Nothing’s where it’s supposed to be these days and it’s pissing Mae off. She, for example, isn’t warm in bed beside the woman she loves in the middle of the night. Oh, no: instead, she’s shivering in the driver’s seat of her ’98 Geo Tracker in the Save-On-Foods parking lot, waiting for the morning’s issues to arrive. Forced courage and inky newsprint are Mae’s new routine: every morning for the past forty-seven mornings she’s been here, but it’s not really where she belongs.
Mae knows that Katie isn’t where she belongs lately, either.
She found the messages by accident a month ago, but once she saw them, Mae couldn’t not see them. She’d scrolled all the way back to the beginning—scrolled so far and through so many messages that her thumb cramped. It started with innocent produce emojis and small talk. Work chat. Forwarded memes. Flirty produce emojis and innuendo. Inside jokes. Selfies. Venting about Mae. Sexy selfies. It isn’t easy to live with Mae. Then, and most painfully, the messages turned to routine: “You eat yet?” and simply, horrifically, “ :-)”. Communications of comfort, convenience, check-ins. Mae had exhumed the mundane chat of a relationship—just not the relationship Katie was supposed to be in.
Now, Mae flips the keys in the ignition, waiting for the murky-green dashboard light to pop on with the time. 2:03. She has until 2:07 before she has to get out of the Tracker’s cocoon, and she’s going to savor every minute she has. She breathes fastbut sips her store-brand diet cola slowly through a chewed-up straw. She closes her eyes as the familiar tingle of aspartame fizzles over her taste buds.
You’re okay. This is fine. You’re okay. Mae whispers her mantra under her breath, rubbing the cuffs of her faded hoodie under her thumbs. This is fine.
“Ya must be freezing your nuts off in there, eh?” Another delivery guy, Jason, bangs on her passenger-side window. Mae freezes, feels the acid-toned chill of anxiety simmer through her. Jason grins at her and rolls his wrist, gesturing for her to turn down the glass. Mae smiles awkwardly and nods, hoping he’ll go away. A lot of the time, this kind of guy just wants her to smile for him, to feel like he’s the hero that turned her mood around—to be the guy that put a pop of pretty onto her resting visage of scowl. Mae smiles, but Jason keeps rolling his damn wrist like he’s a flamenco dancer.
“Hi,” Mae says, conscious of her heart beating faster as she leans over and cranks down the window a few inches.
“Morning, hun. How ya doing? See the Canucks game?” he asks.
“No.” Mae says, averting her eyes. Jason keeps smiling stupidly at her and slurping his coffee.
The only thing Mae hates more than talking to other people is knowing that people are waiting for her to talk. Mae and Jason sit in silence for moment, and she wonders what he’s getting out of this interaction.
Chussssssh. Luckily, the forced morning tete-a-terrible is clipped by the booming, exhaust-filled arrival of the newspaper big-rig. Brimming with the confidence of a man whose sweat-stained T-shirt wasn’t sullied with Cheetos residue, Jason struts off towards the truck with a little wave, leaving Mae to mourn the loss of her last minutes of nothingness before she trudges after him to pick up her own issues.
Here’s Mae’s dirty little secret: for the past three weeks, she’s been an adult paper delivery person between the hours of two and five a.m. It’s a secret to anyone who might notice or care—which could really only be Katie, who has yet to notice or care. Her official day job is still ‘Katie’s weird stay-at-home girlfriend,’ but Mae needs to start making her own money again. It’s fine though: only two-hundred or so papers a morning, and she doesn’t have to see or talk to many people. What Mae doesn’t enjoy about the job—the mornings so early they’re still last night, the paper cuts—she makes up for in the lack of human interaction required to get paid.
“So … six bundles of Provinces, two Suns. Here’s your singles. Got it … ?” Stan, the site supervisor, mumbles at Mae, eyes flicking back and forth from the printout in his hand to the remaining bundles of newspapers at Mae’s feet.
“Yeahhhhhhgotitthanks,” Mae sputters to break the silence, so softly that Stan looks up and squints.
“Huh?” Stan coughs.
Beads of sweat bubble from Mae’s pale pores. A variety of normal things she could say flash through Mae’s mind, too quickly for her to grab hold of one, so she says nothing.
Stan stares at Mae, his heavy eyelids assessing her wearily. Mae imagines what he’s thinking: What’s happening? Why is this girl freaking out? Will I have to fill out a WCB report?
Stan looks down and clears his throat to spare Mae the shame of her visible panic, but also in the obvious hope that she’ll leave and cease to be his problem. Sometimes Mae hates this brand of kindness the most.
Every encounter is a confrontation to Mae these days.
What people used to laugh off as shyness now makes it nearly impossible for her to get through any interaction unscathed. A weekday trip to the grocery store is now a maze of nutritional humiliation. Running into an old friend on the bus means Mae’s going to get off in the middle of nowhere and walk an extra hour to reach her destination. Forget about ordering anything in a restaurant without tears of frustration and fear and embarrassment raining on the tablecloth.
Going to her old work was the worst, though—casual cases of the Mondays escalated to sweaty palms when her boss asked her a simple question; grew to bringing her laptop into the bathroom stall for hours to avoid the lingering voicemails haunting her cubicle; intensified to stress vomiting in the parking lot, driving away, and never going back. Which sucked. Because work used to be something Mae treasured: she had, after all, met Katie at the office.
Back then, Mae was an accountant. She’d always liked the solidity of numbers. Numbers don’t have feelings, and spreadsheets never think you’re a mess. It was a natural fit. She was lucky to get a junior job straight out of school, and luckier still to start on the same day as Katie.
From the moment they met, Mae could be herself with Katie. Katie, with her cerulean-blue highlights hiding beneath a crown of black curls—“business with a blowout, party with a ponytail,” she’d explained the first Saturday they’d spent together. Katie, who still drove three hours to see her childhood dentist and spent thousands of dollars keeping a twenty-year-old cat on life support. Katie, who’d used her Motorola Razr until 2013 because she’d once saved for a summer to acquire it, even when the buttons broke and it became a glorified walkie-talkie. Katie, who wasn’t afraid of speaking in a meeting or ordering a latte. Katie, who took care of everything and kept Mae around as a matter of principle—years after they stopped holding hands.
By 2:23, Mae’s driven to the street behind her route to sort her papers by flashlight in the trunk. The other carriers organize their routes right away in the parking lot, using the helpful din of the marigold glow of the Save-On sign, but Mae needs the solitude.
A raccoon shuffles in the bushes, startling Mae. She swears under her breath. Distractions mess with her system. She spreads out each building’s colour-coded cue card on the bumper and carefully marks any delivery changes, transcribing cancellations and new customer details from the morning’s crumpled printout. When she’s done, she makes a neat stack for each building and double checks her numbers. Mae’s paranoid someone will complain—that her natural tendency towards failure will seep through the night and into the morning.
You’re okay. Mae takes a moment to breathe and look up at the stars before she starts. This is fine. She likes this point in the morning, when the sun won’t rise for hours but the sky brims with brightness that’s just out of reach. It reminds her of being inside the blanket forts she’d built as a child: so dark the world was transformed, though pinpricks of light seeped in through thin threads, only barely denying her the sanctuary of feeling hidden.
This is fine, Mae tells herself once more for good measure.
“You’re okay,” Katie had said the day she came home at lunch to find Mae crumpled in a ball on the kitchen linoleum, binge-eating soda crackers and Kraft singles.
“I can’t go back. I can’t go back,” Mae had said, spitting crumbs, aware of how she looked, but unable to stop. “I’m the worst.”
“The worst?” Katie said. “Really? Are you a murderer? A reality THOT? A telemarketer?
Mae had blinked up at Katie through tear-swollen eyes. Katie was using the tone she usually reserved for her three-year-old nephew.
“No? You’re not? It’s official then,” Katie had smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I guess you’re okay.”
Mae shoved another cracker into her mouth, letting the dry morsels scratch at the back of her throat. She coughed, choking on the crumbs.
Katie sighed, “Mae? It’s fine.”
On the top floor of her last building of the morning, Mae places newspapers at the doormats for suites 301, 312 and 313. She nudges the rounded corners of each issue back and forth, making sure the headlines run parallel with each door frame—a time-consuming step that Mae can’t help but take pride in. Mae believes in the power of presentation.
“Excuse me?” A door creaks gently and a soft voice emerges behind Mae as she finishes lining up the issue for 313. “I, I need some help.”
Mae turns. She notices the open doorway first—creeping around so early in the morning, she’s never glimpsed inside any the suites she delivers to, and her first instinct is to voyeur into a stranger’s world. Guilty, Mae averts her eyes, and sees her: crumpled at the base of 312’s open doorway, someone ebbs from the shadows in a way Mae can’t quite process at first. Then Mae sees the blood. The woman is all gnarled limbs and frizzed hair and pale-pink nightgown, but when she looks up, Mae recognizes a familiar fear in her eyes.
“I fell,” the woman whispers, her eyes lowered, struggling to get the words out. “I was getting a glass of water, and I can’t find the telephone, and … I heard you in the hallway.”
The woman raises a shaking hand to her own face, awkwardly wiping at a mix of tears and blood.
“You’re bleeding,” Mae says, then immediately regrets stating the obvious.
The woman’s face is bleeding a lot, dripping onto her nightgown, which grows ombré as bright sangria-hued blood flows and dries in gradient shades.
“Oh. Sorry,” the woman says, shifting in the doorway.
Mae nods her understandingand stands self-consciously over the woman. Mae isn’t good at taking action.
“Can you. Could you call an ambulance?” the woman finally says, melting closer to the floor. “Please.”
“Sure,” Mae winces, embarrassed that this poor woman is forced to help Mae be helpful, but also because she hates speaking on the phone. Pausing only for a moment, Mae dials 9-1-1 and asks for an ambulance.
Mae stands and the woman sits in the hallway, quietly, for a moment. Neither looks at each other.
“I, I always listen for you delivering, if I’m up, you know. Keeps me company,” the woman says, eventually. Loneliness is palpable in her voice, and the subsequent silence fills the air between them with a heavy musk.
“Do you have a towel? Maybe, maybe I should put something on that cut. While we wait?” Mae says, hoping to escape the awkwardness.
“There’s a linen closet,” the woman says.
Mae shuffles closer to the door, pushes it wide open, and then steps over the woman, into the apartment. This is fine. There’s no elegant way to step over a bleeding woman. You’re doing fine, Mae thinks. She skulks through the small apartment in search of something useful. The décor inside is clean enough but bare—a book shelf with a few tattered novels, meticulously aligned. A musky couch and a wine-stained TV table. A crystal bowl filled with plastic-wrapped strawberry candies. Well-dusted fragments of a quiet life lived alone.
Mae grabs a towel from the closet. She takes her time making her way back to the women, scanning the apartment’s walls around for photos of the woman, for mementos of this life story she’s been forced to interact with, but the floral wallpaper offers no clues but a few signed covers of Soap Opera Digest, framed.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” the woman says, softly as Mae returns and gently presses the towel to her cheek.
Mae leans over the woman and says what she thinks Katie would say, “You’re going to be okay.”
When the paramedics arrive, Mae leaves the towel and the rest of her newspapers in the hallway. She walks down the hall, away from the woman’s world, slipping away from her future.
When Mae gets home at 5:47, she takes off her delivery clothes and puts them into the kitchen garbage can, covering them with food scraps. She knows that her delivery days are over. Her will to leave and set Katie free floats into just another failed idea. She’s quit so many things that she knows that the disappointment she feels in herself will soon turn anger, but then to relief.
At 6:00, Katie’s alarm goes off. A practical beeping wail. Mae watches while Katie rolls over carefully, turns off the alarm, and, smiling, checks her phone for messages.
“Morning,” Mae says.
“Oh! You’re up so early! Go back to bed,” Katie says, glancing at Mae, then back at her phone with a yawn. “You going somewhere?”
“No. I’m okay here with you,” Mae says, reaching over so that her ink-stained fingertips hover over Katie’s heart. “This is fine. As long as I have you, I’ll be okay.” Mae says it, and she means it. It’s the only thing she knows for sure.