Nothing to Worry About
By Nicole Chatelain
I was counting money when love became lethal. Checking the till. People always paid cash here—avoided the digital trail. Men stocked up on videos they didn’t want their wives to find, then the next day the wives would come in for vibrators. They’d lean forward, whisper at me all conspiratorial. “It’s just for me. Just sometimes.”
Like I cared.
There were only two customers in the store when it happened. This sappy young couple in the back aisle where we kept the toys. The woman, she inspected the merchandise the way I imagine a rancher might have inspected a bull before he put him out to stud. Real thorough, like. She held up a leather dildo, like the one I gave you—the tag said it’s supposed to feel like real human skin. We had gotten those dildos in stock a few months earlier, and I cringed when I first saw them. “Imagine cleaning those things!”
The woman’s husband—boyfriend—whatever he was—he stood behind her, whispering in her ear. Little jokes or something. She laughed. She turned and wrapped her arms around his neck, and I started paying a little more attention.
(Oh, don’t look at me like that. You know I’m not some creep. We had to watch for people going overboard, all right? It was part of the job. We needed to intervene sometimes, stop customers from dry-humping right there on the sales floor.)
So, I watched them. Made sure they kept things more PG than the merch. But they just kissed a little. Barely even opened their mouths. The woman, she pulled away first, and rested her forehead against his, all sweet and tender, a real Hallmark movie moment. I almost looked away, bored, but that’s when she started to glow—this powerful light turned on beneath her skin. It was beautiful but gruesome, too, some real uncanny valley shit.
The boyfriend, husband, whoever, he leapt backward in horror, bumped against the shelves behind him. “Lindsey! Lindsey! What’s happening, Lindsey!” And then I swear to you, Lindsey levitated. She just lifted right up off the ground and hovered, a few feet in the air, her limbs splayed out like her light wanted to stretch her, pull her taut. The light beamed even brighter now, shined through every hole in her body: her mouth, nostrils, ears, and yeah, those other holes, too, the lower ones. Lindsey’s man screamed, tried to pull her back down, but if Lindsey herself freaked out, I couldn’t tell. She glowed so bright she became featureless, hard to see.
Then nothing but a fiery white flash, a sort of thrumming noise, like sound itself exploded. I thought for a second I had gone blind. But the flash subsided, and I could see again, the shop floor, the till, the shelves. And of course, Lindsey’s man.
But no Lindsey.
A bloody, throbbing chunk of meat, about the size of my fist, sat on the ground exactly below where she had levitated. Her man choked out this braying sob and fell to his knees before the meat-thing. I left the counter, ran over to stand next to him, and I realized the meat-thing was an organ. A heart, looked like. He struggled to lift it, so I tried to help, and holy shit, this heart was heavy, man, it had to be more than a hundred pounds. Maybe even one-fifty.
What did I tell you? Some real uncanny valley shit.
When the cops showed up, we found out they’d had five calls like this in the past hour. By the end of the day, there were hundreds more, all across Toronto—I even saw them as I walked home. Not the actual deaths, just the light. Bright flashes of white, then the screams. After a few blocks, I stuck in my earbuds and blasted the volume. I walked with my head down, focused on the sloppy April puddles, the cracks in the asphalt.
Over the coming days, love took more and more victims. The phenomenon spread here first, ravaging Toronto like a windstorm, then across Canada and down through the States. Rippled across oceans. The deaths were all the same. At the moment of sudden, overwhelming passion—of overdose, if you will—the victim would begin to glow, light overtaking them from within, lifting them from the ground. Some witnesses said it looked like a moment of pure, genuine ecstasy; others saw terror. Agony. Unbearable sorrow.
Scientists studied the hearts left over. They weren’t just hearts—they had bones, too, and tendons, cartillage, skin. Remnants of the clothes the person had worn. That’s why they were so heavy. The whole person imploded, compressed down into a single organ.
Of course, you can imagine how the whole world lost its shit. Everyone stocked up on Tylenol and liquor and numbing cream—anything they could find to help them not feel. But you know me. I was never concerned.
I had nothing to worry about.
My parents begged me to come back home, said they’d pay my way and everything, but I didn’t see how I could. Airports were shutting down, highways jammed up so bad that people got out of cars to piss on the concrete shoulder. My mom wept into the phone and my dad hollered in the background. “Fine! Let her rot there in Toronto!”
My sister Greta—you would’ve liked her—she tried a subtler strategy. She locked herself in the spare bedroom and talked all casual-like. “You remember Mac Andrews?”
Mac was in Greta’s grade, not mine. “Barely knew him.”
“He imploded on the highway and caused a five-car pileup. Nine people died.”
“You know the craziest part?” Greta’s voice thickened, her mouth full. Greta had always been a stress-eater. “They say he was getting road-head when it happened. His wife went down on him in the car.”
(I did that for my ex-boyfriend once. On our way home from his cousin’s wedding. He loved weddings, that boyfriend; got all emotional. He teared up during the speeches, pulled me out to the dance floor for all the slow songs and told me these had been the best five months of his life. Even caught the damn garter. In the car, he took my hand and said, “Maybe that could be us one day.” I didn’t know what to say to that, so I took off my seat belt, reached for his fly. He stroked the back of my neck while I blew him, his thumb tracing the bottom of my hairline. His touch sent shivers down my backbone that tingled in my toes, made them spasm so bad it hurt.)
“Who was Mac’s wife?” I asked Greta.
“Dunno. We didn’t go to high school with her.”
“Did she die too? In the pileup?”
“No.” Greta paused. “I heard their son found a heart in his parents’ bed the next morning.”
I sat on the floor of my bathroom and plucked a hair from my head, tied it tight around my knuckle like a ring. I left it there until my finger turned red and shiny, like someone’s gums.
Love-death could hit anyone. Nursing mothers; children playing hide-and-seek with their favourite cousins; even pet owners scratching lapdogs behind the ears. A frat-house at the University of Toronto actually caught fire when seven of its residents glowed all at once—they had just finished an initiation ritual, I think, swearing eternal brotherhood or some kind of bullshit.
The love-plague tore through humanity like a loose seam waiting to be ripped. People called Toronto the “epicentre of love,” and it felt like that, for a week or so—chaos, all blood and screams and flashing lights that burned my eyes, seared my corneas. Then one day I woke up and there was just—nothing. No one was left.
Electricity lasted maybe a month. Internet, too; the rest of the world hung on. Facebook had never been so gory. Photo after photo of the hearts, bloody trails left behind on front lawns and in shopping malls and at the peaks of mountains.
(Honest—shopping malls! I mean, really.)
I met 9InchNed on a porn site. I cracked a joke about his handle—is it really nine inches?—and 9InchNed offered to show me, but I’ve never liked video chats. I’d rather just listen, let my mind weave their bodies from the fibres of their voices. I called him, and turned out 9InchNed was pretty good. Eager, vocal, groany. We climaxed together—I got there first, but I held it off as long as I could, edged myself till he caught up with me—and 9InchNed came so loud, I pictured a foghorn with a dick.
9InchNed asked if I believed love was really killing people. I said, “You don’t?”
9InchNed paused. I heard light scraping on the other end of the line, like he was scratching something. Maybe picking at a scab. “Cause I’m still here.”
I raided my neighbour’s pantry for corn chips. You know I always snack after sex.
They never determined the official cause of love-death. Guess it happened too fast for science to keep up, but even when researchers still existed to discuss it, no one could agree on how love really worked, biochemically speaking. Most said the implosion started with some sort of heart attack, but outliers talked about lungs overfilling, about oxytocin toxicity. Too much of something: that was all they knew for sure.
They said at the moment of overdose, the victim’s heart would begin to hum, swell to a roar, flood the eyes with hot, white noise. They said if other people got too close, the hum caught the witness in its orbit and left them petering on the edge of overlove for days afterward, unusually radiant, easily spooked. When I would see flashes outside my window, I’d hang back. Press my body against the opposite wall, and squeeze my eyes shut, and count backward from ten.
Journalists had never been so poetic. They talked about how humanity’s softness would do us in, how the last people left would be the ones filled with hate—the terrorists, the serial killers, the war criminals. “Where there should be tenderness and love,” one reporter said, “all those people have is a dark, churning void.” That shit never made sense to me. Shouldn’t a void feel light and peaceful? People said hate was swollen and injurious, slamming against ribs and pushing pain out through the throat. But that’s what love always looked like to me. Near the end, I saw a child implode while waiting for the subway, and oh, the kid’s mother—you’re lucky you’ll never hear anything like that. Her screams a violence wrenching the air. Other people tried to soothe her, to melt her anguish down. But the mom was doomed. I knew she would glow. When she levitated, she looked so stiff, pulled all taut and straining.
Look, I know what you’re thinking. But I had a great childhood, okay? Better than what most kids get. Greta and me, we spent our summers out east, picking strawberries or riding bikes by the sea. I adored the beach. Mom and Dad used to call me their little fish, the way I flopped around on sand, like the air was suffocating. I’d always try to swim out too far, had to be called back. Once, when I was fourteen, and Greta just eleven, she followed me, and we got caught in a riptide. My parents told us afterward that everyone on shore watched the horizon devour us, watched the waves pull us away into the indigo ocean. My mother ran up and down the shoreline and wailed; Dad shook the lifeguard tower, a big, hairless gorilla from some melodramatic movie.
The good Samaritan who saved us looked a bit like you. I didn’t know you then, of course, but when I look back, I see you in his dark, wide-set eyes, his broad shoulders. He pulled me into the boat first, then as I lay there coughing up saltwater, I felt Greta get dumped beside me, her body limp. The good Samaritan started CPR, pumping his hands against her chest, and I leaned back against the wall of the boat, fascinated. I had never seen anyone brought back from the dead before. When she came to, a stream of water burst from her throat, like Greta had tried to swallow the whole sea.
We returned to shore, and our parents barrelled all over us, wrapped us in big, fluffy towels like they used to when we were little. After all the hugs and kisses, the anger came; Dad screamed and trembled with rage, and Mom slapped me clean across the face. The only time she ever hit me. My jaw still clicks when I eat sometimes.
Greta milked the limelight, of course. She indulged in attention from lifeguards, paramedics, the other kids our age who had seen the whole thing. “Oh, yeah,” Greta would say, “I thought I was done for.” That night we holed up in our bedroom and Greta sat at the edge of her mattress while I painted her toenails. “What was the scariest part for you?” she asked.
I tried to recall what I had felt while the waves pulled me further and further away. I remembered thinking the ocean, when I looked down, was blacker than I expected—like midnight had melted down from the sky when the sun rose that morning. I remembered salt burning my lips, my eyes. I remembered struggling to breathe. “I was afraid of drowning,” I said.
Greta nodded. She rubbed her chin, solemn. “I kept thinking of everyone I’d leave behind,” she said. “Mom, Dad, all my friends. I thought I’d slip away into the water, and my corpse would be eaten by sharks, and no one would ever even know what happened to my body.”
I glanced up at my little sister. Her pigtails, the hearts on her pajamas. “Sure,” I said. “Me too.” Greta giggled when I blew on her toes. That night, I dreamed of being trapped inside a coffin, cold and black. I heard flies buzzing around the wood, swarming, searching for a way inside.
Apocalypse means unveiling, you know. Exposing. Revealing.
Toronto smelled different before the love-plague. Earthier. I guess the streets always had that hint of sweat in the air—salt, skin, musk. People smell warm, even in the cold. Now, the city’s stillness is lemony, bleached bright. Empty is a clean smell.
One sunny morning, not long before I found you, I walked along Queen Street, hopped over hearts like springtime puddles. I nearly tripped on some kid’s skateboard that had been left by the curb. I squealed a little, and it felt so good to use my voice; I hadn’t spoken out loud in over a week. I started shouting out famous movie lines. “Is there anyone alive out there! You had me at hello!”
When I got to the porn shop, it was boarded up, chained closed. Someone had left a sign: Use at your own risk. There were internet theories, see. People said orgasms increased the sensation of love. They were just rumours. One has nothing to do with the other. But I guess the rumours stuck, because it looked like this store was the only place on Queen the looters avoided; the shelves were almost full. I walked up and down the aisles and debated taking everything, but in the end, I only grabbed your leather dildo. I slapped it into my palm, gave it a squeeze. I tucked it in my purse and left.
I walked by abandoned traffic wrecks, by stores with smashed windows. Tripped over beaten-dead looters and the supplies they killed each other to claim. Walked by sweet, green parks. The parks had the fewest hearts; by the end, people feared anything beautiful. I picked leaves from the ground and set them carefully in my palm, laced their wiry veins through my fingers like tiny broken promises.
Epicentre of love, my ass. I remember the garbage strike of 2009—bags rotting by the curb.
I’m sorry my old apartment creeped you out. All those painted eyes. But I had to practice. I’m no artist, and your irises were hard to get right. I used pictures from fashion magazines for inspiration, and I found a pair I liked—wide-set and starry, almost black. I took my time, tried different paints to blend the hues: watercolours, acrylics, even ink. I practiced on the walls until I had the shape down, and soon a room full of eyes watched me work.
That’s nothing. Don’t worry about that.
Listen, how about I take you down to Kensington Market tomorrow? That’s one of the reasons I picked this new place—we’re right above the shops! I’ll show you all the pretty stalls I used to pore over. They’re empty now. But I can show you the bins. I can—
Ugh, fine. Here. If you insist. Not much to look at, honestly. It’s just a map. Greta sent me the jpeg before the Internet crapped out, and I printed it just in case, but I shouldn’t have bothered—I nearly blinded myself squinting at my laptop with so much refracted glare from the sunset. The old apartment was too damn bright.
(At least all that light helped me figure out your mouth. Sure, it would’ve been easier to choose a mannequin with a face, but they were wrong, all of them. When I saw your smooth, blank head, I knew that was the right way forward—I could find you in the paint. But I struggled the most with your mouth. I couldn’t decide if you should smile.)
Oh, don’t look at me like that. I see it in your lips—the accusation. And look, I want to prove you wrong. I want to take some bitchin’ car and book it out of this empty goddamn city, drive straight to Nova Scotia to follow her. I want to find her in our shared bedroom at the old cottage—we had the smaller room, of course, but also the prettiest. The window faced due east, looking out over the sea. I always woke up first, and I’d watch the dawn take her over, her hair fanned out around her pillow like flames.
But I shouldn’t go. If she’s still here, then I’m not the only one. If she’s still here, there must be others, too. Let her find them. Let her find someone to fill up with her light. I can’t take that hope away from her.
I should just lay here with you, braid my legs into your own. Rest against your leather jacket. Breathe you in.
Sometimes I salt your neck, just to smell the ocean.
Nicole Chatelain lives with her husband and two children in Ottawa, where she teaches in the Professional Writing program at Algonquin College. She is finishing her English degree with Athabasca University. Her prose has also been featured, or is forthcoming, in The Fiddlehead, Broken Pencil, and The Ekphrastic Review.