Actions

Work Header

The Heart's Landscape

Chapter Text

Love blurs your vision; but after it recedes, you can see more clearly than ever.
It's like the tide going out, revealing whatever's been thrown away and sunk: broken
bottles, old gloves, rusting pop cans, nibbled fishbodies, bones. This is the kind of
thing you see if you sit in the darkness with open eyes, not knowing the future.
—Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye

Hodya had been in transit since five a.m. her time: first dozing in the passenger seat while her father drove her from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, then a flight to Istanbul where she had a pointless four-hour layover. Four hours wasn't enough to really do anything, but it was long enough to wish you had somebody's couch to curl up on. No free WiFi in the Ataturk airport, good times. She window-shopped her way through the duty-free shops, pretending that she was a likely customer for perfumes with prices in the triple digits. Finally she got to board the next plane to Heathrow, where the connection time was so short that she had to sprint to Delta, no time for buying herself something that would pass for a lunch. From London, over the wrinkled ocean for hours, to JFK, which was a zoo. She elbowed her way through the crowds and bought three plastic trays of vegetable sushi rolls. Not very classy, but cheap sushi was always what she craved in airports: cool, soft, no grease, no heat lamps, no waiting. It settled her stomach, which might have been due to the curls of pink pickled ginger.

Another run to Air Canada, and finally she was in the air headed for Montreal. By this time she was frayed at the edges, exhausted and overcaffeinated, unable to concentrate on her book. Instead she just stared out the window at the featureless winter landscape, the low mountains and the highways breaking up the fields of snow.

When she landed at Trudeau International, she was trying to come up with some conversational topics she could use with Paul, who was the one who always picked her up. Hodya liked Paul, but he was awkward around her. The nice interpretation was that he was just uneasy with baseline humans who didn't know him well, but she didn't quite buy that.

It turned out to be moot; Paul wasn't there. Hodya waited for her luggage and then trundled her bag around Arrivals for awhile, checking her phone and hoping to see anybody from the house show up. Don't get mad yet. Don't get mad. It's still the holidays. Things happen.

Finally she saw Joel's figure appear outside the doors, like a brushstroke of water dragged across blank paper, and he ghosted through the revolving doors without moving the panels, a faint thup sound when he materialised fully in the corridor and the soles of his shoes hit the floor.

He'd lost weight since she'd last seen him in August, and Hodya had no idea where he'd even found that extra weight to lose -- he'd been skinny before, but now it was showing in his face, the hollows at his temples. But he gave her a smile, which she always liked seeing. "What'd your parents pay for that smile?" she'd teased him once. "Hi, hey, I'm so sorry," he said as he came to her. "Have you been waiting long?"

"A few minutes," she said, and put her bags down to put her arms around his waist, resting her cheek against the lapel of his coat before she stretched up to kiss him. Sometimes when he'd just appeared, she thought she could smell it, something newly minted, particles summoned together from nothingness. An empty, clear smell, like the ozone of thunderstorms in the desert. Yeah, horseshit, you're just smelling his soap. "I wasn't expecting to see you here at all. I was looking for Paul and then he wasn't here..."

"Yeah, he was having a bad morning and wasn't really up to going out," Joel said diffidently. "I should've texted you on my way, sorry."

Hodya bent to pick up her bags again. "Well, is he okay? Are you okay? You look thin, babe, I didn't realise you were actually getting that sick."

"Um, it snuck up on me, yeah. Paul's fine, he's just having a nervous day. And I'm having a lot of seizures lately, what else is new? I went into status epilepticus earlier in the month so the neurologist -- Christ, I'm sorry to be dumping this on you right away," Joel interrupted himself. "You must be sick of this--"

"Stooooop." Hodya drew it out, rolling her eyes back. "No, I am not sick of you having the same condition you've had since I met you, okay? Chill out and let me give a shit about you." She took his arm, a gesture that made her think of elderly couples, in a nice way. People that went the distance. "The neurologist what?"

"The neurologist referred me to some clinic doing trials on mutants, and I had to go all the way out to Repentigny and get a lumbar puncture. The doctor seemed okay but..." He trailed off for awhile, taking her outside to the stop for the shuttle bus. "Their specialty is treating psionic mutants, so there were some disgruntled telepaths in the building. Which I might just chalk up to the usual, right? Hospitals and clinics have bad vibes. People aren't happy about being there. But Paul tried to do some snooping and he thought the staff didn't smell right."

"Okay, but sometimes he makes snap judgements that aren't completely fair," Hodya said. "Right? That's been known to happen."

"Are you guys mad at each other?"

"I'm not mad at him, it's a mild criticism. Honestly, we're friends on Facebook and everything but I don't have any contact with him unless it's through you." The shuttle bus pulled to a stop at the sign and Hodya picked up her bags and got on, with Joel following. "Today has me wondering if he's mad at me, but I don't have any kind of problem with him. Probably if we were around each other more he'd loosen up, but...does he think I'm weird about physical mutants or something? Have I said anything gross and I didn't know it?"

"No, no." Joel sat down with her at the back of the little shuttle, a tiny but empty bus with a mysterious tip jar at the front. The shuttle was paid by the STM, and Joel wasn't familiar with tipping bus drivers in any other context, but he felt guilty ignoring the jar and always paid. "I think you're right, he's kinda stiff with you because you're not a mutant, but that's just him being insecure. It hits him sometimes."

"So...you're saying sometimes he distrusts people and it's not justified," said Hodya significantly, unbuttoning her coat. "Hm. Perhaps that has some application to what you were saying before. Okay, no, I'm just being obnoxious. But you're bugging your scientist girlfriend, Yoel. Don't go by spooky feelings when you're choosing a doctor, at least not to the exclusion of everything else. Your neurologist likes the new doctor, right? Did they answer your questions, were they well-informed about your condition, did they show concern for your comfort, et cetera?"

"They seemed good that way," Joel admitted.

"Well, good. But if you really insist on being suspicious, I mean, there are always options. I had a long trip and I'm going to put my head right here while I theorise," Hodya said, leaning her head on his shoulder as she burrowed down in the corner between the seat and the window. She was tired but her mind was still racing from the caffeine. "They specialise in mutants, you were saying? Where's the money coming from for that?"

"The money?"

"Mutants are a pretty tiny minority. Mutants with mood disorders, even smaller. Mutants with neurological problems, smaller still. And in the U.S., mutants are very unlikely to have health coverage. It's a small market, so who's investing in these treatments? Who's paying for the research?"

Joel had been living among other mutants for so long that he sometimes forgot how few of them there actually were. "I don't know. I thought the province..."

"The province isn't going to put that much into a private health care company. No, your clinic probably has investors who think that the company will get something valuable out of this trial. It won't be a product that will fly off the shelves, obviously, because its customer base is going to be very small. Information is valuable, maybe, but I don't know what use anyone would have for results on epileptic mutants. Rich ones."

"It's not all epilepsy. They have a lot of telepathic patients," Joel said. "I don't know how rich they all are. It wouldn't surprise me if some of them got an all-expenses-paid trip."

"Right, the telepaths, okay. Research on telepathy is huge now, so that's a decent point. Military, AI guys, government, they all have boners for psionics. So Dr. Frankenstein's clinic convinces some corporate suits that their surgery will somehow lead to a better understanding of telepathy, and that explains a lot of their funding. But they could be public about that. Lots of people are doing it, and it must be hard to find subjects when you have to cast your net for a broad range of neurological problems and sift for psi-powers."

"I'm not good at thinking about this stuff."

Hodya closed her eyes, which felt gritty, her head still on his shoulder. "The Catholic theologian is complaining about convoluted ideas."

"Theologians aren't known for being too savvy about business, and I'm just a student. How bad was your flight, anyway?"

"Mm. I was four hours in Istanbul, not Constantinople. My grandmother told me to be careful around you, you know. Not my savta, she thinks we're romantic, but my mother's mother. She's Polish, so she doesn't have the best associations with Catholic boys. I told her you were studying theology and she said, 'You watch out, he might throw you away any time.'"

"Ouch."

"When in fact you're very suspiciously silent on that topic."

"Hodya..." Joel didn't like to talk about things like this, not in any specific way. But if she didn't make things explicit then she'd never hear an answer.

"Most Catholic guys I know -- the religious ones, I mean -- it seems like they think about the priesthood sometime."

"Well, yeah, because there's a shortage and our parish priests hassle every guy who goes to Mass and isn't married yet," Joel said, but he slid down in the bus seat too, nestling a little closer to Hodya. He wasn't always comfortable with touching, but sometimes they found the right way to be close and it felt good. "And...I didn't want you to worry like that, so I didn't...talk about it. It made sense in my head."

She sighed. She hadn't come here expecting good things, really, but she'd hoped for some closure. "That's not how you keep people from worrying, motek. Are you saying that's a yes on vows of celibacy?"

"No. I didn't want to bring it up until I was sure, one way or the other. And now my advisor says he doesn't think I'm right for it. He's right, of course he's right." Joel was looking down at the folds of her coat across his lap, the scuffed floor between their feet, the back of the seat in front of them. Anywhere but at her. "I'm not making vows of anything."

She moved to put her arm around his shoulders. No kind of victory for her, but at least it was an answer. She couldn't really imagine what it felt like; this project of his had always been alien to her. She wasn't religious and she wasn't Christian, and sometimes it seemed like he didn't want to explain because she didn't already understand. Typical of him. But when he said I'm not making vows of anything a piece of the puzzle clicked into place: it must feel a bit like a broken engagement, she thought. An imagined future that wasn't going to happen, a rejection, a relationship fallen apart. "They left you at the altar, huh?" she said with a sad smile.

"Man, don't put it like that."

"Just let me give a shit about you," she said again, watching the streets flicker past the windows. "And you'll have my back later. We'll figure this out, babe, whatever we're gonna be. It's okay."

* * *

When they got off the metro and walked home to Rue Sainte Famille, Joel took Hodya's bags up the steps for her. She usually gave him some pushback about that, I can do more push-ups than you anyway, but right now she was too wiped out by the long flight.

In the front hall, Hodya paused at the bottom of the stairs and asked, "Where am I sleeping?"

She was willing to admit it to herself: she was testing him. If he couldn't commit to a shared bedroom for a weekend then there was nothing left to save here. Joel seemed to pick up on the fact that it was an important question, but didn't take a stand right away: "Uh, well, anywhere's fine..."

"Are you and Paul still sharing?" She wheeled her suitcase along with her to the stairs, and looked over her shoulder at him as he hesitated. "Yes? No?"

"Yeah."

"And he's here, so we can't stay upstairs in your room, okay. Got it. Where else is free?"

"Well...the blue room on the east side's free. Nice view of the street from there."

The blue room was a single with a twin bed. Hodya tried to give him one last chance. "Isn't there a double in the basement?"

And surprisingly, he took it. "Yeah, actually. No one's in there."

She smiled, and headed for the other stairs. "Come show me."

The basement had tall windows in deep-carved wells, as in a greystone house, and only had light for a few hours a day. The east side had a double room, and the west two singles -- Hodya hadn't heard many stories from Joel about couples showing up together, so it was probably rare, but some of the street kids he'd talked about were friends so tight that they were scared to sleep apart, afraid of losing each other in the night.

She set her bags on the bed and went to the window, drawing back the curtains in amazement. The window well was half-filled with a drift of snow, pressed against the glass like sand in an ant farm, a fine dusting of powder on the inner sill. There was a delicate draught that chilled her fingers, but the room wasn't cold. Snow held heat in like insulation, or so she'd heard. "Oh wow."

"The heating in here's kinda off-and-on," Joel said, feeling the radiator pipes. "You're sure you wouldn't rather have the blue room?"

She ignored him. "The snow is so wonderful. You don't see this in Toronto. And never in Israel, of course. It makes me miss Ottawa. Does it ever fill up with snow completely?"

"I'm not down here much."

Hodya turned back from the window and watched him for a moment, the awkward way he was standing -- his fists were balled up with the thumb tucked in, something foetal and instinctive, and he probably didn't know he was doing it. "Are you happy to see me, Joel?"

"Of course I am." It sounded more like an apology than reassurance. "Yes. I am."

"Sit down." She drew him down with her on the bed, sitting behind him, and let her cheek rest against his back for a few moments. Sometimes this worked; sometimes he was better if he wasn't looking at her, as if eye contact overwhelmed him. This relationship is way too much work for you, and you know it, Hodya thought. But it felt cruel to give up because it was difficult, because he was shy, because they lived far apart. She felt like it was a seedling that needed her patience, her gentleness, the rains and the dew.

Other guys took her out in Toronto. She'd had a few good dates with a drama student who was Jewish, a cute guy who was sweet but a little embarrassing and had a really dirty car. Some boring dates with another bio guy who seemed like he might get better with time. One great date with a guy in the army who then disappeared to Alberta. Not a bad crop from OK Cupid and a few parties. She kept trying with Joel because (when he let himself) he was funny to talk to, and she loved boys with freckles, and at just the right moments he looked at her like she was magic, and he cared about his causes with a passion that made her excited even when it wasn't her fight. I am not just trying to take care of him. I'm not that cliché. And anyway, she didn't take care of him. That had always been Paul's job.

Today's the last day, she told herself. If I don't believe in this by the end of today, it's over.

She put her hands on his back, smoothing her palms across his shirt, feeling the topography of his thick scars underneath. His muscles tensed at first and then eased. She slid her arms around his waist and kissed him just below his ear, the corner of his jaw.

After a moment he turned in her arms, some awkward rearranging that made them both laugh, and she moved to sit in his lap instead. In the beginning she'd had to apply all her tact to teach him how to kiss, but it had worked. Like this. I'll do it first then you to me. Worth the effort.

But after a few minutes she lost him again, and she pulled back, catching his eye. "Still here?"

"Sorry. Sorry, I really am, I'm just...preoccupied. Worried."

"About what?"

"Right now? Everything. We don't have to stop," he said, quieter. "I hate losing time when you're here. Are you tired?"

"Mm." Hodya decided to take him at his word. "You know what I'd like, I want a real Pulp Fiction foot rub, can I ask you for that? My feet are gross right now but if I shower real quick, would you do that?"

"Of course." Joel always seemed relieved when she gave him specific assignments. "Bathroom's right there, I'll wait."

"You could join me." She smiled, but it died when she saw his expression. "Too much? Sorry, forget it."

"No, it's not too much, just -- it's not you. It's really, really me," he said. "Go ahead, I'll come in with you if I can get over it in time."

"Shh." She kissed him and took one of her bags into the bathroom with her, leaving the door open.

The worst part was that she could tell he was trying. Through the blur of the shower curtain, she saw his figure on the bed, saw him get up a few times and then sit back down, saw him start to take his shirt off and then stop. She didn't know what he was wrestling with -- God or himself or something dark in his past.

She took a little longer than she needed to, wanting to give him time to work it through, but he never did. When she stepped out and towelled off, she let him look (never any objections to that) and walked back into the bedroom nude, her hair still tied up and damp at the edges. She lay back down on the bed and put her feet in his lap. "Massage me, my good man. You wanted to come in with me, didn't you?"

He didn't answer right away. "Yeah. Just...felt weird."

"About what?"

This time an even longer silence, but then: "I felt like maybe you'd laugh at me."

"Uh, why?" That was a baffling answer. "When have I ever laughed at you for things like that? It was my idea."

"That's just what's always in my head, this tape of you look stupid, you look stupid. It's not anything you did."

"Okay. Yoel." She wiggled the toes of her right foot that he was rubbing. "Look at me. I will not laugh at you, ever, just for doing something affectionate that I invited you to do. If I do, you can charge me a fine. Fifty bucks a giggle. You believe me?"

"Yeah."

"Here's what I really want to know today. After you answer me this, we'll talk about whatever you're most worried about, but this is my worry. Do you -- we haven't had sex. We do stuff like this, but we don't have sex. Is that because of your religion or because you're not ready?"

"It's not...I don't know." He was still looking down at her foot. "I don't take a really hard line on the sexual teachings because I don't like being in a position where I have to think my friends are sinning for...for doing things that don't seem to cause harm. Things that don't even separate them from God. I think they're all right. I think you're all right."

"Oh, I'm not going to hell? Cool."

"Yeah. But I feel like if I did that, I might."

"Why, is there a higher standard for you than for me?"

"No. It's more like...I'm not as lucky and the universe hates me," Joel said, smiling at his own irrationality. "Like getting stopped by a cop, fifty other people run red lights ahead of you but you're the one who gets ticketed."

"Okay, so the answer is...it's mostly psychological blocks with some religious outer plating. Do I have that right?" said Hodya, offering him her left foot next. "Because I can deal with that if you're willing to work on it. I can't deal with this if you just think sex is bad, or if you don't want to do it at all until marriage -- that one's a fair enough rule if you want to go by it, but I don't. But if you just feel self-conscious, okay. I understand that."

"It's something like that. Yes. I know I have to work on it," he said. "I know it's not good enough."

"Doooon't. Don't." She made the time-out sign with her hands. "Subject change. What were you so preoccupied about, when we were kissing?"

He sighed, but said, "Neurocherche, still. The lab that's working on those telepaths."

"You're really convinced that something dirty's going on there, aren't you?" she said. "If that weren't an issue -- just bracket all that stuff -- would you feel confident about the treatment? Do you think it would help with the seizures?"

"I mentioned it to Dr. Xavier when I called him at Christmas, and he said the science is supposed to be pretty convincing. And I was going to email Dr. McCoy about it but I never sacked up and did it. But everyone who's an actual expert seems to think they're great."

"Then that's kind of a big deal, if your meds are failing. I know you've tried a lot of them, so surgery is probably next."

"I'm fine with them doing surgery, yeah," he said. "It's just...like yeah, Paul's not infallible, but he wasn't just picking up that the staff were bored or burned out or hating their jobs. He said some of them seemed cruel, like they didn't care about who was in pain. That was the part that got me. And the telepath who got in my head was...they really hate it. They feel like a medical experiment."

Hodya shrugged and reached for the folded afghan, not purposely trying to spoil his view but beginning to get cold. "I've never dealt much with telepaths, so I guess I'll defer to you there."

"Like in pastoral training -- you were going to go to med school at first, so you know this -- you do a lot of visitation in the hospital. And it becomes clear to you, after awhile, without being told...you see what pain does to people. When a certain kind of man bursts into tears because the priest walked in, you know somehow that he hasn't cried in public in decades. You see the difference between someone who's in control and someone who's not. Someone who's reacting after years of not reacting, versus someone who's sensitive and will respond more to smaller things. You know?"

Hodya nodded, watching him.

"So that's how I could tell -- I could feel it -- that this telepath patient had been through a lot. It's not a scientific measurement, it's just what I think because I know what hospitals are like. I know what people in pain are like."

"You're a good person," Hodya said, not quite apropos of the conversation; she just felt like she'd been trying to push him too much. They needed to remember to tell each other when things seemed right, not just when they were wrong. "So what, are you going to report them or something?"

"I could try, but there aren't many legal strictures in place regarding medical treatment of mutants. Gatineau Accords."

"Ugh." Hodya was sympathetic. "I mean, I guess you could just walk in, Harry Houdini, but--"

He took this notion way too seriously. "Well, I couldn't get them out, but yeah, I could at least find out what happened..."

"Joel, babe, no, don't start--"

"I'm serious, though. When we were there, Paul had to go looking around the building because I'd just had a lumbar puncture and the nurses were keeping an eye on me, but I could go back and do some recon--"

"No. No." She prodded him with her foot, but he just got up and went to turn on the lamp. "Joel! No. You said yourself, there's nothing you can do about this legally, so how does it help to know any more details about the lab? What will you do with that information?"

"Well..." That stopped him for a few seconds, but then he worked it through. "I might not be able to tell the government, but I can leak it to the press. I could do this right now -- you've been on planes all day, you can nap and I'll get a crew together to go to Repentigny. I'll be back by the time you wake up, and we can hang out for real, and I won't be so--"

Hodya had rolled over to put her face in the pillow while he was talking. "This plan is terrible. Look, I'm not going to stay here and sleep while you do this."

"Great, then you can drive. You know more about lab stuff than I do, anyway, you can help us figure out where to look."

This boy is willing to do anything rather than have the Talk with you, Hodya thought to herself. And it was hard to protest seriously: she liked his stories of protesting and getting arrested, his mutant activist talk, and she'd encouraged it often enough. The idea of leaking a story about an unethical lab to the press was kind of too cool to pass up. "Are you going to be careful? Keep it really low-key?"

"Of course."

"Oy, fine, let me get some clothes on..."

* * *

Joel got the whole house together in the kitchen, summoning them the traditional way by using the TEST button on the smoke detector. Grace, Arlette, Nour, Prawn, and Jeanne-Marie were there tonight, and they all gathered around the kitchen island with Joel, Hodya, and Paul.

"We should invest in an intercom system," Paul said.

"It doesn't come up that often," said Joel. "All right. Um, we don't need full consensus for this meeting because I'm just asking some people to opt in to a project if they want to. It's not some kind of litmus test, it's not required. This is a non-violent action, so if you think you might lose control when you're scared, this one probably isn't for you."

"What's going on?" Grace asked.

"We're going to trespass on private property and try to get some documentation of mutant rights abuses in a lab setting. Some of the security guards might be armed."

Paul sighed. "I don't know how smart this is."

"That's why I'm trying to organise. If nobody wants to go then we'll drop it and rethink."

"I'm out," said Prawn, a hint of disgust in his voice. "This is fucking ridiculous. I thought you were the ones supposed to keep me out of trouble."

"Okay. Good, in fact -- you stay here. Hold down the fort, or whatever. Who else wants to stay?"

Slowly, looking down at the tabletop, Grace raised her hand. She was pregnant, of course, so that was no surprise.

Nour raised their hand too. "I mean I would, but my powers don't exactly have a stun setting. I don't want to have an accident."

"I could go," said Arlette. She had a telepathic power to compel people to do things if she could get physical contact. Which would be great on almost any other job.

"The guards wear telepathic disruptors, so you might be limited in what you can do," Joel said. "But still, sure, we could use you."

He looked at Jeanne-Marie, who looked lost, rigid, no eye contact. She shook her head. "I'm not -- I can't go along with this. I don't want to break the law."

"Okay." Joel couldn't think of any lawful way to do what he was planning. He was wagering a lot on a hunch. "All right. Arlette, Paul, and me." He turned to Hodya. "Are you coming?"

Hodya took a deep breath and nodded. "Okay. Sure."

"Meeting over?" said Prawn, and one by one the others drifted off. Prawn was his own problem, of course.

That was when Joel realised that he needed something to take the edge off. He felt like he'd stuck a pin in an electrical outlet. In the bathroom on the third floor, he unlocked the medicine cabinet to get out the Xanax, breaking a tablet in half.

Sitting on the edge of the tub, he wondered what exactly he was going to do, what he suspected, what he was risking. No ideas. Not enough information. Not enough energy -- you needed a lot of fuel to overcome the gravity of the everyday, to stop seeing doctors as helpful and governments as harmless, to plan for anything other than eating and sleeping and working and consuming. All the thrust and lift of the saints, whatever made Clare cut her hair off and Francis sell his clothes, that was the real miracle. Never mind the money, never mind the healed demoniacs and tamed wolves. Their feet left the ground the moment they took that first impossible risk.

* * *

New Year's Eve dinner was a rather desultory affair, since a Catholic Worker house divided against itself cannot cook. Nobody got the roast in on time, and the coconut Thai curry for the vegans in attendance came out with soft, overcooked vegetables. Paul's mealworms and sake-soaked raw shrimp came out great, but no one much wanted to share them. (Ox, who was there for dinner, ate one of the mealworms on a dare and then disappeared into the bathroom for awhile.) Joel even dispensed with the grace, half standing up and then slowly easing down again, staring down at his plate. He evidently felt guilty for forcing the kids to make a decision, and didn't want to bring the topic up again. Paul, on the other hand, thought it was better to maintain some semblance of discipline. Fine, I'll be the tough dad if I have to. He got up, said the blessing in French, with a firm "Amen" to declare the matter settled, and sat down again.

Around nine, after a few dispirited toasts with sparkling grape juice and Spanish champagne, dinner dribbled to a finish. Paul put his boots on and hunted for his hat and gloves in the hall closet. Arlette made sandwiches, which seemed both practical and a little ridiculous. Hodya sat on the stairs while Paul leaned in the doorway, waiting for Joel and Arlette to be ready.

"You do this sort of thing often?" she asked, pulling her hair back with an elastic taken off her zipper.

It was a joke; she knew as well as he did what they did at St-Jean-de-Dieu most of the time. Paul smiled a bit to show some goodwill; he felt bad about the airport thing. "Oh, not in a long while. We used to chain ourselves to the War Museum gates sometimes, pour blood on CRIM records at the Clermont Building here in town."

"You're kidding."

"Aren't you?"

"I don't know anymore. I used to think I understood this place -- the country, I mean. When I first came here, what I liked best about Canada was how, hm, unnecessary all of that stuff seemed. No, that's not the word I want. Activism is always necessary. But it didn't seem urgent, there were no...moral emergencies, I guess. In Israel everything's an emergency all the time. Everything's a big fucking deal. I'm trying to get my foot in the door for Canadian citizenship because I want to live in a place that's quieter about everything. I don't want to have kids who'll have to serve in the army. Now I'm not sure anymore that this place is any better than home." She sighed. "I'm not making myself very clear. Probably still jet-lagged."

"You really can stay here, if you want." Joel came around the corner, adjusting the collar of his coat. "I don't even know if we'll get anything done tonight. There'll probably be other chances."

"I want to go with you," Hodya said, standing up and kissing him lightly. Paul still wasn't used to seeing that, and thought that Joel wasn't accustomed to getting kissed either. Just a quick, sharp burst of oh, we do this, that's right, I'd forgotten. Paul picked up the smell of shame, like cooking beets, and a sharper tang of fear, but...well, he liked it, that smell too was present. Don't think about it, Paul told himself, but he couldn't stop himself from noticing, from perceiving, and then from thinking. No control.

Arlette came out of the kitchen, sandwiches completed, and they left in the little blue Volvo with the rosary hanging from the rearview mirror. The drive to Repentigny was long, the roads icy, and Paul was glad that Arlette was there to drive, even though it meant listening to some bad French chanson pop.

It was a little after ten-thirty when they got to Neurocherche, whose parking lot was almost empty.

"We shouldn't park there, right?" said Arlette. "I mean, I assume we're worried about getting caught?"

"Kind of. Yes." Joel peered through the iced-over side window. The lab was right on the highway, no side streets or driveways to make them more inconspicuous. "Wait, no. Park there. There's no place else. If someone comes out to chase you away you can probably reach his wrist to convince him not to, right?"

"Sure." Arlette took a spot in the furthest corner of the lot, turned off the motor, and glanced over at the others. "Well?"

"Well. Okay. You stay here. Getaway driver." Joel took off his gloves, wiped his palms on his coat. Sweaty palms, so heroic. "I'll go in first, see if I can open the doors from inside. Hodya can try to find something in the records, I guess? I know they have some stuff on paper, even if you can't get into the computer system."

"What am I supposed to be doing?" said Paul.

"I don't know. Go with Hodya?"

"For what, protection?" Arlette said, snickering at the idea. "A hundred fifty pounds of danger, that's Paul."

"Can we not?" said Joel. "Paul goes with Hodya because he'll be able to sniff out what's wrong, like last time. Anything goes wrong, go passive and let them call the police, because you're probably better off with real cops than security guys. We'll get you out of safety ASAP. Arlette, leave after two hours."

"Leave...?" Arlette sounded unconvinced that this was the best plan ever, and Paul had to agree. But nobody else had any better ideas.

Joel waited for Arlette, but when she trailed off, he nodded and said, "Okay. Uh, see you in a bit. I hope."

He disappeared.

Paul and Hodya got out and walked across the icy parking lot. They didn't hurry -- running over ice like this would have been dumb, and Paul had a weird feeling of being under surveillance. There might well be cameras on the parking lot, so that was a healthy intuition. Better not to attract any more attention.

"Nervous?" Hodya murmured to him.

"Fuck yes."

"Okay. Good. Me too."

They said nothing more to each other until they reached the building. The main doors were locked, and Paul saw a keypad lit up inside -- no opening those from the inside or the outside without the code, at least not without Niko or someone else good at electronic subterfuge. Prawn, once again, wasn't here when they needed him. Keypads were sensible for anyplace that had "flight risks", like St. Rita's.

The sound of metal on concrete nearly gave Paul a heart attack, but investigating it he only saw a plain metal side door standing open around the corner of the building. Nobody was visible inside or outside; Joel had found the way in.

It was, apparently, a maintenance room, completely dark and full of equipment that smelled of metal and motor oil. Hodya held Paul's hand as they picked their way across to the inner door, where a thin line of light shone. "You're bright," she whispered.

He was. He should have worn the Dermacolor, but it didn't block out all the luminescence, not in darkness. And for once it was useful, a dim bluish glow just enough to keep them from tripping on the snowblower.

The door to the maintenance room was propped with one of Joel's gloves, which Paul carefully replaced as he closed the door behind them again. He and Hodya came out in a dark corridor that didn't smell particularly interesting, and they wandered for several minutes before they passed an office door that twigged Paul's interest. He could smell nothing, but something...

One door was marked "fire door - alarm will sound", but something made Paul stop. When he first came to work here, his supervisor had rapped the glass with his knuckles and said, "The guys in accounting use this door a lot so the alarm's disabled. Not a good idea in a real emergency, but handy to get to the basement when the elevator's down." A lot of the business of security was lies: the visible cameras that were turned off, the hidden cameras that were real, the burly guards who didn't give a shit about loss prevention or anything less than a knife fight in the waiting room. Neurocherche was tougher, but they kept their loopholes open too.

Hodya nudged him. "How did you know this door was okay?"

"I didn't." The phantom pop between his ears was easier this time, because he'd been expecting it. "We're getting help from the telepaths. Just go with it if an idea seems to come to you out of nowhere, okay? I'll explain more later."

At the bottom door, which was not locked, Paul began to be something more than nervous or panicky. It was more distant, like reading a newspaper article or watching a movie, and knowing that the world had a rotten patch. More than a patch. And he was responsible in some way, but worst of all, he could turn his back very easily. Much better when circumstances forced you to do the right thing. Paul wondered if he was getting the feeling from Hodya, or from something residual in the building, or if perhaps it was his own.

But when they opened the door, nothing very terrible was in evidence. No wives of Bluebeard hung up on the walls, certainly. Just a big concrete basement full of servers and computer terminals. Paul turned the lights on, and Hodya got a peculiar look in her eye and walked straight to the nearest terminal.

She tapped out a password rapidly when the box popped up, and Paul stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. "What was it, what was the password? I'll write it down before we forget it again."

She spelled it out, her voice oddly colourless. Feu1ll3_dErab13, not any more high-security than Paul's gmail password, but good to know at least.

Then Hodya twitched slightly and blinked at the screen. "Whoa. Okay--my ears popped, that was weird. Let me see if I can find anything good to read later. You watch the door."

Paul waited, antsy, but the building was silent. After about twenty minutes of reading, Hodya said, "This might be...oh, good, I found patient intake. Huh. This person had Sturge-Weber Syndrome."

"Which is?"

"It's, um, congenital. Seizures, port-wine birthmark. It's rare. There are notes from the lumbar puncture, attached...'positive for 143 factor, low potency.'"

"What does that mean?"

"I have no idea. I'm just..." She read on. "This patient's another telepath, apparently."

"Telepaths sure seem inclined to have broken brains."

"They don't, actually. Not according to the stats I've read. We don't have very good data. But telepathy's definitely not common enough for this to be coincidence."

"What did they want with Joel, then?"

She shrugged. "Maybe they're actually treating seizures, I don't know. As a sideline. Or maybe they were interested in mutants immune to telepathy, or maybe they're testing sensitivity rather than read/write ability. But this note from the lumbar puncture is weird. 'Patient CSF-143 results on rhesus monkeys.'"

"They're keeping monkeys here?"

"It's a lab, Paul. Sort of, anyway. But what do I know, I go to U of T." Hodya tapped the arrow button again, and her eyes widened. "How much time do we have left?"

He checked his watch. "Half an hour."

"Right." She unzipped the pocket of her coat and got out her thumb drive. "I'll get downloading."

"The whole thing?"

"Everything that'll fit. If I'd had an external HD with me that would've been cool, but this'll have to do. And I'd still have to read through all this to have any real clue what they're up to here, beyond -- it just looks weird." She plugged the thumb drive into the USB port, dumped the files there, and waited impatiently while they transferred. When it was done, she disconnected it and put the thumb drive back in her pocket, zipping it up carefully. "Okay. That's as much as I can take. We should go."

* * *

The whiteness was still there, Joel had learned. The seeing was some other level, above or below the whiteness, some layer he'd never known before this year. It was comforting, almost, to know that he still had the snowblind emptiness, since it had taken so long for him to learn what it meant.

But he left the whiteness alone, and let himself go unblind, seeing everything. Fore and aft, above and beneath, more than the brain should have been able to process -- but his brain was gone, his skin was gone, his eyes and ears and flesh and bone all gone. Nothing left, and nothingness had no limitations. Nada nada nada.

He could move through everything easily, occasionally coming back to material being in order to get his phone out and snap a picture, there and gone again, but there wasn't much on view that looked obviously damning. It was just a lab, just a clinical institution.

A ward. He knew wards. Beds four to a room, bored guards at either end of the well-lit corridor. Half-asleep, he thought, but wouldn't test it tonight. He drifted through the rooms until he found a patient who was awake, a gleam of eyes in the darkness.

He faded into presence, barely visible but not solid, and crossed the room to stand by the girl's bed. She looked a bit like his young cousin Clare, curly red hair and sharp, fierce features. When she saw him she lifted her head, probably expecting a nurse on checks and not used to anyone standing there for so long. "What?"

"I need information about this place," he whispered back.

She squinted, then sat up and scooted back slowly towards the head of the bed, not taking her eyes off him. "You're not real."

"I'm real," he said.

"I can't sense you. Even when people wear an inhibitor I can sense them. And I can see past you."

"I'm here, I'm just not tangible." He moved his hand through the wall to show her. "Just a mutant, same as you. How old are you?"

"Sixteen," she said warily, adjusting the white hospital blanket around herself. "You didn't know that?"

He shook his head, and she let her shoulders relax a bit. "Usually when I see things, they try to impress me with how much they know. They ask questions they already know the answers to."

"You see things a lot?"

"Not in a while. And usually I can sense them. They seem real." She reached over to the bedside tray for a styrofoam cup of water.

"Not since the surgery?" he guessed.

"Uh-huh."

"Schizophrenia?"

"That's the diagnosis," she said with dry disdain. "No one was sure. They're probably wrong. I'm too young."

"Kinda." Joel wondered if perhaps the surgery had deadened some unusual aspect of the girl's powers, rather than removing a symptom of mental illness. He didn't even know what her powers were. "Why are you still here, if you're not seeing things anymore?"

"I still have symptoms. They say they're getting better. Listening to me. Everybody's always listening to me. Of course, now they'll think I'm losing it again, since I'm talking to nothing. Almost nothing. My roommate will hear but she won't talk. Doesn't talk. Smart not to say too much." The girl winked at him solemnly -- she'd started to talk faster, sounding a little agitated, but evidently she was acting. She was still sitting composed on the bed, sipping from her water. So probably someone was listening in on her, but not watching a video feed. "I'm happy to help with a little interdimensional corporate espionage, though. What do you want to know?"

He lowered his voice, even though he knew he wasn't very audible in this state. The other patients probably couldn't hear him. "I need to know if they're hurting you here."

"Me specifically? Everyone? We're all hurt, I can tell you that much. They dress the wounds of my poor people as though they're nothing. I haven't got anything to do with that. We couldn't tell you if we're getting hurt. We wouldn't know what you meant."

"You specifically, everyone, yeah. If anyone's getting hurt here, I want to know. They can't keep it secret from everyone. Do they do things to you that seem weird, things that other doctors don't do?"

The girl shrugged. "They go in through the back like old vaudevillians -- in through the kitchens, in between the butcher's blocks. No one else does that." And she bent her head and lifted up her hair to show him a dark circle on the back of her neck, barely visible in the moonlight streaming in through the window.

The circle looked raw, almost like a burn, and there was no dressing on it. "Who did that?"

"Who doesn't do it? I'm not an expert, but everybody works for somebody. And everyone talks for somebody. Simon says do this, Simon says do that."

Joel couldn't put that together, whatever kind of code she was trying to get across. "And what happens when...when they do this to you?"

"They line up and get me in their sights and then I shoot. Simon says and I have to do it. I don't do it if he doesn't say." She rubbed the spot on the back of her neck. "I don't like him. He makes us pretend we do."

Mind control of some kind, perhaps? Abuse, obviously? "Does anyone get discharged from this place?"

"Simon takes a few of them. Other freaks, people like you, the cripples, legally headblind -- they get to go home. We're the special ones. The medical mysteries."

"And why can't you use your powers on them?" he asked, remembering that psychic concussion one of the patients had given him. Maybe it was even her, and maybe she would have recognised his mind if he'd been solid.

She leaned close, automatically reaching for his arm to steady herself but overbalancing when she passed through it. She lowered her voice to the softest possible whisper.

"If someone got close enough," she told him, "someone with no inhibitor on -- they can scramble my signals, it's no good trying to mess with them -- but someone headblind, yeah, I could do it. Your friend the French boy, he and I came pretty close. If he'd got through the vents. Him and the science girl, they're here too. I helped them a little. But I haven't been able to bring anyone close enough to help us. What I need from you, okay, is I have to have someone get the inhibitors off the guards first. With a little more help...I could do it. I know I could."

Joel looked over his shoulder at the other beds, and thought of the other rooms on the ward. Yes, it could probably be done. Joel could remove the inhibitor equipment from the guards at minimal risk to himself, and presumably the patients could take over the prison break from there, manipulating the mentally vulnerable staff into opening doors, turning off alarms, and deleting records. But if something went wrong -- how did the "Simon says" phenomenon actually work? Maybe all the patients would suddenly turn against them in response to some secret command from the authorities.

And if he got them out...then what?

What would Joel do with thirty-odd kids? How would he even get them back into the city in one four-door Volvo sedan? No. The logistics weren't right yet, and there was no point in rolling the dice when the odds were so low.

"I can't do it tonight," he told her, forcing himself to meet her eyes. "Not tonight. But I'll find a way. I promise."

She sank back on the bed. "Sure. Whatever."

"No, I will. What's your name?"

The girl held up her left hand, the wristband visible in the light from the window. Morley, Kathleen. "You?"

Joel had always thought mutant nicknames were a little silly, or at least not his style, but he saw now that noms de guerre were useful -- "Simon" might well be able to pump Kathleen for information. Coming up with a good alias in a few seconds was harder than it seemed, though, and he ended up choosing a name from his theology textbooks. "Uh...Richard McBrien."

"I'll be waiting," said Kathleen, and she lay back down on the bed, pulling the blankets up. "Nothing else I can do."

Thirty-two mutants on the ward. St. John of God held a maximum of fifteen. Maybe a few more, if he put out sleeping bags on the floor. Where else could he send them? St. Rita's and St. Christina's in Ottawa were stuffed to the gills, and had been for years. How many could Professor Xavier take? Would the kids even be safe with their parents, if any or all of them were welcome at home? How many were minors, how many were of age?

Logistics. Logistics were going to kill him.

In the car, Hodya and Paul were waiting with Arlette. Everyone alive. Good job, great leader. Hodya twisted around in the front seat to show them a USB drive. "Exhibit A," she said.

"Thank God," Joel said, leaning forward to rest his forehead against the back of the front seat. "Good. Someone got something done, then. I'm glad."

As they drove out on the highway, Arlette repeatedly glancing up in the rearview mirror, Paul leaned forward between the front seats. "Hey, it's twelve-seventeen. Bonne année et bonne santé."

"Happy New Year," said Joel. "Sorry the party isn't more fun."

"Oh, I wasn't expecting much. That's life as a charity worker."

"Happy New Year," Hodya said to Joel, turning again in the seat to face him with a smile.

"They might still be on the second Back to the Future when we get home," Arlette said hopefully. "Although the champagne's probably gone. And the drunken groping will be over with."

"What drunken groping?" Joel demanded.

"I'm just saying, if you're not there then they're probably having drunken groping. It's traditional."

"Kissing is traditional. Groping is assault."

"Well, I don't mean groping against anyone's will," Arlette said impatiently. "Some people like a grope. 'Specially Beaubier."

"All right, let's move on."

"She likes what she likes. Ten bucks says she and Prawn made out after a few drinks." Arlette leaned back and flicked on the radio. "Anyone want a sandwich?"

* * *

They pulled up to St. John of God House at twenty past one. The lights were all burning downstairs, but the TV in the main sitting room was silent. All Joel could hear was a low mutter of conversation from the kitchen. As much as he'd tried to stimulate the sort of round-table discussions that Catholic Worker houses were known for, the kids in the house didn't often stay up until the small hours of the morning just talking. They were too disparate, with no common mission, and anyway, there should have been another Back to the Future movie left.

Prawn met Paul and Joel in the kitchen doorway. "Something's happened," he said. "Jeanne-Marie's gone."

"Gone where?" Arlette's bet was the first thing Joel thought of. "What did you do?"

Prawn seemed too frayed at the edges to even get insulted. Tanné, as they said in Quebec. Fed up, annoyed, worn out, but literally weather-beaten, like old siding on a house. "I didn't do nothing, mate. Ottawa. Department H. They took her."

"Tonight? They came for her tonight?" Joel said. "What the hell is it with them and holidays? They're government, why are they even working? When did this happen?"

"About an hour after you left." Prawn rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. "She...hang on, I might have given you the wrong end of the stick here. There wasn't any struggle. I said 'they took her' but what I meant was...they came to pick her up, and she went. No one hurt her. They let me stay."

Paul let out a long, shaky breath. "They're watching the house."

"No." Joel went into the kitchen and turned on the water for the kettle.

"They waited for us to leave and they came for her, Joel. Or would you rather believe that a government agency runs like a 7-11? They came for Prawn and Jeanne-Marie on Christmas because we'd be distracted. They followed the car from the house."

"No."

"Well, what other explanation is there? Luck? Here's what I think," said Paul. "I think they have mutants with long-range psi-powers watching the house, and probably other places in the cities where mutants pass through. That wouldn't be hard. Or they could have conventional spies watching, or bugs, I don't know. They lie in wait for the kids and get them as soon as they leave your sphere of influence -- either they don't believe your rhetoric about non-violence or they're afraid of your political connections. Both, maybe. They at least know you're not afraid of making a big public stink, after that shitstorm with the kid hiding out in the church. Why else would Heather McNeil have made such a big deal about that when she was talking to you? And they know kids like Prawn are dangerous even if you and I aren't. But we don't do much if it doesn't happen on our doorstep, and they know that too, if they've been paying attention. I bet this explains a few disappearances in the last year or so."

"Paul--" Joel stopped himself and lowered his voice. "Let's not run full-tilt into a conspiracy theory."

"Well, we know they have watched the house, because that guy followed Prawn and Jeanne-Marie already, at Christmas. And they weren't shy about buttonholing you in the hospital."

"Okay. True. But they asked, and they took no for an answer. It still doesn't follow from there that there are spies on the house all the time--"

"Then where's Jeanne-Marie? Where's Niko? Where are Darren and Rishi and Colombe and all the others?"

"They're human beings and they made their choices," Joel said. "I'm not their dad. I'm not their boss or their teacher or their parole officer or their confessor. Whether they go west to work on the oil rigs or take a job in Ottawa -- it's them, it's their own lives. I don't believe any of them got snatched off the street."

"Joel, you're too smart for this shit. Some of them are minors, they're all oppressed, and their economic options are very fucking limited. How free are their choices? The government is preying on them. And why not? They're easy pickings. That is a fact. Are they using mutants to watch us? I don't know for sure, but I'm not going to rule it out. It fits the facts. And it wouldn't be the first time the government kept an eye on activists."

Joel sat down at the table and rested his head on his arms. "Okay. Okay, just...maybe, yeah."

Prawn had said nothing throughout the argument, but now he said, "You think Jeanne-Marie called them?"

"Why would she do that?"

"Why not?" Prawn played with the edge of a placemat. "She's not afraid of Department H, not like you are. And meanwhile you're running off to fuck around in laboratories at night like some Animal Liberation Front activist. I think she trusts them more than you. I bet her weird nun school taught her to respect the authorities and take a dim view of leftists doing B&E."

The Xanax had worn off. "Did you see her make a phone call?"

"No. But--"

"We'll assume Paul's right, then, and that there might be surveillance. Safer that way. Or fuck, maybe they're watching the house and Jeanne-Marie hates me. Lord knows that's plausible enough."

"Naturally it's all about you," said Paul. "We should talk about this in the morning."

"One more thing, though," Prawn said. "This might not mean anything, maybe just a coincidence. But after you left, before Department H came, this old guy came to the door asking for you. He left a Christmas card."

That was a little weird, Joel thought. The neighbours on Rue Sainte Famille weren't hostile, but they weren't very chummy either. "Old guy?"

Prawn shrugged. "Yeah, I d'know how old. White hair. I didn't think twice about it until after Department H came. Card's on the desk in the office, any rate."

"Huh. Okay." It could be nothing, but Joel just wanted to get to bed.

"We'll be smarter in the morning," Hodya said with a yawn. "Come on."

As they left the kitchen, Paul noticed that Joel was headed downstairs with Hodya. "Oho. Hot revolutionary love."

"Shut up, Paul."

In the room in the basement, Hodya undressed, her back to Joel. "You know we don't have to do anything you don't want to."

"Yeah, I know." He started unbuttoning his shirt, to make the nakedness less one-sided.

"And honestly, I'm not much in the mood. I'm fucking exhausted and kind of scared." She pulled a worn out t-shirt over her head, a black shirt with yihyeh b'seder written on it in Hebrew, one of the modern slang terms he knew. It meant it'll be okay, she had told him years ago, but you could say it even when things were definitely not going to be okay. "So don't feel like you're disappointing me."

"That's good." Knot in his laces. Twenty years of untying shoelaces and suddenly he couldn't do it.

"Oh, well, if it's good then who am I to argue?"

He was down to his boxers and one shoe with that stubborn knot. The room was cold. "Should we get the grilling over with? I'm not impotent. I'm not gay. I didn't get fucked by Cardinal Law."

"Listen, you don't want to talk about it, and I am by no means sure that I want to talk about it either," she said, pulling on her pajama pants and sitting on the bed. "But you never want to talk about it, and it's New Year's and you didn't even think about kissing me. I know we weren't partying or anything, but there was a moment and you knew--" She stopped herself. "Yoel. This is not working. We've been trying, and it's not working. If you could talk more about your problems, maybe it would work better, but you just don't. I have to hound you all the time like a brassy reporter in a comic book. You think I like that? Because I do not."

"I'm sorry--"

"No, no. Just listen. I do not think you're impotent. I'll be blunt: you get boners when we make out, so there's that. But boners are weird, so maybe you're gay. You always tell me you're not, but I see a situation where you might be, and you might feel like you have to lie about it." She held out her hand to stop him from interrupting, raising her eyebrows. "You're very religious. You're very hung up about sex, and -- apparently -- you were seriously considering the priesthood. Good reasons to be closeted. Good reasons to maybe hold onto a relationship with a girl even though it's DOA."

"I wasn't doing that. I wouldn't use you just to stay in the closet, Hodya," he said, still picking at the knot in his laces, but he was flushed with humiliation, burning hot, almost close to tears. "I wanted this. I just couldn't do it, I wasn't what you need."

"Don't start a tailspin, babe, okay?" Hodya said, reaching out to touch his shoulder but pulling back when he flinched. "Here's the other situation I see, where you might want to hide and deny it. Paul is important to you, that's clear. You call him your partner, and that's fine. You can have a friend that close, whether you're gay or straight or bi or asexual. But he is in love with you. You even know that, I think."

"Yeah," Joel whispered. "He's...I know about it, yeah. He's crossing fingers that shouldn't be crossed."

"Right. So maybe you don't want it out there that, sure, maybe you are attracted to guys but you're not into him. You don't want to hurt him."

"That's not what's going on." He kept fumbling with his shoe. "You know what? In the Gospels, there's a Greek word that means a stumbling-block. I forget the Hebrew. But the Greek comes from the verb 'to limp.' René Girard said that a limping man, seen from behind, seems to be constantly wrestling with his own shadow. A stumbling-block is something that repels you and attracts you both, and you can't leave it alone. In English we call it a scandal."

"So what scandalises you?" she said. "Me? Sex?"

"Sex does. Yeah." He kicked off his shoe, the knot still stuck in it. "A scandal isn't something shocking. Scandal is something haunting. Something you can't get away from, a double-bind, something you want and try not to want. But the trying not to want isn't good enough either. I don't think it comes from religion alone, it comes from religion bouncing off society. Society telling you, 'You could be loved, if you were some other way than the way you are.' But the minute you try to change and be what they want you to be, they say no, that's not right, you're just supposed to be that way naturally. And you can't give up on the idea of being loved, because even if you could handle that with your heart, even if you could live without it, that would mean you're broken too. So you're tied up. You know?"

Hodya shook her head. "I don't understand. Say more, I want to follow you."

He paused for a long time, then said, "I think what I mean is that I've been tied up and tripping over myself for so long that I don't know what I would do or what I would want if I felt free. There's a famous image of Our Lady, a famous painting of Mary. My advisor at l'Institut Pastorale has a print of it in his office. It shows her with a piece of ribbon that's full of knots, and she's untying all of them. That's the highest thing you can ask for, from a being that's close to God, right? Get them to untangle all the fucking knots in your life. And I've been waiting, but she's not done with mine yet. Is that clearer?"

"Yeah." Hodya's voice was thick. This was as clear as Joel could get, she knew. She didn't have to follow his emotional logic completely in order to understand the bottom line: whatever was holding him back, it was something that he couldn't fight. He knew it and so did she. It's all over but the crying. "Thank you. Thanks for telling me, I'm glad to finally hear that."

"And it's not fair to you. Us like this."

"No," she said, taking a breath and wiping her cheeks. "It's not fair to me. Not even fair to you."

"I can go," he said, bending over to pick his shoe up.

"Only if you want to be in your own bed," Hodya said, pulling a tissue out of the box on the bedside table. "I'm not mad, Yoel. I knew this was going to happen soon, and it feels...it feels less lonely to know that it's not just me being an asshole, you know? We really did have a big goddamn problem, right? It wasn't all in my head."

It made him laugh, wetly. "Oh Christ, no, definitely not."

"We're still friends. We can be."

"I'd like that."

"Will you do something for me?" she said, wiping her face again with the balled-up tissue. "Kiss me one last time, for goodbye. New Year's Eve, not too late. I just...want to be able to remember the last kiss between us."

"Hodya..." Yeah, he was definitely crying by now too. Great. He moved over on the bed and kissed her, his hand on her damp cheek. Just a kiss, like all the other ones. He lingered, but there was only so long a kiss like that could last, a quiet one.

She pulled back first, and tried to give him a smile. "Good. Thanks. We'll try to talk tomorrow, yeah? And maybe we'll be able to be nicer about it."

"Yeah. I'm sorry I did this when you're jetlagged," Joel said, putting his shirt back on. "Get lots of sleep."

"You too, I don't want you having more seizures. Goodnight," she said, as if they were on the phone.

"Goodnight," he said back, and closed the door behind him.

The house was dark and quiet, everyone gone to bed, and Joel didn't go upstairs to his room right away. He went to the kitchen and saw that the kettle was still plugged in, automatically shut off, one of his pointless tics when there was a crisis. His mother's family all did that, put the kettle on, Maritimer instinct. Even if you forgot the tea. He unplugged it and got a glass of water, wandering into the office.

The blue paper envelope was sitting on the desk, fully addressed, with a return address in the corner (three houses down on the same street) but no stamp. Joel opened it. A pretty card with a drawing of a winter forest on it, a single bright red cardinal in one of the trees.

The inside was blank, but there was a message in sharp, angular hand-writing:


Do come by and visit at your earliest convenience.
Cloak and dagger nonsense an unfortunate necessity,
but we're watching H., not you. Need to talk about
Dudley, but we're probably the lot you dislike least.
Happy new year & so on.