Emma followed Aleta down the stairs. She knew that now was the best time for her to find out what was going on, considering it was only less than twenty-four hours left before her mother arrives.
Aleta stepped outside the inn. Even though it was summer, the night air was too cold for her thin nightdress. Emma resisted the urge to pull Aleta back or call her grandma. She didn’t, thinking how Aleta would just start to avoid her again. At least now they were talking.
Aleta’s loose expression with a distant smile worried Emma, though.
Emma followed the girl until the stream where they played together that afternoon. For a moment, she feared Aleta was going to throw herself on the water. Instead, she stopped on the riverside and turned to Emma. She held out her hand, offering it.
Emma didn’t move.
“What is going on here, Aleta?”
“I want to show you something. Come with me.”
Emma moved her foot. Every happening since she arrived started to cross her mind, like pieces of a puzzle trying to fit together.
Aleta’s weird moods, the phone calls and the knocks on the door, the boys saying Aleta was weird, the ring, Sherry, everything. Emma started to have a better idea of what was going on, even if it was too absurd to believe it.
“Say my name,” Emma said, stopping suddenly.
Aleta didn’t say anything, still holding out her hand.
“You didn’t say my name yet,” Emma said again. “Do it and I’ll take your hand.”
Aleta opened her lips. They moved and the name came out of her mouth.
“You’re not Aleta. You’re Sherry, right?”
Aleta’s body froze. Her face became tense as she stared at Emma.
“I’m not Bud,” Emma said. “Bud was my mother…”
“Liar!” Aleta’s mouth shouted, sending shivers to Emma’s body. “You’re Bud. You have to be. You would never leave me. Please, please, Bud…”
Aleta started to walk slowly in Emma’s direction. Her pupils were shaking as she talked.
“I love you. I have always loved you. I won’t accept you leaving for that...that guy. Bud, please, hold me again. Bud…”
She walked closer. Emma didn’t move.
“It’s cold and lonely here, Bud. Don’t let me alone! Please, come live with me! Let’s live together again!”
Aleta gave another step. Emma almost didn’t see the shiny object coming in her direction. She jumped away missing the point of the knife Aleta was holding in the last moment.
With the blade in the place where Emma’s belly was just seconds before, Aleta looked at her. Emma gasped and her hands started to shake.
“Why won’t you come with me, Bud?” Aleta said with a cold stare. “This girl, she said you’re not Bud. But she’s lying. Why did she lie? I thought she was my friend. I just don’t want to be alone anymore. I want to be close to the one I love. We’re the same, so why won’t she let me?”
“My mom, I mean, Bud wouldn’t want you to hurt anyone, Sherry,” Emma said, giving a step forward. “Please, give me that knife.”
“No! I don’t want to be alone anymore! I don’t want to!” Aleta walked two steps back, getting away from Emma but closer to the stream. “I don’t want to be alone anymore. If you won’t come with me, then I’ll take her. I’ll take my friend. She’ll live with me!”
Aleta raised the knife again, this time, pointing against her own throat. Her hands were firm, her eyes coldly looking at Emma.
“No. Please, don’t do that…” Emma asked with a crying voice. “Please, don’t hurt her…”
“Hurt? I wouldn’t hurt her. She’s my friend. My only friend. She said she would help me, so I’ll take her now,” Aleta said, pressing the point of the knife against her throat. A fillet of blood came out. “We’ll comfort each other. If she stays here, she’ll suffer even more. Just like me. I won’t allow it. She won’t end up suffering like me.”
She pressed the blade more, making more blood come out. Emma felt her legs failing and despair dominated her body. She reached her hand in Aleta’s direction but stopped in fear of startling Sherry even more.
“I’ll go with you!” Emma shout while tears formed on her eyes. “I’ll go with you, so please, let her go!”
“Bud?” Aleta said, slowly moving the knife away from her throat.
“Yeah, that’s right. I’m Bud,” Emma said, walking slowly in Aleta’s direction with her extended hand. “I’m sorry. I left you but I love you. I won’t let you be alone again. We’ll always be together from now on. So don’t be so hasty, please.”
Aleta smiled. Her eyes weren’t as cold anymore. There were tears flowing from them.
With a fast movement, Aleta thrust the knife in Emma’s direction again. This time, Emma turned sideways and held Aleta’s wrist with a strong grip. The girl tried to release herself but Emma pulled her body and kissed her lips.
During the kiss, Aleta lost the strength in her hand. The sound of a metallic object crashing against the ground was heard together with the sound of water flowing.
Emma grabbed the knife from the ground fast, while still holding Aleta’s body in her arms. She felt the body’s weight as the girl lost consciousness, making Emma hold her tighter so she wouldn’t fall to the ground.
“I understand that you loved my mom,” Emma said, sitting against the trunk of a tree and lying Aleta’s head on her lap. She caressed the girl’s bangs. “But now it’s for the best that you move on, Sherry. I’m really sorry about what happened, but I hope that you can find peace.”
Emma didn't realize how much time passed until Aleta opened her eyes. She let the girl sleep on her lap and caressed her hair the whole time. The night was cold and Aleta’s thin nightdress probably didn’t help but Emma didn’t think she could take her home while she was unconscious. And no way she would leave her alone there.
Aleta's eyes stared at Emma. It was dark, but the moon was casting enough light. Emma’s eyes were accustomed enough to discern the girl's confused expression.
“Are you the real Aleta now?” Emma asked.
“She...she is gone,” Aleta said, letting out a sigh. “Sherry is gone…”
“Will you tell me now what is this all about?”
Aleta bit her lip. Her eyes wandered through the trees above them but soon moved to Emma’s face. She nodded.
“Sherry was dead. Or should I say, she was a ghost. I met her when I moved to the inn and I wanted to help her. She was the one who…” Aleta didn’t say anything else. Emma nodded.
“Why couldn't you tell me?”
“I-I just didn't want you to see me as a freak. I never had friends because of it. My family freaked out when they realize I could see these things. People don't like being told about things they can't understand.”
“So it’s normal for you to see, like, them?”
“All the time. People who died and can’t move on. They’re everywhere. I wanted to help. With Sherry too.”
Both girls remained in silence. Emma still caressing Aleta’s hair. After some time, it got too cold for them to ignore.
“Can you stand?” Emma asked.
Aleta tried to get up, but her body fell to Emma’s lap again. She gave Emma a wry smile.
“That’s fine,” Emma said.
Taking care to support Aleta’s body with her hands, Emma got up holding the girl in her arms.
“W-W-What?!” Aleta said while blushing.
“If you can’t walk, I’ll carry you,” Emma said, walking away from the stream. “Now that you’re conscious, it’ll be easier. You’re not that heavy”
Aleta’s body was like a child on Emma’s arms. She knew the girl wasn’t that developed physically. Emma herself was pretty athletic. But how easy it was to carry her was still surprising.
Emma could feel Aleta’s soft legs through her dress. Her perfume too close to her.
Feeling embarrassed, Emma tried to direct her thoughts elsewhere.
“S-So, about Sherry…” Emma said when they were half the way to the inn.
“She moved on, I think...” Aleta said. The cold wind was giving her chills. “At least, I can’t feel her around anymore. When she died, she was full of regrets and couldn't move on. I tried to be her friend. But the dead are hard to reach. So most of the time, it was useless. You ended up being the one who saved her.”
“Her death. That wasn’t an accident, right?”
Aleta didn’t say anything.
“That girl,” Emma said. “She was in love with my mother. Not a sisterly love. Not as a friend. It was a romantic love, right? I felt bad about her. Her love was real, and yet my mother went away. Me being born is proof of that girl’s misery.”
“No,” Aleta said, shaking her head. “Sherry was a difficult person. She couldn’t get over it. Most people would’ve accepted it. Moved on. That happens a lot. I don’t think your mother was wrong. It’s not wrong that you were born. Sherry just couldn’t take a no,” Aleta looked at Emma and smiled. “I got close to her because we had lots of things in common. I pitied her, but also loved her as a friend. So thanks for stopping her suffering.”
“And, huh…” Aleta said. “I was, huh, really happy when you, you know, worried about me…”
Emma blushed and tried to look away from Sherry, which was impossible when she was literally carrying the girl in her arms.
“Y-You remember everything?”
“Yeah. Actually, when I am possessed, I usually lose consciousness. After she tried to attack you, though, she became a mess. I could see everything. Or maybe it wasn't her. Maybe it was me. Maybe I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“S-So… Y-You do understand, right? About the, huh, kiss. That was…”
“I understand,” Aleta said, smiling. “And it wasn’t bad…” she added in a low voice.
“What did you say?”
“N-Nothing,” Aleta looked away, blushing. “It was nothing.”
Aleta took a whole night to fully recover. Apparently, there were times in the past when a dead person’s spirit would possess her and keep her on the bed for weeks. It was hard on her body.
Emma’s grandma told her granddaughter everything she knew after Aleta said it was okay. Aleta was a medium. She could see and communicate with the ghost of the dead. Or sometimes act as a channel for them by getting possessed. Because of that, her parents were afraid of her, so Emma’s grandmother thought the isolated inn would be a good place for the girl to live until she learned how to control her gift. Aleta asked to make it a secret from Emma at first since that always made people avoid her in the past.
During the whole night that Aleta was on the bed, Emma didn’t leave her side. She held the girl’s hand all the time, going as far as sleeping beside her. It was morning when Aleta had recovered enough to stand up. Almost at the same time, the sound of car a telling them that Emma’s mother had arrived sounded outside the inn.
“I'm sorry,” Aleta said when the girls took the stairs down to meet Rosa.
“It’s fine,” Emma said with a faint smile. “You were just worried.”
“I wonder if you can at least stay until afternoon.”
“Actually, I have something to ask you.”
When the two girls stepped outside, Rosa walked to them and hugged her daughter. She had a worried face and took some time to let go of Emma’s body. When they got inside, Rosa looked confused as she stared at her perfectly healthy daughter.
“It's complicated, my dear,” Emma’s grandma said, hugging her daughter. “A lot happened but she's fine now. You two will need to talk about it later, but for now, you can calm down.”
Rosa still looked worried, which made Emma feels guilty because she didn't contact her mother after their talk the previous night. It took some time and a cup of tea for Rosa to calm down and accept that everything was fine.
“Still, it's a shame that you couldn't contact me before. I won't be able to come back now before your summer vacations are over, so…”
“I know, don't worry. I’ll go with you today. But can we at least stay for lunch?”
“Of course,” Rosa said. She looked at Aleta standing close to Emma and holding her fingers. Rosa smiled. “Want to spend some more time together?”
“H-Huh, yeah. But also…”
Emma walked to her mother and pulled her hand, placing the object she was holding on her palm. Rosa looked at the ring, confused.
“I want you to come of us,” Emma said.
The cemetery where Sherry was buried was between the Inn and the city, a little away from the main road. Aleta guided Emma and Rosa while Emma’s grandma stayed behind to make lunch.
When Rosa saw the tombstone with Sherry’s photo, she crouched in front of it. It was also the first time Emma saw how Sherry actually looked like. The photo was old and black and white but showed a melancholic girl with long dark hair. Somehow, Emma thought she reminded her of Aleta. Aleta was cuter, though.
“We were always together,” Rosa said, looking at the tombstone. “She was like a sister or a best friend. And I really loved her, I really did, but,” she fell in silence and touched the tomb. “When your father came into my life, she changed. She became violent suddenly and I-I was just scared. I had to go away. I,” with another pause, she seemed to control herself to not fail her voice in front of her daughter. “I just left her behind. I just abandoned her.”
Rosa placed the ring on the grave.
“Her death. I doubt it was an accident. I was ashamed, afraid, I didn't know what to do. So I never came to see her. I didn’t even come to her funeral. I just pretended that she never existed. I…”
“She,” Aleta said while holding Emma’s hand. “She never hated you, misses Stephens. I’m sure. I’m sure she, I’m sure she loved you to the end. I can’t explain, but she wouldn’t want you to feel like that.”
Rosa looked behind and gave a sad smile to the girls.
“Mom,” Emma said. “I’ll give you some time alone.”
Emma pulled Aleta with her and the two girls put distance between them and the woman. When Aleta asked why, Emma just said: “No parent wants to cry in front of their children.”
They stopped in the cemetery entrance. While waiting, Emma leaned against the gate and gave out a sigh.
“But it’s a shame. I’ll need to go home now,” she said.
“I said that’s fine, right? Well, you should trust your friends better, though. You should’ve told me. I would never avoid you because of something like that,” Aleta lowered her head and Emma gave out a smile. “But well, that’s not the end of the world, and we don’t need to wait a whole year to talk again. I’ll give you my email address and my number. You can go to a cyber cafe sometimes and call me out.”
“M-Me? Using the computer?”
“You can ask the clerk to teach you, it’s easy and they’re there to help. And you’re smart, so I’m sure you’ll get it. Or maybe tell grandma to put an internet in that hole of a place but that’s unlikely to work. We can video talk. Just so we can see each other’s faces again.”
“I-I’ll think about it,” Aleta said, turning her blushing face away.
When Rosa came back, she gave the girls a bitter smile. Emma pretended not to notice her mother’s red eyes and the three just walked back to the Inn.
After lunch, Emma took her bag and headed to the car. Before they could go away, she gave Aleta a long hug, passing a note with her number and email address to her. She also told her grandma to take the girl to the city sometimes, which the old woman promised to do.
Emma realized Aleta wasn’t there in the moment her mother turned on the car and started to move. Looking at the Inn’s window, she realized the girl was back to her room, waving at her.
“Will you tell me what happened?” Rosa asked after some minutes driving.
“It’s a long story,” Emma said, her head leaning against the car’s window. She was in a better mood than when she got there but having to leave before the planned time now depressed her. “I’ll tell you when we get home. I don’t want you freaking out while driving.”
Rosa made a “Hum” but didn’t ask anything else.
“Your ring?” Emma asked. She realized Rosa wasn’t with it when she came back from the grave.
“I left it there. Maybe it was a bad gift considering it but I couldn’t think of anything else. She took it from me once so I gave it back to her.”
Some minutes of silence passed while Emma looked at the trees and all the nothing outside the car.
“It was impossible, though,” Rosa said. “I understand her feelings but it was impossible with a girl. I loved her, just not that way. Does that makes me a bad person?”
“You shouldn’t force yourself to be with a person you don’t love,” Emma said, looking at her phone screen, waiting for it to get signal. “You’re not a bad person for that. But if it was me, I wouldn’t have run away. I would face her and tell her everything.”
“Of course you would,” Rosa said smiling. “You’re braver than me. Maybe you took it from your father. Or your grandma. I’m sure your grandma would say you got it from her,” after more minutes of silence where neither mother or daughter said anything, Rosa asked: “What would you do in the same situation, though? With another girl falling in love with you.”
“Is that a question to ask your daughter?”
Rosa laughed, but still waited for an answer.
“A girl, huh?” Something about that question bothered Emma but she couldn’t point out why. She had been asked the same question in the past and had just brushed it away, saying that it was impossible. But now something like a missing piece of a puzzle was bugging her. “A girl like Aleta, maybe?”
“Aleta? Why Aleta?”
“You’re asking it because of Sherry, right? Aren’t they both alike?”
Rosa gave her a daughter a surprised look.
“Not at all? I mean, Aleta is a sweet girl. She’s gentle and smart. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Sherry, but she was the exact opposite. She was wild, and not very bright. I don’t know the particulars but her situation with her family was pretty bad. She never had a basic education and it was hard for her to catch up. She didn’t go to school with me and she never learned how to write.”
“Wait, she couldn’t write?” Emma asked. Something was bothering her about that statement. Suddenly she found it. The missing piece in the puzzle. If a kiss was enough to put Sherry at ease and make her move on, why didn’t it work on the first time? At the time, that didn’t make sense, but Emma couldn’t find out why and just let it go. Now she had found another inconsistency. “Sherry couldn’t write? But then what about that letter? Couldn’t she write a single letter?”
“A letter? No, she couldn’t. She couldn’t even write her own name.”
“Mom! Turn back!” Emma said suddenly, taking her mother by surprise.
“Turn back? What do you…?”
“I need to see Aleta again. Please, mom, I won’t ask for anything else. Just this one time!”
Rosa considered saying no but the afflicted expression on her daughter’s face convinced her. They weren’t that far from the inn yet, so it wouldn't be a problem. Just this time she agreed.
Aleta’s door was opened suddenly and Emma walked inside. Aleta threw a confused look at her. She was lying on the bed. Her eyes were red from crying.
“That letter. You know, the love letter. Did Sherry write it?”
Aleta’s face became pale. She sat on her bed and stammered.
“Y-Y-Yeah. R-Right? I mean, huh. Why?”
“Sherry couldn’t write.”
“Mom said it. Sherry couldn’t write. That letter also had my name. Not Bud. Emma was written on it. Sherry couldn’t even call me by that name. She didn’t want to believe I wasn’t mom. So who wrote that letter?”
Aleta remained in silence.
“Then there’s that kiss. Why would Sherry kiss me at the stream? She couldn’t even do something like that before trying to kill me. My kiss freed her, right? It’s something she always wanted to do with mom but never had the courage. But then, what about the kiss before that?”
Emma approached the bed.
“Was that kiss you?” She asked.
“I…” Aleta said, fiddling with her dress and avoiding looking at Emma. “I wrote the letter, yeah. But you weren’t supposed to find it. I had decided not to give it to you. I think Sherry was the one who put it on your door.”
“That kiss. I-I...”
Tears were welling up in Aleta’s eyes.
Emma approached her and, holding her face gently, kissed her lips. Aleta retreated, putting her fingers on her mouth.
“Could I fall in love with a girl? Mom asked me that just some time ago. I think I can now,” Emma said, sitting beside Aleta on the bed. “I know how you feel but it’s complicated right now. There’s no way I can give you an answer so suddenly. But I also don’t want to reject you. I need time to sort out my feelings better. So, if you’re willing to try, can you let me think for some time and call me when you have a chance?”
Aleta looked at Emma. Her lips were shaking and tears were flowing through her eyes. She shook her head.
“W-What if,” she suppressed a sob. “What if I keep my hopes up. What if you say no?”
“I guess you’ll need to call me as soon as you can, then. To end that suffering,” Emma said, smiling. She put her hand on Aleta’s cheek. “For now, how about a little more confidence in your own charms?”