Excerpt for Watching July by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Watching July

Christine Hart

Hart, Christine, 1978-


Watching July / Christine Hart


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.


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


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.


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.”

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