Audrey’s boots leave a trail of dark holes in the snow-covered sidewalk as she stumbles through the biting polar air parked over Montreal. “God damn it, late again,” she curses, and turns onto a well shoveled path that leads to a modest beige brick building. Flat roof, no spire or crucifix, the inconspicuous Unitarian Church sign is the only hint that something larger might live there. Audrey uses both hands to pull open the heavy oak door and breathes in the familiar scent of ageing hymnbooks and bibles.
“May not look like a church from the outside, but sure smells like one on the inside.” Benoit once said to Audrey. He insisted the new beige brick building inherited its ancient aroma from the grand Tudor gothic predecessor destroyed by fire in 1987. “Montreal church burnt to the ground. City mourns two firefighters.” The tragedy made headline news. A cornerstone recovered from the charred rubble was displayed in the new beige brick church as a memorial for the two firemen. On her wedding day, Audrey had silently touched the engraved names on the stone before walking down the aisle.
Shivering with cold, she stamps the snow off her boots and walks towards a registration table where a seated woman offers a stringed nametag that Audrey hangs around her neck knowing it will end up in the garbage with all the other stringed nametags. She enters the room where the meeting is in progress and sits in the back row, ignoring the stare of the woman on the left. Audrey unwinds her scarf, but does not unbutton her coat. The face of an elegantly dressed speaker behind the podium is bathed in a shimmering halo of sunlight streaming in from the stained glass window. Her melodic voice pours soothingly over the audience like water running over stones. Audrey closes her eyes to find herself entwined with Benoit on a picnic blanket by a babbling brook. Beyond the yellow birds in the cedar tops, a million dancing particles bounce off each other against the brilliant blue. Audrey knows, as she explained to her students, this is an optical illusion from retinal neurotransmitters working overtime. A sudden disturbance and the birds fly away. The sound of their fluttering wings turns to applause and Audrey opens her eyes. The elegant speaker bows to the audience and floats gracefully down the aisle.
A darkly dressed woman shuffles towards the podium; layers of clothing make it impossible to know where flesh begins and ends. She speaks in a low murmur, an endless string of indecipherable words. Audrey finds the experience excruciatingly painful, looks away from the podium and settles her gaze on the hypnotic pattern of the stained glass window. She is surprised when a dark outline appears in the crimsons and blues, blurry at first, but then unmistakably the silhouette of a man with a raised arm as if waving to someone in the audience. Audrey looks around the room, but all eyes remain fixed on the podium. “A crazy person on the fire escape,” Audrey thinks, as the silhouette slowly melts into the crimsons and blues as if it was never there.
Audrey begins to sweat under the weight of her winter coat and prays for a coffee break. The front edge of the chair digs into her thigh and she re-crosses her legs, playing with the wedding ring on her finger, wondering when it became so loose. The darkly dressed speaker steps down from the podium and shuffles out of the room with Audrey following in her shadow. “I’ll be right back,” she lies to the woman at the registration table before pushing against the heavy oak door and stepping into the polar air.
The city’s exhaust fumes are neutralized by the extreme cold. Audrey is not deceived; she knows that molecules move slower at low temperatures. A thin line of smoke curls out of a nearby chimney, stirring a memory of Benoit sitting by the wood stove at the cottage, rum splashing from his glass, repeating a silly joke that sends Audrey running cross-legged to the bathroom. Hardly appropriate behavior for two 40-year-old university professors. “Who needs children when we have students?” they would say half jokingly. The wood smoke suddenly irritates Audrey’s throat, a reminder of toxic tar droplets being released from hydrocarbon molecules. The warmth of burning maple is an illusion of comfort, like the idea that marriage lasts forever.
Audrey follows a path leading to a bench behind the church, lights a cigarette and releases a long exhale into the frozen air. The sensation provides no satisfaction; it leaves her depleted. She tried to explain the emptiness to her colleagues, but they wouldn’t listen, insisting she should stay at the university. “There’s nothing left,” she kept repeating. Audrey looks up at the winter afternoon sun, which is already approaching the horizon, and catches her breath at the familiar silhouette of a man, now dangerously close to the edge of the church roof.
Ignoring better judgment, Audrey rushes to the fire escape. The metal stairs tremble under her feet and she pauses, breathless, in front of the stained glass window, invisible to the audience inside. The rooftop snow muffles her boots as she cautiously approaches the silhouette from behind. The sun’s shallow angle is blinding and all Audrey can see is a dark tall figure surrounded by an aura of dancing particles.
“Bonjour Audrey.” His voice is soft, barely above a whisper.
Audrey raises a hand over her eyes to shield the glare. To her relief he appears calm, not crazy or suicidal, but she’s confused. How does he know her name? Surely she would remember this large man with sparkling china blue eyes and coal black hair. He moves closer and gently touches the stringed nametag.
“Audrey,” he repeats.
“Who are you?” she asks with a raspy voice, wondering when she last spoke out loud.
“My name is Jean-Pierre.” He speaks with a light Québécois accent. “Do you always wear your name around your neck?”
She’s not sure he is joking or serious.
“I’ve been at a meeting,” Audrey replies, remembering the half-smoked cigarette she threw in the snow before climbing the fire escape.
“Bon, a dull meeting I guess?” Jean-Pierre asks, a grin spreading on his face.
Audrey wonders how he knew.
“It gets me out,” she says and kicks herself for sounding like such a looser. She looks back at the fire escape.
“You shouldn’t spend so much time alone.” Jean-Pierre’s grin changes to a frown.
Audrey tries to pinpoint his age; he looks at least ten years younger than her. She wants to know why he is taking such an interest.
“What you are doing on this roof?” she asks.
“Don’t you mean, what are WE doing on this roof?” he replies, the grin returning to his face.
Audrey changes the subject. “So what do you do when you’re not on this roof?” she asks.
Jean-Pierre looks up at the sky. “Je suis… pompier … firefighter.”
This makes sense to Audrey. He looks the part.
“You’re off duty?” She knows it’s an obvious question, but can’t think of anything else to say.
“Pas vraiement…not really.”
Audrey wonders if he misunderstood her English. “Il fait très froid. Aren’t you freezing?” she asks, pointing at his unzipped jacket.
“I don’t feel the cold,” he replies.
His face is pale, almost translucent. Audrey shivers and shifts side to side, her fingers tremble as she takes out the pack of cigarettes. “Want one?” she offers.
“You really shouldn’t. Smoking is bad for you Audrey.”
“I know, I know, I’m an idiot.” Audrey waves the smoke and his words away with an unsteady hand.
“Never call yourself an idiot,” he says quietly. His tone makes Audrey uncomfortable.
“Are you married?” she asks, not knowing what else to say.
“I’m not sure anymore,” he answers. Audrey is surprised by the heaviness in his voice; his words land like dead weights in the snow between them. She wants to ask more, but says nothing and scans his face for clues. A passing cloud covers the winter sun and Jean-Pierre’s sparkling blue eyes turn to dark hollows carved in white stone. Audrey recognizes this emptiness - barely human, hardly alive. A matter of time before the last remaining molecule drifts away, leaving an empty shell with no purpose. “There’s nothing left.” She buries her chin deeper into the top of her coat and feels herself slipping, but doesn’t know how to get back.
"He misses you," Jean-Pierre’s voice breaks the silence. The winter sun emerges from the passing cloud and his eyes, once again, are sparkling blue, but a fire now burns inside Audrey. “How can he possibly miss me?” she hisses. The familiar inferno that began nine months ago rises in her gut and blazes with a spitting anger that threatens to incinerate every particle of her existence, leaving behind a heap of smoldering anguish. Audrey opens her mouth to scream in the face of this tall handsome firefighter who asks so many questions and makes her uncomfortable in a way she doesn’t understand, but there is nothing left.
She looks down at the moving figures on the sidewalk. Her hands fall to the side. A gust of wind picks up the loose end of her scarf and carries it over the edge of the roof, where it flutters like a flag over the pedestrians below. She feels nothing but wind pushing against an empty shell.
“How could he miss me when he’s no longer alive?” she whispers to the city below.
The wind changes direction and whips the loose end of the scarf over Audrey’s face. Something pulls on her shoulder; she lowers the scarf and turns around.
“Believe me Audrey. He misses you.” A tear falls from the firefighter’s eye and crystalizes to a snowflake. His face blends into the whites and blues of the sky. Audrey looks down at Jean-Pierre’s feet that make no imprint against the snow. He stands perfectly still in the subzero temperature, jacket unzipped, no sign of breathe in the frozen air. Hardly rationale, not at all logical, but in the grand scheme of chaos and confusion it makes perfect sense to Audrey. She believes him.
He takes her hand. The coolness of his fingers is soothing like the touch of the stone on her wedding day.
“Does it help … knowing he misses you?” he asks.
“Yes,” she replies. “It helps.” She is grateful, the cool touch of the stone.
“Why are you here?” Audrey asks.
His grip on her hand tightens. “My wife … my sons… I can’t leave them.” His voice trails off. Audrey is silent. She feels what is coming next.
“Can you help me?” he asks.
Audrey looks up at the infinite sky above the beige brick church; the dancing particles form a podium of sparkling light. She clears her throat and begins to speak with a crystalline voice that slices through the polar air and resonates across the rooftop.
“When two molecules collide, there is an exchange of energy. The particles are changed, not destroyed. They are merely altered and move on until the next collision, the next change.” Her voice softens to a whisper. “It’s false to assume there’s nothing left.”
Jean-Pierre’s hand loosens and an icy gust of wind brushes against Audrey’s face. A siren fades in the distance. Audrey knows he has released himself from the gravity of the earth; the same pull that she must now embrace. Their meeting has sent them spinning in opposite directions. Audrey removes the stringed nametag, shoves it in her pocket and wraps the scarf around her face. The winter sun is about to fall below the frozen horizon and render the dancing particles and rooftop podium of sparkling light invisible. Audrey turns to retrace her footprints towards the fire escape and the city below.