The Glass Hotel

Emily St. John Mandel | 29 mins



1994 and 1999


At the end of 1999, Paul was studying finance at the University of Toronto, which should have felt like triumph but everything was wrong. When he was younger, he’d assumed he’d major in musical composition, but he’d sold his keyboard during a bad period a couple years back and his mother was unwilling to entertain the idea of an impractical degree, for which after several expensive rounds of rehab he couldn’t really blame her, so he’d enrolled in finance classes on the theory that this represented a practical and impressively adultlike forward direction—Look at me, learning about markets and the movements of money!—but the one flaw in this brilliant plan was that he found the topic fatally uninteresting. The century was ending and he had some complaints.

He’d expected that at the very least he’d be able to slip into a decent social scene, but the problem with dropping out of the world is that the world moves on without you, and between the time spent on an all-consuming substance and the time spent working soul-crushing retail jobs while he tried not to think about the substance and the time spent in hospitals and rehab facilities, Paul was twenty-three years old and looked older. In the first few weeks of school he went to parties, but he’d never been good at striking up conversations with strangers, and everyone just seemed so young to him. He did poorly on the midterms, so by late October he was spending all his time either in the library—reading, struggling to take an interest in finance, trying to turn it around—or in his room, while the city grew colder around him. The room was a single, because one of the very few things he and his mother had agreed on was that it would be disastrous if Paul had a roommate and the roommate was into opioids, so he was almost always alone. The room was so small that he was claustrophobic unless he sat directly in front of the window. His interactions with other people were few and superficial. There was a dark cloud of exams on the near horizon, but studying was hopeless. He kept trying to focus on probability theory and discrete-time martingales, but his thoughts kept sliding toward a piano composition that he knew he’d never finish, this very straightforward C-major situation except with little flights of destabilizing minor chords.

In early December he walked out of the library at the same time as Tim, who was in two of his classes and also preferred the last row of the lecture hall. “You doing anything tonight?” Tim asked. It was the first time anyone had asked him anything in a while.

“I was kind of hoping to find some live music somewhere.” Paul hadn’t thought of this before he said it, but it seemed like the right direction for the evening. Tim brightened a little. Their one previous conversation had been about music.

“I wanted to check out this group called Baltica,” Tim said, “but I need to study for finals. You heard of them?”

“Finals? Yeah, I’m about to go down in flames.”

“No. Baltica.” Tim was blinking in a confused way. Paul remembered something he’d noticed before, which was that Tim seemed not to understand humour. It was like talking to an anthropologist from another planet. Paul thought that this should have created some kind of opening for friendship, but he couldn’t imagine how that conversation would begin—I can’t help but notice that you’re as alienated as I am, can we compare notes?—and anyway Tim was already walking away into the dark autumn evening. Paul picked up copies of the alternative weeklies from the newspaper boxes by the cafeteria and walked back to his room, where he put on Beethoven’s Fifth for company and then scanned the listings till he found Baltica, which was scheduled for a late gig at some venue he’d never heard of down at Queen and Spadina. When had he last gone out to hear live music? Paul spiked his hair, unspiked it, changed his mind and spiked it again, tried on three shirts, and left the room before he could make any further changes, disgusted by his indecisiveness. The temperature was dropping, but there was something clarifying about the cold air, and exercise was a therapeutic recommendation that he’d been ignoring, so he decided to walk.

The club was in a basement under a goth clothing store, down a steep flight of stairs. He hung back on the sidewalk for a few minutes when he saw this, worried that perhaps it would turn out to be a goth club—everyone would laugh at his jeans and polo shirt—but the bouncer barely seemed to notice him and the crowd was only about 50 percent vampires. Baltica was a trio: one guy with a bass guitar, another guy working an array of inscrutable electronics attached to a keyboard, and a girl with an electric violin. Whatever they were doing onstage sounded less like music than like some kind of malfunctioning radio, all weird bursts of static and disconnected notes, the kind of scattered ambient electronica that Paul, as a lifelong Beethoven fanatic, absolutely did not get, but the girl was beautiful so he didn’t mind it at all, if he wasn’t enjoying the music he could at least enjoy watching her. The girl leaned into the microphone and sang, “I always come to you,” except there was an echo—the guy with the keyboard had pressed a foot pedal—so it was

I always come to you, come to you, come to you

—and it was frankly discordant, the voice with the keyboard notes and the bursts of static, but then the girl raised her violin, and this turned out to be the missing element. When she drew her bow, the note was like a bridge between islands of static and Paul could hear how it all fit together, the violin and the static and the shadowy underpinning of the bass guitar; it was briefly thrilling, then the girl lowered her violin and the music fell apart into its disparate components, and Paul found himself wondering once again how anyone listened to this stuff.

Later, when the band was drinking at the bar, Paul waited for a moment when the violinist wasn’t talking to anyone and swooped in.

“Excuse me,” he said, “hey, I just wanted to tell you, I love your music.”

“Thanks,” the violinist said. She smiled, but in the guarded manner of extremely beautiful girls who know what’s coming next.

“It was really fantastic,” Paul said to the bass player, in order to confound expectations and keep the girl off balance.

“Thanks, man.” The bass player beamed in a way that made Paul think he was probably stoned.

“I’m Paul, by the way.”

“Theo,” the bass player said. “That’s Charlie and Annika.” Charlie, the keyboardist, nodded and raised his beer, while Annika watched Paul over the rim of her glass.

“Can I ask you guys kind of a weird question?” Paul wanted so badly to see Annika again. “I’m kind of new to the city, and I can’t find a place to go out dancing.”

“Just head down to Richmond Street and turn left,” Charlie said.

“No, I mean, I’ve been to a few places down there, it’s just hard to find anywhere where the music doesn’t suck, and I was wondering if you could maybe recommend ...”

“Oh. Yeah.” Theo downed the last of his beer. “Yeah, try System Sound.”

“But it’s a hellhole on weekends,” Charlie said.

“Yeah, dude, don’t go on the weekends. Tuesday nights are pretty good.”

“Tuesday nights are the best,” Charlie said. “Where are you from?”

“Deepest suburbia,” Paul said. “Tuesday nights at System, okay, thanks, I’ll check it out.” To Annika, he said, “Maybe I’ll see you there sometime,” and turned away fast so as not to see her disinterest, which he felt like a cold wind on his back all the way to the door.

On the Tuesday after exams—three C’s, one C−, academic probation—Paul went down to System Soundbar and danced by himself. He didn’t really like the music, but it was nice to stand in a crowd. The beats were complicated and he wasn’t sure how to dance to them so he just kind of stepped back and forth with a beer in his hand and tried not to think about anything. Wasn’t that the point of clubs? Annihilating your thoughts with alcohol and music? He’d hoped Annika would be here, but he didn’t see her or the other Baltica people in the crowd. He kept looking for them and they kept not being there, until finally he bought a little packet of bright blue pills from a girl with pink hair, because E wasn’t heroin and didn’t count, but there was something wrong with the pills, or something wrong with Paul: he bit one in half and swallowed it, just the half, didn’t feel anything so he swallowed the other half with beer, but then the room swam, he broke out in a sweat, his heart skipped, and just for a second he thought he was going to die. The girl with the pink hair had vanished. Paul found a bench against the wall.

“Hey, man, you okay? You okay?” Someone was kneeling in front of him. Some significant amount of time had passed. The crowd was gone. The lights had come up and the brightness was terrible, the brightness had transformed System into a shabby room with little pools of unidentifiable liquid shining on the dance floor. A dead-eyed older guy with multiple piercings was walking around with a garbage bag, collecting bottles and cups, and after the force of all that music the quiet was a roar, a void. The man kneeling in front of Paul was club management, in the regulation jeans/Radiohead T-shirt/blazer that club management always wore.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Paul said. “I apologize, I think I drank too much.”

“I don’t know what you’re on, man, but it doesn’t suit you,” the management guy said. “We’re closing up, get out of here.” Paul rose unsteadily and left, remembered when he got to the street that he’d left his coat at the coat check, but they’d already locked the door behind him. He felt poisoned. Five empty cabs cruised by before the sixth finally stopped for him. The cabbie was a proselytizing teetotaler who lectured Paul about alcoholism all the way back to campus. Paul wanted desperately to be in bed so he clenched his fists and said nothing until the cab finally pulled up to the curb, when he paid—no tip—and told the cabdriver to stop fucking lecturing him and fuck off back to India.

“Listen, I want to be clear that I’m not that person anymore,” Paul told a counsellor at a rehab facility in Utah, twenty years later. “I’m just trying to be honest about who I was back then.”

“I’m from Bangladesh, you racist moron,” the cabdriver said, and left Paul there on the sidewalk, where he knelt carefully and threw up. Afterward he stumbled back to the dorm building, marvelling at the scale of the disaster. Against all odds he had clawed his way up into an excellent university, and here it was only December of his first year and it was already over. He was already failing, one semester in. “You must gird yourself against disappointment,” a therapist had told him once, but he couldn’t gird himself against anything, that had always been the problem.

Fast-forward two weeks, past the non-event of the winter holidays—his mother’s therapist had advised distance from her son, taking time for herself, and giving Paul a chance to be an adult, etc., so she’d gone to Winnipeg to be with her sister for Christmas and hadn’t invited Paul; he spent Christmas Day alone in his room and called his dad for an awkward conversation in which he lied about everything, just like old times—and all the way to December 28, the nadir of that dead week between Christmas and New Year’s, when he dressed up and walked back down to System Soundbar on another Tuesday night, hair slicked back, wearing a button-down shirt that he’d purchased specially. He was wearing the jeans he’d been wearing last time he was here and didn’t remember till he got to the club that the little packet of blue pills was still in a front pocket.

He walked into System and there were the Baltica people, Annika and Charlie and Theo, standing together at the bar. They must have just wrapped up a gig nearby. It was like a sign. Had Annika become more beautiful since he’d seen her last? It seemed possible. His university life was almost over, but when he looked at her he could see a new version of reality, another kind of life he might lead. He felt that he was not, objectively speaking, a bad-looking individual. He had some talent in music. Maybe his past made him interesting. There was a version of the world wherein he dated Annika and was in many ways a successful person, even if he wasn’t cut out for school. He could get back into retail, take it more seriously this time and make a decent living.

“Look,” he told the counsellor in Utah, twenty years into the future, “obviously I’ve had some time to think about this, and of course I realize that that line of thinking was insane and self-centred, but she was so beautiful, and I thought, She’s my ticket out of this, meaning my ticket out of feeling like a failure—”

It’s now or never, Paul thought, and he approached the bar in a blaze of courage.

“Hey,” Theo said. “You. You’re that guy.”

“I took your advice!” Paul said.

“What advice?” Charlie asked.

“System Soundbar on Tuesdays.”

“Oh right,” Charlie said, “yeah, of course.”

“Good to see you, man,” Theo said, and Paul felt a flush of warmth. He smiled at all of them, with particular focus on Annika.

“Hi,” she said, not unkindly, but still with that irritating wariness, like she expected everyone who looked at her to ask her out, although of course that was exactly what Paul was planning to do.

Charlie was saying something to Theo, who leaned down to hear him. (Brief portrait of Charlie Wu: small guy with glasses and a generic office-appropriate haircut, dressed in a white button-down shirt with jeans, standing there with his hands in his pockets, and the light reflecting off his glasses so that Paul couldn’t see his eyes.)

“Listen,” Paul said, to Annika. She looked at him. “I know you don’t know me, but I think you’re really beautiful, and I wondered if you’d let me take you to dinner sometime.”

“No thank you,” she said. Theo’s attention had shifted from Charlie to Paul, and he was watching Paul closely, like he was worried that he might have to intercede, and Paul understood: their evening had been fine until Paul came along. Paul was the problem. Charlie was cleaning his glasses, apparently oblivious, nodding his head to the music as he polished the lens.

Paul forced himself to smile and shrug. “Okay,” he said, “no problem, no hard feelings, just figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.”

“Never hurts to ask,” Annika agreed.

“You guys into E?” Paul asked.

“—I don’t know,” he told the counsellor, twenty years later, “to tell you the truth I don’t know what I was thinking, in memory my mind is like this terrifying blank, I didn’t know what I was going to say before I said it—”

“It’s not really my thing,” Paul said, because they were all looking at him now, “I mean, no judgment, I’ve just never been that into it, but my sister gave these to me.” He flashed the little packet in the palm of his hand. “I don’t really want to sell them, that’s not my thing either, but I feel like it’d be kind of a waste to flush them down the toilet, so I just wondered.”

Annika smiled. “I think I tried those last week,” she said. “Same exact colour.”

“You can see why I’ve never told this story before,” Paul told the counsellor, twenty years after System Soundbar. “But I didn’t know the pills were bad. I thought I’d maybe just had a bad reaction, you know, like maybe my system was kind of messed up from coming off opioids or something, like not a thing where every single person who tried those pills would automatically get sick or whatever, let alone—”

“Anyway, they’re yours if you want them,” he said, to this group that like all of the other groups he’d ever encountered in his life was going to reject him, and Annika smiled and took the packet from his hand. “I’ll see you around,” he said, to all of them but especially to her, because sometimes no thank you means not at the present moment but maybe later, although the pills, the pills, the pills—

“Thank you,” she said.

“Well, just the way she reacted,” Paul told the counsellor. “I can see the way you’re looking at me, but I really thought she’d tried the same pills, the previous week, like she said, and the way she smiled, it made me think she’d had a good trip, she’d obviously really liked them, so what happened to me when I tried them seemed like definitely just a weird reaction, like I said, not something that would necessarily ... look, I know I’m being repetitive but what I need you to understand is that I couldn’t possibly have predicted, I mean I know how it sounds but I seriously had no idea—”

After Paul walked away, Annika took one pill and gave the other two to Charlie, whose heart stopped a half hour later on the dance floor.


It’s easy to dismiss Y2K hysteria in retrospect—who even remembers it?—but the risk of collapse seemed real at the time. At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000, the experts said, nuclear power plants might go into meltdown while malfunctioning computers sent flocks of missiles flying over the oceans, the grid collapsing, planes falling from the sky. But for Paul the world had already collapsed, so three days after Charlie Wu’s death he was standing by a pay phone in the arrivals hall at the Vancouver airport, trying to reach his half sister, Vincent. He’d had enough money to flee Toronto, but there wasn’t enough left over for anything else, so his entire plan was to throw himself on the mercy of his aunt Shauna, who in hazy childhood memory had an enormous house with multiple guest bedrooms. Although he hadn’t seen Vincent in five years, since she was thirteen and he was eighteen and Vincent’s mother had just died, and he hadn’t seen Shauna since he was, what, eleven? He was running through all of this while the phone rang endlessly at his aunt’s house. A couple walked by wearing matching T-shirts that said PARTY LIKE IT’S 1999, and only then did he remember that it was actually New Year’s Eve. The last seventy-two hours had had a hallucinatory quality. He hadn’t been sleeping much. His aunt seemed not to have an answering machine. There was a telephone directory on the shelf under the phone, where he found the law firm where she worked.

“Paul,” she said, once he’d cleared the hurdle of her secretary. “What a lovely surprise.” Her tone was gentle and cautious. How much had she heard? He assumed he must have come up in conversation over the years. Paul? Oh, well, he’s in rehab again. Yes, for the sixth time.

“I’m sorry to bother you at work.” Paul felt a prickling behind his eyes. He was extremely, infinitely sorry, for everything. (Try not to think of Charlie Wu on the stretcher at System Soundbar, an arm dangling limp over the side.)

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all. Were you just calling to say hello, or ...”

“I’ve been trying to reach Vincent,” Paul said, “and for some reason she hasn’t been picking up at your home number, so I wondered if she’d maybe gotten her own phone line, or ...”

“She moved out a year ago.” A studied neutrality in his aunt’s voice suggested that the parting hadn’t been amicable.

“A year ago? When she was sixteen?”

“Seventeen,” his aunt said, as if this made all the difference. “She moved in with a friend of hers from Caiette, some girl who’d just moved to the city. It was closer to her job.”

“Do you have her number?”

She did. “If you see her, say hi to her for me,” she said.

“You’re not in touch with her?”

“We parted on strained terms, I’m afraid.”

“I thought she was supposed to be in your care,” he said. “Aren’t you her legal guardian?”

“Paul, she isn’t thirteen anymore. She didn’t like living in my house, she didn’t like going to high school, and if you’d spent more time with her, you’d know that trying to get Vincent to do anything she doesn’t want to do is like arguing with a brick wall. If you’ll excuse me, I have to run to a meeting. Take care.”

Paul stood listening to the dial tone, clutching a boarding pass with Vincent’s phone number scrawled on the back. He’d harboured fantasies of being absorbed into an extra guest bedroom, but the ground was shifting rapidly underfoot. His headphones were dangling around his neck, so he put them on, hands shaking a little; pressed play on the CD in his Discman; and let the Brandenburg Concertos settle him. He only listened to Bach when he was desperate for order. This is the music that will get me to Vincent, he thought, and set out to find a bus to take him downtown. What kind of apartment would Vincent be living in, and with whom? The only friend of hers he remembered was Melissa, and only because she’d been there when Vincent wrote the graffiti that got her suspended from school:

Sweep me up. Words scrawled in acid paste on one of the school’s north windows, the acid marker trembling a little in Vincent’s gloved hand. She was thirteen years old and this was Port Hardy, British Columbia, a town on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island that was somehow less remote than the place where Vincent actually lived. Paul came around the corner of the high school too late to stop her, but in time to see her do it, and now the three of them—Vincent, Paul, Melissa—were silent for a moment, watching thin trails of acid dripping down the glass from several letters. Through the words, the darkened classroom was a mass of shadows, empty rows of desks and chairs. Vincent had been wearing a man’s leather glove that she’d found who knows where. Now she pulled it off and let it drop into the trampled winter grass, where it lay like a dead rat, while Paul stood useless and gaping. Melissa was giggling in a nervous way.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Paul wanted to sound stern, but to his own ears his voice sounded high and uncertain.

“It’s just a phrase I like,” Vincent said. She was staring at the window in a way that made Paul uneasy. On the other side of the school, the bus driver honked his horn.

“We can talk about this on the bus,” Paul said, although they both knew they wouldn’t talk about it at all, because he wasn’t especially convincing as an authority figure.

She didn’t move.

“I should go,” Melissa said.

“Vincent,” Paul said, “if we miss that bus we’re hitchhiking back to Grace Harbour and paying for a water taxi.”

“Whatever,” Vincent said, but she followed her brother to the waiting school bus. Melissa was sitting up front by the driver, ostensibly getting a head start on her homework, but she glanced up furtively as they passed her seat. They rode the bus in silence back to Grace Harbour, where the mail boat waited to take them to Caiette. The boat careered around the peninsula and Paul stared at the massive construction site where the new hotel was going up, at the clouds, at the back of Melissa’s head, at the trees on the shore, anything to avoid looking into the depths of the water, nothing he wanted to think about down there. When he glanced at Vincent, he was relieved to see that she wasn’t looking at the water either. She was looking at the darkening sky. On the far side of the peninsula was Caiette, this place that made Port Hardy look like a metropolis in comparison: twenty-one houses pinned between the water and the forest, the total local infrastructure consisting of a road with two dead ends, a small church from the 1850s, a one-room post office, a shuttered one-room elementary school—there hadn’t been enough children here to keep the school open since the mid-eighties—and a single pier. When the boat docked at Caiette, they walked up the hill to the house and found Dad and Grandma waiting at the kitchen table. Normally Grandma lived in Victoria and Paul lived in Toronto, but these were not normal times. Vincent’s mother had disappeared two weeks ago. Someone found her canoe drifting empty in the water.

“Melissa’s parents called the school,” Dad said. “The school called me.”

Vincent—give her credit for courage—did not flinch. She took a seat at the table, folded her arms, and waited, while Paul leaned awkwardly against the stove and watched them. Should he come to the table too? As the responsible older brother, etc.? As ever and always, he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. In the way Dad and Grandma stared at Vincent, Paul heard everything they were all refraining from mentioning: Vincent’s new blue hair, her plummeting grades and black eyeliner, her staggering loss.

“Why would you write that on the window?” Dad asked.

“I don’t know,” she said quietly.

“Was it Melissa’s idea?”


“What were you thinking?”

“I don’t know what I was thinking. They were just some words I liked.” The wind changed direction, and rain rattled against the kitchen window. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it was stupid.”

Dad told Vincent that she’d been suspended for all of next week; it would’ve been a much longer suspension, but the school was making allowances. She accepted this without comment, then rose and went up to her room. They were quiet in the kitchen, Paul and Dad and Grandma, listening to her footsteps on the stairs and her door closing quietly behind her, before Paul joined the other two at the table—the grown-up table, he couldn’t help thinking—and no one pointed out the obvious, which was that he’d ostensibly come back from Toronto to look out for her, which presumably should ideally involve not letting her write indelible graffiti on school windows. But when had he ever been in a position to look out for anyone? Why had he imagined that he could help? No one brought this up either, they just sat quietly listening to rain dripping into a bucket that Dad had placed in a corner of the room, Vincent represented by a ceiling vent that Dad and Grandma seemed not to realize was a conduit into her bedroom.

“Well,” Paul said finally, desperate for a change of scene, “I should probably get started on my homework.”

“How’s that going?” Grandma asked.

“School? Fine,” Paul said, “it’s going fine.” They thought he’d made a noble sacrifice, leaving all his friends behind in Toronto and coming out here to finish high school in order to be there for your sister, but if they’d been paying more attention or were on speaking terms with his mother, they’d have known he wasn’t going to be allowed back to his old school anyway, and also that his mother had kicked him out of the house. But does a person have to be either admirable or awful? Does life have to be so binary? Two things can be true at the same time, he told himself. Just because you used your stepmother’s presumed death to start over doesn’t mean that you’re not also doing something good, being there for your sister or whatever. Grandma was giving him a flat stare—could she possibly have spoken to his mother?—but Dad was gearing himself up to say something, a gradual process that involved shifting around in his chair, some throat-clearing, lifting his tea halfway to his mouth and putting it down again, so Paul and Grandma broke off their staring contest and waited for him to speak. Grief had lent him a certain gravitas.

“I have to go back to work soon,” Dad said. “I can’t take her with me to camp.”

“What are you suggesting?” Grandma asked.

“I’m thinking about sending her to live with my sister.”

“You’ve never gotten along with your sister. I swear you and Shauna started arguing when you were two and she was a baby.”

“She drives me crazy sometimes, but she’s a good person.”

“She works a hundred hours a week,” Grandma said. “Wouldn’t it be better for Vincent if you got a job nearby?”

“There are no jobs nearby,” he said. “Nothing I could live on, anyway.”

“What about the new hotel?”

“The new hotel will be a construction site for at least another year, and I don’t know anything about construction. But look, it’s not just ...” He went quiet for a moment, staring into his tea. “Financial considerations aside, I’m not sure living here is really the best thing for Vincent. Every time she looks at the water ...” He ended the thought there. And Paul thought it went in the good column that he thought of Vincent first when Dad said that, that his first thought wasn’t of the goddamn haunted inlet that he was trying not to look at through the kitchen window, but of the girl listening upstairs at the vent.

“I’m going to go check in on Vincent,” Paul said. He liked the way they looked at him—Look how Paul has matured!—and disliked himself for noticing. At the top of the stairs, his nerve almost failed him, but he did it, he knocked softly on Vincent’s bedroom door and let himself in when he heard no answer. He hadn’t been in this room in a long time and was struck by how shabby it was, embarrassed for noticing and embarrassed for Vincent, although did she notice? Unclear. Her bed was older than she was and had paint chipping off the headboard; opening the top drawer of her dresser required pulling on a length of rope; the curtains had previously been sheets. Maybe none of it bothered her. She was sitting cross-legged by the vent, as predicted.

“Is it okay if I sit here with you?” he asked. She nodded. This could work out, Paul thought. I could be more of a brother to her.

“You shouldn’t be in grade eleven,” she said. “I did the math.” Christ. There was a flash of pain that had to be acknowledged, because his thirteen-year-old half sister had noticed what his own father apparently hadn’t.

“I’m repeating a grade.”

“You failed grade eleven?”

“No, I missed most of it the first time around. I spent some time in rehab last year.”

“For what?”

“I had a drug problem.” He was pleased with himself for being honest about it.

“Do you have a drug problem because your parents split up?” she asked, in tones of genuine curiosity, at which point he wanted desperately to get away from her, so he rose and brushed off his jeans. Her room was dusty.

“I don’t have a drug problem, I had a drug problem. That’s all behind me now.”

“But you smoke pot in your room,” she said.

“Pot isn’t heroin. They’re completely different.”

“Heroin?” Her eyes were very wide.

“Anyway, I’ve got a lot of homework.” I don’t hate Vincent, he told himself, Vincent has never been the problem, I have never hated Vincent, I have only ever hated the idea of Vincent. A kind of mantra that he found necessary to repeat to himself at intervals, because when Paul was very young and his parents were still married, Dad fell in love with the young hippie poet down the road, who quickly became pregnant with Vincent, and within a month Paul and Paul’s mother had left Caiette, “fleeing that whole sordid soap opera” was how she put it, and Paul spent the rest of his childhood in the Toronto suburbs, shuttling out to British Columbia for summers and every second Christmas, a childhood of flying alone over prairies and mountains with an UNACCOMPANIED MINOR sign around his neck, while Vincent got to live with both of her parents, all the time, until two weeks ago.

He left her there in her bedroom and went back to the room where he’d been sleeping—he’d stayed there as a kid, but it had been repurposed for storage in his absence and didn’t feel like his anymore—and his hands were shaking, he was besieged by unhappiness, he rolled a joint and smoked it carefully out the window, but the wind kept blowing the smoke back inside until finally there was a knock on his door. When Paul opened it, Dad was standing there with a look of unbearable disappointment, and by the end of the week Paul was back in Toronto.

The next time he saw Vincent was on the last day of 1999, when he took a bus downtown from the airport with the Brandenburg Concertos playing on his Discman and found Vincent’s address in the sketchiest neighbourhood he’d ever seen, a run-down building across the street from a little park where users stumbled around like extras from a zombie movie. While Paul waited for Vincent to answer the door, he tried not to look at them and not to think of the general preferability of being on heroin, not the squalid business of trying to get more of it and getting sick, but the thing itself, the state in which everything in the world was perfectly fine.

Melissa answered the door. “Oh,” she said, “hey! You look exactly the same. Come in.” This was somehow reassuring. He felt marked, as if the details of Charlie Wu’s death were tattooed on his skin. Melissa did not look exactly the same. She’d obviously gone deep into the rave scene. She was wearing blue pants made of fun fur and a rainbow sweatshirt, and her hair, which was dyed bright pink, was in the same kind of pigtails he remembered Vincent wearing when she was five or six. Melissa led him down the stairs and into one of the worst apartments he’d ever walked into, a semi-finished basement with water stains on the cinder-block walls. Vincent was making coffee in a tiny kitchenette.

“Hey,” she said, “it’s great to see you.”

“You too.” The last time he’d seen Vincent she’d had blue hair and was writing graffiti on windows, but she seemed to have pulled back from that particular edge. She didn’t seem to be a raver, or if she was, she saved the costumes for the raves. She was wearing jeans and a grey sweater, and her long dark hair was loose around her shoulders. Melissa was talking a little too fast, but hadn’t she always? He remembered her as a nervous kid. He studied Vincent closely for signs of trouble, but she seemed like a reserved, put-together person, someone who’d conducted herself carefully and avoided the land mines. How did she get to be like that, and Paul like this? This question had all the markers of the kind of circular thinking he was supposed to be avoiding—why are you you?—but he couldn’t stop the spiral. You’ve never hated Vincent, just remember that. It isn’t her fault she doesn’t have the same problems as you. They sat around in a living room with dust bunnies the size of mice, Paul and Vincent on a thirty-year-old couch and Melissa on a grimy plastic lawn chair, trying to come up with topics of conversation, but the conversation kept stalling so they kept drinking instant coffee and not quite meeting one another’s eyes.

“Are you hungry?” Vincent asked. “We’re a little low on groceries, but I could make you some toast or a tuna sandwich or something.”

“Nah, I’m good. Thanks.”

“Thank god,” Melissa said. “This is the last four days before payday and rent’s due tomorrow, so it’s probably literally bread or canned tuna.”

“If you need groceries that badly, just dip into your beer money,” Vincent said.

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”

“Next paycheque, I’m going to remember to buy lightbulbs,” Vincent said. “I keep forgetting when I have money.” The living room was lit by three mismatched floor lamps, and the one in the far corner was flickering. Vincent rose, switched it off, and returned to the couch. Now the room was halfway dark, shadows crowding in around the periphery.

“Aunt Shauna says hi,” Paul said after a while.

“She’s fine,” Vincent said, answering a question he hadn’t asked, “but probably wasn’t equipped to take in a traumatized thirteen-year-old.”

“She made it sound like you’d dropped out of school.”

“Yeah, high school was tedious.”

“That’s why you left?”

“Pretty much,” she said. “It turns out getting straight A’s isn’t the same thing as being motivated enough to drag yourself to school in the mornings.”

He didn’t know what to say to this. As ever and always, he wasn’t sure what his role was. Was he supposed to counsel her to go back to school? He was in no position to tell anyone to do anything. Charlie Wu’s funeral was today. Charlie Wu was absolutely not standing in the darkest corner of the room, but there was still no need to look in that direction.

“Are you in school?” he asked Melissa.

“I’m going to UBC in the fall.”

“Good for you. That’s a good school.”

Melissa raised her coffee cup. “Here’s to a lifetime of student-loan debt,” she said.

“Cheers.” He raised his coffee cup and couldn’t quite meet her eyes. Paul’s mother had paid for his university tuition.

“We have to go out dancing tonight,” Melissa said finally. “I’ve got a couple places in mind.”

“I know people who are holed up in remote cabins with supplies in case civilization collapses,” Vincent said.

“That seems like a lot of trouble to go to,” Paul said.

“Do you find yourself sort of secretly hoping that civilization collapses,” Melissa said, “just so that something will happen?”

Later that night they got into Melissa’s beat-up car and drove to a club. Vincent wasn’t legal but the doorman chose not to notice, because when you’re eighteen and beautiful all the doors are open to you, or so it seemed to Paul as he watched her flit through ahead of him. The doorman scrutinized Paul’s ID very carefully and gave him a searching look, which made Paul want to say something snappy, but he decided against it. The new century was a new opportunity, he’d decided. If they survived Y2K, if the world didn’t end, he was going to be a better man. Also if they survived Y2K he hoped never to hear the term Y2K again. At the coat check, Paul saw that Vincent was wearing a sparkly thing that was really only half a shirt, like the front was a normal shirt but the back was missing, just two pieces of string tied in a bow under her naked shoulder blades, making her back seem horribly vulnerable.

“I need a drink,” Melissa said, so Paul accompanied her to the bar, where they ordered beer instead of hard liquor, pacing themselves—responsible adults here—and when he looked back at the dance floor, Vincent was already dancing by herself, eyes closed, or maybe she was just looking at the floor, alone in a very fundamental sense: lost in her own little world was the phrase Paul remembered Vincent’s mother using, whenever someone was trying to get her attention while she read a book or stared unreachably into space.

“She’s so spacey,” Melissa said, actually shouted, because the music was quieter by the bar but still not quiet enough to talk.

“She’s always been spacey,” Paul shouted back.

“Well, what happened with her mom, that would mess anyone up,” Melissa shouted, possibly mishearing him. “It was just such a tragic—” Paul didn’t hear the last word, but he didn’t have to. They were quiet for a moment, contemplating Vincent and also the Tragedy of Vincent, which was a separate entity. But Vincent didn’t strike him as a tragic figure, she struck him as someone who had her life more or less together, a composed person with a full-time job busing tables at the Hotel Vancouver, and as such he felt somewhat ill at ease around her.

After two beers he went to join her on the dance floor and she smiled at him. I’m trying, he wanted to tell her, I’m really trying, everything’s gone wrong but the new century’s going to be different. He ingested nothing except beer and danced hard for a while under the influence of nothing—almost nothing, beers don’t count—until he looked up and saw Charlie Wu in the crowd and the night skipped a beat. Paul froze. Of course it wasn’t Charlie,

of course it was just some random kid who looked a little like him, a kid with a similar haircut and glasses that reflected the lights, but the vision was so appalling that he couldn’t stay here for even long enough to tell Vincent and Melissa he was going, so he stumbled out onto the street and that was where they found him a half hour later, shivering under a streetlight. Nothing, he told them, he just didn’t really like the music and suddenly needed a little air, did he mention he got claustrophobic in crowds sometimes, also he was really hungry. Twenty minutes later they were staring at menus in a diner where all the other customers were drunk. The lights were so bright that it was possible to be certain that he hadn’t actually seen a ghost. Everyone looks alike in strobe lighting. There are doppelgängers everywhere.

“So why did you come here for New Year’s?” Melissa asked. He’d been a little vague about how long he was staying. “Aren’t the clubs better in Toronto?”

“I’m actually moving here,” Paul said.

Vincent looked up from the menu. “Why?” she asked.

“I just really need a change of scene.”

“Are you in trouble or something?” Melissa asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “maybe a little.”

“Well come on,” Melissa said, “you have to tell us.”

“There was some bad E going around. It seemed like I was maybe going to get blamed for it.”

“Well, because there was just no reason not to be sort of honest,” he told the counsellor in Utah, in 2019. “Of course I didn’t tell them anything else, but I already knew I was going to get away with it. I was on academic probation, so it wasn’t weird that I’d withdrawn from school. Paul must be one of the most common names in the world, and that was the only name the Baltica people knew—”

“Oh wow,” Melissa said. “That’s awful,” and he thought, You have no idea. He couldn’t help but notice how disinterested Vincent seemed. She’d returned to the menu without comment. None of the possibilities here were great: either she didn’t care about Paul at all, or getting in trouble was something that she’d come to expect from him, or she was acquainted with trouble herself. I don’t hate Vincent, he told himself silently, I’ve only ever hated Vincent’s incredible good fortune at being Vincent instead of being me, I only hate that Vincent can drop out of high school and move to a terrible neighbourhood and still somehow miraculously be perfectly fine, like the laws of gravity and misfortune don’t apply to her. When they’d finished their burgers, Melissa glanced at her watch, a big plastic digital thing that looked like it should belong to a child.

“Eleven-fourteen,” Melissa said. “We’ve still got forty-four minutes to kill before the end of the world.”

“Forty-six minutes,” Paul said.

“I don’t think it’s gonna end,” said Vincent.

“It’d be exciting if it did,” Melissa said. “All the lights going out, like poof—” She spread her fingers like a magician casting a spell.

“Ugh,” Vincent said. “A city with no lights? Thank you, no.”

“It’d be kind of creepy,” Paul said.

“Dude, you’re kind of creepy,” Melissa said, so he threw a French fry at her and then they all got kicked out. They stood shivering and dehydrated on the street for a few minutes, debating where to go, and then Melissa remembered another club where she thought Vincent probably wouldn’t get carded, another club in another basement, not that far from here—so they set out, got lost twice, eventually found themselves in front of an unmarked door through which the bass pulsed faintly from below. It was somehow still 1999. They descended another set of stairs into another permanent night, and Paul heard the lyrics as the door opened,

I always come to you, come to you, come to you—

—and for a second he couldn’t breathe. The song had been remixed into dance music, Annika’s voice layered over a deep house beat, but he recognized it immediately, he’d have known it anywhere.

“You okay?” Melissa shouted in Paul’s ear.

“Fine!” he shouted back. “I’m good!”

They dispensed with their coats and were absorbed into the dance floor, where the Baltica track was shifting into another song, a song about being blue that was playing on all of the dance floors of 1999, of which only a few minutes remained. Last song of the twentieth century, Paul thought, and he was trying to dance but there was something bothering him, a sense of movement in his peripheral vision, a feeling of being watched. He looked around wildly, but there was only a sea of anonymous faces and none of them were looking at him.

“You sure you’re okay?” Melissa shouted.

The lights began to strobe, and just for a flash Charlie Wu was there in the crowd, hands in his pockets, watching Paul, there and then gone.

“Fine!” Paul shouted. “I’m totally fine!” Because that was actually the only option now, to be fine despite the awful certainty that Charlie Wu was somehow here. Paul closed his eyes for a moment and then forced himself to dance again, pretending desperately. The lights didn’t go out when 1999 changed to 2000, the hours rolling forward until sunrise, when they emerged into the cold street and the new century and piled into Melissa’s beat-up wreck of a car, cold with sweat, Paul in the passenger seat and Vincent curled up in the back like a cat.

“We got through the end of the world,” she said, but when he looked over his shoulder, she was sleeping and he wondered if he’d imagined it. Melissa was red-eyed and speedy, driving too fast, talking about her new job selling clothes at Le Château while Paul only half listened, and somewhere on the drive back to their apartment he found himself seized by a strange, manic kind of hope. It was a new century. If he could survive the ghost of Charlie Wu, he could survive anything. It had rained at some point in the night and the sidewalks were gleaming, water reflecting the morning’s first light.

“No,” Paul told the counsellor, “that was only the first time I saw him.”