In Nadia Ragbar’s Hostages, big changes and whiffs of confusion swirl around a woman who put off sleeping for far too many years and the accountant who might be too late to save her.
There are three things to know about Lisa Primi:
1. she will have an anaphylactic reaction to bee stings that she isn’t aware of yet, having lived 31 years without being stung. It won’t happen until next year and she will be sorely ill-prepared;
2. she moved back to her parents’ home recently, and her mother is on a relentless campaign to get her to even one Spin class—or Yoga, at the very least—just to tone up. Her father doesn’t come out from behind his newspaper all day;
3. there is a woman named Carly who works at the bank who she is desperately jealous of now. Carly is gregarious, and fun, and wears statement necklaces.
Earlier today, Lisa Primi stood out front of the Cathay House Restaurant & Cocktails smoking and watching Julia circle the parking lot 19 times. She rolled the cricks out of her neck and crushed the butt under her toe when Julia half-walked, half-ran up to meet her breathless and waving.
“Hi. Sorry I’m late,” Julia panted as she caught Lisa up in a hug that pinned her arms tight to her side; the sun in Lisa’s eyes making her sneeze into Julia’s soft, limp hair.
Lisa looked old and stern for her age; she always tied her hair up in a top knot the moment she stepped out of the shower; her parents’ bathroom mirror reflecting the ceramic Kleenex box-holder and frilled shower curtain from her childhood. She was the junior accountant assigned to Julia’s affairs since “the incident.” Julia had been rambling, talking with her hands, and now began fishing oatmeal cookies from inside her tote bag. Crumbs at the corners of her mouth, falling into the V of her t-shirt.
Two weeks ago Lisa misunderstood when her boyfriend came home from his job at the bank, and said, “Sit down. There’s something,” and then clumsily bent on one knee to re-tie a shoelace, which Lisa assumed would obviously lead to a proposal. He will continue to live in the apartment they had shared, because he had lived there even before they met (online).
A white unmarked van careened into the parking lot and a lithe twenty year-old boy jumped out of the passenger side before the van could stop. Blonde hair to his ears. The struggle to grow a moustache, tanned, muscled, downy arms. He yelled something Lisa couldn’t make out as the van ground to a halt and reversed madly out of the lot. Lisa wondered what it’d be like to just walk off her shitty accounting job. To be able to move on with someone new. A fling with someone slightly dangerous, but not too dangerous: petty thief, pot dealer, stunt double. Lisa’s entire body flushed when she and the boy made eye contact as he strode into the Cathay House Restaurant & Cocktails. His eyes were watery blue. He winked at her staring back at him. She saw the tops of his boxers ballooning out of his jeans. Lisa imagined he had a gun already, but might need a new getaway car. She fingered the keys in her blazer pocket, and noted that “careen” was a word no one had actually used in real life since the 1940s, maybe.
She interrupted Julia, “We should go inside and get a table.”
“I’m so glad you could meet me today—I have some important news that may compromise our working relationship. It’s huge. You won’t believe it. I didn’t want anyone else in your office to hear it yet, but first I need to eat. I’m starving.”
There were still cookie crumbs around her mouth when Julia ordered the Pork Fried Rice, Sweet and Sour Chicken Balls, Shrimp Egg Foo Young, a Diet Coke, and asked for her slice of orange and fortune cookie to come with the meal. Lisa ordered a Caesar. Julia’s appetite had become more like a high school quarterback’s since “the incident,” which is how Mr. Mancuzzi referred to the strange turn that Julia’s life had taken.
When Julia Spencer was a teenager she never had any trouble sleeping. She fell asleep on long car rides, never woke before noon on weekends, occasionally slept through some of her morning classes. But by her final year of university, she spent most of her nights awake in bed at an utter loss for sleep.
She spent nearly every night, pacing and smoking. She blamed it on the stress of being in school. Of being a journalist. She felt justified and committed by the lack of sleep. Veering headlong into her twenties, she was convinced that sleep was for lazy people who didn’t want to expose the hard truths. Everyone around her misread the jittery nervousness as ambition. Passion. After she graduated she immediately landed a job at a national paper. She slept with photographers and all the single copy editors. She fucked the Sports Desk Editor (only once). She snagged difficult interviews, her sources dished freely; she loved her job.
But then two years ago—just days before the deadline for her piece on cult leaders—she fell asleep mid-sentence while dictating notes into her phone. She slept clear through her 5:30am alarm.
The news from her clock radio vined around her dreams. She dreamt that she was running with of a pack of dogs down Yonge Street. They were running a marathon, but she was wearing a bulletproof vest. Then a black lab next to her turned and told her that there would be a high of 11 degrees that day with a slight chance of precipitation. He was running on two legs holding an umbrella, and had a red bandana tied around his neck. She thought he was the most handsome dog she had ever seen.
Julia woke up in a panic and cold with sweat at 11:30am to the sound of her neighbour’s dog endlessly barking. She called in sick and went back to bed. She slept all day long. She dreamt a significant number of the dreams she had missed out on during her college years. There was her kindergarten best friend, every house she’d ever lived in, a parking garage with zero gravity, Martin Scorsese as her grandfather, a newborn baby who spoke to her in Portuguese. She slept longer than she had ever slept before. She woke up the next afternoon at 2:45pm feeling like a sack of shit, and called in sick again. When she picked up the phone it was made of marshmallows.
She went to the grocery store to stock up on hash browns and frozen yogurt and the overhead music followed her out the automatic doors and down the block. Dolly Parton was following her home, singing “Jolene” into her ear clear as a bell . Her alarm went off the next day, and she woke feeling more inspired than she had since her first days at the newspaper. Julia had a craving for ramen noodles and hot dogs with mustard, and onions, and sauerkraut. She was thrilled by the idea of sauerkraut.
Before this scattershot lunch meeting, Lisa had already been hung out to dry in the morning’s meeting with Mr. Mancuzzi and the rest of the 7th floor. She left the boardroom with a manila file folder, and as she walked she continuously pushed the button-end of her ballpoint pen: click click click up down up. Her cheeks were burning red-hot because Mancuzzi had made an example of her in front of the other junior accountants:
“Accountants need guts. Take Ms. Primi. She’s got no guts. There’s been no movement on file no. 13582—nada. With fiscal year-end on our asses this is unacceptable. Markus! Great job with that Zimmerman audit.”
Mancuzzi had taken off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes squeezed shut, “Julia Spencer. Crap,” he shook his head.
He put his glasses back on and left the room. Meeting dismissed.
The file, marked #13582 in her own handwriting, was empty save for two receipts from Honest Ed’s. She had never even seen Markus before this morning.
When Lisa got back to her cubicle, there were messages from Julia Spencer (#13582) in her voice mail. Julia asked to meet for lunch and the rest of the message made absolutely no sense. Julia prattled on about a sale on golf clubs, the conspiracy of satellite radio, the thing her mother told her when she got her first period. She kept it up until the allotted recording time ran out and cut her off mid-sentence. She called back a second time to say, “Oh hi—it’s me, Julia. Be sure to meet me while Royson’s still out of the house.”
Lisa had played the messages, still clicking her pen, daydreaming of a fire breaking out by the copy machine. The fake plants contorted into charred mounds; the industrial carpet and matching half-walls up in a flash like dry tinder. Lisa’s cheeks now burning righteously from the proximity of flames instead of embarrassment. The evacuation drill long forgotten, everyone was panicking, screaming. Losing their shit. Arlene running back to gather her collection of plastic ballerina figurines edging the top of her cubicle. Markus heroically ushering out the pregnant employees, making return trips back into the burning office for the college interns.
Lisa would stream out with everyone else in her cubicle block, but then make a show of having to go back for the Spencer file, insisting that the rest go on without her. Then she’d detour out the east wing doors, slip around the building on the opposite side of the designated fire safety zone. Crouching low between cars she’d sidle into her Echo and drive away. Everyone would presume her lost to the fire, staring at the leaping flames 100 meters behind the firefighters. Markus would not have gone back for her. She would move to a beach town and start working as a waitress. She thought she might dye her hair blonde. Something about blondes being more fun.
Mancuzzi had left a doctor’s note in Julia’s original file. The diagnosis was inconclusive, though not considered terminal. From the near illegible scrawl Lisa pieced together: “as if in a chronic and perpetual dream-state. No known cure.” All Lisa had to do was collect receipts for Julia’s supposed small business and file the taxes as per the wishes of Julia’s heavily influential father, who played tennis with Mancuzzi every Saturday. Trouble was she couldn’t get a single document out of Julia. The receipts from Honest Ed’s were actually Lisa’s:
– new shower curtains, CLR;
– olive oil, paint thinner, stovetop espresso maker;
because even she knew that having an empty file folder after a year was shoddy workmanship. After this morning’s meeting she understood that she would be fired before the week was out.
Apparently Julia used to wear expensive designer jeans and had her highlights done regularly; she used to be permanently attached to her Blackberry. Lisa knew if they had gone to high school together that Julia would’ve gone to all the parties, and been friends with all the boys and would’ve never known that invisible Lisa existed. Lisa bet that Julia was the type of daughter her parents had envisioned when they first started their family. She licked the salt from the rim of her glass and stared across at present-day Julia eating off of all four plates, talking about someone named Royson who was “game for almost anything.” When the Cathay House Restaurant & Cocktails waiter came around again, instead of asking for the bill, Lisa ordered another Caesar and resolved to cobble together some sense from what Julia was saying. Lisa gathered that Royson was Julia’s upstairs neighbour and either:
1. Julia wanted to have a baby with Royson or;
2. she just stole all of the valuables from Royson’s apartment.
She imagined for a moment that she could actually help Julia: navigate bureaucratic loopholes, research sound investments, fill that manila folder. It dawned on her that they could’ve easily traded places had the homunculus of Julia’s original-self persisted; Julia could be the reporter writing a long form piece on medical mysteries with Lisa, just one of many subjects, sitting across from her in a neurological soup of dreams. Lisa sat with her arms tightly folded and her legs primly crossed, her pastel blue blazer still on, waiting for a fresh drink. She relaxed imperceptibly, if not in her posture, in her willingness to listen. Lisa watched the slackness of Julia’s mouth moving. Pliable flesh wrapped around cheek bones, the weak chin. Lips slick with oil. Two bright eyes glistening through.
It took her a good few moments to realize the waiter had been hovering, waiting patiently for Lisa’s response to his question. She had completely zoned out. Imagining what would happen if the restaurant got robbed during the lunch rush.
Two ex-soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder brazenly pushed through the single heavy wooden door screaming at everyone to get down on the ground. They both had machine guns; the beefier soldier wearing camo, the smaller one, jeans and aviator glasses. Curly hair and dog tags around his neck. Lisa did as they said, but she was defiant about it, looking the big one straight in his eyes. She encouraged Julia to keep talking to distract them, until the curly-haired soldier came over to shut her up himself. Lisa signalled to Julia, and Julia lunged for the small guy in a giant bear hug, pinning his arms tight to his sides. Lisa scrambled for his gun and they managed to force his head down on to the table. The fortune cookie in halves on the plastic tablecloth; a slip of paper soaking up the condensation from a glass. Lisa turned the gun on the bigger soldier, ordering him to drop his weapon and slide it toward her. The soldier held firm for a moment, but really didn’t want to have to shoot anyone. The guns were not his idea. He acquiesced and Lisa passed it across to Julia. A baby started crying somewhere deep in the restaurant. On their way out the girls emptied the register, and grabbed some purses. Julia nabbed a lobster claw off someone’s plate. Lisa shot the chandelier down. They’d take Julia’s car, but Lisa would do all the driving. Her heart was beating hard.
They were on the run now, baby.
 This is not to say that Julia merely had this song stuck in her head, but rather, that Julia had caught a glimpse of the actual Dolly behind her at the checkout with a box of cereal. And then again trailing behind her through the parking lot, and finally, strutting up next to her, swinging her grocery bag wildly, singing with carefree abandon. Reminding Julia of what was important between women; of what she knew deep down to be true.
 The fortune read: Good luck is the result of good planning.
Nadia Ragbar‘s work has appeared in The Glass Coin, Dragnet Magazine and Echolocation. She lives in Toronto.