Ch 29: Unable to Look Away

15 4 1

[still then]

"Learned how to fight."

Nicky had repeated the last words of the story emphatically, clenching her hands briefly before laying them flat in her lap. 

She'd glanced at Tova, who'd gazed seriously back at her, and then she'd turned to look out the window.

Tova had wondered what the young woman saw between the drops that zigzagged down the pane of glass.  She'd lightly touched Nicky's hand before she'd commented, "That was a good story.  There were some things in it that we should probably talk about later."

Nicky had still been staring out the window.  "I'd like that," she'd murmured.

"Were you always a Burnside fan, honey?  Because I detect a certain influence in your prose – though the voice is clearly your own."

"Na, I never read his stuff 'til after I met him.  He has some imagination, I'll give him that.  Has his own way of seeing the world.  Sees things in people, not just on the surface – that's why he can appreciate creatures like you and me."

Tova had no answer for that.

When they'd reached Burlington, the sun had come out and flickered over the water in the harbour, lighting up the furled sails of the boats that were moored there, and then the scenery had changed.  After one last stretch of small utilitarian buildings and malls with SUV-filled lots, the variety of structures that had lined the road from Toronto gave way to undeveloped land. 

It had still looked like February, as they'd skirted the Niagara Escarpment and the Royal Botanical Gardens, but the varied browns of the bare trees and dormant grasses in the fields had made a soothing palette with the misty sky.

HamilCon was one of the smallest fan gatherings in the Greater Toronto Area, and one of the newest.  In its second year (HamilCon 2), it took place in the cavernous convention centre at the foot of the mountain.

"I've never been to one of these things before, have you?" Nicky had asked as they'd negotiated the orange-tiled entrance hall in search of the registration desk.

"Oh, yeah," Tova had answered vaguely, eyeing a passing Wookie who was involved in a heated argument with what she thought might be a Romulan.  "I'm a geek, always have been."

"What am I, then?" Nicky'd asked.

Tova had looked at her and said softly, "You're just a teenager, though not a typical one.  But you'll grow out of at least part of that.  Come on, it's about to start."

Once again Tova had found herself standing at the back of the auditorium, waiting to hear Burnside read.  It was like a nightmare version of the day they'd met. 

The only thing that had kept her from throwing up or fleeing was the young woman by her side.  Nicky's feisty, vulnerable presence had undone Tova's heart and filled it with compassion.  That prevailed over her grief.

To get through Sam's reading Tova had had to keep her eyes closed and recite poetry to herself.  She found that Gerard Manley Hopkins worked particularly well; his complex rhythms occupied her mind and his spiritual confidence soothed her soul: 

As kingfishers catch fire/ dragonflies draw flame ... 

Standing at her side, Nicky had leaned delicately against her as if supporting her or being supported by her.

... The just man justices/ Keeps grace ...

Tova got to the end of the poem and opened her eyes, daring to look at her erstwhile lover. 

Sam. 

He hadn't looked well.  The auditorium was small enough that she'd been able to tell as much from where she stood. His pale face had an unhealthy sheen, he'd lost weight, and his performance had been barely perfunctory.

Nicky had seen it too.

"We have to go talk to him now," she'd insisted when the final applause died down.

"Oh no we don't," Tova had responded emphatically.  "If you want to go talk to him, I'll wait here for you – I won't chicken out and run, I promise – but for me to go up there would be too much like stalking."

Nicky had merely regarded her with big dark eyes and then turned on her heel and made her way to the line that was forming along the side aisle, where she'd waited with almost martial patience.  Every now and then she'd cast a glance over her shoulder towards Tova, who had taken an empty seat at the rear of the auditorium and was trying to pay attention without actually looking at Burnside.

Nicky had sifted herself backwards until she'd been the last one in line.  When her turn came and she'd approached Sam, he'd been turned away from her, taking a drink from a plastic bottle he had set on the podium.  He'd revolved to face her and Nicky's shoulders had pulled back and her chin pulled up so that they'd met eye to eye. 

She was tall for her age, and he wasn't. 

Much as it had hurt to see him, at that point Tova had been unable to look away.

Confronted by his erstwhile protégé, Sam's pale face had flushed with some invisible emotion – Tova couldn't guess what it was.  As Nicky had talked and gestured with her hands, Sam remained stony-faced and unresponsive but for a slight scowl and tightening of his jaw. 

And then, to Tova's horror, Nicky had waved to indicate where she sat in the last row.

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