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Back in the Land of the Living Art by Jamie Bennett  

Back in the Land of the Living

They were supposed to meet at a splash pad in Outremont, a part of the neighbourhood Stacey had never been to before. She arrived early and sat on the top of a bench, her feet on the seat. She was wearing cutoffs and a windbreaker with a hot pink, spandex tank top underneath. There were rips in the shirt that showed her cleavage and stomach, but if she wanted she could keep the jacket zipped, it was cool enough.

A four-day heat wave had broken with a thunderstorm and now 19 degrees at night felt like jeans weather. In Newfoundland, 19 felt like the height of summer. Stacey leaned over and hit the big rubber button that was supposed to make the splash pad gurgle to life, but nothing happened. Turned off for the night. She thought the sad thought that maybe Valerie had forgotten her and right at that moment a figure glided up to the bench and skidded her brakes. 

Valerie swung one long leg over her bike frame and stood in front of Stacey while catching her breath. The streetlamp above the splash pad illuminated her flushed cheeks. She was wearing a flouncy, see-through, long-sleeved purple top with wide-legged black jeans. The straps of a collection of small bags criss-crossed her chest. She untangled the bags one at a time and dropped them on the shiny cement of the splash pad. 

“I knew there would be an occasion to wear these pasties one day and here it is,” she said, opening her arms wide. There was a heart-shaped, cow-print sticker covering each of her nipples and her smile was enormous. Stacey hopped off the bench and stepped into Valerie’s open arms. Valerie hugged her tight. 

“Those are amazing,” Stacey said into her shoulder. “The pasties.”

“I’m so glad you’re coming,” Valerie released her. 

Stacey met Valerie through a mutual acquaintance when she first arrived in Montreal two years ago. They used to take backpacks full of tall-cans to watch movies at Dollar Cinema together. It was Valerie who got Stacey her first job, captioning workplace safety videos. At that time, she lived out of a suitcase and a growing collection of plastic shopping bags in a sublet bedroom, surrounded by someone else’s things. When the sublet ended, Valerie found her a permanent room in the small apartment in Little Italy where she still lived. 

It was also Valerie who sent her the info about her most recent gig sorting an enormous, random selection of Reddit comments into three categories—hate speech, reclamation and not-hate speech—to help train AI designed to moderate discussion forums. Comment sections had been dredged for sentences that included slurs and at a three-hour in-person traning session Stacey was instructed to sort the sentences into whichever category she (a white, able-bodied, cis girl) thought they fit. The facilitator explained that if someone was describing a time a slur had been used against them or why you shouldn’t use a slur, you clicked the “not-hate speech” button. If someone was using the slur to describe themselves, you clicked “reclamation.” It paid $18/hr and basically you could work as much as you wanted from home for the duration of your three-month contract. If you were efficient enough, your contract might get renewed. 

In the darkest part of winter, Stacey and Valerie had continued to see each other, even when it wasn’t allowed. Stacey’s roommate had gone home to Alberta early on. Her return date got hazier and hazier as the months crawled forward, but she continued to e-transfer her rent into Stacey’s account. Mostly Stacey and Valerie met in Valerie’s one-bedroom apartment in Rosemont. They would split a French press of coffee in the morning or if it was evening, they’d share something Valerie made in her Instant Pot. Then Stacey would walk home on the ice-covered sidewalk to her empty apartment. Sometimes she almost asked to sleep on the couch, but it felt important to stare the solitude down as much as possible. She would have to go home eventually.

Now that things had melted it was possible to spend time with other people,  so she and Valerie were venturing out into the world together. Stacey’s brakes were shitty and it took two or three blocks to come to a complete stop. She’d smoked a few puffs of a loosely rolled joint before leaving the house and traffic always made her nervous when she was high. The neighbourhood changed as they drove through it, the apartment buildings getting wider and taller. The road they were biking on split into four lanes. Valerie pulled into an empty oncoming lane to avoid a car backing out of an angled spot in front of a pharmacy. Stacey thumped up onto the sidewalk and just skirted its nose. 

She thought she’d made the safer choice but realized too late the little parking lot was raised. She squeezed the brakes hard and managed to slow before sailing over a three-foot ledge. Somehow, she landed it. She careened back into the traffic, following Valerie’s glowing lilac top between the cars. She’d been in the air for a moment and she might have flown face-first over the handlebars into the asphalt, but instead she was following the lighthouse of Valerie’s see-through shirt into the night, unscathed. 

Valerie kept looking over her shoulder to make sure Stacey was still with her. Stacey followed her off the busy road onto a quiet and dark incline. The hill stretched on and on, getting steeper and darker. 

“Up here?” Stacey asked.

“Yeah,” Valerie said. The buildings on either side shrank and eventually became houses and grew farther and farther apart. Soon there were driveways. 

“All the way?” Stacey asked.

“Yeah.”

“Should we walk a bit of it?” Already Stacey’s legs were aching. 

“Let’s see how far we get.” 

Stacey pumped her legs hard so she could feel all the different muscles. 

“Let me check the map.” Valerie pulled over, rested one foot on the curb. Stacey’s brakes wheezed and she waddled over to Valerie with the bike between her legs. 

“Just checking the map,” she said, gazing into the light of her phone. 

The waistband of Stacey’s jeans and the armpits of her jacket were soaked with cooling sweat. After a while Valerie said, “Hmmm.” 

And then, “Okay yeah, so ... okay. We’re going the wrong way but at least it’s going to be downhill now.” 

Then she swung one of her zippered pouches around to the front and opened it, “Let’s do some drugs.”

Stacey huddled in close with the bike between her legs. Valerie pinched the opening of a baggie.

“I want just a little bit,” she told Valerie. 

“This much?” Valerie asked.

“Is that a little bit?”

“Yeah, I think so, that seems good to me.”

Stacey leaned in so close their heads were almost touching to accept a dusty white shard. 

“You need some water?” Valerie asked. 

“I got some.” She swung her own knapsack around and took out her plastic water bottle with the chewed up nozzle. 

They flew down the hill and pedalled alongside the traffic on the busy four-lane road. They pedalled out of the residential neighbourhood and into an industrial zone. Valerie looked over her shoulder and said, “Stacey, we’re re-emerging.”

“We’re back in the land of living,” Stacey said as they passed empty warehouses on either side of the street. 

“Almost,” Valerie said.

“Almost back in the land of living,” Stacey called ahead, but her words were lost in the backdraft of a car.

Eventually the address from the instructions brought them to a Simon’s warehouse and they walked behind it. Two people Valerie recognized were stumbling around on a muddy path between the back of the building and the fence. They all complimented each other on their outfits. They came to a break in the fence, where there were already four or five bikes. Stacey and Valerie locked on. There was a hip-height concrete barrier just like in the instructions and someone had set up a little step ladder, its legs sinking into the muddy ground. 

The four of them hopped the fence and made their way through the field. She heard it was an abandoned landing strip. She hadn’t expected it to be so huge, she hadn’t expected the trees, she hadn’t expected to be able to see stars. The four of them arrived at a table where someone was sitting in the dark with a metal cash box. 

“Ten dollars please, unless you e-transferred, if you e-transferred just carry on through, it’s an honour system folks, we’re just trying to pay queer people like yourself, you e-transfered okay, away you go on, no stamp, just carry-on through, it’s an honour system. Ten bucks please. Dix dollars, s’il vous plait, merci.”

Stacey and Valerie and the acquaintances they’d found paid and continued on. The field was ringed with a dark forest, the centre full of beaten-down grass.The instructions said uneven terrain and the terrain was uneven. In some places, long chunks of runway stuck up out of the damp ground. Stacey stumbled in a muddy rut and Valerie caught her by the arm and steadied her. Giddiness surged in her chest. She had to harness the feeling, stay on the right side of the feeling, not let it splash out into something scary. 

“Hold my hand,” Valerie said. 

“You can see stars.” Stacey held Valerie’s cool fingers.

Someone was DJing at a set of turntables between two big speakers. A small spaced-out crowd was dancing. They wore baggy clothes with lots of straps. Someone had a floppy teddy bear knapsack with a zipper sewn in its side, the kind Stacey coveted in sixth grade. Her outfit wasn’t quite right, but Stacey unzipped her jacket anyway and the cool breeze felt good on her bare skin. 

There was a tent set up in the back of the field with a cooler on a folding card table where you could refill your water bottle and an open packet of untouched protein bars. People were just starting to arrive and join the early dancers. 

Stacey and Valerie danced on the outside of the crowd, swinging their limbs wide. Sometimes people came into their orbit and Valerie hugged them and introduced them to Stacey. Everyone smiled big smiles, they hugged her with loose arms over her shoulders. They offered her gum and water. Several times Stacey took water from a stranger’s bottle and she also let people she’d never met drink from hers. 

In her regular life, pieces of hate speech often clattered unexpectedly into Stacey’s mind and stayed for hours. It felt like water in her ear or dirt in her eye. When she read a strangely phrased piece of hate speech she felt dread, because she knew that was the type that returned most often. While she was dancing, Stacey got a flash, not of any specific phrase but just of the way the screen burned her eyes after a few hours. She breathed in deep and smelled the damp grass and the trees and the bodies in motion and she was free of it. 

The crowd grew around her. Sometimes Stacey and Valerie drifted apart and then they’d find each other again and hug. Stacey looked at the way other people were dancing and tried to emulate them, just for fun, to see if she could. Then she slipped back into her own dance, what her body did on its own. The way Stacey danced was she held the straps of her bookbag and jutted her hips right and left, her shoulders took turns rolling forward and back and her head lolled loose on her neck.

A voice came over the sound system, “The cops are outside but they don’t know what’s going on yet. Tell your friends not to come, tell them the party is shut down, post it on your Instagram. They see a bunch of freaks like you walking around but they don’t understand what’s going on yet. They can’t see the entrance. Please no one leave.” 

Stacey and Valerie moved deeper into the crowd, closer to the speakers. The music was louder there, Stacey felt it in her muscles, they jutted and lolled of their own accord. She chewed the gum furiously. The beat changed and people around her started jumping and she did too. She recognized a friend of her roommate dancing a few feet from her. It had been months since she’d seen her and what she recognized first was the way she moved. Stacey had never seen her dance before but her familiar gait was in all her motions. Her face came into focus and  Stacey grabbed Valerie’s sheer sleeve. 

“That’s Margo,” she said urgently. “Margo, Allien’s friend.”

“You want to say hi?” 

“No, I don’t think so.” She wanted to be alone with Valerie in the sea of bodies and she didn’t want to think about life outside of this moment. 

The sky turned navy and the outline of the trees stood out against it in more detail. It seemed like hours had passed since the announcement about the cops. Worms of pink cloud stretched along the horizon. The music changed again, Stacey swayed, her legs were becoming tired but every now and then the drugs swooped a feeling up through her chest, a jet of joy.

Then the voice came over the speaker again, “Okay, everyone needs to leave, please leave. The cops are here. Everyone leave.”

She looked for Valerie and there she was, right beside her. A wave of police were coming through the trees in the back of the field. The dancers spread wide and some of them started moving toward the fence they’d climbed through to get in. 

“Okay, we gotta go,” Valerie said with flight-attendant calm and a smile. 

Stacey looked back to see what was happening with the cops but she could only see  the parade of people gathering behind her. There was a murmur of concern for the organizers and equipment. 

“Not too fast,” Valerie told her. “Let’s just stay here, kind of in the middle of the crowd.”

There was a bottleneck at the opening in the fence and some people were trying to scale it, but mostly people were just trooping slowly through the fence. Stacey saw Margo again as they waited for their turn to pass through the opening in the chainlink. This time she smiled. 

A police car was at the edge of the parking lot with the lights going. A cop stood with an elbow on the roof and shouted at people in a bored way. The crowd split apart on the other side of the fence, moving through the parking lot out into the road in small groups. People on bikes looped back and forth alongside their friends.

Eva Crocker is a writer and PhD student at Concordia University, where she is researching visual art in Newfoundland and Labrador. Her short story collection Barrelling Forward won the Alistair MacLeod Award for Short Fiction and the CAA Emerging Author’s Award. Her debut novel All I Ask was longlisted for the 2020 Giller Prize and won the BMO Winterset Award.