Chapter 1: Summer 2019 CHAPTER 1 SUMMER 2019
They weren’t there.
I let the storm door close at my back, shutting out the river-soaked fever of the afternoon. My eyes adjusted to the dim indoor light, taking in the frown of the grandfather clock in the corner and the spatter of color on its polished face—broken sunbeams twisting their way to rainbows through the cluster of antique prisms in the entryway window. The air was cool and dry, sweet with almond oil and the soft flora of my grandmother’s perfume. Fat to bursting with the tension of unsaid words.
I hadn’t made it past the foyer, and the summer was already ruined.
“They haven’t been by?” I asked, hating the panicked twist of my own voice. Hating the glimmer of hope I’d let bloom into flame. “You’re absolutely sure?”
“No, sweetheart, they haven’t.” Grandma’s eyes slid from me to my mother and back to me again, her brow furrowed. “Teddy finished up early today and went on home. Didn’t say a thing about coming around this evening. As for Benny, he’s been a bit of a pill these past several months. Your aunt Madeleine called earlier, said he won’t leave his room, and—well, she wouldn’t repeat his exact words. You know how he gets.”
“They must be down at the cove already. I’ll go see if they’re waiting for me.”
“Amy. They’re not.” She sighed, distressed as always by unpleasant conversation. “I’m sorry, dear. Let’s go out to the kitchen, have a talk. It’ll be okay, I just know—”
I was already gone.
Mom’s anger was narrow, a thin, fine needle piercing the back of my head as I fled up the curved staircase. Louder in its silence than my shoe soles on the polished oak, or the worried lilt of Grandma’s voice trailing at my heels. I focused on my retreat to the heavy bedroom door and its solid lock—my mother’s old room, a child’s room, yellow and pink and tucked under an eave. They put me there every year, as if they hadn’t noticed that the short, slight girl who’d once squeezed her tiny body into all the hidden recesses of this big Victorian fun house had spent the past few summers bumping her head on the stupid slanted ceiling of that room. Sixteen years old and looking down at the world.
I dropped my stuff on the frilly duvet and crossed to the window, stared out at the empty trailhead. Tamped down the tears crowding the back of my throat.
For the first time since I could remember, the boys weren’t waiting for me.
There was no point in texting Ben. River Run was too goddamn backwoods for its own cell tower, the property too removed to access what little coverage managed to straggle over from the nearest one. Even if it did, he probably wouldn’t answer—Ben with a grudge was Ben at peak asshole, eclipsed in magnitude only by Teddy and his injured pride. I should have known better than to hope they’d show.
It was simple math that screwed us, really: We were an odd number—a prime number, divisible only by itself. Impossible to split into two equal parts. This natural discrepancy was one we gladly overlooked when the distance between us was literal, remedied by a first-class plane ticket, the end of the school year, the start of my parents’ clockwork season abroad. And once together, it never mattered anyway—it was easy as anything to ignore the subsurface shifts and tectonic pressure, bound to end in cracks.
A blur of memories clamored for space in my head, so many summers rushing back at once, and this was how they wanted things to end? Fuck the phone. Fuck them, too—if they wanted to play cold shoulder, they’d damn sure picked the wrong opponent. I’d dissolve into mist before I’d let them see me beg.
The doorknob’s rattle shook me from my thoughts. The lock clicked and gave; she was in the room before I’d even turned around.
“The door was locked for a reason, Mother.”
“As if I don’t know the trick to this old door. Freshen up and change your blouse. Grandma’s got dinner planned, and…” She paused, studied my wet, red eyes and quivering chin. Her mouth tucked itself into a delicate sneer. “You shouldn’t cry. It’s showing.”
“I don’t care. Tell them it’s allergies.”
“You look miserable, Amy. Hold still.” She crossed to the bed, pulled my Chanel compact from my purse. My vision sharpened to a surreal collection of shapes as her face neared mine and I shut down, withdrawing into the pocket of my mind—the noiseless, empty safe space that let me endure the blotting and blending as she coaxed me back to unblotched perfection. “I’m sorry he disappointed you, but it’s no big shock, is it? Typical River Run boys.”
Her words were venom-tipped darts designed to sting. What little I’d said on the subject last fall had still been too much. It was all I deserved, trusting that she’d give a fuck about my emotions apart from the impact they had on my art. Her fingers tightened on my chin as I tried to turn away.
“I’m not discussing him with you, Mom.”
“He’s never been up for discussion. Your focus is your work and your future, not a dead-end summer fling—if you can’t uncouple one from the other, he’s better off at arm’s length. I can only guess at the real reason you came home empty-handed last year.”
“Seriously? I told you I lost my satchel, along with my sketchbook and everything else in it. And I made up the work, remember?”
“I remember that’s what you said happened. Not that carelessness is an excuse. Don’t forget these trips abroad are for your benefit as well—everything about my life, every extra moment beyond the bare minimum spent with your father—all of it is to ensure your success. All so you’ll never be chained to this place, or anyone in it.”
“Whatever. If you hate River Run so much, maybe you shouldn’t drop me off here for months at a time.”
“Watch your tone, young lady. Your grandparents love you, and I make allowances for that. What I won’t do is nod and smile while you throw away the world.” She brushed a final swipe of powder over my skin, turned me to face the vanity. “There. Much better.”
She had indeed worked magic. My face was blank and lovely around smoke-lined, arctic blue eyes; the pale, tousled mess of my hair skimmed a perfectly blended jawline. My mother stood behind me in darker shades of everything, smile cold as the teeth of winter. I only had to look at her for one more day.
It would be easier once she was a literal world away. My parents would have a whole overseas flight to repress their marital issues, then they’d trek through the world behind a united front—through Johannesburg, Budapest, Jerusalem, wherever—my mother’s eyes glued to the camera, every image another staggering paycheck when paired with my father’s words. Jake and Eleanor Larsen, the husband-and-wife photojournalist powerhouse duo whose political and humanitarian projects overrode their forever-impending divorce. Those summers abroad kept me in the top private schools, hired the most prestigious art instructors to shape my future, kept my mother’s closet overflowing with Kate Spade, and kept my father’s Tesla Roadster in the garage of our enormous Great Falls home, for the few weeks a year he bothered showing up to park it there.
My father. A snow-washed glacier who’d much prefer to sink into the sea alone than endure even the idea of footprints. Mom’s coldest cold shoulders were desert sands compared to his indifference. I’d learned that little trick from the best, to be sure—I’d never been a daddy’s girl, but I was certainly his daughter, down to my frost-studded core.
It wasn’t that he’d left us, gradually and without any sort of official verbal indicator—I of all people understood the undeniable urge to flee my mother at all costs. He was his own special brand of uninhabitable, who gifted his feelings to pages rather than people. Still, it was that he’d left me, young and defenseless, alone with her in a too-quiet house. A house where even a four-year-old was subject to her hovering hands and frantic voice, and rabid, relentless standards.
It hadn’t taken her long at all to turn an exceptional preschool art project into a vicarious set of goals—to swap crayons for pastels, then pencils, then charcoals and ink, all before I’d learned to write my name. My childhood bled into an endless blur of figure study and cramping fingers, color wheels and still lifes and thumbnail sketches, all framed by the edges of my mother’s shadow. She monitored the progress of the hands I’d inherited from her as if she wasn’t the inspiration behind my desire to redraw the world. As if my hands couldn’t just be my own, no matter what their shape. Now, my talent had surpassed even her most far-fetched hopes, opened doors neither of us expected—doors that triggered my own personal countdown, once I realized I could walk through any one of them without her, then slam it in her face when she tried to follow.
Twelve years and hundreds of miles from the first spark, that flame still burned. It fed on the grind of pencil lines and brushstrokes; on my apprenticeship and private tutelage. On my acceptance into an elite high school for the arts, where I joined the cutthroat seethe of students, all aspiring to unmatched greatness. We worked side by side and neck and neck, rivalries bleeding into resentments, the nature of our shared ambitions superseding personal connections—and that was before adding in our parents and their vicarious hopes, their personal issues and social aspirations, that culminated in more private lessons and hours of practice, leaving no time for sleepovers or shopping trips or, until recently, boy-shaped distractions.
That last one—well, that was a situation best left on the Eastern Seaboard, folded down into a memory and tucked safely in the pocket of his fucking sweater-vest. None of it had meant a thing beyond the first resentful impulses.
It had made Mom happy, though. Holy shit, had it ever—that old-money, furnace-eyed prospect, with his sharp cheekbones, his own credit card, his actual pressed slacks. A musician, of all things—a seventeen-year-old piano prodigy, who’d supported my goals, sympathized with the constant practice and constraints on my time, which very closely mirrored his own. He’d existed in smudges of skeletal branches and winter frost; in the twinkle of holiday lights on white DC marble. He’d whirled me through a season of gilt-edged, upscale recklessness and melted away in time for spring.
She’d taken that breakup harder than he had, my mother. Not that I gave a flying shit concerning her thoughts on the matter, but he’d made for a good cover story while it lasted. Much easier to hide behind her rules and expectations when his very presence canceled out her deepest fears. Easier to let the prodigy escort me through tree lightings and gallery openings, let him kiss me on New Year’s Eve over glasses of vintage champagne he didn’t have to pay for and, later, pretend he hadn’t meant to feel that far up my skirt. Better to select and disconnect than deal with the day-to-day disgruntled gloom of various rejected art boys, or the fallout of random flirtations, unsolicited feelings, and the inevitable disintegration of both. As far as my heart was concerned, he’d barely existed.
There had only ever been three friends who mattered to me, who let me breathe and feel and be myself; who loved that self beyond the measure of my hands. Who exploded from the woods each summer in a frenzy of shrieks and laughter and open arms, eager to sweep me up and make us all whole again.
There had only ever been one boy.
And as I followed my mother down the carved oak staircase, properly freshened and powdered back to blank, I set about draining my nerves to match. The hollow inside me filled with sleet as that last day clawed its way to the surface, no longer willing to sleep.