Dian turned off her cellphone, and slipped out of the hotel suite she’d called home since the conference began a week ago. She rode the elevator down, walked across the marble floor of the hotel lobby, and out onto the street. She borrowed the keys to the rental car from Jackie her personal assistant who reluctantly agreed to clear the afternoon’s schedule while Dian made her trip out of the city and back into the suburbs of her youth. It wouldn’t just be a trip through the streets, onto the highway, and then out into the land of manicured lawns and the smell of barbecue coals on the air. It would be a trip in time, too.
She didn’t expect to see anyone she knew. She moved from here when she was seventeen, just before the end of high school. Now she was forty-eight, although she looked thirty-eight. Everyone else she knew was probably gone, too. That’s what you did when you were from a place like this. You did your time when you were a kid, and then you left. In Dian’s case, it was a move into the city with Mom and Dad for the last few months of high school, then university, then a job right out of school, several promotions, a marriage to Mark, a partnership in the firm, and two beautiful daughters not soon after. It was like a logical progression for her. It never occurred to Dian that anyone would actually want to stay in the town they were born in. There were too many ghosts when you stayed in one place like that.
But, coming back here for the conference, with her hometown only forty-five minutes away down the highway had been like a sign to her, perhaps another logical progression. She knew she had to leave, and go back to the old neighbourhood. Because sometimes, ghosts didn’t stay in one place, either. Sometimes, despite all of your sucesses, they followed you. They reminded you who you really were.
So, maybe this trip back would help. Maybe it would finally help.
Dian had made a policy of never looking back. (you dared not look back, Dian. There’s a difference …). It was always about taking control of the present for her. Taking control had got her to where she was. Control was where Dian lived. Yet lately, uncertainty haunted her. But, all of this stuff going on in her head about the past flaring up again was just a problem, like any other. She solved problems. That was what made her a success.
She parked the car outside of where the house once stood. The house was gone; all of the original houses were. The street was like every other street in a place like this these days, crammed with houses too big for their lots, put there by some developer who’d bought out the whole block. Once, there had been bungalows and semi-detached houses with succession of bright turquoise, burgundy, peach, chocolate brown, and hunter green trim.
Some had garages. The house she looked for had a garage.
Ghosts. Too many ghosts.
The house also had a backyard, where she and Leanne had played with their dolls. That had been forty years ago …
“Dian, Dian! Mine is a super hero.”
“Super heroes are for boys, Leanne. Let’s play house instead.”
“Why can’t a superhero be a mom, too?”
“What? That’s stupid, Leanne.”
“It just is. Dolls can’t be superheroes. They’re just dolls. You’re supposed to play house with dolls. Not superheroes!”
Leanne’s face floated up in her memory. She was red-haired and supremely freckled, with two beaming blue eyes full of wonder. They were both eight. But, Leanne always seemed so much younger than Dian, even then. She used to make up a sing-song rhyme using both of their names: Di-an-and-Le-anne, Di-an-and-Le-anne... There was more to it than that. It was a long time ago, so she couldn’t remember the rest of the rhyme. But, she remembered that it was full of affection, full of love. But, it embarrassed Dian. Deep down, Dian felt unworthy of it, and embarrassment was the only feeling she could find to express it. It made her angry that Leanne didn’t seem to care about all that. She kept it up any way. It was unconditional. Strange, that love should affect her that way; to make her angry, and even scornful of the one who gave it away to her so easily. Why couldn’t Dian just accept it as it was? And what made Leanne want to give it to her in the first place?
Dian got into the car and started the engine. There was no point in staying here. The house was gone. The street was gone. (the garage is gone. yet, it’s still there). Dian drove away, to where she didn’t know. For once, the day hadn’t been planned out for her by faithful Jackie. It just pulled her along as if she was cast in a Shakespearean dumbshow. Each scene was set already, as if she was in a dream. The lack of control was thrilling, and terrifying.
She parked at the school, and got out. The schoolyard was deserted in the hush of a Sunday afternoon, awaiting the rush of rainbooted feet that would greet it on Monday morning. Dian looked up into a swirling bank of cloud that muted the cheer of sunlight hanging over her, and the barrenness of her old school. Dian walked across the damp grass to the pavement where it was dry, and walked around the front of the school to the playground around the back. The school had changed. They’d added a wing that didn’t quite fit with the old structure. Maybe it was just because Dian remembered what it was like before they’d added it. She was thirteen when she’d first come here. They all had been. They’d come from elementary schools all over the area to go to high school here. There were a lot of new faces, new friends, new boys. But, some were much younger, much less mature. They weren’t as developed. They still clung to the old ways, the old habits. They were still little. How could you make a mark in high school if you were still so little?
Here comes Leanne …
Oh my god. Just ignore her.
She’s coming to talk to you, Dian. What are you going to do?
I’m not going to do anything. I don’t care. Let’s all ignore her.
Hi, Dian! Who are your new friends? I’m Leanne, everyone! Dian, I wanted to invite you to my birthday party. It’s next week. I think my parents are going to get me that dollhouse I wanted, the one I told you about. Can you come? Dian? Dian? What’s so funny, everyone? Dian? Why won’t you say anything? Can you please say something? Please?
(Why won’t you say anything, Dian?)
Because, she hated Leanne in that moment, that had been why. She hated her for not growing up as fast as everyone else, and for trying to drag Dian back with her. She hated that little girl blue-eyed stare of hers. She hated her pleading little girl tone of voice. She hated her flat chest, no hips, and no ass. She hated the unkempt mane of red hair that she refused to style. Most of all, she hated that Leanne still loved her, and that she refused to stop trying to be her friend even though things had clearly changed between them. She hated that Leanne didn’t even know she was being shunned, and that it was so easy to do it anyway. Why didn’t she get it?
A few years went by after that. Even when Leanne spent those years in the outer darkness of high school society, there would be glances across classrooms, sad smiles, the odd wave of a hand in the hallways. Everyone noticed it. Dian couldn’t continue her ignoring policy forever. She needed to try something different, something big, something definitive. If she didn’t, Leanne’s pariah status would spread to her. She was certain of that. The others would begin to smell it on her like wolves catching the whiff of frightened, wounded prey. That couldn’t happen. That would ruin everything she’d built up for herself in the top tier, in the top clique of popularity. That’s what it is to be on top. The higher you are, the farther you fall. So, you had to keep it going. It was the single most important thing high school had taught her. Something had to be done.
A party. There would be a party. It would be perfect. Any loss of credibility she’d suffered because of her tie to Leanne would be regained even by coming up with the idea in the first place. She shared it with the others, and they loved it. They all laughed. The execution would be easy.
Yes! Yes I’d love to come! Thank you!
Now, remember Leanne. It’s a theme party. Don’t forget. You don’t want to be the only one not dressed.
I won’t! I won’t forget!
See you on Friday!
Yeah! See you on Friday!
Everyone was there. Mom and Dad were out somewhere, something put on by Dad’s office in the city, so they wouldn’t be home until tomorrow afternoon. Dian’s sister Cheryl had moved out by then. The house was all hers. Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth” played on the stereo in the living room. The guys from the football team were shotgunning beers in the kitchen. The den was full of people making out. Dian wore her short red dress, red lipstick, red nail polish, red pumps, and a string of pearls she borrowed from her mother’s jewelry box. She’d done her hair in a tumble of cascading golden ringlets that she hoped would catch broad-shouldered, track-star adorable Matt Penfold’s attention. Her whole outfit was planned for just that purpose. But, it was also designed for contrast. Leanne would not be dressed this way; not at all.
The party had started at seven. Leanne was expected at nine, just when she’d been told it would start, and when Dian was sure everyone else would be there to enjoy what had been laid in store. It would be one of the highlights of the whole party. Because of it, Dian’s connection with Leanne would be cut for good. Even Leanne wouldn’t be able to see it any other way. It was the definitive move Dian needed to secure her place in the upper echelons of high school society until the end of her time there. It was an act of self-preservation. Thirty one years later standing on the pavement of the silent school ground, she remembered thinking that. Dian had done it in self-defence.
When the doorbell rang, Dian had been waiting with members of the inner circle of girls she led. They encircled her from behind like a grinning, giggling, multi-faced cloak. Dian looked at the digital clock in the hall: 8:51. Just like Leanne to arrive unfashionably early. She peered through the peephole. It was her. Shannon Tilson, one Dian’s most loyal lieutenants, readied the Polaroid camera. Dian stepped forward. Before opening the door, she turned to her throng, and winked at them like a movie star at a world premier. Then she opened the door, stepping aside so that Shannon could get the best shot.
Leanne stood there dressed in the lurid colors of a super-heroine; clear tights covering her skinny white legs, a red corduroy skirt that hung a little too long on her, and a broad, hand-drawn insignia over her T-shirted, flat chest. A limp shred of red cloth hung on her shoulders, and drooped just below her non-existent hips. On her feet, she wore clunky red rainboots that were meant to be the stylish high-boots of a super-powered paragon of womanhood. But, on Leanne they looked sad, flimsy, and childish. The smile on her face died quickly in the light of the Polaroid flash. The deluge of laughter struck her like a breaking wave, destroying any capacity she might have had to resist its cruel outpouring. Dian added to that deluge, her red-lipsticked mouth stretching into a mocking, predatory grimace of bitter delight. A strangled sound that was half way between a laugh and a scream came out of Dian, surprising even her. It was an ugly, and savage sound.
Leanne made her escape. The makeshift cape streamed behind her as she ran, trailed by catcalls and derision from multiple sources spewing from the doorway and into the darkened street. The Polaroid picture Shannon had taken hadn’t yet faded into the image that Dian planned to circulate around the hallways of the school on Monday. The group gathered around it to await the results. Dian looked up to see the heel of Leanne’s boot leave the cold circle of the streetlamp, passing into darkness as she ran. Her rubbery, desperate footfalls and the sound of her sobs were dampened by the self-congratulatory laughter that erupted as the Polaroid image finally faded into view, revealing a humiliated, wide-eyed, freckled, red-haired girl in a ridiculous outfit she’d made herself to please a person she thought had been her friend.
(She didn’t dress herself up that night. I dressed her up that way)
Thirty-one years later, Dian stopped in town and parked on the street. The whole downtown core had changed, too. All of the stores she’d remembered had gone. The folksy shabbiness of the town she knew had been replaced by hipster slick angles, global brand names, and reflective glass. There was a big box store looming over the town square, growing a dim shadow against the dull light of an overcast day. She went in and made her purchase. It wasn’t something she’d planned to do when she set out. But, once the idea had occurred to her, it felt like the whole reason she’d come here to begin with. After she left the store with the package under her arm, she climbed back into the car, and drove toward to outer rim of town, to the last stop on a list of destinations that had formed bit by bit since she’d left her hotel room in the city.
(I hadn’t known what was going to happen. I was just a kid …)
Dian’s party went into the wee hours of the morning. And a few blocks over, Leanne sat in her parents’ car in the garage. The garage door was closed. She fell asleep wearing her costume. They found her the next morning.
There was a funeral, and a tribute at the school. Dian had been taken out of school by then. She had been inconsolable, until her mother grabbed her hard enough by her shoulders to leave bruises. Her mother screamed into her face, the vein on her forehead pulsing.
You will stop crying this instant! You will stop crying and put this behind you! You will not let this ruin your life! That girl made a choice for herself! Not you! SHE made the choice to die, and not improve herself! She was a coward! But, you’re not a coward! I won’t let you be one! You will not let me down! You will not let yourself down! We’re moving away from here, and we will start fresh! You will graduate, and you will go to McGill just as planned! And we will never speak of this again, do you understand me? I don’t want to hear one more word about any of it, ever again!
(My mother dressed me up in clothes I’ve worn ever since then. I’ve worn them willingly. until now.)
Dian looked down at the gravestone. It was just a humble square of granite there in the grass:
Leanne Mary Taylor
1965 – 1982
Dian had prepared a speech in her head on the drive from downtown to where she stood then. But, looking down at that little square of granite, no words came. She wanted to say she was sorry for all of the damage she’d caused, even if she’d spent a lifetime distancing herself from it. She wanted to say that she would give all of her success, all of her fortune, to change what happened. She wanted to say that she had two girls of her own now, and that the youngest one, Hannah, was really into dolls, and doll collecting. Taylen her oldest had gone to some Science Fiction Convention with a bunch of her friends a few months ago. She went dressed up as – guess who? Seeing her dressed that way brought it all back.
She wanted to tell Leanne that she loved her daughters more than she thought she could love anyone, or anything, and that she’d finally got it . But it sometimes felt as if Dian had just been the vessel to carry the girls that Leanne should have given birth to instead. Either way, Dian finally figured out what Leanne had known all along about love. Dian wanted to say that she’d come here to find peace. But, she’d come because of her girls, too. She’d never told anyone about Leanne. She’d never even told Mark after seventeen years of marriage.
Dian tore the doll out of its packaging. The little red cape on the doll flapped in the wind as she did so. Then, she laid it on the surface of the granite square.
“This is for you.” She said.
Then, it rained.