Authors: Margaret Atwood
The protest march was thrilling at first. It was downtown, near the Legislature Building, though it wasn’t really a march because nobody marched anywhere, they were too jammed together. People made speeches. A Canadian relative of a woman who’d died in the Gilead Colonies cleaning up deadly radiation talked about slave labour. The leader of the Survivors of Gilead National Homelands Genocide told about the forced marches to North Dakota, where people had been crowded like sheep into fenced-in ghost towns with no food and water, and how thousands had died, and how people were risking their lives walking north to the Canadian border in winter, and he held up a hand with missing fingers and said, Frostbite.
Then a speaker from SanctuCare—the refugee organization for escaped Gilead women—spoke about those whose babies had been taken away from them, and how cruel that was, and how if you tried to get your baby back they would accuse you of disrespecting God. I couldn’t hear all the speeches because sometimes the sound system cut out, but the meaning was clear enough. There were a lot of Baby Nicole posters:
ALL GILEAD BABIES ARE BABY NICOLE!
Then our school group shouted things and held up our signs, and other people had different signs:
DOWN WITH GILIBAD FASCISTS! SANCTUARY NOW!
Right then some counter-marchers turned up with different signs:
CLOSE THE BORDER! GILEAD KEEP YOUR OWN SLUTS AND BRATS, WE GOT ENOUGH HERE! STOP THE INVASION! HANDJOBS GO HOME!
Among them there was a group of those Pearl Girls in their silvery dresses and pearls—with signs saying
DEATH TO BABY STEALERS
GIVE BACK BABY NICOLE
. People on our side were throwing eggs at them and cheering when one hit, but the Pearl Girls just kept smiling in their glassy way.
Scuffles broke out. A group of people dressed in black with their faces covered started smashing store windows. Suddenly there were a lot of police in riot gear. They seemed to come out of nowhere. They were banging their shields and moving forward, and hitting kids and other people with their batons.
Up to that time I’d been elated, but now I was scared. I wanted to get out of there, but it was so jam-packed I could hardly move. I couldn’t find the rest of my class, and the crowd was panicking. People surged this way and that, screaming and shouting. Something hit me in the stomach: an elbow, I think. I was breathing fast and I could feel tears coming out of my eyes.
“This way,” said a gravelly voice behind me. It was Ada. She grabbed me by the collar and dragged me behind her. I’m not sure how she cleared a path: I’m guessing she kicked legs. Then we were in a street behind the riot, as they called it later on
. When I saw the footage I thought, Now I know what it feels like to be in a riot: it feels like drowning. Not that I’d ever drowned.
“Melanie said you might be here,” said Ada. “I’m taking you home.”
“No, but—” I said. I didn’t want to admit that I was scared.
“Right now. Toot sweet. No ifs and buts.”
I saw myself on the news that night: I was holding up a sign and shouting. I thought Neil and Melanie would be furious with me, but they weren’t. Instead they were anxious. “Why did you do that?” said Neil. “Didn’t you hear us?”
“You always said a person should stand up against injustice,” I said. “The school says that too.” I knew I’d crossed a line, but I wasn’t about to apologize.
“What’s our next move?” said Melanie, not to me but to Neil. “Daisy, could you get me a water? There’s some ice in the fridge.”
“It might not be so bad,” said Neil.
“We can’t take the chance,” I heard Melanie saying. “We need to get moving, like yesterday. I’m calling Ada, she can arrange a van.”
“There’s no fallback ready,” said Neil. “We can’t…”
I came back into the room with the glass of water. “What’s going on?” I said.
“Don’t you have homework?” said Neil.
Three days later there was a break-in at The Clothes Hound. The store had an alarm, but the burglars were in and out before anyone could get there, which was the problem with alarms, said Melanie. They didn’t find any money because Melanie never kept cash there, but they took some of the Wearable Art, and they trashed Neil’s office—his files were scattered over the floor. They also took some of his collectibles—a few clocks and old cameras, an antique wind-up clown. They set a fire, but in an amateur way, said Neil, so the fire was quickly put out.
The police came around and asked if Neil and Melanie had any enemies. They said that no they didn’t, and everything was okay—probably it was only some street people after drug money—but I could tell they were upset because they were talking in that way they had when they didn’t want me to hear.
“They got the camera,” Neil was saying to Melanie as I was coming into the kitchen.
“What camera?” I said.
“Oh, just an old camera,” Neil said. More hair-tugging. “A rare one, though.”
From then on, Neil and Melanie got more and more jittery. Neil ordered a new alarm system for the store. Melanie said we might be moving to a different house, but when I started asking questions she said it was just an idea. Neil said
No harm done
about the break-in. He said it several times, which left me wondering what sort of harm actually had been done, besides the disappearance of his favourite camera.
The night after the break-in, I found Melanie and Neil watching
. They didn’t usually really watch it—it was just always on—but this time they were intent. A Pearl Girl identified only as “Aunt Adrianna” had been found dead in a condo that she and her Pearl Girls companion had rented. She’d been tied to a doorknob with her own silvery belt around her neck. She’d been dead for a number of days, said the forensic expert. It was another condo owner who’d detected the smell and alerted the police. The police said it was a suicide, self-strangulation in this manner being a common method.
There was a picture of the dead Pearl Girl. I studied it carefully: sometimes it was hard to tell Pearl Girls apart because of their outfits, but I remembered she’d been in The Clothes Hound recently, handing out brochures. So had her partner, identified as “Aunt Sally,” who—said the news anchor—was nowhere to be found. There was a picture of her too: police were asking that sightings be reported. The Gilead Consulate had made no comment as yet.
“This is terrible,” said Neil to Melanie. “The poor girl. What a catastrophe.”
“Why?” I said. “The Pearl Girls work for Gilead. They hate us. Everyone knows that.”
They both looked at me then. What’s the word for that look?
, I think. I was baffled: why should they care?
The really bad thing happened on my birthday. The morning started as if things were normal. I got up, I put on my green plaid Wyle School uniform—did I say we had a uniform? I added my black lace-up shoes to my green-socked feet, pulled my hair back into the ponytail that was among the prescribed school looks—no dangling locks—and headed downstairs.
Melanie was in the kitchen, which had a granite island. What I would have liked instead was one of the resin-and-recycled tops like those in our school cafeteria—you could see down through the resin to the objects inside, which in one counter included a raccoon skeleton, so there was always something to focus on.
The kitchen island was where we ate most of our meals. We did have a living-dining area with a table. That was supposed to be for dinner parties, but Melanie and Neil didn’t throw dinner parties; instead they threw meetings, which had to do with various causes of theirs. The night before, some people had come over: there were still several coffee cups on the table, and a plate with cracker crumbs and a few wizened grapes. I hadn’t seen who these people were because I was upstairs in my room, avoiding the fallout from whatever it was I had done. That thing was evidently bigger than simple disobedience.
I went into the kitchen and sat down at the island. Melanie’s back was to me; she was looking out the window. From that window you could see our yard—round cement planters with rosemary bushes in them, a patio with an outdoor table and chairs, and a corner of the street at the front.
“Morning,” I said. Melanie whipped around.
“Oh! Daisy!” she said. “I didn’t hear you! Happy birthday! Sweet sixteen!”
Neil didn’t turn up for breakfast before it was time for me to leave for school. He was upstairs talking on his phone. I was slightly hurt, but not very: he was very absent-minded.
Melanie drove me, as she usually did: she didn’t like me going to school by myself on the bus, even though the stop was right near our house. She said—as she always said—that she was on her way to The Clothes Hound and she might as well drop me off.
“Tonight we’ll have your birthday cake, with ice cream,” she said, her voice rising at the end as if it was a question. “I’ll pick you up after school. There are some things Neil and I want to tell you, now that you’re old enough.”
“Okay,” I said. I thought this was going to be about boys and what consent meant, which I’d heard enough about at school. It was bound to be awkward, but I would have to get through it.
I wanted to say I was sorry for having gone to the protest march, but then we were at the school and I hadn’t said it. I got out of the car silently; Melanie waited until I was at the entrance. I waved at her, and she waved back. I don’t know why I did that—I didn’t usually. I guess it was a sort of apology.
I don’t remember that school day much, because why would I? It was normal. Normal is like looking out a car window. Things pass by, this and that and this and that, without much significance. You don’t register such hours; they’re habitual, like brushing your teeth.
A few of my homework friends sang “Happy Birthday” to me in the cafeteria while we were having lunch. Some of the others clapped.
Then it was the afternoon. The air was stale, the clock slowed down. I sat in French class, where we were supposed to be reading a page from a novella by Colette—
, about a music-hall star hiding a couple of men in her wardrobe.
well as being French, it was supposed to be about how terrible life used to be for women, but Mitsou’s life didn’t seem so terrible to me. Hiding a handsome man in her closet—I wished I could do that. But even if I knew such a man, where could I stash him? Not in my own bedroom closet: Melanie would catch on right away, and if not, I’d have to feed him. I gave that some thought: What sort of food could I sneak without Melanie noticing? Cheese and crackers? Sex with him would be out of the question: it would be too risky to let him out of the closet, and there wasn’t room for me to cram myself in there with him. This was the kind of daydreaming I often did in school: it passed the time.
Still, it was a problem in my life. I’d never gone out with anyone because I’d never met anyone I might want to go out with. There seemed to be no way that could happen. Boys from the Wyle School were not possible: I’d gone through grade school with them, I’d seen them pick their noses, and some of them had been pants-wetters. You can’t feel romantic with those images in your mind.
By this time I was feeling glum, which is one of the effects a birthday can have: you’re expecting a magic transformation but then it doesn’t happen. To keep myself awake I pulled hairs out of my head, in behind my right ear, just two or three hairs at a time. I knew that if I pulled out that same hair too often I risked creating a bald spot, but I had only begun this habit a few weeks before.
Finally the time was up and I could go home. I walked along the polished hall towards the front door of the school and stepped outside. There was a light drizzle; I didn’t have my raincoat. I scanned the street: Melanie wasn’t waiting in her car.
All of a sudden Ada appeared beside me, in her black leather jacket. “Come on. Let’s get in the car,” she said.
“What?” I said. “Why?”
“It’s about Neil and Melanie.” I looked at her face, and I could tell: something really bad must have happened. If I’d been older I would’ve asked what it was right away, but I didn’t because I wanted to postpone the moment when I would know what it was. In stories I’d read, I’d come across the words
. They’d just been words then, but now that’s exactly what I felt.
Once we were in the car and she’d started driving, I said, “Did someone have a heart attack?” It was all I could think of.
“No,” Ada said. “Listen carefully and don’t freak out on me. You can’t go back to your house.”
The awful feeling in my stomach got worse. “What is it? Was there a fire?”
“There’s been an explosion,” she said. “It was a car bomb. Outside The Clothes Hound.”
“Shit. Is the store wrecked?” I said. First the break-in, and now this.
“It was Melanie’s car. She and Neil were both in it.”
I sat there for a minute without speaking; I couldn’t make sense of this. What kind of maniac would want to kill Neil and Melanie? They were so ordinary.
“So they’re dead?” I said finally. I was shivering. I tried to picture the explosion, but all I could see was a blank. A black square.