By Rachel Muenz
One afternoon Cori found a token and stayed on for the whole route pressed to the back with her nose against the glass, watching the city leak out behind the red and white canister of people. Someone had opened a window at the front of the streetcar and the air chilled her throat all the way down to her stomach.
Towers the colour of blades walled the street and gold dots of light raced each other around theatre signs and posters. Jersey Boys. The Sound of Music. Lots of old people milled about the entrances in long black coats but they had no teenage girl with a nose like hers. Cori moved too fast anyway to be able to tell for sure.
The taxis were full of shadow-people so she’d given up looking there blocks ago. They wouldn’t be in a taxi. A limousine maybe, but their windows only showed the stretched bullet of the streetcar, dark and rippling.
She dug the photo out of her pocket and pressed it to the glass in front of her.
Chelsea and the two geezers smiled, elegant in black, with the CN Tower impaling a cloud behind them. The light made the picture translucent, revealing a label on the back in shaky pen: Croft Helen and Chelsea Toronto trip October 2007.
Cori’s eyes flicked between her sister’s face and the crowd. She kept her forehead to the glass all the way down the crackling wire.
A girl with glitter in her hair muttered into a cellphone from a seat to her right.
A scratchy, inaudible voice spit from the phone. The girl wiped her hair out of her face and moved the phone a little further from her ear.
“That really sucks,” the girl sighed. “But, like, aren’t you glad you found that out about him now? You can, like, move on and whatever.”
Her phone yammered again. Cori frowned and shifted a little from the girl, sliding the photo with her. She was messing up all Cori’s thoughts with her weird accent. Sometimes it sounded Canadian and sometimes English.
The streetcar clanged and she was three.
“Say goodbye to Chelsea,” her mother said.
The Wells,’ dark-haired, smiled down at her and carried Chelsea away in their arms. The cowbell above the door clattered them through the smeared glass while her father leaned on a rack of greasy-furred stuffed animals, tying a rabbit’s ears into knots and that man with the briefcase by the cash register was gathering up the papers that her parents and the Wells had scribbled on with the pen that had a big fat parrot on it and they, Croft and Helen, were taking Chelsea away down the clean, white sidewalk.
Her mother took Cori’s wrist and made her hand wave goodbye.
“It’s all for the best,” the cell phone girl said.
The English part of the girl’s accent sounded just like Chelsea but even through her made-up face, Cori could tell the girl wasn’t her. She had a shorter, wider nose. Not like hers or Chelsea’s at all.
Chelsea had just called her once and they’d only talked – she’d only talked – for maybe five minutes, Cori in awe of her accent even though Chelsea was younger. She had cut through all Cori’s questions of what it was like living in London.
“Well, I must be going, long distance call and all that.”
Someone, probably Helen, shushed her in the background.
“I mean I could talk as long as I want but we’re going to the theatre soon and I wouldn’t want to make my parents late.”
“You mean the Wells,’” Cori hissed but Chelsea had already hung up.
A briefcase dug into her hip and Cori took a step back to the right.
“Yeah,” Cellphone Girl said.
“Right.” She rolled her eyes and hit her forehead with her palm.
Cori wondered if the person on the other end was her sister.
“Look I’ll talk to you later, OK? Yeah . . . yeah I can barely hear you.”
The streetcar clanged to a stop – Cori almost fell backward – and the girl got off, sliding her cellphone towards her pocket. It missed and clattered to the floor but she kept going. Battered by purses and backpacks, Cori’s hand snaked through several sets of legs and picked up the phone.
“Hey,” she yelled at the back of the girl’s head. Several other people looked around but the girl thudded down the steps. Her picture and the phone clutched in her hands, Cori swayed in the crowd then darted after the girl.
She did not look right and a car screeched and honked its horn, the driver’s curse chasing her onto the packed sidewalk where a bit of glitter flashed between the bobbing shoulders and bags and heads.
“Hey, you dropped your phone!”
A woman in a pantsuit stared at her but the girl’s head did not move. Cori broke into a run but people kept getting in her way; a whole mob spewed from a bus and the girl vanished.
Pedestrians bumped and pulled at her. Cori glared but everyone had their heads down. She took refuge in the shadowed entrance of the nearest building and the phone trembled in her hand, making her arm spasm too. Cori opened it. Text message from Marla.
where r u? r u off the streetcar yet? i need 2 talk 2 u now . . .
Pigeons strutted among the black dots of gum and snack wrappers at the base of a garbage can, flapping their wings at each other over crumbs. A sleeping bag coughed in the corner.
She didn’t have time to deal with this crap because Chelsea and the Wells’ were only supposed to be in the city for a few days, according to that letter from Croft. He always took care of everything and that’s why she wanted to find him and Helen. Maybe she could impress them enough. Cori tossed the phone into the garbage and stepped back into the mindless crowd.
She thought of Chelsea’s call and the pitiful static of the girl’s phone. Cori turned around, nudged by the current of people.
A homeless man had flung himself over the opening of the garbage bin, his arms pawing, scattering chip bags and hamburger cartons. His hand leaped from the trash, clutching the phone. He chuckled and gave a brown and black grin. Cori cringed and tipped back on her heels, then charged.
“Hey, that’s mine!” Her nose twisted at the man’s stench: B.O. and whiskey.
“You threw it out, love,” he croaked, holding the cellphone to his ragged chest. “But I’ll give it back for fifty bucks.”
Cori’s mouth curled.
“That’s not fair.” The eyes of a couple guys in jean jackets tracked them as they sloped by. “Thief!” Cori shouted, grabbing for the phone.
The man snickered. He reminded her of her grandfather, skin grubby and worn from the factory, teeth all busted into fangs. More people stared at them but kept walking.
“You, don’t you talk to me about fair, you,” slurred the homeless man, holding the phone above his head.
At the end of the street, a cop swaggered around the corner.
“Hey cop,” Cori shouted. The phone clattered to the sidewalk and the bum slunk into an alley.
The cop had stopped to talk to a little boy and his mother and everyone who’d been watching had already turned away. Useless and stupid. There was no point in calling again, the cop would probably lose it because he didn’t even see the bike on the sidewalk, scattering the herds. Cori wiped the phone on the hem of her coat and put it in her pocket.
She tried to ignore the shaking but after a couple streets, it got so bad that she scooped the cellphone back out, searching for the off button.
Marla Oct 24 2: 15 PM
Marla Oct 24 2:17 PM
Marla Oct 24 2:23 PM
Oct 24 2:24 PM why r u ignoring me?
Oct 24 2:31 PM i’m relli upset.
Oct 24 2: 34 PM i relli relli need to talk 2 u plz call me . . .
What a fricken, uneducated whiner, Cori thought. She sat on a bench near a black statue of struggling soldiers and scanned the noses and hair of the masses, holding the off button down. Sun poured over her head from a rip in the clouds. The phone vibrated.
Oct 24 2:40 PM i’m relli scared. i hav the knife in my hand rite now. my wrist shakin.
Jesus Christ. All the hair around her was dark, no glitter. There were no garbage cans. God damn it. The police officer strolled past and Cori wondered if she could be arrested for not doing anything.
Cori’s fingers slipped on the buttons. She tapped out a few words, erased them and then finally managed:
Dnn’t kill yourseld! I got stuck in a debd zone. I’m gonna call you in a sec.
Her thumb punched send.
There was no reply.
Cori sighed and raked her fingernails across her scalp. She swallowed and muttered to herself.
No, that wasn’t quite right.
She lifted her shoulders.
Close enough. Her voice seemed to have enough English gallop in her regular Canadian plod to be believable. As long as she added a few more “likes” to her speech then she should be OK.
Cori clicked Marla’s number across the screen.
Riiiiiiiing. Riiiiiiiing. Three, four, five, six. Chickadees bounced and fluttered on the shrubs beside her, mixing their names in with the never-ending rings. Cori looked down. The photo was still in her hand. Chelsea and the Wells’ smiling away. Riiiiiiiiiiiing.
“Hello?” The monotone steadied Cori’s hand.
Cori’s knees jumped. She cleared her throat.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you.”
“What?” Marla said.
“I’m sorry, I like, didn’t call you before –” Cori stumbled. “I’m glad you’re, like, not dead.” Silence. Cori flinched. The phone breathed into her ear.
“Are you really?” Marla’s voice bit.
“Yeah, I am.” Cori’s voice rose at the end.
“It’s just you, like, didn’t seem to give two shits when you were talking to me earlier. Not that you ever really do.”
“So you don’t have a knife to your wrist?” A Barbie-looking girl stared as she skipped into the park behind the statue.
“Well, I did but I put it down for now.”
Cori bit her tongue. She stood up and passed the overwrought faces of the soldiers, following the little girl along the gravel path into the smell of dry leaves.
“That’s good.” Cori’s voice shook a little. She prayed Marla wouldn’t notice.
“You don’t even sound like you think so.”
“I do,” the Englishness slipped, “Please . . . just tell me what’s the matter.”
Fiery leaves shushed Cori as the path took her between some maples and around a few boulders posed in the grass. Marla sighed.
“I don’t actually know.” Cori opened her mouth to respond but Marla cut in again. “I mean, I thought it was because of Colin cheating on me and the break-up and all that usual kind of thing but I don’t think that’s it.” The sound of leaves took over again. “Then I thought it was my parents not giving a shit. I mean, I’m crying for like an hour in my room and they’re just downstairs laughing at some crap on TV. But then I stopped crying and I thought that’s not it either, you know?” Shouts echoed over the approaching hill and Cori crushed her ear with the phone. “I thought it was you not calling but even though I was mad, I knew that you wouldn’t, like, not answer your phone even though we’re not best friends or anything.” Cori crouched between the roots of a tree. Marla sighed. “I just felt all dead and stuff. I tried to read that book for English but it was nothing, you know?”
“Yeah,” Cori said.
Something clicked and scraped on Marla’s end.
“So then I just felt bored almost . . . and like, ‘What’s the point?’ So I went downstairs and took a knife out of the kitchen. You know how the entrance looks out into the TV room?”
Cori thought of home.
“I walked right past there with the knife in my hand and went up to my room and my parents didn’t do shit. They kind of turned a bit and gave me this look like, ‘Oh it’s just Marla with a knife in her hand,’ like I was a fly or a chair or something, and then they just started watching whatever again. It probably didn’t even register in their stupid brains.”
Cori knew what that was like too. She was ten again, tracing scratches on the playground slide. Her father promised he would pick her up after school. All the buses left, all the teachers left, and he never came. It took her an hour and a half to walk home, free on the streets breathing the good, fresh air, stopping to save crickets and grasshoppers from the road. But that was OK. She didn’t mind.
“Hey kid, where have you been?” her Dad said when she rattled into the store. He showed the gaps in his teeth and tipped his baseball cap.
“Just having fun.”
Another time, her mother mourned over a stack of bills and didn’t even look at the gravel and blood on her knee. Cori had been proud of that scrape. She shuffled the phone to her left ear.
“…. But I didn’t feel so bad. I didn’t feel anything really. I was just like ‘OK then, I guess I’ll just go up to my room and slice my wrists open. See you later Mom and Dad,’ you know? Like I figured I had nothing else to do so why not?”
Where the slope flattened, the statue of a man on a horse slumped on its pedestal surrounded by empty McDonald’s cups and kids smoking cigarettes.
“It was like you just wanted to do it for the Hell of it.”
The phone huffed.
“Yeah, that’s exactly it,” Marla said. “Exactly.”
“My parents are kind of like that too.”
“Really? I always thought they were obsessed with, like, every detail of your life.”
Cori shrugged. “Well, maybe it seems that way but . . . I guess it’s not that big a deal.”
“I guess not,” Marla yawned.
“You really are bored, aren’t you?”
Marla laughed, the noise shattering through the cell phone, getting louder until it became an eardrum-tearing cough. Cori held the phone away from her head until it stopped.
“I know that wasn’t that funny,” Marla choked. “That feels good to laugh.”
One of the kids by the statue spit in the grass and flicked a cigarette at the horse’s fat stomach. Cori couldn’t believe she had made it this far through the conversation.
“So you’re OK now?” she asked.
“Close enough.” Marla yawned again. “Yeah, I think I’ll just have a nap or something. Apparently trying to kill yourself tires you out.”
Cori butchered a laugh, trying too hard to be English, but Marla didn’t say anything.
“That’s a good idea. A nice long sleep always makes you feel better.”
“Yeah.” Inaudible curses drifted over the cigarette smoke. “You’re like my person today.”
“Your person?” Cori’s brow wrinkled.
“Yeah you know my person I can say anything to.” The cellphone clunked. “Usually you’re kind of a bitch though . . . Are you feeling OK?”
Cori’s arm froze. “Yeah I feel normal.”
“That must be it then,” Marla snorted. Cori snickered too. “Well . . . I guess I’ll go.”
“Talk to you later Marla.”
That was perfect, Cori thought, she got the “la” just so.
She clicked the phone shut and let out a huge breath, pressing her back against the tree. Shadows painted long black designs over the lawns and her hands were numb when she stood up and brushed dirt from the seat of her pants.
The photo was warm from her thigh when she fished it from her pocket again. Chelsea’s smile looked so stretched and Helen’s face was a shiny pink. Croft had one hand inside his jacket, copying Napoleon or something. She flipped the picture over:
Croft Helen and Chelsea Toronto trip October 2007. They didn’t even know how to use commas, she thought, curling her lip. If they didn’t even know basic grammar then they probably weren’t rich at all.
As soon as she found a sewer grate, she pushed the photo through the bars into the wet stink below.
The funny thing was that she had copied everything she could remember of Chelsea’s accent. Cori slipped the phone into her pocket and merged with the trees. She was a person.