Lara shook her head as she tied her laces, bracing her foot against the changing room bench. “Okay, explain that again?”
“The PARE. It’s the fitness standard you have to pass to get into the RCMP. You have to do a timed obstacle course, push and pull a seventy pound weight for a bit, and then run fifteen meters with an eighty pound weight on your back.”
“Yeah, okay – so you know I’m not gonna train with you for that, right?”
Charlene grinned as she picked up her water bottle, sighing on the inside. “You’re just here for the moral support. Get me into the weight room, and half the job is done.”
“Okay – but I’m just gonna, like, sit on the exercise bike and watch boys lift weights until you’re done.”
“There’s a twenty minute limit on the machines, technically, so you may have to move around a little more. Otherwise, knock yourself out.”
She closed the door on their shared locker, then made for the exit with the hope that her friend would follow. It wasn’t a great gym, but it was affordable, and easy to get to after work. Lara, she hoped, was only indulging in her usual hyperbole. She’d been much keener on the idea of the gym when the plan was first conceived, and Charlene knew that it was going to be hard to keep up the habit without a partner.
It was 4:30 on Monday afternoon, and the place wasn’t too busy. There were even a couple of other women: one working in a corner with a Pilates ball, and the other plugging along on one of the elliptical machines. The rest of the few patrons were men, all of whom were working with free weights with the exception of a tall blond man on the far treadmill. Charlene gave Lara a wave as she made her way over to the gym’s lone exercise bike and found herself a space to set up.
She’d done a lot of research to establish her regime – mostly online since she couldn’t afford a personal trainer on top of the gym’s membership fees – and didn’t intend to let herself off easy. She started with jump rope to warm up, and an hour later was racking the last of her weights, casting an eye towards the cardio machines. Lara was off to the side, chatting with one of the gym attendants. Another woman had taken over her position on the bike, and the ellipticals were claimed by a pair of younger guys. She’d been hoping for a treadmill, but two other men were just getting on the closest machines, and the blond guy she’d noticed when she first came in was still on the one in the corner.
Charlene paused to stretch out her shoulders before marching over to him. He was keeping up a pretty steady pace, and seemed to be either lost in thought, or just staring off into space.
“Hey – you know there’s a time limit for the machines right?”
“Hmmm?” He looked over at her without slowing. Now that she was paying him any attention, she realized that he was very classically attractive, with curly blonde hair, bright blue eyes and a lean physique that was, well, no doubt the logical result of spending hours at a time on the treadmill.
“I’m sorry, but you’ve been here for over an hour – I really just want my twenty minutes.” She waited while he watched her for a moment, as though considering her request. “Please?”
He smiled slowly. “Of course.”
“Thanks.” Charlene grinned as he slowed his pace. He hardly seemed to have broken a sweat. “Are you training for something?”
He shook his head as he stepped down, picking up his phone from the cupholder. “No. I just find it clears my head. And it is such a wonderful metaphor for life.”
“Ah, sure.” She hadn’t meant to strike up a long conversation, so she smiled tightly and began to jog, turning her attention ahead of her.
“What about you?”
She didn’t look back as she clipped her answers, focusing on finding her stride. “Yeah. The PARE.”
“The mountie test?” He chuckled. “You want to be a mountie?”
“Mostly right now I want to run for my twenty minutes and go and do some stretches.” Was he just going to stand there and wait? And who was he to laugh?
“Ah, alright.” A pause. “But twenty minutes a day is not going to prepare you for the PARE.”
“Yes well. It’s what I get. Until spring.” Apart from her reticence to chat, talking and running was a new experience for her.
“Mmm, yes, even I don’t trust the sidewalks at this time of year.”
“Yeah.” Risking her balance on a backwards glance, she saw that he was really just standing there, casually holding up the wall and watching the room with a bored expression.
“Still,” he started again, but was cut off by the chiming of his ringtone – a sound that, like his accent, seemed a little foreign. “Excuse me.” He turned away to answer, in some language she couldn’t quite place – Greek maybe? With a little wave her way, he slipped out of the weight room, leaving her to finish her run in peace.
Lara was waiting over at the mats when she finished, running through some basic yoga forms. “Man, I forgot how much I like the stretching part. Maybe next time I’ll just come and do a million hours of stretching. It’s always good to limber up.”
“Yes. Stretching good.” Glorious, in fact, and especially nice when she felt like her limbs had all been replaced by sweaty noodles. And she planned to do the same to herself again tomorrow… “Thanks for staying.”
“No worries – it isn’t like I have anything else to do, save feed the cats. So, who was treadmill guy?”
“Dunno.” Charlene was still trying to decide if she thought he was a jerk, or really just very bored.
“Well – he was hot, that’s for sure.”
“Mmm-hmm.” She nodded non-committally, working through the rest of her cool-down routine.
When the two finally bundled up to head back out into the wintery Toronto evening, they passed him in the lobby, still on the phone. Even in that context, he was a hand talker – not flailing aimlessly, but gracefully emphasizing…whatever it was he was saying. Shame it was lost on whoever was on the other end. Shame also when Lara nudged her in the ribs with an elbow, disrupting her reverie. Charlene returned her friend’s knowing look with eyebrows arched crossly.
For the rest of the week, the mystery blond was often around when they arrived for their workouts, either running or outside on his phone. He was gracious enough whenever she turned his way for a free machine, inquiring about her training before inevitably being called away. “It’s like they know, isn’t it,” he’d laughed one day.
Lara held up for most of the first week, but finally begged off on the Friday. “Sorry,” she’d grinned remorselessly, “I need energy to get out and enjoy my weekend!” With a promise secured to go again on Monday, Charlene headed off that afternoon on her own. Lacking the encouragement of a partner, she decided that caffeine might make a suitable substitute. She got off the bus one stop early, braving the February cold for a coffee from Tim Horton’s.
It took her a moment to place his voice out of context, but his accent was too distinct. Looking around as she stood in line, she saw him sitting with his back to her at a nearby table with a gorgeous, bored-looking blonde. He was, not surprisingly, on the phone, but speaking English this time.
“…and as I have also explained, neither I, nor my father, nor any of our family have any interest in this scheme that certain undesirables are perpetuating. It is beneath us. What do we have to fear? There is no threat to us, no upstart that can topple the foundation that we have built. What payoff could be so great that we should even briefly consider this risk? Foolishness. It is out of friendship alone that I have so clearly laid out this position to you, in the hopes that you might comprehend the web in which you have been ensnared. Should you disregard the advice – which you have solicited – of both myself and my sister whose wisdom is famously known, then I have no more hope for you, and will leave you to whatever fate you have earned.”
He sat quietly for a moment, listening. Charlene realized she was staring when the woman furrowed her brow in annoyance. She leaned forward to mutter quietly to her companion, who glanced back over his shoulder, smiling briefly and giving a distracted wave before turning around again and continuing his discussion. Hoping she didn’t look as embarrassed as she felt, Charlene stepped up further in line. He was keeping his voice down a little lower now, but she could still pick out a few snatches before she made it up to the counter.
“Take care whom you insult! You should show greater respect – we could do worse than to let you dig your own grave…”
“Uhh....” She winced slightly as the server repeated his offer to please take her order. “A large regular coffee please.”
By the time she had her drink, he was off the phone and her hopes of escaping without much further embarrassment had been dashed. She was a little concerned at what she’d overheard, but hoped it was just her imagination running away with her.
“Hello there.” He smiled, leaning casually over the back of the plastic chair. It was a first to see him in street clothes – his navy overcoat was opened slightly, and a hat and gloves sat on the table beside his phone. Compared to his companion, dressed all in white despite the dirty brown slush tracked across the floor and mucking up the streets and sidewalks outside, he seemed eminently practical. “I was just saying to my lovely sister-in-law how these places are the crossroads of our times. You never know whom you might run into.”
Some traitorous part of Charlene’s mind felt a little relieved to have their relationship clarified – a more perverse corner wondered what he was doing out alone with his brother’s super-hot wife. She smiled and nodded, planning to head out past the pair. “Yeah, heh, you never know.”
“It’s Charlene, isn’t it? Have a seat - enjoy your coffee and warm up some before you head back out.”
Charlene was just surprised enough that he knew her name that she turned back to the pair. The other woman gave a little shrug, as though to say she would tolerate the intrusion. Her companion gestured broadly at the two empty seats at their table.
“Yeah, that’s me… Didn’t catch your name?”
“Sit then.” He smiled. After considering her options, she slid in beside the woman in white. “I’m Hermes. Very nice to meet you.”
“Hermes like the god?”
His smile broadened, but his sister-in-law snorted.
“Like the handbags,” she retorted, tapping her purse without even glancing Charlene’s way. Charlene could tell it was expensive – it looked like it was made of white alligator skin, with a little silvery lock on the outside. It didn’t have a logo.
Hermes shook his head, chuckling. “Only en Français. I got that for you, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” she smiled, and Charlene took a sip of her coffee so she could pretend to ignore the rudeness. “And no one ever reported it stolen. Imagine.”
“Shush, my dear, you’ll get me in trouble. Our friend here is going to be a cop.” He winked conspiratorially. “Charlene, this is Erycina.”
“That’s not a name you hear every day… Is it Greek too?” They both had the same accent, but she hadn’t thought blonde hair was all that common in Greeks. If either bleached, they had really good stylists.
“It’s Italian. Latin, actually,” Erycina replied, with a long cool look at Hermes, before turning her attention to Charlene. “I haven’t heard it in a while either, though I suppose it is fair. So, how do you know this troublemaker then? You like him? You do, I can tell.” The assessment seemed to please her, but Charlene felt simultaneously very small, and a little angry. ‘Then why did you ask,’ she wanted to quip, or ‘what did you even say that for?’ Instead, she shrugged it off.
“I wouldn’t really say I do. Know him, I mean. We just go to the same gym.” She was starting to wonder just what sort of person he was, and whether this was an association she ought to be considering at all.
“Ahh, the gym, of course…” Both girls looked over as Hermes’s phone chirped, and Erycina sniffed at the interruption. “I can think of better ways to keep you busy.”
“Mmmm, yes, but it isn’t me you’re keeping busy.” Hermes snapped the phone shut again after glancing at the screen. “Also, Thalia is here with your car.”
“Wonderful, thank you so much, darling, it’s been lovely.” They both stood and exchanged cheek kisses while Charlene sipped more of her coffee. It might have been a good time to gather her things and make her own departure, save that she’d almost have to go through them to do so.
“You two have a wonderful time tonight.” He grinned a little wickedly. “And remember – you owe me one.”
Erycina laughed at that, tossing her hair back. She smiled first at Charlene then looked back pointedly at her brother-in-law. “No. I don’t.” With that, she slipped out the doors and into the street.
Charlene was just standing up when he turned back around. He looked puzzled for a moment, before it gave way to disappointment. “Are you leaving too?”
“Well, you know. Gotta keep up the training.”
“Yes, of course… Although.” Smiles again. “You’re going to over-work yourself with weights if you’re not careful. And the skipping is good, but you still need more cardio. So you should come with me instead, and we’ll find some better workout.”
“Are you….asking me out, or offering to train me?” She honestly wasn’t sure which he’d meant – or why he seemed to be interested in her at all. He probably had to beat girls away with a stick.
“Which would you prefer?” He picked up his cup off the table, swirling the contents while she considered. “It doesn’t have to be only one or the other.”
“Well.” That was kind of bull. If she didn’t want to date him, she didn’t think she’d feel comfortable just training with him after he’d brought it up so….suggestively. But there was something very charming about his genial arrogance, and he was intriguing as well as being, in Lara’s words, ridiculously hot. “I’ll give you a shot, on the dating front, and we’ll see how it goes from there.”
“I’ll take that bargain.” He finished his coffee and set the empty cup down on the table, then offered his hand. They shook, though she thought it an odd thing to do. “So…. How about skating, to start?”
“Why not? At this time of day, it shouldn’t be too crowded at Nathan Phillips Square. And then dinner.”
“Alright. You’re on.”
Under her winter bundling, Charlene was still in her work clothes. While it wasn’t what she’d have picked for going out to dinner, at least she wasn’t already dressed for the gym. Hermes held the door for her as they headed out, offering his arm as he turned down the street back towards the bus stop. He was taller than her by a few inches, which put him at just about the perfect height, by her reckoning. This close, she also couldn’t help but notice how nice he smelled.
“So, how come you’re not at the gym today?”
“Oh, I was working.” He waved dismissively with his free hand.
“Where do you work?” She was a little wary of asking, but that seemed all the more reason to do so. Of course, he just smiled in response.
“I work for my family. Mostly I’m a glorified secretary – passing along messages, arranging meetings and such. What about you?”
“Right now I’m working retail, at a florist boutique in Kensington Market.” But she wasn’t going to let him off that easy. “What does your family do?”
“Oh, this and that. We’re fairly diversified. Erycina’s husband – he is my half-brother really – is a jeweler, for instance. Oh look – there’s the bus.”
Charlene boarded first, paying her token and getting a transfer just in case. Hermes followed, laughing at something with the driver before receiving his. The bus was full, and he opted to stand while she sat, letting an older woman take the seat instead.
“So, how does a florist decide she wants to join the RCMP?”
“A bunch of things, really. I ran out of money halfway through my degree, so I needed a job to keep going, and then I didn’t have the energy to do both. And I didn’t want to just stay in retail. One of my best friends’ dads growing up was a mountie, and I always thought it was really cool.”
He chuckled. “So – not inspired by feelings of civic responsibility and a strong desire to uphold the law?”
“I guess that’s the part that I thought was cool? I like the idea of being able to help people who need helping, and stop people who need stopping.”
“Yeah well – we’ll see. Even if I pass the physical bit, there is a background check, and a psych evaluation and some other stuff. I don’t know even when I’ll hear back about taking the PARE. I’ve heard it could be over a year, but you should start training right away.”
“And meanwhile….flower arrangements?”
“It pays the rent.” It wasn’t very glorious, and he was wearing that vaguely bemused half-smile that sort of made her feel like she was being laughed at. She remembered it from their first conversation, brief as it had been. “It’s really not that amusing.”
“No.” His expression turned serious. He was holding on to the upper rail on the bus, but was still free to talk with his other hand, making a fist in the pause before he continued. “I don’t mean to laugh at you. It truly is a noble goal, and I see no reason you should not succeed. You are very dedicated, and of strong character, and I respect that. If I am amused, it is because I was not expecting to meet anyone so engaging, and at how you have caught me by surprise.”
Her responding laugh was half ‘hmpf.’ “So… not your usual type, then?” Hermes just smiled.
The bus pulled up to Dufferin station a few minutes later and they streamed off with the rest of the crowd down towards the subway tunnels. She took his arm again, and as they descended she could feel the telltale rush of cooler air that signaled the approach of an oncoming train. They quickened their pace down the last few steps, but were stopped abruptly at the bottom by an old homeless woman bundled in ratty plaid shirts and a worn army coat who seemed to come from nowhere to grab Hermes by the elbow.
“You!” She cried. “Tricky sneak. You didn’t pay the toll.”
Charlene wasn’t an officer yet, but she wished she had some idea about what to do about crazy vagrants on the TTC.
“You thought I wouldn’t notice, eh?” she continued, though Hermes managed to snatch back his arm. “That I wouldn’t know?”
“Very sorry,” he replied, not sounding it at all, “maybe this is a bad time?” He brushed off his coat, giving Charlene an apologetic look. The old woman didn’t look at all impressed.
“I don’t know what this is about, ma’am,” she put in calmly, “We’d just like to catch this train.”
“You go right ahead, dearie, you put in your offering just like you should. But this one never does! No, he and his lot think they have everything under their thumbs, but they don’t! These are my rails, and my routes!” Other Torontonians walked quickly by as the vagrant’s volume increased, heading resolutely for the train and ignoring the confrontation. She was jabbing her finger at Hermes now, but he seemed to be taking the ravings in good stride. “It you want to use them, Traveler, you’ll pay like all the rest!”
“Ahh, the face of Public Transportation in this city.” He smiled. “I believe I have a transfer here if-”
“No. Your petty thief’s tricks won’t help you here. A revolution is coming, you know! Things are going to change!”
“Nothing is going to change,” he said firmly. “Can we go now?”
“Not you, no! And if you try anything, I’ll call security!”
“Look now, lady.” Charlene was getting pissed off again – she didn’t like feeling like she was missing something. The woman might be mad, but the little random digs about her companion had been a little too….consistent so far, and she wasn’t sure what to think. She wasn’t sure, come to think of it, that he had paid the fare when he’d boarded the bus. But he must have, surely. “This is a little ridiculous.”
“It’s alright,” he told her. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll just meet you downtown.”
“We could both leave.”
“It will be faster this way. And she won’t bother you – I’ll see you at Osgoode Station.” He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek before turning back up the stairs. The old woman was chuckling to herself and muttering.
“They’ll learn…. They’ll have to learn…” She winked, grinning, and started to wander off down the platform. Somehow, the train hadn’t yet left, and the chime sounded that the doors were about to close. Hermes was already partway back up the stairs… Charlene raced for the doors, which slid shut behind her with a hiss as the train pulled away.
He had, in fact, been waiting at Osgoode on the other side of the turnstile, and laughing with someone on the phone. He’d smiled when she passed through, ended his call, and off they’d gone.
“I have no idea how he got there so fast!”
“Cab?” Lara picked at her steak fries and shrugged.
“In five o’clock traffic?”
“Maybe he knows some good shortcuts.”
“That’s what he said.”
“Heh.” Lara grinned. “You had fun though, right?”
“Oh, yeah. Skating was fun, though he’s way better at it. And dinner was great – we went to a nice place on College… the Gatto Nero? We stayed there pretty late – did that whole Italian zillion courses and eat really slow thing. With wine. And, uh, the rest of the night was also good.” She could feel the blood rising in her cheeks, and hoped her friend wouldn’t notice.
“Oh it was, eh?” No such luck – Lara wiggled her eyebrows in exaggerated lechery and grinned wolfishly, leaning in across the diner table on her elbows. “So, what’s he like then? Athletic?”
The blush crept further up her cheeks. She usually tried to be a little more conservative when she met a new guy, even if that happened rarely enough, but things had just gone so well. It wasn’t that she had any regrets, but she was unsure that she wanted to talk about it just yet. Lara was much more open about sex, generally speaking, but Charlene preferred to keep her private lie to herself. “Oh yeah… we talked about sports, and a bunch of other things.”
Lara rolled her eyes and leaned back. “Like what?”
“Well, lots of stuff.” They’d talked a lot. He certainly had, and the ranging style of conversation seemed to come very naturally to him. He talked so beautifully, so easily that it had drawn her out of her shell much further than she’d expected. “Well, you know. I’m not a great conversationalist, but I guess he’s just a good listener? Which surprised me given how much he does talk. Also, he is hilariously full of shit.”
“What do you mean?”
“So, he told me that he mostly works for his family, and then in his spare time – when he’s not at the gym, of course, so god only knows when that would be – he likes to invent things. So, sure, whatever. You know what guys are like. I thought he meant things like… pie made entirely of bacon, or something. But no, he meant like actual inventions, he just wouldn’t tell me anything for serious. So now I think it’s just like a game, where he’ll randomly tell me ridiculous shit that he’s invented. Like…. Fire. And the air guitar. And fuckin’ Furbies.”
“Ugh. Fuck Furbies.”
“Yeah well, I’m pretty sure he was shitting me. It was just funny. Mostly.”
“Well. You know. His family. He talks about them, sure, but he talks around a lot of things about them. And he says stuff all the time that I know goes over my head, and I know he finds it amusing. Like…. Non-sexy double entendres? And I don’t think he’s laughing at me, really, I think it’s just something he does because he’s bored. And again, not bored with me, just in general, bored. But when I notice, which I’m sure is only half the time, I just feel like I’m missing something. Maybe I’m imagining it, or… I don’t know. But I also kind of wonder if his family isn’t, you know….connected. Or there’s something else going on.”
“Did you call him on it?”
“Kind of? He apologized, and said it was a family joke, but he didn’t really explain anything. And then we just started talking about something else.”
“Yeah.” She’d had a great time, but she didn’t know what to do about the niggling sense she had that something was off, that she was getting into something way over her head. There wasn’t much basis for it -- half an overheard conversation, and a strange encounter with a crazy woman – but it troubled her nonetheless.
“So… You’re not sure you trust him, but you still went home with him?” Lara leaned forward again, but this time her expression was one of concern.
“I know! It’s not my usual thing. Maybe it was just the wine talking, or maybe I’m just being stupid. But it was…” She felt the blush creeping back. “Well, he is really athletic.” The sex had been great. Charlene couldn’t remember when she’d actually fallen asleep, but she’d woken up in the morning and had trouble figuring out what had been real and what just a dream. It all seemed so incredible, and so beyond the scope of her other experiences.
Her friend couldn’t suppress a brief smile before returning to a more serious look. “Are you seeing him again?”
“I’ll see him at the gym on Monday, and I think he was going to show me some stuff and make plans from there.”
“Okay. Well, I’m still coming with you.”
It was a bit of a relief – she wasn’t sure how far she trusted her own judgment where Hermes was concerned. She smiled gratefully. “Thanks.”
That Monday progressed like any other, more or less. Charlene found herself feeling a bit uncharacteristically wistful while doing up some of her arrangements, but told herself she was being silly. Flowers and candy were not what she wanted from a relationship. She preferred good conversation and good companionship, but with that accounted for, why not consider some icing for the cake?
Lara was waiting for her in the changing room, and she felt a twinge of guilt that she’d packed her gym clothes with extra care: her t-shirt wasn’t quite as threadbare, and she’d brought her nicer yoga pants. It was silly. Lara shook her head. “You gonna introduce me, or should I just spy?”
“How about both? I can introduce you after.”
“Well, maybe you could do that – if you actually knew his last name.”
Charlene sighed. It hadn’t occurred to her, before Lara had pointed it out (and teased her mercilessly) earlier. “I just never thought about it, okay? And now it seems weird. I don’t think he knows my last name either. Is it really that weird?”
“You know my rule – if you’re going to see them again after the sex you probably need at least two names to go with the….face. You used to tell me that it was a bad rule.”
“Hah – I’m just glad when you ask for any name.”
“Yeah, well it’s not going to get any less weird if you wait, right?”
She nodded, picking up her towel and water bottle. Lara was right, and she would ask, and soon – that and a whole list of other questions that were building in her mind.
Hermes was on the treadmill when they came in, of course, and waved. Lara slunk off to the bikes as he approached, leaving Charlene standing alone. It was hard to see him standing there, even in track pants and a sweaty t-shirt, and not think about Friday night, and when they might get alone again, and how empty the change room had been when she’d come in… But she smiled, instead, and said ‘hey’ like everything was casual, and he did the same. After a while, it even felt that way – like he was a friend, showing her some exercises. A friend she’d fucked, mind, but it was okay. She felt mentally relaxed, even as her body strained to keep up with the workout.
The three met up finally at the stretching mats, an hour and a half or so later.
“This is my friend Lara – she’s my gym buddy-slash-moral support. Lara, this is Hermes…”
“A pleasure,” he smiled. Charlene was sure he could tell he was being appraised. Lara was hardly subtle.
“Same! I hear you two had a good time on Friday?”
“Very pleasant.” He turned his smile to Charlene, putting an arm lightly around her shoulder. “I hope?”
“Oh yeah.” She hoped she wasn’t blushing again. Just as she was wondering if the gesture counted as affectionate or possessive, he released her. “Very.”
“How do you know each other?”
“We were roommates, when I was still in college.” She’d told him most of that story already, and he nodded, looking to Lara.
“Are you still there? What do you study.”
“Me?” She seemed surprised he would ask. “Oh, I’m in my last year of Architecture… in theory.”
“We’ll see how this last term goes. And you?”
“I love universities, yet somehow I have never managed to commit to a full time program.”
“Yeah – ‘Lene said you work for your family?”
“They do try to keep me busy – I think they worry too much.”
“Are you particularly worrying?”
He laughed at that, and Charlene felt a little awkward. It was just the sort of thing she’d been wondering.
“Not if I’m properly distracted.” His phone rang as he spoke, and he smiled apologetically as he moved to answer. “Excuse me ladies. I will call you later, Charlene.”
They walked quietly back to the change room, where they found themselves alone save for a trio of older women changing into swimsuits in the far corner. It took her another moment to shake off the warm glow from the way his accent transformed her name, and the way he’d squeezed her hand before slipping away.
“You’re right. He’s hot, nice, smooth….and yeah. Arrogant maybe? Not snooty or condescending. But still arrogant.”
“That’s what Ben said. Only he was just making a blanket statement about Greek men.” What her manager had actually said was that their unstated assumption of superiority was wearing, and that he couldn’t be bothered with more than one night stands with them anymore. “I just don’t think it’s true.”
“Well, maybe. If it doesn’t piss you off too much, then go for it, I guess? Just be careful. In case, you know, he really is in the mob, or whatever.”
“Heh – guess I’d better keep him distracted?”
The next few days passed very much the same: they would see each other at the gym, and talk some on the phone at night. Mostly Hermes talked – he was more at ease on the phone than her, and she was happy to listen. Hermes had so many stories, knew so many random things, that she didn’t really care that they couldn’t be half true. “You don’t believe me, do you?” he would ask, laughing. “Nope,” she’d answer, “but what happened next?” Her real-life stories always seemed mundane when he coaxed them out of her, but she never felt that anything she made up sounded convincing. He didn’t seem to care.
Thursday was different – Hermes was out in the lobby when she and Lara arrived, dressed in street clothes. His phone was gripped tightly in one hand, his expression serious until he saw them. Lara looked over at her, eyebrows raised, until he joined them.
“Hi.” He smiled, and nodded briefly to Lara. “I am very sorry, but there is a matter I need to deal with shortly. I’m glad that I caught you before I had to leave.”
She wondered if that were true, or if he’d just been waiting for them to come by. “That’s okay, I can train on my own. I’m a big girl.” Charlene shrugged, hoping her smile was enough to show she wasn’t too disappointed. It felt a little inevitable, honestly, that the phone calls that disrupted his time so frequently would escalate.
He laughed. “Of course. Just watch your squat form. I’ll try and call you later.”
“Do that. And, uh, good luck?” She gave his hand a squeeze, but it seemed unsatisfactory through their gloves, and she craned up to give him a quick kiss instead. It spread his smile all the way to his eyes.
“Thank you. Good day, ladies.”
He gave a wave of his hand and turned away. Lara took her arm, dragging her off towards the change rooms.
“He was so waiting for you.”
“He couldn’t just call?”
“Maybe? Maybe his line was tied up. I really wouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, I know he has sort of a love-hate thing with the phone. It’s convenient, but he likes to see people in person if he can.” She tried not to sound too defensive: it wasn’t how she felt. This was better than being disappointed and not seeing him at all.
It was getting late when he called – almost 9:30. He sounded tired, but still asked if she might like to meet somewhere for coffee. Twenty minutes later, she joined him at Future’s Café and Bakery on Bloor, settling down with a coffee and a slice of Italian cream cake.
“How did your thing go?” She smiled back at him. There was clearly still something on his mind, but he made a dismissive gesture.
“Nothing is ever as important as they think it is. It’s almost a shame.”
It was a given that ‘they’ meant family. “Why? Because then it might be worth the effort, or because then you might have something to do?”
“Something like that.”
“If you say so.” She knew a little about his family – he rarely talked about them in detail, but she’d picked up on some nonetheless. Maybe it was still a little early to be pushy, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it – something she should, or ought to, know. “Actually… no, wait. Can I ask you something?”
“Of course.” Her curiosity seemed to pique his own. “Ask away.”
She wasn’t actually sure where to start. After she’d left Lara that afternoon, she’d been thinking some more about how things were going, and what she wanted. It seemed pretty casual on one level, and that was….comfortable? But there was another level she was more concerned about. “Okay. Maybe it is more than one something, but let’s start easy: how old are you?”
“Is that important?” She’d thought he might laugh, but maybe his mood sat heavier than she’d realized. He did smile, of course – he almost always did – but there was something missing from his eyes.
“Maybe? I know you’re older than me, and that’s cool. But there’s older and, you know…. Older.”
“Today I feel Older.” He scratched his chin, grinning. He might have been trying to distract her, or he might just be following some random train of thought – it was hard to tell sometimes. “I should grow out my beard again. This is a beard day. That makes me look much older.”
“I can’t see it.” That was capital ’O’ older, then. That was okay, she just needed to do more thinking. She was sure her parents wouldn’t approve, if it ever got to a stage where that might matter. Or maybe they would, who could say. He was rich, and that would probably change things at least for her mother: she’d always wanted to be rich. Not that they’d ever talked about money seriously, but it showed. It was evident in his hours of leisure time, if nothing else.
“I always grow it out when I travel. It’s warmer, anyway. Winter is dragging its feet this year.”
“Are you going somewhere?” This wasn’t the first she’d heard of travel in all the hours they’d talked, but it was the first she’d heard of any impending trip.
“At some point, I’m sure. The storm is still building, and we’ll just have to see where the lightning will strike.”
“Or where the shit will hit the fan?” She grinned. She wanted to feel relaxed, and for him to feel relaxed also. She wanted to be someone he could talk to seriously, if they were going to be together. If he wouldn’t do that, it was a pretty bad sign for the future of their relationship.
“That too, yes.”
“And this was what the stuff this afternoon was about?”
“Yes.” He sighed, stirring his coffee contemplatively. “You want me to elaborate, I can tell.”
Anyone else might have needed a moment to compose their thoughts, but Hermes was eloquence on demand. He traced out the story on the table as he explained. “I have an associate who has been trying to entice me to join him in a decidedly shady venture. There is a fair amount of risk, and I really don’t think the payoff is worth the effort. At best, if successful, it will provide a temporary respite from a problem that, from my point of view, has been long resolved. It’s an issue of legacy, and while my family feels quite secure, his apparently does not. Now, this person is a known shit-disturber, and I know better than to have anything to do with him. Of course it’s not that simple – because now I know too much about what he’s up to. He’s resentful, and he thinks I’m going to interfere with him or his plan. It’s an unfortunate position.”
It was both more than she’d expected, and less than she needed. “So, what is he up to?”
“I can’t tell you the details, Charlene, and you’d think it absurd in any case. On the surface of things, it’s a hostile takeover.”
“Well, I guess you’re an expert on what I’d think.” She stabbed her cake with her fork, considering. Hermes gave a little shrug, and waved his hand as if to concede the point, but said nothing. The silence was appreciated – unlike her companion, she needed the opportunity to form her thoughts before she spoke them. It had been a long day already, and she was sore, tired and a little cranky from training and standing for her entire eight-hour shift. At least the cake was delicious. She put down her fork after finishing her bite. “I told you about Mr. King, right? My friend Tracy’s dad who was a mountie?”
“Yes.” He sat back, stirring his coffee.
“So, you know, my dad was not really the greatest. If I needed advice on the sort of thing you ask your parents, I’d ask hers instead. So now I have this little ‘what would Mr. King say’ voice filed away in my head, for times like this when I don’t know what to think. Right now it’s telling me to concentrate on the things that are actually important to me, which is that I really like you, but I don’t know you as well as I feel like I should. And I don’t know if I can, and I don’t know if…” she trailed off, then shook her head. “I don’t even know your real name. Your whole name, I mean.”
“Is that your family name?”
“No. Most of us are bastards of one sort or another.”
“Okay.” She wrapped her hands around her cup to warm her fingers, thinking about what came next. “Next thing is – the way you talk about your family makes me really nervous, but I don’t know how to turn that into a question.”
He leaned forward, wrapping his hands around hers. They were warm, and his touch was electric, and she found herself linking fingers and drawing him closer. Her underlying wariness kept her focused, even as sense-memory carried her thoughts away to more intimate caresses.
“Why are you nervous?”
“The way you talk about things… things like hostile takeovers… I just have this feeling like I’m missing something. I know I am. Mr. King used to tell me that I have good instincts, but when it comes to you my instincts are conflicted.” She paused for a breath. “I finally found something that I really want to do with my life, and I don’t want to fuck it up by, I don’t know – running with the wrong crowd. And I’m kind of scared of myself, because, like I said, I really like you, and I’m not used to feeling this way. I don’t want to do anything stupid.”
“I promise you, nothing to do with me is going to interfere with you joining the RCMP. My family is not sinister. We used to be very influential, but the world has moved on. We’re secure, and that is better than many others in our position. We have many stories about how things used to be, and it binds us in ways that is hard to explain to outsiders – wrapped up in visions of faded glory, perhaps. You have nothing to worry about.”
He seemed sincere, and with his hands in hers she had nowhere to look while he spoke but in his eyes. “Okay, so then what? What does that mean? You used to be…. Rich? In politics? Some kind of Greek Illuminati? Royalty?”
The last part made him smile, and she couldn’t help but respond in kind. “All of those things. But here, we’re just immigrants like all the rest.”
“You’re so full of shit.” But she laughed, because she believed him, or wanted to. Why would he lie, if he cared as much as he seemed to? “And don’t pretend to be humble.”
“Yes, you’re right – Greeks do hubris, not humility.”
“That’s probably why you got named after a god, eh?”
“Something like it, I’m sure.” He had that smile again – the secret-having one – but she found it bothered her less now. “Ahh, Charlene.” He squeezed her fingers, sitting back a little. “You challenge me. I like that. You’re lovely, and clever, and determined. Your Mr. King was right, too – you do have good instincts.”
“I’m sorry if this isn’t quite the night you’d been hoping for.”
“It’s still young.” He lifted her hands, fingers still twined, and kissed them.
“Are you trying to seduce me?”
“I am seducing you.”
The blush didn’t so much bloom as erupt fully formed, and she couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re a cocky one, that’s for sure.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” He was smirking and he looked up and caught her eye, as though he could project what he was thinking into her mind. The details were a little fuzzy, but she was pretty confident she got the gist of it.
“Those of us with real jobs have to work in the morning.”
“Mmm-hmm. And how old are you?”
“Okay. But we’re going to my place.”
She vaguely remembered waking up when he left – she must have let him out, as the door was locked and dead-bolted. The safety chain was even strung, and she rarely bothered. It blurred together the morning after – what they’d done, and what she’d dreamed they’d done. Instead of being tired, she felt invigorated. Ben teased her and she smiled and told him he was jealous because it had been ages since he’d man worth keeping. He sulked and made her handle all the rose arrangements. Normally, they were her least favourite, but it didn’t phase her at all.
That afternoon at the gym, Hermes took her and Lara through a long routine of gymnastic stretches designed, he explained, to maintain and increase flexibility that might otherwise be lost while following a more focused strength-training program. Lara teased him into showing off, but jealously regretted it after he demonstrated that yes, he could do most of the advanced yoga moves she’d seen on the DVDs she’d over-ambitiously acquired, and then some. His t-shirt fell down to his shoulders while he was showing off one of the forearm stands, and Charlene felt an unfamiliar possessive pride at the look on Lara’s face when her friend caught a glimpse of his abs. It was a great day to follow a great night.
The weekend followed in the same vein – they spent Saturday roaming through Kensington Market, poking through some of the new shops that were opening up, warming their hands with hot empanadas bought off the street carts, and snacking on pastries from some of the local bakeries. He had to step away a few times to take phone calls, but she could tell he was trying to keep them short. They talked about the city, about the neighborhood, about places they’d been (her to New York once on a school trip, to PEI on a disastrous family vacation in middle school, and to Vancouver with some friends after high school; him to more places than he could list). He tried to convince her that he’d invented Ultimate Frisbee and poutine. The latter, he conceded, was something his younger brother had conceived of while drunk, but he’d never put the concept into execution and hadn’t remembered the conversation in any case. They spent most of Sunday in bed – Charlene had never had the pleasure before, and found it sinfully decadent. Hermes told her that his sister-in-law had invented that one.
“How big is your family, anyway?” she finally asked.
“That depends on how you count it. Most people say twelve, but I like to be more generous.”
“That’s a big family.” She remembered his crack about bastards, and wondered how it all worked out.
“Not as big as it used to be, but the core is always twelve. Four in the older generation, including my father, his wife, and two of their siblings – one aunt and one uncle. Then I have four brothers – I am the second youngest – and two sisters. And my sister-in-law, whom you have met.”
“Who are the others?”
“Oh – more aunts and uncles, some wives and lovers, children, and so on.”
“And why don’t they count?” It seemed a strange way of reckoning family, to say some counted and others didn’t, but her own family wasn’t much of a benchmark for normality.
Hermes shrugged. “I didn’t make the rules, I just play by them. Some of them prefer to take care of themselves, some don’t get along, and some are forgotten.”
“I guess when you have that many, it just gets hard to keep track of them all.”
“Yes,” he agreed, sounding uncharacteristically wistful, “that is exactly the problem.”
The following weeks ran very much like the previous, only with increasingly frequent interruptions. Whatever the matter was, she could tell it was weighing on his mind. His mention of a hostile takeover wasn’t forgotten, and while she had been willing to let the matter rest after what little explanation she had managed to wring from him, she might reconsider if it continued to interfere with their time together.
It happened on Saturday – the second week of March. They’d been out to see a late showing of The Whole Nine Yards, and she’d managed to convince him to bring home a mess of older Bruce Willis flicks, stay up late, and enjoy their own little movie marathon. She was uncorking the wine she’d scavenged to go with the Chinese take-out, and he was meant to be setting up the TV to work with the DVD player. When she came into the living room, however, she found him very intent on watching an old rerun of Cheers on NBC.
“What’s-” She didn’t have a chance to even add the ‘-up?’ to her question before he cut her off, holding up a hand to demand silence. It rankled, and more so because when his phone rang moments afterwards, he answered immediately. There was a rapid exchange in Greek – tension was evident in his tone, and in his hands. He stayed on the phone, watching the TV and listening without saying anything. She came up beside him warily. When she put her hand on his arm, he didn’t react. A few moments later, he seemed to flinch, or blink, as in surprise, but she couldn’t say at what. He turned from the TV after that, patting her hand more in recognition than affection, then stepped away to continue his conversation. She felt dismissed, and glared at him. He ignored her. After a few more minutes of heated words, he hung up the phone, and swore. It rang again almost immediately.
“Really?” she asked. He just shook his head as he answered the line, his expression sour. She turned away, back to the kitchen. At least she could have something to eat, and some wine. She grabbed the container of hot and sour soup, and slumped in to her chair. In the other room, whatever the conversation was about seemed to be turning nasty – or nastier. Hermes could already be fairly loud when he was excited, but apparently whoever was on the other end kept cutting him off mid-sentence. It was frustrating to have her boyfriend (it felt strange to think of him that way, but she didn’t know how else to describe him) ignore her in her own home, but it was almost one in the morning, and she didn’t want her neighbours to complain. Or to think they were fighting. She rallied her aggravation, setting down her spoon, and turning back to the living room.
She had never seen him angry before, or even much more than mildly annoyed. The force of his personality could be overwhelming at the best of times, but she hadn’t expected to feel so intimidated. He glanced over when she entered, and the look on his face was so dark that she took a step back. It felt like she’d been pushed out of the room, but she hoped she’d managed a thoroughly disgusted faced before retreating back to her soup.
She’d made it half way through her General Tso’s before he was off the phone for real, but he had at least stopped yelling well before that. Every foreign word from the other room grated at her nerves – she was just a lover, she supposed, not family, or anyone who counted. It was another few minutes before he came in to see her, either because he was hoping for her to make that move, or he wanted to give her some quiet time alone first, or needed some of his own.
“I’m sorry, Charlene.” He leaned against the door frame, arms crossed. He looked more tired than she’d ever seen him before.
“What the fuck was that about?” She stood up as well, mimicking his pose.
“Escalation.” Shaking his head in the face of her unsatisfied glare, he continued. “The same matter I told you about before. It’s become more hostile than some anticipated.”
“And what does that mean?”
“It means that I have to go to New York. My father doesn’t believe we can safely stay out of it any longer. He’s been listening too much to his most bloodthirsty son. We don’t see quite eye-to-eye, as you might imagine.”
“So that’s who you were yelling at? Your brother?”
“Remind me not to piss you off.” She’d felt scared – in her own house – and he hadn’t even been yelling at her. He had the grace (of course he did) to look contrite, then shook his head in disgust.
“He often brings out the worst in people. He enjoys conflict. That’s why he wants in on this, you see, not because of anything else. He’s spoiling for a fight and thinks my father is scared enough to be persuaded. I tried to arrange for him to be distracted from the matter, but apparently that was not sufficient.”
There were a number of conversational threads that she wanted to pick at, never mind that she still didn’t even know what this escalating conflict was over. She would have to build to that. “When you say bloodthirsty – that he’s spoiling for a fight – you’re not being metaphorical, are you? There’s an actual fight.”
“So far, there have only been a few skirmishes. But a fight, yes. That’s what it is about.”
“That little speech you gave about legacy… I thought you meant some kind of business arrangement. Companies, stock, maybe some kind of shady off-shore bank accounts. You even said there wasn’t anything sinister - was that just bullshit, then?”
“No, none of it. Nothing has changed. Why don’t we sit down?”
He did, crossing the short distance to the table, pulling out the chair across from the one she’d vacated, and sliding into it. The whole time, she could feel her blood pulsing in her clenched fists. She uncrossed her arms, grappling with rationality. Hermes looked up at her – tired, and old, that was how he looked – and gestured again at her empty seat. She conceded with a frustrated sigh. “I thought things were… No, it doesn’t matter. Fuck. If you’re in trouble, why don’t you go to the cops, then?” She couldn’t handle making this any more personal right now. She didn’t know how much of it she wanted to let touch her.
“It’s beyond them.”
“It’s mostly an American matter, and I’m sure there is already some involvement from their various agencies.”
“Great, sure.” He’d said that being with him wouldn’t hurt her career – that lie stung. “On whose side?”
“Charlene.” He reached over to take her hands, but she pulled away. If he touched her, she wasn’t sure she could hold on to her anger, and she needed it to keep from being overwhelmed. Denied, he sat back in his chair, looking grim. “I’ve been trying to stay out of this, remember? I still say it is a mistake. And maybe I can convince my father of the same.”
“I don’t even know what ‘this’ is! You’re talking about going down to the States for some big fight, and, God! You’re scaring me. Did someone get killed?”
“That’s how it seems – someone important enough, anyway. Of course it’s terrible. But it is just going to become an excuse for more – as I said, escalation. They want us to think the risks have changed, but that’s only true if we accept their terms. There is some other game afoot, and if we don’t know what it is, we should be wary of playing.”
“So, you’re going to go to New York. Is that where the fight is?”
“That’s where my father is, and some of the rest of my family. It’s where those of us who will come will meet.”
“If everyone else isn’t going, why do you have to?”
“Glorified secretary.” He pointed at himself. “That also includes being the appointed mediator.”
“This is such shit. You want to go! If you want to go get involved in some fucking Mob war with your fucked up family, then just fucking say it.” The words tasted bitter. She’d let herself be placated despite her instincts, because it had seemed too absurd to be true. And yet what else could it be?
“What I want is to go to Pennsylvania, to drag my sister out of her little girl’s school and to come and talk to the rest with me, and convince them this is foolishness. But I can’t force her, and she won’t leave. Instead, I will add her words to mine, and despite our wisdom one voice alone won’t be enough to change our father’s mind. And if we are to be involved in this affair, then yes – I want to be there, to look out for my family. It is not what you think it is, I promise you.”
She didn’t know what to say, so she just shook her head, wanting him to leave. He stood.
“Should I call you?”
She nodded, not looking up. If only she could believe him… But there wasn’t any other explanation she could come up with. Whatever troubles his family were caught up in, it was clearly dangerous, and clearly on the wrong side of the law – especially for someone in her position. If it wasn’t what she thought it be, it couldn’t be anything much better. Yet she still felt she was missing something important. And despite her current anger she didn’t want to see him get hurt.
“Fortune be with you, Charlene Summer.”
When she finally fell asleep, she dreamed about him. He was golden and beautiful, and he loved her, and they fucked, and he told her he was sorry, and that he would miss her, and because it was a just a dream she told him she would miss him too – that she was sorry too. The morning she woke to was grey and lonely.
She spent Sunday at home, stubbornly watching all the movies they’d rented the night before. She talked to Lara after noon, and she came over with some ice cream to go with the cold Chinese leftovers. They watched Pulp Fiction and The Last Boy Scout, and got halfway through Last Man Standing before Charlene decided it was too depressing. Instead they talked about awful men and bad decisions, and drank enough alcohol to have regrets the following morning.
The gym seemed empty without him there, but at least she was always able to get a treadmill. Training gave her something to focus on, as long as she stopped herself from thinking about the background check. She didn’t hear from him until Tuesday, and they didn’t speak for very long. He told her what his father had decided, and she told him she didn’t want to hear anything about it.
She stayed at the gym a little later on Wednesday, feeling stiff and tense, and worked through some of the stretches she’d learned. Lara had already gone, and it was close to seven by the time she’d showered and dressed. The days were warming up as well as growing noticeably longer as the equinox approached, and she had fewer winter layers to worry about as she headed for the bus stop. There was a longer wait at this time of night, and fewer passengers. The subway trains were a little more crowded, but she still found herself mostly alone on her car, and the few others cleared out well before she reached her stop.
Ste stretched, relishing the rare feeling of having an entire car to herself before realizing she was mistaken – there was another woman seated up ahead. She must have been lying down across the seats out of sight, maybe sleeping. She turned and smiled, catching Charlene in the act. It was the same strange old homeless woman who had accosted her and Hermes at Dufferin station on their first date.
She smiled, barring crooked teeth. “Oh, hello there, dearie.”
Startled, Charlene flashed a nervous smile and looked down at her gym bag. She hoped that she was wrong, or that the woman wouldn’t remember her.
“All alone now, are you, hmmm?” She stood up, inching her way closer. There wasn’t anywhere for Charlene to go, so she slid over to the aisle seat so she wouldn’t get boxed in if…. Well if anything should happen.
“Looks like it.” If only she had a Discman, or her phone would ring…. Even if she’d brought a book, she might be able to ignore the vagrant. But it was just her and the gym clothes.
“Boy’s ran off, has he? Did he see the broadcast? Or did they just call him up after? I wasn’t sure it would come through up here, borders and all, but it was on all the American channels and they carry through. I didn’t see it, of course, but I knew! And borders are easier for that one.”
She stared at the woman, who was now sitting across from her, grinning almost triumphantly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please leave me alone.”
“Oh, but I was hoping you could tell me, dearie. He’s not in the city anymore, is he? I’m pretty sure, you know, but he can hide when he wants to.”
She was talking about Hermes. Of course she was. Where did she fit in, then – some informant? Was she secretly some kind of underworld player posing as a bum, mooching off the TTC union? Instead of answering, Charlene looked out the window. They should be close to Spadina station, but the tunnel seemed endless.
“Oh, he is gone, then. And what did he say? Where did he go? Did he tell you what they are going to do?” The old woman leaned closer. She smelled like grease and diesel and metal, which was vaguely better than the reek of alcohol that Charlene had expected. “Just tell me, dearie, and then you can go home.”
“I don’t know where he is.”
“Oh, poor thing.” Her look turned from predatory to sympathetic, and she reached over to pat Charlene’s shoulder. She felt a slight shock, even through her coat, like static electricity. “Did he just up and leave then?”
“He doesn’t tell me anything.”
“Hah! Of course he doesn’t. Why would he. Do you even know who he is?”
The tunnel still seemed endless. The other cars weren’t visible through the glass of the doors at the end of the car, but maybe that was just the reflection. She felt an unfamiliar anxiety teasing her nerves – it wasn’t just the strange confrontation, there was something else amiss. They should have been to the station by now. She looked back at the woman warily. “…Do you?”
“Of course I do. He’s Hermes, dear.”
“Right, of course.” Well, that explained nothing. She shook her head, standing and stepping awkwardly past the other woman. She still couldn’t see the other cars.
She chuckled. “Don’t worry, you’ll get home. But faster if you tell me something – anything. Then I can tell them I tried, at least.”
“I don’t – I don’t know anything. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Where are we?”
“Just on a little ride. That’s my domain, see, dearie, moving people from place to place. They call out to me, ‘oh please let me make this bus, let me get to work on time, don’t let me get stranded, let me get to the airport, please don’t make me have to sit with any weirdos…’ And they give their offerings and I see them to where they need to go. You see? That’s where we are: in Transit. That’s me.” She’d stood also, moving about easily on the train, heedless of the jostling. Moving past Charlene, she slipped up to the emergency exit door – it slid open, revealing nothing beyond save for endless disappearing tunnel lights. There had been other cars when she got on. Charlene gripped the bar next to her more tightly, staring into the gloom beyond until the doors slid closed again, and the woman clucked at her. “Sit back down, dearie. And let’s chat, hmm?”
This was beyond the mob. Beyond the Greek Illuminati she’d joked about too. It was like walking into something from a comic book. She sat down and folded her hands on her lap. Okay, then. Things were beyond her control, and clearly panic was pointless. “Sure.” She smiled grimly. “What do you want to chat about?”
“There’s a sensible girlie. I just need to know a few things, now, so that there’s no question where I stand, you see?”
“In the fight.” So, she was on the other side, then, whatever the sides were. Or at least she wanted to be.
“Yes, in the fight! The battle – the war! There, look now, he did tell you something, I thought he would. Can’t resist, really, it’s like the petty little tricks he plays on me, you know. It’s not really personal…” She gave a nasty look. “I’m so sure.”
“Okay. So – you think I know things that will make some other people happy. And you want me to tell them to you… And then you’ll let me go?”
“Oh, well dear, yes, of course. I’ll even tell you what’s going on, if you can just help me out a little. I bet you’d like that, wouldn’t you? You poor thing, all caught up in things that are over your head, I can see you just want to understand. You want to help out, don’t you?” The mean look was back, hidden behind the sympathetic smile. It was a little sadistic, and it was too easy to imagine: the bus driver who pulled away from the stop just as a passenger ran up; who stopped just far enough away from the curb that everyone had to slog through a puddle of slush to board; the buses that always seem to run a little late on stormy days to the stops with no shelter; the trains that broke down for no apparent reason; the two or three wrong trains that came down the tracks when you were in a hurry; the persistent, pervasive smell of urine and body odour; the desperately packed crowds at rush hour; the drunks and lunatics; the suicides on the tracks…
Charlene nodded. “I do.” She wanted to know what was going on – yes, absolutely! As for Hermes, she wasn’t sure what to think, but she certainly wasn’t keen on being abducted on his account. He might deserve some personally delivered painful retribution, but she didn’t want to put him in any serious danger. She would be careful, and she would call him as soon as she could, and that was that. Reviewing their arguments in her head, nothing she knew seemed important or dangerous, but playing ignorant seemed best. “But I don’t know what’s important. So why don’t you start.”
She chuckled, settling into her seat and looking like someone’s demented hobo grandmother. “We’re gods, plain as that. You can feel it, can’t you? Your mind says no, but there’s something else – call it whatever you want, dearie – but it tells you I’m right.”
“Gods.” She nodded. Okay. Hermes. A chill ran down her spine, but the woman was right – it felt true. It answered too much. His family, his role… She was hardly a mythology expert, but who didn’t know at least a little about the Olympians? “Why are you fighting?”
“For survival. For the future. Out with the old… In with the new.” The sadistic smile again.
“Revolution…” The mad ramblings seemed less mad now. She wondered who’d been killed.
“Just so, dearie! Revolution.”
“Hermes said–” His name felt different on her tongue now, heavier. “He said that the fight was pointless. That it wouldn’t change anything. That whatever problem it was about was already resolved.”
“Oh, he would.” Her expression turned sour, her anger increasing as her rant developed. “Yes, he would say that. He must think he has it all figured out, has it all set up! Fingers in every pot, that one. Damned Greeks… ha, fucking Albanians, I liked that. They’re everywhere. They’re like a plague, like a song you can’t get out of your head. Planted themselves deep in your minds. They’re gods, they’re stories, they’re words, they’re football teams. They’re high art, and popular culture, and Sailor fucking Moon and that horrible movie with the robot owl. They even got Disney. They’re schools and secret societies, and drunken frat boys! They have the fucking planets! Half the months and even the days of the week if you count French! And that one is at the back of it all! I’m sure it was his idea – well maybe not our Hermes. But he reaps the benefit, you see? No one is going to forget them, and he’s the worst. Elements and banks, cars, warships, programming languages, fucking flowers and purses, satellites and science projects – the damned shoes and staff are everywhere, and who can even count it all!” Transit paused to recover herself, and Charlene nodded slowly, trying to take it all in. “But now we’ve reminded them that they can still die, you see? We can still destroy them. And we will.”
“You… really hate him, don’t you?”
“It’s hard not to be resentful, dearie.” She deflated a little, but there was still a dangerous glint in her eyes. “It’s fierce competition here. It’s hard. You people aren’t very good at believing, see. Even for them it’s hard. You see them everywhere, but you don’t think ‘oh, that’s a God I ought to respect. Let’s burn some offerings and sing some praises,’ eh? It’s like living on junk food. The newer ones…. Media, Technology and them, you don’t even know what you’re doing, you lot. But you carry ‘em along, staring at your TVs, your computer screens, your cell phones, worshiping your celebrities, all that. You carry them along, and me too – though I’m not so new. Older’n them – stuck a bit between ways of thinking, that’s how I am. Not some moldy fading import, but I ain’t conceptual. But here I am…. Here I am. And I can see a winning side.”
Charlene nodded with a sympathy she didn’t feel. “You just don’t want to get bowled over by it. I can understand that.”
“Exactly, dearie! Just so. Not much place for the likes of me in their business, but I can do my part. I can let ‘em know where I stand, you see? And then I’ll be safe.”
And all she had to do was sell out Hermes’s family. The Olympians. It must not have seemed like much of a price to pay to Transit, but Charlene’s feelings were more mixed. “I still don’t know what I can tell you.”
“Oh, I’m sure you can think of something? Don’t you want to go home?”
She wasn’t afraid, Charlene told herself, and mostly meant it. Transit wasn’t threatening her. It was practical. If he didn’t understand that, then fuck him. “He said he had to go to New York, to meet with his family. I don’t think they were all coming. He said one of his brothers wanted to fight.” The bloodthirsty one – Mars? No. “Ares. Ares wanted to fight. He had his father’s ear. Hermes said something about one of his sisters, too – that he didn’t think she would leave her school? I don’t know anything more. I haven’t heard from him.”
“Oh Athena, now she’s a clever one too, isn’t she? She has her loyal girls, and they’re not many, but they do worship so well! The queen of her little domain she is. Of course she won’t leave. No reason to, and she’s as untouchable there as you can get. Good for us, I say. She’s trouble.”
“That’s really all I know.” Charlene wasn’t interested in Transit’s opinions or digressions at this point. She knew enough. Anything else, she wanted to hear from Hermes.
Transit leaned in close across the aisle, checking her over as if she might notice a lie hanging like the loose button on her coat. She stood, smirking, and shuffled up to the front of the car. The emergency door slid open for her, and she disappeared through into the darkness. As it closed again, Charlene could suddenly see the light of a station up ahead. She checked her watch when she finally got out – it was almost 10:30, hours later than it should have been.
She had originally planned to stop at Subway for dinner, but decided to give the sandwich shop a miss in favour of stopping at a Thai place for some curry. There were a couple of messages on her answering machine, both Lara checking up on her. She decided to eat first. She could try and explain what had happened. Lara might take her at her word, but it seemed wiser to leave her friend out of the entire affair. Instead, she called back and said that she’d decided to walk partway home to clear her head, and wished that it were true.
When she called Hermes, it went directly to his answering service. She wasn’t sure what was safe to say, so she just hung up. Had it even occurred to him that anything might happen to her? She called back later and left a message that she’d had a scary transit experience, and to please call her back. She started biking to work again the next day despite the weather, wishing that the upcoming equinox actually meant much this far north.
A strange mood settled over her, and it persisted the rest of the week. There were real gods. She’d dated one. The impulse to hit the Internet and the library and read everything she could about him warred with her instincts. She didn’t really want to know, she was sure. The stories she recalled were full of worrying things like violated women, incest, and discarded lovers turning into flowers. Instead, she focused even harder on other things. Ben noted it at work – she told him, and eventually Lara, that she’d found out some things about Hermes that he’d been keeping from her, and that she was just waiting until he got back to town to end things. It helped her feel more certain about her decision.
He called on Friday just as she was leaving work. The connection was terrible, and she wondered where he was.
“Charlene,” it crackled, “Are you alright?”
“Yes. Just pissed. Are you?”
“Yes!” He said something that made him laugh, but she couldn’t make out the words. Nice to see he was having a good time at the god war, she supposed. “---you?”
“I can’t hear you,” she said, raising her voice, as though volume might cut through the static. “I told Transit that you went to New York. I’m sorry. She took me to some… place. She told me.”
“Don’t worry. Did she–” The connection cut out again, and she thought she heard some other laughter in the static. “-you?”
“This isn’t working. I’m fine. We need to talk, when you get back.” She’d assumed it would be ‘when’ right up until she said it. But they were at war, weren’t they? And they weren’t immortal. Transit, bitter as she was, had been confident on that point. Hermes’s easy confidence had fed her assumption, she supposed, but that faith felt suddenly shaken. “Please be safe.” She had no idea if he could hear her any better on his end, and repeated herself just in case. Most of his reply was drowned in static, but she held on to the one word she was able to pick out: “soon.” ‘Home soon,’ she hoped, or ‘over soon.’
She was on her own at the gym that day, and stopped for a coffee beforehand. Tim Horton’s seemed emptier, somehow. The gym itself was surprisingly crowded, and she left early, frustrated at men hogging the rack, or offering unsolicited advice, or staring at her ass when she finally got a chance to do her squats. She’d never had any of those problems before, and she was more frustrated because that had most likely been because of Hermes – either because he was a god, or just because he was another man, she didn’t know. Both possibilities pissed her off.
She held on to her anger and frustration over the next few days, because it was better than worrying. Lara was on spring break, and there were more movies (this time with a Harrison Ford theme) and more alcohol. When she went back to the gym on Monday, she resolved not to be pushed around or intimidated, and she wasn’t. Lara told her she was a little scary – it was very satisfying.
Hermes called her on Tuesday night, and said he would be in Toronto the next day.
“I’m going to the gym after work,” she told him. “Meet me after that.” He agreed, and she felt nervous. She still convinced Lara that she’d rather deal with it on her own, and pushed on through her workout the next day by herself.
Charlene took an extra long shower, and even took the time to blow-dry her hair. He was waiting in the lobby, and when he saw her, he flipped closed his phone and smiled. Something about him seemed different – he seemed larger, like he was taking up more space, or filling it more fully.
“It’s good to see you.” He held open his arms, but she stood her ground, hugging her chest instead. After she’d heard he was coming back, she’d just felt relieved. But she’d had time to process since then.
She couldn’t resist returning his smile, at least. “I’m glad to see you’re okay.”
“Of course I am. I’m too clever to die.”
“Did you win, then?”
He shook his head. “No, no one won. Not even the ones who rigged the game.”
She nodded. “You got my message then? About Transit? I couldn’t hear you when you called.”
“Yes. I’m sorry to have put you in that position. I didn’t think she would have any reason to trouble you.”
“I guess she was pretty desperate? But she told me…a lot of stuff.” No one else in the lobby was paying them even the slightest attention, but she wasn’t sure the gym was exactly where she wanted to have this conversation anymore. She’d thought a neutral location would be best, but how neutral was it? “She told me who you really are.”
“I told you who I really was.”
“Okay, then. She told me what you really are.”
He nodded. “And you believe her. I can feel it.” His smile hadn’t faded, but there was something about his eyes that was wistful and hungry all at once.
“So, you really are a god.”
“I can’t date you anymore.” It sounded so absurd when she said it: You’re a god, so I can’t date you. But even as he was leaving – before she knew what was going on – she’d come to the decision. Her reasons hadn’t changed completely, either. She just had more of them. “I’m sorry.”
“I have a lot of reasons, actually, but I think that the fact that I’m never going to feel comfortable on public transit again, ever, is a great example. I’m not ready to get drawn in to your affairs. I have limits I’m not willing to push. I don’t like feeling helpless and overwhelmed, and I don’t want to be with someone against whom I’m helpless, or who can overwhelm me so easily – and you can. You were right, you’re probably not a threat to my career or anything. I don’t know how this all works, but hey, maybe you could even help me. But joining the RCMP is just me trying to make myself into someone I can feel comfortable being. Someone who is useful, who can help people she cares about. I don’t think I can feel comfortable being…whatever I am to you. Even if I didn’t feel powerless against you, I’d feel powerless to do anything for you, and that’s still not something I can handle.”
Hermes listened, hands in the pockets of his coat. By the time she’d stopped speaking, his eyes were closed, and his smile had turned bittersweet. “You argue very well for yourself. I don’t think you have as much to worry about as you think you do.”
She shook her head, looking down at her boots. “Yeah… That’s ‘cause I had a week to get that part figured out. I can’t do that shit on the fly.”
“I wish you wouldn’t be afraid of me, Charlene.” He stepped closer, hovering just on the edge of her comfort zone – close enough to touch.
“I wish you didn’t scare me? But I can’t help it. I don’t know what it means to be a god. But let’s just say, if you weren’t one, we wouldn’t be having this conversation – I’d be running to the cops. Your, ah, family doesn’t have a great reputation with women.” That was a polite understatement, but he still looked hurt.
“Things have changed since those days.”
“Have you? I thought that was part of the problem.”
He gave a little smile that exuded a fair amount of smugness. “But change is in my nature. It’s easier for me to adapt.”
His smile widened briefly before his expression turned serious, and he reached up to touch her face. She caught his hand instead, and didn’t let go right away. “I understand. If you don’t think you can challenge me…. Then how can you? But you did so well, in your way, and I’ll miss that. Among other things.” He gave her hand a squeeze.
“So.... we’re okay then? We can just go our separate ways, and forget about each other?”
Hermes laughed a little. “Why would I want you to forget me? I hope I’m not so easily dismissed.”
“Sorry – that’s just how I usually try to cope with my failed relationships.” She winced. Never having broken up with a god before, she felt vaguely lucky she still had opposable thumbs and wasn’t starting a new diet based on photosynthesis.
“Do you want to forget?”
It sounded like an offer. “No. But there – that, that’s what I mean.” She let go of his hand. “The idea that you could do something like that isn’t something I can handle. Even if I don’t think you would.” She wondered now, though. Suspicion was like a cancer, and the smile didn’t help. “I’ll find something else. Take up a new hobby maybe, or just focus on my training… Shit. I should probably find a new gym, eh?”
“Don’t worry about it. I have other things to occupy me for now – I’ve spent too long here already. It can be dangerous to get too tied to a place. Even for me, borders are harder if I don’t cross them often.”
Transit had said something along the same lines, but Charlene had already decided that no, she didn’t want to know more. She shook her head instead. “Thank you.”
“I’m sure our paths will cross again. Take care of yourself, Charlene. I know you’ll take care of others.”
“You too – take care of yourself.”
He opened his arms again, and this time she stepped forward into the hug, leaning her head against his shoulder. She felt very mature, and very sad, and closed her eyes. After a while, he kissed her on the cheek, and let her go. She kept her eyes closed as he pulled away, and when she opened them again, he was gone.