The Girl Who Loved too Much
The gurney rumbles gently under my exhausted body as the paramedics wheel me carefully out into the bitter cold night. Thick blankets wrap me in a cocoon of warmth. Their comforting embrace dispels some of the tension racing through me. Only moments ago I sat shivering near the open door of La Residence Du Voyageur in Montreal. My disarrayed mind is filled with images of faint light glinting off serrated steel, and the transformation of a lovely face into a caricature of rage. Early January wind had stung the scratches on my shoulders and back. Until then, I had been oblivious of their presence. The adrenaline had been overpowering the pain and effects of the sleeping pills. Now I feel so tired, but I can't sleep, not yet.
"Mr. Chartier?" I look up. One of the paramedics peers down at me. I can't remember his name. "Are you alright?"
Oh sure, doc. I'm doped to the gills and I can't understand three quarters of what you people are saying. What I said instead was: "I'm better now that I'm away from that open door." I think I even try to laugh. I am determined to show none of my feelings to these people.
The Montreal paramedics wheel me out of La Residence Du Voyageur at some point before midnight. The snow has calmed its fury, but the acrimonious wind rakes icy claws down my exposed face. Stripped to the waist, I had been questioned and examined for the last hour. I can still feel the patches the medics put on my chest to monitor my heart rate. Nobody speaks English, except when they ask me something directly. This is another world, a world in which I do not belong.
They smoothly roll me down the sidewalk towards the waiting ambulance. I barely feel the ride. It is confining, but so comfortable. Later, I will see myself captured in that position on the evening news, my hands crossed over my chest, looking like a butterfly in a cocoon, or a corpse on a slab. But for now I ride in blissful ignorance of the media's interest.
Inside the ambulance the wind is merely a faint memory. It feels wonderful to be warm again. I want to drop off to sleep, but I can't until I know where I am being taken. I am ashamed of my paranoia, but right now it is all I have. At least the medics look official. Instead of sleeping, I find myself remembering her: her smile, her delicate hands ... and the shadows that loomed large under the surface of her life.
Audrey ... Even as I lie in the afterdark of her fury, she is lovely to me. Petite, soft and strong willed. She could sing with the voice of an angel, a dragon, or anything in between. We loved fast, and we fell hard. It didn't work out the first time, back in 2001 when we were both so young, but four years later, the old feelings resurfaced after months of casual conversation. We tried again, and it lasted four months. To this day I don't know the decisive factor that spelled the end of what had felt like a sweet dream. There was just a feeling of wrongness that had always been there, and it took me a long time to realize it.
We broke up in November. It was my doing and it was sadly overdue. Three days after it happened, Audrey called. She thought she was pregnant. Knowing it was unlikely, though certainly not impossible, I asked her to have herself tested. She initially refused. When at last she made an appointment, it was a week later. The Appointment was scheduled at the end of that week. She never went.
A few days before the scheduled date, I received an email from a man named Gaston. For some reason, hearing that name always reminds me of the villain in Beauty and the beast. The email was sent to all of the English contacts in her address book, most of whom we both knew. In broken English, he told everyone that while on an errand with her mother, Audrey suddenly collapsed into unconsciousness on the sidewalk. Nobody could wake her. She was rushed to the hospital. The doctors feared for her life at first. They found nothing wrong with her until they did a blood analysis, where upon they learned that she was pregnant. She had lost a lot of blood. This was what had made her slip into what Gaston referred to as a "pregnancy coma". The child, which normally would have died after its mother's severe blood loss was doing fine. Doctors called it "The Little Miracle".
I couldn't believe what I was reading. The girl I'd spoken to such a short time ago was in a coma? And she was pregnant? I didn't know how to feel. You never really realize the chance you take when you sleep with someone until something goes wrong. I received many more emails in the following two weeks from Gaston. Some of them came only to me, and others went to everyone, as the first one had. I spoke no French; her parents spoke no English. When I had someone who spoke French phone her house, they were hung up on angrily.
I researched her condition. I found out that such infirmities were, while possible, extremely rare. Despite this discovery, something felt wrong. The story seemed too convenient; certain elements, too perfect. Doctors were keeping Audrey asleep in order to administer medication that would stop her period. This medication caused severe stomach pains. While I knew of Audrey's aversion to pain, I had never heard of doctors deliberately keeping a patient sedated. When I asked to be briefed on Audrey's condition by a professional, I was told by Gaston that that was not possible. It seemed that there had once been a similar situation in the same hospital. The woman had fallen into one of these pregnancy comas, and the father lived in another province. When he found out which hospital she was staying at, he arrived at the hospital with a gun. He shot a doctor who later died. Research turned up no record of such an incident.
Audrey awoke two weeks after her collapse. We spoke at length about everything that had happened, and about things to come. She was quite spiteful more often than not. I remember her saying that if I hadn't said I would help, her family would hire powerful lawyers to force me to contribute.
My reason for being in Montreal tonight came to me in the form of one of the emails from Audrey's mother, translated by none other than Mr. Gaston. It was the second email she sent to me, after I expressed my willingness to help with the child when he or she was born. The letter expressed a desire for me to participate in a ritual done in one of the ancient cultures native to Quebec. It was a spiritual rite between parents who are not married and who are not together to raise the child. It was to be performed in a dark "virgin" place that neither one of us had ever been together.
Audrey spent many hours with an old tribesman, and he taught her the specifics of the ritual. There was lots of physical touching of the father's arms, legs and stomach by the mother. There were prayers and throat songs, and sap placed on the back and hands of the father. There was also an herbal mixture that would be drunk by both parents to produce a calming affect.
By the end of December, I had become more or less convinced that this problem I faced was genuine. I still had my doubts, and looking back, I realize I should have known better. Everyone counseled me to sit back and wait until the child's birth before worrying about it. Perhaps I should have listened, but I have made many mistakes, some of which have had dire consequences. I swore I would not let this be one of them. I would help my child in any way I could.
I bought a ticket to Montreal for January 7th. I was to stay for three nights; plenty of time to perform the ritual and find out about the legalities of our situation.
It is still the first night of my trip.
I meet Audrey and a friend of hers at the airport. It is around 7PM. I am cold and tired, but determined. Seeing Audrey and hugging her fills me with nostalgia, but I push it away and smile pleasantly.
I get my luggage and we leave the terminal and drive to the hotel. Audrey and her friend jabber animatedly in French the whole time, speaking English only occasionally. I have trouble with my bank card when paying for the reserved room. It is 10PM by the time the room is mine and Audrey's friend leaves us. She would be standing by to pick Audrey up when this was all over. She never had a clue.
We talk a while about nothing before deciding to proceed with the ritual. When I close the door it takes me a moment to figure out the unique lock. It is a switch set into a heavy metal mechanism that you have to press in and slide. When the door is bolted, I shut off the lights. Audrey hands us blindfolds to shield our eyes from the minute light seeping in through the curtained window.
She slips off her shirt, and I touch her belly. I marvel at the warmth flowing through me. This new life now growing within her is what I helped to create. And yet something seems wrong. She is thin, far too thin for a woman half way through her second trimester. I say nothing. I have heard that some women show barely a sign of their pregnancy, even at this second stage.
She presents me with a screw-topped plastic juice bottle. I have been expecting this. Vague thoughts of poison race through my mind. I tell her I want her to drink it first. She agrees, saying: "I've had a lot of trouble with vomiting lately. I think I'd better drink this in the bathroom, just in case."
She goes to the bathroom, and I listen. There is the sound of a lid opening, and a short time later, the water runs. I hear no excess drainage, and when she returns, I sense a lessoning of the bottle's weight.
I drink the contents of the bottle. It is orange juice, but there is definitely a bitter herbal under taste. I hand the nearly empty bottle back.
"I can't believe you drank so much of it," she says. What does she mean? Isn't that the point? "If you feel yourself relax," she went on, "don't fight it. The herbs make the body calm."
I retrieve a towel from the bathroom for the sap, turn back the bed's covers and sit along its length.
I remove my shirt and she spreads something cold and sticky on my back. When I lie back she spreads the same substance on my hands, laying them flat on the bed. The substance smells nothing like pine. What the hell is this? I move my hands slightly, and aside from a slight stickiness they move freely. I relax and put the covers over my legs and feet.
Now what is this? Music? My earlier unease gives a little nudge. The songs are Celtic and Oriental. Music was a passion that brought us together, but this can't be right. I like it, and it is relaxing, but also out of place.
She plays three songs, all the while touching my legs, arms and chest and uttering words under her breath. They are too quiet for me to hear. My unease grows.
After the third song finishes, Audrey moves away from me. In the darkness I can still hear her muttering. This time I recognize the Quebecois lingo, even if I can't understand it.
"Are you okay?" she suddenly asks.
"I'm fine." But am I really? I can hear her moving around in the dark. Every so often I hear a chunking whirring sound. A tape recorder? Is she trying to change the music? I ask her what is going on. She hushes me like a mother quieting a child, and continues muttering to herself. She sounds strange ... almost frightened.
She'd told me the herbs were supposed to relax us. I feel far from relaxed. There's a tightening in my chest, and my heart is rattling like a restless cockatiel. I try to move my hands, and they are stuck fast to the sheet. Meanwhile, Audrey is crossing the room towards me. I work my hands gently back and forth, testing the resistance. Ritual or not, I would not be bound. She stops beside the bed, just as one of my hands pulls free. I can hear the slight ripping sound as skin and cloth separate from whatever bound them together.
"What was that?" Audrey asks.
"I have no idea," I say.
As we speak, I gently pull my other hand free. She feels my arm, and then my hand. I keep it flat on the bed so she won't know I'm free. But why? Why should that matter?
She begins tucking the blankets up around my shoulders. What's she doing? Where's all the skin contact the ritual was supposed to require?
"What's going on?" I ask.
She hushed me. "We're almost done."
I am tucked securely in the blankets now. My heart races. And yet there is another feeling. Comfort. I feel I should throw the blankets off and rise ... and yet I just can't get up the strength.
"Okay .... Okay...." She says this more to herself than to me. Again that nervous tone. Is she trying to convince herself of something? She pulls her hand away from my neck. "Did I remember to tell you that you needed to put something in your mouth?"
I froze. "No, you didn't. And that's not going to happen."
She puts a gentle hand on either side of my head and then lets me go. When her silken fingers caress my throat I flinch. They are cold as hoarfrost.
Move! I want to heed the command. I want to sit up and run. But what then? It's not like she's hurting me. It's not like she will.
She gently cups the swell of my neck, and still I can't move. She wouldn't try to strangle me. She's not strong enough.
"What's going on?" I ask. "None of this has anything to do with the ritual you told me about."
She sits on the edge of the bed. The scent of her peachy perfume washes over me, but there is something else underneath it that I can't make out.
"I think you deserve an explanation," she says softly. Then something hard is in my ear, and before I can move, I hear a click, and then a voice in my ear. It is hers!
"Hello Remy, it's Audrey. Yeah, I know I'm right beside you, but you know me. If I'd have tried to do this in person, I'd have cried. So I recorded this message ahead of time." I'm vaguely aware of her moving beside me. Something cold presses against my Adam's apple. There's a slight pressure, and the sensation of tentative nibbling teeth. "I wanted you to know the reason that you're really here tonight -"
In one quick motion I am sitting up. My hands grab the blade at my throat and fling it aside. "I knew it!" Then I am up and moving.
"What are you doing!" she screams at me. I rip off the blindfold and a flash of light glances off the upraised blade as Audrey runs at me. I grab her wrists. The knife falls, and then there are nails digging into my arms, then my shoulders. I fling her back. She careens into the hotels desk, bounces off and throws herself at me. I don't feel any pain - am barely aware she is scratching my skin. I fling her again, and then retreat to the door.
The knob turns but the door won't move. I can hear her coming again. A shaft of light gleams off her bare skin. I realize the door is locked. I paw at the damn latch, but can't budge it. When Audrey comes close I automatically grab her shoulders. I want to kick her in the chest to put her down for a moment, but instead I fling her a third time, losing sight of her as she stumbles across the room. My fingers fumble with the latch and it clicks. I am opening the door. Light floods the room and she is coming again. I back quickly out and slam the door ... then I stand there, just breathing hard, not from exertion, but rather the dawning comprehension of what could have been.
For a moment I think Audrey will fling open the door and follow me into the hall, but she doesn't. I stand in the hall trying to regain control. When I feel I have, I descend the stairs to the lobby, still feeling no pain or weakness.
The concierge stands at his desk as I approach. I know I must look a mess, but I don't care. He has one hand on his hip and the other behind his back, and suddenly anyone could be a part of it.
"Yes sir?" He inquires. I can't see his expression.
"I'm in a lot of trouble," I manage."
"What's wrong?" I still can't see his hands.
"Could you put your hands on the desk?" He does so. They are empty, but it doesn't help.
I haven't a clue where to begin, but I finally manage to explain the basic situation. I don't think he believes me, but he gives me a phone. I call up to the room. Audrey answers immediately. She sounds deathly calm.
"You tried to kill me!" I say.
"Yeah ... I know."
A pause, and then: "Ever since I met you four years ago I haven't been able to get over you. Then you broke up with me all of a sudden. I still wanted you, either alive or dead."
I can't believe it. Finally I say: "You're not really pregnant, are you?"
"No. I never was."
"I didn't think so ... What did you put on my hands?"
I examine my hands for the first time. Sure enough I find the tell-tale jagged abrasions of dried glue.
"What was in the drink? It wasn't herbs, was it?"
"No. it was sleeping pills."
"I don't remember."
"How long do they take to work?"
"Fast. I'm surprised you're still standing."
My mind is racing. "Who else knew about this?"
"Who else knows?"
Only the click of a disconnected line answers me.
What happened next can be described in a single word: chaos. The police arrived before the medics. Their babble to one another was incomprehensible. I had no idea what they and the concierge talked about. I remember asking something like "can I really trust you guys?" I felt silly even as I said it. I was on auto-pilot by then. I couldn't think as clearly as I kept telling myself I needed to, but I felt ready to take on the whole world. Ready to punch and kick any cop who tried anything funny. I didn't know who I could trust. Everyone was talking French a mile a minute, except when asking me questions. I was shirtless and shoeless, and shivering uncontrollably from the cold. The last I saw of Audrey she was being led down the stairs by the police. She spoke with them, and her voice was calm, casual. I would never hear it again.