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. Looking down, I could see my heartbeat fluttering the cloth.
I had known I was attending a charity fundraising dinner for the Vancouver Arts Alliance, an utterly random scheme that my agent 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 earthly idea how to comport myself on the mainland in general, let alone in 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 my old schnauzer 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?” Pierre’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, terrified 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, my agent, 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 the 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 was a master bullshit artist. 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. At home on the island, everyone knew me, and I rarely considered my appearance, certainly not my origins. But here, thrust into a crowd of North America’s finest, I felt myself as other: indigenous, nonsensically tall, a shabby imposter, a scribbler of cartoons. I was suddenly self-conscious of my mother’s features—high cheekbones and wide mouth—only loosely assembled with Pops’s green eyes and overly serious expression. Neither one thing or the other. And at five-foot-ten in bare feet, I was a tree in heels.
“Now here . . .” Billie 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.” Billie smiled and waved at an acquaintance.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
I tried to straighten my hair—an old nervous habit—but it had been cropped off for the trip. On the advice of Lucy Edenshaw, Huna Island’s only hairdresser (and full-time alpaca farmer) bangs I’d hidden behind for most of my twenty-eight years were now gone, along with the thick black ponytail, replaced by a short cut that Lucy claimed would frame my face better. Lucy liked it, but I felt like Mowgli the wolf boy in drag.
“Why did I say yes to this? I can’t even breathe right. How am I supposed to have a conversation with a table full of strangers?” The energy of the room cut into my vision like white splinters rather than as a sound in my ears, and a full-fledged panic attack never strayed too far behind those first white 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 my heart tugged with fondness and worry. I remembered why I was off island in the first place. When my children’s picture book Pierre! was optioned for a film, I’d agreed to meet with the studio people and do a book signing in Vancouver, solely in hopes that any movie money would help me take care of my elderly father and his buddies, all of them nearing eighty and all of them still living rough.
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.”
“Oh, he’s friendly all right.” I found a cushioned bench against a wall and plopped down in it.
I like to think of myself as a solid person, someone given to hard work and integrity, not swayed by flimsy things like fame or money. But when Jean-Christophe—handsome, famous, charming, the actor the studio had tapped to play the voice of Pierre—had focused all his attentions on me the day before, I had, in fact, been swayed. Why not, I’d thought, any normal woman would be thrilled. And though it had been years since any such encounter—the island not being exactly a hotspot for available bachelors—the results were the same as ever: awkward and disappointing—another “meh” for the record books—and I had intended to never see Jean-Christophe again.
Billie’s eyes widened. “You didn’t . . .”
“But he’s . . .” She sat down next to me. “You know he’s married, right?”
Shame heaped itself on top of embarrassment, and I took a minute to recover before I answered. “He wasn’t wearing a ring. He . . . He never said anything.”
“Well why would he? Lordy, girl! When I told you to live it up a little, I didn’t think you’d take it so far.”
Neither did I. Drugs. Adultery. What was next? Murder?
“Billie, this is going to be a complete shit show.” My mouth said words, but my mind remained snagged on the fact that I had slept with a married man. What a horrible thing to do.
“Nope!” Billie stood, then tugged me up as well. “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.” Billie flagged down a nearby waiter. “Excuse me. Can you please escort Ms. Shepherd and Pierre to their table?”