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Excerpt

Crosshairs

Catherine Hernandez

December 23, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Catherine Hernandez's latest novel, Crosshairs, a dystopian tale of a near-future, where a queer Black performer and his allies join forces to rise up when an oppressive regime gathers those deemed "Other" into concentration camps. Hernandez is a proud queer woman of color, radical mother, theater practitioner, award-winning author, and the artistic director of Performing Arts at the Sulong Theatre.

Evan. My beautiful Evan. Here in the darkness of this hiding place, I write you these words. Without paper, without pen, I trace these words in my head, along the perimeter of your outline. Watch this sentence travel along the meat of your cheekbone. See my teeth dig into your flesh playfully. Watch these words ball into your hand along with a fistful of bedsheet, which you pull over us to create a tent. I imagine you now, lying across from me, improvising a silly song about the smallness of my ears. Ironically, you sing it half in tune, half out of tune.

“Maybe you’re the one with the small ears,” I suggest, and you scrunch your face in embarrassment. You’re talented at many things, but music isn’t one of them. Sometimes the image of you is clear, right down to the curl of your eyelashes. Sometimes, especially when I’m hungry, I recall the shape of your smile and nothing more. Watch these phrases ink across an imaginary page, a Whisper Letter, folded twice, placed in an envelope and mailed to wherever you may be. I will never forget your name, Evan. And I pray you will never forget mine. 

If by some miracle my whispered words reach you, I want you to know that I’m safe on Homewood Street where Liv has hidden me in her basement.

No room in Toronto is ever used in the way it was originally intended. That’s what happens in a city always trying to reinvent itself. Like it has an itch it can’t scratch. Like it has a commitment problem. This place was meant to be a cold cellar. A place where, before the invention of refrigeration, the woman of the house would have likely stored things like butter or eggs. That’s why even in the heat of the summer, the heat of this hellish summer, I feel like I’m swimming in the cold breath of ghosts. I’m wearing all the clothes I ran away in. Five layers, which you told me to wear. There is no finding me. At least I hope so.

To ensure that I am hidden, I have set up my bed beside Liv’s furnace. My bed consists of two layers of cardboard boxes cut to fit in the corner of space behind the furnace, and a pile of Liv’s old winter coats, which I use as blankets and a pillow. The idea is, if I need to leave again and in a hurry, what remains behind won’t resemble a hideout for me: a Queer Femme Jamaican Filipino man. Anne Frank, minus the diary.

It is here where I await news, where I hope for your arrival, where I wait for Liv to feed me or to tell me it’s time to run again. I am unsure of exactly how long I have been here, as counting days is its own form of torture. Instead, I understand the passing of time by watching the moon’s cycle from the basement window. Maybe you are doing the same. Lunar crescents have grown fat and then thin across the night sky almost six times. And at the swelling of every moon, Liv has replenished my supplies. It is through this same basement window that I have watched a raccoon give birth, pushing those kits out, one at a time, in the space between the spiderweb-stained glass and the corrugated metal framing. I have been here long enough to watch them grow too large for the cubbyhole. Long enough to watch the mama bite the collars of each of her whimpering kits and carry them to the surface of the world, high above me.

I can see the sky peeking through the opening of the basement window like a half-circle picture-perfect blue.

In the dead of winter, under a waxing fingernail moon, I jogged in place to keep my limbs from feeling wooden and numb. In the spring, when the flooding began once again, I would stand in ankle-deep filthy water. Under a new moon, with flashes of lightning as my only guide in the darkness, I filled buckets with floodwater and passed them to Liv through the hatch to pour down the kitchen drain. Since summer has returned, and the moon is pregnant-round, I am thankful the musty smell of mold has dissipated a bit.

I can see the sky peeking through the opening of the basement window like a half-circle picture-perfect blue. I’m not sure what is better: to look outside the window and long for sunlight or to lie on my dark makeshift bed, close my eyes, and dream of bicycling with you through the city, fast and free.

When I first arrived, I kept to my cardboard bed and wept, seeing the basement as my prison, my tomb while the Renovation unfolded at ground level. Then, as time passed, as the moon scratched a wound across the sky, I began to inch my way around the concrete to witness the untold history of the home with my curious hands and squinting eyes. At the opposite end of the basement, where a broken stove sits, just beyond the reach of its power cord’s coil, is a washroom rough-in. Three unfinished pipes poke through the solid concrete like necks without heads. I picture a couple in the early 2000s renovating the basement to create a separate apartment, then halting their construction as the stock market crashes. In the adjacent corner stands a dusty wooden bar and dysfunctional sink. I imagine a husband in the 1970s, wearing his paisley shirt, sneaking through the bar’s shelves in search of his favorite brand of whiskey. A mysterious series of headboards from several different time periods from several different occupants lean against the cold walls.

Every corner of this basement tells a tale and so too does every inch of my body. The landscape of every curve is a map of my traumatic experiences. Evan. Take your first two fingers and make a compass. Walk your compass between the mounds of my kneecaps to find bodies of water, deep with your touch, remembered. The distance between my belly button and my throat is measured in increments of miles run in my escape and the sequence of events that led me here, to this nightmare lived. The canyon of my palm is where I feel everything and everyone I have lost in the last several months. And constantly echoing through these vast mountain ranges of bones and sifted garbage heaps is the sound of first screams and final goodbyes. The cartography of memory. The navigation through valleys of scars.

Tonight, the light comes. I hear the kitchen table slide roughly across the floor, and then the hatch is lifted.

“Kay!” Liv says to me.

The light is painful beautiful. The light is ugly perfect. I squint my eyes and open them as wide as I can all at the same time. I want that light inside of me. It feels so good. As usual, when Liv opens the hatch, I stack the milk crates to raise myself high enough to reach Liv’s hand. Our hands touch, and she hoists me out onto the ground floor. We land on our bums on the linoleum tiles with a soft thud and she begins crying. I usually hate seeing white folks cry because it means I have to assure them that I, as a Black person, do not think less of them. But Liv is different. I know she wouldn’t cry unless she had reason to do so.

“What’s wrong?” I ask gently. My voice is hoarse, speaking for the first time in ages.

She doesn’t answer me. She pulls her shirt up to wipe her wet face. I look around to see if there are tissues, but I don’t see any in the kitchen, so I let her continue with this sad wet-shirt business. Her breathing calms enough for her to let her shoulders relax finally. By then her shirt is wetter than her face. Whatever it was has passed, it seems. I am too scared to ask.

“Are you hungry? Can I make you something?” she asks while standing herself up. A few sniffles escape her mouth like a hiccup.

“Yes, please.” My stomach growls. “Do you want help?” I say, knowing I have few calories to spare.

With one hand, Liv wipes her chaffed nose with a tissue, while the other begins opening and closing cupboard doors and the fridge.

“No, no. Just chill.”

I sit at the kitchen table and chew my cheek. Once I taste the threat of blood in my mouth, I will myself to ease off, for food is on its way. The sound of a podcast transmits from Liv’s phone. A recording of the ambient sound of an industrial kitchen with the occasional calling out of orders slowly crossfades with a raspy voice. “My name is Khalil. I’m twenty-eight years old. I have been in charge of the kitchen here at the Don Valley workhouse for three months now . . . ”

With one hand, Liv wipes her chaffed nose with a tissue, while the other begins opening and closing cupboard doors and the fridge; she shakes her head at the lack of choice. She settles on grilling strips of bacon and making it a stir-fry with leftover rice and frozen veggies. I swallow hard, watching the bacon fold in on itself with the heat and sizzle. I feel like passing out from anticipation, so I focus on amplifying the podcast by placing the phone in a clean coffee cup on the table. The voice of a journalist can be heard over Liv’s cooking.

“It is a crisp Wednesday morning. Khalil blows warm air on his hands, as his silhouette spirits across a fiery dawn toward the mess hall,” the journalist narrates. The sound of cutlery clinking. Plates being piled. Barely coherent words of thanks from a lineup of people. “After mass environmental displacement, homelessness and hunger once plagued the lives of these workers. But not today. Despite the lofty task of feeding hundreds of people at this factory, Khalil still finds the time to check in with those enjoying the meals his team has made and to shake the hands of everyone sitting at each table. This includes the children of the workers, who, despite the rumors of separated families, are schooled and housed on the compound alongside their parents. With his apron still stained from today’s prep Khalil makes his way to a little girl holding her teddy bear.”

The microphone shifts and catches the audio of a small girl’s sweet voice. “Can Bear-Bear get a muffin too?” she pleads.

“You betcha!” Khalil replies.

The sound of the mess hall crossfades with the clunk of cans being stacked on a shelf.

“There isn’t a moment to spare today. Once the breakfast plates are cleared, Khalil is busy with planning lunch and tracking inventory. I finally ask him the question that’s been on minds around the world in the wake of reports smearing the Canadian government with charges like ‘genocide’ and ‘fascism.’ ”

Ambient noise of Khalil counting cans. Finally, “So what do you say when people call the workhouses ‘concentration camps’?”

He scoffs. “Absolutely not. They’re not concentration camps. I’m in charge of cooking three meals a day for these workers, seven days a week. We’re all housed. No one’s getting hurt. No one is starving. Even with the food shortages and floods, the compound helps people get access to free meals and clean water. You wouldn’t call that a ‘concentration camp.’ That’s called ‘teamwork.’ ”

I wrap my hands around the cup to feel the vibrations of the podcast reverberate through my palm. I feel the power of connection through the device, of the ability to connect with others and be seen online. I resist the urge to scroll through Liv’s social media. No one, including you, is reachable anyway.

At the sound of this, Liv lets out a heavy sigh and reaches for the phone. “I’m so sorry,” she says.

Khalil continues, “If it weren’t for the workhouses many of us would be homeless, useless. As the Renovation creed says, Through our work, our nation prospers. Through our unity, we end conflict. Through our leader, we find peace. Through order, we find tranquility.”

“And what does that mean to you, Khalil?” asks the interviewer. Khalil’s voice is determined. “It means all this was for the best. We need to pull together and stop fighting each other. Know your place and do the work that’s needed. The Renovation taught us that. Mother Nature taught us that. When she stepped in and showed us who’s boss, we had no choice. We all had to pitch in. Others like me have to put our talents to good use, instead of fighting each other and arguing over who has what.”

At the sound of this, Liv lets out a heavy sigh and reaches for the phone. “I’m so sorry,” she says. One tap of her thumb and the podcast is paused. “I download and listen to it for appearances, in case my phone is seized.” Two plates are collected from the cupboard and the stir-fry is served. “As if Khalil isn’t white and Christian. As if Khalil is his name. As if he even exists. We can’t even see him. It’s a fucking podcast. And yet, people still believe it.”

We sit quietly as I devour the meal, making sure to leave the fatty ends of the bacon for last. Every onion, every pea, every piece of shredded carrot has that delicious bacon grease on it, so I eat until all that is left are smears across the plate. An oil painting. I drink heartily.

“It feels so damn good to resurface every now and then to drink running water and eat perishable food.” I chuckle to myself even though Liv’s mind is far away. “Jesus be a juicy burger. Jesus be a glass of cold milk. Jesus be a plate of freshly fried potatoes.”

Now that I have finished eating, I will fill containers for my rations. Anything that can stay in my hideout for extended periods of time and not rot. When I first started hiding here, Liv’s instructions were clear: If I had to run, I was to stack the containers without any crumbs onto the canned-goods shelf, to lean my makeshift bed against the wall, and toss the coats into a pile so that it wouldn’t look like anyone was staying there. It would just look like a messy basement. Before I go back to my dank hidey-hole, I begin restocking all the things I once loved and now abhor after eating them again and again. Wasabi chickpeas. Purple tortilla chips. Dried snap peas.

Who I am. Who am I? Oh yes. I am Kay.

“You don’t have to do that now. We can wait. You need to stretch your legs a bit.”

Don’t I ever. The ceiling downstairs is low enough to graze the top of my unkempt hair.

“Our usual?” she asks me.

I nod. I am so happy she asked. Liv takes my hand, and we go upstairs. She is quiet again. I stay quiet with her.

Liv draws me a bath. I sit silent on the toilet as she attempts to get the remaining bubble bath soap out of its bottle by filling it with water, swishing it around, and dumping it out. My skin is so hungry for that heat that I get goose bumps.

After one last swirl of her hand in the bath, she dries her hands. She searches the cabinet and places a pink razor and a toothbrush on the counter.

“Remember to just hide the razor and toothbrush in the garbage after you’re done.” She leaves the bathroom to give me privacy. I want to tell her that I don’t want privacy. That being aboveground means light. It means speaking. It means seeing people’s faces. It means hearing things clearly rather than muffled through the floorboards. But she is gone before I am brave enough to ask. I see her feet walk away through the slit under the door.

I undress. It feels incredible to peel off these sorry clothes. I scratch my skin heartily and watch tiny parts of me fall like snow onto the bathroom tiles. It feels so good to be naked. As usual, I open the bathroom door a bit to leave my clothes outside for Liv to launder. She always refuses to let me do it.

I test the water with my toes, and it is delightfully hot. My hair stands on end, and I remember to grab the razor and place it on the ledge of the tub. I sink into the hug of this bath. This bath that reminds me of who I am.

Who I am. Who am I? Oh yes. I am Kay. And I marched.

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Excerpted from Crosshairs by Catherine Hernandez. Excerpted with the permission of Atria Books/S&S. Copyright © 2020 by Catherine Hernandez.




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