Before I knew it, the summer was over and I was headed back to town to start school again. But I just could not get her off my mind. The first day of school – my first day of Grade Five – brought nothing but the usual pain and suffering at the hands of Levi and Dustin, the school bullies. This time, though, it was more bearable. It didn’t even hurt as much when Levi’s fist connected with my abdomen and knocked the wind out of me.
“You are such a queer,” Dustin spat as I lay on the ground, bleeding from a cut over my eye. Then he and Levi walked away. I dragged myself off the ground and walked to the bathroom to clean myself up.
“Alexis? Were they after you again?” my best friend and confidant Stevie asked. She walked up behind me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“I slipped,” I lied. “I’m fine.”
From that day on, I always lied about what happened to me. A black eye was a basketball injury, or a baseball mishap, depending on the season. A broken rib was a skating accident. That broken leg, doctor? Oh, I was just trying to jump off a roof. Silly, huh? I was Alice in Wonderland but the rabbit hole took me to Hell instead of a fantasy world.
I survived the year by becoming shrewd. I was cautious enough to never mention if I thought a new girl was cute but I secretly wrote stories around those girls, and made them fall in love with other girls just to see what it was like. I went to the library and looked at books that made me blush and giggle and gasp and gape. The Well of Lonliness by Radclyffe Hall became one of my favorites, as well as The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith and a collection of Sappho’s works translated into English.
I learned more about what it meant to like girls. And every night, I sat in the circle I’d drawn in chalk and I’d pray to Nana’s god and goddess that everything would turn out okay.
The following year, on June 21st, I went back to Coffee Cove. I was wearing a white silk dress without sleeves that went down to my knees. I had a wreath of red roses in my hair and I was wearing makeup that I’d gotten for my eleventh birthday from my best friend and confidant Stevie.
I hadn’t been back to Coffee Cove since that day when I’d run from Bianca’s cottage. I don’t know what led me back there, since the trails had become overgrown and overrun and nobody visited the decaying cove anymore, but I was having a positive feeling about going back. I’d recently decided that I wasn’t going to be Mommy’s Little Catholic Angel anymore. I was going to follow in my Nana’s footsteps and follow the Wiccan way. So, to commemorate my decision, I’d planned a full Midsummer’s Eve ritual. And I’d gone to the place where my world had turnd on it ear to do it.
The beach was much larger than it had been, with the heat we’d been having, but I still went onto the rock to put down my boom box and ritual supplies. I pulled off my shoes and undid the braid I’d kept my hair in while I pedaled furiously from town to here. My long brown hair flowed in the gentle breeze and I smiled.
Over the water, glistening with the oranges and reds of the sunset, I heard music. It wasn’t really there, but I pretended I heard it and I pretended that it was Bianca singing. It sounded so pretty in my mind that I didn’t even bother turning on my boom box. I just danced on my first Midsummer with my darling Water-Girl singing in my head.
When I went home, Mom was furious. She’d found my secret trunk filled with all of Nana’s things. And she was really angry about it because I was going against God.
“You’ll never amount to anything!” she screamed at me. “You’re a lousy little sinner who will go to Hell as soon as you die! You are a pathetic little bitch!”
Daddy . . . I looked to him for help, for some sign that what Mom wasn’t right, that she was lying. But he turned his head away and refused to look at either of us. That hurt more than Mom’s flat palm connecting with my cheek.
“You are so pathetic! How dare you disobey me! You are never to leave this house for the rest of the summer!”
But I did go out. I had to. Mom made me. I weeded the garden and I did chores for Mrs Newstater, our elderly next-door-neighbor. Mrs Newstater was nice to me and whenever I went over, she baked me ginger cookies and we talked about the good old days when Thompson was just a fifty-person mining village. Well, she talked and I listened, but I was absolutely fascinated with her stories and I drank them in like I would a cup of good tea or milk.
It was about four months after Mom had found my ritual trunk that I started working at Mrs Newstater’s house full time. In the morning, I went over and fed her cats and made her her toast and tea. At lunch, I brought in the mail and made us both tomato soup. After school, I went and did the dishes and started pasta or chicken or barbecue for supper. While the food was cooking, I vacuumed and swept and cleaned her house from top to bottom, and I did it all willingly.
While we had dessert (usually some small treat that she’d baked during the day, like ginger cookies or maybe chocolate pudding) we’d talk and when we sat sipping tea in the late evenings, before I had to go, she helped me with my homework.
It was just after my twelfth birthday and school had just let out, that Mrs Newstater gave me three gifts. She sat me down one day and looked at me with those big sad blue eyes of hers. “Alexis,” she told me, “I’m afraid that my time in this world is coming to an end, dearest.”
I started crying but I was completely silent as I sat listening to her.
“I just got back from the doctor’s yesterday, dearest. He said that I have a kind of illness that they’ve never treated in the hospital before. He called it HIV. Do you know what that is, child?” she asked.
“Human Immuno-Defficiency Virus,” I replied in a whisper. “It means that you’ve been infected either through sex or by coming into contact with the infection through some other fluid, and that you’re going to get very sick because the virus destroys your immune system.”
Mrs Newstater – she’d gotten me to call her Kelly by that point – smiled weakly at me. “Yes, child,” she said softly. “And I already am very sick.”
The woman who had taken the place of my mother was dying. I knew it, she knew it. But that didn’t make it hurt any less. She taught me what my life was. She accepted the fact that I liked girls. She even taught me about sex in such a way that it didn’t make me blush or gasp or giggle. When I whispered to her about Bianca and how I wanted to see her again, Kelly told me that I would.
I took her hands in mine and looked right at her. “I’ll take care of you,” I promised. “I’ll take care of you and I’ll help you do more things. I can help keep you healthy. People with HIV can live for decades before letting the disease drag them down! Just don’t give up and I won’t either, I promise!”
She squeezed my hands. “I have three things for you, my darling Alexis,” she said fondly. “Three gifts that I received when I was a little girl, about your age, from my mother.”
Kelly let go of me and went into her bedroom – I’d never been there before. I didn’t want Kelly’s privacy to be completely invaded. She was in there for a moment or two and then returned. She had a guitar case in one hand and a trumpet case in the other. She set them down beside me and then took her place in her easy chair. She was ghostly-thin and pale beneath her black silken robe that her soldier husband had brought back for her when he’d been in Vietnam. (Her husband had been killed in Iraq just after she moved to Thompson. They’d been together for forty years.) Her appearance frightened me, to be honest, but I loved her more than I loved my own mother so I didn’t mind too much.
“The guitar was made in Spain in 1794,” she said quietly. “My great-great grandfather brought it with him when he traveled after my great-great grandmother passed away. The trumpet was made in 1578. Both I give to you, Alexis, because you are my sucessor. I’ve left everything to you in my will.”
Kelly got a pained look on her face as her breathing grew laboured. I sat tense on my usual perch – the footstool near her easy chair – until her breathing returned to normal and she opened her eyes again. “My third gift to you, dearest child, is my late husband’s motorcycle,” she said softly. “You know how to ride it already, thanks to your fiendish brother, but you’ll need something to get you out of this town.”
“Thank you, Kelly,” I whispered; it would have done me no good to protest because she wouldn’t have listened anyways. She was twice as stubborn as I was. I slipped off my footstool and rested my head in her lap. She stroked my hair with her gnarled branch-like fingers and I felt loved.
“Please don’t leave me, mom,” I whispered. “Please?”
Kelly sniffled and swallowed past the hard lump in her throat. “I’ll stick around for a little while yet,” she lied. “Don’t worry. I’ll be here for a long while, kiddo.”
But she wasn’t. The doctors at her special hospital in Winnipeg sent a live-in nurse to look after Kelly Newstater while I wasn’t there. His name was Robert and he had a boyfriend named Todd who lived here; Todd was another friend of mine – he ran the curio shop down the street from my school that my nana took me to when I was little.
Kelly’s health began to fail and I knew it, about three months later, when I was just going back to school. Robert sat me down one day after I was finished doing my chores at Kelly’s house, just before I put the tea on.
“Alexis, you’re a sweet young woman,” Robert said softly. “I want to make sure you know that Mrs Newstater loves you a lot.”
“I know,” I said, my voice barely audible. “I love her, too. I know she’s dying, Rob. We’ve talked about it a lot. She . . . ”
I had to stop and take off my glasses and furiously wipe the tears away from my eyes with the sleeve of the sweater she’d knitted for me when I was ten. It was getting tight in the shoulders and short in the arms, but I wore it as often as I could for a reason that I couldn’t even pinpoint. I sniffled and looked up at Robert.
“When I’ve had a bad day, I don’t go home to my mom and dad,” I said finally. “I come here, do the chores, make dinner, do my homework. I can talk to her. She’s replaced my mom in every sense. I just love her so much and now she’s dying.”
“Has she told you that she’s left you everything?” Robert asked. “Her house, her money, all of her posessions will belong to you. Do you know that?”
I nodded. “You are going to be a very wealthy little girl. And according to Kelly’s will, you are to be given the full amount of your inheritance upon her death, no matter what your age is. Now, I’ve heard your parents shouting at you when you come home late, Alexis.”
I tensed on my stool and stubbornly stared at the ground. The one thing that my parents had forcibly drilled into my head was that nobody was supposed to know what happened behind closed doors.
“Alexis, honey, they aren’t right. And they are going to try and take Kelly’s money away from you if they can.”
“They won’t know about it.”
“How do you figure that?”
“They barely pay attention to me except to yell at me. They won’t notice at all, unless I do something rash and buy a car, or something like that. And since it is illegal for them to look at my bank statements or hack my account, I’ve had my own personal one since I started babysitting, they won’t ever know. As for the other things . . . I highly doubt they’ll even notice that she’s dead. Not unless somebody screams it in their ear or they read the obituaries.”
“You’ve thought about this.”
“When you don’t have any friends, you have a lot of time to think about painful things.”
I didn’t have any friends other than Kelly. Stevie had recently started dating a nice young man who was a year older than her and even though she lived across the street from me and we’d been best friends since the diaper days, we rarely ever saw each other anymore, even in school.
“Do you think you’re going to be able to cope with Kelly’s death when the time comes?”
“Probably not, but I’ll survive. I survived my Nana’s death and I loved her even more than I love Kelly.”
“You’re a smart girl. When are you going to tell your parents that you like girls?”
“I promised Kelly that I’d tell them after her funeral, or if anything ever happened to her and she had to go away for a very long time.”
“When you finally tell them, our door is always open to you if you need a place to hide out for a few days.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that, Rob.”
“Alexis?” Kelly called softly from the bedroom. I stood and grabbed the guitar she’d given me. I walked to her bedroom and sat down in the chair beside her bed.
She looked so gaunt, so haunted. Her skin looked like leather and looked far too large for her frail form. Her eyes had sunken into her head and she looked just . . . I felt sad for her, trying to imagine the pain she must have been going through as she wasted away to nothing from a disease that had no cure. I pulled out the beaten black wood guitar with brass strings and settled it on my lap.
“I learned a new song for you, mom,” I whispered to her. She smiled comfortingly at me and nodded, prompting me to play it.
Music was in my blood as I plucked the tune that I’d heard a little over a year ago when I danced my first Midsummer at Coffee Cove, the tune that I heard Bianca singing even though there was no music and Bianca was nowhere in sight. It was hauntingly beautiful.
“The night is long
The stars are clear
This feeling is wrong
But I still keep you near.
Beside me tonight
Stay with me,
Until morning light.”
I paused for a moment. Her breathing was getting slower. But I kept playing. If I hadn’t, I think I would have cried.
“Slip slowly by
As we drift to sleep
I have you
And you I’ll keep.
Sit by the window
And watch the world pass
This feeling feels right,
This feeling will last . . . ”
Her breathing stopped and I felt tears rolling down my cheeks as I continued playing.
“Go into the night
Be safe in our love . . .
Sleep now tonight . . .
Down at Coffee Cove . . . ”
I started crying in earnest as I finished the song. “Robert!” I yelled. “Robert! Help! Please help!”
The funeral was held a week later. Robert, Todd and I were the only people in attendance. The priest said some prayers over her ashes and I had to fight back my disgust as he touched the urn that I fired for her myself. Once the ‘formal ceremony’ was finished. I packed up my own bag of religious goodies and got in the car with Robert and Todd.
“The path has been gone for years,” I said when we arrived at Paint Lake. Since it was autumn and the beach was closed, we had to hike quite a distance before we were able to reach the place where the Coffee Cove trail had grown over. “Nobody remembers it exists.”
“How are we going to get through that mess?” Todd asked. I shifted my pack to my other shoulder and picked up the trumpet of beaten silver Kelly had given me.
“Very carefully,” I replied. “Follow me. I know the tricks. Step were I step, don’t touch the thorns. They’re very hard to remove from skin once embedded.”
“Why do I feel like I’m in a Jason Voorhes movie?” Robert asked a bit helplessly. I turned and glared at him. “Alright, kiddo. Lead the way. We’ll follow.”
While we started the half-hour trek, I started humming a tune in Gaelic that my nana taught me. She had emigrated to Canada from Scotland just after the second world war. Robert started singing the words and Todd started harmonizing.
A female voice tuned in from the direction of the beach. I picked up my pace and started running as I recognized it. She continued to sing until I was there, watching her from the beach while she stood on a flat rock in the middle of the cove. Her auburn hair flowed in the wind and her weary honey eyes brightened when she saw me. She smiled the same smile that caused my heart to leap into my throat and I gasped.