Chapter 1 - The Girl Who Left the Lights On

Gareth's room, early afternoon

December 24, 1988 

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 The window is full of cold white light. Christmas in twelve hours and I'm crouched behind the stereo in a corner of my room, motionless and staring like some hibernating toad. What the hell am I doing here? Going backwards in my head, I suppose, trying to find the place where all the trouble started. It wasn't the bridge. I know that much. This isn't as simple as everyone seems to think.

But according to half the town, there is nothing to question. Emily MacBride is a story now, and as far as they're concerned that book is closed and we all know the ending. The beginning? Easy, they'll tell you. It was that Friday in June when she took off all her clothes and jumped into the river.

Splash.

This is one of those town legends that is actually true. No, she did not leave her underwear on. Yes, there were boys present. I remember that day too, how I got the news barely twenty minutes after it happened, staggering to the yellow phone in the kitchen to catch it on the seventh ring – I'd been watching Video Hits in the TV room with one eye on my French homework, thinking somebody else would get it. But I was alone in the house.

'You could see everything,' Morris told me.

'You're making that up.'

'I'm totally not.'

All part of our routine. For years Morris had acted like it was his sworn duty to be as disgusting as possible about both my older sisters, as if it were written on a contract somewhere. Emily would leave a room, smiling and telling Morris goodbye, and then he'd turn his head lazily in my direction and do something acrobatic with his tongue, or maybe pretend to be humping the bench of the breakfast nook in the kitchen. This was the lunch and supper nook as well – at least at those times when we didn't just grab our plates of hot food and run off with them. Sometimes you might find bowls and spoons under the hedges in the backyard.

Which would be business as usual for us. My family moved to town when I was three and bought this place, one of the nicest old houses in the area, people said, built so long ago the plaster in the walls was mixed with horsehair and the garage once had a hayloft and a room for saddles and tack. Then we spent the next thirteen years filling it with junk. You couldn't take a step without getting tangled in one of my sisters' sewing projects, knocking over a houseplant balanced on a set of encyclopaedias, crushing a Dungeons and Dragons figurine, wedging a toe in somebody's old paint-by-numbers set, or looking up to see a hockey helmet bounce from the top of the fridge and onto your head. This was life. 

'Gareth, I am serious.' Morris's voice buzzing on the phone. 'She was totally nude. And she jumped. Right in front of everybody.'

Something about his tone. Morris was sorry for me. I realised with a queasy shock that my friend wasn't lying at all.

'Well, Jesus Christ, is she okay? Did she hurt herself?'

'No, nothing like that. Least I don't think so.' He hadn't been there to see any of this himself. It didn't matter. The way the town was wired up it was like we all had access to the same memories, a complicated form of telepathy. You knew the characters and the setting so well there was no need for eyewitnesses.

So it was after school, the story went, and Emily and some kids from her class were lined on the edge of the railway bridge looking over the water, draping themselves along the iron beams like lizards in the sun. They were the Grade Twelves, the bosses of the school. In a couple of weeks they'd be graduates. I'd seen my oldest sister Eleanor go through this too, before she went off to college. When she and her friends were in groups they wouldn't walk so much as strut.

One of the boys, Morris thought it was Paul, started talking about how they should jump in. Go swimming. The girls rolled their eyes and made disgusted noises. Emily's friend Gayle tried to be nice, thought maybe they could all head home and change into their swimsuits, but Paul got this sleazy grin on his face and said underwear was just the same, right?

Then some guy behind him went, 'Fuck the underwear, let's just get naked.'

Big laughs. They were all nudging each other.

Not that Morris told me all this over the phone. I got bits and pieces of it later. From other kids. From just about everyone in town. A lot of my memories are like this: truth and gossip and family stories mixed together, with the occasional detail from movies I've seen. Sometimes it's kind of frustrating.

Emily was the only one who didn't seem to find this talk of stripping and jumping funny.

'Well, for God's sake,' she said. 'Why keep talking about it if you're not going to do it?'

Squawking laughs from the guys, drumming their palms against the girders of the bridge. They couldn't figure out if she was serious.

'Ladies first.' It was Paul.

'You think I wouldn't.'

'I know it.'

Strands of her thick dark hair caught the breeze and drifted upward – or that's how I always imagined it. I know she would have looked intimidating up there, that she'd probably stared right back at them all without blinking. My sister was taller than most of the other girls, and a lot of the guys as well. Deep brown eyes and dark, straight brows. Intense, people said. That is one intense girl. On talent night at the high school she'd sat alone on a plastic chair with her guitar and played a Joni Mitchell song, and you could practically hear all the shy boys falling in love, like trees felled by a chainsaw. They'd swarmed me in the halls later. Man, your sister is so cool. Your sister is so hot. Is she, like, seeing anybody?

She didn't look like any of us. Not Eleanor in college with her straw-coloured hair, all hips and boobs like some granite statue come to life. Not like me and Mom, both of us muddy, freckled red-heads, stocky compared to the rest of the family. Dad could match Emily for height, but the poor guy's also kind of humongous, with a beard that spreads over his face like lichen and blends into his wavy, bristling hair. As if part of the hillside tore itself loose to wander around our kitchen looking for Pirate cookies.piratecookies 47835 zoom

Anyway, Emily and Paul had continued their stare-down, thirty feet above the river. Paul's concentration broke first. Maybe that's why he came out with it. The one thing you should never say to Emily.

'I dare ya.'

Next thing the guys were telling her to go for it and the girls were laughing with their hands shielding their mouths. A few boys started clapping in a rhythm, chanting her name, coming down hard on the last syllable. Eh-muh-lee! Eh-muh-lee! Somebody at the edge of the group was howling like a dog.

'Fine,' she said with a little shrug, and at first they didn't hear her over the noise. 'I'll do it if you do.'

'After you.' Paul seemed to puff up his chest, facing her.

'You promise?'

'Course.'

Her arms were folded and she was squinting a little in the sun. Paul leaned back on his heels, probably waiting for her to break into apologetic giggles and tell him she was kidding.

Instead she nodded, as if she was giving herself a signal. She took one step to the edge of the bridge. Her fingers barely grazed the iron girders with their flaking paint. The kids had gone quiet.

 
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She shrugged out of her jacket, brown patchwork suede from a junk shop in Halifax, and it dropped to the railway tie at her feet, looking hollow without her. Then the tiny sliding clink of her necklace falling on top of it, a pewter chain holding a circle of stained glass blue. She was wearing a tight black top with no sleeves. That was her look lately, spy girl from the sixties. She pulled it over her head and let it go.

'Emily, stop it,' someone said.

Not even a twitch of her head to show she'd heard. She untangled herself from her bra, nudged her feet out of her shoes, yanked down her jeans and underwear and shook herself free. Her clothes were crumpled on the wooden beam. And that was it. Emily had turned into a naked girl on a bridge.

Except naked people weren't what anyone had woken up expecting to deal with that day. Emily's plank of a body, her small boobs, the sudden whiteness of her. They'd grown up with this girl. She glanced at the kids ranged along the bridge edge. They stared into the river, at their hands, their sneakers.

Then Emily turned away and flung herself into empty space.

I heard this on the phone and felt like I was falling too. Down an elevator shaft, clawing for a hold. I hated heights. Seriously hated the idea of my sister getting naked in public. Was close to hating everyone on that bridge for not trying harder to stop her. Even if I knew it would have been just about impossible.

They heard the splash rippling. She was gone for a moment, then her slicked-back otter head broke the surface.

'Come on, you guys!'

The kids were all backing away from the railings. They were dark shapes up there with the sun behind them, crows on a telephone wire.

'Paul. You said.'

He mumbled something to one of the other boys.

'But you said!' She was almost hoarse.

She bobbed in the water, shaking droplets from her head, white light catching the peaks of small waves around her. And when nobody else jumped, she just stayed down there and swore at them for a while.

Mom had shrieked with shocked laughter when I told her all about Emily's confrontational skinny-dipping episode a few days after, in the car on the way back from her place in Templeton. And later that week Dad ambled into the TV room and silently presented Emily with a paper bag from Zellers. She'd crinkled the bag open and peeked inside, then blushed and shoved it under the couch cushions.

'Very funny, Daddy.' A new swim suit, a sensible one-piece, blue. That's when I knew this was going to turn into one of those family stories.

There's an invisible book of them somewhere. Drag it out from some musty shelf and turn the pages. Oh, hey, everybody, remember when Emily was six and she was convinced that eight plus eight equalled fifteen and nothing you could say would change her mind? Dad lined up board game counters on the coffee table for her to count and she threw a fit, swept them to the carpet with her fist and hurled herself down after them, kicking and sobbing like someone had died. 'Well, the poor little thing,' Mom will say at this point, every time. 'I thought she was going to be sick.'

You tell the story and think about the next line and how you phrased it before. You lose sight of the fact that this stuff actually happened.

 

The window is full of cold white light. In twelve hours it'll be Christmas.

I'm on the heating grate in a corner of my room, wedged behind my record player, in black sweatpants faded to grey and my favourite Bauhaus T-shirt. Same thing I've been wearing all week. I should be helping Eleanor clean up the house and whatever, but I can't stop running these home movies in my head.

Remember when.

Remember when I was a little kid and couldn't sleep because of monsters. I'd spend hours working 

MaryPeterson winter2002 03 1myself into a panic imagining some horror slithering down the hall toward my room, dragging the pictures from the walls, hissing in a thick rasp and calling my name. They'd all pitched in to try to cure me.

'Just breathe, sweetheart,' Dad had told me. 'Breathe, Garfy. Nice and slow. Or try this. Close your eyes and count. Count to the highest number you can think of, then count even higher. And when you open your eyes, you'll see there's no reason to be scared.' Counting. Dad's clever little trick to help me fall asleep. Except it made everything worse. I couldn't help thinking the monster was standing beside my bed and listening to me recite those numbers. Waiting for me to open my eyes so it could open its mouth.

What was Mom's solution? Think of something happy. (Sometimes this worked.) Eleanor said I should keep the light on. Emily would wait until I was in bed and then sit outside the door making monster noises, growls and evil laughter. Sometimes she'd switch to singing, or even burping, still in the monster voice.

It was okay. I knew it was her.

Snow is tumbling out of the clouds in flakes as thick as moths. A car on the street below moves forward at a crawl. High beams in the middle of the day. It's dangerous out there.

Think of something happy.

Me and Mom in a laughing fit outside the pool hall in Templeton, leaning against each other for balance. Emily was supposed to be there too, but she'd refused to leave our house in Riverside and get in the car with us. A history test, she'd said. She had to study. Then barely an hour later we saw her march right past the window in her suede jacket. A whole town away – what was she doing there, besides avoiding us? Mom and I had run out to the sidewalk, and then we were calling and yoo-hooing and trying our best to be total embarrassments, watching her straight back getting smaller. My mother was out of breath, doubled over, tears at the corners of her eyes. 'Oh, look! We're embarrassing that girl!' Pointing straight ahead, her pool cue clutched in one hand like a javelin.

The streetlamps were glowing into life. We were the only ones on the sidewalk. She was gone.

Hey, Emily, turn around. Emily, it's us. Emily, come back. Come back.

'You didn't have to do it.'

The sound of my voice makes me flinch. Stop. Think about something else.

But what else is there?

You know it'll hurt. Remembering. Like a candle flame you can't keep away from. Most of the time everything is so numb and misted over you want to break through somehow. Wake yourself up. But the pain comes and it's never the clean shock you wanted. More like being stuck in the gears of some enormous machine and slowly crushed. If you felt flat before, you're being pounded into something even more flat. Every day.

There are noises in the hallway outside my room. My fingers are numb and my throat is a hard mass. It's a vacuum cleaner. Someone's vacuuming. Eleanor, home from college. Eleanor has been putting all the clues together. Eleanor would like a word with me. Jesus, not now.

Breathe. Count. Do something.

My big sister knows. She knows everything. She's not going to sugar-coat this or explain it away like Mom or Dad. She's not going to tell anyone that it's okay.

Squeezing myself into the corner. Keep still. Maybe she'll think I'm somewhere else. The vacuum's getting closer, blind head knocking into corners. Right outside my door.

I'll wake up thinking it. I'll go to sleep thinking it. It's with me every moment of the day.

I did something terrible.

I didn't do anything at all.