My friend Cassandra says she gets ASMR, autonomous sensory meridian response, from watching her boyfriend play video games—that the virtual warriors screaming at each other through their headsets brings her a tingling calm that reminds her of watching her brothers play war in the woods behind their childhood house but that sounds like something girls say to impress boys, like saying you’re into anal. I like her choice of pot, a glistening designer organic strain with a twee name. I get bombed Sunday night and hang in her papasan chair with its rust-orange velvet cushions and her creamsicle-coloured rescue cat making pissy side-eyes at me for taking her favourite spot in the thrifted, Boho-styled living room, with its tasteful macrame plant holders and vaguely Scandinavian Modern colour palette.
We used to be coworkers at Starbucks. I’m in lower management now at a midsize restaurant equipment wholesale company, part of a frantic hiring spree when the pandemic slowdown ended and they realized they were woefully understaffed. I have no relevant experience, other than being able to handle entitled people having hissy fits like sugar-drunk toddlers. To fund her accounting courses, Cass is bookkeeping under the table for her boyfriend’s father’s construction company. It seems like a situation ripe for spectacular fuckery, but she has a doe-eyed quality that makes people want to help her, so maybe it’ll work out. Me, I’m not seeking drama, but I will deliver it on a silver platter if you test me.
We never hang at my place because I have a basement bachelor suite where you can lean over when you’re sitting on the daybed to do the dishes. The windows are high, narrow, and barred, so the ambiance is more Gulag than living-the-Vancouver-dream. Like her many plants, Cass needs light. I need a place to sleep and store my workout clothes. I have a muffin top that won’t disappear, no matter how many crunches I do.
“I love your muffin top,” Cass says.
Is she reading my mind?
Cass snorts. “You’re monologuing.”
“Oh,” I say, suddenly self-conscious.
“Can I braid your hair, Milena?”
She pulls up a kitchen chair behind me and brushes my hair. I close my eyes. She’s very gentle. She dips my head to comb the nape where I have a million cowlicks that make short hair impossible. The cat hops up on me, purring. It kneads my stomach then lies down, warm like a hot-water bottle. I can’t even lift my hand to pet it. When she’s finished, Cass kisses the top of my head and then tucks a throw blanket around me and her cat.
My cell phone alarm jangles me awake. I spent most of the night certain that I was communicating with the cat, but when I unbend my body out of the papasan chair I can’t remember our discussion. I dig around for something resembling lunch: I find a sugar-free yogurt, some leftover stir-fry which I jam into a sandwich bag, and a wrinkled organic apple. Cass has a tasteful, dove-grey ceramic bowl on the counter labelled “Eat Me” filled with squares of cling-wrapped pot brownies. I take one of the squares and pop it in the paper lunch bag for later.
Starting at 1:47 a.m., BC emergency dispatch started receiving 911 calls about an older, ruby-red Ford Taurus with no licence plate being driven erratically on Highway 16, headed east toward Prince George. Twenty minutes outside of the largest city in the vast, mountainous north of British Columbia, a teen on her way home from the after-party live streamed from the passenger seat of her boyfriend’s Kia Soul. The boyfriend wore a white Prince George Secondary School T-shirt, his blond hair in a neat fade. The video showed glimpses of the girl’s teal sundress. Her long, red acrylic nails sparkled with crystals. They slowed to follow the Taurus, which wove sluggishly back and forth over the solid centre line.
“What an ass,” the girl said.
“Maybe he’s having a heart attack.”
“He’s drunk as a skunk.”
As they came to a sharp corner, the Taurus softly rolled down an embankment that led to a grassy field, coming to rest at the wooden post of a chest-high wire fence twenty feet from the road. The horn blared. The boyfriend parked the car while the girl undid her seatbelt, the video blurring as she exited. The steady click-click-click of the red hazard lights revealed the empty, tree-lined road behind them while the headlights pointed towards the dull, orange glow of the city lights beneath a low cloud deck. The inside of the Taurus was faintly lit by the dashboard. The driver was a shadow slumped over the steering wheel.
“Are you okay?” the boyfriend yelled.
“Don’t go down there,” the girl said.
“He could be hurt.”
“Or he could punch your lights out.”
“Just call 911, Jess.”
“If he’s a serial killer, I’ll leave you here!” the girl yelled at her boyfriend’s blurry back as he slid down the gravel embankment, going in and out of focus. “I mean it, Jason!”
Jason tipped back, arms pinwheeling, and slid the last few feet, gravel clattering as a small avalanche followed him to the bottom.
The headlights of the Ford Taurus flickered. Jason glanced up and then made his way carefully through the knee-high grass. He touched the trunk of the car, using it for balance, then lifted his hand and paused.
“I think this’s blood,” he said.
He knocked on the window. “Hello? Are you okay?”
As Jason reached for the driver’s side door, Jess said, “You guys are my witness. If we get killed it’s because my boyfriend is an idiot.”
When the cab lights flicked on, the view of the driver was blocked by Jason, but the car horn stopped. A baby’s screeching cry came in short, intense bursts.
“She’s bleeding!” Jason yelled. “Holy shit!”
Without stopping the live stream, Jess dialled 911 as she followed her boyfriend’s tracks. Jason took off his T-shirt and held it to the woman’s stomach. Jess focused her camera phone on the matte smears of blood that could have been mistaken for rust on the top of the trunk and along the sides of the car.
The driver was young. Her tanned, oval face was framed by long, dark hair. She had sweaty and ashy skin, with dark circles under her eyes. Her cracked lips moved as she said something too quiet for the camera phone to pick up over the baby’s hysterical cry.
There I am, Milena Emily Gunn, tucked in an infant car seat, covered in a fuzzy, pink blanket stained with blood. My eyes are screwed shut. My newborn face is wrinkled, howling.
Jess and Jason argued about bringing us to the road while the 911 operator tried to calm them down and get information.
The driver was eighteen-year-old Amelia Shephard from Truro, Nova Scotia, a chronic runaway escaping her parent’s messy, endless divorce. She’d been couch surfing, bouncing between friends and her older sister, who had reported her missing a month earlier. Amelia wasn’t my mother and we aren’t biologically related. The car was reported stolen that spring from a drug store clerk in East Vancouver. Amelia Shephard had no identification with her, no cell phone, no purse, no clothes other than what she was wearing. No drugs or booze in her system. No bruises or injuries except a heart-shaped stab wound below her belly button. Her sister identified her from a sketch shown on a national news show. The blood from the interior of the car was mostly Amelia’s, except for a blood-soaked tea towel in the trunk of whose DNA could not be identified. How I ended up in the back seat or where she was driving me with her fatal stab wound is a cold case only recently resurrected by a popular true crime podcast.
The wail of a siren ended the argument as Jess pointed her camera phone up at the highway until the first officer appeared at the top of the embankment. I’m still crying in the video, but at this point Amelia Shephard had lapsed into a coma and would be pronounced dead an hour later at the emergency room in the University of Northern BC hospital.
“What did she say to you?” a podcast host later asked Jason.
“Kryptonite,” Jason said.
“She said it twice. And then she, you know…passed out. She said it like it was important but she’d bled out a lot by then so I don’t think she was very clear on anything.”
My first memories are from when we lived in the rented house by the lake outside Prince George. It was bitterly, bitterly cold in the winter. If you left a glass of water on the counter at night, it would be frozen by morning. The A-frame house was only meant to be a summer cottage and had very little insulation. I slept between my parents; the bed was piled with so many blankets it felt like someone was lying on top of us. We kept the tiny, iron wood stove stoked so high it glowed. I remember my father and I sledding down the lawn towards the lake. The spray of snow we kicked up was fine like icing sugar—it sparkled and twinkled. The feeble sun slid beneath the mountains as Mum called us in for supper.
Dad’s name was James Hubert Gunn. Mum’s name was Charlotte Olivia O’Neill. She kept her surname, but they agreed I would take his. Mum was always reading. She was finishing her master’s degree and was a teaching assistant. My bedtime stories were mostly books about literature, specifically the novelist Margaret Laurence. Mum would absentmindedly stroke my hair as I curled into her. She used apricot oil on her skin in the winter because the air was so dry. I loved her hair, its deep, rich brown with a reddish glow, and her thick, serious eyebrows and her sharp, fox-like face. Her voice was low and soothing no matter what she read to me, even Dr. Suess. The musty, dusty smell of old books brings me back to those moments.
Dad worked long hours and sometimes brought home colleagues. He’d offer everyone slippers from a basket they kept near the door and then change from his crisp, white shirt into a natty, wool sweater. They’d sit in front of the wood stove or out on the lawn, and their arguing would get louder as they got drunker. Mum would sometimes join in, depending on how engrossed she was in her work. I liked listening to them gossip about other writers. I felt like I was learning secrets about the adult world.
“What a quiet girl you are,” one of Dad’s friends once remarked.
“Milena’s taking notes,” Mum said, and Dad’s friends laughed.
“As long as you don’t end up being a novelist,” Dad said. “I will disown you if you follow my wretched path.”
People looked at Dad like they were hungry and he was the first food they’d seen in years. Their eyes followed him. He had a generous laugh. A crowd always trailed him, so I mostly remember him surrounded. He was not as handsome as other men, but his presence made conversations hum. He was a lean man with swimmer’s shoulders, wavy blond hair and bright blue eyes that locked onto you when you were talking to him, as if you were the only person on Earth and every word you said was precious.
One night, he gently picked me up out of bed and carried me to the front door, taking my pink snow suit down from the peg, shushing me when I tried to ask him what was happening. He dressed me as I stood, stunned and drowsy, lifting my hands so he could put on my mittens. His breath smelled sickly sweet and boozy. He wrapped a scarf around my face and pulled my pink toque with a white pom-pom over my head. The front door creaked and the winter cold slunk inside, a ponderous, invisible slug. The snow crunched beneath my boots. A gentle wind sent the snowflakes clinking across the white ground. In the centre of the lawn, he’d set up a camp chair. He sat and pulled me onto his lap, and then shook out a sleeping bag that had fallen to the ground and covered us. My eyes watered in the cold night air and the tears froze on my lashes.
“Look up,” he said.
The stars looked like silver splatter art on black velvet. They glittered. Some had blueish tints, some reddish. Dad pointed out constellations: the pot-shaped Big Dipper, the W of Cassiopeia, the belted Orion.
“We’re riding on this rock,” he said. “Spiiiiinning around the sun.”
“Our solar system has eight planets,” I said.
“Yes,” Dad said, sounding surprised. “Do you know their names?”
“Venus, Mars.” I frowned, wanting to impress, but not able to pull the other names from my sleepy brain.
He named the planets for me, told me about the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud and the two Voyager probes that had reached the fiery edge of the solar system billions of kilometres away. I imagined the solar system’s boundary glowing red like a summer wildfire crawling down a mountainside, shedding sparks as it turned the trees into hellish candles.
Living fire: A bright, neon-green stream of light wiggled lazily across the sky. My breath caught and Dad went quiet. It crackled like a bug zapper. I jumped.
“Aurora borealis,” he said. “The Northern Lights.”
The light frayed, ghostly pillars shifting, the voice of God made visible. Other streams joined its dance, and then a faint pinkish ribbon high, high in the sky. I wondered if I touched them if they’d burn and what that would feel like. Could planes fly through them? Or would they burn up and plunge from the sky?
“The Earth has an invisible force field called a magnetosphere. The sun is a giant, nuclear furnace and, every once in a while, it burps up radiation and when that hits the force field it glows and we get Northern Lights.”
I imagined the sun burping like Peter, a boy in my day care group who liked to burp songs in your face, so close you could smell what he’d had for a snack.
“Can the lights hurt us?” I asked.
“No,” Dad said. “The magnetosphere protects us.”
He launched into an explanation of the magnetosphere, how it was created in the tension between the molten, metal layers above the iron core at the centre of the Earth, far, far below our feet. His voice reverberated in his chest, calm and reassuring. I blinked sleep away, trying to listen, trying to pay attention, but the next thing I remembered, I was back in bed and could smell frying bacon. I kicked off the blankets and wandered into the kitchen. Dad smiled at me, putting a finger to his lips.
Our ancient, green Subaru Forester had a severe, distinctive dent on the rear passenger bumper from the time Dad parked on an icy hill and slid into a utility pole mere moments after he took the parking brake off. In the shaky, cell phone video, our licence plate is blurred out, but it is obviously our vehicle. The video loses us for a moment as we turn without signalling, then jumps to our arrival at Costco. I hop out of the passenger side, face blurred to shield my identity. Mum had just deemed me tall enough to sit up front with her. The passenger air bags would no longer kill me. She had explained the types of injury a child can sustain each time I complained about being relegated to the back seat. None of the other kids in my class had to sit in the back seat.
I’m wearing my favourite pink Patagonia jacket. I leap the slushy puddles, not out of childish glee, but because I don’t want salt stains on my new Uggs. Mum, face also blurred, yells something at me when I get too far ahead, probably reminding me to pay attention to the cars, which are roiling through the lot, hunting for parking spaces like sharks at a feeding frenzy.
If the universe is infinite, another you exists and is reading this sentence. If you could travel far enough in any direction in a hyper sleep that kept you ageless, you would most likely find yourself in the interstellar depths just as she would also be travelling towards you. Not a different version of you—your exact duplicate. She would come not from another slightly different Earth in the multiverse, but a world with the same name and the same history. In an infinite universe, another Milena Emily Gunn is writing this down, wondering if that makes her more special or less. I watch myself in the video pull a shopping cart from the rack and wait for Mum expectantly. She lets me push the cart inside and we disappear into the crowd.
This footage plays beneath the narration of a YouTube video titled “BC Cold Case #76: Who Murdered Amelia Shephard?” My life is someone’s B-roll, played in the wrap-up section: I have been adopted and am living a normal, happy childhood, unaware of my mysterious and troubling origins. Amelia’s sister, Sarah, works as a receptionist. Amelia’s parents are dead, her dad of a heart attack and her mother in a car accident. Jason is a welder and is working at a shipyard in Hamilton. Jess no longer comments publicly on the incident and wants nothing to do with the “drama,” especially after being dragged in the true crime forums of various social media platforms, accused of being a heartless bitch.
Our current math suggests the universe may be finite. In this case, it is possible we are alone, and our Earth is rare; a unique ark of complex life in a dark, sterile ocean. On my birthday that year, I received a card in the mail without a return address. I was so hoping it was my friend Peter, but was immediately disappointed to see the card had a unicorn rearing up with puffy clouds and a rainbow in the background. A blue banner was imprinted with raised, gold letters that said For a Special Birthday Girl. Definitively not Peter’s style. Inside, someone had written in tight, slanted cursive: You will always be my Kryptonite.
What a weird thing to write, I thought. I ripped the card into tiny, tiny pieces and threw it in my trash. I didn’t want anything from anyone who would not put their name on a card. I didn’t like secret crushes the way girls in my school did, tittering about notes left for them or unsigned Valentine cards. I felt annoyed.
I kept an eye out in my classes for anyone who was watching me, but no one followed me or left notes or sent more cards and, eventually, I forgot about it.
My coworker, Fey, in her tastefully unlabeled beige pantsuit with a cream, silk blouse and baroque pearls, is leaning against my desk chatting with our boss, the owner’s nephew, in his favourite Gucci loafers and a crisp Dior shirt. His hair does an artful swoop and his beard is just as meticulously sculpted. Fey has her blond hair in a no-nonsense bob. I put on my service industry smile and ask about their weekends. Fey itemizes the things she accomplished, from weeding her garden to volunteering at a shelter for unhoused women.
“What did you do?” Fey says to me, giving my disheveled self the once-over.
“I went to this awesome new club in Yaletown,” I say, smiling, smiling, smiling.
“Which one?” Gucci Loafers asks, perking up.
I rave about the club that he’s been posting nonstop on his Insta, and he gushes about his friend who is a part owner. I’m not really a clubber. I hate lines. I hung out with Cass and we got baked. But he cares about his friend and his massive cash commitment to the fickle beast that is consumer capitalism. Gucci Loafers wants to pick my brain about their menu items—his friend is determined to bring in a TikTok chef, which Gucci Loafers thinks sounds too trendy. He invites me to lunch.
Fey touches his shoulder and says she should get to work. Nothing runs without her, haha. He nods but barely notices, wanting to hear all about my impressions.
I don’t have a nickname for Fey. Her smile and head tilt tell me she’s going to ride me about everything this week. Technically, she’s not in my chain of command, but she has seniority and is close to Gucci Loafers’s uncle. Someone shouts for Gucci Loafers and he salutes me before he leaves. I pop into the office break room. I chat with coworkers until Fey comes over, immediately launching into a humblebrag about how much work she has this week. I casually put my lunch bag on the side of the fridge. Our IT guy threatened to put a nanny cam in the fridge when someone stole his imported salami. Since then, Fey has been more careful.
An ambulance arrives at our office at 10:27 a.m. and two paramedics are led to Fey’s office, then she is stretchered away. At the safety meeting, the people who were with her say she started vomiting into her garbage can, pissed herself and complained her heart wouldn’t slow down. The vomit in the garbage can was dark brown. When Fey started convulsing, coworkers called 911.
When I go to the break room, my lunch bag has disappeared as it sometimes does. I thought Fey was just throwing my lunches away. I hadn’t realized she was actually eating them. Maybe she’s allergic to pot. Maybe it interacted with her medication. Maybe she had a heart attack. I catch up on emails and then the office manager, Denise, my actual boss, asks me to change the photocopy toner.
Gucci Loafers emails to cancel our lunch date, as he has decided to drive out to the hospital to give Fey official company support. Someone in management must be worried about getting sued.
That’s so nice of you! I email back. We’re all worried sick about her.
By the time I entered grade four, my parents had carefully saved up a down payment for a house, but after spending months house hunting and making offers, had nothing to show for it. We were at the end of our lease and a decision had to be made: stay and rent for another year, find a different place to rent, or move our stuff into storage and stay with Mum’s friend Aunt Marion until they could find a house to buy. Mum wanted to rent for another year and hope the housing market cooled. Dad couldn’t bear another winter in Siberia. He had fallen in love with a house on Candy Cane Lane. Mum said it was moot because the mortgage was out of our price range. Dad said we just had to get his mother to cosign.
“Fuck off and die to that idea,” Mum said.
Mum rarely used curse words, so there was a long silence. Then Dad laughed and then she laughed. She said if he wanted to waste his airfare talking to his mother, he had to take me so she could concentrate on her thesis.
At this point I had not met either set of grandparents. We flew to Vancouver to visit my paternal grandmother, Lydia. She was a tall woman with soft, white curls. She wore a navy, pleated skirt and a flowery blouse. We stayed in a nearby bed-and-breakfast full of cats. I was grateful we stayed there even though the cats liked to sleep in our bed because Vancouver was sweltering under a heat wave, and we had air conditioning but Grandmother didn’t. Dad mowed the lawn and brought out her garbage and did the chores she asked of him, all with a cheery “sure!” He left me inside in my Sunday best dresses, my hair tightly braided. Her furniture was all brown-cherry mahogany and flowery brocade chairs and worn wool rugs. There were no pictures of Dad amongst the silver frames of family neatly displayed on sideboards. His old room was now a small library with built-in bookshelves. Grandmother Lydia fed me tea cakes and we watched TV. She smiled at me but said little. I was afraid to say the wrong thing so I said nothing, trying not to slouch and to not be any trouble, continuously wiping my sweat from my face with my sleeve.
“There’s something wrong with you,” she said.
I turned to look at her, but she was watching TV, smiling pleasantly. I wondered if I’d heard her correctly, if she’d spoken at all, or if I was delirious from the heat.
“Excuse me?” I said.
Grandmother’s smile turned to me. “Are you hot? Would you like a lemonade?”
Wheel of Fortune went to a commercial break.
“No, thank you, Grandmother,” I said.
On our last full day in Vancouver, Grandmother agreed to cosign the loan, but Dad had to sign a nondisclosure agreement her lawyer just happened to bring over, stating that he would never base future characters in whole or in part on his parents. He also had to agree to sign a notice that would be put in a local paper apologizing for the grief and harm he had caused to his parents’ reputations.
“I wasn’t writing about you, Mother,” Dad insisted. “It’s a novel.”
“Nonetheless,” Grandmother’s lawyer said. “If you want Mrs. Gunn to cosign your mortgage, these are the steps you’ll need to take.”
I expected Dad to be upset, but he said we should celebrate. We caught a bus full of sweaty, deflated people. Dad sat and plopped me in his lap and we got off six stops later. He held my hand as we walked to the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. Outside the white, round building, I stared at the metal sculpture of a crab and the gurgling fountain. I wanted to throw a coin in the pool and make a wish, but we didn’t have any change. Dad said we could stay as long as I wanted, for being such a good girl with such a cranky, old woman.
He let me set the pace as we went through the exhibits and I spent most of my time with the Apollo missions. He let me pick the shows. I wanted to watch Zombie Stars because my friend Peter had shown me an episode of The Walking Dead on his iPad when his mom thought we were watching Aladdin. I was curious to see how stars acted when they were zombies and if they ate their own planets or other stars. Dad grinned while we waited for the lights to come down.
“Man, this brings me back. I used to watch the Pink Floyd laser show and get stoned with my friends.”
This was the moment I became obsessed with neutron stars. This was the moment I believed my future course was set and I would be an astronomer. This moment sitting in the star theatre when Dad smiled down at me with such love, I felt the mysteries of the universe unfold like luminous night flowers, blooming greenish-white petals in the darkness.
If the universe is infinite, there is another Milena who knows what I know: Don’t love him too hard. Don’t confide in him too much. Eventually he’ll write a novel called Darling Strangelet, about a family that adopts the daughter of a serial killer, the earnest father constantly wondering about her true nature and how we can never really know another human being. The long, brooding philosophizing limits the audience, though, except for the true crime fans who’ve been following me for years and debate online whether I am the way my father wrote me, or whether, as he insists, it’s all a thought exercise.
After work, I catch the 3 Downtown bus, texting with Cass, who wants to have a summer solstice campout. The bus becomes more and more packed until my stop. I join a throng of people marching to Waterfront Station and catch the SeaBus, a passenger-only ferry that runs between Vancouver’s downtown and the North Shore. I like to sit at the back in the summer as the front is usually swarming with tourists narrating the short ride to their cell phones. I used to drive, but nothing frustrates me more than the utter stupidity of Vancouver traffic. We’re like cows being herded towards the chute with a stunner bolt at the end, inarticulate beasts mooing in the slaughterhouse, slipping on the blood of those being dismembered before us. In our last mandated session, my therapist gave up on offering coping strategies and said it would be better to avoid my triggers.
A woman sits across from me. No one has shown her how to put on a wig. The shade of chestnut she’s chosen makes her skin sallow. She wears oversized sunglasses and fidgets with her badly fitted grey polyester suit. She isn’t wearing pantyhose. Her ballerina flats are meant to look like patent leather, but lean more towards Barbie plastic. I pretend interest in my cell phone even as she raises her own phone to surreptitiously take pictures or videos of me. True crime podcaster? Superfan? Not a private detective.
Thank you all for your concern, Fey emails the entire office. Further tests needed, but I’ll be back at work tomorrow!
Privately, to me: Hope this email finds you well.
Fey’s a notorious snitch, so normally she’d bellow about my drug use to anyone who would listen, but her own lunch-stealing ways have hamstrung that option. I feel a low-level anticipation, like my third favourite team has gotten into the playoffs.
I email back: Can’t wait to see you back in the office!