Hostages

Broken Pencil - - Table Of Contents - by Na­dia Rag­bar

THERE ARE THREE THINGS to know about Lisa Primi: a) she will have an ana­phy­lac­tic re­ac­tion to bee stings that she isn't aware of yet, hav­ing lived 31 years with­out be­ing stung. It won't hap­pen un­til next year and she will be sorely ill-pre­pared; b) she moved back to her par­ents' home re­cently, and her mother is on a re­lent­less cam­paign to get her to even one Spin class — or Yoga, at the very least — just to tone up. Her fa­ther doesn't come out from be­hind his news­pa­per all day; c) there is a woman named Carly who works at the bank who she is des­per­ately jeal­ous of now. Carly is gre­gar­i­ous, and fun, and wears state­ment neck­laces.

Ear­lier to­day, Lisa Primi stood out front of the Cathay House Restau­rant & Cock­tails smok­ing and watch­ing Ju­lia cir­cle the park­ing lot 19 times. She rolled the cricks out of her neck and crushed the butt un­der her toe when Ju­lia half-walked, half-ran up to meet her breath­less and wav­ing.

“Hi. Sorry I'm late,” Ju­lia panted as she caught Lisa up in a hug that pinned her arms tight to her side; the sun in Lisa's eyes mak­ing her sneeze into Ju­lia's soft, limp hair.

Lisa looked old and stern for her age; she al­ways tied her hair up in a top knot the mo­ment she stepped out of the shower; her par­ents' bath­room mir­ror re­flect­ing the ce­ramic Kleenex box-holder and frilled shower cur­tain from her child­hood. She was the ju­nior ac­coun­tant as­signed to Ju­lia's af­fairs since “the in­ci­dent.” Ju­lia had been ram­bling, talk­ing with her hands, and now be­gan fish­ing oat­meal cook­ies from in­side her tote bag. Crumbs at the cor­ners of her mouth, fall­ing into the V of her t-shirt.

Two weeks ago Lisa mis­un­der­stood when her boyfriend came home from his job at the bank, and said, “Sit down. There's some­thing,” and then clum­sily bent on one knee to re-tie a shoelace, which Lisa as­sumed would ob­vi­ously lead to a pro­posal. He will con­tinue to live in the apart­ment they had shared, be­cause he had lived there even be­fore they met (on­line).

A white un­marked van ca­reened into the park­ing lot and a lithe twenty yearold boy jumped out of the pas­sen­ger side be­fore the van could stop. Blonde hair to his ears. The strug­gle to grow a mous­tache, tanned, mus­cled, downy arms. He yelled some­thing Lisa couldn't make out as the van ground to a halt and re­versed madly out of the lot. Lisa won­dered what it'd be like to just walk off her shitty ac­count­ing job. To be able to move on with some­one new. A fling with some­one slightly dan­ger­ous, but not too dan­ger­ous: petty thief, pot dealer, stunt dou­ble. Lisa's en­tire body flushed when she and the boy made eye con­tact as he strode into the Cathay House Restau­rant & Cock­tails. His eyes were wa­tery blue. He winked at her star­ing back at him. She saw the tops of his box­ers bal­loon­ing out of his jeans. Lisa imag­ined he had a gun al­ready, but might need a new get­away car. She fin­gered the keys in her blazer pocket, and noted that “ca­reen” was a word no one had ac­tu­ally used in real life since the 1940s, maybe. She in­ter­rupted Ju­lia, “We should go in­side and get a ta­ble.” “I'm so glad you could meet me to­day — I have some im­por­tant news that may com­pro­mise our work­ing re­la­tion­ship. It's huge. You won't be­lieve it. I didn't want any­one else in your of­fice to hear it yet, but first I need to eat. I'm starv­ing.”

There were still cookie crumbs around her mouth when Ju­lia or­dered the Pork Fried Rice, Sweet and Sour Chicken Balls, Shrimp Egg Foo Young, a Diet Coke, and asked for her slice of or­ange and for­tune cookie to come with the meal. Lisa or­dered a Cae­sar. Ju­lia's ap­petite had be­come more like a high school quar­ter­back's since “the in­ci­dent,” which is how Mr. Man­cuzzi re­ferred to the strange turn that Ju­lia's life had taken.

When Ju­lia Spencer was a teenager she never had any trou­ble sleep­ing. She fell asleep on long car rides, never woke be­fore noon on week­ends, oc­ca­sion­ally slept through some of her morn­ing classes. But by her fi­nal year of univer­sity, she spent most of her nights awake in bed at an ut­ter loss for sleep.

She spent nearly every night, pac­ing and smok­ing. She blamed it on the stress of be­ing in school. Of be­ing a jour­nal­ist. She felt jus­ti­fied and com­mit­ted by the lack of sleep. Veer­ing head­long into her twen­ties, she was con­vinced that sleep was for lazy peo­ple who didn't want to ex­pose the hard truths. Ev­ery­one around her mis­read the jit­tery ner­vous­ness as am­bi­tion. Pas­sion. Af­ter she grad­u­ated she im­me­di­ately landed a job at a na­tional pa­per. She slept with pho­tog­ra­phers and all the sin­gle copy editors. She fucked the Sports Desk Editor (only once). She snagged dif­fi­cult in­ter­views, her sources dished freely; she loved her job.

But then two years ago — just days be­fore the dead­line for her piece on cult lead­ers — she fell asleep mid-sen­tence while dic­tat­ing notes into her phone. She slept clear through her 5:30am alarm.

The news from her clock ra­dio vined around her dreams. She dreamt that she was run­ning with of a pack of dogs down Yonge Street. They were run­ning a marathon, but she was wear­ing a bul­let­proof vest. Then a black lab next to her turned and told her that there would be a high of 11 de­grees that day with a slight chance of pre­cip­i­ta­tion. He was run­ning on two legs hold­ing an um­brella, and had a red ban­dana tied around his neck. She thought he was the most hand­some dog she had ever seen.

Ju­lia woke up in a panic and cold with sweat at 11:30am to the sound of her neigh­bour's dog end­lessly bark­ing. She called in sick and went back to bed. She slept all day long. She dreamt a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of the dreams she had missed out on dur­ing her col­lege years. There was her kinder­garten best friend, every house she'd ever lived in, a park­ing garage with zero grav­ity, Martin Scors­ese as

her grand­fa­ther, a new­born baby who spoke to her in Por­tuguese. She slept longer than she had ever slept be­fore. She woke up the next af­ter­noon at 2:45pm feel­ing like a sack of shit, and called in sick again. When she picked up the phone it was made of marsh­mal­lows.

She went to the gro­cery store to stock up on hash browns and frozen yo­gurt and the over­head mu­sic fol­lowed her out the au­to­matic doors and down the block. Dolly Par­ton was fol­low­ing her home, sing­ing “Jo­lene” into her ear clear as a bell. Her alarm went off the next day, and she woke feel­ing more in­spired than she had since her first days at the news­pa­per. Ju­lia had a crav­ing for ra­men noo­dles and hot dogs with mus­tard, and onions, and sauer­kraut. She was thrilled by the idea of sauer­kraut.

Be­fore this scat­ter­shot lunch meet­ing, Lisa had al­ready been hung out to dry in the morn­ing's meet­ing with Mr. Man­cuzzi and the rest of the 7th floor. She left the board­room with a manila file folder, and as she walked she con­tin­u­ously pushed the but­ton-end of her ball­point pen: click click click up down up. Her cheeks were burn­ing red-hot be­cause Man­cuzzi had made an ex­am­ple of her in front of the other ju­nior ac­coun­tants:

“Ac­coun­tants need guts. Take Ms. Primi. She's got no guts. There's been no move­ment on file no. 13582 — nada. With fis­cal year-end on our asses this is un­ac­cept­able. Markus! Great job with that Zim­mer­man au­dit.”

Man­cuzzi had taken off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes squeezed shut, “Ju­lia Spencer. Crap,” he shook his head. He put his glasses back on and left the room. Meet­ing dis­missed. The file, marked #13582 in her own hand­writ­ing, was empty save for two re­ceipts from Hon­est Ed's. She had never even seen Markus be­fore this morn­ing.

When Lisa got back to her cu­bi­cle, there were mes­sages from Ju­lia Spencer (#13582) in her voice mail. Ju­lia asked to meet for lunch and the rest of the mes­sage made ab­so­lutely no sense. Ju­lia prat­tled on about a sale on golf clubs, the con­spir­acy of satel­lite ra­dio, the thing her mother told her when she got her first pe­riod. She kept it up un­til the al­lot­ted record­ing time ran out and cut her off mid-sen­tence. She called back a sec­ond time to say, “Oh hi — it's me, Ju­lia. Be sure to meet me while Royson's still out of the house.”

Lisa had played the mes­sages, still click­ing her pen, day­dream­ing of a fire break­ing out by the copy ma­chine. The fake plants con­torted into charred mounds; the in­dus­trial car­pet and match­ing half-walls up in a flash like dry tin­der. Lisa's cheeks now burn­ing righ­teously from the prox­im­ity of flames in­stead of em­bar­rass­ment. The evac­u­a­tion drill long for­got­ten, ev­ery­one was pan­ick­ing, scream­ing. Los­ing their shit. Ar­lene run­ning back to gather her col­lec­tion of plas­tic bal­le­rina fig­urines edg­ing the top of her cu­bi­cle. Markus hero­ically ush­er­ing out the preg­nant em­ploy­ees, mak­ing re­turn trips back into the burn­ing of­fice for the col­lege in­terns.

Lisa would stream out with ev­ery­one else in her cu­bi­cle block, but then make a show of hav­ing to go back for the Spencer file, in­sist­ing that the rest go on with­out her. Then she'd de­tour out the east wing doors, slip around the build­ing on the op­po­site side of the des­ig­nated fire safety zone. Crouch­ing low be­tween cars she'd si­dle into her Echo and drive away. Ev­ery­one would pre­sume her lost to the fire, star­ing at the leap­ing flames 100 me­ters be­hind the fire­fight­ers. Markus would not have gone back for her. She would move to a beach town and start work­ing as a wait­ress. She thought she might dye her hair blonde. Some­thing about blondes be­ing more fun.

Man­cuzzi had left a doc­tor's note in Ju­lia's orig­i­nal file. The di­ag­no­sis was in­con­clu­sive, though not con­sid­ered ter­mi­nal. From the near il­leg­i­ble scrawl Lisa pieced to­gether: “as if in a chronic and per­pet­ual dream-state. No known cure.” All Lisa had to do was col­lect re­ceipts for Ju­lia's sup­posed small busi­ness and file the taxes as per the wishes of Ju­lia's heav­ily in­flu­en­tial fa­ther, who played ten­nis

with Man­cuzzi every Satur­day. Trou­ble was she couldn't get a sin­gle doc­u­ment out of Ju­lia. The re­ceipts from Hon­est Ed's were ac­tu­ally Lisa's:

1) new shower cur­tains, CLR; 2) olive oil, paint thin­ner, stove­top espresso maker;

be­cause even she knew that hav­ing an empty file folder af­ter a year was shoddy work­man­ship. Af­ter this morn­ing's meet­ing she un­der­stood that she would be fired be­fore the week was out.

Ap­par­ently Ju­lia used to wear ex­pen­sive de­signer jeans and had her high­lights done reg­u­larly; she used to be per­ma­nently at­tached to her Black­berry. Lisa knew if they had gone to high school to­gether that Ju­lia would've gone to all the par­ties, and been friends with all the boys and would've never known that in­vis­i­ble Lisa ex­isted. Lisa bet that Ju­lia was the type of daugh­ter her par­ents had en­vi­sioned when they first started their fam­ily. She licked the salt from the rim of her glass and stared across at present-day Ju­lia eat­ing off of all four plates, talk­ing about some­one named Royson who was “game for al­most any­thing.” When the Cathay House Restau­rant & Cock­tails waiter came around again, in­stead of ask­ing for the bill, Lisa or­dered an­other Cae­sar and re­solved to cob­ble to­gether some sense from what Ju­lia was say­ing. Lisa gath­ered that Royson was Ju­lia's up­stairs neigh­bour and ei­ther:

a) Ju­lia wanted to have a baby with Royson or; b) she just stole all of the valu­ables from Royson's apart­ment.

She imag­ined for a mo­ment that she could ac­tu­ally help Ju­lia: nav­i­gate bu­reau­cratic loop­holes, re­search sound in­vest­ments, fill that manila folder. It dawned on her that they could've eas­ily traded places had the ho­muncu­lus of Ju­lia's orig­i­nal-self per­sisted; Ju­lia could be the re­porter writ­ing a long form piece on med­i­cal mys­ter­ies with Lisa, just one of many sub­jects, sit­ting across from her in a neu­ro­log­i­cal soup of dreams. Lisa sat with her arms tightly folded and her legs primly crossed, her pas­tel blue blazer still on, wait­ing for a fresh drink. She re­laxed im­per­cep­ti­bly, if not in her pos­ture, in her will­ing­ness to lis­ten. Lisa watched the slack­ness of Ju­lia's mouth mov­ing. Pli­able flesh wrapped around cheek bones, the weak chin. Lips slick with oil. Two bright eyes glis­ten­ing through.

It took her a good few mo­ments to re­al­ize the waiter had been hov­er­ing, wait­ing pa­tiently for Lisa's re­sponse to his ques­tion. She had com­pletely zoned out. Imag­in­ing what would hap­pen if the restau­rant got robbed dur­ing the lunch rush.

Two ex-sol­diers with Post Trau­matic Stress Dis­or­der brazenly pushed through the sin­gle heavy wooden door scream­ing at ev­ery­one to get down on the ground. They both had ma­chine guns; the beefier sol­dier wear­ing camo, the smaller one, jeans and avi­a­tor glasses. Curly hair and dog tags around his neck. Lisa did as they said, but she was de­fi­ant about it, look­ing the big one straight in his eyes. She en­cour­aged Ju­lia to keep talk­ing to dis­tract them, un­til the curly-haired sol­dier came over to shut her up him­self. Lisa sig­nalled to Ju­lia, and Ju­lia lunged for the small guy in a gi­ant bear hug, pin­ning his arms tight to his sides. Lisa scram­bled for his gun and they man­aged to force his head down on to the ta­ble. The for­tune cookie in halves on the plas­tic table­cloth; a slip of pa­per soak­ing up the con­den­sa­tion from a glass . Lisa turned the gun on the big­ger sol­dier, or­der­ing him to drop his weapon and slide it to­ward her. The sol­dier held firm for a mo­ment, but re­ally didn't want to have to shoot any­one. The guns were not his idea. He ac­qui­esced and Lisa passed it across to Ju­lia. A baby started cry­ing some­where deep in the restau­rant. On their way out the girls emp­tied the regis­ter, and grabbed some purses. Ju­lia nabbed a lob­ster claw off some­one's plate. Lisa shot the chan­de­lier down. They'd take Ju­lia's car, but Lisa would do all the driv­ing. Her heart was beat­ing hard.

They were on the run now, baby.

il­lus­tra­tion by Beena Mistry

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