Not many people know how a cemetery looks in the dark. But Abby does. She knows how the sky turns purple, how the moon looks like an orange. How the headlights from the cars on the road outside shatter through the heavy wrought iron fence and heave into sky. She knows the tombstones look almost fake, as if they were props in a play: Styrofoam cutouts painted with gray acrylic, sitting on bright green tissue-paper grass. How the Keith’s monument stands high and mighty, pointing at the sky like a giant middle finger rising out of the mess below.
That mess. It is all wrong. Abby is drunk and indignant. Her head bobbing as she surveys the beer cans strewn all around the base of the monument. You’re supposed to drink the beer and then place the can carefully at the base of the monument, or if there’s room, find a place on the ledge. You kiss the rim of the can or stick a flower in the mouth of the can, roses or daisies or whatever, or if you can’t find any flowers you can use leaves or twigs, things lying on the ground. That is what you are supposed to do to honour Mr. Alexander Keith, on his birthday.
Abby has never done this before, but she knows it is all wrong. She knows because Norah told her, and Norah Singh is her finger-pricking, secret-sharing, till-death-do-us-part best friend. They’ve only been in high school a few weeks and already Norah knows the rules. While Abby hides at the back of her classes—hunched over her desk, trying to tuck in her too-long edges and scowling at the backs of people’s heads—there is Norah, smiling at the front of the classroom, chewing on her hair, squeaking away in that piercing, nasal voice that reminds Abby of a cartoon parrot, knowing all the answers and generally being her own annoying Norah self. Then suddenly Norah is sitting with Kelly Lipman in the cafeteria, Norah is playing cards in the hallway with Sarah LeBlanc, Norah is going to football games, Norah is hanging out in the bathroom at high school dance, Norah is Norah is Norah is.
Norah is invited to Alexander Keith’s birthday party.
“Come with me,” she said to Abby, that afternoon on their way home from school. “It’ll be fun. We can have a sleepover after, sleep out on the trampoline.” She jumped in the air, brandished her finger guns, the way she always did when she was trying to talk Abby into something. Like a little brown Annie Oakley. Bang bang.
“I don’t want to get drunk,” Abby said.
“You’re going to get drunk eventually,” said Norah, grinning. “Don’t you want your first time to be with me?”
Getting drunk is the thing to do in high school. Everyone knows that. Over the summer, Norah and Abby were both excited for high school. Abby would sneak Norah through the staff gate at the Waegwoltic Club, where she worked in the canteen. They’d sit on the grass outside the tennis courts eating french fries and looking down the hill to the lido at the edge of the shore, and beyond that to the boathouse jetties and the sailing kids in their bright orange lifejackets rigging up their lasers and pretending to push each other into the harbour, which was so full of raw sewage that on warm days the smell fogged over the whole place. Abby and Norah would watch the high school girls in their bikinis, tanned and blonde as they stretched out on towels around the lido deck, flirting with the cute sailing instructors in board shorts and expensive sunglasses cannonballing into the lido to show off. It all seemed so bright and sunny, so promising, so different from junior high, where everyone was so stuck-up and immature. In high school, Norah told Abby, they might even get boyfriends.
“I’m going to have me two or three of those,” Norah would say after every cute-sailing-instructor cannonball, shoving a french fry lengthwise under her upper lip like a retainer. “Yep, two or three.” Abby would laugh so hard that her Coke fizzed up her nose, and she would think that one was probably enough for her, as long as he was kind and maybe had a car.
But in the first week of school, Abby learned her first lesson: that all the cute sailing instructors were potheads and all the pretty girls were mean. Now she thinks high school is a dark and dirty place, full of crowds of loud, leering kids with backpacks slung low on their backs, denim jackets and plaid shirts pulled around them like armour, laughing at inside jokes meant for her to never understand.
What Abby does understand, however, is the way to honour Mr. Alexander Keith, former mayor of Halifax, friend to rich and poor, and above all, brewer of fine ale, or what Abby assumes must be fine ale, as it is the only ale she has ever tasted, and only this time, here to honour Mr. Alexander Keith on his birthday. At this particular moment, Abby loves Mr. Alexander Keith more than anything, and she is disgusted by the cans on the ground. She also feels very sorry for all the other people buried in the graveyard. Most of the graves are so old, no one even knows who the people are anymore. Like Mr. John Foster, Beloved Husband, who Died in 1890. Why, thinks Abby, doesn’t Mr. John Foster get any beer cans?
There are about thirty kids in the cemetery. All standing around in little groups. Abby wonders why no one cares that they are there. Norah is sitting on the ground a few steps away, eating pizza. She grins at Abby, cheese sticking to her lip, tomato sauce on her teeth. God, she is gross.
“Nice, Norah,” says Abby.
Norah, standing up, stretches her arms towards Abby. “Come here, have some pizza,” she says, opening her mouth wide.
“Gross,” shrieks Abby. She puts out her hands to stop her. Squeezing her eyes shut in anticipation of the Attack of the Cheese.
Then a boy named Angus with huge curly hair steps between them, saying, “I’ll have some of that.” Angus is a grade ahead of them, and plays hockey, a fact he advertises proudly to anyone he meets: “Hi, my name’s Angus and I play hockey.” Abby wonders how he fits a helmet over his hair.
Angus comes at Norah with arms extended. Norah sticks out her tongue and Angus chases her around the graves while other people watch and laugh and cheer “Go Angus, go Angus, get her Angus.” Angus reminds Abby of one of the sailing instructors at the Waeg, the one who would climb out onto one of the jetties and cannonball right into the Northwest Arm, all the girls shrieking with horror as he chased them around the lido, arms dripping with toxic sludge.
Abby sits down on Mr. Foster’s grave and crosses her arms and wonders why Norah is so popular. She’s not even very pretty, and she dresses weird, not like the other kids in their Nikes and ski jackets. She’s always in long skirts with leggings underneath them, big black boots with different coloured laces. She doesn’t play sports and she’s smart in math, and she spends every Saturday night playing cards with her mata. It must be the trampoline, thinks Abby, taking a drink of her beer. Everyone likes her trampoline. Or maybe it’s the nose ring. Nobody else in their high school has a nose ring, and Norah’s had hers since she was a baby, so it’s not even like she got it just to be cool.
Angus catches Norah around her waist, swinging her off the ground. His hair bounces and sways as if it was an entity all its own—a sea anemone muckled on to his head. Norah kicks her legs against his shins and he lets go, cursing.
All the girls are standing in a circle near the path and they turn their pony-tailed heads and blow cigarette smoke through strawberry-glossed lips. “Nice work, Norah,” says Sarah LeBlanc, her voice low and scratchy, authoritative. Stupid Sarah LeBlanc, with her stupid French name that isn’t even French, that she pronounces Le Blank. Le Nothing. The other girls are faking, thinks Abby. Copying the way she crosses her left arm in front of her, rests her right elbow there as she smokes. Copying her whatever expression.
“Yeah, Norah,” says Michelle Hennigar, her voice higher, sugar-coated. “Come over here and have a smoke with us.” Stupid Michelle Hennigar, with her fake tan that looks orange, that everyone knows is a fake tan.
Norah jumps in the air and brandishes her finger guns. Bang bang. The girls dissolve into giggles. “You’re fucking crazy,” says Sarah.
“Yup,” says Norah. She wiggles her butt like a girl in a rap video, her long skirt swish-swishing from side to side. Why, thinks Abby, her face turning red. Why are you doing this now? They used to practice that in the mirror, as a joke. The girls are laughing, though. They think it’s hilarious.
Abby gets up off of Mr. Foster’s grave and crosses to the pile of empty beer cans. She picks one up. Then another. They keep falling out of her arms but she keeps picking them up again. Abby really likes the cans. They are green and have a picture of a moose or something on the front. Alexander Keith must have drawn that, she thinks.
“Who is that?” asks Kelly Lipman. Abby pretends not to hear her. Stupid Kelly Lipman, star-fucking-basketball-player, with that stupid short boy hair cut.
“This is Abby,” says Norah. She grabs Abby’s arm. Don’t touch me, thinks Abby, “Come on, Abby. Let’s have a smoke.”
“You don’t smoke,” says Abby, staring at her.
“I might want to have one though,” Norah pokes her in the ribs. “Lighten up, baby.”
Abby watches as Kelly opens her pack of cigarettes and holds it out to Norah. Norah takes one in her mouth, letting it dangle from one corner. Kelly flicks her lighter and holds it to the end. Norah inhales. She looks weird. Like the way a horse or a dog would look with a cigarette.
“Abby,” Norah says, “Abby...” She pulls another cigarette from the pack and waves it in front of Abby’s face. “Want one?”
Abby is reeling. Feeling sick. She looks down at her legs, stick-thin and knobby-kneed, and suddenly thinks that some day she will be beautiful. She is already tall, and she knows her blonde hair will grow longer, her breasts will get bigger, her face will fill out. Not like Norah, with her coarse dark hair and thick dark eyebrows, who will always be short and squat. This thought comforts Abby. She takes the cigarette from Norah.
“Right on, Abby,” says Drea Meisner sarcastically. “Way to be a badass.” Stupid Drea Meisner, with her perfect curly hair, with her stupid last year’s ski passes dangling from her zipper.
Abby stares at Drea. She opens her mouth and slowly stuffs the cigarette inside. The tobacco is dry and tastes like window cleaner, but Abby chews it anyway, until the cigarette is a sticky blob in her mouth, the paper sticking to the roof of her mouth, her teeth bouncing apart on the filter. Then she opens her mouth and lets the mess fall from her tongue onto the ground. All the girls shriek and pretend to make vomiting noises, but Abby doesn’t look at them, she just walks back over to her pile of cans and resumes her clean up.
“What a fucking freak,” she hears Sarah say. The other girls mumble agreement, choking on little huff-huff noises in the back of their throats.
“Abby, what are you doing?” asks Norah Singh. Stupid Norah Singh, with her stupid nose ring and stupid trampoline and her thick eyebrows. “Abby, baby, come back.”
Abby ignores her, starts placing the beer cans along the edge of the monument. When she runs out of room on the monument, she moves on to the other graves, placing the cans at the base of the headstones like flowers. They all look so unloved, these graves of people who died so long ago no one even remembers them. They deserve cans, too. She places one on Mr. Foster’s grave, and gives it a little pat. She can hear the snickering but she doesn’t care. She knows Norah is watching her. Abby tries to send her telepathic thoughts. This is me, she thinks. This is me, Norah! She tries to balance the cans but they keep falling. It’s like the bottoms are rounded, uneven. She picks them up and they fall again, and again, and suddenly in front of her eyes there are bright lights, spots spinning around and around and then Abby herself is falling, head full of hate and misery. Then she is retching, puking into the grass, her eyes welling up with tears, the grass flattening under the weight of her vomit. Oh please God, she thinks, let this all be over.
Then Norah is there, whispering something in her ear. “Abby,” she says, “Abby, are you okay?” She pushes Abby’s hair out of her eyes.
Abby spits on the ground. “I guess,” she says.
Norah surveys the mess. “You must have had the pepperoni pizza,” she says.
“Gross, Norah,” Abby says. She rests her head against the gravestone. She thinks back to when she and Norah were younger, when they used to pretend to be different people every time they left the house. Norah would be an exchange student from England, Norah with her terrible British accent, and Abby would be the daughter of a rock star. Once they even pretended they were blind. Put Band-Aids over their eyes under dark sunglasses, stumbling around, bumping into everything, laughing like their sides would split. I want to go back, she thinks. But she can’t say it. She traces a finger along the names on the gravestone. Mary and George McLaughlin, Died 1875, May God Watch Over You. “I just wanted them to have some cans, too,” she says.
“Sure,” says Norah. “Why should Alexander Keith get all the trash?” She takes a can and sticks it upside down in the pile of vomit.
Then, suddenly, the cemetery explodes with light. Frenzied kids pop up from the ground, flying between the gravestones in twos and threes, people yelling, loud voices and dogs barking. And Abby and Norah are running. Norah drags Abby by the hand along the gravel path and out of the graveyard, past the gates of the Public Gardens, past the CBC building with its digital sign flashing 11:14, 10°, CBC, 11:14, 10°, CBC. Abby’s stomach churning, Norah grinning, her dark hair flying out behind her like a superhero’s cape, her army boots making a clack-clack sound on the pavement, running around the edge of Citadel Hill and down Sackville Street, picking up speed as they careen down the hill through downtown Halifax, past the people in the window at Tim Horton’s, past the grownups drinking outside, on patios, their faces hazy and serious and old. Past the old boarded-up Tex-Park, across Lower Water Street, around the wave sculpture licking the sky like a giant tongue, and onto the pier, across the weathered boards that bounce and shake with every step, running until they reach the end, until they have nowhere else to go. They stop, breathless, looking out over the harbour glistening with lights from the buildings on the Dartmouth side, the water slick with oil and seaweed and sludge. Abby can still feel her feet flying, can still see the faces of the grownups sitting on the patios, but everything else is gone, is a blur, and when she touches her face she is surprised to feel her cheeks wet with tears.
Norah laughs and squeezes her hand. Abby turns around and looks up the hill, trying to take in the distance, knowing she really doesn’t want to go back. She breathes in deeply, feeling the salty air stinging the inside of her nose, smelling the rain and the garbage and the rust from the bottoms of the ships, the rats and the fish and the silence.
Abby and Norah look at each other. They don’t say a word. They just close their eyes and jump.