Like all things that are in no way Sarah’s fault, it starts with a bad idea of Cosima’s. This is what Sarah maintains. For an impressively long time.
Then it’s a bad idea and opportunity, when, over lunch, Veera casually mentions owning the equipment they’d need to pull it off. They sit with it for a minute, ignoring the drone of Rachel Duncan’s midday announcements on the PA system. Tony says there’s always his uncle’s nearby warehouse, where he, Sarah, and Cosima have been hanging out in the small unused office since they were twelve. They could bring in some better furniture. Set up Veera’s broadcasting equipment in the glassed-off file closet.
All Sarah can think is that it’s sure to crash and burn, but at least it won’t be on her this time. And at least, before it burns, it’ll give people something to listen to other than the school’s terrible radio station.
Rachel Duncan’s trite jingle ends her lunchtime broadcast just as Cosima gives Sarah a nudge.
“So what do you think?” she asks. “Are you in?”
Sarah glances at Veera, the only sane member of the group. Probably because she’s only been friends with them for a year, thanks to Sarah’s desperate need for a math tutor. She hasn’t been exposed to their stupidity long enough to be affected.
“Think we can pull it off?” Sarah asks her.
Veera shrugs, puts another mini powdered donut in her mouth. It’s eerily similar to Helena, who, along with Veera’s girlfriend, was stuck with the second lunch period this year. Yet another thing to blame on the school amalgamation.
Cosima actually has a running tally of things to blame on their school absorbing the Delta York Academy - two lunches, a hundred and eighty new students, bloody Rachel Duncan (Sarah’s contribution), Rachel’s awful school radio show, having their mascot changed from a bull to a swan.
It was the combination of the last two items that pushed Cosima into this idea, after a month of listening to the principal-approved radio programming while lamenting the apparently horrific implications of having a swan as a mascot. (Sarah’s not sure. She stopped paying attention to Cosima’s rants a few weeks into it, but it was something to do with feminism and mythology and Sarah’s probably not smart enough to care.)
(“Wasn’t there a bull in mythology too?” Tony asked once. But only once, with the withering look Cosima shot him.)
“It’ll be great,” Cosima says, ignoring Veera’s response. “We’ll really stick it to the man. Show the administration they can’t just go around brainwashing everyone into conforming little robots.”
Sarah and Tony exchange a glance, trying to feel out if this is about to turn into another rant. Sarah eyes the exit just in case but Cosima takes another bite of today’s questionable tuna casserole and doesn’t continue.
The cons of this terrible idea are numerous, mostly all leading to the fact that they could easily be expelled if they were caught (well, Sarah and Tony could, given all that’s already on their record), but the biggest plus, in Sarah’s mind, fully makes up for that. Rachel Duncan will finally have a rival. They’ll finally be able to put her in her place.
Not to sound like Cosima, but all Sarah’s wanted since the schools combined and Rachel decided it was her mission in life to be the head of everything is to crush her underfoot like a gross little bug.
Sure, Rachel hasn’t done anything to her yet, but they share an English class, and Sarah’s heard enough of her gratingly snooty voice on the school radio. It’s time someone knocked her down a peg or two. Let her know hers isn’t the only voice that matters.
“There are still a few things to work out, obviously,” Tony says, although he looks just as excited as Cosima.
Cosima’s hands fly. “But we have time. I already have a name and some of the topics I want to cover and setlists and-”
Sarah tunes out, mostly because it’s a boulder she can’t stop now that it’s started its long roll down the mountain, a little because Rachel Duncan walks into the cafeteria in a pair of pumps that are definitely against the dress code, bypassing the entire caf line to grab a cold water from one of the lunch ladies.
“The things she gets away with just because she’s stuck her entire face up Leekie’s arse,” Sarah says to Veera, whose head swings to follow Sarah’s line of sight.
Veera nods. Eats another donut.
Tony and Cosima are busy scribbling something in Cosima’s notebook, geeking out about music, neither of them paying attention. It’s just as well; they’re convinced her issue with Rachel is a queer thing, which, obviously not, given that Rachel dresses like she’ll be a porny high school principal herself someday. Sarah has standards.
And still doesn’t know if a bunch of sixteen year-olds can actually pull off their own radio show, but as long as she doesn’t get blamed it might be kinda cool. They’ll be like, underground superheroes. Saving the airwaves one song at a time.
Rachel Duncan won’t know what hit her.
A week later they have this much: a teeny tiny broadcasting booth for Veera, a garbage-picked table where the couch used to be, set up with microphones and a switchboard for the phone, an entire shelf of all their pooled CDs, and a plan to maintain their anonymity.
“It’s important,” Cosima says, off Sarah and Tony’s rolled eyes. “Some of us would like to go to university, and therefore don’t want to get expelled.”
Veera carefully lays out the pitch changes she’ll make through the mixer, altering their voices enough that they won’t sound so much like themselves. And they’ll have radio names, Cosima adds. Secret identities like Sarah wasn’t so wrong about the superhero thing.
The rest of the details fall into place in the following couple of days; flyers are printed, Tony designs the station’s logo, Cosima finally catches Sarah long enough to explain the myth behind their station’s name. Well, Sarah makes the mistake of asking about it, just wanting to know who the fuck Leda is. But Cosima pounces on the opportunity.
“So, it’s oppressive,” Cosima concludes, the two of them sitting at the table where, soon enough, they’ll have the microphones switched on and will be broadcasting their first show. “To choose the swan means to stand by what the swan represents, so this name is, like, a little fuck you to the school.”
Sarah nods, still a little unsure. Free Leda Radio.
“But she’s… isn’t she already free?” Sarah asks.
Cosima launches into a ten minute rant of the chains of forced motherhood and its connotations in modern society and Sarah scrapes at the sticky remnants of something on the tabletop just to occupy herself.
Veera’s the first to pick out her radio name; MK, after an online username, which explains the few times Sarah’s heard her girlfriend call her Mika. Tony proudly chooses Scratch (“like a record scratch,” he says, ignoring Cosima’s comment that it sounds like a skeevy old man’s prison nickname), and Sarah settles on Strummer, after Joe Strummer from The Clash.
Cosima’s name comes from something as geeky as Sarah expects, Newton’s third law, because, as Cosima justifies, their radio show is a reaction to the oppression of the high school’s actions.
“Equal and opposite,” she says. “Just as professional, but without the suck.”
The suck part remains to be seen, but with Veera covering all the technical aspects it definitely will be just as professional. Sarah tries to ask, once, where she got all the equipment. It’s met with a very long look that’s no doubt taken from her girlfriend, who’s been an admirable pain in Sarah’s ass since middle school.
“It could bomb, you know,” Sarah says to Cosima the night before their first show.
The two of them are at the warehouse under the guise of tying up a few loose ends, mostly just here to settle their nerves. Sarah’s stretched out on the couch that’s been her safe haven whenever she needed a place to crash, trying to escape her foster mum or a guy who thought she’d spend the night, the couch now shoved against a wall plastered in sun-faded posters because its old spot is taken by the giant table.
Everything looks different from here. Like they haven’t been hanging out here for years, sneaking beer or playing darts, the three of them always so convinced the world was out to get them.
Cosima twirls in one of the desk chairs they garbage-picked to go with the table, spinning in a full circle before acting like she heard what Sarah said.
And then: “I know. I mean, statistically it will. But then it’ll get better.”
Sarah considers it.
“So you’re not nervous?”
“I didn’t say that,” Cosima says, a sheepish smile on her face, and something in Sarah settles.
They don’t stay for too long. Cosima wants to make it home before her dad comes home from the lab, always eager to see him in a way Sarah’s never understood, and Sarah has to get back before curfew and can’t make Helena cover for her yet again. It isn’t fair.
That, or the way the new school year’s split them up, or the fact that Sarah never asked if Helena wanted to be a part of this radio thing, because the selfish part of her still continues to want to keep her friends to herself like they’ll leave if they spend enough time with the better sister. She’s a terrible twin.
She’s always such a terrible twin.
It’s not her fault, she always reasons, because she didn’t know she was supposed to be a twin until she was fourteen, but two years is more than enough time to figure it out.
“So guess what,” she says to Helena as she crawls into bed that night, under the cover of darkness.
“What?” Helena says.
Sarah tells her everything. Every last thing.
The silence stretches to an impossible length, and after a while Sarah assumes Helena fell asleep, but then, tiny, inexplicably warm, Helena says, you’ll be great.
As it goes, both Cosima and Helena are right.
The first show bombs. Not for lack of trying, because they have the setlist and an outline of topics to cover and they want it so bad, but it has to fail. Because of the statistics. Because they want it so bad, because they’re nervous, because their tongues can’t stop tripping over themselves and all Sarah can picture is Rachel Duncan somewhere, in a criminally short skirt, delighting in their failure.
And then Sarah’s great.
They’re all great, a few shows in.
But there’s a moment, in their third show, when Sarah knows. Tony says some quip off of Cosima’s rant about the pep rally and its lack of acknowledgement of taking place on stolen land, transitioning them into the next song like he’s been doing this all his life. The light coming through the one frosted window paints them all gold for a soft minute, and Veera in her booth raises two fingers to signal how much time they have left until they’re back on air. Sarah’s breath catches in her chest.
She doesn’t know why, just that this is it: this is how it’s supposed to be. They’ve found their place.
People are talking about it in school the next day, too. Beth finds Sarah in gym class, in the change room, to let her know she heard a few girls gushing about it in the washroom earlier.
“And they’re not the only ones,” Beth says, before handing Sarah a hair elastic she hadn’t yet asked for.
“Really,” Sarah says, in awe.
Beth smiles like this is her accomplishment too, like she’s just as proud, and Sarah’s glad that Veera told her girlfriend because it means there’s now someone else to share the excitement with. (It guaranteed them at least two listeners, as well, with Helena tuning into the first show from her bedside radio.)
The ultimate accomplishment doesn’t happen until a few weeks in, when they’ve established enough of a routine to sound close to polished.
During the midday announcements, when Sarah and Tony are busy building a tower out of their overcooked fries, their station name actually comes out of Rachel Duncan’s mouth.
“It seems I have a little competition,” she says, irritably smug, her sneer coming through the sound system. “Or I would, if they were any good. I’d wish them luck but I don’t want to waste my breath. Keep reminding listeners why they choose Radio Swan, Leda. I appreciate the free publicity.”
Sarah sends a fry flying all the way to the other side of the cafeteria.
“Well, we’re enough of a threat to be mentioned,” Cosima comments.
Veera smiles into her bag of gummy bears. “Fear looks good on her.”
Everything looks good on her, Sarah doesn’t say. Her stomach’s busy doing the weirdest flipping sensation, like a choppy lake, the same as the last time Rachel acknowledged her. But that was English class and it was only to tell her how wrong she was on her half-arsed interpretation of some bullshit symbolism.
Well. At least they’re anonymous, and Rachel doesn’t know it’s her.
She can’t figure out why that’s the opposite of calming.
She can’t figure anything out, but all she wants, after that announcement, is to be even better. To make it so that Rachel can’t pretend they aren’t in the same league.
It ends up being the kick they need - their show that afternoon is the best one yet, Sarah gracing the airwaves with a withering one minute song on the guitar about Rachel’s ass-kissing tendencies, three people calling in to tell them how much they loved it.
“All she is is Principal Leekie’s little clone,” the last caller says, making Tony snort.
They don’t mean to turn the show into a personal witch hunt, but it works. And the next day, Rachel says nothing. Her voice doesn’t even waver on the daily reminders. Although, as Sarah alone notices, there’s a little less venom in her usual comment about the chess club’s meeting.
And maybe that’s why that afternoon, in the washroom, when Sarah finds Rachel at the sink as she comes out to wash her hands, she lingers. Glances at her through the mirror.
“Is there a reason you’re gawking?” Rachel says, after a minute.
She doesn’t look any different than usual. Her makeup seems professionally done compared to Sarah’s slept-in dark smudges, and she has on a pressed white blouse that shouldn’t fit as well as it does. Sarah flounders for a second. Wipes her hands on her jeans.
“Are you suddenly a mute?” Rachel asks, and the way she says it it’s as if they’ve known each other for years, not the two months since their schools combined.
“Just trying to figure you out,” Sarah hears herself saying.
Rachel’s eyebrows lift, like out of all the answers she’d foreseen this wasn’t one of them and it’s somehow both startling and confirming. Sarah squirms under her gaze, unsure why she even said it. She doesn’t want to know her. She hasn’t from the first day she saw her, tucked under the new principal’s arm like some small darling pet.
“Hm,” Rachel says. She moves to get paper towel, drying her hands deliberately and methodically. Through the mirror, she takes another look at Sarah. “You’re from London, aren’t you.”
“Brixton,” Sarah says.
Rachel smirks, her features catlike. “Of course.”
And then she goes, pleased with herself for having the last word, leaving Sarah to question everything about that interaction. But mostly: why she knows she won’t say a word of it to her friends, even though a month ago it was something she’d eagerly share so they could all make fun of it.
It’s like… she wants to keep it for herself. Or, she wouldn’t be able to explain herself if they asked. And she really doesn’t want to.
Rachel pays for it the next show, anyway. Sarah sings a little song about an unfeeling robot to the tune of Rachel’s jingle, rounding up a solid discussion on Leekie’s new cell phone policy that only seems to benefit those with no friends.
The best part is that she knows Rachel’s listening. And so every word is just a little bit sharper.
Originally, it was just the one school. Allen Dundas Collegiate Institute. Big building, average classes, a few sports teams that didn’t do too poorly. Sarah and Helena were still in the same lunch period. Veera got to eat with her girlfriend. No one really cared that the school didn’t produce winners.
But then there was some fire and budget cuts, and letters went out over the summer. The nearby Delta York Academy for Future Leaders would be combining with Allen Dundas CI, to form one big Frankenstein school. (Frankenstein’s Monster school, Cosima would say.) Delta York Allen Dundas Collegiate Institute. Or, DYAD CI.
(It kind of bothers Sarah that their school’s name is entirely in capitals, like it’s constantly yelling at them. She mentioned it to Tony, once, and he laughed for five minutes straight, and she never mentioned it again.)
At first the changes didn’t seem to be too big, just a few more students each grade, a few less empty lockers to be used for drug deals, but then the first week ended and the curriculum got harder and the mascot changed, replacing Cosima’s beloved bull with an unsettling swan.
And then they had a school radio show.
The thing is, Cosima tried out for it. Her and about twenty other kids, reading bullshit announcements into an unplugged microphone for the new Principal Leekie to oversee. She did fine. But it didn’t matter, because Leekie had already chosen. It was Rachel’s idea in the first place, apparently, to make up for the amalgamation’s lack of a leadership program, because something had to pad her transcript for university applications. And then Rachel was suddenly captain of the debate team, and on the school council, and Leekie’s prized office aid.
Nepotism, Cosima said.
Rachel’s the golden girl. Nothing can touch her.
Maybe it was like that back when the Delta York Academy still existed outside of some tumor at the heart of what once was an all right school, because the kids that came from there don’t seem to pay her much attention.
She doesn’t even seem to have friends, actually, apart from Leekie. She eats in the office or in the radio booth. People fear her, but no one ever says shit to her.
“Do you feel bad?” Sarah asks her friends, mistakenly, one morning when they’re there early enough to take advantage of the school’s breakfast program.
Rachel walks in to grab a coffee and looks at no one, and Sarah asks her question and they all stare at her like she’s grown two heads. No one graces her with an answer. They just go back to their cereal, or in Veera’s case her Pop-Tart, and Rachel walks out alone.
(That afternoon she slips a song into the play queue, avoiding Veera’s eyes. Gutless by Hole. It means nothing. Her stomach still churns.)
Sarah really tries to tell herself it’s only because she knows what it’s like to be the new girl, with nine schools under her belt by fourteen. Except Rachel isn’t new, per se. Just alone.
Somehow, through the amalgamation, she managed to both rise to the top and sink to the very bottom, and it would be admirable if Sarah wasn’t up close with the details, and it would be sad if she let herself stop long enough to take it in. But as it is it’s just fact. It’s something Sarah sits with, resting hard in her chest. And Rachel’s either aware of it or she isn’t. And it shouldn’t be Sarah’s problem.
“At what point does being alone turn to loneliness?” Sarah asks on the radio during a Friday broadcast, near the end of their show.
Tony’s fingers stop moving around the base of his microphone, and Cosima takes the lollipop out of her mouth. Her tongue is red, contrasting Veera’s purple tongue in the booth, the two of them watching her like they should have been paying closer attention.
“Something you need to tell us, Strummer?” Tony jokes, trying to lighten the mood.
Veera clears her throat, her microphone on for the first time all week. “When you start to think about it,” she says.
Sarah swallows and says something stupid in return, introducing the next song like that’s all she really meant to do. The looks on her friends’ faces lessen a little. Maybe they get that she isn’t talking about herself.
She has a weekend to get her shit together and when she sees Rachel in an empty hall on Monday she keeps moving, pretending she didn’t notice at all.
They fall into a nice routine after about a month. There’s a comforting cadence to it, making their way from school to the warehouse every day, dropping their bags by the door, picking at some homework until there’s only ten minutes to the show. Sometimes Helena comes with them, to drape herself on the couch and eat Veera’s stash of candies. Sometimes it’s Beth and she brings pizza or a bag of chips she doesn’t touch.
The show always starts the same. You’re listening to FLR, Free Leda Radio. The underground answer to all your music dreams.
Cosima gets closer to her mic. I’m Newton, and this is your thought of the day.
Tony cuts in. I’m Scratch, and this is your burp of the day.
Sarah reads the headlines. Upcoming show downtown, another one of Leekie’s insane policy changes, a comeback to something Rachel said on Radio Swan.
Veera draws something on her little chalkboard, holds it up. It’s always encouraging.
Over the break Strummer mentioned…
So I’ve been thinking about…
Without fail, Tony slips in something bluegrass or folksy, and the three others suffer through it. Veera likes to play Cosima’s attempts at being experimental.
(“We are not an EDM station,” Sarah says.
Cosima grins. “For the next five minutes we are.”)
Helena always lets Sarah know which parts she liked and which parts she didn’t, whether she heard the show from home or from the worn vinyl couch. Inevitably, there’s a comment about Sarah’s accent and the fact that pitch changes can’t hide it. “You just sound… butch, Sarah.”
Sarah’s mostly sure that comment comes from Helena’s lunches with Beth, when Helena isn’t eating with Gracie and Beth isn’t with her cheerleader friends, so Sarah lets it slide.
On Fridays Cosima sits them all down after the show and runs through the week’s ups and downs, taking notes in her glittery spiral bound. They discuss show ideas for the following week and pull CDs for the setlists. Veera archives the week’s recorded shows. We’ll want to have this someday, she said with such assurance the first time they saw her doing it.
And then they were all quiet, because it was the first time they had to conceptualize it someday being over.
Sarah goes home to her foster mum and Helena and Felix, who always has another complaint about the seventh grade, and she and Helena battle over the TV while Felix practices the violin upstairs until Mrs. S calls them all to the table for dinner.
Sarah doesn’t realize she’s happy until it snows for the first time.
She’s walking home from the warehouse with her backpack half off one shoulder, Beth keeping her company until they hit Queen Street because it’s one of the nice days when Beth came and brought pizza, and the two of them walk in a comfortable silence eating the last two slices of pepperoni.
“It’s snowing,” Beth says suddenly, sounding giddier than Sarah’s ever heard her before.
Sarah’s heart leaps. They both glance up at the sky, watching tiny flakes drift aimlessly, eventually disappearing when they hit the sidewalk.
“God, it isn’t even Veera’s birthday yet,” Beth says. A snowflake lands on her cheek as she catches Sarah’s probing look. “So like every year, no matter what, the first snow happens on her birthday. November twenty-fifth. It’s the first thing we ever talked about in person.”
“How long did you guys talk online before you met up?” Sarah asks. She’s reached the crust of her pizza, and it’s cold, but she chews on it anyway. Beth, of course, tosses hers in the nearest trash can.
“Hmm, about five months, I think,” Beth says. “She didn’t even tell me we went to the same school until I told her I had a bit of a crush on her, and then it was still a week before we met up in person. I think she expected me to… freak out, or something. Like I’d stop caring if we hung out.”
“But you didn’t,” Sarah says, stepping over a bag of dog crap left on the sidewalk.
Beth smiles fondly. “No. It was snowing pretty bad that day, and she met me in the library, in that big window, and she told me about her birthday. Because she was nervous. And then I kissed her, because I was nervous.”
Sarah’s heard it from Veera before, but hearing Beth’s side of it twists an odd little part of Sarah’s stomach that she didn’t know existed.
Veera tells it like it was a miracle Beth didn’t run, that she came in her cheerleading uniform and Veera was so sure it had all been one long elaborate prank. From Beth’s mouth it’s all infinitely tender. It’s so soft it hurts.
“Anyway,” Beth says, her cheeks flushed in a way that isn’t from the cold.
The snowflakes keep finding her face and settling onto her skin like they don’t know they’re supposed to melt. Sarah’s chest fills with warm air, suddenly, as if her lungs just stepped through the front door on their own and smelled something lovely cooking in the oven and Helena was right there ready to give them a hug.
She stops in the middle of the sidewalk. Beth stops as well a second later, turning to frown in confusion.
“What?” she says.
Sarah shrugs, the action muffled by her heavy jacket and the thick sweater underneath. “I don’t know. It’s just… so pretty. All of it.”
She waves a hand around at the side street they’re on, with all its little brick rowhouses, every so often a small thatched cottage. Some parts of the city look so much like England it’s painful. The snow’s falling a little thicker now, glittery, enough to make a tiny pile on the pompom on Beth’s hat. Up in a tree, a squirrel chatters at the two of them.
“Yeah,” Beth says, looking around at everything. “It is. It’s also cold, so come on. My mom made soup last night that I’ve been looking forward to all day.”
“Okay,” Sarah says, laughing.
She picks up the pace, catching up to where Beth’s started walking. They’ll part in another block and Sarah will go home to her family. Her little patchwork family. And they’ll ask about the radio show, even though she knows Mrs. S listens to it in secret. There won’t be any arguing about her grades for once because she hasn’t yet fallen behind. It’s a bloody miracle.
“You wouldn’t want to come over, would you? Have some of that soup?” Beth asks when they reach Queen Street.
“Nah, it’s okay,” Sarah says. “Maybe another time.”
“Sure, yeah,” Beth says, but she still seems a little reluctant to split, so Sarah clears her throat and gives her a tentative hug, their jackets adding a strange padding.
“Uh,” Sarah says, “see you tomorrow?”
Any awkwardness she has disappears when Beth’s smile hits, amplified by the sparkle of snowflakes in her eyelashes.
“It was a good show today, Sarah,” Beth tells her as they go off in their separate ways. She has to shout a little, and a guy walking his dog turns to look.
Sarah shouts back an enthusiastic THANKS anyway, because it was. It was really good.
Sarah spends time with Helena the first weekend after it snows, because Saturday morning they wake up and it’s snowing again, and even though Helena’s been in this country for three years she still sees it as a thing of magic when the weather changes.
It’s the big oak tree in their backyard, Sarah’s pretty sure. They have a perfect view of it from their window, and trees that drop their leaves are the only way to really know what the seasons are doing. Helena gets up every morning and tells it dobroho ranku. Good morning. A year ago they thought it had a disease and Mrs. S phoned the company to cut it down, Felix and Helena in tears, Sarah keeping a stiff upper lip because someone had to. The guy came out with a clipboard and said no, it was fine. They hung a swing.
Helena’s first request is breakfast, because all things with Helena involve food, and Sarah used to joke about it but then the therapist talked about food insecurity and it wasn’t funny anymore.
Sarah fries up eggs and puts some frozen hash browns in the oven, and they save some for Felix and Mrs. S even though she works on weekends and won’t be back until dinner. Mrs. S never expects it, which is why Helena always reminds Sarah to do it. Sometimes Helena acts like a perpetual houseguest. But sometimes she just knows how to do the whole family thing better than Sarah does, and Sarah can never fully tell the difference.
“We should go to the beach,” Helena says as she squirts ketchup on everything.
Sarah mutilates her egg with the corner of a piece of toast, creating a nice mirror image of destruction to Helena’s bloody mess. “It’s cold,” she says.
Helena nods, happily chewing on a hash brown. “The best time to go. We’ll see all the birds and dogs.”
Going anywhere with Helena means stopping to pet every dog they see, but it’s Saturday and Sarah somehow managed to finish her math homework yesterday at the warehouse and has been feeling weirdly light since that walk with Beth so she says yes. They’ll go to the beach even though it’s mid-November and the lake only really knows how to be offshoots of grey.
“I wish we had a dog,” Helena laments, before she’s done talking and focuses only on eating.
Sarah does too, sometimes. It’d have to be a cool one, like a pitbull or a rottweiler, although she could make do with some kind of hound. If they had a dog Tony would never leave their house, though, so maybe it’s a good thing.
“So we have much to talk about,” Helena says as they head out, in sweaters and jackets (Sarah’s leather and Helena’s a dirty green) and hats and mitts, for Sarah, because Helena keeps her hands bare to pet dogs.
They’re only twenty minutes from the beach, which is one of the perks of this house. It’s the second place they lived in Toronto, but Helena’s first with this family. She doesn’t talk about her life before this one and Sarah doesn’t like to think about the first Toronto home, which was a tiny flat that she ran away from three separate times, so it’s as if the two of them have only had one home here and it was always good.
(Of course, it’s not always good. Not even in the nice house, in the nice neighbourhood, with everyone safe. You can’t run away from your past, the therapist likes to remind her.)
Sarah fishes a ticket out of her pocket and holds it carefully with her thumb against her mitt, not wanting it to catch in the slight breeze.
“You saw me yesterday,” Sarah says.
They reach the streetcar stop and sit on the cold bench, and Helena produces a ticket of her own from one of her many pockets. She also produces a lollipop, and offers it to Sarah. Sarah shakes her head and it goes in Helena’s mouth, even though it never had a wrapper.
“Yes,” Helena says around the lollipop. “And we ate. But I did not see you at lunch, and at lunch I sat with the cheerleaders.”
“With Beth?” Sarah says.
They pause their conversation as the streetcar arrives, suspiciously quick for how often they have to wait at this stop. They drop their tickets in the fare box and accept the transfers with a thank-you, heading to the very back of the streetcar. It’s only ten stops but Helena likes the windows, and Sarah likes that the big windows don’t open, because it’s always a few degrees warmer back here.
“Yes, I ate with Beth,” Helena says when they’re seated.
Queen Street moves by out the window slowly, the streetcar stuck behind traffic, everything slightly speckled with tiny snowflakes. It isn’t enough to call it a flurry, but it’s enough to catch the light.
Helena’s head turns to watch their favourite cafe disappear behind them, and then she continues. “Alison Hendrix listens to your radio show. Does not like Scratch’s burps. But I think they’re funny, so don’t tell him this.”
“I won’t,” Sarah promises, even though she could do without them. It’s the smell; she can always tell what he had for lunch.
Six more stops.
“You know the funny thing?” Helena says. She’s finished her lollipop and is now chewing on the stick, all the paper swollen with spit. Sarah says what. “Evie Cho. From the Academy. Pretty? Also mean?”
“Yeah, I know who she is,” Sarah says. Four stops.
She was either Rachel’s friend or her rival - Sarah hasn’t been able to figure out which. But they know each other. That much has been made clear in English class, with this apparent feud rising up over Edgar Allan Poe.
“She liked that bit on the football team’s controversy,” Helena goes on. “Says it was like real reporting, unlike DYAD’s Radio Swan.”
Two stops. Sarah frowns. “Huh.”
Helena shrugs, and then it’s their stop and they stand up and pull the request cord, making their way to the front doors because Helena always likes to thank the driver. They walk down through the park, and Helena doesn’t mention Evie again, even though the full walk to the beach Sarah’s chewing it over with great contemplation.
She was the one who did the bit on the football team, weirdly. Not Cosima, who might make a career in this, or Tony, who usually covers the guy stuff.
Helena pets six dogs in the first ten minutes, and one of them she pets for three straight minutes because it won’t let her leave.
Sarah, politely, stands by like a bodyguard, making awkward eye contact with the dog owners like they’re both lamenting their social companions. She finally gives in and pets the sixth dog at Helena’s insistence, but only because it’s a doberman.
They’re doing well, is what she’s saying.
And then they reach the dog park on the beach, Helena’s idea of heaven, as cold as it is, and they have to stop just before they reach the gate.
Because coming out of it, expression bitterly pinched, is Rachel Duncan.
Rachel Duncan and a sleek greyhound in a fluffy white sweater.
“That’s-” Helena says just as Sarah grabs her coat and says “ leave, ” but it doesn’t make a difference because Rachel spots them, and then the three of them and the dog are standing uncomfortably in the sand between the gate and the boardwalk like they’ve all just walked in on each other on the toilet. Which, in the dog’s case, is tragically true as it lets out a nervous stream of pee.
Rachel Duncan breaks the silence to utter a contemptible, “Oh, Ira.”
The dog looks away as if it didn’t hear her. The pee steams in the cold.
“Hello, Rachel,” Helena says, stepping forward, even though Sarah’s pretty sure the two of them have never had a conversation in their life.
Rachel realizes she can’t ignore them any longer, and then she tugs the dog to meet Helena halfway, as if this is slightly more dignified than waiting by the piss. Sarah considers staying back to let them duke it out, but Helena would never in front of a dog. So Sarah joins them with great reluctance and pretends she hasn’t noticed Rachel’s legs in thin nylons where the top of her boots and the bottom of her white coat don’t quite meet up.
“May I pet your dog?” Helena asks, too polite, already crouching down.
The dog shivers with anxiety and Rachel breathes out through her nose, replying with a quiet yes, eyes narrowing just a bit as the dog calms at Helena’s touch.
“It’s my mother’s dog,” Rachel says to Sarah for some reason, as if Sarah’s standing here with her arms crossed and her fingers cold in her mitts because she cares. “His name is Ira and I hate him.” Then she glances back at the dog park. “He has a nervous temperament, so I have to socialize him every weekend.”
Sarah snorts in pity. “Why doesn’t your mum do it?”
Rachel shuts her eyes for a moment, deeply pained. When she opens them there’s a hint of amusement there, like Sarah’s almost imagining it.
“Because she lives to see me suffer,” Rachel says.
Helena’s scratching the dog so well it has full body shivers, not from nerves but from pure joy, and Rachel eyes him like she’d love nothing more than to chuck him in the lake for the mutated fish to enjoy.
“He is a very nice dog,” Helena says from her crouched position, and the dog’s tail could sever someone’s limb with how hard it wags.
Rachel’s lip curls up in disgust. “He pees in my bed sometimes.”
“Sarah’s brother Felix peed in her bed once,” Helena says, “because he was angry that she ran away for a week.”
“ Helena,” Sarah barks, melting from embarrassment.
She can’t even lift her eyes to look at Rachel, instead focusing on the yellow puff of Helena’s hair sticking out from under her hat while her cheeks burn as hot as the sun. Rachel’s boot shifts into Sarah’s vision and she switches to focusing on that instead, distantly wondering if Rachel cares that the black suede is covered in sand.
“Was it at least dry by the time you came back?” Rachel asks, when it seems like something needs to be said.
Sarah lets out a soft groan. “Yeah, but he didn’t tell me he’d done it until after I slept in it, so…”
Rachel’s laugh is kinder than Sarah expects, and even manages to alleviate some of the burning of Sarah’s cheeks.
“Well apparently having a human brother is worse than having a dog brother,” Rachel says casually, and then she and Sarah make eye contact, and they both have weird smiles on their faces. Not quite laughter, but- no, Sarah doesn’t know what it is.
“Okay, time for the next dog,” Helena says, finally standing up.
The dog looks at her like she’s just betrayed him but she’s already given her last pet and looks eager to move onto the dog park.
“See, Ira?” Rachel says, still looking at Sarah. “You’re unwanted. I told you.”
“Ever think you’re part of his nervous temperament?” Sarah asks with a careful snicker.
Rachel’s features settle into a poised mirth. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Sarah Manning.”
They part with Sarah wondering how exactly Rachel learned her full name, and Rachel walking the dog at a brisk pace along the boardwalk as the snow begins to fall in an actual flurry, and Helena bouncing in her boots as they enter the dog park to see at least twenty dogs having the time of their little lives.
For some reason, Sarah can only think of what Beth said about Veera as Helena nearly trips over herself in glee.
And she told me about her birthday. Because she was nervous.
Sarah didn’t think Rachel was capable of saying that much at once without also biting off someone’s head. If it wasn’t nerves, it was something. And if it was nerves… Sarah stops thinking about it, because the sweetest pitbull in a sock monkey sweater comes bounding over with Helena and there are more important things in the world than why Rachel Duncan made a joke.
“His name is Lunchable,” Helena introduces.
Sarah’s already in love.