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"Goodbye Joan" by Susan Holcomb

Updated: Apr 3, 2022

At 7 am on a Friday, Ellie stood outside her apartment dressed like Joan of Arc. From her window upstairs the street had looked sunny and calm, but outside the cold wind from the San Francisco Bay pulled at her costume relentlessly. One half of her cardboard armor was now steadily unfurling from its neatly applied duct tape, and Ellie had to keep one arm clamped down to hold the sad broken thing in place. Her assignment was to speak to three strangers—more if she could manage it—and already it wasn’t going well.

Ellie’s girlfriend Mimi had convinced her to do the Workshop: three days in a conference room at the Hyatt Place Emeryville, just over the Bay Bridge. “It will change your life,” Mimi had said, her eyes glowing in a way that reminded Ellie of an anime character or a small forest creature, whole eyes dilated to blackness. Ellie liked the idea that maybe she could change. She liked the idea that whatever was wrong with her could be identified, quantified, and ultimately, fixed. But mostly she liked the idea of doing something nice for sweet, moldable Mimi. She liked the idea of behaving, for once, like a real girlfriend.

On the morning of Day 1, Mimi picked Ellie up at her apartment. Ellie had used the Workshop as an excuse not to spend the night. “You’re right, of course,” Mimi had said, her eyes glossy with feeling. “You don’t want to be tired on your first day.” Mimi knew all about how to prepare for the Workshop. She had attended the Workshop dozens of times, and now she was helping to run it, as a facilitator.

In the car, Ellie looked up the directions on her phone. “Shellmound Drive,” she said. “Have you heard why they call it that?”

“Why?” Mimi asked.

“It used to be an indigenous sacred ground. The Shellmound is where they buried their dead.”

“Wow,” Mimi said.

“That’s why that IKEA there is haunted.”

“The IKEA?” Mimi asked. “Haunted?”

“I mean, not really,” Ellie said. “I was just making a joke.”

“Oh,” Mimi said. “You’re so funny.”


The Hyatt Place Emeryville sat squished between the haunted IKEA and a possibly haunted Trader Joe’s. Inside, the Workshop participants gathered in the open space in front of a conference room on the second floor. Mimi went to join the other facilitators inside, whirring with anticipation as she gave Ellie a performative kiss goodbye. The other participants milled around outside, gravitating towards the walls as if they needed to keep their backs to something so that no one could sneak up behind them.

A young woman about Ellie’s age was sitting near the door. She had dark brown hair and a wide face. Her eyes were set too far apart, spanning her face so broadly that they threatened to wrap around the sides, which made her look a little like a lizard. Ellie went over to her.

“Can I sit with you?” Ellie asked.

The girl looked up from her spot on the floor and shrugged.

Ellie sat down. “I’m Ellie.”

“Magda,” said the other girl. She took her phone out of her bag and started to fiddle with it.

“Is this your first time at the Workshop?” Ellie asked.

“Yup.” Magda didn’t look up from her phone. Ellie sat beside her doing nothing until it was time to go inside.


In the conference room, twelve empty chairs were assembled in a semi-circle. “The arch,” one of the facilitators would later tell them, “is the strongest shape in the world.” The facilitators sat together at a long table at the back of the room, behind the arch, all facing forward like a painting of the Last Supper. Mimi was there, sitting somewhere in the middle. Ellie avoided looking at her as she filed in with the other participants.

Once they were seated, a large blonde woman approached the center of the arch. She was tall and fat and powerful-looking. Her face was square and solid; she made Ellie think of those mystery heads on Easter Island. Her eyes were small and bright and moved around fast. Her name was Janelle, and for the next three days, she would be their leader. Mimi had told Ellie all about her already. “She’s amazing,” Mimi had said. “She’s the wisest woman I know.”

Janelle asked each participant to stand and introduce themselves. As they spoke, Janelle eyed them angrily, accusingly, like they deserved to be bitten and she would gladly be the one to bite them. First down the line was a young man wearing a t-shirt that went down almost to his knees. “I’m Fady,” he said. “I’m from Redwood City.”

“What do you do for a living, Fady?” Janelle asked.

“I drive a limo. Mostly I pick people up from the airport.”

Janelle’s eyes went narrow, thin little slits, like she was sharpening her gaze down to a fine, fine point. “How’s that working out for you?”

“It’s good,” Fady said. “I mean, it’s a job.”

“Do you have a romantic partner, Fady?”

“My fiancée.”

“Where is she today? Why is she not here with you?”

Fady coughed. “Um. It’s not really her thing.”

“Her thing?”

“She thought it sounded kind of cult-y. Like it has a cult vibe.”

Janelle laughed. “That’s a common misconception. But the Workshop is not a cult!” She turned to face the others in the arch. “If anything, it’s the opposite. Our purpose here is to teach you who you really are, underneath the masks you wear in daily life. Society has conditioned you—has conditioned all of us!—to internalize destructive beliefs about who we have the potential to be. The goal of the Workshop is to break through that conditioning. In the Workshop, you will learn how to live your truth.” A few people around the arch nodded. Ellie focused her attention on an oily spot on the wall.

When it was Ellie’s turn to speak, she stood and smoothed her black pencil skirt. “I’m Ellie,” she said. “I live in San Francisco. I graduated from Stanford last year and now I work in marketing at a startup.”

Janelle’s angry eyes bore down hard on Ellie. Ellie could feel their heat. It occurred to her that Janelle would make a good meme. She imagined doctoring Janelle’s face in photoshop, drawing lasers from her eyes and fire in her open mouth, scrawling in a blocky purple font across the screen: Janelle!

“How’s that working out for you?” Janelle asked.

Ellie shrugged. “It’s a good opportunity.” She shifted her focus to Janelle’s forehead to avoid meeting her gaze directly. Laser eyes, she thought. Purple font. Janelle!

“Do you have a romantic partner, Ellie?” Janelle asked.

Ellie could sense Mimi beaming from the table behind her. She could feel her anticipation, her eagerness, her desire to be recognized. She made Ellie think of a little needy puppy, of an overachieving ninth-grader just waiting to be called on. Pick me! Oh, pick me! It made Ellie want to lie and say no. Instead, she said, “Yeah, I do.”

“Where is he now?” Janelle spread her arms wide. “Why is he not here today?”

“It’s a she, actually,” Ellie said. A little twitch of surprise registered on Janelle’s giant face. Ha, ha, Janelle! Ellie thought. You thought you had me all figured out! Your laser eyes go weak in the face of me. I smite thee, Janelle! You have been smote.

“Well,” Janelle said. “Where is she? Why isn’t she here today?”

“She is here,” Ellie said. “She’s Mimi.” Everyone laughed. Ellie looked over her shoulder to see Mimi clapping and bouncing in her chair.

Janelle’s squinting eyes only grew smaller. “So you have a Stanford degree, a good job, a loving relationship. Why are you here?”

“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “I guess I was curious.” Across the arch, Magda fidgeted and sighed. She hates me already, Ellie thought. Lizard girl.

Janelle let the silence between them balloon. She kept her eyes locked on Ellie as Ellie waited for permission to sit back down. Ellie could sense Janelle looking for the root of her, the unhealed wound, the festering sore Janelle could push and prod to open her up. The joke was on Janelle, Ellie thought because even she didn’t think there was anything there. That was the whole problem. That was what Janelle didn’t understand.

After the introductions, they took a break. There was a vending machine down the hall where they could buy water and snacks. Near the machine, a man named George was holding two fresh water bottles. George had two young daughters and a job in finance. He was one of those tall, large men who carried himself with grace no matter his size; whether fat or thin or somewhere in between he moved just as fluidly as if his body were miraculously designed to support an infinite amount of weight. Of all the participants, he struck Ellie as the most well-adjusted. He struck her as someone she could understand.

“It gave me two,” George said. He handed a water bottle to Ellie.

“Thanks,” Ellie said. George had a kind smile. Ellie imagined he was a great dad. She pictured him coming home from work at 5:30 pm every day and sitting down to help his daughters with their math homework. He would tell them how they used equations like these in his fancy finance job, how if they worked hard and learned math then they, too, could get good jobs, make a lot of money, and have fun besides. George was one of those guys who made life look easy. George seemed to have life figured out.

“So what do you think?” Ellie asked as she opened the water bottle.

“It’s something,” George said. “It’s really something.”


The Workshop operated like a nation-state, with its own rules and its own slipshod constitution. After the break, the facilitators went over the bylaws. The Workshop was confidential. There was to be no swearing in the Workshop. For the three days of the Workshop, no one was to drink alcohol or take drugs—yes, they said, that included marijuana! And most importantly, whether returning from a break or arriving first thing in the morning, everyone must be on time. Being on time was critical. “You have made a contract with each other,” said one of the facilitators, a thin wispy man with patchy facial hair. “You have made a promise to be here on time.” It wasn’t clear to Ellie what the consequences of breaking these rules would be, but everyone seemed to sense that the consequences would be bad. To agree to these rules, the participants were asked to stand. No one remained seated.

The facilitators led them through various exercises. In one, they walked around the room in two concentric circles. Whenever a facilitator called out “Stop!” they had to stop and make eye contact with a person in the opposing circle. After staring at each other for a while, they had the option to high-five each other or shake hands or hug.

In another exercise, they had to shout out the names of the things they wanted. Janelle said this shouting would help them to access their most suppressed desires. Ellie felt like she was getting the hang of these games. Still, she sensed that Janelle didn’t like her. Ellie was too collected, too competent, too capable of following the rules. Where the other participants seemed to get tripped up, stalled before the barriers the facilitators constructed in their paths, Ellie found it easy simply to move forward, climb over the barriers, and tell the person in charge what they wanted to hear. She suspected Janelle could tell her success was not authentic. She suspected Janelle could tell she was just playing along.

Throughout the exercises, Janelle would ask: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Ellie pondered this question. She wondered if fear was her problem, and what the object of that fear might be.

They took a break for lunch. When they came back they found the arch had been broken, the chairs scattered around the room, and turned to face the walls. “Everyone find a private corner in the room,” Janelle said. Ellie chose a chair facing the window. Mimi and another facilitator began handing out notebooks and pens. “This exercise is about fear,” Janelle said. “We’re going to take twenty minutes to do some journaling. I want you to write down what scares you. Think about your dreams, your goals, your highest aspirations, the things people in your life have told you are impossible to achieve. Why are they impossible? What’s stopping you? What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

“What if we aren’t sure what to write?” an older woman named Meredith asked.

“Trust the process,” Janelle said. “Listen to what’s in your heart. Follow your intuition.”

“But—” Meredith said.

“No buts!” said Janelle. “Remember: Not But, but And.” This was one of the Workshop’s mantras.

Janelle started the timer. The lights in the room went dim. From the window, Ellie watched people walking in and out of the Trader Joe’s down below. A woman with a little boy hurried across the parking lot, holding the boy’s hand and dragging him behind her. When he tripped she swept him up and carried him the rest of the way to the car. What am I afraid of, Ellie thought. What do I want, why am I afraid. In her journal, she wrote: I worry that I’m not a real person.

When the twenty minutes were up, Janelle told everyone to find a partner and share what they had written. Ellie leaned over to Fady. “Partners?”

Fady pulled his chair up next to Ellie’s. “I guess my big thing,” he said, “is that I always feel stuck. Like, I can always come up with a reason why I can’t do what I really want to do. I’m my own worst enemy.”

“That makes sense,” Ellie said. Nearby, Meredith was saying “my dad” over and over. Were we supposed to write about our parents? Ellie wondered. It hadn’t even occurred to her to think of them.

“What did you put?” Fady asked.

“I don’t know if this makes sense,” Ellie said. “I wrote: I worry that I’m not a real person.

Fady nodded. He leaned back in the rickety plastic chair, straining the back so that it bent awkwardly away from the seat. He clasped his hands behind his head. “I think I get it.”

“You do?”

“Like your life is like a video game. Like every time you pass one level, there’s another one to beat.”

“Maybe,” Ellie said. “I don’t know. It’s more like, I feel like things happen to other people, but they don’t happen to me.”

“But they do happen, don’t they? You seem functional. You seem like you function.”

“I guess so,” Ellie said. “But don’t other people do more than that?”

Fady leaned forward in his chair. The back stayed arched behind him, the plastic permanently warped. “Have you heard this theory about how we’re all really part of a computer simulation? The idea is, whoever built us is just testing things out. Our reality might not be the ultimate reality. It’s just one run of the game.” He smiled. “Maybe it’s true. Maybe that’s why you feel this way. Maybe you’re the only person who has figured it out.”

“Or maybe whoever coded me missed a few lines.”

“Nah,” said Fady. “I think you’re just fine.”

Ellie smiled. Fady wasn’t the kind of person she usually expected to like her. It was nice to talk this way, she thought. Maybe the Workshop was on to something. Maybe Janelle was right; maybe there was a whole world of possibility just waiting for Ellie to arrive, and all she had to do was crackdown and splinter the surface. Maybe the change was taking place, just like Mimi had promised. Maybe a real-life was possible after all.


Just before dinner, Janelle gave the group a large piece of white cardboard and a set of markers. “I want you all to collaborate on a design that sets your intention for the rest of the Workshop. We call it your Dreamboard: the emblem of what you want to achieve as a group here, together.”

Janelle and the other facilitators left them alone in the room. “How should we get started?” Meredith asked. “Fady, what do you think?” She had taken a special interest in Fady and was always going out of her way to talk to him.

“I don’t really get the point of it, honestly,” Fady said.

“Maybe we could draw, like, a picture together,” a young woman named Rachel said. She had driven down from Sacramento and had a little baby at home. “Like, it could be a picture of a mountain, and all of us are climbing the mountain.”

“Why would it be a mountain?” Fady said. “I don’t get that.”

“Because we’re like, all on this journey together,” Rachel said. “Like, we’re climbing a mountain.”

“I really don’t get that,” Fady said.

“What if we cut the cardboard up?” Ellie said. “We could each draw an image representing our individual goal, and then we could tape the whole thing back together. Like a patchwork quilt.”

“That’s a great idea,” George said.

From the corner of the room, Magda cleared her throat. “I like the mountain idea better.”

Of course you do, lizard girl, Ellie thought. Magda hadn’t said a thing all day—why did she have to start speaking up now? “I think either idea could work,” Ellie said.

“I don’t get the mountain,” Fady said. “I mean, I just don’t get the mountain idea at all.”

“We could vote,” George said. “Who likes the mountain?” Magda and Rachel raised their hands. “Who likes the patchwork quilt?” George, Fady, and Meredith raised their hands.

“Some of you didn’t vote,” George said.

“I’ll honestly do whatever,” Rachel said.

“The patchwork quilt won, by majority rule,” Meredith said.

“The Quilt of Dreams,” said Fady.

By the time the facilitators returned, they had the quilt assembled. Fady had drawn a pastoral landscape, with a sun shining down on a little red farmhouse. Meredith had drawn a giant, heavy-lidded eye. Magda had drawn a self-portrait—surprisingly well-rendered—with her hands at her temples, a golden glow emanating from where her fingers met her skin. Ellie had drawn a series of stars in rainbow colors, floating out over a vast ocean, shining far away against the night sky. “Nice work,” Janelle said. “Very nice work, everyone.” Ellie smiled, but somehow she felt Janelle meant: everyone but her.


Late in the evening, they assembled in the arch. “I’m going to assign each of you a role,” Janelle said. “Tomorrow morning you must go out into the world in character. You must put together a costume and wear it until you arrive back at the Workshop.”

“A costume?” Meredith asked. “But it’s after 8 pm. Where are we going to get costumes?”

“You are putting up blockers,” Janelle said. “You are inventing stumbling blocks that don’t really exist. This is just the kind of thinking that prevents you from reaching your full potential.”


“No buts!”

Ellie took note of everyone’s character assignments. George was Superman. Meredith was Tinkerbell. Magda was Wonder Woman. Fady was the Pied Piper. Ellie was assigned Joan of Arc. “Your characters are based on who you really are,” Janelle said. “Underneath the masks you wear. Underneath the stories you’ve told yourselves.” Given all the comic book characters in the mix, Ellie thought Joan of Arc seemed like a huge compliment.

After Janelle released them for the night, the participants walked out together. Everyone seemed angry. These self-improvement exercises were all well and good within the alternate reality of the Hyatt Place Emeryville, but it was simply too much, they all agreed, to ask them to take the Workshop out into the real world.

“I don’t have time for this shit,” Fady said.

“How are we supposed to put a costume together overnight?” Meredith asked.

“Too bad I didn’t get Wonder Woman,” George said to Magda. “I could have reused my daughter’s Halloween costume.”

“And are we really supposed to talk to strangers?” Rachel said. “How are we going to do this?”

“I guess we just have to make it work,” Ellie said. The other participants looked at Ellie as if she had hit upon a deep truth as if she had figured out something about life that the rest of them had not.

“Make it work, sure,” George said.

“Fuck this shit,” said Fady. “Fuck this stupid shit.”


They weren’t supposed to talk about the Workshop outside of the Workshop. This was another of the unbreakable rules. But Mimi couldn’t help herself. “What did you think?” she asked Ellie once they were in the car. “What did you think of Janelle?”

“She’s great,” Ellie said. She leaned her head against the window, suddenly tired.

“You really think so?”

“Yeah.” Ellie yawned. “Everyone seems really cool.”

“Oh,” Mimi said. “I’m so glad we’re doing this together.”

Something in Ellie’s chest deflated and twinged, something incomprehensibly delicate and sad. Mimi was like a little broken bird she had to keep in a shoebox. Would her wings ever heal? Would she ever actually fly?


The next morning Ellie dressed in her costume. She wore black leggings under an oversized white blouse that she imagined looked pretty much like a tunic. In addition to her cardboard armor, she had made a pennant flag to serve as her standard. She printed out a picture from the Internet of a medieval-looking lion and taped it to the end of a Swiffer handle. She had woken up early, eager to get into her costume, but now that it was time to go outside she found she didn’t want to leave. You only have to talk to three people, she thought. You’ll be back in ten minutes.

There was hardly anyone on the street outside. Ellie walked to the bus stop, where a young man in glasses was waiting on the bench. She hugged her armor to her chest and cleared her throat. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Joan of Arc.”

“Wow,” the man said.

The wind tugged at Ellie’s armor. She clamped her left arm down over the seam where the cardboard met the tape. “Do you need any help with anything?” she asked.

“Help?” the man said.

“I don’t really know what Joan would do.”

“She did battles, right? I think she fought battles.”

“Yeah.” The wind picked up and Ellie turned to keep her back to it. “Are there any battles I could help you fight?”

“I’m just going to work.”

“Okay.” The bus pulled up and the man stood to leave. “Have a good day at work,” Ellie said.

Ellie sat down on the bench and waited. A middle-aged couple approached the bus stop and started looking at the schedule. “Hi,” Ellie said. “I’m Joan of Arc.”

“Joan of Arc?” the woman asked.

“I thought you were dead,” the man said.

“I guess I’ve come back,” said Ellie. She uncrossed her legs to avoid bending the bottom of the cardboard. “Do you have any battles I can help you fight?”

“Battles,” the man said. “Battles!” He started to laugh.

“Or anything else,” Ellie said. “It doesn’t have to be battles.”

“Listen, Joan,” the woman said. “It’s very nice to meet you, but we’re old friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time.”

“Okay,” Ellie said.

“So we’d like you to leave us alone.”

Ellie stood from the bench and her grip on her armor slipped. Her cardboard breastplate popped open at the side and started swinging violently in the wind. The man and the woman stared as Ellie clasped her broken armor to her chest and hobbled away from them. Down the block, she fit the split cardboard back together and pressed hard on the tape to seal the pieces into place. Why did that woman have to be so rude? she thought. No one wants to engage with anything a little bit fun, a little bit different, a little bit out of the ordinary. The tape started to peel away from the cardboard again. Ellie felt like she was going to cry. She was just trying to improve herself. She was just trying to follow the assignment. But everything was against her. Even the wind was conspiring to take her down.

Across the street, a homeless man was walking down the road. He pushed a shopping cart filled with empty soda cans. His skin was a dark reddish-brown color, coated with a thin film of dirt so Ellie couldn’t really distinguish what was dirt and what was skin. Ellie clamped her arm down on her armor and crossed the street. “Hi!” she called out. “I’m Joan of Arc.”

“Joan!” the man said. “I’ve been waiting for you!”

Ellie hurried out of the way of a car turning the corner. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“Hubert,” the man said.

“That’s an unusual name.” The man’s eyes were a rich green. They stood out like lights against his dirt-coated skin. It was the first time, Ellie realized, that she had ever looked a homeless person in the eyes.

“So you’re really her,” said Hubert.

“I am.”

“You are a marvel.”

Ellie smiled. This felt right. This felt important. This, she thought, was what Janelle had expected her to achieve. Ellie asked Hubert how long he had been in San Francisco. He said it had been years, almost ten years, most of them on the street. Ellie imagined hardly anyone must ever talk to him. What she meant was: anyone like her.

“It’s been so wonderful to meet you,” Hubert said. “It’s rare to meet a real Joan in person.”

“It is?”

Hubert nodded and looked off into the distance. Before Ellie could ask him what he meant, a police car pulled up.

The officer emerged from the car slowly, the bulk of him straining against the door. “Ma’am, is this man bothering you?” By the time he was out of the car, he had his taser in his hand.

“What?” Ellie said. “No, no, we’re just talking.” She turned to see Hubert running off down the street.

“City’s full of goddamned homeless people,” the cop said. He went back to his car. “You should think about getting some pepper spray or something. Most of these guys are harmless, but you never know.”

The cop drove off. Hubert had left his shopping cart behind. Ellie pushed the cart down to the end of the block, where around the corner she saw Hubert slumped against a wall. “Hubert,” she said.

Hubert didn’t say anything. His head had sunk low on his chest. He looked like he might be asleep, or dead—but there’s no way he’s dead, Ellie thought. Ellie propped the shopping cart against the wall beside him. She had twenty dollars secured at the waistband of her leggings. She took out the bill and set it in the front pocket of Hubert’s shirt. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry that happened.”


Back in her apartment, Ellie ignored Mimi’s texts.

Here, Mimi wrote.

You back yet? Mimi wrote.

Finally, Mimi called. Ellie sighed and picked up the phone.

“Hey,” Mimi said. “I was starting to worry.”

“You don’t need to worry.”

“Are you back yet? I don’t want to be late.”

“I think you should go on without me,” Ellie said. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

“Why? Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine. I just need to come on my own.”

There was a pause. “I don’t understand,” Mimi said.

“No,” Ellie said. “And you don’t have to.” She hung up.

Ellie sank down on the couch. Her armor pressed awkwardly against her thighs, and she had to shift to keep the cardboard from bending. She hadn’t meant to be harsh, but of course, she had probably upset Mimi anyway. But everything upsets Mimi, Ellie thought. There’s nothing I can say that doesn’t crush her. For the first time, Ellie felt comfortable with the blunt truth of this fact. There was nothing wrong with Mimi for being sensitive, but there was also nothing wrong with Ellie for being herself. It was okay if they didn’t mesh, didn’t get along, didn’t understand each other. The world was big. The world had room for people who were different.

Ellie stared at the little patch of sunlight coming in from between the blinds. She felt calm and safe like a storm had passed her by. She felt like she was in a little boat, still adrift at sea, but on course, with a breeze blowing, and no clouds on the horizon. It was 8 am. The Workshop would start in an hour. She went downstairs and started looking for a cab.


It was 9:15 by the time Ellie got to the Hyatt Place Emeryville. Janelle would be enraged, no doubt: the most unbreakable rule broken, Ellie’s personal accountability permanently impeached. Upstairs, Ellie opened the door to the conference room as quietly as she could. Everyone was seated in the arch already. In the center of the arch stood Magda. Her face was red, but she was smiling. Ellie went to an empty chair in the arch and sat down.

“Go on, Magda,” said Janelle. She glared at Ellie. Ellie looked straight ahead. Your laser eyes can’t hurt me! Ellie thought. Your laser eyes can’t hurt me! But she felt shrunken and small anyway, chastened beneath Janelle’s gaze. Her earlier sense of calm crumpled. She had shown up late. She had gone and broken the most important rule.

“Well, okay,” Magda said. She was wearing a Wonder Woman costume. In fact, Ellie thought, everyone in the arch looked ridiculous—George as Superman, in a red t-shirt with a black “S” drawn on the chest; Meredith as Tinkerbell, dressed in head-to-toe green. Fady as the Pied Piper, draped, for some reason, in a bedsheet, with a hat cut from a cardboard box tipped jauntily on his head. Ellie felt proud of her costume. It wasn’t store-bought, like Magda’s cheap little thing, but it still looked the best.

“So I was saying,” Magda went on. “I was nervous at first, but everyone was so nice to me. They just accepted me as I was.”

“That’s because you get back what you give,” Janelle said. “When you put good energy out into the world, you get it right back.”

Magda beamed.

“Wonderful job, Magda,” Janelle said. “I’m so proud of you.” She gave Magda a hug.

“Ellie,” Janelle said. “It’s your turn.”

Ellie stood up. Everyone was staring at her. They all seemed so eager, Ellie thought, so ready for her to dance for her redemption. She set her mouth in a hard straight line and approached the center of the arch.

“Why are you late today, Ellie?” Janelle asked.

“Oh,” Ellie said. “I got into a fight with a homeless man.”


“Yes. And a cop tried to steal my armor.”

Janelle narrowed her eyes. Ellie imagined herself spreading out broad and sheer and strong, like one giant piece of sheet metal, the sunlight ricocheting off her towards anyone who dared look her way. Ellie liked this image of herself. She liked the idea of making Janelle squint.

“Ellie, please take this seriously,” Janelle said. “We can’t have any of these fabrications in the Workshop.”

“No fabrications?” Ellie said. “No fabrications in the Workshop?” She felt lightheaded and distant. She felt like this was all happening to someone else. “The Workshop is nothing but fabrications! I mean, look at this.” She picked up the Quilt of Dreams, which was sitting nearby on an easel, and dropped it down again. The cardboard bounced and wobbled as it landed. Ellie imagined that the quilt might float up of its own accord and start circling the arch, flying around and around over the heads of the participants like the leader in a ghostly game of duck-duck-goose. “We made a Quilt of Dreams! We made that. Do you get it? We made it all up.”

“Ellie,” Janelle said. “Control yourself.”

“I am controlling myself. Believe me, I am in complete control.”

Around the arch, everyone sat watching like Ellie and Janelle were actors in a play. Ellie felt sorry for the rest of them. They weren’t bad people. They were just made small. Oh, they wanted to be bigger: that was why they were here. They thought they could be like Alice in Wonderland, that they could show up and eat a cake and get larger than life. Three days in a hotel conference room and what? Ellie thought. That’s all it takes to solve all your problems? That’s all it takes to turn into someone else? “Not someone else,” Janelle would surely have told her. “A better version of you.” Right, so easy, Ellie thought, a butterfly from a cocoon. Hunker down and emerge reborn. Eat the magic cake and change for good. God, it all struck her as so stupid. So stupid and so empty—what else had she expected?

Some movement at the back table caught Ellie’s eye. It was Mimi. She was crying. Her face was all red, scrunching and shrinking like something wild was trapped under her skin. Ellie hadn’t wanted her to cry.

Ellie hadn’t wanted any of this. She felt suddenly aware of her body, all at once fixated on how roughly the cardboard armor chafed against the soft skin of her arm. She took hold of the front half of the armor and yanked. The tape made a satisfying thwack as it unfurled from the cardboard. She took off the armor and carried it to the back of the room.

“I’m sorry, Mimi,” Ellie said. “It’s not going to work, is it?”

Mimi stopped resisting and allowed herself to sob.

Ellie set the broken armor on the back table. No one said anything as she left the room.

Outside, Ellie walked down the road, past the Trader Joe’s, not knowing, really, where she meant to go. She still had her pennant flag, and from time to time she leaned on it as if it were a walking stick. She imagined she was hiking somewhere rugged and natural, somewhere far away and cool and green. She came to a highway entrance clogged with cars trying to merge onto the ramp and stepped between them to cross the street.

Underneath the highway, a homeless man was pushing a shopping cart filled with salvaged aluminum cans. “Hey!” the man called to Ellie. “Hey!”

Ellie stopped. She inched back towards the intersection. It was broad daylight, she thought. Surely there was nothing to be afraid of.

“You look familiar,” the man said. “I think I know you.”

Ellie thought of Hubert. It’s rare to meet a real Joan in person. “Of course you know me,” she said. She walked right up to the man and looked him in the eye. “I’m Joan of Arc!”

Ellie raised her pennant flag and started walking. The man drew himself up straight and saluted her. “Goodbye, Joan!” he said. Ellie walked through the underpass, past tents and trash bags and piles of soda cans. She walked out the other side, where the sun was so bright she had to shade her eyes and squint. She kept walking along the Shellmound road, where soon the traffic thinned out and the streets turned empty, where the sidewalks disappeared and she clung tight to the roadside where the tall yellow grasses grew. In the distance, she could see the Berkeley Hills, peaked and green like a landscape from a storybook, though from where she stood it was hard to tell whether the hills were close or far away. She walked towards the hills without treating them like a destination; she did not force herself to answer where she meant to go. She thought instead of those few things she could feel: her feet on the road, the sun on her skin, and the unbound cotton of her tunic flapping at her sides in the breeze.

Susan Holcomb holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and studied for a PhD in physics at Cornell. Her fiction is forthcoming in the Southern Indiana Review and her nonfiction has been published in The Boston Globe.

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