Emily drove the last few blocks to the Empress Hotel, settled her car into the underground parkade, and got out. Naomi sat stewing in the passenger seat, lost in thought and nibbling on a fingernail until Emily rapped on the car window with her knuckles. It took Naomi half a second to come back to reality. She shrugged an apology, unbuckled her seat belt, and got out of the car. “Sorry. I was just… thinking.”
“Do you want to just get it out of the way and call the cops on that guy? We know what he looks like now, even if we didn’t get his license plate.”
Naomi shook her head. “Candace is still waiting for us. Let’s go hang out with her for a bit, and I’ll go to the police station in the morning.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to take you home?”
“And ditch on Candace? No, it’s fine. It’s not like I’m in any immediate danger or anything.”
“I hope not,” said Emily. She noted the number of their parking spot and headed for a pay terminal. Naomi followed behind, her purse dangling from her hand as she stared at the ground. If the pavement had been a mirror, she might have been surprised by how obviously her thoughts and worries were swirling across her face.
Emily finished paying, tossed the receipt into the garbage, and led the way up out of the parkade. Naomi trudged up the stairs behind her. “Okay, stop,” said Emily, turning on the landing to face her friend. “I’m not letting you go out there looking like you’re standing in the middle of your own personal thunderstorm. It’s summertime and you’re out with friends. Forget about all this other stuff, just for a little while, or you’re going to drag me and Candace down with you!”
A sigh and a half-hearted attempt at a smile were the best Naomi felt she could offer in reply.
Emily rolled her eyes. “Give me a break. Do you really want to ruin this whole evening for me, or would you rather I…” She let the implied suggestion hang in the air.
“Er,” said Naomi. “I don’t know…”
“Just a little tweak,” said Emily. “I won’t get you super giddy or make you embarrass yourself or anything.”
Naomi had let Emily do this to her before. It really was no big deal. Why did she feel so wary of it now? The anxiety attack she’d had in the car had been an accident. Emily had just lost control for a minute. Mistakes happened sometimes. It was okay. It would be fine. Emily just wanted to help. There were a thousand reasons to let her do it. But still… “Thanks, Em, but I’m fine, really. I’ll try not to be all mopey, I promise.”
“Suit yourself,” said Emily.
“And don’t tell Candace about the guy with the blue car, okay?”
“She’s so excitable sometimes. She’ll get all frantic and paranoid and it’ll just stress me out.”
“You’re probably right. I won’t bring it up.”
The young women resumed climbing the stairs and made their way out into the sunshine. A quick walk through some flower gardens brought them to the front lawn of the Empress Hotel, one of the best-known Victoria landmarks. It was a tall, stately brick building covered in green vines and swarming with tourists. The fading orange sun and vacation-like atmosphere warmed Naomi a little, and she began to find it easier to plaster on a smile, hopefully one convincing enough to defeat Candace’s oversensitive mothering instincts. The last thing she wanted right now was another person fretting over her.
Candace was sitting on top of a hoodie that she’d spread out on the grass, bare arms resting on her pulled-up knees. Her rich brown hair fell over her shoulder and a silver stud in her nose glinted in the sunlight as she turned her head in greeting, smiling from behind a pair of flashy sunglasses. “Hey, ladies!”
“Hi Candace,” said Emily. “Sorry we’re a bit late. We got held up in traffic.”
“Did you take Douglas Street to get here?” asked Candace, standing and gathering her hoodie. “Douglas is always so stop-and-go, especially this time of year. I usually take Blanshard. A lot of out-of-province tourists like to drive up and down Douglas, probably because it’s on the Canadian Monopoly board.”
“Oh yeah, it is, isn’t it?” said Emily. “I wonder who decided it should be our equivalent of Boardwalk? That’s always seemed like a strange choice to me.”
“I’m sure it made sense to them at the time.”
“Probably,” said Emily. “Hey, are those new sunglasses?”
“Yeah, my mom got them for me. Pretty sweet, eh?” Candace threw her head back with a goofy, playful grin.
“Ooooh,” said Emily, laughing. “What was the special occasion?”
“I dunno,” Candace shrugged. “She just surprised me with them this morning.”
Naomi noticed the branding on the sunglasses as Candace showed them off and gave a low whistle. “I wish my mom would drop two-hundred-dollar presents into my lap for no reason.”
“You think they cost that much?” asked Candace, pulling the sunglasses off and examining them more closely.
Naomi started to roll her eyes, but Emily stuck an elbow in her side before Candace could notice and said, “They’re great, Candace. Who cares what they cost? Your parents have the money—might as well spend a bit of it now and then. And you’ve got nothing to complain about, Naomi. Didn’t your parents buy you a car a couple of years ago?”
They had: it was a 10-year-old hatchback with 130,000 kilometres on it. Meanwhile, Candace’s parents had presented her with a sporty little convertible when she’d turned 18. Some families had it so easy. Still, Naomi took Emily’s subtler point: she was supposed to be relaxing right now, getting her mind off things, not trying to start an argument or make Candace feel awkward about her family’s money.
“Anyways, isn’t it just a beautiful day?” Candace filled her lungs and spread her arms towards Victoria’s inner harbour. “I love this place. One of the world’s greatest cities to live in, for sure.”
“Except for the ten months of rain we get every year,” said Naomi. “And the expensive ferry rides between here and Vancouver. And the fact that we don’t even have an Ikea.”
Candace raised one eyebrow. “Em, I didn’t know you invited Debbie Downer. I thought you were bringing Naomi!”
“Sorry, I’m just… I’ve had a long day,” explained Naomi.
“Then it’s a good thing you’re here,” grinned Candace. “It sounds like some girl time is just what you need. What do you want to do? Walk the sea wall? Wander through Beacon Hill Park for a bit? People watch?”
“Let’s do the Park,” suggested Emily. “Maybe the petting zoo is still open.”
“Sure!” said Candace. The girls started walking, leaving the denser crowds behind and cutting through a bit of residential jumble that separated the park from downtown and the inner harbour.
A white panel van on the opposite side of the street started its engine, pulled out of a Loading Zone parking space, and drove ahead of them up and over a hill, out of sight.