Authors: Emily St. John Mandel
“Never hurts to ask,” Annika agreed.
“You guys into E?” Paul asked.
“—I don’t know,” he told the counselor, twenty years later, “to tell you the truth I don’t know what I was thinking, in memory my mind is like this terrifying blank, I didn’t know what I was going to say before I said it—”
“It’s not really my thing,” Paul said, because they were all looking at him now, “I mean, no judgment, I’ve just never been that into it, but my sister gave these to me.” He flashed the little packet in the palm of his hand. “I don’t really want to sell them, that’s not my thing either, but I feel like it’d be kind of a waste to flush them down the toilet, so I just wondered.”
Annika smiled. “I think I tried those last week,” she said. “Same exact color.”
“You can see why I’ve never told this story before,” Paul told the counselor, twenty years after System Soundbar. “But I didn’t know the pills were bad. I thought I’d maybe just had a bad reaction, you know, like maybe my system was kind of messed up from coming off opioids or something, like not a thing where every single person who tried those pills would automatically get sick or whatever, let alone—”
“Anyway, they’re yours if you want them,” he said, to this group that like all of the other groups he’d ever encountered in his life was going to reject him, and Annika smiled and took the packet from his hand. “I’ll see you around,” he said, to all of them but especially to her, because sometimes
no thank you
not at the present moment but maybe later,
although the pills, the pills, the pills—
“Thank you,” she said.
“Well, just the way she reacted,” Paul told the counselor. “I can see the way you’re looking at me, but I really thought she’d tried the same pills, the previous week, like she said, and the way she smiled, it made me think she’d had a good trip, she’d obviously really liked them, so what happened to me when I tried them seemed like definitely just a weird reaction, like I said, not something that would necessarily…look, I know I’m being repetitive but what I need you to understand is that I couldn’t possibly have predicted, I mean I know how it sounds but I seriously had no idea—”
After Paul walked away, Annika took one pill and gave the other two to Charlie, whose heart stopped a half hour later on the dance floor.
It’s easy to dismiss Y
K hysteria in retrospect—who even remembers it?—but the risk of collapse seemed real at the time. At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000, the experts said, nuclear power plants might go into meltdown while malfunctioning computers sent flocks of missiles flying over the oceans, the grid collapsing, planes falling from the sky. But for Paul the world had already collapsed, so three days after Charlie Wu’s death he was standing by a pay phone in the arrivals hall at the Vancouver airport, trying to reach his half sister, Vincent. He’d had enough money to flee Toronto, but there wasn’t enough left over for anything else, so his entire plan was to throw himself on the mercy of his aunt Shauna, who in hazy childhood memory had an enormous house with multiple guest bedrooms. Although he hadn’t seen Vincent in five years, since she was thirteen and he was eighteen and Vincent’s mother had just died, and he hadn’t seen Shauna since he was, what, eleven? He was running through all of this while the phone rang endlessly at his aunt’s house. A couple walked by wearing matching T-shirts that said
PARTY LIKE IT’S 1999,
and only then did he remember that it was actually New Year’s Eve. The last seventy-two hours had had a hallucinatory quality. He hadn’t been sleeping much. His aunt seemed not to have an answering machine. There was a telephone directory on the shelf under the phone, where he found the law firm where she worked.
“Paul,” she said, once he’d cleared the hurdle of her secretary. “What a lovely surprise.” Her tone was gentle and cautious. How much had she heard? He assumed he must have come up in conversation over the years.
Paul? Oh, well, he’s in rehab again. Yes, for the sixth time.
“I’m sorry to bother you at work.” Paul felt a prickling behind his eyes. He was extremely, infinitely sorry, for everything. (Try not to think of Charlie Wu on the stretcher at System Soundbar, an arm dangling limp over the side.)
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all. Were you just calling to say hello, or…?”
“I’ve been trying to reach Vincent,” Paul said, “and for some reason she hasn’t been picking up at your home number, so I wondered if she’d maybe gotten her own phone line, or…?”
“She moved out a year ago.” A studied neutrality in his aunt’s voice suggested that the parting hadn’t been amicable.
“A year ago? When she was sixteen?”
“Seventeen,” his aunt said, as if this made all the difference. “She moved in with a friend of hers from Caiette, some girl who’d just moved to the city. It was closer to her job.”
“Do you have her number?”
She did. “If you see her, say hi to her for me,” she said.
“You’re not in touch with her?”
“We parted on strained terms, I’m afraid.”
“I thought she was supposed to be in your care,” he said. “Aren’t you her legal guardian?”
“Paul, she isn’t thirteen anymore. She didn’t like living in my house, she didn’t like going to high school, and if you’d spent more time with her, you’d know that trying to get Vincent to do anything she doesn’t want to do is like arguing with a brick wall. If you’ll excuse me, I have to run to a meeting. Take care.”
Paul stood listening to the dial tone, clutching a boarding pass with Vincent’s phone number scrawled on the back. He’d harbored fantasies of being absorbed into an extra guest bedroom, but the ground was shifting rapidly underfoot. His headphones were dangling around his neck, so he put them on, hands shaking a little; pressed play on the CD in his Discman; and let the Brandenburg Concertos settle him. He only listened to Bach when he was desperate for order.
This is the music that will get me to Vincent,
he thought, and set out to find a bus to take him downtown. What kind of apartment would Vincent be living in, and with whom? The only friend of hers he remembered was Melissa, and only because she’d been there when Vincent wrote the graffiti that got her suspended from school:
Sweep me up.
Words scrawled in acid paste on one of the school’s north windows, the acid marker trembling a little in Vincent’s gloved hand. She was thirteen years old and this was Port Hardy, British Columbia, a town on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island that was somehow less remote than the place where Vincent actually lived. Paul came around the corner of the high school too late to stop her, but in time to see her do it, and now the three of them—Vincent, Paul, Melissa—were silent for a moment, watching thin trails of acid dripping down the glass from several letters. Through the words, the darkened classroom was a mass of shadows, empty rows of desks and chairs. Vincent had been wearing a man’s leather glove that she’d found who knows where. Now she pulled it off and let it drop into the trampled winter grass, where it lay like a dead rat, while Paul stood useless and gaping. Melissa was giggling in a nervous way.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Paul wanted to sound stern, but to his own ears his voice sounded high and uncertain.
“It’s just a phrase I like,” Vincent said. She was staring at the window in a way that made Paul uneasy. On the other side of the school, the bus driver honked his horn.
“We can talk about this on the bus,” Paul said, although they both knew they wouldn’t talk about it at all, because he wasn’t especially convincing as an authority figure.
She didn’t move.
“I should go,” Melissa said.
“Vincent,” Paul said, “if we miss that bus we’re hitchhiking back to Grace Harbour and paying for a water taxi.”
“Whatever,” Vincent said, but she followed her brother to the waiting school bus. Melissa was sitting up front by the driver, ostensibly getting a head start on her homework, but she glanced up furtively as they passed her seat. They rode the bus in silence back to Grace Harbour, where the mail boat waited to take them to Caiette. The boat careered around the peninsula and Paul stared at the massive construction site where the new hotel was going up, at the clouds, at the back of Melissa’s head, at the trees on the shore, anything to avoid looking into the depths of the water, nothing he wanted to think about down there. When he glanced at Vincent he was relieved to see that she wasn’t looking at the water either. She was looking at the darkening sky. On the far side of the peninsula was Caiette, this place that made Port Hardy look like a metropolis in comparison: twenty-one houses pinned between the water and the forest, the total local infrastructure consisting of a road with two dead ends, a small church from the 1850s, a one-room post office, a shuttered one-room elementary school—there hadn’t been enough children here to keep the school open since the mid-eighties—and a single pier. When the boat docked at Caiette they walked up the hill to the house and found Dad and Grandma waiting at the kitchen table. Normally Grandma lived in Victoria and Paul lived in Toronto, but these were not normal times. Vincent’s mother had disappeared two weeks ago. Someone found her canoe drifting empty in the water.
“Melissa’s parents called the school,” Dad said. “The school called me.”
Vincent—give her credit for courage—did not flinch. She took a seat at the table, folded her arms, and waited, while Paul leaned awkwardly against the stove and watched them. Should he come to the table too? As the responsible older brother, etc.? As ever and always, he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. In the way Dad and Grandma stared at Vincent, Paul heard everything they were all refraining from mentioning: Vincent’s new blue hair, her plummeting grades and black eyeliner, her staggering loss.
“Why would you write that on the window?” Dad asked.
“I don’t know,” she said quietly.
“Was it Melissa’s idea?”
“What were you thinking?”
“I don’t know what I was thinking. They were just some words I liked.” The wind changed direction, and rain rattled against the kitchen window. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it was stupid.”
Dad told Vincent that she’d been suspended for all of next week; it would’ve been a much longer suspension, but the school was making allowances. She accepted this without comment, then rose and went up to her room. They were quiet in the kitchen, Paul and Dad and Grandma, listening to her footsteps on the stairs and her door closing quietly behind her, before Paul joined the other two at the table—the grown-up table, he couldn’t help thinking—and no one pointed out the obvious, which was that he’d ostensibly come back from Toronto to look out for her, which presumably should ideally involve not letting her write indelible graffiti on school windows. But when had he ever been in a position to look out for anyone? Why had he imagined that he could help? No one brought this up either, they just sat quietly listening to rain dripping into a bucket that Dad had placed in a corner of the room, Vincent represented by a ceiling vent that Dad and Grandma seemed not to realize was a conduit into her bedroom.
“Well,” Paul said finally, desperate for a change of scene, “I should probably get started on my homework.”
“How’s that going?” Grandma asked.
“School? Fine,” Paul said, “it’s going fine.” They thought he’d made a noble sacrifice, leaving all his friends behind in Toronto and coming out here to finish high school in order
to be there for your sister,
but if they’d been paying more attention or were on speaking terms with his mother, they’d have known he wasn’t going to be allowed back to his old school anyway, and also that his mother had kicked him out of the house. But does a person have to be either admirable
awful? Does life have to be so binary? Two things can be true at the same time, he told himself. Just because you used your stepmother’s presumed death to start over doesn’t mean that you’re not also doing something good, being there for your sister or whatever. Grandma was giving him a flat stare—could she possibly have spoken to his mother?—but Dad was gearing himself up to say something, a gradual process that involved shifting around in his chair, some throat-clearing, lifting his tea halfway to his mouth and putting it down again, so Paul and Grandma broke off their staring contest and waited for him to speak. Grief had lent him a certain gravitas.
“I have to go back to work soon,” Dad said. “I can’t take her with me to camp.”
“What are you suggesting?” Grandma asked.
“I’m thinking about sending her to live with my sister.”
“You’ve never gotten along with your sister. I swear you and Shauna started arguing when you were two and she was a baby.”
“She drives me crazy sometimes, but she’s a good person.”
“She works a hundred hours a week,” Grandma said. “Wouldn’t it be better for Vincent if you got a job nearby?”
“There are no jobs nearby,” he said. “Nothing I could live on, anyway.”
“What about the new hotel?”
“The new hotel will be a construction site for at least another year, and I don’t know anything about construction. But look, it’s not just…” He went quiet for a moment, staring into his tea. “Financial considerations aside, I’m not sure living here is really the best thing for Vincent. Every time she looks at the water…” He ended the thought there. And Paul thought it went in the good column that he thought of Vincent first when Dad said that, that his first thought wasn’t of the goddamn haunted inlet that he was trying not to look at through the kitchen window, but of the girl listening upstairs at the vent.
“I’m going to go check in on Vincent,” Paul said. He liked the way they looked at him—
Look how Paul has matured!
—and disliked himself for noticing. At the top of the stairs, his nerve almost failed him, but he did it, he knocked softly on Vincent’s bedroom door and let himself in when he heard no answer. He hadn’t been in this room in a long time and was struck by how shabby it was, embarrassed for noticing and embarrassed for Vincent, although did she notice? Unclear. Her bed was older than she was and had paint chipping off the headboard; opening the top drawer of her dresser required pulling on a length of rope; the curtains had previously been sheets. Maybe none of it bothered her. She was sitting cross-legged by the vent, as predicted.
“Is it okay if I sit here with you?” he asked. She nodded.
This could work out,
I could be more of a brother to her.
“You shouldn’t be in grade eleven,” she said. “I did the math.” Christ. There was a flash of pain that had to be acknowledged, because his thirteen-year-old half sister had noticed what his own father apparently hadn’t.
“I’m repeating a grade.”
“You failed grade eleven?”
“No, I missed most of it the first time around. I spent some time in rehab last year.”
“I had a drug problem.” He was pleased with himself for being honest about it.
“Do you have a drug problem because your parents split up?” she asked, in tones of genuine curiosity, at which point he wanted desperately to get away from her, so he rose and brushed off his jeans. Her room was dusty.
“I don’t have a drug problem, I
a drug problem. That’s all behind me now.”
“But you smoke pot in your room,” she said.
“Pot isn’t heroin. They’re completely different.”
Her eyes were very wide.
“Anyway, I’ve got a lot of homework.”
I don’t hate Vincent,
he told himself,
Vincent has never been the problem, I have never hated Vincent, I have only ever hated the
A kind of mantra that he found it necessary to repeat to himself at intervals, because when Paul was very young and his parents were still married, Dad fell in love with the young hippie poet down the road, who quickly became pregnant with Vincent, and within a month Paul and Paul’s mother had left Caiette, “fleeing that whole sordid soap opera” was how she put it, and Paul spent the rest of his childhood in the Toronto suburbs, shuttling out to British Columbia for summers and every second Christmas, a childhood of flying alone over prairies and mountains with an
sign around his neck, while Vincent got to live with both of her parents, all the time, until two weeks ago.
He left her there in her bedroom and went back to the room where he’d been sleeping—he’d stayed there as a kid, but it had been repurposed for storage in his absence and didn’t feel like his anymore—and his hands were shaking, he was besieged by unhappiness, he rolled a joint and smoked it carefully out the window, but the wind kept blowing the smoke back inside until finally there was a knock on his door. When Paul opened it, Dad was standing there with a look of unbearable disappointment, and by the end of the week Paul was back in Toronto.