People choose exactly the kind of life they want
A homeless man once grabbed Shannon by the ponytail and tried to drag her into the trees in Rundle Park. It happened a few months after her mom drank herself to death; Shannon was just eighteen and she and Larry were still living in the low-income housing apartment under her mom’s lease. One minute Shannon was almost out of the park, almost home from cleaning 7-Eleven’s grease traps all night, and the next there was the smell of booze and shit and campfire and her head snapped back, her feet skidding pavement.
Not that it was much of a fight. The man was too drunk. Shannon caught the wrist of the hand that grabbed her and spun around, snapping the heel of her other palm into the bridge of his nose. He let go and tripped, landed on his back with his feet stuck up like a dead June bug, crusty and big and black. He laughed. Shannon attacked.
Her knees told her to run but the rest of her was clenched up too tight. Kick punch kick. His nose burst the second time the rubber heel of her high-tops met it and he began to whimper, his hands over his face, chin tucked into his chest. “OK, stop! Stop! Stop!” But she kept raising her knee high, pushing down hard, again and again, until he lay still, a drunk, mewing ball, spit trailing from his mouth in long, red strings.
That night Shannon screwed Larry on the bed that he used to share with her mom. The next morning she told him what had happened, told him what could have happened.
“Yeah, but it didn’t.” He pressed his nose under her jaw, traced her collarbone with the tip of his tongue, “’Cause you’re bad, baby; Northside, bitch.”
He crawled over her, whine-grunting when he came, every part of him limp and lazy except his dick. She lay still, shutting her mouth to his greasy hair, too numb to think except of skinned knuckles and the drunk’s quiet crying.
Now Tara’s moaning is too much like the drunk’s, so Shannon turns the radio up loud. Sheryl Crow sings about all she wants to do and it’s almost as though they’re on the way to a high school dance, what with the stink of chemical puke and Tara’s sick-sweet Hawaiian Ginger body lotion. Shannon glances at the rear-view mirror. Tara’s on the backseat; hair pasted to her cheeks, body shaking and curling into itself.
Where’s the goddamn hospital? Shannon hasn’t been to St. Albert since Larry’s kid broke his arm, so she doesn’t really know the way. Still, she can’t take Tara to an Edmonton hospital, can she? Dr. Tara Meth-head, Ob/Gyn. Jesus Christ.
They pull up to the Emergency doors and Shannon lays on the horn, interrupting the paramedics bullshitting in front. One rushes over while the other two grab a stretcher.
“What’s wrong?” he asks. He leans into the vehicle. Shannon isn’t usually stupid over guys but something about the question or maybe his brown eyes makes her wish he was looking at her.
“I don’t know. Some guy said something about meth.” He hadn’t, actually, but it was Larry’s chemical of choice.
They get Tara in quickly, the guys yelling as they head through the double doors inside the hospital. Nurses meet them and jog alongside the stretcher shouting numbers and non-words. Shannon follows a few feet behind, straining to hear. Don’t tell them anything.
Tara seizes again and a yellow stain spreads between the legs of her white capri pants, blotting and blooming like the watercolours Shannon used to paint with in art class. Bad outfit to OD in, Tar. Mom had done that too, she remembered, on the couch, where they found her. Larry couldn’t even sell it after; they had to pay extra to have it taken to the dump.
Tara starts gagging. A nurse is forcing something down her throat.
“Jesus!” Shannon shouts. “Go easy!”
“Get her out of here,” the nurse orders. The brown-eyed medic leads her out of the room as quick as he rolled Tara in.
“You look like you could use a cup of coffee,” he says. “Don’t worry about your friend, OK? There’s no place better for her to be. Look, see that Timmy’s right down the hall, by maternity?” He points to a sign at the end of the hall and digs in his pocket. “Let me get you some cash.”
Shannon shrugs his hand off her elbow and he steps off. “Do I look like I need your money?”
The girl behind the Tim Hortons counter wears an immaculate French braid and no makeup. Her uniform is boxy and nothing about her says sex, only work. Everything about her screams Temporary Foreign Worker. Probably still fresh off the boat.
“Double espresso, black. No sugar.”
“Yes, ma’am, one minute, one minute.” She talks weird, her mispronounced words pitched in apology. She offers a quick smile but drops it when she sees Shannon’s face. It’s another two minutes before she figures out the till and takes the change Shannon’s held out the whole time.
Shannon taps her foot. She doesn’t have time for this shit: she’s gotta get to the airport, pay the rent, the damage deposit. She could have been there and back twice by now.
“Hello? I said black.” The girl flinches, spilling the cream she’s pouring into Shannon’s espresso. Shannon turns to the man in line behind her. “Think anyone here speaks English?”
The girl’s blush deepens. Kick punch kick.
Shannon’s finally handed a red cup of black coffee and she heads outside for a smoke. The coffee is liquid sugar and she spits it into a flowerpot, draining the rest before chucking the cup. The whole friggin’ world’s incompetent. Can’t blame the owners, though, not with the way those bleeding hearts keep raising minimum wage. Everyone thinks it’s a good thing, the labour lobbies, everyone except anyone who actually knows anything about business. Now the only way anyone can afford to staff shop is to ship in desperate immigrants. At least you can charge them rent, make back a few of the seven bucks an hour you lose.
Modern-day slavery; that’s what Lacey called the Temporary Foreign Worker program last week. She was shopping at the mall and passed by The Cigarette Shop, stopping to chat with Shannon. The two had grown apart in the 12 years since high school: Lacey getting knocked up immediately—three boys now. Somehow they got talking about a nanny Lacey met, a Filipina who paid back more than half of her paycheque to her bosses.
Well, boo frickin’ hoo. Why shouldn’t she pay rent? Chick would rather sleep outside?
“It’s not right,” Lacey said. Her eyes filled up and her face got real red, just like when she’d get called on in class. “Having to watch someone else’s kids while hers are an ocean away, giving back the money she should be sending home. It’s sick. I mean, even if she wanted to leave… she’s trapped, just… stuck.”
Shannon shrugged. She’d use the program. Would charge what she was owed, too. No one’s forcing them to come to Canada. People choose exactly the kind of life they want.
Sitting on the curb in front of a hospital, Shannon’s only more convinced of that now. Just look at Tara. That kid got everything: house in the suburbs, dad around 24/7, fancy college fund, everything, and she still ends up overdosing on sleazy Larry’s magic crystal. What had she said the first day she showed up?
“Henry got fired. Said he can’t help with rent anymore.”
Shannon didn’t know what was more ridiculous; that dad still paid Tara’s rent, or that Tara called him Henry. Wasn’t she, like, a doctor or something? Why didn’t she have her own place?
“Taking some time off,” Tara said. Her eyes kept closing. “Sabbatical. Working on a specialty. Obstetrics and gynecology.”
Of course you are.
Lacey couldn’t understand that, though, could she? Some bored housewife, buried in mommy groups and park play-dates. The whole convo was a bust. It was a relief when Lacey said she had to go, had to find a swimsuit for the trip her “hubby” had planned.
“You must be, what, size 18 now?” Kick punch kick.
She had mentioned something interesting, though. Did Shannon know that the airport’s Canadiana Corner was closing?
“Great location for a second store.”
No shit. And a great way to get out from behind the till of The Cigarette Shop, where, for all the reading she’d done and online business courses she’d taken, all Larry wanted Shannon to do was “look pretty and count the change.”
The airport committee only wanted proposals from existing businesses but, as Shannon was The Cigarette Shop’s manager, they were happy to consider hers. Looked like they were going to approve it, too. Figures. Men are too easy.
Black miniskirt, heels, tight blazer and a push-up bra: Shannon knows more than just her way around a bottom line. She cocked her head and ran fingers over exposed skin while breathing words like demographic, profit margin and net worth during the proposal meeting, crossing and uncrossing her legs until she had all of them smiling.
She had them so dizzy they didn’t even notice the typo: that “o” where an “e” should have been. The Cigaretto Shop. A separate establishment, the new store severed from the first, one letter getting Shannon out from under Larry forever. Kick punch kick.
The only thing she had left to do was to pay the rental deposit. The money she’d get from mom’s ring would pay that and more and it wouldn’t be long before the store turned a profit. Then she’d be out, away from too-tight rows of dirty houses, half-naked kids inside ignoring the smell of liquor and sex and the new “uncle” that showed up sometime in the night. She might look for a place in Sherwood Park, like her dad. Maybe even somewhere near him if she could stomach that much of Karen.
People choose exactly the kind of life they want. That was the other funny thing: Kids like Shannon, who get left nothing except Loser Larry and a failed-engagement ring but find a way to make it work anyway. “Give me a nickel and I’ll make you a dollar,” Shannon’s dad once said. That’s how she was too: tough, smart, determined. Northside, bitch.
She’s about to light her second smoke when a man calls to her, asks if she’ll speak with him inside. Shannon stands.
“Stable,” he says. He introduces himself as Dr. Rhanji and asks her name, asks Tara’s name. Shannon exhales all the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. He doesn’t know Tara. Thank god. She lights the cigarette.
“Beats me,” Shannon shrugs. “I just found her.”
Rhanji frowns. His body slumps and hardens at the same time. He’s tired, pissed off. “Withholding information dramatically alters the level of care we can provide.”
Shannon shrugs. “Can’t tell you what I don’t know, buddy.”
“You must know someth–”
“Like I said, I just found–”
“We know you’re her sister!” Rhanji’s bald head sweats under the hot sun, reflecting Shannon’s fuck-you stance so clearly she almost scares herself.
She groans. Of course they know. Tara’s probably in there right now, all tears and apologies. Idiot. She shakes her head.
“Half-sister.” Smoke plumes around Rhanji’s face and he waves his hand to break the cloud. Shannon takes a step back. “She awake?”
Rhanji shakes his head. “Family resemblance.”
Shit. Shannon rolls her eyes. “This is, like, a first-time thing for her. Seriously. She’s, like, a professional. Real smart. I don’t know what she was thinking.”
“Her toxicology report suggests otherwise,” Rhanji says. “There are excessive levels of methamphetamine in her system, yes, but also significant levels of Lorazepam and Oxycodone, suggesting a long-term use of both Ativan and OxyContin—prescription drugs: narcotic, addictive. Does your sister have any underlying medical and psychological conditions?”
Shannon blinks, shakes her head. What would Tara have to be anxious about? All she does is study and sleep. She thinks of Tara’s red eyes, her shaky hands. There was that pill bottle that rolled out from under the couch. For headaches, Tara said. She was always complaining about headaches, about Larry inviting his buddies over while she was trying to read. You don’t understand how complicated this stuff is. I need to learn this. This is my life!
“I cannot stress how sick your sister is,” Rhanji says. “This episode has put her under tremendous strain. The fact that she is alive is nothing short of miraculous.”
Shannon thinks of her mom on the couch, skin like cold oatmeal. Miracles don’t happen in the Northside.
“What am I supposed to do?”
There’s an outpatient program, he says, free, but ineffective, a low success rate with more likelihood of Tara finding a dealer than sobriety. Best course of action is a 45-day treatment centre. He recommends New Hope.
“In as much.”
He presses his lips together. They’re on the same team now. “It’s expensive, but fairly standard, considering. The cost is about three thousand dollars a week, but there are payment options.”
Shannon’s skin crawls. It’s more than The Cigaretto Shop deposit times two.
“I think I better call my dad.”
Rhanji makes a few more attempts to get Tara’s name but Shannon isn’t having it. He shakes his head and says he’ll leave her to it and heads back in.
Shannon’s hands shake as she digs the phone from her purse. It’s been a long time since she talked to her dad.
That whore Karen answers.
“Is my dad there?”
“Shannon? Are you alright? Is Tara with you?”
“Just put my dad on the phone.”
She hears her dad’s footsteps as clearly as she imagines the oak cabinets in their kitchen. Shannon hasn’t visited since dad moved out of the city, but she used to babysit at his old place.
“Shannon? Where’s Tara? Is she OK?”
“Hi, Dad. It’s OK. She’s at the hospital.”
Henry’s rumbled exhale makes her think of birthday cake and training wheels. “Oh, good. She hasn’t checked in for awhile.”
Shannon cringes. “No, I mean, she’s in the hospital, Dad. She overdosed or something.”
Silence. Shannon sits. She pulls her knees up, leans over herself, rests her head on her own lap.
“I don’t understand.”
“Drugs, Dad. Meth, and prescription stuff too, I guess.”
“What have you done?”
It’s as if the ice runs through Shannon’s veins instead of Tara’s. She feels it cold under her skin, freezing her chest, stopping her heart. “Dad, I don’t…”
“Six years, Shannon!”
She pulls the phone from her ear.
“Six years of school we paid for. Do you know how much we’ve sacrificed? How hard we’ve worked? That’s over, now, do you understand? You think she can keep her practice now? You think she’ll ever get insurance, a mortgage, a chance at anything? She’s trash now, Shannon. Trash. Congratulations. You’ve dragged her to your level.”
For as cold as the rest of her is, Shannon’s tears are red-hot.
“There’s, like, a facility or something, but it… it’s really expensive.” She presses the knuckle of her index finger against her lips. I’m sorry, Daddy.
“Expensive? Is that what this—are you asking me for money?” He laughs and laughs and laughs. “You’re just your mother’s girl, aren’t you, Shan?”
There are no words.
She’s still crying when Larry’s pickup pulls into the parking lot, slow and dirty, like a bad hangover. She looks away as he kneels beside her, slides a warm hand between her shoulder blades.
“Family sticks together,” he says. He’s sorry for everything. So sorry.
She stands and he gathers her, holds her so close she almost feels safe, lost in the artificial haze hanging off his skin.
“Why didn’t you tell me about the airport space?” he asks. She stays still, waits for him to say more. He doesn’t sound mad.
“They called the store. You spelled ‘cigarette’ wrong, dummy.” He gathers her hair in his hands, brushes it away from her face. “I told them we had to pass, Shan. I mean, I get what you were trying to do, but we don’t need more money. More money, more people watching, OK?” The shop’s really just a front for Larry’s dope-dealing, anyway.
The meth, though; he’s done with that, he promises. Seeing Tara freak, her looking so much like Shannon—that scared him. It will get better. They’re gonna be themselves again, maybe have some friends over or something. It’s been weird since her sister moved in. She’s not like them. “I can’t lose you, Shan.”
Shannon holds on. She knows he’s lying but she presses against him when he wraps his arms tighter. There’s no way out for people like him, no way out for people like her.
Larry says he’ll see her when she gets home, and leaves. Shannon finishes the last smoke in her pack and goes inside. She’ll answer all of Rhanji’s questions.
She walks to the room where Tara’s sleeping. She’s in a hospital gown now, clean and perfect if still a little blue, just a hint of that plastic still on her.
Shannon picks up the clipboard on the end of her bed. She’ll stay just long enough to explain how it’s gonna work, how much Tara will lose unless it’s done this way. That the ring will cover most of what needs to be covered and that Shannon will figure out the rest. She’ll explain that they’ll never see each other again, not ever, as long as they live, not after this. One’s getting out and the other’s in the trees, dragged back by her ponytail. Kick punch kick.
Shannon lifts the pen.
Patient Name: Shannon Delacroix
Northside, bitch. #
Katie Bickell lives in Sherwood Park. “Northside Delacroix” is the winner of Alberta Views’ 2014 fiction contest.
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