I was sixteen years old when I discovered exactly who—and what—I was. Before then, I suppose I wasn’t much of anything, just a girl who’d somehow managed to spend most of my life in southern Florida without becoming blonde, athletic, or comfortable with boys.
I’d lived with my father, who did his level best to turn me into the biggest geek in Palm Beach. His main contribution to my discovering myself was to ditch me in a boarding school fifteen hundred miles from everything I knew. Thanks.
I brought my hands to my face and tried to warm them with my breath as I waited for the hired car that was to pick me up at Boston’s Logan Airport.
I was being sent away because my dad didn’t want me anymore.
That’s what he always did when he felt uncomfortable about something. He just stopped thinking about it. He’d done that with my mother after she died. And maybe before. By the time
I was old enough to ask questions, he’d already banished her from his memory.
I’d only ever seen one picture of her. It was a sticky, worn photo that I saved from the trash after my dad had tried to throw it out. I reached for the photo in the front pocket of my purse. We had the same eyes. Strange eyes, everyone says, although I don’t think they’re so weird. I held the picture and waited for the familiar flood of feelings to wash over me. It was like I could feel everything she felt that day—how she was crazy in love with my father. And torn about leaving her family to be with him. And afraid of fire . . .
Beeep beep beeeeep. The blare of a horn tore me from my thoughts. Whitfield Airport Limo had arrived. Classy. I slouched into the backseat of the decades-old Crown Vic.
“You ever been to Whitfield before, Miss?”
“Huh?” I looked up to see the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror. They were a piercing blue beneath wild, shaggy white brows. He looked as if he’d spent the past fifty years facing down nor’easters. “Whitfield,” he repeated. “Guess it’ll take a little getting used to, after New York City.”
“I’m not from New York,” I said glumly. “My father got a job there.”
The skin around the old man’s eyes crinkled into a kind smile. “So you’re heading out on your own, is it?”
I turned away. I wasn’t heading out on my own. I was being discarded. There was a difference.
“But you could look at it that way, couldn’t you?”
My head snapped up in irritation. “Excuse me?
“Whitfield may not seem like a very exciting place at first,
but you’d be surprised at how much we’ve got going on here.” He winked.
Right, I thought. Whitfield, Massachusetts, the fun capital of the western hemisphere.
“Have you heard of Wonderland?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of it.” Wonderland was only the biggest retail chain in the world. My dad’s loathsome girlfriend was their VP of Public Relations. I heard nothing but Wonderland at home.
“We’re going to be getting a new one in town,” he said as if I were a child and he was holding out a puppy.
“That’s a thrill,” I said. As if every podunk town in America didn’t have a Wonderland. Or a Kmart, Wal-Mart, or, more likely, all three.
He laughed. “I thought everybody loved Wonderland,” he said. “Least, that’s what their commercials tell us.”
“I’m not much of a shopper,” I said.
“And then, we’ve got the fog,” he went on cheerfully, undeterred by my obvious hostility toward his hometown.
“Fog?” I couldn’t believe he was telling me that watching fog counted as an activity, second only to shopping at discount department stores in terms of excitement.
“Our fog’s been in every edition of Ripley’s Believe It or Not since 1929, when Mr. Ripley started writing it.”
He was looking at me expectantly in the rearview mirror, so I took the bait. “What’s so special about it?” I asked with a sigh.
“Depends on what you call special.” He chuckled. “But it’s unusual, that’s for sure. Only comes to one spot, in a place we call the Meadow, right in the middle of Old Town. It shows up
eight times a year, like clockwork, and always in time for the first day of school. You’re going to Ainsworth School, aren’t you?”
I took the packet the school had sent me out of my jacket pocket. “Yes, Ainsworth,” I said, reading the return address.
“Forget the name?” He was grinning broadly.
“I guess,” I said, confused now. So he wasn’t joking. They really did watch the fog come in.
“The public schools are already open. But Ainsworth has a tradition. It waits for the fog.”
Perfect. I was entrusting my education to an institution that based its academic schedule, as well as its entertainment, on weather phenomena.
“We’re coming into Whitfield’s Old Town now,” the driver said.
Old was right. Whitfield was a village straight out of Nathaniel Hawthorne, with rows of meticulously maintained stone buildings and three-story frame houses with candles in the windows. The town square was lined with quaint-looking shops selling books and tools and kitchen wares; a combination candy store and café called Choco-Latte; two rustic-but-tasteful eateries; and a storefront with APOTHECARY written across the window.
“The town was founded in 1691 by colonists who’d had it with the Puritans,” he announced as if he were a tour guide. “Run off from Salem to the wild tidal waters here, off Whitfield Bay. If you squint, maybe you can see Shaw Island off to your right.”
“Er . . .” I interrupted. “Is the school nearby?”
“Coming right up to it,” he said. “By the way, that’s the Meadow.” He nodded toward the left.
I gasped out loud. Ripley had been right—it was one of the
strangest things I’d ever seen, acres of vacant land blanketed by dense fog at least two feet deep, right in the middle of the village square.
“Why is it only in that one place?” I asked.
“If you figure that out, you’ll be the first,” he said, grinning. “Like I said, Whitfield’s more interesting than you might think.”
The car stopped in front of a grim-looking building with a discreet sign above the doorway reading, AINSWORTH PREPARATORY SCHOOL, FOUNDED 1691.
“I guess this is the place,” I said, as I got out of the car. The driver got my bag from the trunk. I tried to give him a tip, but he refused.
“Not from our own,” he said.
“Um, thanks,” I replied.
He tipped his hat. “Good luck to you, Miss Ainsworth,” he said as he got back in behind the wheel.
“I’m not—” I began, but he was already driving away.
Oh, well. It didn’t make any difference. Hell was hell. Whatever they called you there didn’t matter much. I picked up my bag and headed toward the doorway.
The wind was high, and smelled like the sea. September was only half over, but this far north, the air was already chilly. I pulled my jacket more tightly around me. It was the heaviest piece of clothing I’d ever owned, but on that blustery New England afternoon it was about as warm as a sheet of wax paper.
I stood there for a moment, blinking away tears as I took in the depressing façade of that dreary brick building. At that moment I felt more cold, lost, and alone than I ever had in my life.
“Welcome home,” I whispered before letting myself in.