“Hey boss,” Jezebel said, finding Anna alone in the kitchen, staring into a beer before taking a swig.
“I refuse to lead any organization that would have me for a leader,” she replied dryly.
“And yet we follow you. Except when we don’t.” She winced. “I’m still undecided, if I should be bracing for this, worried you’ll drum me out for good, or see this as a right of passage. But I’ve been anxious all day.”
“You should be. Mimi ratted you out.”
“I’ll believe that when I have details.
“About driving past her hotel, blasting Springsteen.”
“Balls. That’s going to cost me, isn’t it?”
Anna laughed, the bite of her half-drunk beer wafting on her breath. “I went out with Lisa.”
“Does Ellen know? Is this like a unicorn situation? Because Mae would be devastated.”
“Accompanied her on her mission, wiseass.”
“Oh. Mae will still probably be jealous.”
“She’ll survive. My point is, if we had better options, you and I would be insulated by layers of security and protocol. But we aren’t- we can’t be. We’re improvising, and oftentimes making shit up as we go. That means that, yes, we need to be as prepared and professional as we can be. But it isn’t because- or at least not strictly because- I’m a control freak. It’s because we can’t control everything. We can’t even control most things. But for the sake of the women depending on us, we have a responsibility to control as many things as we reasonably can- and not to bullshit or push the envelope on that measure, either.”
Anna polished off her beer before continuing. “What I’m saying is maybe this is a rite of passage. There was a time Mimi was a mentor to me, when I thought she was never going to run out of things to teach me. And… one day I realized I was teaching her, more and more. Part of doing what we do is evolving, growing. There’s going to come a day when you and I shoudn’t work together anymore, because we’re redundant. When one of us should set up shop someplace else- or maybe by then I can find some less crummy place in Canada to retire.”
“I love Ellen. But here? I barely get to. And a part of me… a part of me will always want to have kids with her. A family- and I don’t just mean you misfits.”
“I really expected this to go differently. I expected you to stomp me much harder, and probably in stiletto heels.”
“If discipline is becoming a kink for you, I can have Mae do it. She doesn’t have entanglements, and she’d have fun with it. You two could go nuts.”
“The idea of her swinging a riding crop is frightening… but also hot.”
“So it is becoming a kink.”
“Only because we’re talking about it out loud. But for one… I didn’t expect you to disobey your own orders at the same time I was.”
“Well… you and I are a different breed, I think. Certainly, I trust the others, as far as it goes. They’d stall, evade, play stupid for as long as possible. But interrogators always break you, in the end.”
“Right. But that’s also not the whole story,” Jezebel said. “Torture- and interrogation is just torture with pretensions- doesn’t work- not if by ‘work’ you mean getting accurate information. And the reason it doesn’t work, is that it takes time to break someone. And anyone who knows anything of any real value knows that, knows that all they have to do is stall and lie, obfuscate, give them bad intel to chase down and otherwise be a brat, to give your friends a chance to change up the organization. It’s why it’s especially ineffective against cells like ours, with relatively little infrastructure, light on personnel, already mobile by nature and used to setting up and breaking down at the drop of a hat. So if the cops had swept me up, maybe because I was an unescorted woman driving by a hotel frequented by sex workers, I would have stalled. Hours protesting my innocence. A woman suspected of gender crimes doesn’t automatically get access to a lawyer or a phone call, so I’d have to tap dance a bit more, but you make up stories. I was an informant for that GC detective who was killed, Harmon. Spin a tale of half-truths, anything to buy time, with the bonus that any lies you tell when you’re still pretty fresh and hydrated make it harder for them to believe the truth once you become delirious from a lack of sleep, water or food.”
“But all of that only works if we know you got picked up,” Anna said.
“I told Ellen before I left. Her stink eye is almost as strong as yours.” Anna didn’t smile. “God, this is so much worse. I honestly wish you had yelled at me. Because then I could focus on the ‘You’re not my mom’ of it all, and how unfair it was you were targeting me. But instead… I’m forced to face the enormity of what happened. Almost everyone I care about could have been killed today. And for what? It’s supplies to keep that little pop-up clinic going for two weeks, max- that’s if it’s a light two weeks. And that’s why they’re winning, isn’t it? Because we have to run the table, every time. We won today. But every time we screw up, every time one of ours gets caught, at best they get beat up, traumatized. As often as not they get killed. How can it be worth it? How is that not a slow, depressing slide into death or powerlessness?”
“I-“ Anna’s phone rang.
“Please, be rude and pick it up,” Jezebel said, taking a swig from her own bottle, “unless you’ve got a rousing speech to pull me out of my tailspin.”
Anna put it on speaker. “Oh, good, I was worried I’d end up in your voicemail.” For a second, they couldn’t place the voice. “Oh. Duh. You don’t have this number. It’s Ofelia. I’m in Canada.”
“You made it!” Jezebel said, practically snatching the phone from Anna.
“I did. I’ve actually been here a few days, and it’s been overwhelming. But I wanted to call and tell you I made it, and I’m safe. There’s a lot of people who settled around here who know you. I’d met a few, people we helped travel North, or get drugs, procedures, whatever. But most of them stay locally, because they’re all like-minded people, who escaped just awfulness to make it here. And I think the reason it’s taken me this long to call is… it’s home.
“And I want be careful how I say that. Because for forever home was down there, with all of you, and I will never stop missing all of you. But up here… it’s the world you’ve been working so hard to build, the people you’ve risked so much to save. This is the home you all deserve, and my heart is so full and at the same time so heavy because you’re not all here with me…”
She sniffled, then continued. “But you can’t be. Because not everyone can just up and leave; when I first met you, I wouldn’t have been able to, and I know there are so many men and women trapped down there who rely on you. And I am so sad and angry that right now those people need you there more than I do, but so proud and grateful to have known you, to have had a chance to help, even for just a little bit. Every single one of you down there is my hero, and every one of you better figure out a way to join me up here, because I am lonely and horny and miss you. Share my love with everyone. I’ll want to call, and talk, as I can, with all of them, but in the meantime hug the hell out of them for me. Crap. People have noticed my weeping, so I should probably go explain that it’s more because I’m happy even though I’m also sad. It’s been good to talk. Next time I might even try listening for a minute. I love you two. Bye.”
“Bye,” Anna said, as the line went quiet.
“It was a dense question, wasn’t it.” Jezebel said thoughtfully. “Of course it’s worth it.”
“No, it wasn’t a dense question,” Anna said. “Each of us has to ask it. Because it is a deeply personal question. We have a right to ask it, and to decide the answer every day. This might be a war, but we aren’t going to win it by treating ourselves or each other like wheat to feed into the thresher. We win by remembering our humanity, valuing each other as people first and foremost, including respecting the choice to stop if or when we need to. Or else what’s all of this even for?”
Afterword: I’d like to stop writing Whores. It’s an alarmist, panicked cry about a world we shouldn’t want to live in- a semi-pocalypse we can absolutely avoid if we just make better choices. But until then, here’s the novel this short follows immediately after: