“Are you sure you want to do this?” Chris asked as Josie buckled in beside him.
“Yes,” she said. The word dropped like a brick.
Chris did not push her, because people who pushed Josie found she pushed back. Instead he concentrated on navigating the intricacies of St. John’s parking garage, which, Chris suspected, had been built in order to prove that Euclidean geometries could be every bit as complex and crazy-making as hyperbolic ones.
“This place was built by someone with a doctorate in differential geometry and a grudge,” he said, glancing sidelong to see if Josie would smile. She didn’t. Instead, she pressed her aluminium cane between her palms, keeping her eyes on the footwell.
Chris let her be until he pulled onto the onramp for the 401. “So how was physio?” He could usually tickle that land mine without danger, provided he used a sufficiently long feather.
“Good,” she said, and hearing the word undid the top button of Chris’s soul.
“They still think it’s a stroke?”
“I let them think that. They want me, do speech therapy, though.” Josie’s voice was a flat lawnmower buzz. “Told them had vocal cluttering all my life. Still want me to go.”
“How do you feel about that?”
Josie opened her palms face up, the fingers of the left flushed red and curled like peeling paint. “Meh.” She was quiet for a moment. “I have seventy-five. Percent. Back in leg. About sixty in the arm. My brain is repaired. I need to relearn how to use my body.”
When data made no sense, that meant you weren’t listening to it carefully enough. Josie’s world made no sense to Chris, so when Josie said things he did not understand, Chris listened and sympathized as best he could. He found he did a lot of nodding.
Josie said nothing on the Don Valley Parkway and kept silent on the Gardiner. She showed some small amount of interest in Bay Street.
“Are you sure you want to do this? Because parking downtown, they want an eyeball as collateral.”
If Josie had been well enough, Chris could have parked at his normal spot on campus. It was too far for her to walk.
“I am sure. I can handle — crowds. It’s just mental white noise. Like life only louder.”
“Still not too late for a picnic on the Spit,” Chris said, but he parked the car anyway. When they emerged into the afternoon sunshine he snuck a look at the left side of her face.
“Are you checking my face?”
“Yes,” he said. One could, in theory, lie to Josie without her knowing, but Chris felt that although he was a scientist, the spirit of experimental inquiry could not reasonably demand he risk his safety testing that hypothesis.
“How is it?”
“The eyelid’s still drooping a bit. Corner of the mouth, though, looks fine.”
“Good.” She smiled lopsidedly, and there was a violet twinkle in the brown behind the lenses of her glasses. “I need you on my right side.”
“I know. Hold still.” Encircling her arm with both of his, he tucked her t-shirt into the waistband of her cargo shorts where it dangled over the left pocket.
“Thank you,” she said as he crossed behind her. He reached around and patted her shoulder.
They walked the block from Bay Street to Yonge at Josie’s pace. The crowd thickened.
Yonge Street was blocked off by blue wooden sawhorses, backed by the authority of a Toronto police constable. Josie stopped short, and the sharp intake of her breath told Chris this was going to be bad.
Josie hobbled forward like a destroyer homing in on a submarine. “Hey!”
“Can I help you, ma’am?” The constable was smiling, which struck Chris as unwise.
“Wooden barriers?” Josie spluttered. She reached out and shoved at one of the sawhorses, scraping its feet against the asphalt. “For real?”
“Oh, shit,” Chris said under his breath. This was very bad.
“SUV. Right through one.” Josie waved her hand above her head. “No protection. Vehic—. Vehicular homicide —”
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to slow down.” The man was young, lean like a birch, with skin the colour of the underlayer after you’d stripped away the white bark.
“Concrete barriers,” Josie seethed. “You need concrete to stop an SUV. Anyone could drive through. Kill people.” The price of having a Josie who would fight for anyone no matter how small, Chris reflected, was having a Josie who would fight anyone over matters very small.
“Ma’am, I am not in charge of the security arrangements, but if you wish to register a complaint —”
“Cop face! Don’t give me the cop face.” Josie stabbed her finger forward. “I work with cops. Don’t you I’m-sorry-ma’am me!”
Chris stepped up behind her and touched her arm. “Josie,” he said, softly. “You’re scaring people.”
Most passersby seemed more interested in pretending that the scene wasn’t happening at all, because this was Toronto. Josie didn’t look around to see if he was telling the truth, but then she wouldn’t have to.
“If you wish to speak to my supervisor,” said the constable, “I can give you his number.” He took out his card and wrote on the back of it, handing it to Josie.
Josie snatched it from his hand and rammed it in her pocket without looking.
Chris looked at the constable. “I’m sorry.”
The constable shook his head. “No, please. Both of you, enjoy the festival.”
Four days every year, BuskerFest overran three blocks of Toronto’s busiest street, forming a serpent of human bodies a kilometer long. Up and down the road, painted circles demarcated venues for each performer. Every half hour a new crowd of standing spectators would condense around each circle, emitting applause whenever excited by some action of the nucleus they obscured. Vendors and static performances lined the sidewalks, attracting the free roamers. Chris inhaled the smell of frying sausages intermingled with the exhaust from a portable generator. It was benign chaos without, somehow, being a war of all against all.
Josie’s voice was even, so Chris couldn’t tell if she was coming down or saving her heat for another battle. “Don’t you ever apologize. For me. Again.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
Josie sighed, and leaned on her cane as if her body was heavy.
“Who are you today?” Chris asked.
Chris reached up to put his hand between her shoulder blades, not to steady her, but to reassure himself. “You deserve this.” He leaned over, voice low. “You took him down.”
“Fended off. Not took down. Trick I used won’t work twice.”
The news had come to him three months ago, in May, wearing bright blue letters in his Facebook feed: Shootout closes Toronto downtown. Suddenly the chair beneath him was gone; he fell without moving, weightless astride a beam of light, because Josie would find a way to be there.
When he had recovered and the first chill had faded he’d called both her phones. No answer, so he logged off and went to lecture about Taylor series, because that was what the University of Toronto paid him to do. Standing in front of two hundred undergraduates, he couldn’t feel the carpet beneath his feet. Occasionally he would surface, completely unspooled, with no memory of what he’d just said or done.
Five or fifty minutes into the lecture — it could have been either or both — one of his students in the front row had tremoloed a question. Facing the whiteboard, Chris stared at the equations he had written: familiar friends that had stopped speaking to him for reasons unknown. “Uh — Professor Kallenberg —”
“What?” In his memory his voice sounded normal, but the girl’s eyes had expanded so wide he could see white all the way around. His face felt warped, out of place, and he had to consciously rearrange it into something humanly presentable. He didn’t remember the question or the answer, or if he had even apologized.
This, apparently, was how you learned about yourself, marking time waiting to find out if someone you cared about was alive or dead.
Chris prodded Josie’s arm. “No more shop talk.”
“No shop.” She smiled and Chris couldn’t tell if he loved her, or was just in awe of her.
Most of the acts were, Chris thought, rather thin. Most performers stretched a few genuinely interesting stunts out to fill their fifteen-minute gig, riding over the gaps with a patter line and the force of their personality. Those who had honed their stage persona best, he observed, collected more money when they passed the hat than the performers with the most sophisticated tricks.
They watched four seventeenth-century monarchs dance the quadrille, all the while suspending twelve bowling pins in constant motion between them. They saw a stage magician, whose gimmick was elegant and simple: He pretended the act hadn’t started yet, doing tricks of ever-increasing sophistication while ostensibly setting up his props for a show that, he promised, would blow them all away. Chris bought Josie an ice cream, which made her smile again, and for a moment he could have crossed Yonge Street in a single stride.
“Dribble,” he said, and wiped away the vanilla stream of drool from Josie’s lip.
They circumnavigated a killer whale bursting from the pavement, wreathed in seafoam, anamorphic trompe l’oeil rendered in chalk.
“Can you draw him up with a hook, can you bind his tongue with a rope?” Josie asked the air.
“Book of Job.”
“No shop talk, remember?”
They stood on tiptoe to evaluate another performance, reaching the mutual conclusion that it was a bit too kid-friendly for them, and set out for the next act up the street.
“Medical tent has no doctor,” she mumbled halfway through her waffle cone. “Only paramedics.”
“You’re here. They’re safe.”
This seemed to pacify her. They walked on through the scattered crowd.
“Ryan Gosling, two o’clock.” Chris kept his voice down.
Josie leaned forward to look around Chris’ body, and nearly tumbled over. “Real Ryan Gosling. Never wear socks with sandals.”
“He might. You never know.”
Josie laughed. “In a cave, a hundred feet down, in a snowstorm, maybe.” She stopped and stared ahead into space. “Guy thirty feet behind us,” she said. “Wife and kid. Scared of him.”
It took Chris a moment to realize Josie wasn’t playing the game. He turned his head to look.
The man was tanned, tall, and the checked golf shirt made him seem neither nasty nor particularly brutish. The look of surprise on the man’s face appeared to be habitual.
Josie hadn’t turned her head. “What’s he look like?”
“If I had to pick a word, I would say he looks goofy.”
Trailing slightly behind, his wife was thin with a bony face. She held the hand of their son and looked tired.
“Borderline sociopath. Twenty-five, thirty on Hare scale.” Josie’s teeth were clenched. “Give me probable cause, asshole.”
“Josie, the only person who can stop you is you.”
Josie sagged. The naked appeal to her ethics made Chris feel unclean, but another part of him wished he’d saved it for when he needed it more.
They saw unicycles and tumblers. A copper green Sir John A. MacDonald statue mimed an address to passersby. They saw booths devoted to jewelry and books of magic and astrology. One of the books was titled The Wisdom of the Sumerians.
Josie held it up between finger and thumb. “You kidding me?” she asked no one in particular, loud enough for the froglike lady behind the counter to hear.
Chris did not feel like fighting. “No.” The vendor glared at them both with amphibian ire.
“Cuneiform on cover is Neo-Assyrian. 900 BCE. Third Dynasty of Ur, the last Sumerians. Gone by 2000 BCE.”
Chris didn’t reply. Against Josie, a cheap vanity-press edition did not seem like a fair fight.
She squinted at the symbols on the cover. “It’s. Contract for sale of land.” She snorted, dropped the book back down onto the counter and didn’t look back.
Chris kept his silence as they walked, which was a mistake.
“Don’t passive-aggressive at me, Chris. You’re angry. Speak it.” She brought the end of her cane down on the pavement so hard it rattled.
“You were rude.” He sighed. “I wanted only to give you something nice today.”
“You did. Thank you.” She squeezed his arm and he did not forgive her: Instead, he passed into a state of complete and abject forgiveness before he could even blink.
“You wiped my ass,” she said as they passed through a cluster of young families. “In hospital. I won’t forget.”
“Me and your mom,” Chris said. “Mostly your mom.”
“I’ll do it again, if you want me to.”
She laughed like gas escaping a bottle, so hard she had to steady herself on his arm. She laughed and laughed until he felt her thumb digging behind his triceps, down to the bone. Now she was gasping for breath, not laughing, sucking in air through her nose, shifting her weight to her good foot.
illustration by wagner m paula
“It was a van, like that one,” she said, pointing with her chin.
Children danced barefoot in and out of the spray of a cooldown tent, the back half of a white Econoline poking out from behind. The Leviathan, the most powerful telepath in the world, had sent a similar van loaded with professional killers to distract her from the complicated business of defending her mind. Two kilometers away, the Leviathan stood, grinding his way through her nervous system towards the core that regulated her breathing. Babylon had faced the killers unable to stand; they had brought assault rifles, kevlar armour, and anti-tank rocket launchers. In the Leviathan, Chris recognized the attentiveness to detail of a good experimental scientist. Chris still had fantasies of murdering him with his bare hands.
Behind Josie’s lenses sparks flared, violet consuming hazel and brown. Chris despised the colour, the ostentatious way her powers announced themselves, telling him there was a part of Josie he could never share. Josie was two-thirds god and one-third woman, and in her eyes he saw that he had been naive, naive to the point of hubris, thinking he could repair her.
“We can go,” he said, and this time she did not refuse.
“He will recover. He’ll be. Back.”
The crowd had thinned as they meandered away from Yonge Street through plazas and pedestrian paths. They were almost alone as they neared the parking lot.
“You’ll beat him again.” Saying it made Chris feel like his tongue was thick in his mouth.
“No. He’ll kill me.”
Chris reached his hand up behind the small of her back, aiming to stroke it lightly, but at that moment Josie’s gait lurched her forwards and he only brushed her shirt with the edge of his thumb. They walked on.
“I’m sorry,” Chris said. “I was selfish. I wanted to be your hero for a change.”
Josie furrowed her brow. “Don’t be obtuse. You can do good. Selfish reasons. Still good.”
They walked in the shadow of a great concrete building.
“I’m afraid,” Josie said.
On one afternoon, he’d stayed by Josie’s bed late, long past the end of regular hospital visiting hours. They’d tried talking, to strengthen Josie’s chords, but there was nothing to talk about. Instead he’d resorted to reading from the Varsity and the Toronto Star, steering away from any articles about her. When the papers were exhausted, they played chess and backgammon. He had not noticed, at the time, that her smile had grown more brittle, her glance more furtive as the hours rounded on towards night. The nurse had come in with a tray, crying out “Dinnertime!,” the artificial birdsong of her voice a cruel lie. The tray carried a bag of milky syrup and a plastic tube in a sterile bag. Josie’s body had gone rigid and her hand had been hot as a radiator in his, and the thoughts she pressed into his brain blotted out his own No, no, I know you can’t stop this but please stop this, please, as the nurse hooked the bag to the IV stand by the bed. He could do nothing except stay, watching the nurse lubricate the tube with xylocaine until it glistened like a parasitic larva and slide it up into Josie’s nostril.
“Curse Enlil, and die?”
Chris understood nothing about Josie’s powers, even less about the divine right of Gilgamesh the King, or how it connected to her. But watching Josie in the hospital bed, fighting herself to accept the nasogastric feeding tube, had given him the last data point he needed. It was the one that linked all observations into a single coherent whole. Long before the tube was withdrawn with a squelch like a greasy sponge and the last trace of red snot wiped from her face, Chris had understood that Josie had chosen this.
“Yes, that, only without the dying part.”
“You know I can’t.”
If Josie had been the kind of person to choose otherwise, Chris thought, he might never have chosen her. The thought that he had only himself to blame cheered him in some small way.
“I feel like you’re hurt so badly, and all I can do is make nice gestures. I’m putting a band-aid on a severed artery.”
“I know exactly how that feels,” Josie said, with a lopsided smile. She was looking up and down the street, at the city itself. “I fix symptoms, not systems.”
Chris reached over to squeeze her hand. “We can still go to the Spit. We’ll drop by Loblaw’s, get bento boxes for dinner.”
Josie inhaled, closing her thumb over the back of Chris’s knuckles. “I can’t promise. Not to be a bitch.”
“Not gonna have the calling-yourself-the-b-word argument, not now.”
“Nope,” Josie said. “I’d win.”
That was itself arguable, Chris thought. But arguments were for another day.
Devin Carless lives and writes in Kitchener, Ontario.