“Ow!” Charlie says, “what the hell, Mom?”
“What?” Stella stops untying her boot for a second and looks over at him. Snow melts off onto the tile. “What’s the matter?”
“You slammed the door on me. I was right behind you, and you just let it go right in my face. What the hell?” Charlie kicks his boots off into the corner and walks past Stella into the kitchen.
“Hey!” Stella stands up — a bit lopsided. She’s got one boot on and one boot off. “Hey watch your language! I just drove you to the hospital and back and then bought you dinner! What’s the matter with you?”
“I’m upset.” Charlie takes a half-dozen taquitos out of the freezer and plates them. He turns the microwave on.
“Yes, Charlie says, “That was the worst bedside manner I think I’ve ever been subjected to. I almost want to call back and complain. What was the doctor’s name again? ‘Sah-bow?’”
“Charlie, sweetie,” Stella stifles a bit of a laugh. “What do you mean? They saw you, gave you an ECG, and sent you home when they realized you were okay.”
“Sure.” Charlie pops the microwave open and pokes at his taquitos. He closes the door and starts it again. “But it seemed like they were very eager to get me out of there. Don’t you think they should keep someone with concerns as serious as mine overnight? What if I had another heart attack right now?”
“But you’re not going to have ‘another’ heart attack, Charl, because you weren’t having a real one in the first place. They need to make space for people that are actually sick.”
“So you’re calling me a liar?” Charlie narrows his eyes.
“No, honey,” Stella says, “I’m just saying it’s a bit strange that you’ve had meningitis, testicular cancer, early-onset Alzheimer’s, and now a heart attack all in the last month.”
“Right, sure.” Charlie wraps a towel around his hand and grabs his plate. “Whatever. I don’t want to argue with you. I can feel my blood pressure rising already.” He walks through the curtain into his room. “I’m sorry I swore at you. Goodnight.”
“Charlie-” Stella starts, but stops. Their conversation is over. She sighs and rubs her head. At the back of the fridge, behind an old rotisserie chicken and all the vegetables Charlie hasn’t eaten yet, there are two canned Moscow mules left. She cracks one of them and then opens the cupboard and uses it to wash down her paroxetine and levoxyl, in that order.
In her room, she slides herself into bed with the mule and opens up Kiss Me in Florence. Before she can start reading, though, her phone buzzes. It’s a message — from Janet Wagner. She hasn’t talked to Janet since high school.
“Hey Stella! ❤ Hope you’re doing well 😊 I was just thinking of you today (weird, I know! It’s been so long!) and I thought you might want to hear about this wonderful business opportunity I’ve been taking advantage of for the past little bit! I’ve been making $1000’s every week just fromt home! They’ve even paid for a new car for me! You seem like a perfect fit and so I’m just hitting you up because I think you could really thrive with us! Let me know if your interested 😊.”
Stella frowns. Thousands of dollars a week does sound nice, but she doesn’t think she can take on two jobs right now. She sets her phone down and opens Kiss Me in Florence back up. Janet was always kind of a bitch anyways.
The ruby slides over to the right. Two emeralds and something that looks like topaz get pushed aside. Things aren’t as impenetrable as they once were, but that doesn’t mean Stella isn’t still in a tight spot. She leans back. She scans. Top-left corner, bottom right. This has definitely been one of the harder ones.
The sapphire in position 2A looks promising — might also be a trap though. Could land her a five-of-a-kind and send the field flying but could also drop something undesirable down and potentially ruin her whole operation. Stella bites her lip. She takes a chance.
Sapphire to the left. Bingo. Five-of-a-kind.
All the rubies shatter. An emerald falls down. Six-of-a-kind.
Oh my god. The whole field turns into shrapnel. The counter up to Stella’s right won’t stop dinging. She can’t believe her luck. The rainbow explosion continues. Triumphant music starts playing. Manuel shoves the door open. Close window. Spreadsheet.
Stella straightens up and almost knocks her tea off her desk.
“Hey Stel.” Manuel laughs. “Working hard or hardly working?” He’s wearing a shiny new jacket that must have been just ordered in. “MANUEL SANTANA, HVAC SPECIALIST.” Stella sighs.
“It’s the middle of February,” she says, “Take a guess.” Manuel clicks his tongue.
“Yea-haah, you can say that again.” He turns around and looks both ways back out the door. “You. Can. Say. That. A-gain.” He shuts it and turns back to Stella, and she notices for the first time that he’s carrying a large, heavy-looking duffel bag. “Listen, I need to ask you for a favour.”
“A favour?” Stella raises her eyebrows.
“A favour.” Manuel pulls two chairs up to Stella’s desk and then sits in one and drops the duffel bag down in the other. “It’s Gabriella.” Stella gasps and puts a hand to her chest.
“Oh my gosh. Is she okay? I’ve always liked Gabriella.”
“Oh-hoh-hoh.” Manuel leans back and cracks his knuckles. “Oh yeah, she’s great. Doing fine. Served me my papers over the weekend. Probably off relaxing at her new boyfriend’s place right now, wherever that is.”
“Oh, I didn’t-” Stella says, “Oh Manny, that’s awful. I’m so sorry. Are you alright?” Manuel drops his smile suddenly and looks down to the right. He stays like this for a minute before he blinks hard and looks up again.
“I, uh-” He sniffs and wipes his nose on his sleeve. “I- yeah. Yeah, I’m all good, sorry. But, uh-” He slaps the duffel bag beside him. “But anyways, favour.”
“Right,” Stella says, “sorry.”
“All good,” Manuel says, “but listen.” He leans forward and drops his voice to an almost-hiss. “Listen, I know Gabriella, and I know that she’s not going to quit until she’s held me up for everything I’ve got.”
“Oh!” Stella opens up her phone and starts scrolling. “So you need a lawyer? Because I think I still have Dean Harris’ number somewhere in here. I was with him the whole time Michael and I were going through it, and-“
“No.” Manuel picks up the duffel bag and drops it on the desk in front of Stella, cutting her off. “I need you to look after this for me, just until this whole thing blows over.”
“To- what?” Stella blinks and puts her phone away. “What is that?”
“Cash.” Manuel unzips the bag and angles it towards Stella. There are several neat stacks of twenties inside, held together with tape and twine. “A couple thousand. Not anything insane, but I sure as shit don’t want it showing up on any bank statement she’s gonna be able to have a look at. You don’t have to do anything with it, Just hold on to it for a while. Keep it at your place or whatever. Your car.”
“I-” Stella stammers, “I mean, is this legal? I don’t know, Manny, this sounds like something I could get in trouble for.”
“Legal?” Manuel laughs. “Of course it’s legal. Why wouldn’t it be? You’re my close friend, and I’m gifting you a possession of mine to keep safe while I work on some personal issues. Nothing wrong with that.” He leans forward expectantly. “And you are my friend, right?”
Stella swallows. She looks down at the bag.
Even though he’s usually asleep around this time, Charlie is standing right in front of the door when Stella gets back home, and the sight of him there startles her so much that she drops Manuel’s bag and almost falls over backwards.
“Hello,” he says and then looks down immediately, “What’s that?”
“Jesus, Charl,” Stella catches her breath. “Nothing. Just some work stuff. What are you doing up this late?”
Charlie walks to the kitchen. He sits down on one of the barstools by the counter and pulls his laptop over to himself.
“Researching,” he says, opening it. “Come here. I’ve got some good news.”
“Good news?” Stella shake her coat off of her body and into the closet. “That’s awesome, sweetie! What is it? Did you hear back from the alternative school?”
“No.” Charlie turns the laptop towards her. On the screen is an online shopping checkout page with two “KRONOS Full 12-Step Home Laser Neuro Re-Imaging System and Workbook PDF Access Code”’s in the cart. “I’m psychotic!”
“You’re-” Stella looks closer at the screen. The total is CAD $6295.38. She looks back at Charlie. “I-” She looks at the screen. She looks at Charlie. “What?”
“I’m psychotic!” Charlie says, “Doesn’t it make sense?” He stands up and starts pacing around the kitchen. “The sleeping problems, the tiredness, the-”
“I’m sorry,” Stella says, “You’re psychotic? Do you need to go to the hospital?”
“No,” Charlie stops. He seems upset all of a sudden. “Didn’t you see what I just showed you? Look.”
Stella looks at the laptop again. CAD $6295.38 plus International Shipping to Gloucester. “I saw, but you-”
“But I what?” Charlie walks back up over to the laptop again suddenly and opens the page for the item. “You’ve seen how I’ve been treated when we’ve gone to the hospital. They won’t be able to do anything for me there. And besides, this is all I’m going to need. Look.” He starts reading. “’Uses state of the art wireless fibre-optic technology to burn off damaged neurons and replace them with new, entirely functional-’”
“But for six thousand dollars?” Stella cuts him off. “And why do you need two of them?”
“In case one breaks.”
“Charlie, baby, that’s a lot of-”
“Really?” Charlie rests his arm on the table and grimaces. “In the grand scheme of things, the well-being of your own son has a sub-six thousand dollar value to you?”
“No, I-” Stella sighs. She realizes she has been caught again. “I- You’re right. Sorry. Things have just been tight lately, Charlie, but I’ll think about it.”
“I’d hope so.” Charlie closes his laptop and starts walking back to his room. “I really had no idea I was worth so little to you, but I’d be happy if you’d give my request some consideration.” He yanks the curtain closed behind him.
Stella bites her lip. She opens the fridge, pushes past the garbage, and finds her last Moscow Mule, swallows the meds. In her bed, she is about to start Kiss Me in Florence again when she remembers the message from Janet.
The place at 4635 Tundra Lilly is massive, like if you gave some kind of Wizard of Oz growth potion to one of all the other mostly identical houses on the block. A black car with a trident logo on it that Stella doesn’t recognize is in the driveway with the license plate “APATIEXEC.”
Stella is late. Her memory got away from her while she was driving, and she turned down Arctic Blossom initially and then drove up and down it twice to make sure she hadn’t missed the address before actually checking to see what street she was on. She hopes Moira will still have time to see her. It’s only quarter-after.
The bell makes a satisfying chiming noise, and, a second later, a tall man with different coloured socks and a powerful comb-over opens the door. He doesn’t say anything when he does. He just raises an eyebrow over his glasses at Stella.
“Hi!” She says. “Is Moira home? I’m Stella. I have a-”
“MOIRA,” the man yells over his shoulder. He turns back to Stella. “Just come in and sit down. Moira’s doing her stretches right now, but she’ll probably be down in a minute.” He leaves without saying anything else, and Stella follows him inside.
To the left of the front hall, there is a room almost entirely filled with a three-foot-tall scale model of a city. There are towers and streets, little cars and lampposts. There’s even a big green mountain range out surrounding all the stuff in the built-up part.
“Oh my gosh!” Stella gasps. “Did you build that? What is it? New York?”
“No,” the man says flatly, “Kuala Lumpur. But close.” He sits down next to the model and picks a paintbrush up off the table in front of him.
“Ah,” Stella says. She smiles. The man starts touching up the side of a big pair of spires, and he and Stella don’t say anything else to each other.
“LEE,” a threatening alto yells down from upstairs.
“Fucking jesus,” Lee says under his breath. “WHAT, SWEETIE?”
“WHAT WERE YOU SAYING? I WAS DOING MY STRETCHES.”
“THERE’S UH- THERE’S SOMEONE HERE TO SEE YOU.”
“I- HER NAME’S-” Lee pauses and glances at Stella. “HER NAME’S STEPHANIE. FOR WORK.”
Lee makes an exasperated, wet kind of noise through his nostrils, but, before he can yell anything back upstairs, what must be Moira appears from behind a half-wall in a set of thinly stretched, expensive looking workout clothes. She crosses her arms and gestures with her head towards Stella.
“Well-” Stella starts, but Moira raises a hand.
“Hold on,” She says, “Lee, where is Zachary? I don’t hear him anywhere.”
“Zach?” Lee stops his painting. “Well, I thought he was in the basement. Just go check for him down there.”
“No,” Moira says, “I can hear him when he’s in the basement, but I don’t right now. He must have left. You need to go find him.”
“I need go find him?” Lee chuckles. “He’s probably just playing outside then. Is there something wrong with that?”
“Lee.” Moira’s tone changes. “You’re not busy right now, and he could be over at that bastard Mackay boy’s house. I don’t want them coming up with another plan to get themselves suspended.” Lee shakes his head.
“I am busy, actually.”
“Really?” Moira says. “This is ‘busy’?” She makes direct eye contact with Lee, and the two of them stay like this for what feels like it could be a whole two minutes.
“Fine,” Lee stands up and walks limply over to the front hall, “I’ll text you.”
“Thank you,” Moira says. She turns to Stella and smiles.
The downstairs is almost the size of Stella’s apartment, but much more open. There’s a massive, slightly old-looking TV surrounded by shelves of Blu-Rays in one corner and a workout bike and elliptical machine in another. Three acoustic guitars are hanging off the wall, covered in dust like they haven’t been played in over a year. The office is in a side-room.
Moira sits down behind her desk.
“So,” She says, “Stephanie.”
“Uh, Stella, actually.” Stella says.
“Stella.” Moira peers into and sets back down a mug labelled “SHE’S NOT BOSSY. SHE’S THE BOSS.” and then tents her fingers at Stella. “What do you know about Apati?”
What follows is less of an interview and more of an hour-long explainer session about Apati and what Stella’ role as a member of their family will be. According to a personality test Moira gives her, she is a “Fiery Dreaming” type, a role that makes her particularly well suited to her new job, which is to establish a social network through which to connect enthusiastic customers with luxury patterned leggings.
Stella will be required to pull in revenue of approximately $500 a week, although this will become higher as she advances with Apati. She is ultimately independent, though, so she has the freedom to make her sales however she wants, so long as she meets her quota. She can start with friends, Moira says, and then move on to something like door-to-door, or even livestreams of herself auctioning pairs on social media. Apati consultants are some of the most creative people Moira has ever met, and she knows Stella will be no different. She stands to make close to one hundred thousand dollars a year if she performs well.
“But oh,” Moira cuts Stella off in the middle of being asked a question, “Sorry. One more thing. Because of your status as an independent associate, you will be required to purchase your inventory directly from us. Is that alright? I assume you have some sort of start-up capital to work with.”
Stella makes a small panicked noise that she hopes Moira doesn’t hear.
“Oh, well, actually-” But she thinks about a hundred thousand dollars a year, about buying a real condo and paying off the car. She thinks about the possibility of finally fixing whatever is wrong with Charlie. She thinks about the duffel bag still back at home. “I- I do, actually. Not a huge amount, but I think it’ll be a good start. A couple thousand.”
“Amazing,” Moira smiles and hands her a brochure. “I’ll get to you via Email tomorrow.”
Her outfit looks even nicer in the light.
The apartment is quiet and dark when Stella walks in. Charlie is asleep.
She brushes the duffel bag with her hand as she heads to the kitchen and then sets the two bottles she bought on the way home down on the counter.
She drops some ice-cubes into a cup and then pours in the ginger beer and second-most-expensive vodka they had at the store. She’s having a celebration. This is no small deal. She thinks she might even give Manuel his money back times four once she’s turned her profit in the next few weeks, just as a surprise.
Charlie’s curtain is closed, but not all the way. When Stella pokes her head in, he is face-down with his head pressed into his pillow and his butt stuck far up into the air — the way he’s slept since he left his crib. She kisses him gently on the top of his scalp, and he stirs a bit but doesn’t wake up.
“Shhh,” she says, “It’s okay. Everything is going to be okay.”