Author's notes: This is a long one. The image of Alexis sitting in a sunbeam occurred to me one day, and I had to write this to get it out of my head. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
She's sitting in that way again - with her legs tucked under her, leaning against the arm of the sofa, hair trailing down over her shoulder. She's humming to herself; sheet music scattered around her. Wide French doors let what little sunlight March gives us into our lounge, giving us a view of the garden which still has the occasional patch of snow. It makes her hair flame like a golden halo.
The couch is Lexi's favourite place to study her music. She's gifted, and if she dedicated herself to it she could be great. But that's not Lexi's way. Lexi loves to have lots of interests, all going on at once. She says it makes her feel alive and that she gets bored without distractions.
Of course I'm biased. She's my sister. But she's really that good.
Myself, on the other hand? Not much to tell. Three years younger, neither as musical nor as pretty, and always a wallflower. I love my books and my Mac. People always give me crap about it - a girl who codes. Technical aptitude always falls behind the fact that I have breasts.
Doesn't matter, I used school and university as a conduit to what I wanted, which was a career tinkering with gadgets. Jeans and tee-shirts for me - I was the one who was always in trouble for tracking mud through the house; Lexi dreamed of castles and princesses.
Lexi gives me grief for it; tells me I've got to take more care of my appearance. Sometimes I do, but mostly it's hair back in a ponytail and that's good enough. Anything more would be a waste, anyway. I don't socialise much outside of a few close friends.
My back's sore - bad posture. Sitting at the table is a silly thing to do; the height is wrong for the laptop and I always get kinks in the neck from it. But it's warm in this part of the house, and there's always the chance Lexi will start to play something.
That's my favourite thing, hearing her play. It makes the shadows around the edges of things go away for a while.
Mum and Dad died in a car crash when I was fifteen. Lexi had just turned eighteen and was about to head off to University, but she stayed to make sure I was ok and ended up studying her undergraduate degree via correspondence instead. It's been the two of us since then, bar visits from relatives and the McKintoshes down the road who helped out immediately after and became a kind of extended family to us in the weeks and months after...
Mum had always been a wise bird and had made sure that there were enough endowments to pay off the house and send both of us to higher education. Lexi had waitressed for extra spending money and I'd done some small websites for local businesses once I was studying. We'd been ok, bar the scars. Lexi struggles more with it, she's got the soul of an artist.
Me, I just pack it away and try not to open the box it's in. It still hurts too much to open it up, so I try to leave it alone.
Sometimes I can almost forget it's there at all.
'You want some tea, Lex?' I call out.
No answer - she's clearly deep in whatever she's humming. I pull down a cup for both of us, make myself some coffee and a chamomile for her. Lexi loves her herbal teas and I try to keep the cupboard stocked. One of the little things I do for her to say thanks.
Mum loved chamomile too. The smell always reminds me of her.
Waiting for it to brew gives me (in some ways unwelcome) time to think. Our house is large and we haven't changed much since Mum and Dad passed. I took over Dad's study (mainly because of his lovely antique desk and leather chair) and have turned it into my quiet room. But we still sleep in our old rooms; we've left Mum and Dad's pretty much as it was. Every time we talk about cleaning it out we wind up not doing anything. And so we live, Lexi with her music and hobbies and me with my coding, running and climbing...
I turf the used bag into the compost box and ferry the cups back through to the lounge.
She starts, then looks up and smiles. 'Sorry, Robs. Woolgathering again'. She shifts the music from her lap and takes the mug.
'Thanks. I needed a cuppa.'
'Who's wool were you gathering?' I ask, teasingly.
'Nobody's in particular', she returns. 'Just thinking that I should go for a walk or something.'
This is unusual for her, Lexi's an indoors girl who's sense of a nice day out is to sit in the garden under a tree.
'There's a nice gentle walk I do sometimes...' I offer, hopefully.
'Oh?', says Lexi, interested.
'Yeah, it goes down along the river and over the old weir. There're some stones out in the middle I like to sit on'.
'In this weather?' Lexi asks.
'You know the cold doesn't bug me, and it's nice to be outside in the wind. Want me to come with and show you?'
Lexi chews her lip, then smiles. 'Yeah. Lets go walkies! I need some fresh air.'
We grab hats and coats and pull on some sneakers. March is still cold in our part of the country, with frequent rain and sometimes even snow. So we bundle up warmly before heading out. It's mostly overcast, and there's a breeze, but the sun breaks through sometimes and it's a lovely day, my favourite kind of day.
Our house is part of a cul-de-sac that borders onto woodlands, and so we make our way out through the garden and the old wooden gate at the back. I notice the birches are starting to bud. But mostly I'm just watching Lexi. She walks with a dancer's grace, making me feel like I plod. One of her prior boyfriends once called her Elfin; she has that kind of air about her. The effect is admittedly slightly ruined, however, by the washed-out pink knitted cap she's clamped down over her head.
'How far is it to the weir?' she asks. We'd been walking in silence till now.
'Maybe ten minutes. A kilometre or so', I reply. 'I can run it in five minutes or so.'
'Freak', she responds with a laugh. It's always been a joke for her - Lexi gets up before me but I always find her wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa as I head out for my early morning run. Lexi eats like a bird and has a slim build; I have to work hard to keep mine. Of course it means I could probably bench-press her if I had to. I've joked with her before that she's the water that wears the cliff-face (me) down.
'Some of us weren't born with the right genes' I mutter at her.
'Crap, Robs' she says. 'I'd kill for your abs'.
We both laugh, hers free and mine somewhat self-conscious. I sneak a quick look at her; she's smiling and staring off into the distance as we walk. Some wisps of her hair have broken free from her cap; it makes her look even younger than she is.
'Come climb with me and you'll have your own ones' I return.
'Yuck, at the gym? No thanks. Too many creepy old men.'
Lexi has a thing about being watched. Strangely enough, she loves being a soloist. So it's situational, complex, like both of us.
'Most of them are our age, Lex'.
'Fine. Too many creepy men. Creep central. Lurching man-children in ill-fitting hoodies trying to be Rocky Balboa.'
She says this with a sardonic grin. Lexi has a lovely grasp of language and likes to play with words. Sometimes I manage to get her to read to me, and these are some of my favourite times with her. We've passed many winter evenings, the two of us. We closed ranks once we were alone and it's seldom that we let anyone else into our space long-term. This has cost Lexi some boyfriends. But truthfully I think she's also got a twist to the soul that makes her happier by herself.
'They're just looking for luuuuuurve' I drawl. She snorts, takes my arm and walks closer. Our hips bump occasionally. To be fair, I'm more hip than she is.
'Aren't you?' she asks.
'Aren't I what?'
'Looking for love?'
I miss a step and stumble; she yanks me back before I can face-plant.
'What do you mean?' I ask, a little bit flustered.
'I'm just curious. You're all grown up now. Yet I've never seen you with anyone, or even interested in anyone.'
'Lex... ', I start, uncomfortably. Lexi loves to pry, but this is an area she's never dug into before, and it's unsettling for her to suddenly take an interest.
'Spill it, Robs. I'm bored and restless and have wanderlust, and part of that is due to not knowing whether you're happy.'
I walk in silence for a bit; I can feel her watching me.
'Robyn Emily Blake, I asked you a question.'
She never calls me by my full name unless she's serious about something. I sigh. 'I'm not seeing anyone.' I try to keep my answer neutral.
'Because', I huff.
'Whyyyyyyyyyyy?' she wheedles.
I can't help myself, I laugh. Lexi has this way of sounding impossibly cute and adorable. I'd liken it to the way a kitten demands attention. I'm powerless against it, and she knows it, the bitch.
'Because I've never met anyone who interested me,' I respond. 'Lex, I went to Uni with a class of social misfits who couldn't see past the fact that I had two X chromosomes. I work with a bunch of lovely people who are to a first approximation neckbeards.' (She makes a sympathetic face here).
'I gym and run as an outlet for frustration, not as a way to partake in a meat-market. And my climbing partners, while awesome, are just that, partners.'
'So, no boys then.' she says.
'No boys, no.'
We walk on for a bit.
'Girls then?' she asks, mischievously.
'Lexi!' I say, and barge her.
'I knew it, it's girls!' she laughs.
'Damnit, Lex, stop teasing me!'
She dodges my attempt to smack her, holds up her hands in capitulation and then comes back next to me, taking my arm again. We walk on, and I listen to the wind and think.
There was a boy who tried, once. James, someone I met during a first-year social at University. He was funny, but it petered out pretty quickly when I was clearly not interested in anything but friendship. Part of me was glad, the constant flirting was tiring. I've never been into men. Yes, they're fun, and some of them (like my climbers) are incredibly well built and attractive examples. But I've never felt that spark.
I first noticed girls when I was 12. I was an awkward gangly freckled girl who didn't fit into the 'sugar, spice and everything nice' mould. I'd sooner play football than be inside learning to be cultured. I'd sooner be waist deep in a bog than be in a dress. This singled me out, and made me a target for ridicule throughout school. Loosing Mum and Dad made everything a million times worse, because I no longer had either of them to listen to me or hold me while I sobbed.
But I had Lexi. I told her everything. Everything, that is, except this.
We've reached the weir, and I stop and take a deep breath, shoving aside my thoughts.
'Here we are!' said Lexi. I shoot her a glance; she's looking around with unfeigned interest.
I squat down and pull off my shoes and socks, then roll up my hiking trousers. Lexi watches me with amusement as I take a wincing step into the water (still cold in March!) and walk carefully from rock to submerged rock out to the large boulder a third of the way out into the river. While only maybe ten metres wide at most, the river is still swift and deep and stocked with trout; sometimes you can see the fish flitting along between the rocks. The weir upstream has a fish ladder, and water is churning over it.
I love the noise of water and of wind in trees. Thus I regard the weir and the perch downstream as my personal sanctuary. I come here to think, and more often than I care to admit, to wallow in self-pity.
'How's the water?' she calls.
'Crisp', I call back. She's removed her shoes and is standing by the riverbank, looking dubious.
'Don't be a ninny.' I call. 'It won't kill you.'
She steps gingerly out. The broad flat rocks are visible under the surface so it is difficult to misstep, but one crosses them cautiously. I hold out a hand and pull her up to the perch.
'Welcome to my throne!' I say, with a mock bow.
'If I fits I sits!' she laughs, and sits down. I flop down next to her and we lean companionably against one another. There is no sound but the wind and the water. It's lovely. Lexi's shoulder is warm against mine.
'Why the sudden need to poke into my life?' I ask, after a while.
'I worry about you' she responds. 'Always have, always will.'
I snort. 'I'm a big girl, I can take care of myself'.
'I know. But you're always going to be my baby sister, and I still feel responsible for you,' says Lexi.
I frown. 'Lex, you raised me and polished me. You don't need to waste energy worrying about me. I have a great job and friends and I'm fine.'
She leans her head forward onto a knee and looks back up at me.
'Are you?' she says, quietly.
The words 'Of course' die in my throat. For some reason, I think of Mum. Before I can help myself, I start to cry.
'Goddamn it, Alexis!' I snarl, scrubbing furiously at my face. 'Why can't you just leave well enough alone?'
'Because it's not in my nature.' she says, quietly. She sits back up and puts an arm around me, pulling me in close. 'Fess up, Robyn. I know you're unhappy. I've been watching you for longer than you know and I can see you're not all there.'
'I don't want to talk about it.'
'You need to open up to someone, Robs'.
She sighs, and we sit in quiet again for a while, apart from my sniffs as I try to regain composure. Lexi is humming, Dvorak I think. Slowly I calm again. The water's always helped me.
'I'm lonely' she says, suddenly.
'Why?' I respond, cautiously. Lexi doesn't share much of what goes on upstairs - I read her moods from her body and music. I'm good at that.
'Just am. I miss Mum and Dad and the cousins. Also Andrew.' she says, quietly.
'That cheating sack of guts?' I exclaim, unbelievingly.
She smiles a small, sad smile. 'Yeah, him. He was good for me, Robs.'
'Except when he cheated on you.'
'Yeah, well. I still miss him.' she sighs. 'He had such lovely strong arms, and he kissed so nicely.'
I make a retch-face and she grins.
'God, Alexis. I'd rather imagine you kissing Tony Blair than Andrew'.
We laugh quietly. She leans her head against me and we're quiet for a bit again.
'He had a great tongue too...' she whispers.
I can feel myself going bright red. Always have, always will, I could light up a room when I'm embarrassed. 'Alexis!' I exclaim.
'Seriously, Robs, you're twenty-one and blushing like that? What on earth is wrong with you?' she jokes.
'I just... I don't... eeuw... I don't want to know things like that!' I gasp, laughing.
But I'm lying, because suddenly the vision of my sister and Andrew is in my mind. I shudder.
'You ever been with a guy, Robs?' she asks, curious.
'Thousands' I respond sarcastically. 'I don't even feel it any more, it's like throwing a sausage down a corridor down there'. Vengeance is mine as I watch her eyes widen. She stifles a snort and then bursts out laughing. I bless my climbing friends for my expanded vocabulary and the incredibly foul images I'm now able to conjure.
'Oh my god, Robyn. That's the grossest thing I've ever heard come out of your mouth.' she cackles. I join in, unable to help myself, and we descend into a whooping cacophony as we fully enjoy the image I just let loose.
Finally, we're spent. I manage to take a deep breath, and sit up again.
'I love this', she says. 'Just talking to you.'
'Me too', I respond. 'We don't do it enough. I get caught up in the 'net and work'.
'And I do in my music' she agrees. 'Ships passing in the night, you and I'.
'At least we've got the same home port'.
She smiles agreement and shoulder bumps me. 'Come on Robs, sun will be going down soon and I'm getting a bit chilly.' We cross back to the riverbank and pull on socks and shoes over our damp feet, then squelch back home at a relaxed pace. Lexi's humming again; she's seldom truly quiet. I listen, but can't recognise the piece she's humming. So I amuse myself by watching for squirrels and listening to the sound of the woodland around us.
Soon enough we're home, and a good job of it too because the clouds have started to crowd in from the Northwest and the light is dying.
I eye my Mac guiltily. I should be working, my company has a release going live in the next month and we're behind. But I'm tired and moody and, quite honestly, feeling a bit strung out after Lexi's probing earlier. So I'm going to pamper myself tonight. I head over to the fireplace and lay us a fire the way Dad taught me, feeling a bit sad at the thought of him. So emotional today, Robs. Ice maiden status temporarily revoked. I snort at that, and strike a match to the kindling.
As the light dims, the firelight warms the room and, also, my soul - I'm an elemental girl. I stand and stretch, then wander over to the sideboard and pour myself a tumbler of Talisker - Dad's favourite. I grab a pillow and a blanket from the cupboard and spread them on the floor, liberating some additional cushions from the couches along the way. Soon, I'm lying on my side, facing the fire and losing myself in the flames and the whisky.
I must have dosed off at some point, because I wake up to Lexi shaking my shoulder and summoning me to supper. I stack some more wood on the fire to build it up again and head through to our kitchen. Dad had always wanted to knock through the wall to make the entire space open plan, but had never got round to it, and neither have Lexi or I since then. So suppers are always in the kitchen, at our battered old oak table with space for six and settings for just two.
'Wine?' I ask her, and she nods distractedly as she dishes up. I grab us a bottle of some indeterminate Italian red and pour us both some, using our mismatched everyday glasses. Cooking is one of the few areas I can beat Lexi, but hers meals are still great and we've never been in any danger of starving. I favour Eastern, she favours Mediterranean, but an appreciation of food is something we share and so supper is time we always put work aside so that we can just be.
'When's your next concert?' I ask her. Lexi works as a music teacher, but far prefers performing. She's a member of the Philharmonic Orchestra, and has in the past gone on tours to the States and the Continent.
'In a few weeks time,' she returns. 'Mahler and Haydn'
'Solos?' I ask.
'Of course' she says, grinning.
'Nice' I say. Something to look forward to, I love the concerts.
She smiles and stretches, and I catch myself watching her, again. I quickly drop my eyes and poke at my food some more. I'm not really especially hungry but the food is delicious and Lexi went through some effort to make it, so I try my best. I look up and find her watching me. She smiles as I take another bite, but the smile dies as I push the plate away and take a large sip of wine.
'Robs, you're too skinny. You should eat more' she says.
'Balls', I say. 'I don't have your metabolism, Lex. I explode if I don't gym my ass off'.
'Hah!' she exclaims. 'At least you have an ass.'
'Knock it off, Alexis. You're the most beautiful woman in the world.' I say without thinking.
'Oh Robs, now you're fibbing.' she retorts, and leans back into the chair, sipping her wine.
Whether it's the wine or the earlier probing or what, I don't know. But to hear my sister deprecating herself is too much for me to bear right now.
'Bullshit, Lex!' I explode. 'Christ, have you ever looked at yourself? You're as graceful as a dancer and as lithe as a fucking cat and you say you're not gorgeous? Bullshit!'
She's watching me, wild eyed, but I don't care anymore.
'You could be a model, Lexi, and your face is stunning. You're beautiful, you're sexy, you're a goddamn concert cellist, you're pretty much every man's wet dream, so stop talking yourself down right now, do you hear me!' I shout.