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Watching July

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Watching July

by
Christine Hart

Hart, Christine, 1978-

www.christine-hart.ca

Watching July / Christine Hart

ASIN: B01MQX9CWW

Copyright © 2016 Christine Hart

Originally copyedited by Elizabeth Brandt

Originally published in 2008 by Sumach Press
in Toronto ON Canada

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise without written permission from the publisher/author. It is illegal to copy this book, post it to a website, or distribute it by any other means without permission.

Dedication

To Mom, Dad, Sarah, and Jeff for all your encouragement.

Acknowledgements

I would like to recognize and thank the original publisher of this book, Sumach Press.

Special thanks to Jennifer Day, Liz Martin, Lois Pike, and Dayle Furlong.

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

It was too hot to sleep and he had to see her again. He still had time to be there and back before the sun rose if he rode hard. Gently, he lifted his shorts off his cluttered desk, slipped them on and crept past his parents’ room and down the stairs.

Pumping his bike pedals until the wind whipped his hair around his face, he quickly arrived at the cabin guarded by her mother’s shiny car. He snuck up to a window on the nearest side of the building. There she was inside, asleep. He gripped the windowsill, pressing his nose against the cool surface, fogging the glass. Moonlight made her blanket glow, lighting her face with a soft blue as she slept. The girl rolled onto her side and he shrank back into the shadows, holding his breath, letting it out in relief when she settled back into stillness. He looked around for any sign of movement outside, but he was still alone with her. A rush of energy washed over him as he focused again on the features of her face. He wanted so badly to walk inside, touch her cheek, and stroke her hair. He knew he would give anything just to talk to her.

Baby,” he murmured softly. “I heard your other mother talking and I think we can finally be together. You’re ready now, I can feel it. I know you’ll be happy with me. I know how you feel; I get who you really are,” he whispered earnestly and then, with a grin, “Did you like my flowers?”

His face soured suddenly. “I bet that stupid cow thinks they were a parting gift from the camp, but you know better, don’t you,” he said and his face relaxed again.

I love that new picture on your blog,” he breathed, barely voicing the words. “It’s been a few months since the last one, so I was pretty pumped. All you ever post is text.”

Thinking of the photos of her he found on her friends’ pages, he gripped the windowsill until the paint flaked under his fingers. Why hadn’t she posted more on her own page? What did she have to hide? Did she have better things to do?

That girl with the hot pink streaks,” he hissed with an angry frown, “I think you need to stop hanging out with her. Sometimes I worry about the people you’re friends with,” he said. The pink-haired girl was the whore of their crowd. In her own photos, she was always draped on some new guy.

But there in her presence, he couldn’t stay mad for long. He stood enraptured, watching her slender form sleep, move and dream in the silent room until the first hint of daylight grew behind the hills in the distance.

– Chapter 1 –

Salmon River Ranch

The cork grip felt smooth in her hand as she cast into the creek. July couldn’t remember the last time she went fishing. It must have been years ago, when they first started coming here for summer holidays. Nobody she knew in Vancouver ever fished.

The middle of the wooden bridge seemed like a good spot to settle for fishing. Not that she knew much about fishing. She didn’t actually know if there were any fish in the river or, if there were, what time of day or year would be best.

She jiggled the rod impatiently. Not even a tug or a tremble had disturbed her line. It didn’t matter though; she had nothing else to do, and the weather was finally warm enough to spend time outside. She sat down, and wedged her rod between the wooden railing and two planks beside her.

On her other side was a sun-bleached tackle box complete with weathered lures, flies, twine and weights. Both the tackle and the fishing rod had been a gift to her mother. Everything somehow related back to her mother. She turned to face the box cross-legged, lifting the lid expectantly as though the tackle box contained a captivating jewellery collection. Fingering carefully through the colours and textures, she tried not to tangle hooks and feathers as she felt her throat wring shut. Stinging water welled up in her eyes. The knowledge that she would never see her mother again seemed to be rising to the surface more and more these days. Maybe it was too hard to be this close to so many happy memories. She felt her posture collapse as hot tears flowed into body-shaking sobs, her lips letting out heaving gasps, her shoulders shaking. She felt so alone in the world.

Gradually, like a slow wave, the deep sadness passed, and she became aware once more of her surroundings. The woods were bright and the air smelled like fresh leaves and clean water. Huge pines creaked above, towering over a patchwork of dry orange needles, and the sound of chirping drifted down from the highest boughs.

“July, are you out there? It’s time for dinner,” Marie shouted from their adjacent yard.

She shook herself from her reverie. “Yeah, I’m coming,” she hollered. “Just gotta grab my stuff.”

July tossed her lures and bait back into the tackle box quickly. She reeled in her line, pierced the cork handle with the wet hook and took off for the house, rod in one hand, box flapping and clattering at her side in the other. She jogged through the back gate, across the yard and bounded up the stairs to the deck.

“What’s for dinner?” she asked, catching her breath. Marie smiled and said, “Your number one favourite; deluxe chicken fajitas.”

“Chicken fajitas are your favourite,” said July, setting her rod and tackle down on the linoleum floor.

“Well, yes, but I knew you’d eat them, and we don’t have much in the house right now. I’ve been busy with the store.” Marie unrolled her sleeves.

“It’s a hardware store in a tiny little town. How busy can it get? Besides, it’s right downstairs and there’s groceries across the street.” July pointed over her shoulder with a serving spoon.

“Are you going to eat or not?” Marie’s smile was gone. They each made a fajita in silence. July looked over at their new second-hand sofa and out the living room window. All she could see was the top of the building across the street and part of a roof next to it. They lived on the main street which lasted for about four blocks. The road was also part of the Trans-Canada Highway, even though it narrowed to just two lanes.

The window next to the kitchen table had a much better view and she watched the mountains rise behind the valley as she chewed her spiced chicken with peppers and cheese. Trees and mountains weren’t really that unfamiliar to her. Their apartment in North Vancouver had trees around it and they didn’t have to drive far from the city to find woodlands. From downtown, the coastal mountains blended into the skyline as though they started where the skyscrapers ended.

But here, she felt isolated; the mountains were much closer. They confined her new life to something small and manageable, but she was decidedly divided from a time when life was good. Two very long months had passed since they lost July’s mom, Marie’s partner. She wanted to forget her mom, the accident, even her life on the coast and just stop hurting. But she worried too at the possibility of her memories fading.

Deep in thought, July stared at her plate. What else do I really have left but my memories? We hardly have any photo-graphs. Mom was always bugging me to take more pictures of us as a family and I was always too busy. What was I doing? Why did I feel so busy?

“Fajitas any good?” Marie’s voice sounded hopeful.

July looked up with her mouth full and nodded, trying to look appreciative.

“The general store didn’t have the same brands I like to get. Your mother was always better at improvising when it came to cooking.”

It wouldn’t have mattered what Marie made for dinner. Nothing tasted really good anyway. July started to wonder if she would feel guilty if she did enjoy something: food, a joke, a sunset.

“Have you decided whether or not you want to come to work for me?” Marie paused for a moment. “Or did you want to wait until you’ve been in school for a while? Maybe you should get a feel for how much free time you’ll have before you decide.”

July could tell Marie was just trying to fill an uncomfortable silence, but starting school was the most unappealing subject she could have chosen. July wouldn’t know anyone, and making friends was not going to happen quickly. July didn’t radiate the “cool” vibe and had no talent for charming small talk or sharp wit or comic antics.

Marie had decided on the move just a few weeks after the accident, but waited until spring break so July could settle in without missing school. They had been in town for almost a week, but July hadn’t met any local kids her age and even if she did make friends at school, she probably wouldn’t see them evenings or weekends. That was okay though, TV would be enough once the satellite dish arrived. Archimedes, their very large, fluffy and affectionate cat, was good company, but no substitute for sitcoms, sci-fi movies and music videos.

She finished her fajita, and instead of wrapping another and having to make more small talk with Marie, she got up and rinsed her plate.

“It’s still pretty nice out. Can I go for a walk?” July asked as though she considered the words a formality.

Marie looked hurt, but suppressed it. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Maybe I’d feel safer with you out at night if we knew the neighbourhood a little better, but we’re just not familiar enough with the area yet,” she said.

“Are you serious? It’s barely dark out. And what neighbourhood? One step off this little strip and you’re literally out in the sticks. You can’t possibly be worried about me getting jumped or something. Get real, Marie,” said July impatiently.

“I’m not going to be talked to that way, so you’d better smarten up right quick. I used to worry that I’d be sorry for leaving discipline up to your mother, and now I guess I’m going to have to learn after all. Keep this up, and we’re going to start experimenting with grounding. Maybe you don’t need your allowance; who knows?” she said.

“So let me get this straight: you’ve dragged me away from my home and my friends — just when I need them the most — so you can bring me to this awful hick town I never liked to begin with and then punish me for not enjoying it. That’s perfect. I’m going for a walk whether you like it or not.” She pulled her old dragon hoodie over her brown ponytail and grabbed her messenger bag from its hook on the wall. Anger vibrated under her skin and she just had to get out of the house, whether she had anywhere to go or not.

Storming through the backyard, July went out the gate. Rather than heading back down to the bridge, she opted for the other fork which followed parallel to the creek. She soon came to another fence with an opening for a grate, made of rusty pipes with a couple of metal strips across the top. It reminded her of a storm drain near her old school, but Marie had told her these grates were designed to stop cattle from crossing while still letting people, bikes, cars or pretty much anything else get across. Her canvas shoes folded easily over the thick metal pipes. The chilly evening air mellowed her temper as she walked.

The dirt path curved up to her right and led up to a back road. She passed a mobile home that looked like a farmhouse for the surrounding property, and followed the path into some dense woods. Although she couldn’t see through the trees, she heard the sound of cars on rough pavement. She must have wandered towards the highway, which reassured her that she hadn’t strayed too far. Now that she’d walked off her anger, July felt fully calm and started looking for a nice place to stop and write, preferably far enough away from the highway that no one could see her. She felt vulnerable and didn’t want to expose herself as a target for passing weirdos. Then she laughed, realizing that she was still thinking in terms of crazies in cars instead of wild animals, which were a far more likely threat in the woods.

A bit farther down the path, she came across a clearing. Behind the small, rectangular opening to the clearing was a corral with benches around it. Salmon River Ranch was printed in burnt letters on a sign over the entrance. She couldn’t see any buildings, and there was nobody around, so July figured she might as well hang out for a while.

She sat cross-legged on one of the backless wooden benches. Pressing her diary open in front of her she stared at the faint blue lines on the page, thinking about how good it would feel to vent her feelings on paper.

If we were on summer vacation again, this place wouldn’t be so bad. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but it’s true. The whole town reminds me of an oversized summer camp. It was like that, a cheesy summer camp from a movie. I wish I could be back there. I never thought I’d be wanting to go back to some crappy memory of playing Monopoly in one of those cheap, flimsy triangle cabins. I think Marie was happy then too. I think that odd-job stuff she did for the guy who owned the campground was actually fun for her. The canoeing, the arts and crafts, the hot dogs for dinner and roasted (okay burned) marshmallows for dessert. It was so freaking simple. But it’s not summer vacation anymore. It’s goddamn March and we actually LIVE here now. Mom’s not just a few clicks away. She’s not taking us to Arrowhead in a couple of weeks. I feel so alone. I remember when having a crush on Kyle was the most heartache I’d ever felt. I’d give anything for that to still be the worst of my hurts. I had no idea what it was like to be really destroyed. Like having someone hollow you out with a scoop and leave you very, totally, utterly, alone. It’s —

“Such a pretty young girl shouldn’t be out at night alone, don’t you think?” July jumped in surprise at the voice, which belonged to a boy who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. He looked about her age, maybe a year or two older. He had bright blonde hair with streaks of brown that looked oddly natural, July noticed as she stared up at him.

“I didn’t mean to scare you, but what are you doing here?” he asked. Detecting the concern on her face, he quickly added, “Sorry, I didn’t mean that to sound harsh, it’s just that we don’t get many drop-ins here.”

He held out his hand. “I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. I’m Ryan and this is my parents’ ranch.”

His voice was deep for his age and he looked down at his guest with a wholesome grin. July stared back blankly.

“This is the part where you tell me your name.” He laughed, revealing his perfect teeth and making July even more nervous.

“July,” she blurted. “My name’s July.”

“Like the month?”

“Yeah, my mom was kind of a hippie. A shrink actually,” she said.

“I think it’s a beautiful name. It’s unique, right?” he said approvingly.

She smiled at him shyly, trying to think of something to say to keep the conversation going. “Hey, look, I’m sorry …” she half-stammered. “I didn’t mean to trespass or anything. It just looked sort of … I thought this was a public place. Like a park or something.”

“A public park ranch?” he said, obviously amused. “You’re not from around here are you?” he teased. His vivid grey eyes stayed on her.

“Actually, I just moved here.” This was so awkward. Couldn’t she think of anything more interesting to say? She stood up, bending over her bag to cover her confusion. Being obviously unsettled by a guy embarrassed her, and she felt her cheeks warm.

“Wait, I didn’t mean to offend you or anything, it’s just not normal to find strange people on our property. You caught me off guard.” She felt a light touch graze her shoulder and she instinctively took a step back.

“Don’t worry, it won’t happen again. I’m sorry I trespassed. Um, I’ve gotta go. I was supposed to be home a while ago,” July said, looking for a watch that wasn’t there.

“Where’s home?” he asked.

She nodded towards the path. “Just down the road there.” “Don’t be scared; I didn’t mean to freak you out.” Ryan stepped towards her again. He was so tall she had to tilt her head back to keep eye contact. His arms were tanned and strong, maybe from sports or a lot of work outdoors.

“You know, if you want someone to show you around, I wouldn’t mind giving you the driving tour.” He laughed again and added, “It’s not like it’d take more than a half-hour anyway. I’d be happy to be your ambassador to the town of Spruce Bend.”

July felt the urge to get away beginning to fade, but she was still uncomfortable. Back in Vancouver, a hot, charming guy would never have talked to or even really looked at her, let alone call her pretty and invite her out. She was fairly sure her awful track record with boys was due to not enough attractive and too much awkward — both on her part. From her experience, she figured it was more likely that he was mocking her. A sudden chill came over her, and she rubbed her arms to warm them up.

“So, where did you move from? You said your mom was a hippie. What’s she like now?” he said.

Before she could answer, they were interrupted by a crash in the trees behind them. It sounded like a huge branch had fallen and hit another on the way down.

July flinched and clutched her bag with both hands. “What the hell was that?”

“You sure are jumpy! Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s just a dead tree or something like that,” he said as he squeezed her forearm softly. “A lot of these trees are really old, but we do have bears around here. And cougars. There are lots of predators in the woods, you know,” he said with a pseudo-educational air.

“Well then, I definitely have to go. It’s getting dark, I’m cold, and I’m sure I’ll catch it for staying out,” she said as she turned towards the road. “But thanks for being cool about me being on your property and all.”

“Come back any time,” he called after her. “Next time I’ll give you the grand tour.” She looked back when she got to the road and he was still there.

The sky had gotten darker, and she had to walk slowly and strain her eyes to see where she was going. Other than a few stars, the sky was inky black, not like the softer indigo of Vancouver. Sometimes night in the city was almost as bright as day when clouds or pollution reflected thousands of streetlights, apartment lights, neon signs and car beams in shades of orange, pink and plum. There were no streetlights here and the blackness of the night muted the few intermittent glimmers coming from homes on the hillside.

I wonder if I’ll see him again? It’s a small town; I’m bound to run into him without having to make an ass of myself, she pondered as she walked. He can’t seriously be interested in me though. I shouldn’t even be thinking about him, she chided herself.

She was halfway home when the soothing murmur of the creek and the cars on the highway was drowned out by a crunching sound closer by. She held her breath for a moment to listen for it again, and there it was, softer but unmistakable, like the crunch of twigs underfoot. Whatever it was, it was coming closer, moving in the tall grass beside her. The wind had died down leaving the air chilly, but unmoving. Another abrupt shiver left her legs shaking.

She pulled her hoodie tighter around her and walked a little quicker, trying to calm her fast-beating heart. It must be just old rotting wood like Ryan said. It can’t be something dangerous or I’d hear breathing or growling or something, she thought, but just as she’d almost convinced herself, she heard it again, a faint swishing sound moving alongside.

“It’s probably just birds,” she said out loud, as though her voice diffused the risk. “Probably nothing even close. Just echoes.”

She noticed she had slowed again, unable to focus on anything in the abyss of darkness ahead. Something cracked behind her. A twig snapped. She froze, straining to see and hear. Now the swishing in the underbrush sounded far off — another crack — the rustling in the grass got closer again, then faded.

“Hello? … Is someone out there? … Ryan, is that you?” she asked the night.

Silence. She took a step forward. And another. Still nothing. She sped up, hurrying towards the house. But there it was again, clearly audible over the sound of her own steps. It wasn’t an echo. Something was keeping pace with her, definitely another set of footsteps. Suddenly, with a great whoosh, the thing exhaled beside her.

She whirled around in panic, and around again, totally disoriented. She couldn’t breathe! She stopped short as she felt the sudden density of a body pass in front of her and then she was running, hard, arms protecting her face from branches and twigs.

Just as she finally saw the light from the house, the cattle grate found her feet and she tripped. Her bag slipped off her shoulder as she went down, palms first, onto the damp ground. Brittle grass she couldn’t see in the darkness scratched her knees, and her hands throbbed from the impact. She was frozen, panting, struggling to focus her eyes on something, anything. As she fumbled desperately for her bag, she was enveloped by a muttering sound, which swelled rapidly until it resonated loudly in the void around her. Was it a voice?

July’s palm slapped down on her bag strap, she closed her fist and bolted, straightening as she ran toward the light of her house. She saw the opening in the fence and dove through it, made it across the yard and sped up two steps at a time without breaking stride. She flung open the screen door, slamming and locking the inner door before she slumped against it, heaving huge, jagged breaths.

“Marie! Where are you, Marie?” she shouted.

“July, what’s the matter? You look scared stiff. Are you all right?” Marie leapt up from the couch and rushed over to her.

“I think so. I was out wandering around, writing in my journal. It got dark and I heard noises on the dirt path behind our yard. I could swear someone spoke out there — it scared the hell out of me. It’s so dark here. I can’t believe how dark it gets. It’s so scary with no street lights or houses or anything!”

“It’s okay sweet pea. Relax; those are just the sounds of nature,” Marie said as she hugged July’s trembling shoulders. “You’re just not used to being in the great outdoors at night.” “Yeah, well I won’t be spending my nights outdoors any time soon.” July leaned her head on Marie’s shoulder and Marie patted her arm, making comforting noises.

After a long moment, July pulled herself together and looked up at her gratefully. “Marie, I’m sorry about being so awful earlier. I know you’re trying, and I don’t mean to be nasty.”

“That’s okay. Try to get a good night’s sleep, and tomorrow we’ll finish getting you ready for school,” said Marie with a contented smile.

July had to turn on her radio just to get to sleep, but sometime during the night, she woke up riddled with irrational fear. She was covered in sweat, curled up at the foot of her bed. As she lay there shivering, the fragments of her dreams slowly came to the surface. The scenes were intense, filled with vivid images of her mother — in her office at the hospital, hurriedly flipping through files in her cabinet; her pumps clacking on the pavement as she ran for all she was worth down a sidewalk; and then, planted in the middle of the road, shielding her face from the headlights of a chrome grill.

She lay awake for almost an hour, but the images weren’t fading as they normally did after a dream. Instead, they came even more into focus, formed sequences, more like a memory; she could see the story as though she’d been there. Her mother stepped back from her filing cabinet and looked out at the parking lot, then picked up a file off her desk and locked her office door on the way out. The sequence flashed to her mother looking at her watch, scanning the parking lot as though she was waiting for someone, but then giving up and starting to walk towards home. Another flash and she was blocks away, jogging briskly, headlights getting brighter behind her, a rumbling engine growling as it gained. She started to run, then dashed out across the road trying to dodge the beams. She turned to face a snarling grill below a windshield. The light was painfully bright.

July pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes, not wanting to see what came next, but there was nothing after that blinding light.

– Chapter 2 –

Shuswap Secondary

Shuswap Secondary was not the closest high school via highway driving time, despite an old backwoods shortcut. To her disappointment, July’s new hometown was too small to support a high school of its own. Nearby cities of Vernon and Kamloops each had a handful of schools, but courtesy of some school district bureaucrat, the local secondary bus routed to Salmon Arm, nearly an hour away.

The intersection of a dusty side road and the Trans-Canada Highway was an unlikely spot for a school bus stop. A row of army-green metal mailboxes and a collection of faded, torn flyers on a telephone pole were the only indication that anyone ever stopped there.

July looked down at her class schedule, folded and crinkled from nervous wear. She was almost surprised when she saw the rounded yellow bus on the horizon and was relieved when it stopped for her.

“Hello, kiddo,” a pleasant looking, though slightly grubby, older man beamed down at her through the open door of the bus. “Are you going to Shuswap Secondary?” he asked.

She walked up the stairs and before she could answer, he continued talking, as he pulled the bus back onto the road.

“You must be new; they mentioned there’d be a new one today,” he said, eyes flipping between the road and rear-view mirror. Not wanting to be rude while he spoke, she sat down in the front row next to the steps.

“I’m George. This is bus number 2656. To get back on it, you’ll want to be in line. Just head back to the spot I drop you off at, before three forty-five. School lets out at half past, but don’t go wandering around,” he looked over his shoulder and grinned again. “I can’t afford to wait for no-shows.”

There were already a dozen kids on board, but she didn’t have the guts to get up and go sit next to anyone. George had stopped talking, so she riffled through her bag, found a book and buried herself in it.

The bus pulled up to a two-storey building with fresh peach stucco and a large brown arch over the doors. She was surprised to see so many kids buzzing around the parking lot and pouring in from the field. The atmosphere was vaguely recognizable as a secondary school, but having never gone anywhere but North Shore Composite, July felt so out of place she thought she’d be more comfortable wearing a Teletubby costume around Vancouver’s glitzy Metrotown. Unfortunately, she had nowhere else to go, so she walked through the main doors and unfolded her schedule one more time.

She put one foot in front of the other, slowly looking for room 105, her first class. Kids streamed by in both directions. No one offered to help and she felt flustered, but kept going. This small-town school wasn’t so different from the city, she told herself. She was grateful she only had to find two rooms for now.

Classes were arranged two at a time, for ten weeks each. She was scheduled for Business 11 and Art 11/12. The first half of the day dragged as she sat alone through boring stock charts and business plans. A few students had introduced themselves, but had left the conversation at that, so when the lunch bell rang, July walked directly to the convenience store across the street for juice and a granola bar. She kept on going towards a park farther down the road. The grass curved around a leg of Shuswap Lake. Marie had shown it to her on a map — it looked like a shaky “H” written by a preschooler.

She kept walking, determined not to look lost or lonely as she pulled out her ponytail and pushed her hands through her hair to re-tie it. She reached a long pier, walked all the way to the end and pulled out her diary. Even the sapphire lake and vibrant tree-covered mountains couldn’t distract her from writing.

I’m so alone here and it feels like I’m never going to be okay again. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so hard to stay in Van. I miss my friends and my room and my life. I can’t believe how much I miss Mom. It hurts all the time and being here hasn’t made it any better. Even when something distracts me, I’m still wrecked from the pain of thinking about her.

When I was a kid, I remember crying into my pillow when someone hurt my feelings, so sad that life was so unfair. Feeling so hurt that I didn’t get my way or no one cared about me, believing that if I was sad for long enough someone would notice and fix it. I always figured my unhappiness would have to be recognized eventually, too intense to be ignored by the world. Who’s going to fix it now? What could possibly help?

It’s actually getting worse. I had the weirdest dream the other night. And it wasn’t like a regular dream you forget. I can still see the flashing images of my mom, scared, running, shielding her face. I think I’m losing it. I know it’s too soon to be over it, but I think my subconscious is obsessing over her death. And the only person who knows anything about dealing with that kind of stuff is gone.

By the time July put her diary back in her bag, she’d already missed too much class to bother going back. She wandered back through the park, up and down local streets, past a fountain and a playground until it was time to slip into the line for 2656 and George the bus driver.

Refreshed by her private rebellion, July bounced off the bus and swung her bag happily as she sauntered home. If she had to live and go to school in two towns where nobody knew her, why not reap some reward? The long plastic box nailed to the front fence had Pine Valley Times stenciled in script on the side and still had the morning paper rolled up inside it. July could tell from the lights inside and the sign on the door that the store was still open, so she collected the paper herself and walked around back to the stairs.

It occurred to her how strange it was to now be living above this hardware store. The campground just south of town was the part of her surroundings she knew best from her childhood. Her mom used to work at a local tough-love treatment place for a month each summer, and while she was there, they all stayed in a rental cabin close by before going on their real vacation. Marie always took on part-time work at the campground; she liked to keep busy no matter where she was.

When Marie bought the store, the old lady who sold it to her said the hours the town expected were eight in the morning to four in the afternoon. Marie had longer hours in mind and had already told July she would be on her own until six o’clock. That suited July if it meant fewer depressing silences and less bickering. Everything was so much better when it was the four of them, her mom and Marie, she and her sister Shantal. This one-to-one thing was depressing. She resented her sister for being away at school.

July hung her bag back on its hook and sat down at the kitchen table. In a moment of optimism, she considered that the local news might be worth a read. Inside the newspaper she found a rolled note with a little white daisy tucked into the elastic. July lifted an eyebrow with a smirk. Is this how they advertise around here? What ever happened to handbills and junk mail?

She unrolled the note. The plain white paper read, “YOU SHOULDN’T SKIP SCHOOL” in block letters and black marker. Whoa! This was creepy. Unless the local paper carrier had a strange, yet coincidental brand of fortune cookie logic, someone had been watching her in Salmon Arm. She sat down and read it again. It wasn’t Marie’s handwriting. Even if she’d found out somehow, she would have just yelled, and definitely wouldn’t leave a cryptic scroll in the newspaper.

It was a total mystery. Surely, nobody for miles around even knew her let alone cared what she did or didn’t do. Looking for the heaviest book she could find without digging up the encyclopedias, she grabbed a dictionary from the bookshelf in the living room. There was no real reason to keep the note or the flower, but it was a curiosity, so she tucked both together into a random page of the W section and put it back on the shelf.

After her second business class with no one to talk to, July found a secluded spot to sit down under a large tree where being alone would go unnoticed. Feeling frustrated and slightly bitter, she pulled her lunch out of her bag. What had happened to Ryan? Where was he? Didn’t he go to this school? She’d hoped he could help her get to know people. After all, he was the only person she could say she knew. Her mind drifted back to the mystery note, as she finished her sandwich and opened her journal.

I got a note in our newspaper yesterday. Who does that, anyway? But it seems that somebody knows I skipped my afternoon class. I’m a bit sketched out, but mostly wondering if there’s some Deliverance-style encounter in my future. I’ll keep listening for dueling banjos in the meantime, I guess.

“Hey, new girl; you’re not going to meet anyone around here if you keep hiding under a tree,” said a short girl with freckles and spiky black hair who stood smiling down at her.

July blushed, taken by surprise, but made a quick recovery since for once she had a snappy comeback leap to mind.

“Actually, I was writing in my journal, but thanks for breaking the ice for me,” July said, looking up with a grin.

“Not quite a social butterfly, are you? That’s okay. People tell me I talk too much anyway, which should work perfectly if you don’t talk enough,” said Kari.

“I’m better at the whole socializing thing once you get to know me.” July stuck out her hand. “I’m July. I just moved here from Vancouver.”

“Hippie parents?”

July rolled her eyes and laughed as the girl helped her up. She had a strong grip for such a tiny person. “I’m Kari. So you’re a city girl, eh? You don’t look like it. Aren’t you supposed to have bottle blonde hair, a designer handbag and a rhinestone studded phone?” she said. Rifling through her baggy grey cargos, Kari found her own phone and started scrolling. July no longer owned a cell phone. For the same reason she abandoned her blog for the solitude of a hard-bound journal, she decided email was all she needed beyond basic access to a land line.

“Nah, I left them packed with my glitter makeup and stilettos,” said July.

“Good one — that’s funny. Hey, I’m on my way to the store; wanna come with?” Kari asked.

July paused and said, “Are we allowed to leave school grounds?”

“Are you kidding me? What kind of fascist schools do they have in Vancouver?” Kari put her phone back in her pocket, looking at July with mock disbelief.

“Just checking. I skipped yesterday afternoon and I’m still wondering if anyone noticed. You do have detention in Salmon Arm, don’t you?” July said, hoping she hadn’t seemed like too much of a dork.

Kari rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but not for going to the store and gettin’ a coffee. C’mon, we’re wasting time.”

They walked and Kari talked. July was content to listen, relieved to feel a small sense of belonging. Headed in the opposite direction from her last outing, she was surprised to find that Salmon Arm had more of a city centre than she’d thought. The upcoming row of trendy coffee and fast food franchises was a perversely welcome sight. It was just warm enough for a cool slushy latte.

“You mind if we hit the drugstore?” Kari asked. “I need a new chapstick.”

The drugstore was clean but dated; a counterpart to a 1950s greasy-spoon diner. While Kari browsed through cosmetics, July wandered down the hair product aisle. It was ironic Kari had joked about blonde dye. July had never had the courage to colour her hair.

Scanning the endless options from Midnight Ebony to Summer Honey, she startled as a box fell off the shelf and smacked the floor. A cheery looking porcelain face with vibrant red hair looked up at her. Copper Fire was the name, almost the same colour as her mom’s hair, which she had always dyed to cover a growing volume of grey. In fact, it could have even been the exact shade.

July picked up the box. It was cool to the touch. As she examined the smiling face and the flowing wavy hair, the fluorescent lights overhead flickered. She scanned the aisle to see if anyone else noticed. The lights were audibly ticking and dimmed to a dull purplish glow as the slick cardboard got colder in her hand. July looked back down at the face on the box and gasped. The photo didn’t just remind her of her mother, it was her mother. Impossible! This was totally surreal! This couldn’t be happening. Was the image actually moving? July drew the box up for a closer look, but her hands were shaking and she could hardly focus as her mother’s picture shifted again. She swallowed hard. This time there was no doubt — the heartbreakingly familiar face turned to look at July head on, her posed smiley expression changing to shock. Just as she had in the dream, her mom lifted her arm to block the glare of bright light as July gripped the box tighter in disbelief. She let out a squeaky cry as the side crumpled in somehow on its own. Black syrup started to flow from the seams and July dropped it like a hot coal. She sniffed the substance on her limp, dripping hand. It smelled like a garage.

“July! What the hell? What’s with the space cadet act?” Kari was shaking her arm.

“Did you see that?” July managed to gasp. “The lights got weird and the box just crumpled and oozed.”

Lip balm in hand, Kari peered down at the again-flawless box on the floor and craned her neck at the steady white lights overhead. July retrieved the box, staring with open-mouthed incredulity.

“Okay, hey, I think you’ve had a long day,” Kari said with a look of concern on her face. “Are you sure you should expose yourself to the fumes of hair dye? I mean, if you’re seeing things, a cloud of toxic chemicals probably isn’t the cure.” Kari eyed the wall of small hair models.

“Um, I … uh, I don’t know. No, I’m fine, really. I’m just worried that Marie might hate the idea. It’s not her hair though so why not, right?” said July without taking her eyes off the lady on the box.

Am I obsessing to the point of hallucination? Is my brain totally fixated on mom’s accident? I’ll just buy the dye, she said to herself as she stood in line behind Kari. I don’t have to use it. Of course, if I do, Kari will expect me to turn up with red hair pretty soon. But I don’t have to tell her it was mom’s colour. I don’t have to tell her about mom at all. I don’t want to talk about it anyway. Maybe red hair will make me feel better, July thought. They paid for their items and started back towards the school.

“Don’t look so intense; you’re freakin’ me out. If you really are okay, you can dye your hair at my house if you want — if you’re worried that your mom’ll throw a fit,” Kari said.

July opened her mouth, but nothing came out. “I’m okay, it’s just … it’s a long story.”

“That’s what I thought. I won’t pry. Come over after school and my dad can give you a ride home. Where do you live?”

“I’m kind of far away. We just moved into the apartment above the hardware store in Spruce Bend,” July said hesitantly.

“I know that place. The one that looks sort of faded grey and rotten with a bunch of moss on the roof —” Kari caught herself and looked down as she walked. “Not that I meant it looks bad. I mean, sorry,” she laughed nervously. “Listen, I’ll call my dad and double-check before school’s out, but I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said confidently as they pushed their way through the side doors of the school’s east wing.

When class let out, she went to meet Kari under the brown arch at the front entrance. Kari waved her over to a green sedan with a tall, pale girl behind the wheel.

“July, this is Dania. She lives near my place and we’ve been goin’ to school together since we were in diapers,” said Kari. Dania rolled her eyes and said hello as they sped off before July’s bus had come anywhere near the parking lot.

After coating July’s hair with dye, they talked about how lame the local mall was and how there was never anything on TV, as an American court show blared in the background. Dania wanted to know about Vancouver and July tried to answer without adding any details of her own personal life. Dania had to leave before July’s dye was finished so, as planned, Kari’s dad gave her a ride home.

Marie was finishing the last bit of unpacking and flattening boxes when July walked in the door.

“What is this? What did you do to your hair?” she shrieked.

But her expression immediately relaxed as she recognized the colour and said calmly, “It’s beautiful sweetie. I think it suits you perfectly.”

July didn’t say it out loud either.

“I just wanted to do something bold, something wild, you know … different. I’m sick of being this boring, mousy girl nobody notices,” July said, as though she was still convincing herself.

“Well, I think you’re very noticeable whatever hair colour you’ve got. That aside, it’s time for dinner. After we eat, I’d like you to help me with the last of these boxes.”

Pork chops and oyster sauce lingered in the air while they unloaded the contents of cardboard boxes onto the couch and coffee table. Down to old books and miscellaneous trinkets, they sifted through the nostalgic picture frames, candle holders, figurines and jewellery.

July moved over to another box to avoid a cool draft from the window, and immediately spied something interesting.

“Hey, isn’t this Mom’s ring? How did it wind up with all this stuff? I remember I used to bug her, always asking if I could have it when I was little. It never fit, so I couldn’t make a very good case,” said July. She slipped it on one finger after another. Still too large for her ring finger, it fit just right on her pointer finger.

“I’ve always liked that ring too. It’s way, way, too small for me. I might be able to get it on my pinky.”

July obediently pulled it off and held it out to Marie. “Try it on, maybe it’ll fit.”

“No, no, it’s yours now. Your mom would want you to have it. Did she ever tell you where it came from?” Marie asked softly.

July thought for a moment, “I don’t remember.”

“She bought it in a Chinese knick-knack shop off Commercial Drive. Of course Rachel never would have called it that; she would have called it a curio boutique or something like that. She never lied to anybody about where it came from; she’d just let people think she actually bought it in China.” Marie chuckled. “She’d say, ‘I got this in the tiniest little Chinese store. A real bargain for what it is. It’s a solid piece of hand-carved Burmese Jade,’ like she was a semi-precious stone connoisseur. I guess she did know her way around that kind of stuff.”

“I’d love it even if it were plastic from a gumball machine,” July said as she put it back on and lovingly caressed the individual stone petals.

“Now here’s something more recent,” Marie pulled a cloth-covered unmarked book out from under a few others. “Your mother used to keep a journal when she started working at Pioneer Hills. I don’t think she had a specific reason; she was just marking a new chapter in her life,” Marie turned the book over a few times and passed it to July. “I think she might want you to read it. I thought of this journal when you started keeping one of your own, but then it kept slipping my mind,” said Marie.

“Are you sure? Maybe there’s something confidential in there. Even if it’s not patient-related, those are her private thoughts.” July looked at her reprovingly. “Just so we’re clear I don’t want anyone reading my journal. Sorry, but that’s private,” she said.

“Of course, honey. I’d never read your diary without your permission! But I think this is a little different. I’ll leave it up to you whether you read your mother’s, but please keep it safe whatever you decide. I might be ready to read it myself someday,” Marie was clearly straining to hold in tears, so July let the conversation end.

July wore the rose-shaped jade ring to school the next day. Finding the ring like that made her feel like that she was meant to have it. She could have sworn her mom wore it almost every day, but it hadn’t been returned to them by the funeral home. And here it was now. July looked critically at herself in the washroom mirror, contemplating whether the combination of the new hair colour and the ring was healthy for her. Despite the subtle guilt at possibly impersonating her mother, the ring and red hair soothed her.

Kari found her under the willow tree again on the front lawn at lunch. July was still admiring the carving detail on the ring.

“Cool ring! Where did you get that? Is that jade?” Kari asked as she tugged on July’s hand to bring the ring in for a closer look.

“Yeah, we found it last night unpacking. It’s pretty amazing. Marie says it’s carved out of one solid piece of stone.”

July looked across the field and caught her new neighbour staring at her. He did go to this school after all. She reddened and turned away quickly, flustered by the unexpected eye contact.

“Hey, don’t look over, but do you see the guy with the streaked blond hair?” July said in a hushed voice.

“Ryan Warner?” Kari replied.

“Shh! Yeah, he said his name was Ryan. I met him down the road from my house. He lives near me.”

“Really? Figures he lives out in the boonies. I never see him around here outside of school,” Kari made no attempt to lower her voice. “Why? You like him? I can see that; he is hot.”

July grabbed Kari’s sleeve and whispered, “Not so loud. I’m already embarrassed from getting caught accidentally trespassing on his ranch.”

“Accidentally?” Kari smirked.

“Yes, accidentally! I was just wandering around behind my place bored and killing time. But I am kind of curious now. He was really friendly, almost like he was interested, but I don’t get a lot of interest from guys,” said July.

“I’ve never seen him with a girlfriend. Good news then, I guess?” Kari grinned. “Or maybe he doesn’t like girls at all,” she added with feigned concern.

“Let’s just drop it,” July said, uncomfortable at the implication.

She suddenly worried that her only real friend so far at this school might be a homophobe. She already knew with near certainty that she herself was straight, but just on principle, out of loyalty, she couldn’t hang out with a bigot. She wondered if it would be too hard or awkward to tell Kari or anyone else about her mom and Marie and the accident.

How can I find out what she really thinks? Maybe I should just ask her. But I’m not ready to talk about all that yet anyway. Not here, not now. I wonder what Mom would say to do?

Kari interrupted her thoughts. “Seriously though, now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure he was gone for a while over the winter. He could have been in juvie or Europe for all I know. Other than that, I don’t really know much about him. Some of my friends know him, I think. Speaking of friends, let’s go grab Dania and hit the cafeteria. I hear chicken burgers are on the menu today. It’s one of the few edible things they’ve got,” Kari said.

July looked back over to the group of guys Ryan stood with. At that moment, as though he sensed her, he turned around, looked directly at her and waved. Instantly flushed, she tore off after Kari.

After lunch, July found herself genuinely looking forward to meeting her art teacher. She generally had a healthy respect for teachers; she knew more than most kids what they had to deal with, as Marie had taught shop and math for over a decade until they moved. It was embarrassing to have a parent teaching at her school, but in retrospect, she appreciated the openness it created. Everyone knew about Marie and her mom already, so she’d never had to face the dilemma she had now. But now she felt bad that she’d skipped a class, and she hoped it had gone unnoticed. Yesterday they’d had a substitute, so it was possible. Painting, drawing and sketching were cathartic for July; eager to get started, she wandered into class a little early. A bright-eyed round lady with fine glasses and long hair the colour of wheat sat behind a high desk at the front of the room.

“Hello, dear, you must be my new student, July MacKenzie, if I remember. I’m Mrs. Lloyd. Sorry I missed you on your first couple of days,” she browsed through some papers and said, “Wait, it looks like you’ve had a touch of flu too. You’re feeling better now, I hope.”

July took a breath, thinking fast, “Yeah, I didn’t feel well and I went home early. Do you need a note or something?”

“No, don’t worry about it; the substitute already marked you out sick. But you can’t make a habit of missing class. I have high expectations for all my students and there are no easy grades here,” said Mrs. Lloyd.

“I understand. I’m actually a pretty good student. I loved art class back in Vancouver; acrylic paint and conté were my favourite media,” said July.

Mrs. Lloyd beamed, “Well my dear, you’re going to fit right in here. I’m having the class work on a still life sketch in pastels this afternoon. You can start now if you like.”

As July surveyed the room, Mrs. Lloyd looked up over her glasses and said, “Supplies for today are laid out on the counter by the far wall.”

Looking down at the mixture of new and used rectangular crayons, she remembered how messy pastels got. She examined the collection of wax fruit arranged on a platform near Mrs. Lloyd’s desk. Selecting a modest amount of the right colours, she counted out a few sheets of large, thin sketch paper and chose a spot near the window end of a long table.

Furnishing herself with a damp paper towel to dust off her hands between crayons, she started to mirror the line of the banana, the pear, apples, oranges and grapes. Shapes didn’t come freely at first, but there was peace in the process. The feel of chalky pastel and paper between her fingertips was soothing, reminding her that some things in life were clear-cut and would never change or be lost.

– Chapter 3 –

Miss Pine Valley

July woke up to the smell of bacon. The creamy scent of milk and eggs wafted in too as she pushed her quilt aside. Waffles? She wondered. Pancakes? Life might actually be returning to some semblance of normality. Too bad I’ve got to get up with the sun if I want some, just so she can open that store early enough for every farmer in town.

The kitchen table was set, and Marie had already piled a plate of still-steaming scrambled eggs and pancakes next to the stove. Archimedes purred like a wonky fan, rubbing Marie’s legs for the chance at a bacon scrap. The bergamot aroma of Earl Grey tea mixed with everything else in the air and as she took it in, July felt a moment of happiness.

As she transferred pancakes, eggs and bacon to July’s plate, Marie said, “So, tell me about your new school. I didn’t get much of a feel for the place when we enrolled you. I wish I could have met a few of your teachers.”

“I’ve only got two teachers, remember, this school is on a weird system — I think they called it ‘Copernican’ or something. It sounds like I’m going to need a tutor to wrap up my classes from before,” July complained through a mouthful of pancake.

“Well, sweetie, it’s the only school I could get you on a bus to. Until I have some reliable help at the store, I can’t be driving you up and down the valley. Haven’t you met anyone yet to show you around? I’m sure you’ll make friends and by the end of the year, you won’t want to leave,” Marie said with warm reassurance.

“Well, actually, I have made a couple of friends already. I am getting along pretty well with this one girl, Kari; the kid I was hanging out with when I did this.” July pointed at her hair with a dripping fork. “I’ve got a really nice art teacher too. I think you’d like her.”

“I’m so glad to hear that. To be honest, I was sort of worried. But I still want you to think about finding an activity or a club to be a part of. You loved volunteering at the hospital; why not look for something here? Even if you only come to work at the store, giving back to your community is important too,” Marie’s eyebrows were pointed with the “I’m serious about this” expression that July knew meant more nagging until she complied.

“I know, I know, but there’s nothing like that around. Even if they had public transit out here — which they don’t for miles in any direction, by the way — I wouldn’t know where to start,” July said and reached for her tea.

“It’s not my first pick, but a customer mentioned a local scholarship program that’s pretty big here. They announce the winner at the annual stampede,” said Marie.

“Miss Pine Valley?” July snorted in disbelief. “I saw a flyer for that on the telephone pole by the bus stop. You are kidding, right? You do understand that you’re talking about a pageant. What would I have to do, prance in a bikini so I can get picked apart and have my already fragile teen self-esteem and body image destroyed? All for the privilege of being crowned at an event that glorifies roping, riding and who knows what other forms of animal torture,” July said with disgust.

Frowning, Marie finished chewing her mouthful of bacon. “I know there’s not much to do in Spruce Bend or Salmon Arm, but that doesn’t mean everyone between here and the Lower Mainland is an ignorant simpleton. Don’t forget I grew up in a small town. Sometimes these events are more about getting involved in a community event than a popularity contest.”

“I saw a poster in the art room for a trip to New Mexico for senior art students. I’d love to do that,” July said brightly, shifting to optimism.

“Hmmm; it sounds expensive. We can talk about that too, but I’d like you to get involved in something right here,” said Marie.

“So it has to be this meat parade? Of all people, I would expect you to be totally against these kinds of things. Superficial contests like pageants. Haven’t you had your share of viciousness and intolerance? You want me to expose myself to repeated sessions of anxiety-causing ridicule?” At this point, July’s voice was noticeably shrill, and she was gesturing randomly with her arms. “Besides, what kind of girls would I get to know through this thing?”

She could see that Marie’s frown and attempt to remain level-headed had turned into something else, more like hurt than anger. Marie had always been open about her love for July’s mom, but she’d never been comfortable discussing any discrimination she’d suffered living as a lesbian. As if talking about the homophobia she’d experienced made it more real or gave it power. July had heard she and Rachel bicker in their bedroom from time to time about Marie’s inability to acknowledge the painfulness of these experiences.

“Well, I’m not going to force you to do anything. But I don’t think it would hurt for you to give this a try. And if you really hate it, you don’t have to go through the whole program. It’s not all complicated, July. Some things are just what they seem. You might even have fun, if you give it a proper chance,” said Marie quietly.

“Okay, I’m open to new things. I guess,” said July. “Where do I sign up anyway?”

Arguing with Marie was a predictable dance. She was never mean or unreasonable, but she spoke her mind, pressing her point whether July agreed or not. Especially with Mom gone, July often didn’t have the heart to fight, knowing that Marie would never lash out at her in return. Now even if she got her way, guilt outweighed her sense of victory. Mom had always handled the discipline and Marie was the good cop; it pretty much had to be that way. Not because Mom was “the mother,” but it was just the way their personalities had fit together.

After Marie went downstairs to open the store, July decided to get the pageant paperwork over with. She walked down the road, ripped the flyer off the telephone pole, turned back and followed the street numbers to the community centre at the other end of the four-block town core.

Forms in hand, she kept walking right on past the building. Miss Pine Valley could wait. It seemed like a better idea to get to know the streets around her. She hadn’t spent much time in the town itself in past summers, since their campground of choice wasn’t within easy walking distance, and her mom had the car during the day. She turned down the next residential road and came to a baseball diamond and playground next to an elementary school. She was glad to see a few more signs of civilization, along with a church and several side streets of reasonably contemporary homes. Spruce Bend was a nicer town than she had given it credit for. But then she passed an overgrown yard strewn with litter, surrounding a mobile home on cinder blocks and felt slightly vindicated.

Back on the highway, July spotted a tiny old diner halfway between where she stood and the hardware store. Glad that she’d brought her bag, she decided to get something to drink, thinking the diner might be a good spot to read or maybe add more to her journal. She walked in and sat down at a small table by the window facing the highway.

The diner was clean enough, but smelled like people had smoked there for decades. The décor was dated, not in a trendy retro style, but as though it hadn’t changed much in the last forty years. A grouchy looking woman in a plain, pastel yellow dress and a white apron came to take her order. The woman seemed irritated that July was taking up a seat and distracting her from whatever she’d been doing before.

“Whatcha gonna have, honnie?”

“I don’t know. Um, can I have a menu?”

“Fine,” and she grabbed a worn sheet of paper from a stack on the front counter. “Don’t take all day; this is our busy time on Saturdays, you know.”

July was used to being able to frequent coffee shops and bistros in Vancouver without anyone paying any attention to her, good or bad. She was starting to miss the free feeling of being almost invisible to the rush of people, traffic, business and noise in the world she’d left. Outside the window, she could see people walking to and from their cars. Nothing was out of the ordinary. There was just an absence of extravagance, less volume of people than she would have seen in the city. No designer clothes, no high heels or expensive suits. Just plainly dressed people running practical errands: buying food, transporting children, carrying equipment or tools. None of these people seemed to be in each other’s way. No one collided with, sneered at, or avoided one another. After ordering a cup of peppermint tea, still feeling a bit conspicuous but hoping it was enough to avoid getting kicked out, she dug for her diary, eager to vent.

I’ve noticed the way people here look at me. The other people sitting in this restaurant, walking down the street, lining up at the general store. Marie will think I’m imagining it or just paranoid, but it’s probably the way they look at other strangers they think are trespassing on their territory. Sometimes I feel like I’m not allowed to be somewhere no matter how public it is. Even the shabby old wooden chair I’m sitting on feels like it’s in the corner of some scary cat lady’s kitchen.

July looked up as the waitress, still glaring and pressing her lips together, finally brought the whole wheat toast she had ordered after her tea and grumbled something about the public library being down the street, before walking over to the next table, reversing her mood completely and starting a pleasant, smiling conversation with an older couple.

In a crappy little roadside diner like this one, you wouldn’t think they could afford to pass up business. Yet they employ this heinous woman who must drive customers away in droves, except for her friends from the looks of it. Does everyone in this town know each other? We must be the only new people here. I don’t think one single person in Spruce Bend has been welcoming since we got here. Except for Ryan, that is. I don’t really know what to make of that guy. He seemed so nice and charming, but that all has to be too good to be true. I’m sure it is too since he could have talked to me at school but didn’t. Then again, I’m due for something good right about now. Maybe we will end up going out. And maybe I’ll meet some more people around here and it won’t be so bad. Does it even matter? What would he want with me? No, I shouldn’t even think for a moment he might go out with me. But he seemed interested, somehow … Anyway, no amount of writing is going to help me figure out what’s happening there. I’m not “that girl” all the guys fall for. I can’t handle another crush stomped on, ignored or whatever while I still can’t fight off the sadness of losing Mom. I was barely holding myself up before he came along. It might have been better if I’d never met him.

“Are you always writing in that thing? Of course, it’s not like the booming metropolis of Spruce Bend has a great selection of downtown entertainment …” She gave an awkward start and hurriedly snapped the journal shut. She couldn’t believe it was him, and right when she was writing about him! Had he seen anything?

Ryan sat down as though he was meeting a date. July felt just as uncomfortable as she had been when he startled her at his corral. Why couldn’t she just relax, she fumed at herself.

“Still talkative too, I see,” he smiled and nudged her arm gently.

“Let me tell you …” July stopped searching for something witty or funny or even something that made sense. “I’m plenty talkative, but in case you hadn’t noticed, I still barely know you,” her voice wavered slightly.

How lame was that? She could never manage the sly, flirty mode most other girls her age seemed to have mastered long ago. Even when the words and the intent formed in her head, the conversation carried on without her saying them out loud. Regardless, he was at ease and looked at her with genuine curiosity.

“I’m killing time,” she continued nervously as he held her gaze. “I’m putting off signing up for that stupid pageant. I went for a walk, which didn’t last long, so now I’m here,” July finished almost out of breath.

The grouchy yellow dress looked back over her shoulder, narrowing her eyes at July, but she ignored her. “Since I didn’t want to go straight back home and sit there doing nothing, I’m hanging out here until I find something better to do,” she looked back at the waitress and added under her breath, “Or until that charm school dropout turfs me for whatever reason.”

“Why don’t you come for a ride with me?”

The invitation sparked brief internal debate. What’s going to happen if I go for a ride in his car? Does he actually like me? Where is this going? What does he want? Like I don’t know. The whole town is going to think I’m a slut by the time this tea is gone. July looked back over at the waitress, then back at Ryan.

“That’s just Leslie. Don’t worry if she’s a bag to you; she doesn’t like teenagers. Or strangers. Or pretty much anyone she has to wait on,” he said.

“I guess that’s all the more reason to hit the road. Where do you want to go?” She smiled nervously, taking the plunge.

“I didn’t really have anywhere in mind. Let’s just go for a drive. Maybe we’ll go out to Pillar Lake or something.”

“I have no idea where that is, but okay. I’ve just got to stop by the store and tell Marie where I’m going.”

The road to Pillar Lake turned out to be a dangerously narrow, windy ribbon through dense forest. At least it seemed that way to July. Ryan was driving like he’d been up and down that stretch for years. He turned on the music and July looked out the window to avoid the compulsion to make small talk. Nervous as she was, any attempt to be clever would come out more like clumsy rambling. But, to her relief, Ryan took up the slack. “So, you’re entering Miss Pine Valley.” He turned his head briefly to catch her eye.

“Yeah, Marie wanted me to get involved in something in the community. I used to do volunteer work and stuff like that back in Vancouver. I hadn’t really thought about signing up for something around here though. I’m used to having a bit more selection of … well, everything. And being able to get around on my own. Having to schedule and organize rides around school and Marie’s hours at the store won’t be fun. I hope it’s contained to the walkable part of Spruce Bend so I can manage,” she answered.

“Whatever’s involved, it’s worth the effort. I think you’ve got a chance of winning. You’re officially the prettiest girl around,” said Ryan.

July blushed and looked out the window, not even trying to think of any response.

“I’m sure I can help you out with rides here and there. If you need me, that is,” he said.

“I’d like that.” She paused before adding cautiously, “You seem like a nice guy, and I’d like to get to know you better.” Did that sound as stupid as it felt?

He answered, “Good. That was the plan.”

“But I should probably tell you where I’m coming from at this point in my life. And I don’t mean Vancouver,” she said.

And before she knew it, the dam had broken and she was telling him about her mother, growing up on the North Shore, Marie, the car accident, the move. An unexpected trust had opened up, and she left out none of the details.

After he dropped her off, she lingered to watch as his purple panther-like car spat gravel and dust when he accelerated out of the parking lot. As she looked into the hardware store, she remembered the pageant and headed back over to the community centre to put in her application. She walked into the building and, finding a chair to sit in, filled out the forms before approaching the reception desk. She expected questions or screening of some sort. Instead, a round, rosy lady wearing a fleece sweater took it with a smile, trading her for a pamphlet on the Miss Pine Valley Scholarship Program.

When July got back home, she passed by the store, went upstairs to her bedroom and flopped on her bed. Her mother’s journal caught her eye on top of her dresser, so she leaned over and picked it up. Now seemed like a good time to give it a try.

August 1st – Pioneer Hills. I’ve decided to keep a journal of my time here at Pioneer Hills, if for no reason other than to help me separate these experiences from reactions to my own practice.

Not much has happened so far. The girls have settled in and Marie, of course, already has work in mind at the campground. I worry that between the two of us, Shantal and July won’t have a proper sense life balance between work, family and leisure. I think I wanted this trip more to give them that sense of balance than the career opportunity. I realized some time ago that I no longer cared for my career as much as I care for my daughters. I hope they know that. I worry that I don’t communicate that in a meaningful way.

July closed the book and lay down on her bed. She curled up on her side and let tears roll across her face.

– Chapter 4 –

Pioneer Hills

Dr. Rachel MacKenzie stood next to her office window daydreaming about lakes and forests as she looked at the park across the street. She unfolded a brochure for the Pioneer Hills Activity Centre. The glossy paper had fingerprint marks and ink cracking along the folds from her repeated perusal since last week’s clinical child psychiatry conference.

The centre’s director held a workshop titled “Cognitive Behavioural Approaches to Treating Conduct Disorder” and she had been so keen a participant that he asked her to come and work at their intensive summer camp. She’d declined at first. Now one of his facilitators had backed out with almost no notice, and he badly needed to fill the spot. The wages were dismal, but Rachel realized that it was the kind of work she had become a psychiatrist to be a part of. The position at the summer camp was an opportunity to really help youth at risk, rather than just tossing prescriptions at their problems. It would just be for a month; she could pitch it to the hospital as a working sabbatical or an outreach project.

Rachel knew Marie would go happily. She was always reminiscing about her small rural hometown and longing to get out of the city, but her daughters might be another story.

The girls had nearly eleven years between them and didn’t socialize much with each other beyond family meals and movie nights. Their youngest, July, would have fun, although being gone for a month and a half, she would miss her friends. Shantal would be the problem. By the time she was Shantal’s age, Rachel had already completed most of her undergraduate degree. Shantal was still working on and off, currently in “off” mode, at local retailers and living at home exploring Vancouver’s nightlife more than her own career aspirations. Well, maybe it would do Shantal good to have a little family time away from the city, she thought. When Rachel got home from work she told Marie, who was of course ecstatic at the idea, and then brought up the prospect over dinner.

“Awesome! Are we finally going to Hawaii?” July chirped.

“Don’t get excited,” smirked Shantal. “I seriously doubt we’re going anywhere remotely interesting. In this family, an offer like that is a disguise for something we won’t want to do.” Shantal turned to her mother and asked, “Or am I wrong?”

Marie frowned at Shantal. Rachel put on her practical debating face.

“Daughter dearest, light-of-my-life, I’m not going to make you do anything you don’t want to. I think we should agree as a family. But what I’d like us to do is spend a month camping before we go to Arrowhead this year. Well, not camping so much; we’d be staying in a cabin. I’ve been asked to run a program at a youth wilderness centre called Pioneer Hills,” said Rachel in her most positive tone.

“You want us to go camping with some of your violent offender patients,” Shantal clarified sardonically.

“You know better than to talk like that. And you’ll be nowhere near Pioneer Hills. The centre’s director recommended a nice little campground with cabin rentals. And I’ve been thinking about inviting the Martells since Toni mentioned they wanted a country holiday. July, I’m sure they’ll bring Kyle, so you might even have a friend along. There’s a cute little town in between with a community centre and a park; I’m sure you guys will be having fun all day,” she smiled.

“I guess it sounds okay. But that’s a long time to be camping,” said July.

“You got that straight,” Shantal grumbled.

“You’re an adult and I’m not going to make you come with us. That said, I’m not going to pay for you to stay here on your own. If you can cover a month’s food and bills, then you can stay behind,” said Rachel.

“Marie, you’re not going for this too, are you?” said Shantal, fully infuriated.

“I think it sounds like a dream summer holiday and honestly, I think you two are a little spoiled if you don’t feel the same way. Your mom is going to take us on two beautiful vacations, and all I’m hearing is whining,” said Marie, her voice getting louder.

“I’m not whining; I said I’d go,” July squeaked.

“Yeah, I’m going too,” said Shantal, having the grace to look a little guilty. “Maybe there’s a really cute lumberjack there who’ll make it all worthwhile.”

Marie turned to Rachel with an exaggerated shrug, and said, “She’s all yours.”

A few weeks later, they were all unpacking inside a rustic A-frame at Dusty’s Camp and Cabins. Shantal had resigned herself to month and a half without her social life, but was determined to make use of her time tanning and perfecting her manicure and pedicure.

Meanwhile, Marie noticed a Help Wanted sign at the main office and inquired immediately. She couldn’t resist the prospect of a little carpentry and whatever outdoor jobs might arise.

The girls settled in to daily rituals of eating, walking, watching old VHS tapes, tanning and, for July, swimming. Marie enjoyed her part-time maintenance job, especially as it came with the added bonus of a truck the campground manager loaned her for errands, neatly solving the problem of their being without a vehicle when Rachel took the car during her six-day work week.

The time went by surprisingly fast, but near the end of their stay, Marie was running out of activities to suggest and took an increasingly restless July with her into the nearby town on an errand to find a length of window screen.

“I’m not going to be long at the hardware store; there’s just the one in town, so if they don’t have it, I’m not getting it. We’ll grab some groceries after that,” Marie said peering over the giant wheel of the pickup.

“Can I get some ice cream? I saw a sign at the diner last time,” July asked, lifting her eyebrows persuasively.

“Sure, I think we can swing that,” Marie responded cheerfully, wondering how long it would be before it took much more than ice cream to make her youngest daughter’s day. They pulled into the hardware store parking lot, kicking up a cloud of dust as the truck stopped in the gravel.

“Are you going to wait here or do you want to come in?” Marie asked.

“I’ll come in.” July hopped down off the passenger side and flung the door shut.

As Marie looked for window screen, she asked July to find a set of hex keys. She looked up and caught a teenaged boy in the act of ogling her daughter. Surprised, she turned to look at July appraisingly — her hair was still wet from her last swim, and the water from her bathing suit had seeped through her shirt and shorts in spots, corresponding to her adolescent curves — curves Marie hadn’t even realized were there.

July interrupted her musings. “Hey Marie, what exactly are these things for? Why wouldn’t you just use a screwdriver?”

“They’re cheap and portable,” she answered, still watching the boy watch July. ”Come on, I found what I was looking for.” Marie nodded towards the register.

“Can I meet you over at the diner?” she asked.

“Sure, just don’t order anything until I get there,” Marie called after July as she bounced out the door. The boy walked over to the door as he watched her leave, then locked eyes with Marie and smiled at her as he left the store.

– Chapter 5 –

Raging Rapids

As though she’d known July for a decade, Kari was at her side regularly now. July quickly realized that Dania and their other friend Melissa treated Kari like a third wheel most of the time. July felt less like a loner thinking that Kari might have felt out of place too. They all hung out with a larger group which July still hardly knew, but in a small school with noticeable cliques, she was glad to have some people to spend breaks with. She joined the group in the courtyard at lunch and sat down on a bench next to Kari.

“Hey, what’s up.”

“What are you doin’ tomorrow?” asked Kari.

“Well, I had big plans to weed the garden and watch the creek go by, but other than that, not much,” July smiled.

“Sounds like tons of fun, but seriously, you’ve got to track down your bathing suit and come out this weekend. A bunch of us are going to hit the waterslides in Vernon on Saturday. Then there’s a party at the cutblocks,” said Kari.

“What are cutblocks?” July asked.

“You really are a city girl,” Kari sounded almost surprised, but elaborated obligingly. “Cutblocks are these clearings out in the bush. It’s what’s left when they just mow down trees with clear-cut logging. People say that from the air you can see huge chunks of forest missing all over the mountains of the whole province. That’s what these things are. The ones we party at are on an old logging road just outside town.”

“Okay, I get what you mean. So it’s kind of like a barbeque?”

“Not really, but you should dress warm. We’ll be outdoors all night. We’ll pick you up at three in the afternoon?” Kari said as she nudged July’s shoulder with her pop bottle.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” said July.

Finding her blue and white orchid bikini kept July occupied most of the evening. She couldn’t help thinking that Ryan might be there. He obviously wasn’t a part of Kari’s group, but she saw him around school a lot. She didn’t know what to do now. One minute he’s telling her how pretty she is, and then he just drops her off without any kind of resolution; not so much as an exchange of phone numbers or plans for a coffee date. She should have been bolder, she fretted as she lay in bed that night. She should have taken the initiative.

It turned out that the waterslides they were going to were only half an hour away, which was not bad considering her trip to school was almost twice that just one way. On the drive there, the girls were all chatting about people July didn’t know, completely ignoring her. Staring out the back window of Melissa’s little teal sports car, she started to wonder if she was even welcome. She kept twisting and smoothing her radiant red ponytail off to the side while the wind whipped around the back seat, tearing at her hair strand by strand. Just when she was sure they only brought her along to fill up the car, Dania asked her, “So July, what part of Vancouver are you from? I know it’s such a huge city. You’ll have to excuse us country folk. We’re beyond isolated out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“Oh, uh, I don’t think it’s too cut off around here,” July faltered, realizing too late at Melissa’s giggle that Dania’s comment wasn’t serious.

“I’m from North Van, but Vancouver’s not really that cool anyway. Everybody sticks to their part of town and there’s not actually that much to do unless you’ve got gobs of cash. The aquarium, the museum, Science World, the botanical gardens …” July stopped awkwardly. She wasn’t exactly listing the trendiest spots.

She couldn’t think of anything to add that wouldn’t amount to verbal incontinence. The uncomfortable silence ended when they pulled into the parking lot of Raging Rapids. Past the main building in front of them, turquoise piping wound like creeping vines over the steep, wide slope of the hillside above. The sounds of children squealing and giggling were punctuated by the splashes of the sliders. The unmistakable scent of sun block wafted over the cars.

“July, have you ever been to a waterslide park before?” Melissa asked as though she were talking to a small child.

Kari answered, “Of course she has. I’m sure there are tons of waterslides, water parks and whatever else in Vancouver.”

“Actually this is my first watersliding experience.” July relaxed, proud that Kari had spoken up for her.

“A waterslide newbie!” Dania grinned. “Nice! We’ll take you on the Raft Attack first then.”

Melissa rolled her eyes, finished applying her lip gloss and headed toward the ticket booth without another word. They paid the fare and lined up for plastic bracelets, while Melissa stewed, and Kari and Dania debated hot tub timing.

“You can’t be in there any longer than fifteen minutes. It says so on the sign.” Kari pointed to a possible sign somewhere inside the park.

“Don’t be stupid, that’s just to cover their asses. You can stay in a hot tub until your fingers prune. Or is it your toes?” Dania said with an inquisitive expression.

“Yeah, well I’m not interested in getting kicked out of the hot tub by a pushy lifeguard,” said Melissa.

“I guess that depends on the lifeguard,” Kari said through her sly smile.

Not ten feet past the turnstile, Kari loudly announced, “Hey July, there’s your guy. Oooh, that rhymes — it’s poetic. That settles it, you two are meant to be together.”

July’s face was almost as red as her freshly dyed hair. “He’s not ‘my guy.’ I barely know him,” she mumbled.

“Okay, I won’t embarrass you, but he can’t hear us anyway,” said Kari in a stage whisper. “Let’s ditch our stuff and hit the Corkscrew. That’s the big curly one in the middle. It’s really fun, but not scary.”

July didn’t expect to feel nervous. As she moved towards the front of the line for the turquoise swirl ahead, she realized she wouldn’t get a chance to linger before hurtling into chute. It looked like there were a few ways to ride the thing. Face and arms first on your belly, sitting down or laying back. Not feeling particularly adventurous, July sat down when the lifeguard gestured at her, waiting until he gave the signal to go. The cool water was a shock at first. Then she enjoyed the sensation of the stream flowing around and past her legs as she waited nervously.

“Go,” he said from under his sunglasses and zinc-covered nose.

She pushed off, rushing over the slick fiberglass. It was exhilarating swooshing back and forth, around and around the humid spiral downward until it shot her out into bright sunlight and a shallow pool. She almost skinned her knees on the concrete at the bottom. When she surfaced, slicking her hair back and wiping water off her face, Ryan was at the edge of the pool peering down at her. His tan was darker and his hair brighter. His arms were crossed casually. He looked incredibly handsome.

“Hey there,” he grinned, looking glad to see her. “We’re going to have to work on your dismount,” he teased.

July looked down at the water and grabbed her elbow as she wracked her brain for a scrap of wit.

“Hi,” she managed to squeeze out. Lost for words and irritated at being so insecure, she climbed up out of the pool, thinking, why can’t I catch a break? A cute guy, no, a gorgeous guy, who may actually like me, comes over to talk and I’m knee-deep in a wading pool smearing chlorine and sunblock down my face!

“You look cold,” he said.

July realized it was noticeably chilly outside now that the sun had gone behind a cloud and a late spring breeze was just cool enough to give her goose bumps.

“Yeah, I better go find my towel,” July gripped her clammy arms.

“Nah, come sit in the hot tub with me,” he touched her rigid bicep and she warmed.

“Okay, but I shouldn’t stay too long. I don’t know where the girls I came with are, and I don’t want to get left behind.”

After the unpleasantly cold walk over, the water in the hot tub stung July’s feet. She sat down on the tiled edge with her legs dangling in to let her body adjust. Ryan slipped right in and sat on the cement shelf below her, emboldening her to follow suit.

“So what made you decide to come to the waterslides today?” Before she could answer, he added, “Or are you just stalking me?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” she flirted, in a burst of confidence. “But no, sadly I’m not. My friend Kari invited me here with a few of her friends.” Tired of being guarded, she kept talking.

“The girl that drove us here, Melissa, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t like me. I have no idea why, but I think she’d be happier if I hadn’t come.”

“Come on, what’s not to like? I didn’t mention it last time I saw you, but I particularly like the new hair colour. It’s bold, but it looks good.”

“Well, at least I haven’t rubbed everyone around here the wrong way,” she smiled at her own sarcasm. “I’m probably exaggerating though.”

“That’s your prerogative; be as melodramatic as you like, and I promise it won’t affect my opinion of you. And I meant what I said about you being the prettiest girl in Spruce Bend.”

“Okay, but what does that say about Spruce Bend?” she said and smiled again. Ryan’s combination of shock blond hair, vivid grey eyes and trendy board shorts was misleading. She had expected this would-be skater, surfer, beach bum to be less bright and more superficial.

“You ready for another slide?” he asked.

“Sure, what’s the best one here? Other than that spiral thingy I just came from,” she said, waving her pointer finger in the general direction of the Corkscrew.

“I think it’s gotta be the Raft Attack. It’s the one down at the end there with the sort of shelves. There’s not much of a line right now; we should totally go for it.”

“Why not? I’m in,” she said as she hauled herself up out of the hot tub.

They didn’t have to wait in line for long before they were sorting through large inflatable tubes in a pile at the bottom of the steep path next to the slide. Walking up to the top seemed to take them forever, compared to the enthusiastic guys who ran past them hooting and whooping. Her stomach churned with anxiety, and she felt almost dizzy as she and Ryan dropped their tubes into the starting pool at the top. She must have been visibly frightened looking down at the cascading square pools below, because Ryan took her by the arm reassuringly.

“It’s not dangerous or anything. It’s nothing to be scared of,” Ryan told her. “The worst that could happen is a bump on the head. I’ve survived worse at a public pool.”

“I’m fine. I’m just getting comfortable.” July wriggled into position on her tube, uncomfortable with the friction between her wet skin and the tacky plastic. She could tell she wasn’t going to have much control on this ride.

“All you do is lie back on the tube and let the current move you along. You float around until the water pushes you down the ramp to the next pool and the next one until you get to the bottom,” he explained.

A couple of the other tubers at the top knew Ryan and started talking to him, casting sidelong glances at July as they did so. She felt stupid. Of course he’d come here with a bunch of guys. One of them got sucked down the first ramp and grabbed his buddy. They went down in a chain, taking Ryan with them.

Now she was afraid. She wondered if she was allowed to get back out again, take the tube back down the hill and just return it to the pile. Nobody would even notice. She could be back down the path and off to find Kari before these guys even finished the ride. Then the current decided for her, grabbing her tube and flinging her down the ramp to the next level. The pool was empty, so she had some privacy to catch her breath and wait for the pace of her heart to slow down. But she was holding on to the edge of the pool with only the grip of her left palm flat against the slippery wall, and the current quickly sucked her down again. Happily, Ryan was waiting for her in the pool below.

“Hey, I was starting to get worried about you,” he reached for her tube and pulled it towards him.

“Just getting my sea legs I guess,” she said.

The current moved them quickly now from level to level, like debris being washed down stairs. In the last pool they floated around, momentum gone. A couple holding hands in front of them yelped as the water tossed them down the last, longest ramp.

Ryan held on to the side, fighting the current with one hand latched on to the fiberglass lip of the pool wall. He reached his other hand out to July. She kicked away from the other side and grabbed it, feeling his strong grip. A sudden wave jolted up from the water below and Ryan was shoved down the ramp, bringing July with him. Seconds later she hit the water, bounced off her tube and was flung underwater again. This time she felt the sharp impact of the concrete floor and wispy clouds of red seeped out of her knees.

“Oh, crap,” July said, climbing out of the pool, “I’ve got to go clean this up. I’ll be right back.” She didn’t wait to hear his response. Searching for the bathroom, she jumped when Kari grabbed her arm.

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Melissa wants to go, and she’s totally freaking out and ready to leave without you!”

“Hang on; I’m a little cut up here. And I’ve only been on two rides,” July said, annoyed.

“Ooh, wow, that’ll leave a mark. Think of it as your first summer war wound,” Kari consoled her. “But we’ve got to go. I grabbed your stuff already. Dania and Melissa are waiting in the car.”

She looked back over her shoulder searching for Ryan. Kari grabbed a handful of napkins from a nearby picnic table to dab at the blood trickling down July’s shins.

“I was just on that last ride with Ryan, and I told him I’d be right back,” she said.

“Unless you’re sure he’ll give you a ride home, don’t risk it. Melissa is seriously pissed. Besides, don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll be at the party tonight. Everyone will be,” said Kari with a smile.

July was sure that Ryan would give her a ride home, but she didn’t have the courage to ask outright. So another icy ride with Melissa took them over to Dania’s for dinner, and then up the logging road to the cutblock clearing. She pulled off the road and parked when they reached a flat clearing crowded with other cars, kids, blaring music. A big roaring fire blazed in the centre.

The others all slipped off into the scattered crowd while July bent down to re-tie her shoes, leaving her anxious and angry by the car. Kari came back, handed July a can of beer and declared that she had to go find a spot to pee. It seemed like an eternity July was standing alone, watching groups of kids tell stories, laugh and drink. The prospect of spending a humiliating night out in the woods watching the party like a wallflower was looking likely. She was stuck there, lost and alone. Tears crept up, filling her eyes, but she swallowed hard and shoved the emotion back down to her gut. Shivering, still holding the can of awful tasting beer, she could only manage a sip at a time.

Her thoughts turned as bitter as her drink. Doesn’t something have to rot to make this stuff? This is so gross. She looked around awkwardly for her friend. What’s the matter with Kari? Doesn’t she understand I don’t know anyone here? Well, if I just hang on a little longer, someone will talk to me. Though I don’t really have any choice, she thought wryly. She made a concerted effort to cheer herself up. Any minute now, it’ll be worth it, I’ll meet some people and I won’t feel like such a loser.

“Hey, July,” Ryan called out over the crowd. A truly welcome sight, he waved her over to a cluster of hoodies and jackets. She walked nonchalantly over to him. “Want another beer?”

“I’m good, thanks,” she said, looking around.

“Guys, this is July. She just moved into a house down the road from me,” he said.

A few boys answered, “Hey” and “Hello” but didn’t really pay any attention.

“Let’s go for a walk, it’s nice out tonight,” he swept his arm ahead suggesting that July go first. The sky was already dark blue, dotted with stars and getting darker. In the woods, away from the bonfire and headlights, blackness quickly shrouded them. Each twig and pebble and pine needle crackled under her sneakers. She remembered with a shiver the bizarre experience last time she’d walked through the woods. She moved closer to Ryan. Nothing was about to happen to her with him around. Ryan’s steps echoed, overpowering the muffled music behind them. They stopped at the edge of a creek. She wondered if it was the same one that flowed past her backyard. July turned to him to ask if he knew and almost bumped into him. Ryan’s face was right above hers. She laughed nervously and started to back up, but she collided with a tree. He leaned towards her and put his hand on the trunk.

Suddenly his lips were pressing on hers and she froze momentarily. Could this really be happening? It was surreal. Ryan’s other hand grabbed her waist gently and moved around behind her back pulling her in. He was even taller close up. It got warmer between them, breath and body heat mingling. Just as July was relaxing into the kiss, the same booming crack they’d heard in Ryan’s corral exploded nearby. Both startled this time, they jerked apart.

“Um, we should go. Well, I should go … My ride might take off without me.”

“I’ll drive you home,” he offered. July smiled her thank you, and they turned to walk back to the cars.

As they walked, July didn’t have the luxury of enjoying the surge of emotion from their kiss. A sense of unease turned to fear as she recognized a familiar noise swelling around them, the same weird freaky murmuring she’d heard that dark night behind her house.

“Do you hear that?” she asked with panic in her voice. He listened dutifully, but shook his head.

“Just the sounds of the woods, I guess,” he shrugged.

“That’s what Marie said before. I heard the same thing that night we met in your corral; it’s not the woods, it’s something else. It’s like a person whispering or muttering something. Can’t you hear that?” she locked her arm in his and drew him close, urging him toward the car.

– Chapter 6 –

Candy Striper

On the surface, July generally did not enjoy thinking of her mother. Memories hit like punches, hollowing out her chest before they passed. But sitting on the back deck of a hardware store she barely remembered from years before and never expected to see again, July saw value in her surroundings. She had moved away from home, but to a place that held precious imagery capable of evoking pieces of a happier past. Maybe Marie was right and they had the best balance here of a fresh start and meaningful roots. She opened her journal and began to write.

It’s strange to feel conflicted about my memories. I know they’re the most important connection I still have to my mom. But it hurts so much because I still can’t separate the thought of her and the knowledge that she’s gone. I can only write this so many times, but it’s NOT FAIR. I don’t think I’ll ever feel any differently. I’ll never be okay with her being gone and I don’t think I want to be.

And speaking of strange, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I’m seeing things and hearing things. Mom would know what it means, but it’s like the heartache is turning to brain damage. I guess I’m missing closure. Maybe this will help:

Mom, I miss you every day. I need you to help me get through this. I need to find a way to be okay. I’m not talking about getting on with my life yet, I just want to stop hurting so bad. Even when I do feel a bit happy, I feel like crap for enjoying a moment when I’m still supposed to be miserable. It’s like I’ll never feel safe again or even comfortable. The world will never hold possibilities.

I just met this really great guy and I don’t know if I’m even capable of normal feelings. He’s gorgeous and he really likes me for some god knows what reason. And I’m a basket case. I think about him and the fact that you’ll never get to meet him. I know I’m being a drama queen. But I love you. I just wanted you to know that. I wanted …”

July jerked her suddenly cold pen off the page, staring un-believingly with a feeling of dread as the last few lines slowly disappeared, soaked up by the paper like they’d never been written. She dropped the pen; the plastic was almost icy. A few characters remained, swimming around in a dark dance across the page, rearranging themselves. Eventually, the letters settled into two words: S-T-A-Y A-W-A-Y.

Oh shit! This was freaky, scary, weird-as-hell! What was wrong with her? Now she was seeing things in her diary too. Was she sick? Maybe someone had slipped her some kind of drug! What did meth actually do to someone? Would it make her see things? No, it couldn’t be drugs; there would be more effects than just hallucination. Either way, it might be time to tell Marie; maybe she needed to be taken for some kind of blood test or brain scan. July leapt up and ran into the house frantically looking for something to bring her back to reality.

Marie was downstairs working and the house was still. Her panting subsided as the panic wore off. She warily walked back to the screen door, pushed it open and leaned towards the patio table. Her journal was normal aside from a sentence fragment at the end. Telling Marie didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. She flipped it closed and went back inside to drown out her thoughts with television.

*

Through the mesh of metal on the common room windows, the boy had a clear view of the street and the walkway up to the main entrance. The third floor was just high up enough to see for a block in either direction, yet close enough to the ground that he could make out details on the pedestrians below. Remnants of a rare coastal snowfall were thawing in clumps on the lawn and the ever-overcast sky glowed like a faded shop sign.

The girl heading up the walk was unmistakable. She might have been taken for a geek in some circles, still carrying a sagging backpack on a Saturday morning. Her cinnamon hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail; her long wool coat was plain beige. The only sign of fashion was her cherry-patterned, rubber-soled slip-ons. He knew who she was, of course: his incompetent doctor’s daughter. He watched over the edge of his book until her figure disappeared from sight underneath the windowsill.

“All right boys, it’s ten o’clock. Time for meds. You know what to do,” shouted Lynette, the nurse on shift. She obviously thought the best way to connect with kids in a psych ward was to act like nothing was wrong and pretend to be cool. Whenever the opportunity arose, she talked pop culture and trends with the boys. She even had pinstriped scrubs and another set made from denim with band patches on it. As if decoding the clothes they wore and the music they liked would make her patients forget where they were, feel happy and consider her a “wicked cool chick.”

“Are you givin’ out the good stuff today, Lynette?” a wiry, barely adolescent boy piped up from a nearby couch.

“For you, Mitch, every day,” she winked.

The older boy turned away from the window to glare at Lynette as she marked on a clipboard. He clamped his book shut and found the muted slap unsatisfying. He hated cheerful and had no respect for fake. The combination was toxic to him, but he knew better than to let loose on a nurse, so he solemnly knocked back his pill mix and sat down in an empty armchair. He had never had to be on medication before being put in this hospital and was thoroughly pissed off to be there in the first place.

Like the medication, television was rationed out in portions of time and subject matter, the set suspended above them, out of reach. At least he had some say in the books he read and didn’t have to schedule it or agree on it by committee. Books were also great for pretending like you were busy when really you were just people watching.

“Hi, Mrs. Hanson. Did you want me to take some activities around? I’ve got lots of new puzzle books today,” said a childish female voice.

The brooding boy peeked up over the edge of his novel again and saw cherry canvas shoes under a red and white striped dress.

“Honey, I’ve told you a dozen times, call me Lynette,” said the nurse.

“Okay, Lynette. Well, do you want me to hand out books?” asked the girl.

“The thing is, sweetheart, I don’t think you’re supposed to be here … Oh, wait a minute, here’s your mother.” She turned to the red-headed doctor. “Dr. MacKenzie, hi, I was just telling this kid she’s in the wrong department!”

“July, I told you candy stripers aren’t allowed in the boys’ ward. It’s just not a good idea,” her mom said.

“Mom, come on, I’m sure they get bored too. What’s the worst that could happen? I’m sure nobody’s going to tackle me over a crossword book,” July said, rolling her eyes.

He stared, fascinated. He had never been this close to her before. She was prettier than he remembered. She wasn’t wearing makeup, but she didn’t need to; her big round eyes were perfect on their own. He badly wanted to stare longer, to charm her, but of course he couldn’t talk to her. Not here, not yet. She was gone a moment later and the nurse called him to the visitor’s room.

“Dude, finally I get to see you. When are they gonna let you out of here?” A boy with a brittle green ponytail and shaved head underneath sat across from him.

“I’m not so sure I’m ready to go now. You should see this hottie that was just here,” he grinned.

“Worth staying locked up with the fruit loops?” the visitor asked.

“Maybe. I’m only here for another month anyway. Unless the doc says I’ve got to stay longer, and she won’t. I’ve got that bitch in my back pocket,” said the sullen boy, lowering his voice as he spoke.

“That guy you jumped still has his jaw wired shut. What happened there anyway? You’ve been, like, incommunicado ever since.”

“I was at a corner store — that little one by the beach — and that moron scraped the side of my Charger with his rusty shitbox Corolla. He got out and started blubbering about paying for it and calling ICBC. I guess I just lost it a bit,” he explained nonchalantly.

“A bit? Bro, that guy will still be eating with a straw when you get out,” the visitor responded, sounding impressed.

“He should have thought about that before screwing with my car,” the boy growled.

“Well, buddy, you know I’ll always back you up for anything. Whatever you need.”

“Thanks man; it means a lot. And I might take you up on that,” he said knocking knuckles with his friend as he left.

He had barely enough patience for his session with Dr. MacKenzie that afternoon. Recalling her lengthy lecture on etiquette and appropriateness after the last time he’d walked into her office unannounced, he knocked and waited, rocking back and forth from heel to toe.

“Come in,” she responded after a moment.

“Hey, doc. I’m here for my appointment,” he tried to remain pleasant.

“So, after our last session, I think we need to talk in more detail about your mom,” she said slowly.

“Her? What do you want to talk about her for?” he said. “I’m trying to get to know you better. I need to know about all the pieces of your life if I’m going to help you. I referred you here because you told me you wanted to seriously work on your problems,” she said.

“Okay, shoot,” he said as he leaned back in his chair. “Tell me what she’s like,” she said.

“That’s not a question,” he replied.

Her stern look reprimanded him silently.

“Okay, she’s … I guess she’s nice. She’s got curly blonde hair. She’s about five-foot-seven. She’s a housewife, but she used to work in an office before she met my dad,” he fidgeted and looked around the room.

“What else?” she asked.

“Uh, well, she’s quiet. Um … she likes to paint. I’ve gotta be honest here, there’s not really much to her. She’s my dad’s wife. That’s what she does.”

“Do you think your dad feels the same way?” she asked. “I have no idea. I don’t think it really matters,” he answered.

Dr. MacKenzie shifted her gaze as the page on her phone sounded, and she leaned forward to press a button. “Hello?” she asked.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt you doctor, but we have a situation in the common room,” said a stressed young woman.

“I’ll be right there,” she answered. She turned back to her patient and said as she got up, “Will you excuse me for a moment?”

She left the room and he turned to watch her go, fiddling with his plastic medical ID bracelet. As soon as he heard her heels fade in the distance, he reached over to her bookshelf, swiped the framed picture of her daughter and pocketed it just as the click-clacking got louder again.

“I’m sorry; we’re going to have to continue our talk another time,” she said, holding the door open for him to leave.

“Perfectly fine by me,” he smiled.

Back in his room, he pulled the photo out of his pocket. His roommate was gone and he preferred it that way. He sat on his bed with his arm propped on his knee, looking at the girl’s picture.

“It’s almost done babe. I’ve got everything under control, and we’re going to be together soon.” He kissed his pointer finger and transferred it to her face.

– Chapter 7 –

Toxic Taste

July missed a lot of things about living in Vancouver, but mostly, she longed for mobility. To her, it meant freedom, even with her parents’ rules. City buses and the Sky Train could take her anywhere in the Lower Mainland. She could go to a beach, park, coffee shop, mall or wherever she wanted most of the time. Being stuck in a tiny town in an isolated valley was more than quiet, it was boring. Does nothing ever happen around here? she thought. Then, as if in response to her mental cry for action, the low rumble of Ryan’s muscle car caught her ears. The sound sent a shock of anticipation and relief through her veins. She leapt up excitedly and ran out to meet him in the parking lot.

“I need to get out of this house and away from this town. I’m going completely insane with boredom. Please, we have to go do something,” she pleaded.

“What, no, ‘How was your day?’ or ‘I missed you, thanks for coming to visit.’ You’re not going to last long living out here in the sticks if you can’t chill out at home once in a while. I guess it’s a good thing my buddy’s throwing a punk show at his place tonight,” Ryan said with a magnanimous air.

“Like a concert or something at someone’s house? Is he allowed to do that?” she asked.

“It’s in his basement if you want specifics, but yeah, that’s pretty much how we do live music around here. Not a lot of trendy clubs for underage kids.” he replied defensively.

“Sorry, I wasn’t complaining; that sounds like fun. I haven’t actually seen many bands live. No good bands, anyway. Besides, I wasn’t allowed to go into the city by myself at night, so if we were going to a concert, we always got stuck going to see some band one of our parents was willing to take us to,” she said following him around back and up the stairs into the house.

She kicked herself, realizing how dorky it sounded to be chaperoned to awful easy-listening pop concerts and never rebelling with any illicit nighttime trips downtown. “But it’s not like we didn’t get out and do cool stuff, the group of us that hung out in my neighbourhood,” she added hastily.

July heard the hesitation in her voice that gave away her deception. She worried he could see right through her attempt to feign coolness. It felt silly, but she just couldn’t stand the idea of Ryan thinking she had been or still was a geek. He didn’t seem to notice, or at least he didn’t call her on it.

“We’ve got lots of time to kill until everybody’s showing up. It’s only an hour to Darcy’s house, maybe forty-five, if I’m driving. What do you want to do until then?” he asked. He stared at her expectantly from his relaxed repose on their couch, and she suddenly became very aware that they were home alone.

“Well … um … I still wouldn’t mind getting out of the house. Can we go grab some food?” she said, sitting down at the other end of the couch.

He moved over, right next to her. Her heartbeat raced. She wanted to kiss him; she wanted a long, passionate kiss, but she knew she wasn’t ready for anything more serious than what happened at the party. As much as she liked him and wanted to kiss him again, and more if she was going to be honest with herself, she was afraid too.

“You sure you don’t want to stay home for just a bit longer?” he said.

She sat there in a long moment of indecision until she remembered Marie.

“Well, Marie will be closing up shop any second now. Unless you want twenty questions and a slide show of my childhood, we should get going,” she said as she stood up. He leaned back, easing away from her stiff frame.

“I bet you were a cute kid. Maybe there’s a picture of you streaking through the backyard somewhere in there,” he waved his arm as though he wanted to see any photo or video in the house. She didn’t look over, knowing an alluring smile and two dreamy eyes were right there willing her to sit back down.

“Not funny. Not even just a little bit. Now we’re definitely going. The coffee shop near the school will be just fine,” she purposely avoided his glance as she fished her wallet out of her bag.

A speedy winding drive and a half-dozen cups of coffee later, they were discussing the finer points of ‘alternative’ culture. He’d given her the rundown on what music his friends listened to, and while most of the bands were groups she’d never heard of, he assured her that she’d like any and all of it.

“The bands I listen to will all sound pretty mainstream to your friends if they’re these hardcore underground guys that turn their nose up at anything on MuchMusic,” she said.

“Give me an example. What do you listen to?” he coaxed. “Nothing too freaky or anything. Arcade Fire is my favourite right now. But I’ve always loved Billy Talent. And Hedley, Theory of A Deadman, The Weakerthans. I practically grew up on Bif Naked. I know it’s picky, but I like to listen to Canadian bands. I’ve just never had the chance to hear anything off-the-beaten-path if you know what I mean.”

“In Vancouver? You’ve got tons of live indie punk and hard rock. Why not go to shows?” he asked.

Back to the subject of her old social life and July was ready to leave. Ryan paid their tab and they left for his friend Darcy’s house. Darcy was older than she expected — or he looked older. He had a short Mohawk and a large septum ring cast to look like bones, as if two tiny skeletal fingers were growing out each nostril. She was fascinated but didn’t want to get caught staring. A handful of other equally laid-back punk, skater and metal hybrids were sitting around Darcy’s kitchen table, slowly filling a large glass ashtray.

“Dude, you’ve gotta come see this sweet new bass I got in Kelowna,” Darcy gestured for Ryan to follow him upstairs. July didn’t seem to be included in the invitation, and nobody in the kitchen noticed her, so she sat down in the empty living room to wait and ward off the feeling of awkwardness. With the lights off and fluorescent white spilling over from the kitchen, July could see her vermilion hair on a dark silhouette in the bay window. She looked down at the weathered fabric of the couch’s arm. The raised texture of the leaf pattern was worn to the grain in places. Other fabrics in the living room were in the same condition, as though someone had decorated carefully in the late seventies, then left the place unchanged for decades.

“The sickest badasses in the valley are here! Let the party begin!” a tall, thin boy said as he burst in the door. Another, older one followed him with pieces of a drum kit in tow. He had electric blue hair and badly healed acne.

“Hey, you lazy asses; get out to the van and help us bring this stuff in,” the tall one barked at the group around the table. A third one came in with more equipment in his arms, under a striped collared shirt.

July browsed through her purse, trying to look casual. “Who the hell are you?” the boy with the blue hair asked. She looked up at him and watched him twirl his drumsticks like batons.

“I’m with Ryan,” she blurted nervously. “He’s upstairs with Darcy.”

“Ryan … really. What’s a vanilla little thing like you doing with Ryan,” he said, stressing the last word with disdain.

“I’m his girlfriend. He told me we were coming here to see a band, which, I take it, is you,” said July, boldly reflecting his tone. She looked him up and down, enjoying the slight burn on an unfriendly stranger. He drew in a breath, intending to respond, but thought better of it.

“Ryan,” he turned and yelled up the stairs, “You better get down here before your new old lady gets into trouble.” He sounded like a child tattling. Back to July, he grinned and said, “I’m Chad, by the way, the drummer for Toxic Taste. I know it’s a sad stupid name, but we’re workin’ on it.”

The individual lyrics of their first song were unintelligible, but the thrill of live, loud electric beats blasted out of the tall speakers around their makeshift stage in the basement. Her stomach throbbed and her ears pulsed. The sheer force of each chord pressed hard on her chest, bracing with every thump. In the dim glow of a single bare bulb, their faces looked intense, earnestly delivering each syllable into their microphones. Ryan was still nowhere to be found when the mosh pit came to life. The place was packed. She hadn’t seen any girls upstairs, but there were a few here now, jumping wildly, banging their heads on invisible walls.

The entire room caught on quickly. Bodies formed a rhythm of arms, legs, torsos and heads as the group pulsed. Several clusters of dreadlocks did a dance of their own, flailing and flipping, almost independent of the heads they were rooted to. July saw a pair of brightly-patterned canvas high tops bouncing at the edge of the crowd; they were folded back down around bare ankles as though the wearer had stepped into two large cloth orchids.

An arm reached out of the crowd and grabbed her bicep, pulling her into the fray, and she started to jump too. Her inelegant, uncoordinated motion fit in perfectly and she smiled and wished she knew the words to sing along — or that she could hear what the words were. Darcy’s basement had a low ceiling, giving the room an even more crowded feeling as the group thrashed and sweated against each other. A hand jolted the back of July’s head. An elbow swung back into her breast, knocking the wind out of her with a sharp pain. She pushed her way out to the edge of the mass, saw the stairwell and ran for it.

Nobody was left upstairs which was just as well as she sat down to catch her breath and let her cotton-filled ears adjust.

Ryan was still unaccounted for, so she decided to take her chances on being unwelcome and walked up the living room stairs. She heard voices in the first room she came to and stopped to listen, hoping to gauge whether or not it was a conversation she could walk in on.

“I don’t care, it’s like, tainted. You’ve got to get rid of it, man,” Darcy insisted.

“I’m not selling or ‘getting rid’ of my goddamn car, so give it a rest,” Ryan responded.

“And what’s the deal with this girl. Like that’s not a huge risk?” Darcy was getting shrill.

“I can take my own risks. Just leave it alone,” Ryan said, sounding annoyed.

July had no idea what the context of their discussion was, but she could tell it would not go over well if she walked in. She didn’t even want to be in the living room when they came down, although a handful of kids were chatting on the couch and chairs.

The patio past the kitchen was empty, so she went out and sat down on a plastic lawn chair to wait there. She looked out over the wooden railing into a black forest.

Is everything here the same? she thought. Is the entire Interior made up of dark spooky woods around every neighbourhood? I hate it here. How dare he leave me alone with a bunch of strange kids, she fumed. I want out of this stupid party. But I’m not going out there by myself. No way I’ll be wandering in the woods alone again — ever. Not when God knows what is waiting to chase me. Are there really wild animals wandering around? Am I going crazy? Is there something really wrong with me? Should I tell someone?

“There you are,” Ryan stepped through the patio door. “I heard you had a pretty good time with some guy downstairs.” She assumed he was joking, but before she could answer he kept going. “Chad said you were, like, grinding up against one of the guys down there.”

July felt acid rushing through her veins. Her eyebrows furrowed, still angry from abandonment, she snapped, “Who the hell do you think you are? Me, dancing with other guys? Try me being ditched, hanging out in a dark living room by myself, getting harassed by a blue-haired jerk, feeling stupid as hell on the outside of somebody else’s crowd, then finally getting yanked into a mosh pit only to be accosted by an elbow, a hand and now, you. Bite me,” she said and turned her back. He walked over to her and touched her arm.

“Okay, I’m sorry, I get it. I didn’t mean to go all ‘jealous boyfriend’ on you, but I pictured you with another guy and I just … I don’t know,” he said sheepishly.

She didn’t pull away, so he turned her by her shoulders and hugged her. “I’m sorry, really. I guess I’m a mildly territorial type. I just wanted to spend time with you tonight and all you wanted to do was get out of the house,” he said.

“I’m not used to having to restrict my life to a four-block strip whether I want to or not. I felt trapped … Never mind … I’m sorry if I freaked you out.” Releasing her from the hug, he leaned back in and started kissing her. She was too preoccupied by the irrationality of their conversation to be fully drawn in. There was a swish-clack behind them and she instinctively withdrew.

“Hey, lovebirds. Get a room why don’t you,” Melissa said in a bitter tone as she stood in the open sliding glass door. “Don’t you know it’s rude to make out on someone else’s patio?”

“Don’t you know it’s rude to be an obnoxious cow?” Ryan said mockingly as July grinned. “Why are you even here? Since when do you listen to garage punk bands?”

“Come on Ryan, I’ve got to get home anyway. I have to go to the orientation for Miss Pine Valley in the morning,” said July.

“Oh, I almost forgot you were even going into Miss Pine Valley. You know you know my sister won the year before last. And my cousin was first runner up before that. She only lost because she had a crazy case of mono for the whole pageant,” she rambled.

“Melissa, nobody cares. Go away,” Ryan said with con-tempt. He grabbed July’s hand and they headed back through the house. She wished she had the courage to whip a comeback at Melissa. There was something especially intimidating about that girl.

At the orientation, Melissa ignored July, but made a point of chatting with every other contestant. After delivering her best rendition of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” — with extra makeup and every hair in place — Melissa walked backstage past July, who was reviewing the solo sketch she had been memorizing, but was terrified to attempt.

Next thing she knew, the ice-cold contents of Melissa’s glass was running down her back. She sat there in shock as the lemon water saturated her shirt and trickled down to her jeans, soaking in as it made its way to the floor. Her mouth wide, her breath drawn, no words came as July glared at Melissa incredulously. Melissa smiled sweetly. They could both hear the program’s supervisor out front giving posture pointers to one of the contestants, and everyone else was in their seats. There was no one backstage to witness the outrageous action. Anger swirling powerfully in her belly as the dripping and pattering subsided, July clenched her fists as she floundered for an appropriate reaction.

“What, nothing to say? Don’t want to thank me for sharing my lemon water? From what little I’ve heard of your mousy speaking voice, you could obviously use it,” said Melissa.

For some reason the image of Leslie, the grouchy waitress, came to mind and suddenly July felt very calm and serene. That was what the future held for a girl as selfish and shallow as this. Let her enjoy her petty triumph now, she’ll have few enough of them later on in life, she thought. Without looking back, July reached for her backpack, slipped behind the curtain to change into another T-shirt and walked out onto the stage.

– Chapter 8 –

Simon’s Chair

By Monday morning, July was ready for dramatic action. She wanted to watch Melissa lose the pageant and she wanted to be the cause. Thoughts of sabotage and images of Melissa in tears bounced around her head, but no plan solidified.

“Hey, Kari, come here for a minute,” the lunch bell had just rung and July was already outside her friend’s classroom. “Why didn’t you tell me what an obnoxious bag your friend Melissa can be? I had no idea I’d only scratched the surface at the waterslides,” she said.

“I see the pageant is bringing her best qualities to the surface.”

“She’s awful. I can’t stand her. Do you know she dumped half a bottle of water down my back at rehearsal yesterday? She’s been ultra nasty to me since the moment I met her. How could I possibly deserve that?” July asked indignantly.

“So drop out of the pageant. It’s a stupid, sexist institution masquerading as a ‘scholarship program.’ What a joke! Aren’t the other girls in it pretty much like her?” Kari countered.

“Not really, but Melissa’s enough, believe me. I don’t think I could get out of this cleanly, with Marie anyway, unless it was some circumstance where I had no choice. Like getting asked to leave or kicked out,” July mimed a drop kick.

“Hey, I’ve got an idea. I know what’ll help you get kicked out of the pageant,” Kari said with mischief in her eyes.

“Do I really want to know the answer to that?” July cringed.

“Body piercing!” She beamed and drew a brochure out of her binder with a flourish.

“There’s a new shop in town and I’ve been itching to get my nose done.”

Kari already had her eyebrow pierced, which looked dramatic underneath her dark, spiky hair. The brochure sported two heavily tattooed and pierced caricatures standing back to back looking very indifferent to their coolness.

“It doesn’t really hurt that much. My eyebrow was just a pinch and only hurt for a second. I barely even bled. It was just sort of warm afterwards. Trust me, it’ll be so awesome,” Kari said persuasively.

“How much does it cost?” said July tentatively. “I think I’ve only got ten bucks on me.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll make up the difference for whatever you can’t cover. Think of it as an early birthday present,” she said.

“My birthday isn’t until November. Don’t be silly; you shouldn’t have to pay for both of us,” July replied.

“But I do have to get my nose pierced. And I don’t want to go by myself. Besides, it’s not fair if I get a really cool piece of steel and you don’t,” she said.

“Actually, I think I want a lip ring. Just a small hoop, fitted off to the side on my lower lip. But not right this minute,” July added hastily.

“See, you even know what you want. We’re totally doing this today,” Kari said.

She flipped the brochure over and pulled her cell phone out of her thigh pocket.

“I bet we can get an appointment for after school,” she said. “Hey, speaking of birthdays, are we even old enough to get this done?” July asked.

“Shh, it’s ringing,” said Kari.

When they got there after school, the shop was closing. July almost wanted the guy behind the counter to send them away. A leathery biker was reading an off-road truck magazine in the waiting room. She examined the photos on the wall and the jewellery in the cabinet while Kari talked to the shop assistant.

“So, how much for a nostril screw and a lip ring?” she said, as if a bargaining process had begun.

“Well, we’ve got a special on this week. The jewellery comes free, so you’re just paying for the piercing. Thirty dollars each for the nose and the lip,” he said.

“Can you knock anything off if we both get it done today and pay together?” she asked.

“It’s already on special, so it’ll still be sixty bucks altogether,” he said firmly.

“Can you get us both in today?” Kari countered and the guy nodded.

July’s mouth suddenly dried up. She wanted to say something. She needed to say something, but nothing came.

“Wait a sec, I gotta check with Simon. I’ll be right back,” he said.

“What’s going on? Are we really doing this?” July whispered, grabbing Kari’s sleeve.

The assistant came back and handed them photocopied forms on clipboards.

“You’ll need to fill these out. And I’m gonna need some picture ID from both of you,” he said flatly.

A stocky older man with a shaved head, glasses and large circular barbells weighing down both earlobes came out of the door behind the desk. He looked around and went back without saying anything while they finished writing and rifling around for their student cards.

“Is he the guy that’s piercing us?” July whispered again. “Relax,” Kari answered at full volume. “He’s done this a million times. He’s not going to hurt you. Just calm down. It’ll be over before you know it.”

Simon came out again and took Kari back first. July was left to keep staring at the walls full of photographed tongues, lips, ears, and nipples all adorned by polished barbells. Above the jewellery cabinet, a girl who had to be younger than her had her upper lip yanked up to reveal a small ring in her gums. An older woman winked at the camera to show off her eyebrow ring. One of them was a close up shot of just a nose and mouth; it looked a lot like the metal fingers under Darcy’s nose. Another boy had his mouth open to hang his freshly pierced tongue out for the camera. Her heart started beating faster. The biker kept reading his magazine. The assistant was flipping through a catalogue on the counter. She hadn’t even noticed the slow jazz music when she came in, but now it seemed to fill the space, and she found it hypnotically soothing. She wondered if subduing nervous kids was the intended effect of the music.

It seemed like half an hour passed before Kari came back, grinning wide with a sparkling stud in her slightly red right nostril.

“It didn’t even hurt. There’s nothing to it, I promise. You’re supposed to go back there now,” she said.

The piercing room was a cross between a hair salon and a dentist’s office. There were more photos on the wall, a large mirror, a long chair, a sink, cupboards and trays of metal tools.

“Kari tells me you’re a little freaked out about your lip ring. Do you really want to do this today?” he looked up over a tray as he arranged tools.

Simon suddenly seemed more like a nice, warm grandfather than a grouchy ex-rocker.

“Yes. Yes, I’m ready. I want a little hoop, just on the side of my lip,” said July and touched her pinky to the left side of her lower lip.

“Okay, sit down and I’ll get set up,” he gestured towards the long dentist’s chair.

Her ears were ringing and she felt pulsing adrenaline throughout her body.

“I’m going to clean your lip with some rubbing alcohol and mark the spot for the ring. I want you to tell me if it’s in the right place,” he said, swabbing her lip with a cotton ball before he used a pointed felt marker on her skin.

“Yep, looks good,” she answered.

She knew she should pay more attention, but she couldn’t focus. If she hung on for a bit longer and kept it together, she’d be done, going home with a lip ring.

“I’m going to clamp your lip now,” said Simon.

Once she was lying back with the clamp locked down on her lip, he brought out the needle. Her pulse rose again.

“This is a 14 gauge needle. The ring you picked out is 16 gauge, so we want to use something bigger to give the lip room to heal around the jewellery,” he explained.

Looking at a huge hollow needle with its razor sharp slanted end, she felt her hands shaking.

“So the hole in my lip will be that big?” she involuntarily pointed up at his needle.

“In diameter, technically, yes, but the needle looks a lot bigger than the hole in your lip will. And you won’t see that hole for a long time, not until it’s healed enough to change the jewellery, and I want you to come back here for that. Don’t try it at home,” he said.

She caught her bug-eyed reflection in the mirror beside them and Simon paused. His detailed, step-by-step explanations and instructions had been surprisingly comforting, but she couldn’t suppress her nerves completely.

“Are you ready?” he checked.

She nodded. He gently put his thumb and forefinger on her lip around the clamp.

“All right, I’m going to pierce on one …”

It sounded like he was going to count to three, but she felt pressure and stinging heat right away.

“Two …”

The long, thick needle was left stuck in her lip, just in-side her field of vision as she looked down. Simon turned around, tinkering with something she couldn’t see in a tray on the counter.

“And three.” He somehow replaced the needle with a hoop and used pliers to wedge in a bead.

There wasn’t much blood. Not on July’s lip, chin or shirt, or even Simon’s rubber gloves. There was a bit of red soaked into a cotton ball on the tool tray, but that looked like the worst of the damage. She thanked him and walked back out front to find that Kari had already paid. Simon gave them more brochures on how to clean and care for body piercings.

“Ready to go? Remember, we’ve got to drink some orange juice for the vitamins and sugar. We’ll have to get you a straw,” Kari said.

July smiled gingerly with her swelling lip.

– Chapter 9 –

Morning Mist

The next week at school passed quickly. July caught herself gossiping and giggling; behaviour she’d always considered superficial. She wondered if writing in her journal had been helping her to move on. She was so much more brave and honest with the private pages of her book than she had ever been on her blog.

Ryan was wonderful. He hadn’t officially asked her out, but their relationship seemed pretty clear. Unlike other guys his age, Ryan seemed to be content to devote most of his spare time at school to his girlfriend. He was never afraid to hold her hand or put his arm around her in front of his friends or anyone else. When she wanted a treat, he was there with ice cream. When she was bored, he took her for a game of pool or out for a drive. He took her to movies. He even bought her a beautiful silver locket and had it engraved: To July, a true ray of sunshine. He wasn’t exactly a poet, but she didn’t care.

She was actually living that daydream about moving to a new town, starting fresh at a new school, paired with a cool guy. These kids had never seen her goofy childhood taste in clothes or her adolescent acne. No one at Shuswap Secondary had heard that resonating fart in eighth grade math class, or knew she’d started her period in a pair of light grey cargos during a pep rally. They hadn’t watched her confess a crush to a longtime classmate who, it turned out, “just wanted to be friends.” Every awful little moment she ever wanted to get rid of was gone.

The only thing differing from the clean slate fantasy was the catalyst that would bring it about. Sometimes it had been a new job for Mom, or Marie’s bee farm utopia. Other scenarios involved some surreal private art school scholarship. Nowhere in her imagination had she foreseen a new life starting and carrying on without Mom. She looked over at her journal, sitting on her night table untouched since the weird “message from beyond” experience. She still didn’t know what to think of that. Had she just been tired? Maybe she’d just dreamed it. Maybe she was crazy. But just looking at the journal gave her the shivers.

“Screw this,” she said, reaching out for the journal. Deter-mined, she stopped her hand from trembling and quickly flipped through the pages to the last entry. No cryptic “stay away” message. Nothing strange at all. Just normal writing in her own hand. She heaved a sigh of relief. Just a bad patch, she thought, perfectly understandable with all the stress I was under. Suddenly filled with a comfortable sense of wellbeing, she settled down to write about all the new stuff that had been going on.

I can’t believe I still live in this tiny little town. I kept thinking that Marie would come to her senses and move us back home after a month or so. Miraculously, I’ve got a hot boyfriend. Evidently he’s a tad on the jealous side, but amazingly good looking. Strangely, I’m in a pageant. What would Mom think of that? And if I didn’t know better, I’d think I was getting popular at school. What the hell is going on in my world? I can’t believe I’m even touching this book again, but here I am. I miss Mom so much, but I don’t want to jump off a cliff quite as much as I used to. Maybe it really is starting to get easier.

She looked out her window into the backyard and the thinning fog that blanketed the valley floor in the pre-dawn light. Something caught her eye — a dark mass, practically enveloped by the swirling blue-grey. She leaned close to the glass, bracing herself with the palm of her hand. The figure formed the suggestion of a person, floating in and out of sight at the edge of the smoky cloud. It couldn’t be Ryan as he’d gone to his cousin’s in Kamloops for the weekend. And Kari wouldn’t be in Spruce Bend either, let alone skulking around her yard at this hour.

A cold shiver ran from the back of her neck down to her feet. Could this be the animal that followed her that night? She would be better off waiting for the light of day to go look at it, if it was still there. It was probably a neighbour’s dog, but whatever it was couldn’t really be as big and scary as it had seemed in the dark. But she had to confront her fear and prove to herself once and for all that she wasn’t suffering from a brain tumor or schizophrenia or anything else she could think of that would cause a person to see or hear things that weren’t there. And if it was some weirdo sneaking around the gate, she’d better tell him to get lost with no room for debate.

Marie’s light snore buzzed intermittently from behind the door across the hall. She’d be asleep for a few hours still. Where the voices of both her mothers would normally kick in with warnings, reprimands and reason, there was nearly total silence.

In nothing but her cotton T-shirt and flannel pajama pants, she slipped on Marie’s gum boots, and made her way down the back stairs and halfway through the backyard. The fine hairs on her arms stood straight up on pimpled skin in the unseasonably frosty air. Then July heard someone calling her name. The voice was as quiet as a far off echo, but the crisp clarity sounded like the word had been whispered in her ear, close enough to feel a light puff of breath.

“Who’s there?” July looked around, frightened. “Do you hear me?” There was only silence in response. “I don’t think this is funny!” She paused and yelled, “What do you want?” No answer came. Fear flashed to frustration and morphed into anger as she paced around the back gate, looking into a void of fog in either direction.

“Listen, we’ve got a gun back at the house and I’m not going to take any crap from some sketchy head case, so identify yourself or get lost!” she shouted in desperation. She knew there was no gun in the house; it occurred to her a second too late she should have claimed it was in her hand. She knew that nothing short of an earthquake would wake Marie. Standing, staring into the billowing white stillness, panic set in.

“Who the hell are you? … Was it you who left that note? Who followed me home that night?” She stopped, panting, looking wildly around her in the fog. “If anything happens to me, my boyfriend will find you and kick the ever-living shit out of you!”

The fog was still thick around her in cool, calm morning air. An icy pressure descended on her shoulder, then on her hand. Startled, she lurched back with a breathless grunt. July brushed her arms and hands as though they were covered in dust that wouldn’t come off, but something touched her again, like invisible clammy palms cradling her face.

What the hell? What the hell was that? Get off ! Get away from me!” she shrieked, as a warm hand firmly gripped her forearm.

“AAH!” Her shrill cry pierced the air.

“July? July, holy shit, it’s okay, it’s me, it’s only me.”

She whipped around to face the voice and sobbed in relief.

“Kari, what the … was that you? Why are you in my yard at the crack of dawn?”

“I just got dropped off, like thirty seconds ago. Didn’t you see my dad’s car? I guess not in all this fog. Wow, did you ever freak out. You asked me to come over and help you pick out some clothes for the pageant. Remember?” Kari asked as she searched for a sign of recognition on July’s face.

July stared back at her friend, wide-eyed without an answer. She scanned the yard, the receding fog, and the surrounding trees. There was no sign of anyone or anything else. She started back towards the house and Kari followed.

“Well, never mind me, I’m surprised you’re up this early,” said Kari and added with a tone of curiosity. “And outside wandering in your pajamas.” She waited for a moment for July to respond and continued, “I was kinda worried that it wouldn’t be cool letting Dad drop me off this early. Stupid soccer game in Kelowna. You do still want to sort this wardrobe issue today, don’t you? I know you’re not really into this thing anyway.”

“Sorry, I do remember. I do want to sort out the outfits, I’m just freaked out. I think I’ve been seeing things lately. I think I’m actually messed up; really, very, truly and seriously messed up.”

She still hadn’t felt comfortable talking to her friends about her mother. Talking about her death meant talking about why she was living with Marie, there was no way around that. Then it would be out there that she was a grieving, pitiable kid, possibly subject to bigotry. But Kari was different and she needed to confide in somebody other than Ryan. After breakfast, she waited to bring up the subject until Marie left for the store and they were in her room sorting clothes.

“I need to tell you why I moved here. There’s some stuff about me you just won’t get unless I do,” she said in an agitated burst.

“What are you talking about?” Kari sounded alarmed.

“It’s about my mom. My mom died. Well, she was killed, actually, in a hit-and-run accident,” she rattled off quickly, trying to sound detached and keep tears at bay.

“Oh, July, I’m so sorry. I had no idea you were dealing with something like that. Why did you wait so long to tell me? I don’t understand; who’s Marie then, and why didn’t your dad take you?”

“That’s another part of what I’m telling you. I don’t know who my father was other than some sperm frozen in a test tube. My mom was gay. Marie is my other mother.”

Kari sat there, absorbing the information for a moment. She looked straight at July. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with that,” she said.

“Don’t be dumb, I know there’s nothing wrong with that. I just don’t really trust people around here, no offence,” July replied defensively, although secretly relieved.

“None taken. You are in the heart of redneck country. Speaking of, are we getting ready for this soulless, superficial, small-town, self-esteem-sucker or what?” Kari flung her positive energy at the situation. They smiled at each other and went back to pulling clothes off hangers and out of drawers, analyzing each piece as they went.

“I feel like I’m on a roll with the whole confession thing, so do you think you can handle another?” July probed.

“Sure, why not?” Kari shrugged with a smile.

“You remember that day in the drugstore when I spaced out over the hair dye?” she asked.

“Yeah,” she nodded, “that was a little weird.”

“I saw my mom’s face on the box and her expression changed. It like, moved, and oily, smelly gunk leaked out,” said July.

“Jesus, July …” Kari’s forehead slid into a frown as she searched for an appropriate response. “You didn’t … listen, don’t get me wrong, but did you do some of that E that’s going around?”

“No, no of course not. It was real, I mean, it really happened. And that’s not all. I’ve been having dreams. I think something found me at night, twice; out behind my yard and at the bush party. My diary — I don’t even know how to describe that one. Letters moving on the page, telling me to stay away. And this morning, I could have sworn I saw a figure out in the fog. It’s like something is haunting me. Or stalking me maybe.”

“Whoa, that is messed up,” said Kari gravely.

“Thanks for the support there, I appreciate that,” said July.

“No, I don’t mean to say that you’re messed up, it’s just the weirdness that’s messed up. Seriously though, watch it with the drugs,” Kari rapidly tried to reassure her friend and lighten the subject.

“I’m not on drugs! Besides, I said it myself, I’m messed up. I know I’m not being followed by some ghoul, so what’s left is me with a couple of screws loose. I keep going over the irony; my mom was a shrink and now that I finally need one, she’s gone,” July stared into her half-empty closet. Playing with the grain of the fabric on her velour hoodie, she sat on an empty patch of blanket surrounded by growing piles of clothes. Kari pursed her lips as she reached over and hugged July.

– Chapter 10 –

Santa Fe

I have nothing interesting to say today, but I feel like I should write anyway. My life is messy and confusing. I started to feel happy again when I met Ryan, but now I’m sinking back down. I keep thinking that it shouldn’t be so easy to get back to having fun and living my life when I just lost the most important person I’ve ever known. Then I’m sad about her all over again, then guilty that I hadn’t been thinking about her all along.

I have been thinking about destiny and good versus evil. What things happen to us because they were destined to? And then what do you say about the other events in a person’s life? How can a person tell which is which and separate the important moments from the white noise? As for good and evil; I intuitively feel that a person inherently falls into one category or the other. I believe I have met a few people so far in my life that could possibly be evil. I’m pretty sure my old neighbour in Van, Mr. Boddington, is rotten to the core, the dirty old bastard. It goes without saying that whoever was driving the car that hit Mom was a horrible person, thoroughly evil. Though I guess accidents do happen, but still, that person was disgusting to leave her for dead without a word.

Maybe it’s just that evil things happen and it’s not necessarily the people that are the problem. Maybe once a person is touched too deeply by something awful, they will never heal and be whole again. It’s hard to know right away who is carrying that shadow under their skin. Am I? If that’s true, can people tell?

Evil aside, I know what Mom would think of Miss Pine Valley. She’d support whatever I wanted to do, but I don’t think she’d really want me doing this. These are the kind of people she always had trouble with. Harsh, judgemental, superficial people with no capacity to envision life and viewpoints other than their own. It bothers me every time I think that she and Marie would have fought over this. Were they really perfect for each other if they’d see something so fundamental so differently?

I think relationships are a dangerous business. So easy to get hurt — no words have to be said to harm you. No action or phrase stings as much as indifference. I find it weird that even though I’m with a great guy like Ryan now, I still feel a sting when I think of Kyle. I hope he never really understood how I felt about him. It’s humiliating to think of him maybe thinking of me and cringing.

July put her diary down and rolled her hair up into a clip. As she finished getting ready for another rehearsal, she imagined running into Melissa alone and wondered about the possibility of trading her time at the pageant for shifts at the store. Even if she couldn’t really pull off a bait-and-switch, showing interest in hardware supplies was bound to earn points.

Her reading of Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus had been improving steadily and delivering it again, albeit to a nearly empty auditorium, made her feel a little taller and stronger. She wondered if the poem was too dark for a pageant, but dark was how she felt, so she stuck with it. She’d originally wanted to do something from Shakespeare since she thought the words would convey power on their own with less actual “acting” required. That idea fell apart when she decided it had to be a female character, nothing melodramatic, nothing sappy, which meant she was out of options, at least from any plays she’d read. So she got up on stage and delivered her best impression of a depressed poet.

“I have done it again.

One year in every ten

I manage it …”

“July, dear, you need to project,” interrupted Mrs. Cunningham from the back of the auditorium. “Reach my ears back here. If I can hear you, then so can everyone else.”

The other girls were very positive with each other, continually surprising July who had expected a more self-centred, competitive atmosphere at rehearsals, especially backstage.

“Hey, Shelly, do you think I should switch to poi instead of the ribbon?” a redhead with a bun asked the girl sharing her bench.

“I don’t know. Are we allowed pyrotechnics? It would definitely be more eye-catching if you’ve got the guts to do it,” she replied as she rummaged through her makeup bag. “Hey, what do you think about this lipstick?” She rubbed a little on her hand and examined it with a grimace. “Hmm, I don’t care how far away the audience is, this is just a trashy colour any way you look at it,” she said. Her blonde ringlets bounced as she turned her face back to the mirror in her locker.

“Can I ask you guys a stupid question?” July interjected.

Both girls looked back at her expectantly, and then Corrine smiled.

“Sure, but I think Mrs. Cunningham already noticed the lip ring,” she said.

“Oh, I’m not worried about that. I was wondering what happens to the girl who wins? I mean, I never really asked, but it seems like everybody already knows. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m going to win. It just occurred to me, we should all know what we could be in for,” said July.

“They didn’t tell you when you registered? Well, you don’t really have to do much in Spruce Bend. But it’s pretty much what you’d expect. Wave in a parade. Cut some ribbons at a few town gigs. Technically, I think the program covers West Hills, Chatterton and Aberdeen Lake too. Whoever gets the crown probably has to worry about their stuff as well,” answered Shelly.

July looked back at her, smiling and nodding unconvincingly.

“Sorry, I forgot that you just moved here. Those are small towns nearby. Do you have a car yet?” she asked.

“Actually, I don’t have a license. Which I could fix if I knew how to drive. I never worried about it in Vancouver,” said July.

“Shel, can we come back to the moment here. Poi — yes or no?” Corrine looked serious in her quest for feedback. July realized that both these girls were as stressed out as she was.

Shelly rolled her eyes under her ringlets. “Just do it until someone tells you it’s off limits. You can always switch back to the ribbon.” She turned back to July and continued, “It’s not a really high profile event, but I’m sure whoever wins would have some assistance getting around. I think they figure that if they’re coaching you to speak here, you’re good to go,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Fortunately, my public speaking skills and my Honda Civic will get me wherever I need to go,” Melissa said as she walked into the room.

Corrine’s eyes narrowed. “Melissa, just because your rabbit family is all over the place around here, it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically win. You need to actually be the best,” she said, glaring at her opponent.

“Well, we know who it won’t be then,” as she swivelled just enough to gesture at July with a flick of her wrist. “July coming in dead last will be right around the exact moment Ryan realizes he can do better.” Melissa’s words hit her like darts.

None of the girls said anything, and tension grew as the moment stretched on. July struggled to find some incredibly cutting comeback, but a twist in her chest rose up through her throat, and a prickle behind her eyes threatened tears. Overwhelmed by a need to escape, she bolted, knocking Melissa out of the way. She kept running, till she was out of earshot, not wanting to hear the digs into her or be heard as the sobs took over. Tears streamed down her face, and for the first time in months they were unrelated to her mother. She blindly made for home.

July sat down on a bench in front of the store to recover before heading inside, but Marie came out to join her. “July, honey, what’s the matter? Why aren’t you still at rehearsal?” Marie said with concern, sitting down next to her.

Using her shirt cuff, July soaked up the last few tears from her raw eyes.

“That bitch Melissa. She’s just so unbelievably mean. Every chance she gets she’s tearing me down. I didn’t even say anything when she dumped water on me last time. I didn’t tell you about that, did I? No, ‘Oops, my bad,’ or ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you there.’ I can’t take it anymore,” July stammered.

Her lip started to quiver and tears flooded back with more anger and frustration.

“Have you talked to the coordinator? I think she’s supposed to resolve that kind of thing. It sounds like this girl should be kicked out of the program pronto,” Marie said sympathetically and put her arm around July’s shoulder.

July looked at Marie with a furrowed forehead and bright red eyes framed by wet, clustered eyelashes. Marie sighed.

“All right, you can call tomorrow and withdraw. But you’re not off the hook for something extracurricular. Or that piercing. I still don’t understand what on earth possessed you to do that,” said Marie.

The next day, her next art class presented a solution. Before the students arrived, Mrs. Lloyd had laid out at least a dozen banners, wall hangings and different homemade stencils all over the classroom. She stood at the front of the room with a bright smile.

“Our first major project this year is a group effort. As the senior art class has done for many years, we’ll be designing and creating the decorations for the graduation ceremony,” she said addressing the room.

“You mean we’re going to make decorations for the entire auditorium? What if they suck? Is everyone going to know it was us?” A freckle-covered boy whined from the back.

“Part of the curriculum for senior art students is the practical application of art and design, Mr. Howard, and that means receiving real-world criticism. You Grade 12s will remember from last year that this project will teach you to employ creativity as a team, complementing each other’s work. Each of you will learn how to represent a theme, design and produce a stencil, use silk screens and, if you haven’t already, you’ll learn to use a sewing machine,” she said while she walked between the rows of tables.

Corrine’s hand shot up, though she was already talking. “How do we make sure we’re creating something that will work as a print? What’s the theme?” she asked keenly.

Mrs. Lloyd walked towards Corrine, continuing past the rows of tables and supply cupboards.

“Each of you will submit a stencil design interpreting the ‘Going Green’ theme before we start production. You’ll all receive two separate marks for this project; one for your design and the second for participation. Stencils can be abstract, realist, even logo-like, and I think it would be nice if some of you incorporated the black bear mascot. Remember that not all details like shadow and texture can be incorporated into a stencil. So please take your time looking at these samples,” she said.

July reached out and felt the artwork on the banner in front of her. The silvery Secwepemc design was crispy and stiff on the thick, rough polyester. A handful of conversations started around the room, but Mrs. Lloyd cut them off.

“Before you get started, I have another announcement. As some of you already know, I will be taking a small group of students to Santa Fe, New Mexico this year. The number of students I can take is limited, and this trip not covered by the school or your fees. I have handouts at the front of the room for you to take home to your parents outlining costs, itinerary, contact information and other details.”

Finally! July had been waiting for subject of Santa Fe to come up again. Mrs. Lloyd had made an offhand comment several weeks ago, but hadn’t mentioned it since. Not only was this an opportunity July could get truly excited about and involved in, this trip and the decorations project would settle things with Marie.

After class, she asked Mrs. Lloyd to sign her up, sure that Marie would say yes, and ran out into the courtyard looking for Ryan.

“You’ll never believe where I’m going in June!” she waved the handout booklet in front of her chest.

He turned away from his friend, and smiling, replied, “The suspense is killing me. Where?”

“Santa Fe, New Mexico! Mrs. Lloyd is taking a group of students and I’m so sure Marie will let me go. I’ve already signed up. I’m so excited. I can’t wait to see the adobe homes, the desert landscapes. The trip includes tours of working studios and we’ll get to talk to professional artists. I know there’s money to worry about, but …” she stopped as Ryan gently pulled her aside by her arm.

Lowering his voice, he said, “You think money is the biggest problem here? I can’t believe you made this whole plan without talking to me. Don’t you remember my grandmother is coming back from Europe in June? I thought you wanted to meet her, to be there when we have our big family-reunion-welcome-home party. Can’t you go next year? I told Grandma all about you and she’s really looking forward to meeting you.”

July’s face fell. “Oh, I’d forgotten about that. Of course I’d want to be there, but there might not be another trip next year. And I don’t really know your family that well yet; I’d feel awkward at a family event. I haven’t had a chance to tell you yet, but I’m dropping out of Miss Pine Valley and Marie wants me to find something else to get involved in. The art trip is perfect,” she said.

“I didn’t really want you in that pageant anyway, but this? I just don’t see ‘us’ working if you don’t want to be committed to our relationship,” he said gravely.

“I am committed to being with you, but don’t you think it’s a little selfish to ask me to stay behind from something like this?” she asked.

“I think it’s a little selfish that all you’re thinking about is you when it comes to this trip. But go if you feel you have to. I’m not giving you an ultimatum or anything,” he said.

Hadn’t he just done that? Her stomach sank. Shock replaced excitement and she didn’t know what to say. She sat down on a bench, letting her backpack drop to the ground.

“I guess there might be next year. Well, looks like I don’t need to convince Marie then,” she said quietly.

The computer lab was surprisingly full when they went in to check their email, and there was only one empty booth. Ryan logged on and off his account quickly, then gave his place to July and pulled another chair over for himself. July opened her inbox and scanned for new messages. Finding none from a real person, she deleted the junk unread and closed the window.

She said very little as he drove her home from school. At first, she had enjoyed getting rides to and from school with Ryan, bypassing the hassle of the bus in exchange for a racy car. His rides were less and less at her convenience now, as he always complained when she asked him to wait for her to do something, but she thanked him anyway when he dropped her off.

Restless and upset, she thought about writing in her journal, but she wasn’t in the mood. Reading from her mother’s journal instead might make her feel better. She hadn’t marked the spot she left off at, so she opened the book at random and started to read.

I’m surprised how much more this atmosphere connects me to these patients. Of course, I did expect “the wild” to play a meaningful role for these boys, but I didn’t realize just how much the camp lifestyle really helps. I’m still helping them to understand their illness and teaching them to build a toolbox of mood management and coping skills, but I feel like it’s more their interaction with the landscape and each other that works here. Maybe I’ll feel differently again by the end of the summer. I know it’s unrealistic, but I’m hoping to come away from this with a deeper sense of satisfaction and fulfillment if I can see more change in these boys here in this environment than I usually do back home.

– Chapter 11 –

Family Reunion

July started stocking shelves and helping with inventory after school. It had the dual benefit of pleasing Marie and providing a plausible reason to spend time away from Ryan. She wanted to get past it, but she was still deeply irritated with him and needed some time away from him for a change.

Her second evening on the job, she was slipping boxes of mosquito coils onto a metal rack on the wall by the front window when her sister’s little Geo Metro pulled up in front of the store.

July lifted herself up out of the piles of boxes containing discount camping accessories and hurtled out the front door, waving furiously, and yelling back over her shoulder, “Marie! Shantal’s home!”

Not exactly the right word since her sister Shantal had never been to their Spruce Bend hardware house, let alone come to call it home. Actually, it was impressive that she’d found the place on her own, but July was thinking more about how great it was to see her sister again.

“Hey, small fry, I’m finally here! Were you lost without me?” Shantal cried happily.

“As if! What did you bring me from the flatlands?” said July.

Shantal drew large paper shopping bags from the car as July popped open the driver’s side door. The dirt buildup and wear of a long road trip had taken its toll on an already well-used vehicle. Shantal’s glossy mahogany ringlets and trendy clothes were a sharp contrast to the sun-bleached upholstery of the old beater.

“I come bearing presents from West Ed,” Shantal grinned. “Hey, Marie! How is the world’s most gorgeous hardware mistress?” she said, beaming affectionately at Marie coming out the door.

Leaving the store to mind itself, Marie hugged Shantal, swinging her off her feet before she could set her bags down.

“I’m thrilled to see the world’s most promising archaeologist! Oh, little girl, I missed you something fierce. Let me get a proper look at you. Your hair is getting so long, and you’re so tanned. Are you spending all your time outdoors? I hope you’re remembering sunscreen,” said Marie.

“Yes, of course I’m taking care of myself. I’ve only been to one site so far. First year anthropology students just get tours. I won’t get any actual field experience until I’m accepted to the archaeology program. So I’m not allowed to spend any time in the sun yet,” she said, reassuring them both.

The rush of their reunion subsided as Marie went inside to ring up the remaining customers and close early. July helped Shantal haul the rest of her bags to the house. They were still sorting the mess when Marie met them upstairs. Marie didn’t usually get excited or enthusiastic, even less so after her lover’s death. July felt a knot form in her stomach realizing that Marie hadn’t been happy in a long time.

July sat back and listened as Shantal and Marie launched into a rapid retelling of the last six months of each other’s lives. Her apartment in Edmonton had horribly old, musty carpets, but Shantal liked the view overlooking the Saskatchewan River from a hill near downtown.

Business was slow at the hardware store, but Marie was getting to know many regular customers, farmers, labourers, tradespeople and artists. Shantal had worked out the Edmonton bus routes, connected with study groups, found favourite coffee shops and night clubs. Marie had big plans for landscaping the yard, hiking and camping in the nearby parks. They both missed Rachel; Mom.

“I understand why you moved. It was so hard for me, not being there when it happened, and I’m sure I can’t live there again now,” said Shantal.

“Well, the move here wasn’t a random thing either. I’d kept in touch with the lady who owned this store. I had gotten to know her when I used to pick up supplies for the campground here. She read about your mother’s accident in the paper. She called to offer her condolences and we got to talking. We hadn’t really planned it, but we both needed a change and it made sense,” said Marie.

This was all news to July too. She had assumed that Marie had gone looking for some new venture and had found out about the store. Moving away from what memories and life she had left was another overwhelming loss, so soon after her mother’s death, but her bitterness about the move was gone now. Like Marie, she wanted to move on.

Hugging Archimedes’ huge fluffy form, July thought about which of her stories she would share with Shantal, which she’d rather keep to herself. Some of her recent stories were as hard to tell as they were to forget.

“Do you see yourself staying here in Spruce Bend long-term?” Shantal asked over the brim of her teacup.

“We’ll see. For now, I’m just trying to start a new chapter in my life and give myself a place and time to recover. Forget about me though, did you call Burt?” asked Marie.

“It’s been so long … I don’t know how much he knows about Mom, if he even heard about the accident. I don’t want to have that conversation with him anyway. How would that go? I mean, I’m sure he’d be civil, but where do you start out of the blue like that?” she asked.

Unlike July’s, Shantal’s father was once a part of her mother’s life. He was a friend who offered to help the couple conceive, but walked away once the realities and complications of being the third parental wheel set in. Shantal rarely saw him now.

July had pieced together the whole story from overheard conversations over the years. Before Shantal was born, her father had developed a crush on her mother mistakenly thinking his “donation” might change his place in her life. In reality, he became the reason her mother and Marie chose a sperm bank for their second child. Rachel went as far as to add a clause to her will naming Marie as the legal guardian of her children in the event of her death. July quickly put it all out of her mind to focus on welcoming her sister.

“So, small fry, are you up for showing me the town?” Shantal brightened as she addressed her sister.

“You’ve been driving all day, dear, you should rest and relax awhile,” Marie said.

July’s face advertised her restlessness and disappointment.

“Oh, come on Marie, I’ve been home every night this week. Besides, she didn’t make the trip all in one day. Or did you?” she asked Shantal.

“Of course not! I spent the night at a cute little motel in Golden. It had a pool and a pool table,” she answered.

Marie smiled and waved them towards the door. Almost nervous after having been so far apart for so long, their silence was awkward driving towards town as the intense rays of yellow-orange splintered through the trees. Shantal was almost eleven years July’s senior and their email correspondence had fallen by the wayside since the previous September.

“So tell me everything about your new life, all the stuff you left out with Marie. What’s it really like being at university? Being on your own away from Van? And what are the prairies like?” July said eagerly.

“It’s been fun so far, but I’ve been sad a lot too. And the prairies, they’re not flat actually. It’s weird; one minute, you can see for hours in the distance across wavy wheat fields, and the next, you’re in a river valley. They do have hills but from the right viewpoint, everything blends back into a level horizon. It’s hard to explain; you just have to see it. The sky is beautiful, especially when a sunset takes up all the space around you.”

“That does sound beautiful. Now I’m for sure coming for a visit,” July grinned, excited at the thought of an adventure into unknown territory. Her face slackened again as she said, “But I don’t think my boyfriend would like that too much. I just had to pass on a trip to New Mexico with my art class because he got all weird. Kind of a piss off; Marie’s been on me to find something extracurricular after I dropped out of the pageant. I’m hoping this grad decoration project I’m working on will be enough or I’m going to get stuck picking up trash on the highway or something,” July said.

“Okay, whoa, let’s forget about my party stories for a minute. Boyfriend? Pageant? Doesn’t sound like typical July activity. And you let this guy bully you out of an awesome trip? What else did I miss?” said Shantal.

“It’s not like that, he didn’t bully me really. It was just that I didn’t check with him first, and he wanted me here for a special family get-together,” July responded defensively.

“I don’t know, July. Are you hearing yourself? ‘I didn’t check with him first.’ You understand why that worries me,” Shantal looked July squarely in the eyes to stress her point. Her gaze jumped back to the road as she saw a bright yellow sign with a cast iron pan symbol on it.

They pulled over at a little log cabin café. Giant round shellacked pine logs made up the exterior, and there were matching half-log picnic tables on the patio out front. They walked inside and took a table next to the window. A stout older lady with metallic pink lipstick came to take their order for coffees, a grilled cheese and a clubhouse. Suddenly aware that her conversation might be recorded by prying eyes and ears, July lowered her voice.

“You don’t have to worry about Ryan. He’s a nice guy and really good looking. I’m making him sound like a jerk, but he’s not,” July said earnestly.

“Honey, I don’t think you would make his behaviour sound hurtful if it wasn’t, no matter how cute he is,” she said.

“Can we talk about something else? I haven’t seen you in so long and we have so much to catch up on,” July pleaded exaggeratedly with clasped hands. Shantal smiled as July continued. “It’s been hard for me not having anyone around to talk to about Mom. I’ve got some new friends here, but even telling them that Mom died and talking about it feels too morbid; too personal. I don’t want to be that kid people dodge because they’re afraid of random outbursts and drama,” she waved her hands mimicking a hysterical gesture and Shantal smiled again. “I’m getting to this place where I want to talk about her; I need to talk about her, but I don’t want to make it harder on Marie. I think talking about Mom all the time is too much for her,” she said as she repositioned the salt and pepper shakers, looking at the dessert menu. “That, and I’ve been, sort of, seeing things. Have you been having weird dreams? Or seen or heard things that aren’t there?” she asked hesitantly.

“Uh, no, but I guess that kind of thing could be normal after a sudden, traumatic loss. Mom would probably have known just what that stuff means,” said Shantal.

“I know!” said July.

“I miss Mom too. I wish I could have been here for you. I know I should have been there with you in Vancouver, but after the funeral, the only thing that made any sense or felt like a step forward was going back to school. At first, I was frantic. I knew I couldn’t change anything, so I ran for the next plane out, practically knocking people out of the way to get to the airport. I had to go somewhere I wouldn’t be consoled all the time. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, that’s probably why I haven’t told many kids here about it. Just Ryan and my new friend Kari,” July looked down at the table.

“Tell me honestly, has it helped being here?” Shantal asked.

July paused, gave Shantal a cautious look before answering. “It’s hard to say. How can I compare life here to a life in Van that’s never going to happen?” she said.

“Well, I’m here now and I’m happy to talk about Mom. Tell me your favourite memory and I’ll think of one too,” said Shantal.

July sat silent again before saying, “I’ve never been any good at picking a ‘favourite’ anything, but I’ve got a scene, I don’t know if it’s a memory, that keeps playing over in my mind lately. From really high up, above streetlights and rooftops, I’m looking down on a street corner that I’m sure is diagonal from our old place on the North Shore. I can see a woman, and a girl with a black hood pushing a fancy black baby carriage with brass trim. It’s snowing heavily and a garbage truck goes into a skid right by the carriage. He almost hits them, but the girl snatches the carriage out of the way, just in time. The sky is dark, so everything is tinted from the orange streetlights.” She laughed nervously and continued, “I just can’t figure out where I’m standing from looking down on everything. I don’t remember any really tall buildings in our neighbourhood. Why do I have this vivid memory of some people walking with a baby?”

Shantal was looking at her strangely. “Well, this is weird,” she said slowly. “It sounds like the night we brought you home from a trip to the emergency room. Your baby carriage was navy blue, not black. I think my hooded coat was a dark charcoal.” July’s eyebrows wrinkled and her bottom lip dropped, but she didn’t interrupt. “When you were only a few months old, you and Mom both got some kind of horrible flu. She felt so guilty, ‘cause she thought she’d caught it from a patient and given it to you. Mom didn’t get it too bad, but you we had to take to the hospital with a dangerously high fever. I went along because Marie was out of town and Mom was so weak and nauseous. It was snowing great huge flakes when we finally got to go home. You remember how close the hospital was, don’t you? That’s why Mom bought that condo in the first place. Mom told me what a great big sister I was for taking care of you and that it was my job to protect you when she couldn’t,” said Shantal, adding, “Of course, looking down over rooftops, none of that makes any sense as a memory unless you had some kind of out-of-body experience. Maybe you did. Maybe you were a lot sicker than we even realized. That’s a stretch though, but it’s freaky any way you look at it.”

“You know, I’ve been starting to believe in freaky things a lot more lately,” said July.

As they talked and sipped at their coffee, rain had started to fall outside the diner. Night closed in and the temperature dropped as cool air slid in through the nearby screen door, but neither of them noticed. Nor did they notice a shiny purple car turn into the spot next to Shantal’s car.

“But how could I —” She jumped with a little startled noise as a hand slapped down on her shoulder from behind. She turned in surprise to see Ryan standing there, a totally unfamiliar expression on his face.

“How could you … be avoiding me for a week?” He finished her sentence for her sarcastically. “I don’t know, you tell me.”

“Oh, Ryan! You scared the hell out of me.” Flustered, she looked back to Shantal and hurriedly introduced them. “This is my sister Shantal. She just drove all the way from Edmonton to stay with us for the summer. Shantal, this is my boyfriend, Ryan,” said July. He looked at Shantal, then over to the twinkling outline of her car.

“It’s okay; Marie told me you’ve been helping out at the store until tonight. But I think we’re going to have to get you a cell phone after all,” he said.

Shantal’s mouth tightened in an obvious effort to control her reaction, but she couldn’t restrain herself. “Um, I wouldn’t get too worked up; she’s perfectly safe with me. Since I just got into town not two hours ago, we’re catching up and having a private conversation,” she said pointedly.

A warm grin replaced his concerned expression. “I’m sorry. I know she’s safe; I just got a little worried.” He turned to July. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow for school then?” He smiled broadly at Shantal. “And it was very nice to meet you. I’ve heard so much about the big sister; we’ll have to get to know each other better some time,” he said as he turned for the door.

The roar of Ryan’s charger faded. “So that’s the boyfriend, eh? Isn’t he charming? Apart from being a bit of a psycho, that is,” said Shantal, eyeing July with concern.

“He’s just eccentric. Ryan is truly sweet and very caring; he’s just been going through something lately. I’m not sure what it is,” she said.

“Middle-aged tofu farmers on Saltspring Island are eccentric. Eighteen-year-olds with control and trust issues are borderline antisocial. For all you know this guy’s a psychopath with a collection of eyeballs in jars,” said Shantal, looking into her glass of water as she swirled it around.

“Don’t be disgusting! He’s a normal guy and I really like him. All relationships are bumpy from time to time. He isn’t normally like this, so you don’t really know what you’re talking about,” she took a deep breath to curb her escalating temper. “Look, I don’t want to fight. We’ve got enough things to worry about without you pointing out Ryan’s flaws or picking apart every little snag in my relationship,” she said.

Shantal leaned back and sighed. “I don’t want to fight either. I’m sure I’ll start to see his good side once I get to know him, but I hope for your sake that tonight’s bit of weirdness is the extent of the ‘snags’ you have to worry about,” she said as she scooped the bill off the table.

– Chapter 12 –

Fist Fight

FROM: [email protected]

DATE: Wednesday, May 16, 2007 10:27 AM

TO: [email protected]

SUBJECT: Trip to the Interior

Hey July,

How’ve you been doing out in the middle of nowhere? It’s been too long – we all wonder what you’re up to. Everybody misses you tons, but we know you’re going through some crazy harsh times. Jenna and Carolyn talk about you all the time. They’d better be emailing too or I’m gonna kick some ass.

It looks like I’ve got the chance to head to Kelowna for the May long. A buddy of mine is in a play there. So that puts me in your neighbourhood, I think. Want to grab a coffee or something? Let me know.

I hope you’re meeting new people there. I know you’re not, like, having a blast or anything, and I worry about you. How come you’re still not posting on your blog? I read your last post about doing the personal journal thing. I just wanted to let you know that you’ve still got someone here you can talk to any time.

Anyway, if you think you can carve some time out of your mad social schedule, drop me a line. Actually, email me back either way. I’d like to hear from you.

Cheers,

Kyle

A bubble popped inside July’s head. Behind her eyelids a flood of faces, voices, places and feelings flooded back to occupy their original space. She had friends from another life that wasn’t so far behind her. Looking at the faintly pulsing pixels of their aging monitor, July wondered whether or not Vancouver really should stay behind her. She clicked on reply.

Hi Kyle,

It’s so great to hear from you. I miss everyone so much, and I’m really wishing I could go back home. I miss weird things – looking up at power lines in downtown alleys and greasy slices of 99-cent mushroom and bacon pizza. Looking up at the Lions’ Gate Bridge. Stanley Park after the rain. I want to see Coal Harbour again and read a book on that bench in the park by the art gallery. I know that probably sounds pretty dumb, but that’s the stuff I’ve been thinking about. You know me.

Anyway, about the theatre …

She paused. Seeing Kyle again, listening to him rant about his grudge of the day would be comforting, but it might be weird to see him too, she thought, remembering with a wince what had happened between them.

At the height of her crush on him last year, she offered to carry his books one day after a math class they shared. One of Kyle’s friends overheard and mocked them mercilessly, partly because he thought it was ridiculous to offer to carry books for a healthy guy, but mostly because the expression on July’s face betrayed her infatuation and he didn’t approve. He went as far as to suggest that Kyle not lower his standards for her. Kyle looked embarrassed and didn’t defend her, mumbling about how his buddy shouldn’t overreact. It wasn’t much, but that day, it felt like everything. Between the book-carrying incident and her move, they had only spoken a few times in the past year. But, she realized, she really wanted to see him again.

“Shantal, can you take me to see a play in Kelowna on Saturday?” she called out to the living room.

“Sure,” Shantal called back, and July happily clacked out the rest of her response.

Friday afternoon ticked away like a dying battery in an old CD player until she was finally on her way home. July worried that if she told Ryan about her plans to meet up with Kyle, he would get upset. Looking back and forth between her boyfriend’s profile and the scenery outside his car, she started to think he was justified in wanting her to stay away from other guys. But she missed her friend and if Ryan wanted the truth one hundred per cent of the time, she figured he wouldn’t make it so hard to tell.

She knew she wasn’t doing anything wrong and that was enough. And despite what she had said to Shantal, she was starting to feel unsure about her relationship with Ryan. She found herself frequently thinking ahead to a time when she would be back in Vancouver going to college. The uneven tree line so close to the road made her queasy as she chose her words carefully, trying to focus on the branches blurring past the passenger window as they neared Darcy’s house.

“I forgot to tell you, I told Shantal I’d go see a play in Kelowna tomorrow night. Some of her friends from the coast are in a theatre group, and they’re travelling around the province. Just in case you’re wondering where I am,” she said casually.

“Okay. How late are you going to be?” he asked.

“I don’t know; it could run pretty late. I’d have to check with Shantal. It’s at the community theatre downtown,” she responded.

“Just call me when you get home. If it’s early you can come over to my place, and I can give you that tour of the ranch I’ve been promising you,” he said.

As they turned into the driveway, he switched off the stereo and parked, but didn’t move to open the door. “I don’t think your sister likes me. I think she’s already made up her mind that I’m a bad influence on her little sister. I hope you don’t feel that way,” he said, taking her hand tenderly in his.

“Of course not. Shantal isn’t just my big sister you know; she’s a lot older than me. I used to feel like I had three moms,” she laughed half-heartedly. “She was more like a babysitter than a friend for most of my childhood, and sometimes I think she’s still trying to program my life. She means well though,” she said.

“I want you to tell me if she says anything bad about me. I have a right to know,” a wild look flashed over Ryan’s face for a moment.

Unexpected nervousness wracked July as Shantal curled her hair the following night. As her sister expertly brushed eye shadow, blush and powder, July worked hard to sit still. The process of trying to look pretty to see an old crush made July uncomfortable as she thought of Ryan, but she knew if she changed her mind now, especially with a mention of Ryan, the result would be an argument. For almost an hour she sat there like a doll being styled and arranged, while an ache grew and tightened under her ribs. Then she waited some more while Shantal sculpted herself.

Her sister’s normally brisk highway pace seemed subdued. Streetlights blipped overhead. Gas station floodlights, light from restaurant windows and truck headlights washed over the car, which glowed against the darkening blue sky.

“So, I have to ask, what prompted this date with Kyle? I mean, I remember you guys hanging out back home, but I didn’t know you were close enough to keep in touch,” she said.

“It’s not a date, and I always stayed friends with Kyle. I did use to have a crush on him, but that was a long time ago, and I didn’t talk about it much. It sort of fizzled out; he didn’t really feel the same way. Well, you know; your feelings for someone tend to fade when all they ever do is tell everybody about their own crushes, completely ignoring the fact that you’re sitting right there,” July said as she gestured at the dashboard. She wondered if Shantal could relate to rejection.

“Okay, now I don’t like Kyle so much. But Ryan doesn’t know about this, does he? I’m not trying to put him down, but he seemed protective, like … not too interested in you hanging out with old guy friends. Or new guy friends, or maybe any friends who happen to be male?” she said as she looked over her shoulder and changed lanes.

“He is a little jealous, I know. Look at it this way; I never have to worry about him cheating on me. But I do feel guilty going off to meet Kyle. Like you said, this looks like a date even though I’m pretty sure it’s not,” said July.

“I’m not worried about your intentions or what you tell Ryan or don’t tell him. But if he were the right guy, wouldn’t he be the one driving you to your friend’s play?” she said.

July diverted Shantal’s attention to their printout from an online map service, which instructed them to turn at the next intersection. Kelowna was warmer than Spruce Bend or Salmon Arm. Summer had already arrived in the balmy vineyard country, heating the evening along with a vivid sunset and slight warm breeze drifting off the nearby lake. July was relieved to see Kyle standing with a group, although she didn’t recognize any of them, in front of the downtown theatre’s bare brick walls.

She touched his arm from behind to get his attention. “Hey, Kyle, how are you?” “It’s been …” before she could finish, he scooped her up in a bear hug, Shantal hopping back out of the way with an amused giggle.

“July MacKenzie, you are lookin’ fierce. Nice hardware in the lip! That tiny hick town must agree with you,” he grinned.

“Ah, well, it’s really a pretty cool place to live. If you can get around that is,” she said.

He wasn’t as tall as she remembered. In a moment July found both empowering and unsettling, she realized that features she had once found striking now looked ordinary. She and Shantal joined their conversation about the latest interesting shops opened in Vancouver’s downtown core until it was time to head inside for the show.

Kyle’s group found their seats and they filed into a row near the front putting July between Kyle and a Goth boy with an inky shag, engrossed in his program.

The play didn’t start right away. Whispers and mumbles from dozens of people grew in the dark, driving July’s pulse and adrenaline, reminding her of the night she was followed by … She still didn’t know what. An arm came to rest behind her neck and she almost cried out, but it was just Kyle. She felt mildly uncomfortable as she tried to decide how she felt about this gesture. It dawned on her that she had also neglected to tell Kyle about even having boyfriend, let alone any detail about Ryan. Then the curtain went up, illuminating the audience.

Old second-hand furniture and poorly fitted clothes proclaimed a low budget operation, but the young couple on stage had enough talent to engage their spectators nonetheless.

I have to go now.”

Why, because he’s waiting for you?”

You know I have obligations.”

I don’t care; neither should you. You should worry more about yourself and less about someone who doesn’t care enough to show the smallest sign of respect.”

And you do?”

Respect you?”

Care about me.”

Scene after scene followed the couple’s struggle with denial, infidelity and abuse to an unhappy conclusion. The audience slowly filtered outside, eventually leaving Kyle and his friends standing out front with Shantal and July. Waiting for their actor friend to join them, the group tossed around ideas on where to go and what to do next, trailing off to stories about their high school, people they knew, parties and incidents.

Kyle casually put his arm around July and squeezed her shoulder, kissing the top of her head, planting a flag somewhere between big brother and boy-in-pursuit. She felt heat rush to her face and settle on her cheekbones. Maybe it wasn’t just Shantal who thought this was a date. She let it happen regardless as the sounds of the city and the bubbling conversation around her lifted her up. Laughing with Kyle again felt good and familiar, for just a moment, as though the last half year of her life had never happened.

She happened to look over at Shantal just as Shantal’s eyes widened in a look of panic. There was no time for her sister to stammer a warning. A blur of black fabric flashed past July. The dull thwap of fist on cheekbone happened so quickly that out of the corner of her eye, July saw only a distortion of Kyle’s face and a splash of blood. As he was thrown back, Kyle’s arm tugged at her shoulder, pulling her towards him. She stumbled as he fell.

“What the hell are you doing with MY GIRLFRIEND!” screamed Ryan. Kyle was on the ground, dazed, cupping his smashed jaw as Ryan stood over him wearing a contorted raging red face.

“Who do you think you are? Nobody touches my girlfriend! Especially not some drugged-out creep who’s out there banging any whore that’ll go near him!” he said, kicking at Kyle as bystanders tried to hold him back, uselessly trying to diffuse his rage.

“Ryan!” July stepped in front of Kyle protectively, grabbing Ryan by the arm. “What are you doing? What are you talking about? What’s wrong with you? Get out of here now before we have to call the cops!” she yelled, fuelled by utter panic and adrenaline. Ryan’s features turned quickly from rage to disgust.

“You’re my girlfriend,” he said with incredulity, “Nobody’s supposed to touch you but me. And this guy’s a sleazebag. I can’t tell you how I know, I just know; he’s bad news!” As his anger returned, he added, “But if you want to play the slut and hang off this loser all night, be my guest.” He yanked himself free and stormed off.

July knelt beside Kyle, who was still curled up on the ground, dazed.

“Are you okay? I am so, so, sorry. I have no idea why he did that, but … I’m so sorry,” she said desperately.

“Don’t be sorry; it’s not your fault you’re dating a maniac,” Kyle attempted a watery smile. “I didn’t know you had a boyfriend.”

“Dude, we should still totally call the cops,” one of his friends urged.

“Forget about the cops; why didn’t anyone tackle that nutcase?” asked another boy. The sound of Ryan’s squealing tires and engine rumbling farther and farther into the distance calmed the group.

“Guys, I think everything’s cool now,” said Kyle as July and Shantal helped him up. He pulled July towards him again, a hand on either shoulder, his face concerned as she shook in reaction to the sudden and unexpected violence.

“I’m going to be all right, but I’m really worried about you. Are you going to be safe around this guy? He knows where you live, doesn’t he?” asked Kyle.

“Yes, but I don’t think he’ll show up there. I’m so sorry you had to see — well, I guess ‘experience’ is the right word — the situation with Ryan. It’s been getting weird lately, but I wasn’t sure it needed to end until tonight. I am now totally certain. There’s nothing I can do about him knowing where I live, but I definitely have to break up with him,” she assured both of them.

“Why don’t you come out with us tonight? I’d feel safer if you were with us for the next few hours while he cools off,” said Kyle.

July blushed as she looked him in the eye and his sweet expression reminded her of the boy she used to daydream about between algebra problems.

“I’m pretty sketched out. We should probably just go home. But I can’t say sorry enough times for what Ryan just did. You’re sweet to say it’s not my fault, but I feel so bad. Still, it was really great to see you. Can I look you up next time I’m back home?” she asked.

“Of course you can. I totally want to stay in touch and not just if you’re coming back. Email me and let me know how you’re doing,” he said.

“I will, I promise,” she said.

The sisters walked in silence until they were back in Shantal’s car. As she turned onto the highway, Shantal said, “Okay, if you’re not going to tell me, I’ll ask. How did Ryan know where you were? I thought you made a point of not telling him. And what’s the deal with this Kyle guy? He seems awfully affectionate for some unrequited old crush,” she said.

“I told Ryan where I was going. I mean, I didn’t give him the exact address. I just didn’t elaborate on who we were going with. I honestly have no idea what possessed him to show up here. It doesn’t matter anyway since I’m breaking up with him tomorrow,” said July.

“I think that goes without question. I know it’ll be hard on you, but you’re right; you can’t take a chance if he’s jealous and violent. It’s kind of a shame that I never got to meet the super fantastic version of Ryan you keep saying he was until recently. I’m sure he really seemed like an awesome guy when you met. It’s hard to see change in people when you’re so close to them,” said Shantal.

“Whatever he was before, he’s not that now,” July said. They drove the rest of the way home talking about what bad timing Kyle had in deciding to finally like her back.

The next morning July fully expected Marie to get anxious and shrill. It looked like Shantal, however, hadn’t said a word about the events in Kelowna. Unless Marie was behaving uncharacteristically calm for a rightly concerned parent … No lecture was needed though July bounced back and forth in her mind as an irrational inner voice tried to justify Ryan’s violent outburst.

It is my fault, for lying. If I hadn’t lied about why I was there and who I was really with, this wouldn’t have happened. But guys get into fights all the time – it doesn’t make them dangerous. Oh hell, who am I kidding? I can’t even convince myself. Anyway, how can I keep dating him now that Shantal saw that total train wreck of a beating last night? He’s a controlling jerk. Why did he even show up there? This guy’s been telling me what to do since the day we met. How did I not tell him to get lost ages ago? Completely decided, she resolved to follow through with the breakup.

Thorough justification shoved her out the door and down the road to Ryan’s house. Ignoring the possibility that she might find herself alone with an older, stronger, aggressive boy, she stormed all the way to his front porch and pounded on the door.

“Come in,” Ryan answered as July was already walking into his living room. “I know you’re angry, but you have to hear me out,” he said.

“I don’t have to do anything,” she said indignantly, planting her feet squarely in front of him. “I know I didn’t tell you the whole truth about what my plans were last night. But I wasn’t up to anything sketchy. You’ve been so freaky and jealous that I didn’t think I could tell you! And I don’t even want to know how you could possibly justify coming to the theatre to check up on me. Kyle is just a friend, but that doesn’t matter now. You and I, we’re done,” she said emphatically, putting her hands on her hips defiantly and glaring up at him.

Ryan put his hands up, conceding guilt. “I get that it was wrong to hit him, but you did lie to me. I wasn’t checking up on you, I just happened to be driving by and recognized Shantal’s car. I looked closer and saw the group of you. That guy had his arm around you! What was I supposed to think?” he coaxed softly, reaching towards her, a look of tenderness on his face.

She wrenched away from his touch. “Doesn’t matter now. Like I said, we’re over,” she said and turned to leave.

“Don’t say that,” he followed, grabbing her hand. “You know how great we are together. This isn’t just the most serious relationship I’ve ever been in, it’s the best. We’re meant to be together. We always were. Will you at least come for a walk with me and talk about this?” he pleaded.

She paused, letting him hold her hand. Was he really that into her? What chance did she have of meeting another guy who cared so much and that she was magnetically attracted to? Irrelevant. If he could hit Kyle, he could hit her. Or worse, right? But her resolve began evaporating under his hopeful stare. Attraction and hormones tightened their grip on her brain. She figured that a short walk wouldn’t hurt.

Bypassing the corral where they’d first met, he took her through a field dotted with huge rolls of hay, towards a large brown barn. She had come so far since her move and so much had happened since her first trip to Spruce Bend. Had she seen this field one summer years ago? How much of the valley had they really explored then? What would she have thought if someone had told her that she would one day be back in this town with this boy, without her mother, troubled on all fronts? As they walked, she considered the possibility of simply staying friends with him. After all, they were neighbours and would be for at least another year. When they neared the barn, he stopped, turning to face her.

“I think it’s time for me to tell you something personal. I’ve been meaning to mention this for a while now and after last night, I pretty much owe you this,” he said.

“Ryan, I don’t know if there’s anything you can tell me that would make last night okay. Honestly, I don’t want to be someone who lets that kind of thing slide; I’m not that person,” she said.

“Just listen, this is serious: I have a mental illness. A disorder I guess. I’m clinically depressed and it means my emotions get out of control, not just sad like most people think. I should be taking medication for it, but after we started dating, I stopped taking it. There were side effects from what I was taking; it made me sleepy, gave me the runs pretty badly sometimes, but the worst was that it made me … not ‘interested,’ if you know what I mean. You would have noticed at some point, and I didn’t want you to find out at all. Ever. But I’d rather tell you than lose you. I love you,” he said.

She had been so sure of her decision when she left her house, ready to keep her resolve to end the thing for once and for all, but here she was, hesitating. He hadn’t been in his right mind. How could he be accountable for that outburst if he has an illness? Love makes people do crazy things. No boy had ever said he loved her before. Surely that counted for something.

“I had no idea. I don’t know how to react to this, but I’m glad you told me,” she said.

He looked at her expectantly, allowing an uncomfortable silence to expand.

“Are you willing to go see someone and start taking those pills, or something like them again?” she asked.

“Of course, that’s what I’m trying to tell you,” he blurted without hesitation. He hugged her tightly hanging on much longer than normal. She felt something tickle her ankle and shook it as she wriggled away to see what it was.

Her eyes took a moment to focus on the uneven movement erupting upward out of the earth and over their shoes.

“Oh, God, what the … There’s something moving on the ground,” she said, mesmerized by the seething mass.

Thousands of little black legs, quivering hairs, twitching feelers and shiny shells all poured out of the soil, spreading in all directions. Her nose wrinkled with revulsion.

“Holy shit! That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen! They’re everywhere!” she said.

“What are you looking at?” he asked as he leaned, squinting to see. “That looks like … like a puddle of oil or … something?”

“It’s bugs! Hundreds of filthy, nasty, creepy little bugs! They’re just flowing out of the ground! We’ve got get out of here!” she said as she pulled on Ryan’s bicep. They took off at a sprint, but something made her pause. Her intuition pulled on her gut and moving forward felt like trying to run in deep water. She broke away from Ryan and ran back. He turned and, with a confused look, watched her for a second, then followed.

July stopped short and picked up a long bent stick. She stepped cautiously towards the morass, crouching down and poking tentatively. A large, slow moving beetle emerged in the midst of the living tar, holding a white object in its mandibles while the glistening black forms flowed around it. No, wait, it wasn’t white, it was pale green. She knelt down to retrieve the object while the scurrying swarm clicked and chattered. The back of her scalp itched at the sight, but she focused and forced herself to pick it up. Impossible! She started to shake as she turned the object over in her hand to confirm her suspicion. It was her mother’s jade ring! She held it up to look at it more closely. When she saw a smear of what looked like blood was on the inside, the same instinct that pulled her back to it told her to pocket it. She shuddered at the nauseating mess, and stumbled away from it, colliding with Ryan as he caught up. She practically stomped back to his house, Ryan walking behind. He didn’t need much convincing to let July head home for bed. Unsettled still in frightened reaction to the swarm, he mumbled something about her calling him when she got home, but she responded with a wordless look of amazement and fury that unnerved him.

After nightfall, she decided to confide in her journal again, surprised at herself for half hoping that whatever force had spoken to her through the ink before would do it again.

More weirdness happened today. I found Mom’s ring — again! It was covered in a mass of disgusting insects. It couldn’t have been, but it was really out there, in Ryan’s field, unearthed by those bizarre creatures. I’m still holding it; I’m so far beyond freaked out. How did it get all the way out there? Did I have it with me? Did I drop it just before finding it? No, I know I didn’t have it. And I know Mom wore this ring every day. How did it get into a box of old photos in the first place? She was wearing it when she died, I know she was. I shouldn’t be holding this; it shouldn’t be here. I don’t think there’s any explanation for all the stuff that’s been happening to me other than it being from, like … beyond, or something. It’s not natural. It’s surreal. I meant what I said to Shantal, that I’m starting to believe in freaky stuff.

July stopped writing and watched the page, waiting to see if the book had a new message or some enlightenment. Nothing happened. Slightly deflated, she closed her journal, put it next to her mother’s on the dresser, and turned the radio on to help her sleep.

– Chapter 13 –

Summer Fair

A perfect cyan sky hung over the recreation complex they had driven for almost an hour to reach. Three buildings were housing a festival of art, music, jewellery, clothes and exotic cuisine. The buoyant sounds of amateur electric guitar found them in the parking lot as soon as they pulled in.

In the warmth of the June sun, the calm valley air carried each note clearly. Shantal and Kari were still chatting away, completely unimpeded by the fact that they’d just met for the first time. When they’d stopped to pick up Kari, Shantal had made her usual amount of small talk which, combined with Kari’s bubbly responses, had set July free to drift out the window and watch the dark green hills roll by.

A quiet creek carved through the grounds of the complex, separating the parking lot from landscaped lawns, willows and pines. July wondered if it turned into Salmon River down the line. Looking at the weathered old buildings ahead, it occurred to her that some structures and settlements had been established in the Interior a lot longer than she had given the area credit for. Now that she had resigned herself to staying awhile, she started to see the beauty in the rural valley and its areas of wilderness.

July stopped to look at a photocopied hand-drawn poster on a stand in front of an old curling arena with thick cement walls. The poster outlined which buildings contained which vendors with a rough layout of all the booth locations. Browsers milled around the entrance, on the grass nearby and along the path separating the arena from an auditorium and an outdoor bare skating rink. Children squealed, running around with cotton candy and ice cream cones. Grandparents sat in portable chairs, relaxing under the sun.

They walked through the cement foyer of the rink, their eyes adjusting to see row after row of booths and tables layered with wares, covering the floor of the huge open room, snaking back and forth. Trinkets sparkled, dolls smiled, wood and metal work shone, glass and pottery glowed all amid the shuffling and murmuring of the crowd. Most of the treasures that caught their eyes were more expensive than any of them could afford, but they wandered about, lingering here and there, fending off hunger and frustrated longing for things they didn’t need.

Not quite midday, lines were starting to form in the makeshift food court set up on the former ice rink. The appetizing aroma of samosas, pierogies, gyros, burgers and, best of all, deep-fried mini donuts tantalized everyone within a two-block radius.

After a not-so-healthy but delicious helping of poutine, the girls headed over to the auditorium where they hadn’t browsed yet. Vendors set up along the exterior in tents propped up on the grass looked more like campers than artisans, but the price was right for the knick-knacks and services they offered.

“Hey, July, let’s get henna tattoos! No, wait, let’s get tarot readings!” Kari said, bouncing on the spot.

“I wouldn’t mind getting a henna tattoo,” said Shantal, eyeing her bare arms for the right spot to be marked. “I guess I’d better get in line,” she said with a smile.

“I’m totally getting my cards read. Look, there’s no line,” Kari said and fluttered off too, not lingering for her friend’s decision. July watched as she rummaged through her bag and negotiated at the table.

The wait for henna was long, and the silk pillows, plush throws and batik tapestries of the next tent were inviting. July got in line adjacent to a sign that read, “Monashee Palmistry: Spiritual Insights and Holistic Introspection,” the letters written in an elegant script. She didn’t know exactly what the rest meant, but she knew she was waiting for a palm reading, which was different from Shantal and Kari’s choices, even if it turned out to be nothing more than hocus-pocus.

While she stood, July watched Kari’s cards being arranged in a strange pattern. The first card had a handful of cups, the second a set of scales, the next a Mother Nature figure upside down. She couldn’t see the others. With no amount of strain could she make out what the diviner was saying to Kari.

Her session with the palm reader was more comfortable than she anticipated. The salt and pepper haired man quietly asked her which hand she wrote with, took her right hand and gently pried it open, palm up.

“Your head line is bolder than your heart line; you must be very academic and live mostly in your mind. Hmm … your fate line is unusual … you’ve suffered a lot of pain and loss for someone so young,” he said. He took her left hand as well and his eyebrows puckered. “A death of someone close like a parent or sibling or dear friend; a shock after such a happy, peaceful childhood.”

He didn’t look up, but back to her right hand, still examining lines, and continued, “Something uprooted you recently, but the situation isn’t resolved. There is a dark force in your life that you can’t see. Something is hanging over you; it could be dangerous and it weaves back into your past,” he said.

Concern wrinkled the palm reader’s face and he looked up at July. She couldn’t think of how to respond, so she shifted in her seat, feeling uneasy.

“So are you going to be famous?” Kari called out as she jogged over and the palm reader frowned. “Shantal’s still getting her tattoo. How much longer are you going to be?” she asked. July frowned at her too. “Whoops, sorry, you’re not finished yet. I’ll just wait over here.”

July thanked the palm reader and paid him for his reading. She followed Kari over to some nearby booths of hemp and bead vendors until Shantal was ready to take them home.

*

The boy was rifling through a plastic bin of pocket multi-tools in the hardware store, looking for a good pocket knife, when he heard a familiar voice from the next aisle. It was his psychiatrist. He covertly leaned back in the shadow of the corner shelving and shamelessly eavesdropped on the conversation.

“Come on; what’s the matter hon?” said Rachel.

“It makes me sad to think about going back to the city. I know we still have another two weeks in the Kootenays before we go back, but I’m already dreading the traffic on Marine Drive,” said her companion.

“I know how you feel, Marie,” Rachel replied sympathetically.

“This town makes me want to slow down and try a new lifestyle. I’ve started craving our summer visits here for months before the Pioneer Hills camp actually starts,” said Marie, smiling at the shop owner behind the counter as she emptied her basket one item at a time. The owner, an elderly lady with kind eyes, smiled back at her.

“It’s not like we could move here. I mean, I’d love it just as much as you if we could live here year-round, but there would never be full-time work for me. I may complain from time to time, but I’m not ready to up and leave my practice at the hospital,” said Rachel.

“I know we can’t seriously consider moving here, but it would be so nice to have a little store with pleasant customers in a peaceful community. I know how I feel about this town isn’t just idealizing country life. I really like it here,” Marie said wistfully as she collected her change, and they headed out the door. “I feel like we belong here. Even the local people are used to us now,” she continued. “Look at Mrs. Palmer at the hardware store, for example. Always chatting, telling us about her family. It’s like that at the campground too and at the other stores.”

“Maybe we will move here someday. We’ll get to retire eventually, I promise,” Rachel said and put her hand on Marie’s shoulder as they walked toward the car.

– Chapter 14 –

Hot Springs

By the time their second daughter learned to swim, Rachel and Marie had the means to take their children on summer holidays. Rachel knew that because of her daughters’ age difference, she only had a handful of years for family vacations before her oldest would be out on her own. A repeat favourite was a hot spring resort in the Purcell Mountains on the other side of the province.

The nine hour drive took them over mountains, through a canyon, past rivers, orchards, vineyards and desert country until they came to more mountains. They usually split the journey into two days in at least one direction. It was too long to keep children cooped up in a car and much more fun for the mothers to take it easy.

Meanwhile, their teenager relished the opportunity to spend a week in her bikini, but was equally fascinated by the rock formations inside the hot springs’ natural tunnels and caves. She had no fear of confined spaces and waded through warm water in dark caverns touching the walls thoughtfully as though they had a story to tell her if she was patient enough.

A decade later, Marie found herself looking at a dog-eared booklet for the little mountain resort while she sipped a glass of homemade honey wine on her back deck. A tugging at the back of her throat swelled through her cheeks and she let tears roll without trying to clean or contain them.

She missed her lover and best friend. Maybe returning to the seat of so many meaningful memories would help. A piece of Rachel might still be there in the forest trails and thermal springs. Marie snapped back to the present when Shantal walked out onto the deck to set the table for dinner.

“I’d like to take you girls on a holiday this weekend. Friday is July’s last day of school and we’ve got a lot to celebrate with you finishing your first year at UofA, plus the hardware store’s been earning well for two months now,” said Marie.

“What, to Arrowhead Hot Springs?” Shantal asked, eyeing the booklet in Marie’s hand.

“I thought we could try it,” said Marie with a smile.

“I’d love to, but … are you sure you want to? What about July? It might be too soon for her,” she replied with concern.

“I’ve given that some thought and I think it could be very tough or really great. So I say we give it a try, and if even one of us is unhappy, we all go home. I think a trip to Arrowhead might give us all some kind of closure or at least a chance to remember your mom in a place where we were all happy together. Sound good?” asked Marie.

“That sounds awesome,” said July as she stepped out onto the patio. “I think going to the hot springs would rock,” she said.

“What about Ryan?” Marie asked as she finally wiped her face. “I’ve been getting the impression you two aren’t getting along,” she said.

It had been July’s intention to tell Marie a simpler version of events once the dust had settled and she knew what the end of the story would be.

“Well, it has gotten a little complicated. He’s got some issues he’s working through,” July said, blushing as she sensed her sister rolling her eyes behind her. “I’m not sure what’s going on to tell you the truth, but I think a little break might be the exact right plan,” she said while she fiddled with the seam at the bottom of her T-shirt.

After firing off an email to Kari explaining why she wouldn’t be in touch for awhile, July decided to go see Ryan in person. She found his car in the driveway, but as usual, his parents’ three-quarter ton pickup was gone. She looked in the front window and saw Ryan’s mother transferring cookies from a metal sheet to a plate on the kitchen table.

On the few occasions they had spoken, July felt uncomfortable around the timid lady. Hoping to avoid her, July walked around to the side of the house and paused to scan the backyard. A hand came down on her shoulder and she yelped.

“July, what are you doing?” Ryan asked.

“Looking for you. Jeeze, you scared the life out of me,” she exhaled, with her palm flat on her chest.

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to freak you out. But it’s good to see you. Did you come over to hang out for a while?” he asked.

“Actually, I just wanted to let you know we’re leaving town for a bit,” she said. Watching his expression, she added, “Marie is taking Shantal and me to this old hotel in the Kootenays. It’s a place we used to go with my mom when I was a kid. It’s not until the weekend, but I wanted to tell you as soon as I knew.”

He beamed back at her with an odd, paternal air. “That’s my baby. I just want to know what you’re up to so I don’t worry. How about I come pick you up for a coffee later?” he said, and she nodded in agreement. July got the distinct impression that Ryan felt at that moment the way a dog owner does when the animal rolls over on command. Her sense of unease deepened as she walked home.

This can’t go on much longer, she thought. It’s not a relationship; it’s an awkward dance of bullying and appeasement. Even if he is sorry, I don’t think I can go back to trusting him. I want to believe him, but I just can’t completely. I don’t want a boyfriend I’m afraid of.

The next day at school July was still preoccupied. Fortunately, there was so little to do that her classmates were all chatting and nobody noticed how intently she’d been drawing patterns in the margins of her notebook. Wrapping up her Grade 11 year was quiet and uneventful. She simply rode the school bus as usual, walked home from the stop and packed for the trip.

Early Saturday morning, Marie herded them into her station wagon for a leisurely drive with a few stops for food and at the viewpoints like old times. The drive to the resort wasn’t nearly as long from Spruce Bend, and anxiety surfaced only in a few uncomfortable silences when they passed a memorable spot. Marie had booked them for three nights to make their stay long enough to be worth the drive, but still mindful of the store’s closure and Shantal’s search for a summer job.

Musty air cultivated by years of smoking, wood rot, carpet cleaning and air freshener greeted them in the Arrowhead lobby. It wasn’t the refined odor of luxury, but it smelled like home to July and Shantal.

Strings of yellow-white lights still hung suspended in the middle of the room with beads of liquid flowing down, clinging to each spiral like oil. July used to think of the cheesy fountain feature as a beautiful sparkling waterfall. The gift shop seemed tackier and the pool looked smaller. 70s era beige and brown art deco carpeting had been replaced by a hardy blue and peach loop pile.

Marie checked them in, and after flopping suitcases on the two queen beds, one of which Shantal and July would have to share as always, they walked out to the main pool and deck behind the building. A brilliant sunset wove fuchsia, hot pink and orange clouds into a teal sky seeping into sapphire blue above. The deep green mountains were almost black by then, highlighting steam rising from the water.

“I’m glad we came,” Marie said as she put one arm around each daughter.

“I’ve got my two girls and the world’s best view. I don’t need anything else,” she said squeezing both daughters.

“I’m glad too.” Shantal put her head on Marie’s shoulder. July hugged Marie back before leaning away to peer over the re-stained wooden deck that hung over a dramatic drop to the woods below.

“It seems like we were just here, but it looks different. I guess it must be the new carpet,” said July.

The town below had not changed much over the years with no industry to fuel it and no newcomers moving in. If Spruce Bend was a world away from Vancouver, another league separated her new home from this little community frozen in time.

Shantal and July spent the next afternoon window shopping and sipping iced tea at a diner they were both sure would not pass sanitary scrutiny. Two sleepy days of soaking, sunning, lounging and eating passed peacefully. By the end of their third day, July was so relaxed that she fell asleep in a lounge chair by the pool after a large plate of clam and mussel fettuccini. Marie and Shantal decided not to wake her when they went inside to watch a movie.

July slept deeply and her dreams took her back to their Vancouver apartment. Looking out the window, she saw townhouses lining the street, the corner store, trees before the bridge and ocean. The faded cluster of highrises was wreathed in a haze of smog where the city met the horizon. In a blink, night fell and the lights of the city glittered like stars. She turned around to see Shantal standing behind her smiling; then there was a sudden flicker, and her mother stood there instead with a sorrowful expression.

Her pale skin made the blood look darker, flowing over her face from a wound on the side of her head. It glistened through matted hair. Rachel’s parched lips moved, but no sound, not even the whisper of air came out. She stretched her arm towards July, reaching, still trying to talk.

July could smell a car engine again. As her mother’s fingers touched July’s jaw, she felt the cool, smooth band of jade on the inside of her mother’s hand. She smiled at her daughter, then, distracted by something behind July, Rachel covered her eyes with her forearms. The apparition let out a piercing scream and July’s vision burst in a flash of white light.

July convulsed as she woke and gripped the side of the long chair, vomiting her fettuccini dinner onto the pavement. The sky was black and the deck was abandoned. She collected herself and went inside to go bed. She found Marie and Shantal, both asleep in front of a late night talk show. She quietly slipped into the bathroom to brush her teeth before easing under the covers next to her sister.

Morning sunlight wasn’t enough to wake her as her body recovered, but a loud voice sent a jolt through her.

“Shall we have one last room service before we go or do you want to eat in the restaurant?” said an energetic Marie.

July opened her eyes to Marie’s bright face leaning over her. Shantal was already combing wet hair, but last night’s illness hadn’t worn off and July couldn’t muster the energy to leap right out of bed.

“I got sick last night,” she said. Her frown matched the tone of her voice.

“Sick? You mean you threw up?” asked Marie.

“I hurled pasta and shellfish all over the pavement by the pool. I feel bad for not telling anyone, but it was dark when I woke up. I fell asleep by the pool after I went in that tunnel hot spring,” said July.

“You must have gotten a touch of heatstroke … Well, room service it is then, but it’s toast for you young lady. And I’ll call the front desk and let them know about the poolside,” Marie said as she kissed July’s forehead and smoothed her hair gently.

“No, I can get it together,” July said as she pushed herself up. “I want to eat in the restaurant. It’s stupid, but I’m kind of set on it. Memories, I guess.”

Beyond the light waterfall and the couches in the lobby was an opening in the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that separated the restaurant from everything else.

“A table for three please,” Marie said to the boy wearing a vest standing behind a wooden podium. He seated them immediately in a completely empty dining room. “Looks like we’re the early birds today,” she said after their host left.

“No kidding. I expected the whole resort to be more packed at this time of year. It’d be a shame if they ever went out of business. And speaking of shame, I hope you’re not put off hot springs now, July,” said Shantal.

July looked back at her sister with a glare of disdain.

“I wouldn’t want you to have a rotten memory of that cave. It’s not just a beautiful place for a soak, it’s a truly unique geological —”

“I had a dream about Mom last night,” July interrupted.

“Oh honey …”said Marie.

“No, it wasn’t a sad memory dream or anything like that. It was a scary dream. I’ve been having all these crazy dreams and experiences. I’ve been seeing stuff; stuff you wouldn’t believe! After last night, I don’t know how, or what it means, but I think Mom is trying to tell me something,” July kept racing through her theory. “I think what happened to her was complicated and bad and wrong and I think she wants me to know or do something,” she said earnestly.

Marie and Shantal’s expressions wavered between upset and perplexed, but before either could respond, they were interrupted by another vest-clad restaurant staffer.

“Can I take your order ladies? Some drinks to start?” Marie ordered for all of them. Once their server left, Shantal leaned in and gently responded to July’s outburst.

“Being a woman of science, I’d have to question extra-sensory perception and any supernatural phenomenon.” What a hypocrite, July thought. She was the one talking about an out-of-body experience explanation for that old memory I told her about.

“That said,” Shantal continued, in an ill-disguised effort not to sound totally superior and dismissive of July’s belief, “I wouldn’t be drawn to archaeology, to past civilizations and the mythologies and beliefs they held, if I weren’t fascinated by spiritual or unusual stories.”

July lifted her arm to object and accidentally knocked her juice across the tablecloth and onto the upholstered seat of the chair next to her. Her embarrassment deepened to a general feeling of inadequacy as a memory surfaced of being scolded for spilling chocolate milk in the same restaurant as a child.

She grabbed her napkin and mopped at the orange juice as she spoke. “I don’t need you to believe me. I just wanted to get it off my chest. I know it’s weird and I’m a freak. Maybe you think I should get help,” she said.

“Sweetie, you just need time and family. You can talk to us about anything,” said Marie, with a glare at Shantal. “I think the first thing we can do to sort you out is talk about getting rid of that lip ring,” Marie added as she continued cutting her eggs.

July looked from Marie’s worried face to Shantal’s con-descending one. Obviously she wasn’t going to get any useful insight from either of them.

At about the same time that morning, Ryan sat down to his computer and logged into July’s email account. She was slipping away; he could feel it. He’d just finished his last year of high school, but she had another year to go, and without him at her side. He had to keep better tabs on her, and email was a great way to do it; discrete and, if he was careful, untraceable, at least to July. It worked perfectly when he first started logging into her account; he’d caught a note from that Kyle guy confirming plans for the theatre. A little more digging in her saved messages spawned a few Google searches which led him to a network of North Vancouver blogs, profiles and personal pages. Browsing and reading for several hours painted Kyle as a little dirtbag; an evolving drug user and, from what he gathered from various photo collections, quite the player. It didn’t go smoothly, mostly because he’d lost his temper, but he’d tried to tell July and expose Kyle for what he was. Today, Ryan had a different reason for logging into his girlfriend’s email. He’d forgotten to delete something from her sent folder. There it was; the message he used to impersonate her to the bratty girl she always hung out with. It read:

Hi Kari,

Now that I’m thinking about it, don’t worry about giving me a call Tuesday. I’ll have just gotten back and I kind of need some space anyway. I think we’ve been spending just way too much time around each other. I’ll call or email you when I’m ready.

Cheers,

July

Today, Ryan had a more proactive plan in mind. He again posed as July on her email and wrote:

Hey Girl,

Sorry for the tone in my last. I’ve been out of it lately with all this stuff happening with my sister coming home, and arguing with Ryan. Anyway, I’m at a café, still on the road, but I’ll be getting back early. Can you meet me for coffee at that diner with the green circle sign over by your house? Shantal already said she’ll take me and run some errands while we hang out. I’ll be there around 1 pm. I hope you come.

July

He hit send, and then deleted the two messages. Not only would July be standing Kari up, but Ryan had set up a chance to hit the wedge between them with a hammer.

– Chapter 15 –

Satin Supper

Hot summer days can be long and boring when there’s nothing to do. Nothing interesting that is. Kari’s mom suggested some thrilling activities like weeding the garden, vacuuming the house and reorganizing her bedroom. Kari reminded her that vacation days could also be used for actual fun and filled her backpack with her MP3 player, pocket video game and wallet.

Kari had over an hour to kill before meeting July for coffee, but she preferred to wander and think than to sit still. She didn’t like getting a random rude email, but told herself that July had a lot on her mind.

She walked towards Main Street slowly. She stopped at the corner grocery for some candy and browsed through a dated movie selection she had no intention of renting from before she continued window shopping on Main Street. Licking layers off a prepackaged ice cream cone, she passed a trendy boutique store, a commercial art gallery, a jeweller’s, a gift shop and a crowded toy store window, lingering at some longer than others.

That her eyebrow ring, dark makeup and clothes covered by safety pins and graphic patches were off-putting to both shop owners and customers was satisfying for Kari. She knew she wouldn’t be misbehaving, but they didn’t. She enjoyed subversively posing the threat of wreaking havoc.

Realizing it was still too early for July to be inside the diner, but tired of the sun, she went in, ordered an orange juice and unfolded her pocket game, which she muted so no one would object while she waited. She sat playing for over half an hour before a figure slid into the bench on the other side of her booth. She looked up from her progress in the swamp castle to find her best friend’s boyfriend smiling sweetly at her.

“What game is that?” he nodded towards her hands.

She returned to focusing on her weapon selection. “Why?” she asked tersely.

“Can’t I just make a little conversation?” he asked.

“Okay, you’re making conversation. Anything in particular you wanted to talk about?” said Kari.

“Nothing, I just came over to say hi and see how you’re doing. I was on my way to Darcy’s and saw you in the window. I thought you might be bored with July away for a few days,” he said.

“I’m fine; I do have other friends, you know. Besides, she’s home early and she’s meeting me for coffee in a bit,” she said, then added, “Oh, didn’t you know? She hasn’t called you yet, has she? Well, now we know where her priorities lie.”

“Are you really sure about her priorities? From some of the stuff she’s said to me, I didn’t think you guys were too close any more,” he said.

“I heard you had a run-in with her friend from Vancouver. It sounds like you popped him a nice right hook. Probably not the best way to earn points with her,” she said.

His eyes narrowed while he processed her comment.

“Well, maybe I’m taking a risk chatting with you then, because I’m not going to earn points today either,” he said slowly.

“What are you talking about? If you’ve got something to say, just say it already,” Kari snapped.

“I know I won’t be July’s favourite person for telling you, but I just think it’s wrong the way she talks about you,” he said.

His voice took a serious, somber tone and he looked at her with convincing, almost moving apprehension. “I can see from the fact that she carefully edited her account of that incident in Kelowna that she hasn’t been totally truthful about a lot of things lately,” said Ryan.

“I’m sorry, but I trust and believe July. If she says you attacked her friend, then that’s what happened,” Kari said flatly.

“Then she conveniently left out why. You don’t honestly think I’d just jump some guy for no reason, do you?” he said and paused, letting the idea take root.

“She told me where she was going, so I looked up the theatre online to find out when the play let out. I was going to surprise her and take her out for a late dinner, but when I got there she was with this guy who had his hands all over her. It was mostly him doing the touchy-feely act, but she wasn’t stopping him. In fact, I’d say she was cuddling right up to him. She had told me she was going to see her sister’s friends, so I had no idea who this guy was. When I got there, she looked at me like I was dirt and told me to get a life when I asked what she was doing. I admit, I kind of lost it, but I think any guy would if he saw some stranger tracing his girlfriend’s panty line in public,” he said.

“That’s crap! July wouldn’t let some guy grope her. I think you’re seeing things. If that. You’re probably making that up. Why should I believe you?” Kari said as she lifted an eyebrow in disbelief.

“Why would I make this up? But forget about that for now. I sat down here to do you a favour before she hurts you too,” he said.

“I’m not going to forget about the fact that you’re trying to make it look like July is a creep and you’re this awesome guy looking out for everyone. I don’t need any favours from you.” she said, her voice scornful as she looked back down at her game.

“I think you do need my help, so here it is whether you like it or not. It sounds like July’s not as into hanging out with you as she might be acting like to your face. She’s saying some nasty shit behind your back and I don’t think it’s right,” said Ryan.

“I’m gonna need a little more than that. Like exact words,” she said.

“Specifically … she says you’re way clingy and small-town. She thinks your angsty emo act is a cover for how much you’d rather be pretty and popular,” he said plainly.

Kari’s game was flashing in her lap, still muted, but her character had died. She looked back at Ryan as she drew her chin towards her neck with skepticism. Her best friend would never say anything so vicious. But what did he stand to gain from making up this story? July had just sent a needlessly rude email and, unless she showed up soon, had also ditched on the coffee plans she made herself.

“I’m sorry; I know that’s pretty hurtful. Maybe it was wrong to tell you after all. I know she’s still messed up about her mom, and I think we need to give her some leeway there, even if that means letting her tell stories about me being this violent crazy guy. I just hope for both our sakes that she bounces back from this funk she’s in. I thought you should know is all,” said Ryan.

He slid back out of the booth and left. Kari didn’t believe him, but as she tried to concentrate on her game, she couldn’t help a niggling hurt at the idea of being an unwanted hassle to someone she thought was her best friend. If there was any truth to it, that is. She’d thought their connection was mutual, but they hadn’t known each other for very long. It was certainly possible she didn’t know her so well after all. And all this supernatural stuff was highly creepy, too. Maybe it was true what Ryan said; maybe July really was the unbalanced one. She switched off her game and stuffed it back in her bag, getting ready to leave before she started crying in public. And on the off chance that July still planned to show up, Kari didn’t want to be around when she got there.

As she marched home, Kari made up her mind that she didn’t need to talk to July again any time soon. Even assuming that Ryan was lying about July trashing her, Kari didn’t like being stood up and refused to send the first email or make the first call after today. If that girl was going to treat their friendship like “whatever,” then July and farm boy could have each other.

Hours later, Marie’s station wagon pulled in to the hard-ware store parking lot. The three passengers had put the awkwardness of the breakfast table behind them and agreed that coming home from Arrowhead Hot Springs with daylight to spare was nice. To keep them in a good mood and hang on to the vacation spirit a little longer, Marie offered to barbeque dinner on the deck. One upside to rural summer dining was that you never had to worry about agitating the neighbours or violating a fire code every time you wanted to light up the grill.

“July, there’s something for you out here on the deck. I think it’s from Ryan,” said Shantal.

A long white box gleamed in the sun, in sharp contrast to the weathered picnic table under it. A card tucked under silver ribbon had her name on it.

“He does have something to make up for doesn’t he,” Marie said in a disapproving tone. Marie wasn’t asking her any questions, so July realized that Shantal must have said some-thing about the incident outside the theatre after all, but probably not the whole story. July would have heard about it if Marie knew about the punchout. She was glad that hadn’t come out at least. She wanted to hide as much as possible about her situation with Ryan. She wasn’t sure they would understand, and she wanted to keep the peace at home.

“What’s the big deal? It’s just a present,” said July.

She picked up the glossy white box and loosened the ribbon around it.

“I don’t think it’s flowers. In the summer sun? Not likely if it’s been here for any length of time.” Shantal peered nosily over July’s shoulder. “No way! It’s a dress! It’s an evening gown!” she said, examining the contents of the box as if it was evidence from a crime scene.

It was a full-length powder blue satin dress with a halter tie at the top. The fabric was soft and the tissue paper surrounding it smelt like perfume. Looking for an explanation, July tore open the card and read it aloud.

July MacKenzie,

Please do me the honour of accompanying me for an evening of fine dining in at The Creekside Garden, tomorrow at 7pm. I hope to show you my deep gratitude for the second chance you’ve given me and demonstrate my worthiness of it.

Love Always,

Ryan Warner

“Well, that’s as romantic as it is sweet. He sounds like a perfect gentleman. He knows he screwed up and he’s making a real effort,” said Marie.

“I think he sounds like a perfect something, but gentleman isn’t the word I was thinking of. No teenage boy sounds like that,” said Shantal plucking the card from July’s hand.

“Would you guys relax? This is the guy I first met and it’s nice to have him back. I’m sure we were just going through a bumpy patch,” July said as she stroked the blue fabric affectionately.

The dress looked more like prom attire than something for a dinner date, but the restaurant sounded familiar and she remembered hearing about it being a relatively classy establishment in Vernon. After Vancouver’s exclusive trendy downtown eateries, not many places in the Interior seemed like fine dining. Even if they were overdressed, she wasn’t too worried about what people thought.

Shantal relented enough the next night to help July get ready so she would have a hairstyle to go with her gown. Knowing it was important to her sister, she spent over an hour pinning July’s hair into a French roll, loosening and curling ringlets around her face. By the time Ryan’s charger roared out front, July did feel like she was going to a prom.

He wore a dark grey suit with a plain white shirt and no tie. His naturally blonde hair had grown more vivid from the longer, sunnier days, complemented by a deepening tan. He looked ready to walk down a red carpet. Marie had a camera in hand and cooed between photos. Shantal smiled and waved as they left.

“Do you know where we’re going?” he asked.

“Your note said, ‘Creekside Garden’ so that’s pretty much what I figured the plan was,” said July.

“Yes, but it’s also the spot where my father proposed to my mother. It’s not the biggest hotel in the area, but it’s always been one of the nicest. The restaurant inside is part of a four-storey atrium built over a natural creek,” he said.

“Really?” she said in a high pitch. July’s nerves were more focused on the proposal part and less on the hotel’s architectural features. She shifted, thinking there was absolutely no chance that she’d be going up to a room afterwards.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going down a freaky road tonight; I wanted to take you somewhere nice is all. We’ve got my grad coming up next week, but that’s a huge thing. I want to have a special night out, just the two of us,” he said.

Unlike Arrowhead’s musty lobby, this hotel’s front desk glowed under the huge chandeliers hanging overhead. Humidity from the water features inside permeated the lower level of the building. They walked through the lobby and down the main hall to the Creekside Garden until the gated atrium came into view.

July gasped with pleasure. There in front of her a virtual jungle grew around carpeted paths and tall plush booths. The trees were decorated with hundreds of twinkling white lights, and she could hear water rippling in the background. Palm fronds reached out from the walls and grew up to the balconies of the surrounding rooms. Behind the veil of trees, a creek came into view as they wove through tables following their host. Once they were seated, she leaned over and gently pressed a leaf between thumb and forefinger.

“They’re all real, as far as I know,” said the server who came to take their order. July flushed in embarrassment.

A porterhouse steak and fillet of sole arrived promptly afterwards, and they ate in refined silence. July caught her reflection in the sliding door of the ground floor room across from their table. Each hair in her carefully sculpted style was still in place above her long, dangling earrings, and her gown shimmered. She felt like a sophisticated woman whose future held dazzling and exotic adventures.

The dessert that followed looked like an abstract modern art sculpture. July was entranced and wished she’d had a chance to dine like this before, as she lifted a tantalizing mouthful gently with her fork.

“I think I see some strawberries in there, so we’re probably safe,” Ryan said with a grin. “Are you having a good time? You’ve been quiet so far,” he said.

“I’m having a great time. I love it here. This place is so beautiful. I had no idea,” she raved.

“I’m glad you like it. Maybe Creekside will be a special place for us too,” he said. “But hey, it’s still early, so I thought we’d go for a drive up to one of my favourite views. I think part of what we need to work on is spending more time alone together. We’re always at your house or at school or some coffee shop. I think we need some privacy,” he said as he escorted her back through the hotel lobby.

Ryan drove across town at a leisurely pace and wound up a steep grade that afforded each home carved into the side of the hill an impressive view. They parked and walked over to the edge of a loose gravel embankment.

“The homes at the top here are the newest. I’d love to live here, but I’ve really got my sights on a little development on the other side of the provincial park down there,” he said, pointing to a scattered handful of houses in the distance off the shore of Kalmalka Lake. He lifted her hand, interlocking his fingers in hers.

A few feet back, where the gravel met the concrete road, was a bench, entirely out of place in the rugged terrain. That small structure of wood and metal was the only sign of more construction to come. Ryan gestured for July to sit, and laid his hand on her thigh as they watched coloured reflections of the sunset over the lake below.

“I’ll build you a dream home there someday,” he said.

July squirmed uncomfortably. “Ryan,” she paused, drawing in a deep hesitant breath. “I don’t even know what my ‘dream home’ would look like. Besides, I’m a tad more worried about going to university than where I’m going to live 20 years from now,” she said.

“Why are you worried about all that? It’s just more school. Do you even know what you want to do or why you want to go?” he challenged her.

“You know how much I want to go to art school. I don’t know exactly how I’ll apply it to a job, but I’m sure I’ll figure something out,” she answered.

“I’m going into a trade; probably electrician. I’m not getting stuck in some dead end town or tied to an obsolete business like my old man,” he said.

“That sounds like something you’re really passionate about,” she said.

“I’m passionate about not being a loser. And I plan to take care of you. Be an artist; it won’t matter, if I can pay the bills. Just don’t move back to Van to do it. You don’t have to be there for art,” he said.

“That’s all really sweet, Ryan, but I’m way, way too young to be giving things up and making long-term plans,” she said with concern as she turned to face him.

“Just let me worry about that,” he said as he drew her in and kissed her softly.

He slid his arm around her, tightly pressing his body against every curve of hers. She relented and kissed him back, caressing the back of his neck and pulling him towards her. His hands and mouth pressed harder and her heart raced. Fiercely entwined, they stretched out on the bench, wrapped around each other. Neither of them cared how uncomfortable the wooden slats were or that splinters and dirt were scraping their clothes. The energy between them was escalating to the point that fear at the prospect of actually having sex gripped her again.

Should I let it happen? Tonight? Maybe I’d feel better if I just got it over with. It’ll never feel right. If I just do it, I can stop worrying. He’s probably not ‘the one’, but does anyone ever wait for that, she rationalized. But I’d need to start taking the pill first. Reason started to gain the balance of her thoughts as she realized she was unprepared on so many levels. But she was prepared for at least one major step. She pulled away to catch her breath, and said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about something you said before I went on holiday.”

“What,” he said, half stunned, half irritated.

“I’m not sure if this is the right time to bring it up, but I suppose there won’t be a right time or place. When you were telling me why you reacted the way you did about Kyle, you said you loved me. At first, I thought you’d just blurted it out in the heat of making your case, but I just wanted to know if you meant it.”

“Of course I meant it. I don’t say things I don’t mean,” he said.

“Well, I feel the same way,” she said.

He smiled with his powerful gaze, asserting his intention to hear her say the words.

“Which is?” he asked.

“I love you too,” July said quietly.

– Chapter 16 –

Rubber on the River

Ryan looked out his bedroom window and saw a weary middle-aged man in a trucker cap and denim button-down surveying the field next to their house. Their ranch was a relatively small property and his father, Russell, went on about that fact every time he looked at it. Unlike the expansive ranches in the semi-arid desert to the north and south, their business was limited by available terrain, and they couldn’t afford to buy more property regardless. So his family focused on breeding horses, which theoretically, should have been profitable. His father was somewhat temperamental, and he tended to let his moods affect business decisions. After arguing with the owner of a prize stud, he was in an especially bad mood by lunch time.

“Chili again? How many times do you expect me to eat something you can barely cook to begin with?” Russell complained to his wife.

“I wanted to use the ground beef before it spoiled. The freezer is full,” she said.

“You need to manage this kitchen better. Starting with organization,” he said pointing at her forcefully.

“I like chili,” Ryan offered.

“I’m not worried about what you like. I might not be able to put a stop to your grandmother spoiling you, but I’m damn sure going to keep you from turning into a lazy dough-ass. Never should have let your uncle give you that car. Remind me again why you still don’t have a job?” his voice got louder.

“I’m in school, remember? Isn’t that supposed to be my job? I need a social life too, you know. So what’s the big deal if Grandma sends me a little money here and there?” he asked.

“The big deal is you should be ashamed to live off some old lady’s savings. You should be earning some cash if you’re out buying crap for parties with a bunch of loser kids,” said his father with a full mouth. “Aren’t you supposed to hold off on the partying for a while? Didn’t I tell you to rein that shit in? Can’t have you beating up kids left, right and centre.”

“I never should have told you about that. But the guy really did have it coming! Nothing happened anyway, he didn’t call the cops or anything. Don’t worry about it,” he said.

“Maybe I should worry about it. I need you here in the fall, not hauled off to jail because you can’t exercise a little self-control,” said Russell.

Ryan took a deep breath and met his mother’s gaze, but she quickly looked down at her bowl.

“I can control myself perfectly fine. I know when to speak up and when to calm down. I learned from the best,” he said.

“Do me a favour; just don’t leave any marks on the next one that pisses you off,” said his father.

“Will you please give me the slightest bit of credit?” Ryan met his father’s volume, with an irritated tone. He dropped his spoon into what was left of his chili and got up from the table.

Kari’s voicemail picked up three times in a row. July could have sworn they had plans to pick a beach and kick back for some suntanning on either Shuswap or Okanagan Lake as soon as she got home from her trip. She paced back and forth across her kitchen, tapping her left hand with the cordless phone in her right, second-guessing her memory, then worrying that her friend felt like a third wheel around her boyfriend, when the phone rang in her hand.

“Where have you been? I’ve been calling for like half an hour now,” July said impatiently.

“July?” said a puzzled voice. July halted her pacing.

“Yeah, who is this?” she asked.

“It’s Shelly … from the pageant, remember?”

“Oh, hi Shelly! Sorry, it’s been awhile and I’ve been all over the place. What’s up? How are you?” said July.

“I’m great. Uh, the reason I’m calling is, well, Corrine and I are going tubing this afternoon on the river in Enderby. We’re bringin’ the boyfriends and we thought you and Ryan might want to come with,” she said.

“Um … well, sure. I think my plans for today are kind of a wash anyway. Let me give Ryan a call and see what he’s doing. I’ve got caller ID; can I call you back at this number?” said July.

“Sure. Tell him we’re planning for around eleven, noon at the latest. Why don’t you meet us at the school parking lot in Enderby. It’s right on the highway in the middle of town. We’ll need to rent tubes before we hit the river, but there’s a campground on the way there that rents them by the day. I think it’s about ten bucks or something like that, so bring some cash,” Shelly instructed.

Ryan grudgingly agreed to go, and they met Shelly, Corrine and their boyfriends Dylan and John at the designated parking lot. Introductions were brief, but by the set of Ryan’s face, July could tell with a sinking feeling that he didn’t want to be there. She waited until they were back on the road to question him.

“What’s the matter? Didn’t you want to come?” she said.

“Obviously what I want is irrelevant since you made these plans without me,” Ryan sneered.

“You could have said no,” she said indignantly.

“I don’t like being put on the spot like that. You promised we’d go; I would have looked like an ass if I didn’t come along. Look, I had a crappy day at home before you called. I did want to get out of the house; I’m just not in the greatest mood,” he said.

“Do you want to do something else?” asked July.

“Let’s just get this over with,” he answered.

At the back of the three-car convoy, July stewed on her boyfriend’s words, angry that he was being difficult, frustrated that a day of fun could so randomly be turned to bickering.

Why did he have to take his problems with his parents out on her? Had he kept his promise and seen a doctor for his depression? Should she confront him about it? She felt bad wondering, but was he telling the truth about his mental health to begin with? Either way, he didn’t have the right to take a nice afternoon out and ruin it with some jackass behaviour. Make new friends? No, he had to be grouchy and mean. Just when he was starting to be that really great guy again — fresh melodrama. When they stopped to rent inner tubes, she slammed the car door and went in search of snacks for herself and one inner tube. That jerk can get his own, she fumed. But contrary to what she’d expected from everything he said, while they were waiting for the tubes, Ryan started chatting with Dylan and John who were totally smitten with Ryan’s car. When they got back to the cars, they all drove over to a bridge down the road.

“We’ve got to leave at least one car behind here so we’ve got some transportation when we get back out of the river,” said Dylan, rubbing his chin as he weighed his desire to drive versus the chance to ride in Ryan’s car.

Dylan’s faded blue Volvo station wagon was the only vehicle that could accommodate all six people, so they left his car behind. He and Shelly got into the back seat of Ryan’s car for a silent, tense drive to the next bridge. They parked in front of a trapezoid-shaped framework of riveted steel beams near a plain green and white sign that read Trinity Bridge.

July was still fuming, but held her tongue and waited for Corrine to explain what they were doing and where they were going, while everyone slathered on handfuls of thick white sunblock. The guys hopped in the water first on their tubes and stayed together, mostly peppering Ryan with questions about his car — the engine, stereo, paint job and endless other details. Corrine wound her naturally carrot-coloured hair into a roll and wrapped a hair tie around it while Shelly bound her ringlets with a bandana.

“Are you okay, July?” Shelly asked.

“Ryan was being an ass on the way here. He got all worked up about not wanting to come even though he said yes when I asked on the phone. I just don’t get him sometimes. Which leads to me wonder if we really belong together,” she said.

“Honey,” Corrine sympathized, “Don’t read so much into things. What you’re worrying about is just normal guy behaviour. They’re simple creatures. He probably figured you’d be spending the day in the sack, but if he’s got car fans around him,” she looked over at the three tube riders diminishing from sight down the river ahead, “he’ll be plenty entertained.”

“That’s all fine and good, but he doesn’t have a right to treat her like crap. Come on Cor, would you let John treat you like that and not even get upset? I wouldn’t let Dylan get away with a random asshole act without taking a strip off him. ’Course he’s never been much for macho-type stuff,’” said Shelly with her head tilted slightly.

“No, I probably am making too much out of it. I’m sure my own mood swings aren’t a total picnic either,” said July.

“Hey, did you guys remember to bring food?” Corrine interrupted.

Shelly and July produced an assortment of gummy candies, granola bars, pop and juice which they picked through quickly so they could catch up to the boys downriver.

The narrow spot they launched from was cool and well shaded by a stand of slender birches. July felt a strange affection for birch trees. Simply looking at their papery bark and the way the sun illuminated their yellowy-green leaves was reassuring somehow.

Once the river opened up, their tubes took them away from the curling current by the shore and out to the slow-flowing deeper water. A cloudless pure blue sky rested overhead. Daydreaming, limply baking in the heat under sunglasses and packs on backwards, the girls floated in silence for what seemed like hours.

July looked over the edge of her tube, curious if she could see any life in the water below. Her reflection looked strange; she thought for a moment she was looking at her mother. She nudged her sunglasses down, peeked over the frame, and refocused. Relieved to see nothing but her own face, she realized it must have been the red hair that confused her momentarily. She’d have to think hard before dyeing it again.

“So, July … we thought it was too bad that you bailed on Miss Pine Valley. We missed having you around,” said Corrine.

“Yeah, what happened there? Melissa was a real piece of work and all, but we thought you were dealing with her okay,” Shelly said.

“Who won?” asked July.

Corrine frowned and squirmed a bit before evading the question.

“You weren’t seriously in it just to win, were you? I mean only one girl wins, so it’s not really worth it if that’s the only thing you’re after,” she said.

“That’s not the point. Melissa won, didn’t she?” July said bitterly.

“Well … yeah; didn’t you see her in the paper or in the Stampede Parade?” asked Corrine.

“I must have missed it. My point was that none of us had a chance to win if it was rigged for her. Mrs. Cunningham never even said boo to all Melissa’s condescending little comments and she had to know the girl was shredding the other contestants behind their backs. Melissa’s a cruel bitch and I didn’t want to spend one more second in her presence. If there was no contest, then there was no contest, right?” July responded.

“I don’t look at it that way. It was something fun to do and I’ll want my daughters to do it too. It’s a community thing, and it’s not about winning or being popular if you’ve got your head screwed on right,” Corrine lay back on her tube.

“I’m not saying I think it’s mass conformity, really. It’s more like that kind of thing isn’t my style. No offense, it’s just degrading to women. Giving prizes to girls for how they look, stand, style their hair, wear their makeup — it’s a contributing factor to all the body image problems we have. Pageants are part of the reason some girls stop eating and others stick their fingers down their throats, so it’s not something I’d ever seen myself doing before Marie elbowed me into signing up,” said July.

“Ah, Shel, she’s getting political,” Corrine said with teasing tone.

“I just don’t want to be judged on my body, my taste in clothes or anything like that. I’m not trying to get political; I just have strong feelings about what I get involved in. In Vancouver I was a candy striper for a few years and I think, after doing a job like that, I’m looking for — I don’t know — meaning,” said July assertively.

“Nothing like candy striping around here I don’t think,” said Shelly.

“I never looked into it anyway because I don’t have a car,” said July.

“Weren’t you bored or anything after having so much to do with the pageant?” asked Shelly.

“I helped with grad decorations, which felt kind of stupid since I’m not actually graduating,” she answered.

“Did they turn out well? I’ll probably get to see them when John takes me to grad. Shelly and I aren’t graduating yet, so we’ve got a whole miserable school year without our boyfriends to look forward to,” said Corrine.

“Speak for yourself; I might be keeping my options open by the end of the summer if Dylan keeps up some of the dick behaviour he’s been pulling,” Shelly said as she pulled her sunglasses down. “Of course, that’s not until the end of the summer. I’ll still be going to grad with him. I take it you’ll be going with Ryan?” she said, pushing her glasses back up.

“Yeah, I’m going. And working on the decorations probably was a good plan. It was something to do and I got extra credit for working after class. Besides, after quitting the pageant, Marie would have been on my case day and night if I didn’t volunteer for something,” said July.

“Hey July, I’ve been wondering, why do you call her Marie and not Mom?” Shelly asked, again tilting her head.

Corrine propped herself up on her elbows and looked down over her sunglasses for July’s response.

“Because …” July paused, breathing in, more tired than cautious. “It’s a long story,” she said and the girls let it go.

The river narrowed again, and the girls found their counterparts hanging onto protruding fallen branches waiting for them to catch up.

“Took you long enough!” John was not patient, despite his efforts to project an image of laid-back coolness with spiked bangs, cargo surfer shorts and a wreath of black thorns tattooed on his bicep.

“Did you stop for manicures or just dig your heels in?” he said.

“Always getting my beauty sleep for you, darling,” said Corrine, diffusing him with her silky retort.

“Come on, if we get moving again we’ll still have time to make the store for barbeque supplies,” said John.

“Dude, I so want some greasy smokies! I’d even settle for a jumbo hot dog,” said Dylan. His trim figure did not match his taste in food.

“You know what they say about hot dogs?” John asked.

“Other than don’t eat them?” Corrine answered.

Ryan smiled slyly at July and said, “Rat tails and entrails.” She rolled her eyes in response.

“Okay, now that I never want to eat again, let’s just keep going,” said Corrine as her eyes darted to Ryan. He had a practically malicious look on his face.

“Nah buddy, it’s lips and assholes,” John corrected him obliviously.

“Both of you — charming. Really, truly charming. I don’t think I can eat now either,” said July, equally unaware of Ryan’s expression.

“Seriously, let’s worry about dinner later,” Corrine said as she hooked her arm into John’s and swung him forward. Shelly copied, grabbing the side of Dylan’s tube. July pretended to be looking through her bag when she saw Ryan’s outstretched arm out of the corner of her eye. He persisted, reaching towards her. Oh well. He’d been a jerk, but what did it serve to stay mad? Remembering their trip to the waterslides, she smiled back and took his hand.

They soon reached the riverbank beside the second bridge. Conveniently, the park area had picnic tables and cast iron barbeques. July volunteered to save a table while the girls went to the supermarket down the road, and the guys retrieved their cars. She wanted to decompress with her journal.

Another confusing day with Ryan is not quite over. Every once in a while, I step back from whatever I’m feeling about this relationship and ask myself how I could be so wrapped up in him. Did I always tell myself, “My life will never revolve around some guy,” only to wind up worried, “Oh no, will he break up with me if I say what I think? Should I break up with him? Is he treating me right?” Stupid drama. Classic teenage angst.

Mom, one of the many things I miss is just being able to talk to you. I know I could have told you about every-thing that happened with Ryan and you wouldn’t judge me — or him — or anything I said or thought. I know Marie loves me and she’d support my choices. Shantal — maybe not so supportive. But it’s just not the same. It never will be and that’s sinking in more and more. Sixteen-year-old girls aren’t supposed to be writing thoughts to dead mothers. Why did you have to die? Why am I so messed up over this? I know it’s not regular grieving messed up. There’s something wrong, chemically, psychologically; and you can’t help anymore.

Before the page could do anything unnatural, she shut her book, crossed her arms flat on the table and looked out at the blue water. The sun was near the hills, casting long shadows and a tropical golden glow on everything around her. Distant boat engines churned, throwing the odor of their fuel up into the breeze mixed with the scent of sunblock and lake water. She felt drowsy and laid her head down on her arms, listening to the sound of children giggling and water lapping as waves from wakes reached the riverbank. Just as she was drifting off, she thought she smelt a faint whiff of her mother’s distinctive ginger orchid perfume.

“Hey sleepyhead!” Shelly bounced up beside her with a bag on each arm.

“Wake up, old lady! We have to get started on the food, and you’re helping,” Corrine said, poking her in the side.

Shelly and Corrine unloaded plastic grocery bags onto the picnic table top and benches. Vegetable juice, cola, boneless chicken breasts, a bag of salad, a bag of chips, Kaiser rolls and, whether anyone was going to eat them or not, all beef hot dogs.

After dinner, the girls stretched out lazily on the grass while their stomachs were still digesting, but Dylan and John were ready for action. They noticed an empty volleyball net mere metres away and John said he had a ball in his trunk.

“I think I’ll pass,” said Ryan, peeling off his shirt. “I’m going to head out for a swim while it’s still warm.”

“Can’t you guys sit and relax for awhile?” Corrine asked. “No rest for the hardcore!” yelled Dylan as he ran for the net.

“Yeah, you should get up off your butts and get come exercise. We’ve just been lying around all day,” John wagged his finger at his girlfriend.

“All right, fine, now I feel guilty and lazy. Are you happy?” said Corrine as she got up from the table. Shelly followed and beckoned to July from the net, but she let the foursome play without her.

I don’t think I fit in with these carefully made up girls with their beauty pageant and beach volleyball. They’re really nice, but I feel bad. These are the kind of girls I’m supposed to think are shallow and petty. Then again, I’m not the same girl I used to be. Maybe girls like this were never as bad as I thought. Maybe I should get to know them and spend more time around my own town.

It’s not fair to Marie, Ryan (and Kari soon I guess) or anyone else who has to drive me around just because I get bored within the confines of my new neighbourhood. Even if I get to go back home for art school, I’ve got at least another year in Spruce Bend. I should learn to live within the natural boundaries of my life.

I think I’ve had unrealistic expectations of my best friend and my boyfriend. I’ve always had unrealistic expectations, and it just keeps hurting me. I still hate volleyball. I bet I always will.

Aware that her words about her mom and about shallow girls might be read by anyone who sat down, she closed her journal again and tucked it safely under the sweatshirt in her backpack. She meandered towards the shore, near where Ryan was swimming, hoping he’d get tired and come back to the beach.

“Ryan,” she called out, “How much longer are you going to be?” There was no response from the river — either he couldn’t hear or didn’t care.

“I’m wiped. I’m going to go wait in the car,” she called, then collected their stuff and picked his keys up off the table. She dumped the pile of clothes and towels carelessly in the back and reclined in the front passenger seat, looking idly at the dials and vents on the dash. She was just dropping off again when she was brought fully awake by a cold shiver that passed over her body, raising goosebumps on her flesh. She looked around frantically as she heard the beginnings of an eerie humming building up in the air. Oh God, she thought, not again. She’d immediately recognized the same otherworldly whisper she’d heard before. Her ears ached as the sound got more intense. It was like listening to a roomful of people talking incoherently at the same time; none of the words made sense. Within moments, smoke started billowing out from inside the glovebox and black ooze leaked out the side. She panicked and flung the door open, just as Ryan appeared beside the car.

“What’s the matter? Are you ready to go already?” he asked casually.

July looked back at the clean, polished dash. This was getting scarier and scarier. Shivering, but trying not to show anything, she reached out to Ryan for a comforting hug. “Yeah, please, let’s go home.”

– Chapter 17 –

A Purple or Indigo Car

The next morning July resolved to talk to Kari, determined to meet up with her that day. When she checked her email and found nothing but spam, she called Kari’s cell and left a desperate message that things were wrong with Ryan and that she was still having visions and dreams.

Five minutes later, Kari called back and agreed to come over. Having passed her probationary driver’s test earlier while July was away, she was glad for any excuse to go out for a drive. But once they were back in July’s room Kari confronted her.

“Listen, now that I’ve had a few days to think about this it seems stupid to ask, but what was up with that frosty email you sent me last week?” she said.

“What are you talking about? I haven’t sent you anything since the email that I was going to Arrowhead on vacation,” July said, perplexed.

“So let me get this straight: you didn’t send me an email from the road that you’d be back in town early and wanted to meet me for coffee?” Kari asked.

“No,” July said defensively. “No! What are you getting at? You think I’m sending you nasty emails?”

“That’s what I’m saying, now that I’ve had time to think about it, it doesn’t really fit. Rudeness isn’t really your style. But look — I wanna show you something in my hotmail,” she said.

They went out to the communal computer just off the kitchen, and Kari logged on to her account and showed her the two suspect messages. July sat down next to her with a thud, stunned.

“I don’t know what to say other than, I didn’t send that,” she said.

“I get that; honestly, I do believe you. What I’m saying is that this means someone else has access to your email. Someone that maybe doesn’t want us to be friends,” she said leadingly, gesturing at July to put the pieces together.

July lowered her voice to a whisper. “You think Ryan has my password?” she hissed. “Wait — I think you’re right! That would totally explain the fight with Kyle! ‘Just happened to be driving by’ — what a crock!”

They traded seats so July could log on to her email and change the password. Marie was chopping something in the kitchen, so July nodded at Kari to follow her back to her room.

“Remember all that stuff I told you about him convincing me to stay with him. Well, I left out the part where he told me he was clinically depressed. I wanted to respect his privacy, and I guess I was automatically sympathetic, more than most girls would have been probably, my mom having been a shrink and all,” July said. She sat down on her bed.

“I’m no psychiatrist, but the stuff he’s been doing sounds more like obsession and rage than depression. Your boyfriend is basically a violent crazy person who just goes around pounding people whenever he gets the slightest bit pissed off,” said Kari with a curled lip and wide eyes.

“Don’t put it like that! Lots of people suffer from mental illness. It’s not their fault, and it doesn’t mean they’re homicidal maniacs! But the thing is, he said he used to take medication, but that he stopped the meds after he met me because he didn’t want me to find out and think he was weird,” she said.

They sat in silence for a moment and July glanced at her night table, catching sight of her mother’s jade ring. Wanting comfort, she put it on, tracing the edges of the carved petals with her forefinger. The cool stone was colder than jade should have been, but instead of warming to her flesh, it got colder, stinging her finger. As she twisted and tugged trying to pull it back off, an image flashed in front of her of her mother on a horse. The image flickered, then she saw it again, her mother and a man out riding horses with a group of young boys. She watched, fascinated, as if from a great difference. There was something familiar about one of the figures on horses. No, it couldn’t be! Was that Ryan?

Another flash and she saw Ryan holding a photo of her and Jenna; he was pinning it to a board of other photos, old pictures from her blog and friends’ web sites.

“July! July, can you hear me?” Kari was standing in front of her, waving a hand in front of July’s eyes trying to snap her out of a trance. July ripped the ring off her finger and she was back in her bedroom.

“Shit, July, what the hell happened?” Kari said.

“I saw my mom! And I saw Ryan! He was at the camp; at Pioneer Hills, the one she used to come here to work at. I only ever saw the centre once, but I recognized the building behind the trail,” she said between gulps of air, as a jingling sound started coming from the top of her dresser.

A flash of silver hit the closet door beside them in a rush of cold air and fell to the floor with a thud. They both jumped, but when she saw what it was, July bent to pick it up. It was the locket Ryan had given her back when they first started dating. Kari gripped her elbows, bracing herself against her fear and confusion, heightened by the sudden chill in the room. July knew what the frozen air meant. She looked around in frightened anticipation as the sound of fluttering paper came from the vanity mirror next to her dresser. One by one, before their terrified eyes, photos of Ryan and July plucked themselves from underneath the frame and whipped across the room. The note July had pressed with its little flower fell at her feet. She had suspected it might have been from Ryan, but if the theory she was rapidly coming to believe was correct, this confirmed it. She hadn’t until that moment realized how frightened she should have been from the beginning. Her new blue dress hanging on the back of her door lifted off its hook, hanger and all, and fell to the floor without even a flutter.

July plunged her arm out in front of Kari, to protect her and keep her from running.

“Don’t move; it’s all right,” July whispered as the stuff stopped moving.

“I think this is pretty far from all right, July!” Kari hissed back.

“No really, it’s okay,” July said as she turned to Kari. “I’ve been thinking for awhile that all this stuff that’s been happening to me is my mom trying to communicate. I didn’t know what the message was, so it didn’t make sense that it was her. It made more sense that I was just having a break-down,” July said with heartfelt conviction. “But after what I just saw, I’m totally, one-hundred per cent sure she’s trying to tell me to stay away from Ryan because he’s dangerous. If he was at Pioneer Hills then Mom probably knew him, and knew he was violent.”

Kari stood still with her mouth open, processing the idea. “Actually, with all the ongoing weirdness in your world, that kinda makes sense. I mean, you don’t seem to be one bulb short of a pack, so I guess the alternative is that what you’re seeing is real. I mean, not real; okay, maybe I don’t get it completely,” Kari said, sitting down on the bed.

“I already tried telling Marie and Shantal. They don’t believe me at all. They think I’m losing it, but that doesn’t matter anymore. I have to end this with Ryan, like now, but I’m afraid,” she said.

“Listen, there’s a party at Hermit Bay tonight. That’d be the perfect place to break up with Ryan, with tons of witnesses so he can’t try anything. I’ve got to get back to the house to do my chores, but I can come back for you later,” said Kari. “You have to make sure he’ll be there, but whatever you do, don’t go with him. Tell him you’re meeting him there. I’ll be back for you,” she said.

“Okay, I promise,” said July as she and Kari hugged goodbye.

July barely had the energy to even watch a movie that afternoon. When she emerged from her bedroom after Kari left, she found the house empty. Marie was downstairs working at the store and today, July remembered, was Shantal’s first day at her summer job. Marie had called her old employer at the nearby campground and hooked Shantal up with her old job. July was happy for Shantal, but glad she’d had the option of working at the hardware store, so she hadn’t been forced into something similar after having quit the pageant. She sat in front of the television surfing channels for several hours, dreading the fact that she had to get up and get ready to go out by the time Kari came back. Exhaustion, unhappiness, and a righteous sense of self-pity had a hold on her, and she could barely muster enough energy to move.

She finally willed herself off the couch and into the bathroom for a shower. She let the old, high-pressure shower head numb her forehead as steam filled the room.

Out in the living room, their one phone started to ring, drowned out by water steadily pelting the enamel-coated iron bathtub. As Marie’s rickety old answering machine picked up, the whirring-clack of the tape prepared to play its message. Shantal’s recorded voice followed, smoothly saying, “Hi, you’ve reached Marie, July and Shantal. We’re not home right now, so please leave your name and number after the beep and we’ll return your call as soon as possible. Thank you!”

A man’s voice responded with, “Hello, this message is for Marie Jones. My name is Officer Preston with the RCMP. I’m calling to follow up with you regarding the hit-and-run accident involving the late Ms Rachel MacKenzie. We have located the original eye witness who identified a large purple or indigo car speeding at the scene of the accident. We still have reason to believe this could have been the vehicle that caused Ms. MacKenzie’s death. As we follow up on additional information from this witness we would like to confirm other aspects of the investigation and need to speak with you further. We have this number listed with your forwarding address in Spruce Bend, BC. We will try to reach you again at this number, but please return my call any time at one, triple eight …”

– Chapter 18 –

Dusty’s Camp and Cabins

He drove with both windows down, slowing for the cool shaded sections of highway on his way to the mid-sized campground just outside town. The prospect of the meeting ahead — long overdue, in his mind — cheered him. He could tell she didn’t like him and was his loudest detractor, which was unacceptable. So today he’d planned a remedy.

He reached the campground turnoff marked by a large wooden sign with faded weather-worn paint. Pulling casually into the main parking lot, he shut off the engine and fished an old hospital bracelet out of his glove compartment. He pocketed it and got out of the car.

He still wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to tell her exactly what he had been hospitalized for and by whom. Would it get his message across more effectively if she knew? Would he risk too much in revealing the relationship?

He waited as his friend pulled into the spot next to him. The other boy climbed out of his car. Looking at his friend, he put his pointer finger over his pursed lips, then pointed at a small grey hatchback and walked away, stepping quietly.

He preferred the element of surprise. Their conversation would have more impact if he caught her off her guard.

Dressed in denim shorts, hiking boots and a blue T-shirt with the campsite logo on it, a slender girl with auburn hair was talking to a man in similar clothes. She took a clipboard from him before the man walked off towards the back of the property. She sat down at a picnic table in a common area between two rows of cabins. He decided to observe for a while from the tree line that sheltered him from her view. What he had to say wouldn’t take long, and his friend needed time back in the parking lot. But then the girl stood up again and walked towards the campsite section, separated from the cabins by a wooded corridor.

She did a gratifying double take when she saw him walking towards her through the trees.

“Hey Shantal; funny running into you here. I totally forgot that July mentioned you were starting here today,” he said with an overly cordial smile.

“Um, yup, it’s my first day. So … what can I do for you Ryan?” she said warily.

“Well, Shantal, I need a couple minutes from you for a small chat,” he said. Looking around them in either direction, he fingered the bracelet in his pocket, deciding against adding it to their conversation.

“This isn’t a great time. I’ve literally just started this job and I’m supposed to be completing my orientation,” said Shantal.

“Actually, this is the perfect time,” he said. A chilling stillness came into his eyes as he stepped towards her. “There’s no one around to interrupt our conversation,” he said, moving in. She retreated until the back of her head bumped against the rough bark of a wide tree and he stepped forward, blocking any potential escape.

“You MacKenzie women look great pinned to trees.” He put his right hand over her mouth and pressed on her breastbone with his left. “You look even better when you’re frightened, submitting to the reality of your situation. If you’re still wondering, the reality is that I’m in charge here. July is my girlfriend and you need to respect our relationship,” said Ryan.

He leaned in, whispering so close to her face she could feel his breath as he shifted to conceal his hold on her with his left forearm. “That means not bashing me to July, not giving her a hard time about her commitment and not putting sick ideas of ‘abuse’ in her head, do you understand me?”

Shantal nodded, fear collecting in the creases of her cheeks and forehead.

“If I have a problem with July and I find out it’s your fault, or if I find out you so much as mentioned my visit today …” He retracted the arm resting on the tree. “I’m going to make you wish you hadn’t. And big time.” He tightened his grip on her mouth.

“You’d be leaving your sister all alone. No one to reminisce about mommy with. Not a blood relative left in the world. You wouldn’t want to do that to her would you?”

She shook her head vigorously. Her pupils were huge, but he wasn’t sure he had genuinely terrified her enough to secure her compliance. He waited, watching her, as her forehead wrinkled and little beads of sweat dripped from under her hairline. Satisfied, Ryan smiled malevolently and removed his hand. She slid down the tree trunk to the ground, the underbrush crunching as her backside landed on it. She sat gasping for breath as he walked back towards his car.

“Thanks, sis, I really appreciate it,” he called back as though she had just done him a favour.

She waited until she heard the growl of his Charger fade into silence and then bolted down to her car, intent on getting home as quickly as possible. She had to tell July before she spent another second with him how disturbed Ryan truly was. Fumbling in her pants’ pocket, she found her keys, pulled them out and wedged each one between her fingers as she made a fist; the only self-defense strategy she could think of. Her adrenaline pulsed in her throat as she ran hard across the grounds and down the path to the parking lot.

Her car was right where she left it. From the far side of the lot, she could already tell something was wrong. Broken windows gaped, piles of sparkling blue-green glass on the ground beneath. On closer inspection, she saw that the body of the car had been keyed. Welling up with fury, she dug her fingernails into her palms, pressing harder and harder. The upholstery had been carved up, and the contents of her back seat, consol and glove compartment tossed within. Her chest heaving from rage, she peered in through the now open passenger window to find the ignition clogged with bright pink bubble gum. Her cell phone, which she had been using sparingly since it was still an Alberta number, was cracked open exposing wires and a circuit board. She rushed over to the public pay phone only to find it in the same condition.

The campground wasn’t busy, but there were cars in the lot so she knew there must be people around, and someone was bound to have a cell. She paced, scanning the area for someone, anyone, anger surging through her limbs while she wracked her brain as to how she could connect Ryan to this vandalism with more than her word. The timeline didn’t make sense. She couldn’t figure out how he had time to do this much damage after her supervisor left, but before assaulting her in the woods, or after he had left her there.

She went back to the car and peered through the broken window of the back seat before opening the door to survey the damage. A banana had been smeared into a rip in the upholstery on the passenger side. A packet of fruit gummies had served as confetti, and her sandwich was ground into the floor.

Miraculously, her bottle of water survived, despite having rolled forward from under the front passenger seat. She twisted the top off and sat down on the curb, looking up at the fluffy clouds above the wavering treetops, calming herself as the lukewarm water slid down her throat.

A small girl with short pigtails skipped into the parking lot dripping a purple Popsicle down her arm. She stopped suddenly when she saw a pair of hiking boots poking out from behind the tires of a grey car.

“Mom! Mom! Someone’s dead! Come quick, there’s a dead body!” she squealed.

The girl’s mom came running.

“What, pumpkin? What are you screaming about?” She followed the line of sight from her daughter’s pointer finger and gasped. She stepped forward to peek around the car for a better look.

“Oh my God. Okay, honey, I’m sure she’s not dead. I’ll call for help,” she reassured her daughter, flipping open her cell phone.

It was a slow afternoon at the hardware store. There were three customers, maybe a couple more in the garden section outside, when Marie’s phone rang.

“Hello … yes, this is Marie Jones … what? Is she going to be all right? … Which hospital is that? No, I don’t know Kamloops … Is she there yet? Yes, of course; I’ll leave right now,” she said with panic in her voice.

“I’m sorry everyone, I have to close the store for a family emergency. My daughter’s been taken to the hospital unconscious and I have to get over there,” said Marie.

They all shuffled out the door, expressing their concern all at once, talking over each other. Marie ran upstairs to find July. Instead, she found a note from July saying that she had left with her friend Kari for dinner and a party in Salmon Arm. Marie didn’t have Kari’s cell phone number, so she had no choice but to head off without July. She folded the note into her purse and left for Kamloops and, as her daughter had done, missed the blinking light on their answering machine.

– Chapter 19 –

Dark Water

“What is hermit bay like?” July asked as she tilted the passenger side chair back and slouched against it.

“Well, it’s prettier than the cutblocks, and more public, but it’s still a great spot to party. No one around at night to call the cops if the music gets too loud. Oh,” Kari added apologetically. “Sorry, I know we’re not going there to party. But if we were, then we’d probably have fun. You are going to dump Mr. Rageaholic on his ass as soon as we get there aren’t you?” she said, looking sideways at July, keeping one eye on the road.

July frowned and stretched back in her seat. “Of course I’m breaking up with him. I’m sorry to be all mopey like this. I keep going over in my mind how it all went wrong, and it doesn’t make sense. He was such a nice guy; he was the dream boyfriend. And now I’m breaking up with him because he’s violent and dangerous. How did I get here, to the point where I have a psychopath for a boyfriend? Sometimes it seems like we were never okay and never good together. I know I can’t stay with him, but it seems sad,” July said.

“I’m sorry. I know this is tough for you. I’m only making jokes to try and cheer you up. If it’s not working, elbow me in the ribs and I’ll shut up. It’s hard to believe, but I’m actually a half-decent listener,” Kari smiled.

Kari kept her commentary to supportive inquiries for the rest of the drive to her house as July went over incidents from the relationship, trying to make sense of her situation. They got to Kari’s house in time for a quick plate of fresh tuna casserole and hopped back in Kari’s car, leaving for Hermit Bay with about an hour of sunlight left. Northwest of town, the beachfront party was in full swing when they got there, but neither Ryan nor his purple Charger were anywhere in sight.

“Hey Kari? As soon as I tell Ryan I’m breaking up with him, could we just get the hell out of here? I’m sure he wouldn’t do anything with all these people around, but I don’t want to tempt fate,” she said.

“Of course; we’ll motor as soon as you give me the word. Don’t worry, I’ll be backing you up the whole time,” Kari replied.

“No. I don’t want you making a target of yourself. Even if there’s no problem tonight, I still need to worry about tomorrow, and the day after, etcetera. He lives right down the road from me. If he’s pissed — and I think he will be — it won’t be over on the spot,” said July.

“I’ll keep an eye on you from a short distance then, but right now, I’ve got to hit the bathroom. I’ll be right back. If he gets here before I’m back, don’t talk to him until I’m nearby. Hide if you have to! I mean it,” said Kari.

July nodded, and wandered through the crowd nervously scanning faces, exchanging small talk with a few people she recognized from school. Just as she was beginning to relax, she heard the unmistakable rumbling of Ryan’s car. Darcy’s vibrant blue Jeep followed, both vehicles coughing on gravel.

Her promise to Kari went out the window as July made her way over to where the guys had just parked. She pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth and clenched her hands together tightly, psyching herself for the confrontation. Darcy looked from her face to Ryan’s, nodded to Ryan and said he’d see him around.

“Hey, I was hoping you made it out. I called your house and there was no answer. I thought you were coming with me,” he said in an annoyed tone.

“I tried to reach you, but there was no answer when I called,” she lied. “Listen,” she hesitated, then took the plunge. “Can we talk for a minute?”

“Sure; why don’t you wait in the car,” he said as he nodded towards his car parked farther down the road. “I’ll be right back,” he said, looking past her and signalling to a boy holding a can of beer in the air.

July could still see the party from the front passenger seat and she sat there watching, trying to pick Kari’s face out of the crowd. She finally caught sight of her next to a familiar mohawk. They were talking about something, but it didn’t look friendly. Didn’t Kari know better than to get into a debate with Ryan’s best friend?

As they talked, Darcy walked over to a large cooler full of drinks and beckoned for Kari to follow. He pointed at a row of blue bottle caps. She shook her head. He pointed at something else inside. She nodded and took a bottle of water from him. When Kari took a sip, she wrinkled her nose, said something to Darcy and put the top back on the bottle. July wondered what that was all about.

She was growing restless. Curiosity gripped her suddenly, and she started aimlessly rifling through the papers and scraps of things on his console and dash. She hesitated, and then opened the glove compartment. Napkins, an air pressure gauge, a Municipal Map of Greater Vancouver and an invoice from an auto repair shop. She pulled out the thin tractor-fed printer sheet which read: Pacific Glass & Autobody above itemized parts and labour for bumper replacement. The hairs on the back of her neck were rigid as pins.

She felt around at the back of his glove compartment and the tips of her fingers stumbled onto a smooth plastic band. She plucked it out and stared. It was a hospital bracelet:

Warner, Ryan — sex M 04/01/1989 — type A

Dr. Rachel MacKenzie

adm 04/01/2007

MRN 2345678968

He was Mom’s patient at the hospital? What the hell? That’s why he’s got a map of Vancouver — he was there. And this bumper repair was — holy shit! He’s the hit and run driver! He killed Mom! Why? Why? Bastard! He’s going to pay. I’ll make sure he rots in prison for the rest of his life. If they ever let him out, I’ll gladly go to jail myself just for the joy of ending his miserable waste of an existence! Everything makes sense now. That’s what Mom’s been trying to tell me. He’s not just dangerous; he’s a murderer, her murderer! July’s mind reeled.

She was overcome by furious anger when she saw Ryan over the top of the shiny black dash, beer in hand, heading towards her. She flung the car door open, livid.

“You did it, DIDN’T YOU!” she screamed, gripping the invoice and bracelet together, waving them with wild fury. “You killed her; you FUCKING BASTARD! How dare you! Who do you think you are! You did it on purpose, didn’t you?”

“July, what the hell are you saying? I didn’t kill anyone,” he said.

“Admit it; you did it!” she yelled.

“Admit what?” his voice got louder as he marched towards her, “That I don’t really feel like justifying a few decisions I made that were supposed to help you anyway,” he said.

“Help me? You’ve been lying to me since we met. I don’t need that kind of help,” she said, quickly folding the invoice, tucking it and the bracelet in her pocket.

He grabbed her arm, forcefully pulling her towards his face as he leaned in. “You need me for as long as I say you do!” he said, his face twisting menacingly.

Her arm burned from his grip. He threw her back into the car, got in after her and grabbed her arm again.

“I don’t know where you’re getting this wild idea, but you’d better calm down and shut up!” he shook her angrily.

She wrenched away as she flung the passenger door open, jumped out and ran hard towards the party. She could hear the scrape of sneakers on dirt as he chased her.

“Just admit it; you ran her down didn’t you?” she shouted back in Ryan’s direction. She whipped her head back and forth as she ran, praying that one of the parked cars lining the road was occupied.

A car door slammed behind her, and a flood of blinding light washed over her. His Charger roared and pounced on the road. Snarling horsepower was gaining on her. The faded dream of her mother caught in headlights rushed back and she realized he meant to crush her with his metal beast. Utterly terrified, she sprang into the forest, panic driving her forward blindly.

The door slammed again and Ryan shouted as he chased after her, the sudden explosions of undergrowth being crushed in the forest getting louder as Ryan got closer. She ran harder heading for a break in the trees ahead. It had to be the beach. No; shit! Just a clearing! Wait — worse than that; the top of a cliff! She skidded to a halt. The glowing moon overhead lit the ground and she could see there was no way down but back through the woods. She scrambled across the rocky loft and, trapped, turned back again as the noise behind her grew and Ryan burst out of the woods.

“What do you think you’re doing running away from me like that?” shouting, panting, he advanced. “I’m not done with you.”

“Yes, Ryan, we’re done. It’s over,” she responded to his feral tone in anxious, shaky words. “I’m not your girlfriend anymore and you’re going to jail,” she said.

“Don’t you understand? It was all for you. I fell in love with you when you first came to Spruce Bend. Every summer I had to see you and I just wanted you to move here so we could be together. I even talked the Doc into referring me to Vancouver so I could see you. But I could tell she was never gonna move. Marie wanted to, but Doctor MacKenzie was in the way. It was my grandmother’s hardware store! Who do you think got her to call up Marie and offer useless sympathy? Or showed the stupid old bag those articles about your mom’s ‘accident!’ She was itching to retire. All I had to do was remind her how Marie had always wanted to move. I only wanted you to be with me. I’ve always loved you. It’s all been for you!

“None of this was for me! Don’t you dare pretend that it was! How could you possibly think killing my mother and uprooting me from my life would make me happy? You’re selfish and cruel, Ryan, and sick.”

“I played the weepy kid who wanted help. I sat through hours of mind-numbing therapy, left my life here to go to the city; hell, I killed for you! All so we could be together. We’re meant to be together!” he shouted.

July was shuffling backwards, looking over her shoulder at the edge of the cliff creeping up behind her. The drop didn’t look that far now that she could see the water below. Voices and music drifted over from the far shore.

“People say I’m messed up, but you can’t even handle something as basic as sex! Is that why you’re afraid of having a man around? Been messed up by too many ‘girl’s nights,’ is that it?” he sneered.

Suddenly, she clicked into that state of lucid calm that sometimes comes in extreme danger. As long as he was ranting, he was distracted, she realized. She looked back at the distant shore, then past him to the woods, searching for a way out.

“No, I’m … I’m glad I have you around to protect me. I’m sorry, I don’t want to fight. I didn’t know how much you’d done for me. I couldn’t appreciate it because you never told me,” she said, trying to sound soothing.

He paused, expressions of suspicion and disbelief flitting across his face. July risked a look over the cliff again and saw her reflection in the placid moonlit surface below. Her laboured breath started to form clouds and the frigid air cut through her hoodie.

Jump,” a voice whispered in her ear.

She whirled around on the spot — no one there.

The lake,” said the disembodied speaker and she looked back down.

She gasped as she recognized the figure standing next to her in the rippling glass world below, beckoning. July shot a look back at Ryan, then just as he reached out to grab her, launched herself out over the water towards the safety of her mother’s arms.

Seconds later she hit the lake. As she sank, she opened her eyes in spite of the stinging murky water, looking around wildly in all directions for the apparition she’d seen from above. A muffled slap overhead signalled Ryan’s pursuit. She kicked away and up towards air, popped to the surface and started to swim to reach the shore.

She turned to see where he was; her whole body rotated with her. He was behind her, already gaining. Her heart leapt up into her throat and she kicked as hard as she could away from him. Her clothes clung to her body, pulling on her limbs. Bigger, stronger and faster, he was still gaining. Slap, splash, slap splash — closer and closer. He was right on top of her. She fought, sweeping water behind her with both arms. He jerked her hood, pulling her back and down under the water. She fought and struggled, trying to peel his hand off but she couldn’t tell where he had a grip. Suddenly she was free. She pushed against his chin. He lost his grip on her completely and floundered, thrashing around frantically. She watched his struggle with stinging eyes, until he finally, inexplicably sank into the dark water below.

July trod water desperately looking around anxiously for the spot where he’d surface. Her clothes were so heavy and so cold. Someone was already swimming towards her from the shore. Blinking, she could make out the group of kids over at the beach, all focused on the events in the lake.

The swimmer was Darcy. “Dude, what happened?” he yelled out between waves. “Buddy, where are you? … Ryan!”

“He went under back there,” July cried out.

He threw her a foul look and swam around the spot beneath the cliff where they landed, but there was no sign of Ryan. He called out again and again with no answer.

July finally reached shallow water. As her feet touched bottom, she saw Kari sprinting down to the shore. The beach was practically silent other than a distant car stereo, the crackling fire and the whispering of the spectators.

The hush was broken only when Ryan’s limp body floated up next to his distraught friend. Cries of alarm pierced the air. Cell phones lit up.

“Are you all right? What happened?” Kari asked frantically. She half led, half carried July through the crowd of distracted partygoers back towards the road. “I couldn’t find you when I got back. I’m so sorry; the lineup was huge. I was so worried. I’m sorry; Darcy cornered me, the asshole,” Kari rambled out of control.

“I saw Mom in the water … Something grabbed him … It was her, I know it; it had to be,” July said between gasps.

The hubbub grew when Darcy reached the shore and hauled his friend onto the beach. Ryan’s eyes were closed, his face pale, covered in beads of water. Darcy opened his mouth, but hesitated. He interlocked his fingers and started pumping down on Ryan’s chest. Darcy cried out in frustration as he kept pumping and pumping and nothing happened. He pinched Ryan’s nose, pulling his mouth open wider to blow air into his lungs. Inches from his purple lips, Darcy lurched back as Ryan suddenly coughed up mouthfuls of water.

A flicker of red and blue in the trees sent a wave of panic through the crowd as the partiers noticed the RCMP car pulling into their midst. The combination of alcohol and fear made a few handfuls of people cooperative and, assuming the police were there because of the near drowning, they were waving them down to the beach. Both officers jumped out of their car.

“Is there a July MacKenzie here?” said the taller man, projecting over the crowd. “We’re looking for a girl named July MacKenzie.”

“That’s me.” July stumbled forward, sopping wet.

The officer looked relieved. “Are you okay? What’s going on? Is your boyfriend, Ryan Warner, here?” he asked.

Confusion slowed July’s words as she responded, “Yeah, he’s down by the water. How did you know? The invoice …” she said, removing the drenched square of wet paper from her pocket. “Oh no, it was destroyed in the lake!”

The officers looked at each other as voices continued to shout from down by the lake.

“Tate, go down to the beach and bring him back,” the taller officer said to his partner, pointing towards the lake. He turned back to July. “I don’t know anything about an invoice, but he’s a suspect in an assault on your sister and we’re here to take him into custody.”

“He killed my mother! Ryan did!” she blurted.

“Alright, calm down a minute,” the officer said. “What are you talking about?”

“I can prove it!” she said.

“But officers in Kamloops just spoke with your mother,” he said in a puzzled voice.

“That’s my other mother; she’s my birth-mother’s partner,” she said.“Wait, I’ve got his hospital bracelet too. That’s got to prove it!”

He stared at her for a moment, but turned to open the back door to the cruiser as the younger officer approached with Ryan in handcuffs, guiding him with a grasp on his bicep.

“I’m sorry; this is going to have to wait. We need to get Mr. Warner down to the detachment now,” he said briskly as he took Ryan from his partner and placed the disoriented boy into the sedan’s backseat.

“But what happened to my sister?” she asked desperately.

“She was assaulted and drugged at a campground outside Spruce Bend. She’s been taken to Central Caribou Hospital in Kamloops. When she woke up, she named Mr. Warner as her attacker. Your mother, or your guardian I suppose she’d be, called your friend’s parents who supplied us with the location of this party,” he said.

“Someone will contact you from the Salmon Arm RCMP office tomorrow to arrange for you to come in and make a statement,” the younger officer said over the noise of the dispersing crowd.

Numb from cold, terror and rage, July shivered in the passenger seat of Kari’s car while she waited for Kari, who had gone to see if she could find a blanket. July went over and over again in her mind everything that had happened, but kept coming to the same inescapable conclusion. It honestly was her mom back there in the lake. Her mom’s reflection in the water, her mom who had whispered to her to jump off the cliff, who had saved her from Ryan. She shook with rage, hardly able to believe that bastard had tried to drown her. And what about Shantal? What had he done to her? How long would he be in prison? Would he come after them when he got out?

July shivered again. Feeling uneasy, she shifted in her seat to watch for Kari, only to find herself face to face with Ryan. He was in the back seat of the cruiser, which was making its way slowly by through the crowd. She stared back, mesmerized, as he passed, his gaze locked on her as curls of breath formed clouds in the air between them.

Thank You for Reading!

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Watching July

Sixteen-year-old July MacKenzie can hardly recognize her own life anymore. A few months ago, she was enjoying her urban lifestyle in Vancouver, going to school, hanging out with the same old friends she'd had for years. Now, when she steps out her back door, the only evidence of human existence she sees is an empty road, stretching off in the distance to...nowhere. It all happened so fast! Her mom was killed in a hit and run accident, and before she knew it Marie, her other parent, had sold the house, packed up and moved them out into the Interior. How could she leave everything behind like that? July could never make new friends. She'd never get used to the dark nights of the countryside. And she'd never, ever, stop missing her birth mom as long as she lived! But then July meets the boy down the road. Surprised to find herself falling in love and making friends at school, she starts to see the possibility of building a new life. But mysterious events soon make it clear that her new world is still very connected to her past. When it is revealed that her mother's death was not what it seemed, July must face some shocking discoveries that quickly gain a momentum that spirals out of control.

  • ISBN: 9781370685806
  • Author: Christine Hart
  • Published: 2017-03-20 18:20:19
  • Words: 54453
Watching July Watching July