Judy remembers how she used to get excited about the little things.

 
Back in voice-acting college, for example, when she was out walking and stumbled upon that backyard dump with the rusty appliances and stained mattresses and garbage everywhere, and then she saw the mama pig and her piglets emerge from a cardboard box and it was like a miracle was taking place. And maybe to other people that scene would not have been so extraordinary – they might have thought, Oh look, pigs. They wouldn’t have been totally blown away with wonder like Judy was, which is why she was described by her boyfriend at the time as ‘whimsical’.

Judy has not felt whimsical for a while. Her most recent boyfriend, whose name is Jasper, was in the news last year because he constructed an elaborate underground chill-out room furnished with a beer fridge and a TV and a beanbag chair in a remote wooded section of a large public park.

He spent most of his time there, but one morning when he was at home with Judy, a city employee plummeted into the tunnel opening, which Jasper had concealed with mud and leaves and discarded fast-food packaging.

The worker later told his manager that he’d twisted his ankle really badly and was quite freaked overall by the whole discovery, so he needed to take a few hours to rest before heading back to the office to report what he’d found. His description of the mysterious burrow went viral, and by the end of the day everybody knew that the fridge was stocked with boldly flavoured micro-brews and an assortment of prepackaged snack cakes, the TV got a bunch of channels and the beanbag chair felt like a big, fluffy cloud.

The authorities assumed terrorists were involved, because why wouldn’t they be, so there was a lot of fear circulating around until Jasper came forward and explained to the police department that this was just a place for him to hang out, away from his girlfriend, and watch what he wanted to watch and eat what he wanted to eat and just enjoy himself with no strings, right, and the male cops were like, ‘Oh yeah, we totally get that, no worries at all.’ And the female cops were like, ‘How does your girlfriend feel about all of this?’ And the male cops rolled their eyes and said, ‘It doesn’t matter what she thinks. That’s the whole point.’

Jasper was in the news last year because he constructed an elaborate underground chill-out room furnished with a beer fridge and a TV and a beanbag chair in a remote wooded section of a large public park.

Then Jasper started making tacos for a living, and the business took off because everybody wanted to buy a taco made by That Guy, the guy who needed to get away from his girlfriend so bad that he basically dug a hole in the ground where he could finally have a little peace.

And Judy really wanted to be happy for all of his success, but it was hard. It was pretty hard to get out of her own way and not feel sorry for herself over the whole situation, because she personally was not having success at her chosen career, which was voice acting, and so far she had worked as a voice actor exactly once and then never again.

Everybody wanted to buy a taco made by That Guy, the guy who needed to get away from his girlfriend so bad that he basically dug a hole in the ground where he could finally have a little peace.

And meanwhile Jasper started sleeping with Lisa, because she was gorgeous and could walk around on high heels like they were part of her body, like they were dainty, spiky gazelle hooves that could slice Judy wide open if she ever encountered Lisa in a forest, which would be weird, but then again, weird things happened all the time, especially in forests. And because, Jasper told Judy in his overly mellow explaining voice, Lisa actually listened to him for a change instead of just talking about how she wanted to make meaningful use of her wasted creative potential all the time. And besides that, Lisa supported him in what he wanted to accomplish with his life, which was finally to do the CN Tower EdgeWalk, which Judy had never let him do, because she was too scared he would fall. But he wasn’t going to fall was the moral of the story that Judy had never understood. He was going to put on the protective suit and the safety harness and listen to the instructions and follow them and then when he was done having the biggest thrill of his entire existence, he was going to celebrate and go for beers. With Lisa.

But things are looking up for Judy, because the other night while sleeping in her bed all alone she had a dream, which took place in her old high school. The halls were empty and all the classroom doors were closed, and she kept opening them and finding her old teachers, but instead of being the age they were when they taught Judy, they were newborn babies. And yet they spoke in their regular voices and still knew lots of things about maths and science and English literature. A few of them asked Judy what she was up to these days, and she shrugged and said, ‘Oh, this and that.’ Her geography teacher, who had always been her favourite because she used to write reassuring geography-related adages on the blackboard such as, ‘Remember that here is not the only place’, shook a pastel-pink rattle under Judy’s nose. ‘Hey, ’ she said, ‘remember, like the ancient peoples who migrated across the Bering Land Bridge while tracking large game herds, you’ve come a long way.’

Judy woke up feeling valued and encouraged, and shortly afterwards she had the idea to manufacture a doll and use her specialized voice-acting skills to record a bunch of phrases that would be inspirational to shy children. Judy had been a shy child herself, and maybe if she’d owned such a toy she would have grown into a less timid adolescent who would have actually enjoyed high school instead of hating every minute of it.

The uplifting phrases will go on to a computer chip and the computer chip will go into the doll, so that when a shy kid presses a button, or maybe squeezes the doll’s hand for comfort or companionship, they will hear Judy’s soothing and melodic vocalizations and become instantly self-assured. Marketing is important, so she’ll need a catchy slogan to get people’s attention. A call to arms for bashful children and their caregivers, such as, Unharness the more ebullient part of yourself from deep down inside. Or maybe something more straight to the point, like, Freedom.

Once her invention is available for purchase both online and in stores, Judy is sure the demand will be huge. She’ll make tons of money, of course, but the tsunami of gratitude from millions of formerly shy souls, plus spin-off voice-acting work in major motion pictures, will be her true reward. All she needs now is a factory to make the dolls and a studio to record her messages and an IT department to figure out how to put the messages on some chips and then how to put the chips in the dolls. Into their heads, maybe? Behind the mouth? Would there have to be a speaker somewhere? Judy still has a lot of questions, but as a no-longer-shy person (because hey, she has come a long way!) she is confident she’ll find the answers.

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Judy is no fool, but there were definitely warning signs about her and Jasper’s impending break-up that she failed to recognize at the time.

She was feeling mostly satisfied in the relationship, but was also going for a lot of walks and listening to a lot of 10,000 Maniacs and singing along in a voice that was full of outrage. When winter was finally over, Judy started getting excited that all the snow was melting, but Jasper didn’t seem excited at all, which was weird for him because he had always been a big spring fan.

She could think back on those things now and smack herself in the forehead for not realizing what was going on, but that would be an act of self-hatred, and self-hatred is not what Judy is about. What she is about is owning a wallet shaped like a fish, which is a cute and quirky conversation starter that helps her instantly connect with other human beings.

The other day she was getting out her Visa card to pay for a box of white wine, and the liquor store cashier remarked, ‘Hey, now that’s a wacky wallet if I’ve ever seen one!’ He went on to wink and ask, ‘Is it waterproof?’To which Judy replied, ‘No.’ Then she got the joke – because fish swim in the water! – and she bobbed her credit card up and down as if it were being gently manipulated by waves, and the cashier smiled but didn’t full-on laugh, and he rang in her wine and then she was on her way.

So here comes somebody named Lisa all of a sudden and she’s hanging around the taco stand all the time and turning the hot sauce bottles upside-down and dripping sensuous habenero drips on to her fingers and licking them and squealing, ‘Ooh, that burns!’ And Jasper’s giving her free tacos and even naming a signature taco after her, like who even wants to eat something called The Lisa, because it brings to mind absolutely nothing.

And meanwhile Judy had been there as the official Taco Girl since the beginning, meaning her job was to wear short-shorts and high heels and a baby tee that said, ‘My Taco Is Your Taco’, and mostly the people who that advertising worked for were guys who would harass her, and she’d be trying to direct them down the alleyway to where Jasper had set up the hibachi and they’d be trying to corral her up against the wall.And she’d be yelling for Jasper to come and kick their asses but he wouldn’t hear her over the Beastie Boys he was playing on his old boom box that he’d grabbed from his mom’s house, also to entice patrons, but mostly the music just served to cover up her shouts for help. So she’d have to constantly explain to these gropey guys that she wasn’t what was for sale, and they’d call her a whore, which was the exact opposite of what she’d just told them, and maybe they’d go and buy a taco but probably not.

It was either that, or people asking her if she knew that annoying bitch the taco bro was dating, like was she a total psycho or what? And Judy would say, ‘I’m the annoying bitch.’ And they’d go, ‘Really? You’re not that bad looking.’ And they were giving her a compliment so she’d have to say thank you, or else her mother’s voice would fill her brain and demand to know why she hadn’t thanked the person who’d gone out of their way to say something nice, and that would be worse.

And yet, after all that, was there a single item on the menu called The Judy? Nope.

She’s going to air this grievance with Jasper the next time she sees him, which will be tomorrow, because that’s when he’ll be selling tacos at his very first outdoor community event, and Judy is going to be there to cheer him on because that’s the kind of supportive ex-girlfriend she is.

Even though he called her up earlier today and said, specifically, ‘Judy, please do not come to the Donkey Rescue Fair. I don’t want you there and Lisa doesn’t want you there and neither does her kid, who hasn’t even met you but if she did, she would definitely not want you there. So please, please, please stay away.’

So she’s going. Also, Lisa has a kid?

The next day, Judy buys some candyfloss and thinks to herself, You might see one homeless donkey in your life, if you’re lucky.You might be out walking in a field, and whoa, what is that over there, is it a horse? Nope, it’s a donkey. But right now Judy is surrounded by dozens of them.

Although they are no longer homeless because they have been given sanctuary, which is part of Lisa’s job – she goes out into the world and finds donkeys just wandering around, and shoots them with a tranquilizer gun and loads them on to a flatbed and brings them here, to the Donkey Rescue Farm, which is being called the Donkey Rescue Fair today, because the other part of Lisa’s job is to annually drum up funds for the animals’ upkeep by renting a candyfloss machine and a bouncy castle, and (this year) hiring her new boyfriend to sell tacos.

Of course there is a massive lineup in front of Jasper’s truck – he is definitely the main attraction, which makes you wonder about the convenient timing of Lisa’s hook-up with him – so Judy waits her turn patiently because what else is she supposed to do, yell and scream and pretend to be crazy and scare all the customers away? Which, yes, is something she did after he broke up with her, but nobody could blame her for that, because she was upset and distraught and definitely not in her right mind at the time, due to being overwhelmed by sadness.

But she’s going to keep it together today, because today is about the donkeys.

Jasper sees her at the back of the crowd and scowls. He mouths, ‘Fuck off.’

She mouths back, ‘Where’s Lisa? I haven’t seen her anywhere. And where’s this kid I’ve heard so much about? Actually, all I’ve heard is that she exists, which was pretty surprising. So what, all of a sudden you’re Mr Commitment and a responsible parental figure? Give me a break.’

He shakes his head and points to his ears and does an overly violent shrug, then continues assembling meat and condiments and tortilla shells and wrapping everything in his new branded napkins. She’s seen them floating around town – they say, ‘MyEX-ICAN MADE ME DO IT.’ Which doesn’t even make sense, but when she thinks about it now, she realizes it’s sort of like he’s named something after her, after all. So she steps out of line, still hungry but satisfied she got her basic point across.

Judy had been working on her assertiveness. She recently came close to ending a toxic friendship that has historically and presently exerted a very negative influence on her self-esteem.

The way she and this other woman used to be such good friends was, back during high school they had this ritual at least one night a week where they’d drink a bunch of lemon gin mixed with Gatorade and then run around the neighbourhood and pee on people’s gardens. It was this special, rebellious thing they did together, like they were blatantly disregarding social norms and risking potential humiliation in order to declare their unique sisterly love to the world. Even though they never got caught, so it was only ever the two of them who knew that the mutual urination was going on.

The part that made squatting over flowers in the dark less appealing for Judy, though, was how good her friend looked doing it. She was like a sexy magazine ad for outdoor toilets, with her classic faded 501s coiled around her sleek, sun-kissed calves and ankles. And then there was chubby Judy, dribbling onto her shoes. But it was sort of like her better-dressed and more attractive friend was giving her permission, like, ‘Yeah, you can pull down your baggy pleated cords in front of me and reveal your puffy white legs, I don’t mind. It’s cool, because we’re friends and I won’t judge you for not having a body that’s as nice as my body. Okay, look at us, we’re peeing on a garden!’

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Then Judy went to voice-acting college and learned new things and lost a few pounds, and met new people who she’s not in touch with any more, but at the time they were fun and kind and interesting, and her friend was not with her because she went somewhere else.

For two years, Judy felt as if the whole benevolent universe was opening up to her, like, ‘Hey, here I am, dive on in.’ She drank Strongbow and played pinball and attended concerts and bought an oversized yellow leather jacket from a thrift shop. She experimented with different hair products because she had always used mousse, but maybe mousse was not the way to go. She wore army boots with skirts and asked random guys for shoulder massages, and they gave them to her.

A few weeks ago, Judy and her toxic friend were having lunch, and Judy found herself remembering how the whole campus had sparkled like a sparkly playground, even the toilets. She thought about how funny and poignant and raw the graffiti in those college cubicles had been – what a slice of life! – and how she used to just sit there and read and be filled with optimism.

Her friend was telling some sort of anecdote about how great she was and by extension how lacking in greatness Judy was, but in a highly indirect way so that Judy couldn’t quite pinpoint why this story was causing her pain, and Judy tuned her out so she could focus on recalling all the good times she’d had with this friend, but also all the bad times.

After a while, her friend stopped talking and said, ‘Are you listening to me, or what?’

Judy sat up straighter. She said, ‘I think part of my problem is that when I’m around you, I still feel like your fat sidekick.’

‘Aww.’ Her friend smiled and reached across the table to pat Judy’s hand. ‘You’re not my sidekick any more.’

Judy finds Lisa having a cigarette outside the bouncy castle. She goes over and stands next to her.

‘Fuck,’ says Lisa. ‘I thought Jasper told you not to come.’

Judy peers through the murky window of the inflated fortress. There is a single tiny child jumping up and down inside. ‘That your kid in there?’

‘Yep.’

‘She’s cute.’

‘Thanks.’

Lisa blows some smoke in Judy’s face.

Judy coughs. ‘What’s her name?’

‘Collins.’

‘Like Tom Collins?’

‘Yep.’

‘Cool, those are good.’

‘Uh huh.’

‘Can I ask you a favour?’

‘Are you serious?’

Judy takes a naked plastic baby out of her purse.

Lisa says, ‘Jesus.’

‘This is a prototype for a doll I’m going to make to help shy kids, but I have to do some market research first. I need to get feedback from some actual shy kids. Is Collins shy?’

‘She’s moody as hell, I can tell you that.’ Lisa takes a last haul off her cigarette and then crushes it underfoot. ‘She’ll throw a fit if I don’t give her the right colour of bendy straw and then she’ll be all in my face wanting validation or whatever. The only book she ever wants me to read anymore is about this mother aardvark who tells her baby aardvark that she would love her even if she wasn’t an aardvark. Like if she was another animal or something. It’s a stupid story, but it’s her favourite. She’s only three, though, so you can’t expect much. She’s always saying weird shit too. The other day I’m listening to the news in the car and they’re saying, “A woman’s body was found, blah, blah, blah”, and Collins says, ‘Why did they have to find the woman’s body? Can’t she find it herself?’ And I’m like, Fuck, I have to tell her about death now, and probably rape and everything else. But then she got distracted by a red truck she saw out the window, and she says, “Mama, is that a fire truck?” And I say, “No, it’s just a red truck.” And she goes, “Why is it red?” I said I had no idea. But I guess I’m going to have to give her the death talk and the rape talk at some point, right? I mean, it’s coming. She can’t live in a bubble or whatever. She’s got to know about the world. And it’s got to come from me.’

Judy says, ‘What if there was a doll that could do it for you?’

‘Fuck,’ says Lisa. ‘That would be amazing.’

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When Judy first met Jasper, he grabbed her hand like it was a big handful of candy that was being handed out for free.

That made her happy because her previous boyfriend had expected her to take a bus all the way to another city so he could see her one last time and make sure he definitely wasn’t attracted to her any more. And nope, he wasn’t.

After he dumped her and before she rode the bus back home, Judy went into his bathroom and stood in front of the mirror for a long time trying to figure out exactly what was wrong with her. She’d lost weight since high school, so what else was there?

She cheered herself up by going out to dance clubs and listening to songs about forgetting all your troubles temporarily so you can cut loose and enjoy yourself for one crazy night at a dance club, which is where a cute guy named Jasper said he was really glad to meet her, but he was really drunk so she should probably do some shots with him.

And he didn’t even know, until she told him, that she was a very talented person who had once worked in an extremely competitive creative field. And then when she told him, he didn’t care, because it was in the past and he said all he cared about was the future, and the possibilities that would spread out before him like the view of Toronto he would some day have from the top of the CN Tower.

Judy said, ‘That’s really high up,’ and Jasper said, ‘Hey, don’t limit me, okay?’

Collins rocks the plastic baby in her small arms and sings it a nonsense song about peanut butter being good and frogs being bad.

Judy says, ‘Do you like it, Collins?’

‘It goes in my sandwich,’ the little girl coos, ‘but they are too sliiiimy!’

The two of them are sitting side by side on a hay bale. Judy has her pen poised over her notebook.

Lisa is off somewhere doing fair-related business, because she said Judy seemed trustworthy enough to be alone with Collins if she wanted to ask her some research questions or whatever, and Judy said she was flattered but maybe she should get Lisa’s cellphone number, just in case, and Lisa said don’t worry about it, she’d get Judy’s number from Jasper if she needed to get in touch.

‘What do you think of the doll?’ Judy asks Collins now. ‘I want your honest opinion.’

‘I love her,’ Collins whispers. ‘I love her more than dogs.’

Judy frowns. ‘Did you say “dogs” or “frogs”?’

Collins kicks her legs against the hay bale and laughs uproariously. ‘Grass can’t be yellow and a chair! That’s funny.’

‘What if she could talk to you and say things to make you happy, plus teach you all about life? Would you like that?’

‘Oh-oh.’ Collins drops the baby on the ground. ‘She fell down.’

Judy’s cellphone rings and she answers it. ‘Hello?’

Lisa says, ‘You guys having fun? Because Jasper’s going on break so we’re gonna go on break together. Eat something or whatever.’

Collins climbs off the hay bale and lays next to the doll. She closes her eyes. ‘Put us in the donkey truck, Mama.’

‘Is she talking about the donkey truck again? I bring her with me one time and she’s scarred for life. I told her, “I’m not killing them! They’re going to wake up later!” But that’s not how she remembers it. Take her for some ice cream, if you’re looking for something to do. There’s a place across the road from the farm. She goes mental for it. It’s funny to see. She’ll do tricks if you want. Okay, I’ll call you later.’

Judy listens to the silence on the other line, then hangs up too. She closes her notebook.

Collins says, ‘All babies cry when they get born.’

Judy’s one and only voice-acting gig was an ad for a home security system.

It was a few years ago, but if somebody stopped her on the street today and asked her to recite the entire radio spot, which nobody ever would, she could do it, word for word.

There was that time when she and her mother were out for dinner, and after they ordered their food, Judy started telling her mom that when she asked her friend Annabelle what she thought of Jasper, Annabelle said he couldn’t be trusted because he’d taken way longer than any of Judy’s other boyfriends to check out Annabelle’s breasts, which were much larger than Judy’s breasts.

Their waiter suddenly ran back to their table and jabbed a finger at Judy.‘I knew you sounded familiar.You’re the Arma-Get-It-Done girl! Say one of the lines for me. Say the line about the really bad thing!’

‘Oh my goodness,’ said Judy, quietly bursting with joy, ‘you’ve caught me off guard here.’

‘Ha!’ He clapped his hands. ‘Look at you, being all contextually punny. Now let’s hear it.’

Judy blushed and grinned and cleared her throat.

Judy’s mother said, ‘You know, now that you’re here I think I’d rather have the Greek dressing.’

‘Oh yikes,’ said the waiter, ‘I’d better get that into the computer pronto or the kitchen’ll be pissed off.’

‘That’s all you used to do when you were little,’ said her mother when the waiter hurried away.‘Just sit around doing a bunch of weird voices.You never played with other children. I was so relieved when Annabelle came on the scene.’

‘Mom,’ said Judy, ‘Annabelle is a toxic friend. She makes me feel bad about myself. I don’t think I should spend time with her any more.’

‘Well,’ said her mother, ‘that would be a mistake.’

Alone in her apartment that night, Judy sat in front of a mirror and said, ‘You know how you can be going about your daily business and an alarm goes off for no apparent reason? You’re in the middle of grocery shopping, for instance, and there’s the alarm, but there’s no announcement about why it’s going off and if there’s actually danger somewhere. So you’re waiting for someone in a position of authority to come along and reassure you or else tell you to evacuate and leave all your cherished personal belongings behind because they will only slow you down and you seriously need to run. But nobody comes. So you keep doing what you were doing previously, AKA grabbing cereal, but meanwhile you’re thinking, Damn, that alarm is really loud. But okay, I guess it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe they’re testing the system. Systems get tested all the time, right? For sure. Then you slowly start looking around for evidence that something might have gone horribly wrong with society and there’s about to be mass anarchy with ordinary people tearing each other apart in the streets. Those clanging bells certainly sound like they’re heralding doom.A few of your fellow shoppers seem to be shopping a bit faster, perhaps anxious to get home and ensure the safety of the family members and pets and priceless heirlooms that are important to them. Like you, they came here to pick up their second-favourite kind of cereal because it’s on sale this week and it’s normally very expensive cereal. And like you, they’re wishing either the alarm would stop, or the Really Bad Thing would just hurry up and happen already.’

Judy paused to smile at her reflection, and her reflection smiled back.

‘With Arma-Get-It-Done, say goodbye to the annoying uncertainty of false alarms, and say hello to the Really Bad Thing. Because if you hear us, it’s happening. Specifically, it’s happening in the place where you live. But, hey, at least you’ll know for sure.’

Judy buys Collins some ice cream but doesn’t ask her to do any tricks. They make their way over to Judy’s little car, and Judy tells Collins she can sit in the front seat and finish her cone but only if she is very careful.

Judy buckles her in and leaves the radio off, and on their way to the forest she reflects that there is a special type of security that comes with having a family.

‘Collins, do you know what you want to be when you grow up?’

The little girl is quiet for a moment. Then she answers in a hushed, reverent tone, ‘Maybe the ocean.’

Not only do you have the shared sensation of loving and being loved in return, but you all have a common goal, which is to go forth into the world as a coherent unit. And if one of you were to say, ‘I’m a bit sad today,’ the others would rush to comfort you, and you’d feel better. Then you’d go out for dinner at a family-friendly restaurant and draw on the placemats and eat chicken fingers shaped like dinosaurs. Of course, sharing the jubilation of being a parental figure with a committed partner and thereby achieving a true sense of belonging is not the only game in town. Maybe Judy could go to the Humane Society and take home a cat that would otherwise be euthanized. How fulfilling would that be? Totally fulfilling. She’d be saving a life! But then she’d have a cat, and a cat is something she has never wanted to have.

Then you’ve got parents like Lisa, who is the problem at the heart of everything.

Plus, seriously, who calls their daughter Collins? It’s not even a name. It’s the less-namey part of an alcoholic drink. But Judy has to admit it suits her somehow. It’s actually perfect for her, because she’s plucky. She’s a plucky kid.

When Jasper broke up with Judy, he said it was because of her Facebook pregnancy announcement.

She said, ‘But it was just a joke for April Fools’ Day. I thought you’d think it was funny.’

People had still fallen for it, though, which was the problem. They’d left comments such as, ‘Congratulations!’ for her, and on Jasper’s page they wrote stuff like, ‘Oh, shit.’

Jasper had texted her a series of question marks, and Judy knew she was in trouble. The thing was, they hadn’t even gotten to the point where they’d talked about having kids with each other, so she’d figured he’d know she was making it up. But he didn’t.

After he packed up his things and left, Judy cried herself to sleep. But then it was like someone was looking out for her, because that night she was comforted by her favourite recurring dream, which she hadn’t had since high school. It was the one about the two old-fashioned gangsters who were polite in that gravelly, threatening way from the 1950s, so you instinctively knew you weren’t supposed to cross them. They had broken into her childhood home and there was Judy, an innocent teenage girl in a flimsy nightgown, and the second-in-command perverted gangster was eyeing her up and down. But the head gangster, who was a gentleman, told him to ‘Stay the fuck away from her, do you hear me?’ Judy was not to be touched. So she felt protected, even though the head gangster had just shot her mother and father in the back of the heads, execution-style.

She wept for a while for her murdered parents, but then the head gangster offered to make her some coffee and she felt better, because she was only fifteen and had never been allowed to drink it. But here was a handsome adult criminal straight out of a black-and-white movie pouring her a huge hot mug. She thanked him, and savoured it while he pistol-whipped his creepy partner in her honour.

And then in walked Annabelle, looking sexy as usual, and she immediately started flirting her slutty face off like she always did. And Judy sat there and waited for the men to smile at her friend and take turns admiring her long curly hair and perky little butt and then tell her all the disgusting things they wanted to do to her. But they didn’t. They didn’t even look at her. They only wanted Judy.

When Judy woke up, she felt invigorated by imaginary caffeine and filled with a sense of purpose. And even though she didn’t know what that purpose was yet, it didn’t matter, because it was something, and something was always better than nothing, wasn’t it?

fivedials_no39-39Judy had not imagined there would be so many trees. She had figured, how wooded could a park actually be? Pretty wooded, as it turns out.

Collins hugs the plastic baby to her chest and tells it not to worry.

‘You can keep that one if you want,’Judy tells her. ‘I got it at the dollar store and its face is kind of wonky. The real ones are going to be cuter.’

‘I think she’s nice,’ says Collins.

Judy smiles, and reaches down to give the girl’s tiny hand a squeeze.

‘Whoa,’says Collins,‘this is deep grass.’

‘You seem like a good person,’ says Judy. ‘I’m sad to say that there will be people in your life who will be mean to you for no reason.’

Collins cradles the baby doll and hums softly to it, and begins to skip.

Judy takes a deep, cleansing breath from her diaphragm. ‘There will be other people in your life who will get lots of fame and adoration for nothing very special. They’ll have tons of fans who’ll do crazy things to show their devotion, but they won’t deserve it, because they never even tried very hard. They just did something, and people liked it.’

Collins says,‘I’m still hungry.’

‘Collins,do you know what you want to be when you grow up?’

The little girl is quiet for a moment. Then she answers in a hushed, reverent tone,‘Maybe the ocean.’

Judy nods. ‘Like a person who works in the ocean? That’s cool. Well, let’s say you go to ocean-worker school, which is the opening chapter on the path to realizing your greatest aspiration, and your instructors tell you that you have a natural talent, so you feel encouraged. Then you go out into the world with your diploma and all your abilities, and you get your first job doing ocean work and you love it so much and you’re so thrilled to actually be getting paid to do this thing that you love so dearly. But then for some reason you can’t understand, nobody ever calls you again, and you never get another chance to work in the ocean while feeling self-actualized and proud of yourself.’

Collins looks up at Judy with wide, anxious eyes. ‘Crabs have claws that pinch us.’

‘Yes, they do.’ Judy takes the child’s hand again, and holds on.

Collins says,‘Tell me another story.’

‘Okay,’ says Judy.

They keep walking, and Judy tells Collins that back when she used to get lonely and wander the city trying to find where Jasper was hiding, before the headlines and the tacos and Lisa, when it was just the two of them, she would step off the sidewalk into any grove-like area she came across. She knew he was somewhere in the wilderness because he’d told her from the beginning that he was an outdoorsman, and she had said great, but secretly hoped he would never ask her to go camping with him because she hated camping. In the end it didn’t matter, though, because he never did.

She would stand there amid the trees and look up at the sun filtering down through the branches, and feel the most at peace she had felt in a long time.And then she’d hear a twig crack somewhere and start to worry that an animal was sneaking up to attack her, so she’d get back on the sidewalk.

‘I don’t like animals,’ says Collins.

‘Me neither,’ says Judy.

‘Look!’ Collins hops up and down. ‘Some mud!’

Judy’s cellphone rings and she ignores it.

She had really thought they were going the right way, but now she’s beginning to give up hope.

Then she sees the flowers. Just a few at first, scattered here and there. Judy quickens her pace and pulls Collins along with her.After several more steps they come to a clearing, and suddenly the blossoms are everywhere, covering the ground like a multicoloured shag carpet.

Collins scoops up a handful of cloth petals and sniffs them. She frowns. ‘I don’t smell something.’

There are wreaths too, and candles, and poker chips. Scotch bottles and beer bottles and stubbed-out cigars.

Someone has even built an altar, and when Judy gets close enough she can see that the pillars are two giant piles of Sports Illustrated and Men’s Health.

Perched on top are an old Atari joystick, a bong shaped like a cobra, the complete Blu-ray box sets of Dirty Harry and The Fast and the Furious and an oversized novelty shot glass with the contours of a buxom lady’s décolletage and the inscription,‘Boobs are something that guys like’.

She glances at Collins, who is taking everything in, and wonders if it was a mistake to bring her here.

And then the little girl giggles and picks a miniature vanity license plate off the ground. ‘Ooh, look, this came from a tiny vehicle!’ She shows it to the googly-eyed plastic baby. ‘Maybe from a doll car!’

The plate reads,‘Freedom.’

Judy says,‘Isn’t that funny.’

She backs away, condom wrappers and peanut shells crackling underfoot, and shivers. She’s not scared of falling because she knows Jasper’s pit was filled in soon after it was discovered. But it’ll be night soon, and she forgot to bring a flashlight.

Then Collins says, ‘I have to pee.’

‘Hmm.’ Judy peers at the darkening sky. ‘It might be a while until we get to a toilet.’

But the little girl is already squatting by the shrine. ‘Huh,’ says Judy. ‘You know, now that I think about it, I have to pee too.’

‘Do it!’ shouts Collins. ‘It’s fun!’

‘Collins,’ says Judy, ‘I’m really glad we met each other.’

Their united tinkling is musical, like gentle rain on leaves, and Judy closes her eyes and just listens for a moment. Then there’s a scuttling noise, and both girls jump and scream. A squirrel emerges from an empty pork-rind bag and scampers into the bushes.

Judy pulls her jeans back up shakily, heart hammering, and helps her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s daughter with her tiny, pink shorts.

‘I want to go home,’ says Collins.

‘Me too,’ says Judy.

Collins yawns and rubs her eyes, then lifts her arms. ‘Carry me.’

Judy picks her up. Her cellphone rings again, and she switches it off.

Collins lays her head on Judy’s shoulder and sighs.

‘I just wanted to see it,’ Judy whispers to her. ‘But it’s really not that big a deal.’