"It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same
Audrey watched Jeffrey creep toward the door, his hat tipped down and his shoulders hunched like a cartoon spy. She waited until he was just shy of the hallway, and then struck.
He froze in place in the doorway, and the rest of the stragglers looked over at Audrey in unison. Jeffrey turned around slowly, his face turning white through his beard. The corner of Audrey's mouth quirked. Seven years on the same school board, and she could still make him nervous.
It was like Mom had always said--Audrey could sure strike stone cold fear into the hearts of men. The most it had ever done for her love life was find her a husband who'd wanted Audrey to run his life more than he'd wanted any kind of intimacy. But she had to admit that sometimes it was useful.
She folded her arms, leaning back in her chair as she forced her face back into a frown. "Don't you even think about leaving this room without signing the memo to the athletics department."
Jeffrey held up a finger in a "just give me a minute" gesture and half-sprinted, half-shuffled back to the table where the chairman had left the memo. Audrey watched him until his hand emerged from his pocket with a pen, then let her eyes wander over to the clock. A quarter to ten. Mom had been alone for four hours.
Mrs. Richardson had promised to look in on her at around 8:30, but considering how things had been lately, Audrey didn't want to push it. She let out a sigh and stood. Mom didn't need more than a split second to fall out of bed and end up with a broken hip on top of everything else. Audrey grabbed her jacket from the back of the chair and pulled it on, aiming herself at the exit.
"Hey, Audrey, you got five minutes?"
Greg's voice always got that little squeak in it when he wanted something from her. Reluctant, she turned back around. "Make it two and you're on."
"I just wanted to introduce you to my sister," he said, holding an arm behind the woman standing next to him. Judy, this is Audrey Flankman. Audrey, this is my sister Judy Henley, and this is her husband Scott."
The woman was all angles, with dark, shoulder-length hair and an expensive grey suit. Straight out of an ad for the Bay. "It's good to meet you," Audrey said, and stuck out her hand to shake. The woman responded with a tight grip and a pair of brown eyes that looked down on her without wavering.
"Judy's a great admirer of yours," Greg added. "She came to the meeting tonight just to watch you in action."
Audrey let her hand drop. "I didn't realize school trustees had fan clubs."
The woman's bright red mouth spread wide in a smile. "I've just heard such great things about you from Greg. The way you fought for that special ed programme at Bisset? Just tremendous."
Audrey pressed her chin to her chest and peered at her over her glasses. She knew ass-kissing when she saw it, and this lady's lips were planted firmly on her behind. "Let's just hope the kids think so."
"It's so wonderful to finally meet you. Up until now, you've just been a name on a list."
Audrey gave her a blank look. She turned to Greg, planting a fist on her hip with a theatrical flourish. "You've been letting your sister peek at your personal shit list? That's not very professional."
Greg's sister let out a long, fake-sounding laugh. Greg echoed her with a chuckle, his smile rigid. "Now, Audrey, you know I think the world of you."
"I was talking about the list of Liberal party members in Edmonton-Southeast," the woman explained, her mouth tight. "I'm president of the federal riding association."
Audrey had always voted Liberal, but she hadn't actually joined the party until last year, in a reaction to one too many death matches with the family values contingent on the school board. "What do you do--judge the races?" she joked. "Monitor the breeding?" She cuffed Greg's sister on the arm. "Now, that'd be an interesting job!" She snorted.
The corner of the woman's mouth quirked indulgently. "I call regular meetings of the executive, and I make annual reports at federal council. And when election time rolls around, I try to find the best possible candidate."
Audrey's eyes wandered over to Greg, and then back to his sister. They both looked expectant. She pressed her lips together. There had to be a point to all this bullshitting, but if they didn't make it within thirty seconds, Audrey was turning around and walking out.
"You've been noticed, in some very high places." She tossed a glance over her shoulder and then leaned in, conspiratorial. "I'm sure you've heard that there's going to be an election soon, probably in November. We'd like you to consider running."
"Running...for what?" Audrey's eyebrows shot up. "For Parliament?" A laugh bubbled up from inside of her, turning into another snort as it tumbled out of her mouth.
Greg and his sister looked down on her with matching deadpan expressions. That was exactly what they meant. The laugh dissolved on Audrey's tongue, and her face froze, her mouth still half-open.
"With you in our corner, we've got a real shot at unseating Paul Charles," Greg's sister explained. "You're smart, you've got a terrific presence, and we already know you're not afraid to stand up and say what needs to be said."
They wanted her to run for federal office. A surge of energy pulsed through her. As a member of the school board she could save the occasional special ed programme, but as a Member of Parliament she could save the whole goddamn country.
An image of Mom's frail figure flashed across Audrey's mind, and her shoulders slumped. At first it had just been her memory, and they'd thought it might be Alzheimer's. Then she'd fallen face-first onto the driveway on her way out of the car, and they'd been sure it was Parkinson's. Four specialists later the real diagnosis had come: Lewy body disease. Audrey had pored over website after website, but hadn't retained much more than the bare facts: dementia, caused by protein deposits in the brain. Incurable.
Nothing had answered her real questions, and at night they still tumbled around, unasked, inside her mind. Am I really strong enough to do this? Am I really going to be able to watch her die, slowly, before my eyes? Occasionally Mom was still lucid, even happy. And then there was the rest of the time.
"Now, a couple of other people have thrown their hats into the ring, but they've all said that they'll step back if you'll agree to run." The woman's eyes were bright with excitement. "So you'll be uncontested."
Audrey clamped down on a breath. There was no way she could run for Parliament. She'd already left a career in real estate to spend this time at home. Hell, sometimes she was hardly making it to these school board meetings.
She held up a hand. "Listen. Ms. Henley."
"Call me Judy." The woman tilted her head in toward Audrey.
"Judy." Audrey inhaled a long breath, held it, and let it out. "I'm flattered. Really, I--"
"Sweetheart." The woman's husband placed a hand on her shoulder. "You know, the Logans are expecting us."
She glanced at her watch. "Oh, my goodness. I completely lost track of the time." She turned to Audrey, shaking her head. "I'm so sorry, you're going to have to excuse me. But I'll be in touch, all right? I'll call you tomorrow?"
All three of them--Greg, his sister, and her husband--were wearing identical, Cheshire-cat grins. Audrey let out a jittery laugh. "I'll be home," she said with a shrug.
"Excellent. I'll talk to you soon." The woman buttoned her jacket and flashed Audrey one last smile. "So good to finally meet you," she said with a wave. They disappeared through the doorway.
Audrey stared at the space where they had been. A clear 'no' had been sitting on her tongue, but she hadn't been able to make her mouth form the word.
She buttoned her jacket, pulling it tight around her chest, and walked from the meeting room out into the hall. This Judy had been pushy, just pushy enough to get under her skin. Tonight or tomorrow, though, the answer still amounted to the same thing. She couldn't take the time she'd need for a campaign. Not without a home care nurse for Mom.
A weight pulled on Audrey's chest. Things were probably almost to that point already.
"You okay, Audrey?"
"Hmm?" She looked up. Her eyes focused on Jeffrey.
"You were looking a little lost," he explained.
She fiddled with the button on her jacket, forcing a grin. "Just making sure the door's in the same place I left it," she said.
His eyebrows arched, and he leaned in a little closer. "You know, I'd vote for you."
A chuckle tumbled out of Audrey's mouth. "Excuse me?"
"Greg mentioned that his sister was going to ask you to run in Edmonton-Southeast. I'd vote for you." He tilted his head to one side. "That is what she was talking to you about, isn't it?"
Audrey rolled her eyes. "Greg has a big mouth."
"I signed the memo, by the way." Jeffrey's eyes searched hers for approval.
She took a few steps backward, toward the outside doors. "Good boy," she called after him, pointing. He gave her a mock salute, and she pushed through the double doors to the outside.
The September chill nipped at her face, and she shoved her hands into her pockets. She could get Mom a home care nurse--nobody did this sort of thing alone forever. Maybe now really was the time. And if campaigning only took a few hours a day...maybe it would be a good thing. Get her out of the house a little.
The night was clear, and the sky was bright with stars. She let her eyes trace a path from glowing dot to glowing dot, searching. The answers were out there, somewhere just beyond her reach.
Halfway through dinner, the hotel banquet room was filled with the smell of chicken and an indoor heat more stifling than any day in July. Large round tables--fourteen in total, eight people at each--lined the edges of an oak dance floor that a group of kids was taking turns skidding across, squealing. Audrey was seated between a city councillor she'd known fleetingly for years and the owner of a Second Cup on 34th Ave. Power on one side and money on the other.
A little boy of maybe three or four stood at the edge of the group of kids, watching the others with a wary longing. All at once one of the older kids let out a piercing shriek, and the little boy panicked, making a mad dash for Audrey's table. He slipped under it, and it shook as he hit the leg in the middle.
Mr. Second Cup's eyes traveled over to Audrey. "Looks like we have a visitor," he said.
A giggle floated up to their ears. At the next table, an old woman in a blue headscarf was watching them with glassy eyes and a toothy grin.
The table wobbled again, and Audrey leaned down, lifting the corner of the tablecloth. The little boy's face was the colour of amber, and long black lashes lined his eyes. Twenty years, and this kid was going to make girls swoon.
"Hey there," Audrey offered.
Shyness overtook him, and his little-boy smile disappeared. He scooted backward along the floor, and he straightened, his head meeting the table with a thud. For a long moment he just looked stunned, and then his mouth opened wide and he started to wail.
Audrey dropped the edge of the tablecloth, and a younger woman from the next table stood and came scurrying over to them. The little boy clawed his way out from under the table, and his wail grew louder, his hand rubbing his head.
His mother bent down, gave his head a once-over, and grabbed hold of both of his shoulders. "What did I tell you about going under the table?" she scolded, her voice rising with the lilt of an East Indian accent. She looked up at Audrey, her face flushed. "I am so sorry."
Audrey stood, tossing her napkin from her lap onto the table. "That's all right," she said, shaking her head. "Heck, you paid a hundred dollars a plate for a chicken dinner, the least I can do is provide a place for your son to hide." Audrey crouched down to eye-level with the kid. "It's a pretty hard table, isn't it? I stubbed my toe on it earlier, and it still smarts."
The boy's wailing faded, ending on a hiccup. He stared at Audrey for a moment, then buried his head in his mother's bright blue skirt. She laughed, rubbing absently at the back of his head. "See? You are fine," she said to him. "He's a little shy," she added, tilting her head at Audrey.
The old woman at the next table pulled at the buttons on her dress, letting it fall open to reveal a white slip underneath. A lump formed in Audrey's throat. At the beginning of the summer, she'd taken Mom to Smitty's, and they'd only been seated ten minutes when she'd tried to take her blouse off in the restaurant. After a minor battle, they'd had to leave before finishing. Since then she hadn't dared take Mom out in public.
Audrey's eyes fell back down to the kid. "He's really sweet. His name's Hassan?"
"Yes." The boy's mother nodded. "It means 'good.'" The corner of her mouth rose in a smirk. "As it turns out, we should have named him 'troublemaker'."
Audrey chuckled, and from behind her she could hear Judy joining in the laughter. "Everything's all right over here?" Judy asked.
Audrey waved a hand in the boy's direction. "Hassan here had a little encounter with the table, but he seems to have survived." Behind Judy, the old woman was tracing a path of brown sauce on the tablecloth with her fork. The glassy-eyed grin was back. Audrey forced her face into a smile and looked back at Hassan's mother. "This is Judy Henley, my campaign manager. Judy, this is--"
"--Mrs. Mahmood," the woman finished, and the two of them shook hands. "Thank you--thank you both--for helping us get Mr. Charles out of Parliament. Probably it means we will see his face even more here at home, but..." She shrugged. "It is worth it."
Judy cupped her other hand over Mrs. Mahmood's hand, meeting her eyes. "Well, if anyone can do it, our Audrey can. We're so lucky to have her."
There was a dull thump from the table behind them, and Audrey's gaze was pulled back over to the old woman. She was struggling to stand, her legs shaky beneath her. With a jolt, she collapsed back into her seat. Her smile twisted in pain, her eyes drifting over to Mrs. Mahmood. Her eyes were pleading.
A nerve jumped in Audrey's neck. The woman wanted help.
A hand cupped around Audrey's elbow. "Isn't that you?"
Audrey looked up at Judy. "What?"
The ringing of a phone cut into her consciousness like a slap. She looked down at her pocket. It had to be Shelley.
Audrey forced out a chuckle. "These things always go off at exactly the wrong time, don't they?" She reached into her pocket, her fingers wrapping around her phone. "I'm really sorry, I've got to--"
"No, no." Mrs. Mahmood waved a hand in the air.
Audrey gave her a grateful nod, turned aside, and held the phone up to her ear. "Hello?"
"I'm so sorry, Audrey." In the background, Mom's unmistakable screech slashed across Shelley's voice, curdling Audrey's blood. "Do you-- just a second."
There was a clatter, and the screeching continued. Audrey's hand tightened around the phone. Mom had started doing that about six months ago, but every time it happened, it still made Audrey want to squeeze her eyes shut, throw her head back, and respond in kind. A rustling sound fed into a pop of static, and the screeching grew muffled.
"Okay, sorry. Do you have a blue plate somewhere?"
"A blue plate?" Audrey's voice was a shiver.
"She's refusing to eat unless I bring her her food on a blue plate." Shelley was as level-headed and responsible as any twenty-four-year-old could be, but her voice was strained with tension, and Audrey's heart dropped two inches in her chest. "I've looked everywhere, and I-- all I can find are these brown ones."
The muffled screaching rose in pitch, and Audrey hunched around the phone. "We've got an IKEA plate. It's kind of blue-grey. Could she mean--"
"Where is it?"
Beads of sweat pearled across Audrey's forehead. She wiped them away with a knuckle. "In the dishwasher, I think."
There was a clatter on the other end of the line, and Audrey threw a quick glance around the room. Mr. Second Cup was leaning across Audrey's plate to talk to the city councillor. Mrs. Mahmood was still talking to Judy. Fourteen tables of eight, a hundred and twelve people, every last one of them there to help Audrey get elected. If they succeeded, she would be off to Ottawa. Somehow.
Hot tears sprang to her eyes, and she blinked them back. Hassan leaned back against his mother's leg, but his eyes were fixed on Audrey, wide and full.
The screeching on the other end of the line stopped. Shelley picked up the phone again, out of breath. "Okay, that was it."
"I can come home." It came out as a whine, and Audrey swallowed around it. "Really, if you need me to, I can," she repeated, firmer now. "It's just a dinner."
"No, it's fine." Shelley was all clipped professionalism again, her voice level. "She just wanted the plate."
Audrey fiddled with the edge of her jacket. She would stay home with Mom tomorrow. With three solid days of door-knocking and an event every evening, she could take a day off.
"Thanks so much," Shelley said. "I'm so sorry to bother you."
"You can always--"
"Whoops, gotta go." The connection fizzled, died.
Audrey held the phone in front of her, her eyes focusing, then unfocusing. Gravity let go of her, and the room tilted sideways. She stumbled on her heel, righted herself.
"Is everything all right?" It was Judy, her expression heavy with concern. She turned her back to the group, lowering her voice as if it held a secret. "Is it your mother?"
Audrey pressed her lips together, not meeting Judy's eyes. She snapped the phone shut and shoved it back into her pocket. In the centre of the room, the older kids were running around chasing each other, and Hassan was standing at the edge again, watching.
She started toward them. "Hey, bring me a bunch of those balloons from the back, will you?" she said to Judy over her shoulder.
Smoothing the wrinkles out of her jacket, Audrey crouched down next to the little boy. She placed a cautious hand on his back, and he looked up at her. His eyes were nervous, but he didn't flinch.
She leaned in toward the kids, smiling. "Guess what Hassan and I have for you?"
"Mom." The scent of fresh oatmeal cut through the stale air, masking the ever-present smells of antiseptic and sweat. Audrey lifted a spoonful to Mom's mouth. "Mom. It's time for breakfast."
One eye opened to a wary slit, then closed again. Her lips pursed, and she jerked her head back onto the pillow.
Audrey's forehead throbbed. In forty-five minutes she was supposed to be at the campaign office for a meeting. Then it was door-knocking all morning and into the afternoon, with an all-candidates forum tonight. "Come on, Mom," she said, an edge in her voice. "If you have just a little bit now, then Shelley can give you the rest later."
Mom's face contorted, her fists balled tightly at her chest. Audrey flinched, and her shoulders tensed. The doctor had said the hand movements were nothing but muscle tension, but it was so hard not to read such a classic fighting pose as anger. She slid the spoon back into the bowl.
A ray of sunlight poked in through the slots in the blinds. The clock on Mom's bedside table read 7:15. "How about some orange juice, then?" she said, trying to make her voice sound upbeat. She poured a little from the big glass into a small plastic cup and held it up to Mom's mouth.
Mom lifted her chin into the air, clamping her teeth together. Her white hair stuck out at all angles, her eyes squeezed shut and her lips pursed like some crazed animal's.
Audrey leaned in closer, tilting the cup against her chin. "Just a little bit?" She reached around to Mom's back, propping her up with a hand, pulling her a little closer.
A grunt of protest flew out of Mom's mouth, and she turned her head, sinking her teeth into Audrey's shoulder. A sharp pain sliced through Audrey's skin, and she recoiled, spilling orange juice all over the bed. Her fingers flew to her shoulder, clutching at it, and Mom kept grunting, low and hollow, again and again.
Anger clamped down on Audrey's chest, holding it in a vice grip. She pushed the corner of her robe aside and looked down at her shoulder. Clear teeth marks formed a circle on her bare skin, but the bite hadn't drawn blood. A sticky orange stain had seeped into the sheets, into Mom's nightgown. She pressed her lips together, covering herself again.
Fighting back a scowl, she dipped the washcloth on the edge of the cart in the bowl of warm water and dabbed it at the sheet. Mom's grunts of protest grew louder, her fists waving wildly in the air in front of her, and a single jab at the cart sent the whole thing flying with a loud crash, tipping it onto its side. Oatmeal splattered onto the carpet, the coffee table, the couch.
Audrey shot to her feet. "Oh my God! Mom!" The cart skidded into the middle of the room, its contents spilling all over the floor. Audrey spun back around to face Mom, her teeth clenched. "I'm trying to help you! Do you think you could maybe start letting me?"
Another string of grunts erupted from Mom's mouth, and she shrank back, her face turned away from Audrey. Audrey turned around again. The bowl of water had landed face down on last night's dirty sheets. The big glass was tipped on its side, spilling sticky orange juice across the the carpet like a bloodstain.
Tears pricked at her eyes, and Audrey sank to the floor, crossing her legs, pressing her fists to her forehead. That night Matt had left and Mom had stopped by to slap some sense into her--hadn't that just been yesterday? She'd let Audrey cry for a few short moments, and then she'd grabbed her by the shoulders, her expression stern. She'd told Audrey she was better off without that little weasel, and that she was strong enough to get through it, that she was a Flankman. In that moment Audrey had wanted to push her away, but afterward she really had felt better.
Audrey's eyes focused. Her bare leg was coated with oatmeal, her palms damp with sweat. The grunting had stopped. She looked up, twisting around toward Mom. Her eyes were slits, but they were open.
"Are you there?" Mom hardly opened her mouth, but the words were clear as a summer sky.
"I'm here." Audrey pulled herself to her feet, maneuvering herself so that she was directly in front of Mom's field of vision. "What do you need?"
Mom's eyes fell closed again, and Audrey searched her face. This wasn't the dementia, this was Mom. Really, truly her. Audrey's heart beat faster, drumming in her chest, and leaned in closer. From the other room, the kitchen faucet sent drops of water skittering across the metal sink.
Mom's lower lip quivered. "Do you love me?"
Audrey's vision clouded, and her head floated in the air, disconnected from the rest of her body. The only conceivable response welled in her throat--Yes! I'll love you forever!--but she couldn't force it past the boulder on her tongue.
A key turned in the front door, and Audrey turned around, fixing her eyes on the open door to the living room. A creak crept across the floor, and then Shelley was in the doorway. Her uniform was crisply pressed, her blonde hair pulled back in a tidy little ponytail.
She gave them a warm smile. "Uh-oh. Looks like you two had a little accident."
A laugh fell out of Audrey's mouth, loud and sharp. A new understatement for a new millennium.
Shelley grinned back at her, but her eyes were tracing a possible path over to Mom's bed. She stepped gingerly toward them, her runners tiptoeing around the oatmeal in some strange, slapstick tap dance. A fresh set of giggles overtook Audrey, her voice high and manic. Her hand flew up to her mouth, but her sides shook, and a few stray laughs escaped through her fingers.
The hand on Audrey's arm was firm, but still gentle. Her laugh caught in her throat, ending on a sob.
"Why don't you go get ready," Shelley said, her voice steady. "Let me clean this up."
Audrey gave her head a vigorous shake. "No, I couldn't-- it's a mess." She looked down at herself, at the orange juice stain down the front of her robe, at the oatmeal caked on her right leg from knee to ankle. She wiped at her face. "I'm a mess."
She surveyed the room. It could have been a hurricane site. She hadn't even finished the laundry. "Honestly, Shelley, I..." Her voice trailed off. There was nothing to say.
Shelley bent over, setting the cart upright. "One request?"
Shelley peeled the washcloth off the floor and used it to push one of the larger piles of oatmeal into her hand. "More money for health care." Her voice was matter-of-fact. She looked up, her steel blue eyes meeting Audrey's. "After you win."
Audrey's laugh was a snort. "It's a deal."
With one last glance around the room, Audrey fled up the stairs to the washroom. Exhaustion weighed down on her like a rock against her shoulders, and she spread her hands flat against the counter, leaning against it. From downstairs she could hear Shelley chattering away in a one-sided conversation with Mom, seemingly oblivious to the lack of response. Audrey had tried that last spring, and it had only made the house seem emptier. After a few feeble attempts, silence had prevailed.
In the mirror she scrutinized her reflection. The woman who looked back at her had grown old in the past year, new lines creasing her tear-stained, tomato-red face. Her breasts hung low on her chest beneath her robe, hovering over her wide hips like a sack of potatoes.
She didn't look a thing like an MP.
Her hand was shaking. She clenched it into a fist, force overcoming nerves. She had to get moving.
A wall of staff stood between Audrey's table at the centre of the room and the sustained chaos only found in a campaign office on election day. The ringing of a half dozen phones was so constant that it had almost become background noise. The hum of conversation was a frantic murmur, punctuated only by the occasional volunteer shouting out numbers.
Audrey peered over Judy's shoulder at the poll-by-poll results spread across the wall from floor to ceiling. The trend was clear--Audrey was taking around 46 percent, and Charles' Alliance had only 41. Her hands fidgeted in her lap. If they were doing so well, they should have heard from Elections Canada by now.
The ring of a phone close by splintered Audrey's thoughts, and the entire campaign team jumped. "That's mine," Sean yelled out, holding up a hand.
A muffled groan emanated from the group. Audrey's shoulders relaxed from rock-hard to merely tense.
"They must still be counting," Audrey said, looking up at Judy. "Why are they still counting at almost 9:00 at night?"
Judy put a hand on Audrey's shoulder. "It's nothing. There are a lot of polls where it's pretty close. They're just making sure."
Sean snapped his phone shut. "She's right, though. I mean, we won." He pointed at the wall. "The scrutineers told us that hours ago, and the poll-by-poll numbers confirm it. What's taking Elections Canada so long?"
"I've got the results from 122," came the shout from another out-of-breath volunteer, and she sprinted over to the wall and started scribbling frantically. Audrey lifted her chin, craning her neck to see over Sean's shoulder. Turnout was low in that poll, but her numbers were strong. She grabbed a potato chip from the bowl in front of her and shoved it into her mouth. It tasted like cardboard.
The familiar, tinny chime of Judy's cell phone sounded, and everybody turned toward it. Judy held it up to her ear. It was Judy's cell that Elections Canada would be calling. "Audrey Flankman campaign, this is Judy."
The circle closed in around Audrey, but everyone's eyes were on Judy. Her mouth was a line, her face unreadable. Audrey's shoulders stiffened. She drew in a breath and pressed down on it.
"Right. Thanks." Judy's phone snapped shut.
She wasn't smiling. Audrey flinched, a knot forming just under her breastbone.
"So?" Sean prompted. "Was that them?"
Judy crouched down, her hand on Audrey's knee. Her mouth was still tense, and Audrey's heart raced. Then her face spread with the brightest smile Audrey had ever seen. "You did it."
All at once Audrey was on her feet, and she heard a shout of elation escape from her mouth even before she felt her vocal cords move. Someone put their arms around her, then someone else. She didn't even look to see who, she just hugged them back. A sudden warmth edged out the tension in her chest. She wanted to hug the whole goddamn world. She'd done it. She'd won.
The news spread to the volunteers, and delighted screeches rang out like wind chimes. A camera appeared just over Sean's shoulder, and Audrey grabbed Judy by the shoulders and pulled her close. The flash went off.
"Hey! Quiet!" someone yelled, and someone else shushed them. The volunteers turned toward the TV on the far wall, and Audrey planted a pump on the chair and climbed up to see over them. The announcer's voice was too quiet to be heard over the excited rumbling of the crowd, but there it was: Audrey's official picture on the television screen with a check-mark beside it.
Another scream sounded through the sea of volunteers and supporters. A few guys in the back grabbed some leftover Audrey Flankman lawn signs, painting the crowd Liberal red. Audrey grabbed Judy's arm and pumped it into the air along with her own. She felt weightless, and the corners of her mouth ached from smiling.
The cell phone buzzed in her pocket, and she thrust her hand inside, grabbing it. It was her own number in the call display window. Shelley'd been planning on watching the returns. Her grin grew wider.
She held the phone up to her mouth. "This is Audrey Flankman." She gave her head a toss. "Member of Parliament for Edmonton-Southeast."
Another triumphant cheer rang out, mixing with a wave of laughter, drowning out Shelley's response. But Audrey could hear the quiver in her words, and two of them were clear. Your mother.
Audrey's blood froze. She stepped down off the chair, cupping a hand over her ear. Audrey, Audrey, they were chanting, but it felt far away, as if her ears were stuffed with cotton. "What?" she managed to say.
"She passed in her sleep, Audrey," Shelley said. Her voice was gentle. "It was peaceful."
Audrey fell back into the chair, barely feeling it beneath her. An overpowering wave of nausea chewed at the inside of her stomach.
Judy leaned down, her face inches from Audrey's. "What's wrong?"
Audrey turned away, pressing her ribcage against the table. She plugged her free ear with a finger. "I called an ambulance," she heard Shelley saying.
An ambulance. Sirens and flashing lights, the sights and sounds of emergency, of hope. Though not this time. Bile licked at the back of her throat.
"I don't know if that was the right thing, given the--but they're coming."
Audrey lifted a hand to her forehead. The last few days were a blur--when was the last time she'd even seen Mom? She'd definitely missed most of her fleeting moments of lucidity in the past few weeks; Shelley'd had to tell her about them. For the last two months, the campaign had been top priority. The last two months of her mother's life, and she'd missed them.
She wrapped an arm around herself, her pulse hissing in her ears. People held on for years with LBD. All the books she'd read were filled with tragic stories of families whose whole lives focused around an elder relative's illness for over a decade. Mom hadn't even lasted until the end of the year. Another camera flashed from the other side of Judy, and Audrey winced, lifting a hand to block it out.
"Are you there?" Shelley asked.
"I'll be right there," she croaked.
She snapped her phone shut, lowering it to her lap. The room clouded over. "I've got to go," she said to no one in particular. The room snapped into place again, and her eyes focused in on Judy's expectant face. "I have to go," she repeated.
"You have to--what?" Judy drew back, her smile disappearing. "You can't."
A jolt of anger shot through Audrey. "I can," she said. "I will."
"Okay." Judy's eyes were flashing, and she was struggling to keep her voice low. "I know things are hard--with your mother and all. I understand that. But you just won a federal election. There are reporters here from all across the province. There's a hall full of people waiting for you to give your speech. Surely your nurse can do without you for another couple of hours!"
Audrey leveled her gaze at Judy, sour rage mixing with the metallic taste of grief on her tongue. "Don't," she warned. Audrey. Audrey. "Not right now."
Judy's hands spread in front of her. Her eyes were wide. "You can't just walk out on your own victory speech," she hissed. Audrey. Audrey. "What am I supposed to tell everybody?"
"What are you supposed to tell everybody?" Audrey stood. She leaned in toward Judy. "What are you supposed to tell everybody?"
Her voice was shrill, and as if she'd pressed the mute button on a television set, the room grew suddenly quiet. Judy shrank back, hunching her shoulders. When she was cowering, Audrey was the taller one.
Anger boiled over in Audrey's throat. "You know, I've campaigned my ass off for the past two months." She lifted her hands in front of her, waving them. "And ooh, look, I get to be an MP." Her hands dropped back down to her sides. "Except that now I'm an MP with a dead mother."
There was a gasp from behind Audrey, but she didn't turn around. Judy took a step back, a hand over her mouth. The colour drained from her face. For a long moment, no one spoke.
Sean put a hand on her arm. "Audrey, I'm so--"
"No," she said loudly, jerking away from him. Her face was cold, and all at once she realized it was wet. The crowd was laced with reporters, but she couldn't bring herself to give a damn. "Maybe by tomorrow I'll be able to say that the best way I can serve people like her is from an office in Ottawa. But right now I'm going to get in my car, drive home, and spend one last night sitting by the bedside of the woman who gave birth to me before they put her into the ground. Have I made myself clear?"
The room was silent. The faces of reporters, of old friends, of party hacks bled together into a nameless, shapeless mass as the crowd parted to let Audrey through.
She lifted her chin, her heels clicking against the tile as she passed them. Her hand closed around her coat, and she lifted it from the rack and opened the door.
The wind was chasing the year's first flakes of snow through the air, but the cold didn't touch her. The stars shone down on her through the clouds, their dim lights flickering, fluttering, burning out.
Steeling herself, she pointed herself toward home.