The Former Life of Mimi Alston
Up until my thirteenth birthday, I would have called myself a pretty normal kid. I had a best friend, Billie, a fangirl crush on a local Indie music act called Hoodwynk, and a lingering obsession with horses.
Then Hannah came into my life.
Hannah was a ghost. She died in 1893. She told me she was nineteen, and very innocent, but she’d had no money so her parents sent her to work as a servant from the time she was fifteen. She’d worked for an old lady for a couple of years, but then the old lady died so she found a job with a family. The family didn’t pay her as well, but there were no other jobs going. Her ‘mistress’ – the woman of the house – was quite demanding, and often got Hannah to tend to the children, although that was technically the nanny’s job. Then Hannah would get into trouble with the housekeeper for not getting her other chores done.
Hannah was pretty. Chestnut brown hair and fair skin, and quite tall for a girl of the 1890s. The master – the man – of the house started to notice Hannah and corner her when his wife wasn’t looking so he could kiss and touch her. Hannah hated him and felt very guilty but there was nothing she could do about it. If she complained to him or his wife, they would simply call her a liar and dismiss her. She needed the job.
Things got worse. The master started visiting her in her room at night while the other maid slept in the bed beside her. Then Hannah missed her period and she realised she was pregnant with the man’s child. She panicked. She’d heard about a barber in the town who helped girls in her situation, so she went to see him. She paid him all her month’s earnings and he took to her with some wire until she started to bleed.
Hannah went home to wait out the miscarriage but then she stopped bleeding. Over the weeks, she grew rounder, and realised she was still pregnant. But every now and then, she would get stabbing pains low in her belly and bleed for a day. One day Hannah was too sick to work, so her mistress came to examine her and realised what was wrong. She saw Hannah’s swollen belly and the bleeding. Hannah thought she knew who had caused it, too. She looked at Hannah coldly and told her that as soon as it was over; as soon as she could walk; she had to leave.
Hannah rested, crying miserably and wondering what she could tell her parents. She fell asleep and awoke hours later in the dark, feeling no pain at all. She stood up and looked down at the bed, where her body was still lying in a pool of black blood.
And now, for some unknown reason, Hannah was going to be hanging around with me. Obviously, my mum was concerned when I told her about Hannah. She sent me to see a psychiatrist and he got me to talk about my invisible companion, as well as my parents, my older brother, and my teachers. I didn’t tell my friends about the ghost because I figured that would tar me with the weirdo brush – but kids are good at detecting weird. I didn’t need to tell them. They started generally rejecting me, doing a bit of low-grade bullying, and not inviting me to parties. Only Billie stuck by me.
One night Billie slept over my place. We talked about boys we liked and what we would do on summer break. She caught me staring at Hannah and asked me why I always looked at that corner of my bedroom. I felt like I could trust Billie so I told her the truth about my ghost. Billie was shocked and freaked out, of course. She kept begging me to stop pranking her but I insisted I wasn’t. We discussed it late into the night and finally I went to sleep, but in the morning Billie looked pale and exhausted. I didn’t think she had slept at all. She told me she had to go home and left before breakfast.
At school on Monday, Billie avoided me. She aligned herself with some other girls and refused to answer when I tried to chat with her. One of the girls in her new clique suggested I go hang with my imaginary friends and the other girls all giggled. Then I knew Billie had ratted on me. Word got around. I had earned myself a new identity at school: Mimi-and-her-imaginary-friends. A new identity, and no more friends.
That was when I realised I was going to have to keep my mouth shut about Hannah in future, no matter how tempted I was to confide in someone. At the new school, I’m going to be normal. I’m going to make my parents proud and shove this secret so far down in me that even I won’t believe it anymore.
The Girl of my Dreams. No, Actually.
Homeroom. Nine a.m.
It had been a bad weekend. I didn’t want to think about it. I buried my face in a book; the Thomas Hardy I’d picked up at the Granary Market book exchange. I was trying to get into that zone where nothing could distract me, but the other kids in Homeroom were being particularly noisy.
No one was talking to me; I’d been liberal with the black and white warpaint that morning, plus I’d put on an extra spiky collar and had even considered some satanic chains; except that Patience always freaked when I wore those. I thought I might get some facial piercings. Most people wouldn’t even look at your face for any length of time if you had piercings there. That could be useful.
There was a new kid in class. I didn’t look at her but I knew it was a girl and figured she must be pretty because Gabe was using his manly, friendly, I’ll show you the ropes voice, and Cassie was being a bitch. Despite my best efforts to shut them out, I could hear them talking about their gifts – covertly, of course, but the four of us in the room who were in on the gifted thing knew what it was about. Gabe joked with Cassie to “call off the dogs,” and then Ms Deering and Gabe had some oh-so-witty repartee about how talent is often accompanied by ego.
I couldn’t deny that. Gabe was evidence of it. But I was pissed off at how blasé Ms Deering was being about it all … as usual. She never tried to check him, or any of the others, when they experimented with their gifts. After what I’d seen on the weekend, I knew with more certainty than ever that these gifts were not to be played with. In fact, I didn’t even think they were gifts anymore. I had started to think of them as curses. I hated that Ms Deering was always encouraging them – us – to use them.
Normally I stayed quiet when they made sneaky comments about their gifts in front of the other kids at school. I tried to take the high road. But because of my weekend, I was feeling raw. I couldn’t resist throwing a spanner into their self-satisfied little chat. Without consciously deciding to do it, and without even lifting my head, I suggested Gabe and Ms Deering should consider that sometimes there was ego even when there was no talent. I didn’t seem to get a rise out of either of them, but Cassie bit, asking me what the hell I meant in that shrieky voice she reserves for me. I pride myself on being able to push Cassie’s buttons – mind you, just about anyone can push Cassie’s buttons.
“Maybe there are some people at Etherall Valley that think they have talent but are actually just royally lame or garden-variety screwed up?” I said. God, that was satisfying.
I hoped Ms Deering was listening. She didn’t like it. She made one of her typical positive values remarks that meant nothing and inevitably got ignored. She didn’t understand that teenagers don’t give a shit about being reminded to use “respectful” language or “show accountability.”
Gabe was quiet. I wanted to catch a look at his face to see if I’d got at him, but when I looked up my eyes didn’t make it past the new girl.
Oh, my god. It’s her.
There she was; the girl whose face had haunted me since I saw it a year or so ago. The perfect fair skin; the dark, almost black hair spilling over her shoulders; and the serious mouth – a mouth that shouldn’t be serious. A mouth so red and soft I’d been fantasising about kissing it and making it smile since I first saw it. Her grey eyes regarded me solemnly as I fought my reaction; tried to hide it. I had to pretend I was neutral – pretend I wasn’t interested in her – and not let her become in the least interested in me. I had to be nothing to her. The battle inside me was physically painful. All I wanted to do was take a long drink at the sight of this living, breathing girl looking back into my eyes across the ordinary classroom desks; and what I knew I had to do was not look, not betray what I was thinking and feeling. Not connect.
I dragged my eyes off her and stared down at my book, the words swimming on the page. Meanwhile her heavenly face seared itself across my heart like a branding iron on a bullock’s tender hide.