I should not have taken the pill.
But the young bellhop, seeing my nerves and sharing my terror of crowds, had seemed kind, if a little stoned, and I’d swallowed the magenta-colored tablet he offered in a moment of mind-numbing stress, grasping for any escape.
“You won’t be sorry,” he’d said, secreting the rattling Altoids tin back into a pocket of his uniform.
But I was sorry.
Sorry before the pill’s dry lump had dissolved halfway down the pipe. Sorry before the elevator had dropped the twenty floors to the hotel lobby. I hadn’t done anything that rash or stupid since college, and the pill—meant to fend off a smoldering anxiety attack—was now, itself, the driving flame of that anxiety, leaping from limb to limb, my original social phobias mere shadows dancing in the background.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. What had I even taken?
The organizers had insisted I wear a gold sash that read “Literary Lion,” and I might have been amused in less terrifying circumstances. I looked down. My heartbeat fluttered the cloth.
I had known I was attending a charity fundraising dinner for the Vancouver Arts Alliance, an utterly random scheme that Billie had concocted. What I had only just learned, however, was that people had paid thousands of dollars for a place at the table with a published author. The event would be packed with celebrities, literary and otherwise, and a few half-assed cartoons about my dog could never warrant the gold sash. I wondered what actual writer had taken ill for them to rope me in at the last minute. I hated leaving the island: I worried about Pops and the guys whenever I traveled, and I had no business hosting a table of strangers in any circumstance, let alone a crowd of highly polished glitterati. I didn’t even have electricity half the time. How was I supposed to chat up people who could throw down five thousand dollars for a single plate?
Thank God they’d let me bring Pierre. I cradled the old dog in my arms all the way to the ground floor and buried my nose in his fur. “I’m sorry, boy. We’ll keep this short, okay?” The little schnauzer’s earthy scent and calm presence offered some sense of normalcy, and his tail thumped against my waist. The door opened into the lobby, and I set him back down, frightened of dropping him if I fell off my heels.
We made our way to the grand ball room, which had been fitted out for a formal dinner. Wait staff glided past, and a thousand separate conversations clashed with cutlery for the air space. I tugged the gold-colored splash of cloth across my chest with damp palms and slouched deeper into the form-fitting emerald dress purchased for the evening but found little shelter there. The dress was a strapless bit of fabric altogether too low in some places and too high in others to provide refuge.
Billie waved to me from across the lobby and hurried close.
“There you are, Chel!”
“Billie, I can’t . . . c’mon, I can’t wear this thing.” I leaned over and hissed into her ear, not wanting to offend any of the organizers. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Look here, missy.” Billie—she reminded me of an older Betty Boop—reached up to smooth my hair and straighten the golden sash. Her dark eyes glistened more than earlier, and her energy was cranked up to manic. I wondered if she’d been waiting for me at the hotel bar longer than was strictly necessary. “What the hell’s wrong with you? You are Chel Shepherd, creator of what’s about to be the biggest character franchise since God was a baby, when I have my way. Here now. Stand up straight.”
“YOU are the creator of this imaginary franchise, and I look like a freak when I wear heels . . .”
“Yeah, well if you’d stand up straight and stop acting like a freak, you’d look like a goddamn movie star. You’re exotic, sweet pea. People get plastic surgery to get cheekbones like yours and end up looking like weird cat people.”
Billie knew better than to blow smoke up my skirt as a means of getting her way. And the exotic bit pissed me off.
I had seen sepia-toned photos of Inuit children plucked from the Arctic and thrust into the Great Exhibition at the World’s Fair, hooded and dark-skinned in a sea of white faces, and I felt a sudden kinship with those exotic little cousins. Thrust into a crowd of North America’s finest, I felt myself as other: a shabby imposter, a scribbler of cartoons, nonsensically tall. At five-foot-ten in bare feet, I was a tree in heels.
“Now here . . .” She leaned down and picked up Pierre, putting him in my arms again, his faux-emerald-studded collar also chosen by Billie to match my dress. “Pierre needs you to be strong. This is how we pay for his kibble.”
“How much kibble are you getting out of this, I wonder?”
“Not nearly as much as I deserve, pain-in-the-ass disaster like you. Anyone else would be over the moon, and you’re acting like it’s goddamn Guantanamo.” She smiled and waved at an acquaintance.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
“Why did I say yes to this? I can’t even breathe. How am I supposed to have a conversation with a table full of strangers?” The noise of the room cut into the edges of my vision in familiar white splinters, and a full-fledged panic attack never strayed too far behind those first sharp flashes. Once before, I’d even lost consciousness. Fear of a panic attack had led me to take that stupid pill. Remembering the pill, my breathing sped up again. “What if I pass out or something?”
“Jesus, cut the histrionics, Chel! It’s just a little dinner. But this weekend is important. We need the exposure to make the best deal possible.”
“I still don’t know if I—”
“Think about your dad. Think about all your old dudes. Imagine how much easier it’ll be to take care of them with that kind of money.”
I did think of Pops just then—the tattered patches on his overalls, the bald tires on the truck, and now the drinking. I straightened with resolve, tried to calm myself again.
Billie snagged a glass from the tray of a passing waiter and handed it to me. “This will fix everything.”
“What is it?” I didn’t drink, generally. But then, I didn’t take drugs either.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, grow a pair, Chel. I’ve had three, and I’m fine. Better than fine, actually.”
I reminded myself for the tenth time that I’d still be stocking shelves at the island grocery without her help and suppressed an urge to shake Billie. I looked back down at the stupid sash. Literary Lion. It was only one drink, after all, not a life sentence at the Betty Ford Clinic. Anything would be better than having a panic attack at a table full of strangers.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
I swallowed. More fumes than liquid, it burned the back of my throat, and I coughed some of it back up, earning the side-eye from a passing couple.
Billie reached up and clutched my shoulders and, for the moment, her eyes softened. “Look, darling girl. You can’t let a little anxiety get in the way. You are on the edge of something most people only dream of. You’ve got this. Besides, they’re not all strangers. Jean-Christophe is at your table.”
I jerked out of her grip. “Tremblay?”
“The same. You two seemed to hit it off at the studio yesterday, and I thought—”
“Oh God, Billie.” I needed to sit down.
“What? He seemed to really like you, and I thought you’d like a friendly face.”
I found a cushioned bench against a wall and dropped onto it. Jean-Christophe Tremblay, the actor on offer for the voice of Pierre, was no one I’d heard of before yesterday, but was apparently some kind of big deal down in the states. He was handsome, charming, married, and had been relentless in his attentions the day before.
“Oh, he’s friendly all right.”
Billie’s eyes widened. “You didn’t . . .”
“Of course not. He’s married! I wouldn’t, and besides, he’s not my type.”
“Well good, ‘cause that is not the kind of publicity we need right now.” She paused, seeming to think. “What is your type, anyway? You’ve never said.”
“Tall, dark, and living on a different continent.”
I blew a breath out. “I can’t do this, Billie. Really.”
“Nope!” She tugged me up by the arm. “Too much at stake here, and you’re gonna hit it out of the park. You’re gonna do it for your old dudes. You’re gonna do it for yourself.” She flagged down a nearby waiter. “Excuse me. Can you please escort Ms. Shepherd and Pierre to their table? I’ll be in the back if you need me, Chel.” She grabbed another glass from a passing tray and sauntered away, waving without looking back. “But you won’t need me.”
Thanks for reading this far! Wreckage (still a working title) is complete, and I’m out looking for representation. If you’d like to be updated on any upcoming publishing news, please sign up below.