The park was really more of a parkette. Noam had shared on the walk over that it had been, before the water started rising and the neighbourhood geography started changing, a divider between the East Hastings Community and the rest of the city. The park had been a symbol of where the ‘rougher’ part of Vancouver began, and where the meek of heart should not pass. It was a part of Canada that many had chosen to avoid. It was an ordinary parkette for all intents and purposes. Swatches of grass, a few trees here and there, and some places to sit. The thing that stood out was that it was now a living space. The sprawl of East Hastings had long crept past the park and there were tents throughout it. Getting closer, Stella noticed that the tents here were slightly nicer (aka, less dirty and old), and more uniform than the other living dwellings she’d seen in the neighbourhood. She noted that the entrances to the parkette and its perimeter were walled off by people. Men, women, and children all stood around loosely creating a human divider between the rest of the community, and the people and things within the park. When she’d first walked past this park, she’d thought these people were just killing time, and that it was a busy and crowded park, but now she could see these people had a very clear function.
“How are we going to get past these people?” She slowed her pace, hesitant to get closer until they had a good plan.
“Easy,” Noam replied, not breaking his stride. “Just watch and learn.”
Keeping pace with Noam, Stella watched him as his eyes began scanning the wall of people near them. His eyes stopped on a small woman holding hands with a young girl who seemed distraught and distracted. They were doing their job of being a barrier but Stella could see how they appeared less focused than others. Some of the people, a lot of the people, had that glaze she’d grown familiar with. They were zombie-afied, she was sure of it.
To the left of the mother and possible daughter duo, about twenty people away, was an older man who was being rejected from the park. He fell loudly on the cement, having clearly been pushed from behind. He cried out when he landed but quickly threw a hand over his mouth, silencing his pain. Watching him, his desperate eyes ripped through Stella’s heart. He sat for a moment not moving on the cement before slowly, painfully, tearfully he rose and limped away. The anger that had temporarily been on a low simmer began to boil again. It was not right for anyone to be treated like that.
Noam hadn’t noticed the man, he was already locked into his target and moving towards it. He walked with utmost confidence towards the mother and daughter, that when he reached them, they had already shifted out of his way. He spoke a few words to them, and when Stella reached the opening, they allowed her to pass without a word. Smiling big at them, they never raised their eyes to see her thanks. Sometimes all the sadness of the world was more than her heart could bear. She wanted to help but she didn’t know how. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to process the painful energy that was coursing through her.
Up ahead but not too far away, as the park itself was not so very big, was Noam and he continued to march with real authority. He clearly had a target in mind again and Stella felt relieved that she didn’t have to handle the situation.
Noam didn’t look back when he entered a green tent with a big ! on the side of it. What did she want to do? Follow him in, or stay outside and out of whatever experience was currently occurring in the tent? She paused a bit longer to consider her options and as she took her first step towards the tent, she watched Noam be forcefully ejected from the tent. Most of him emerged from the tent, though a foot got caught on the corner of the door flap and he loudly fell to the ground, still finishing whatever it was he’d been saying before he was removed.
Rushing over to him, she was amused to see Noam crawling back into the tent, unperturbed by his previous rejection. His head was now locked in between some beefy-looking dude’s shins but he kept talking. In the space between the muscles of the beefcake, Stella could see an amused Chris at the back of the tent. There were weird, primitive drawings of bears, serpents, eagles and other majestic beasts that surrounded him, and covered the walls of the tent.
“…lied to me, Chris. You knew what the Rewriter would do to us if we listened to one of his stories.” Noam’s voice sounded remarkably un-strained despite the fact that his head was stuck in a flesh vice. “If you don’t talk to me, I’m going to tell every person I meet what happens here.” She was surprised to hear him threatening someone.
Using the pause in his rant as he inhaled for more breath, Stella made herself known in the tent. Predictably, upon Chris realizing she was there, his eyes took on a certain glowing smile and he motioned for the Human Tank to make room for her. Noam had launched into his threats once again but Chris’ eyes did not leave her. This, predictably, after a few moments, left Noam infuriated, and his voice grew louder and shriller. “You are robbing people of their identities and turning them into your slaves, under the guise that you can help them heal their pain. You’re a piece of shit, Chris. And a fucking terrible person.”
Stella shifted in her place, feeling uncomfortable with the highly emotional approach Noam was taking. His words sounded so ineffective to her, and the fact that he was on all fours, made it all seem all the more pathetic. He reminded her of a whiny, barking dog the way he kept throwing angry words Chris’ way. The whole thing felt very undignified and she needed it to stop so stepped in front of the heated and crouching Noam and addressed Chris. “Chris, look, we know what it really going down with the Rewriter. We were there. We escaped. And we don’t plan on staying quiet about it. We plan to tell everyone who will listen what we know. The truth is going to come out, and we’re going to make it happen.” Stella folded her arms across her body and widened her stance, ready for his reaction to her words.
“Go ahead and tell.” That’s all Chris said in response, his eyes never leaving her.
She’d been in her fair amount of conflicts in her life and she’d gotten pretty skilled at determining what approach would get her closest to her goal. She knew Chris’ type well, they were not willing and possibility not even able to be anything but aggressive and defiant when challenged. As a child, this ability to reason with unreasonable people found her being encouraged by her mother to become a lawyer. Stella had been wise enough, even as a child, to know that an ability to reason with difficult people was not enough for her to want to spend her life working in an occupation she saw as one of control and fear. This was a view that she had never shared aloud. Her world previous to this had been filled with lawyerly types and other professionals, and needing to fit in at least a little, she had learned the value of not sharing everything—or anything—of what she really felt and thought. This learning, it turned out, made her an even better arguer as she felt little need to bring her emotions and opinions into the discussion. Or so she liked to believe.
Never one to back down from a challenge, and Chris was certainly silently challenging her with the smirk his face held, Stella approached Chris and stood before him. If her tiny frame could ever be described as hulking, the moment was now. She was doing what she could to take up as much room in the tent as she could.
She could feel Noam being released from his headlock behind her, and rising, he stood tall and matched her authoritative stance. Choosing her words very carefully, she began to manipulate the conversation to her liking. “May I ask you a few questions about this whole thing you’ve got going on with the Rewriter?” She moved to stand directly in front of Chris, her eyes smiling at him.
Chris leaned forward so close to Stella that she was tempted to step back. She could see the individual popped blood vessels on his face, and the individual pores where his scraggily goatee was emerging from. She stood her ground, internally repulsed by the proximity she was to Chris, and waited for her response. She could hear Noam shifting, uncomfortably.
Chris sat back in his chair, nay thrown, and matching the controlled tone she had used, he said, “Alright. But for every question you ask me, I get to ask you one.”
No way. She could feel her fear rise. She did not want to talk about herself. Despite her mind rejecting the idea, her mouth did not. “Fine. How long have you guys been farming people?”
“Oh, say nine years or so. Who was your first sexual experience with? And how old were you?”
“Only one question, Chris. Play by the rules. River was the first person. How many people do you have working on your human farm?”
“I’d prefer you’d call it a business. Roughly 3,000 people have worked or work for our business. Boy or girl?”
“I’m a girl, obviously, Chris.” She was having fun. “How many people no longer work for your ‘business’?”
“Say 10 000 or so. You know what I meant. Was River a boy or a girl?”
“A girl. What’s happened to your 10 000 old ‘employees’?”
“I can’t say. How old were you when you had this ‘experience’?”
“You can’t or you won’t?”
“I can’t. How old were you?”
“Eight, maybe nine. Are the 10 000 still alive?”
“Probably not. Ever been with a guy?”
“Yes. Why are they probably dead?”
“The usual stuff. Cancer. Heart disease. Where you from?”
“Chicago. So you worked them to death?”
“You could say that. An American, you don’t say. I wouldn’t have guessed. You seem more understated. Where in Chicago?”
“In the city. Why are you doing this? Using people?”
“Let’s get something clear here, girlie. I’m not using anyone. THEY want different lives, THEY don’t want to be themselves anymore, if anything, I’m providing them a service. I’m giving them exactly what they want. And I get to benefit. Why wouldn’t I do this? You’re parents must be rich, right?”
She didn’t like that he’d inferred that. How could he tell? She felt embarrassed that she had shown her pretension somehow. “Maybe.” She was thrown off her game and she needed to pause to think. “You’re turning individuals into matching mindless worker bees who do your bidding. You’re not helping these people, Chris.”
“That wasn’t a question. You lose your turn. How old are you?”
“Nineteen. Do you tell these people what they’re going to become?”
“No. Are you a virgin?”
Stella didn’t answer, staring pointedly at Chris. She knew his questions were meant to provoke her. “If you’re so sure you’re helping them, why don’t you give them all the information?”
“They don’t ask. What’s your real hair colour? This dark look is working for me.”
“I can’t say,” Stella replied cutely. “So no one has ever asked about the specifics of how the Rewriter can change their lives? They just blindly believe he can?” She found that really fucking hard to believe.
“Yeah. It looks like you believed too. Or you wouldn’t be in my face now. People want to believe what they want to believe—they want their life to be different, they want to be a different character in a different story, and they want to believe that’s exactly what the Rewriter can do for them. And he does. It’s not my problem that you think the new story’s not good enough for you.”
“I never believed he could do anything. That was Noam. I’m not that stupid.” The words left her mouth before her brain remembered who else was in the room. She purposely didn’t look his way and continued. “I don’t know what Noam believes exactly but I do not believe that other people would believe so easily that one man could erase every bad choice they’ve ever made in their life. The idea is ridiculous.”
“Is it that ridiculous? I think you need to get a better understanding of desperation, girlie. People believe that a pill can erase all their poor diet choices, what’s the difference? Do you have a boyfriend… or maybe it’s a girlfriend?”
She ignored his question. Did she understand desperation? Not really. What had she ever been desperate for? She’d always had more than what she needed. She felt at a loss for questions but she didn’t want Chris to know that. Before she could attempt to cover her emptiness with words, Noam’s voice rang out and startled her.
“If someone asked you what they were about to become, would you tell them the truth?”