have the energy to devote to a degree right now. But I could try harder.

He took his cheque-book out of the desk drawer and realised he had no idea how much clothes for Jeanne-Marie would set them back. How in the hell was that possible, that he still didn't know what clothes cost for women? How fucking out of touch was he?

A cold wave of horror broke over him suddenly, and he felt his innards seize up. For some reason, the image that came to mind was of the damned souls on Michelangelo's altarpiece, with their tight fists clutching and scrabbling for safety, grasping at nothing. All the dead shrieking and crying, as if they hadn't suffered enough, while Christ hung far above with one hand upraised, a feudal lord telling the peasants to get off his property. The image slid, spread, and shook apart into fragments. Nobody was listening, and nobody would say a word, even though the doom was everywhere now, in his nostrils and between the tree branches outside, under the papers on his desk and between the fibres of the carpet. Everywhere. Joel felt like he was being sucked out of his body, like a snail from its shell, and if he let go he wouldn't get back. His mind was pushing, pushing, urgent with a nameless desire to do something, but he couldn't move.

And then it was over.

Joel raised his hand to his face, and it came away wet, but it was only saliva and not blood. Relax. It took him a few minutes to get his bearings again. At home. Still morning, still early. Sounds of pots and pans banging from the kitchen. Just a small seizure in the temporal lobe, no big deal. The irrational fear had been an aura, and then he'd lost awareness for a minute or so. Even now he couldn't remember the aura itself, memory unravelling behind him. A boat that cut no wake. And we're back.

When he could trust himself with words again, he signed the cheque, left the amount blank, and wrote "please be gentle" on the memo line. Whatever "gentle" might mean to Arlette. On the back of his hand, he wrote the time and the note TLS – Comp. Part., in case he forgot to make an appointment with Dr. Stein.

He set the pen down, and with a feeling of incomparable relief, dropped into complete invisibility.