Penguin Publishing Group

Books by this Publisher
Sort by:
View Mode:
Coders

Coders

The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World
edition:Hardcover
More Info
The Matchmaker's List
Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Sonya Lalli

 

1

Nani opened the front door as I was still crossing the lawn. Her nose twitching, she looked me up and down as I forced myself up the steps.

“Is that what you’re wearing?”

I shrugged and glanced down at my weekend jeans, my favorite checked shirt. It’s what I always wore home during one of my weekly visits, but I supposed today wasn’t an ordinary day.

I was twenty-nine today, and walking into an ambush.

“I was hoping you would dress up, nah? We have guest.”

A guest. A guest implied a cup of chai and a tray of sweets quickly defrosted from the Deepfreeze. A guest was small talk, compliments, gossip.

A guest was not an unannounced blind date chaperoned by your grandmother.

“What kind of guest?” I asked evenly, deciding not tell her that my best friend, Shay, had already warned me about the blind date. Nani didn’t answer the question, clucking her tongue as I bent over and brushed a kiss on the top of her head. She smelled the way she always smelled, like cocoa butter and roasted cumin. A touch of garlic. She stepped back and continued her evaluation, her tiny fingers pinching at the fleshy part of her chin as I kicked off my shoes.

“Find something more suitable.” She flicked her hand up the staircase, and I bounded up the stairs to the second floor, knowing full well there was nothing nicer in my old room. Too-large T-shirts from summer camps and music festivals where my favorite band that year had headlined. Jogging pants, the type with black or white snaps running up the leg. My old trumpet.

It was odd how little of me I kept here. But of all the places I’d lived since moving out—a dumpy apartment with Shay; a shared flat in London; and now, a new condo with my name on the mortgage—it was this house that I’d always considered home. I heard Nani calling, her voice staccato and sweet, and I ran a brush through my hair and then made my way back downstairs.

She looked up at me expectantly. “Nothing?”

“All my clothes are downtown.”

She arched her brows. “Anything in guest room?”

Again, I shook my head. Mom’s old room. Starch white walls and a beige linen duvet, not a trace of her left in the closet. Nani sighed as I reached the bottom step, evaluating my outfit one last time. And then she shrugged, squeezed my hand, and said, “Still my pretty girl. Even in that.”

Anywhere Nani lived would always be home.

I tucked in my shirt and followed her through the kitchen, ducking my head beneath the crossbeam as we took the eight steps down to the lower level. To the “entertaining room,” as Nani called it: orange corduroy couches wrapped stiffly in plastic; the walls packed with street art bought for a few hundred lire on my grandparents’ one trip abroad; Lord Ganesh presiding on the mantel, a choir of porcelain Siamese cats chiming in unison. And our guest stood at the room’s rapturous center, awkwardly in place, his dark brown skin the same shade as the varnish on the wood paneling.

“Raina,” said Nani, clutching my wrist. “Meet Sachin.” She dragged me closer until the top of his forehead was square to my mouth, and I tried to ignore the dull sensation in my belly. He looked vaguely familiar. Perhaps someone I’d known as a child, or seen in the stack of pictures Nani had started leaving on the kitchen table. He was quite short, albeit symmetrical—handsome even. He smiled and brought his palms together at his chest, bowing slightly to both of us.

“Hello, Raina,” he said, like my name was a word he’d invented.

“Hi.”

“Sachin drove far to come for your birthday lunch.”

“It’s your birthday?” His face stiffened. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“No intrusion, dear.” She pinched his cheek. “My Raina and I are so happy you joined. Nah, Raina?”

I nodded.

“Raina is such a good girl. Always coming home from her busy job to take care of her nani.” She gasped and turned to me. “Sachin is a busy man, too. Raina, did you know he is doctor?”

“No, I didn’t.” I turned to him. “My best friend is a doc—”

“I’m a cardiologist, actually.” He glanced away. “To be more precise.”

I clamped down on my lower lip. Precise, or just plain arrogant?

“Subspecialized at Columbia,” he said.

“Mhm.” I tried not to roll my eyes. “Is that right?”

He nodded, fingering his wristwatch. “Diverse city. Beautiful campus. One of the top programs in the country—world, even. Some might say.”

“I think I’ve heard of Columbia.” I folded my arms across my chest. “Is that in Cleveland?”

“Actually, New York—”

“And you’re the kind of doctor that cleans teeth, right?”

Nani jabbed me on the arm, and I tried not to laugh.

“No, no. It’s—”

“Cardio-logist. Oh! You’re a sports doctor.”

He shifted from side to side. “Actually, cardiac electrophysiology is a—”

Nani clucked her tongue, waving him off. “Don’t listen to her. She’s a silly one, my Raina.” She wrapped her arms around my waist as if she were a coconspirator in the charade.

“Oh,” said Sachin.

Evidently, they didn’t teach sarcasm at Columbia.

“Dear,” Nani said, turning to Sachin. “Would you like chai before lunch?”

“Chai sounds lovely, Auntie.”

She waddled up the stairs, leaving me alone with him, and I sat down on one of the couches, the plastic screeching beneath me as I settled onto the cushion. Sachin joined me a moment later, his legs spread so wide he was nearly touching me. To my dismay, he actually smelled pretty good: the way rich men tended to smell, like Dev used to smell. An understated potency that still dominated the entire room.

“Your nani is very sweet,” he said after a moment.

“She’s the best.”

“What’s her name again?”

“Belinda.”

“Oh.”

I looked straight ahead, deadpan, trying not to look at him out of the corner of my eye.

“Is that . . . Bengali?”

“No,” I sighed. “Her name is Suvali.”

“But, you just said—”

“It was a joke.”

“A joke, right”—he let out a stiff laugh—“good one.”

Growing up, everyone just referred to family friends as auntie or uncle, but I still felt mildly offended on Nani’s behalf that he didn’t even know her name. I reclined slightly on the couch, and stared straight ahead. Lord Ganesh—eyes, trunk, and all—stared right back.

Upstairs, I could hear Nani bustling around in the kitchen. She would be setting out her favorite teacups on the silver tray Nana had bought her as wedding present, placing teaspoons equally spaced along the paper napkins—garish, a bold red and gold—that she’d once bought in bulk at a discount store going out of business. Fifty packages for a five-dollar bill.

“Raina, hey, listen,” Sachin said after a while.

“Yes?”

He played with his rounded fingernails, picking beneath them. “I really hate to ruin your birthday, but—”

“You have to go?” I asked, a little too eagerly.

“No.” He flashed me a smile, two rows of square white teeth. “Don’t worry. I’ll stay for lunch. But I would hate to mislead you on my intentions.” He looked up at me quickly, and then back at the floor. “I’m not interested.”

“That’s fi—”

“You seem like a really nice girl, Raina. Really nice. And I don’t mean to hurt you.” He sighed again. “I’m just not in that place, you know? I’m not ready for the kind of commitment that our families—that you—seem to be after.”

I bit my tongue. The only thing I was after was for him to leave.

“I know, I know.” He stood up and paced in front me, his hands partially shoved into his pockets. “I’m a doctor, I get it. The biology of it all just isn’t fair. It’s harder for women. More pressure after they—uh—reach a certain age?”

I let out a deep, writhing sigh. “It’s so hard.”

“And your nani finding you a single doctor is—” He paused and looked me dead in the eye. “Well, it’s the dream, isn’t it?”

A dream? More like a nightmare.

“But really, Raina, you seem like a nice girl.” He knelt down in front of me and petted my knee. “Really nice. And I’m sure you will find someone—soon.”

I resisted the urge to tell him what I really thought of him, and studied him as he crouched at my feet. Sachin was the definition of the man Shay and I had spent so many years avoiding: the Westernized Indian. The one who used to be captain of the chess club or math team, and although brutalized for it in high school, now threw out the stereotypes about his culture as an anecdote to make the C-cups and hair extensions laugh as he chivalrously paid for their drinks. He was the archetype who watched sports and drank beer, had the uncanny ability to mock his father’s accent, yet would still want his wife to learn how to make curry the way his mother did. He was the hybrid of east and west; the immigrant mentality distilled and harnessed, his arrogance the forgivable by-product of ambition.

Sachin looked up at me and heaved out a patronizing sigh. “Are you going to be okay?”

He was also the type of man that any nani would want her granddaughter to marry, and as I patted his shoulder reassuringly, I tried to convince myself that Sachin—that his type—wasn’t what I was interested in, either.

There seems to be a great deal of misinformation around the modern-day arranged marriage. I am often bombarded with questions by coworkers or middle-aged women sitting next to me on long-haul flights after they’ve picked up on the fact that I’m half Indian. After explaining to them that I was raised by the Indian side of my family, and that whichever white guy fathered me was never in the picture, they smile and tell me that being Indian is all the rage these days. And in an exertion of worldliness, I am cited anecdotes they’ve picked up in the frozen food section at Costco while buying paneer, or watching twenty minutes of Dil Chata Hai on the Bollywood channel that comes with their deluxe cable packages. They love the bright colors and gold chains. The eccentric music. The food—oh, how they love the food. And of course, they are curious about my love life. They want to know more about this whole “arranged marriage” thing, whether soon I, too, might be enlisted.

But the protocol of today’s arranged marriage in my community is less glamorous than they might anticipate. It is choosing from a roster of carefully vetted men, men whose family, religion, background, values, and sometimes even astrology match your own. It is having parents who want their children to marry into the “culture,” and so they hurl them against a brick wall of blind dates until one finally sticks. It is arranged dating, really; an agreement to decide quickly whether you are in love.

I grew up with dozens of girls who went this route; women fast-tracked down the aisle, business class on a nonstop flight toward happily ever after.

And they seemed happy.

After all, they tell me—their mouths full of champagne and vanilla cream cake, cocooned in flowing bridal lenghas worth as much as a new car—what was the big deal about being set up by your family? Isn’t “today’s arranged marriage” equivalent to being set up by a friend, or an algorithm in your go-to dating app? Aren’t their chances of having a successful marriage as high as the girl who ends up marrying her one-night stand? Or the one who met her leading man in college? I am one of the very few in my generation still unmarried in my hometown, and I never know what to say. How much to smile. And so I help myself to another drink—sometimes, another piece of cake—and reverently congratulate them on their Bollywood ending.

But I always wonder what happens after the ceremonial fire goes out and the guests go home, stuffed and slightly drunk on Johnnie Walker. Nani’s marriage was arranged, and unlike today’s blessed nuptials, she didn’t have much of a say in the matter. Her father showed her a black-and-white photo of a lanky boy with round wire spectacles, and later, someone smeared red powder on her forehead, and just like that—well, nearly—she was married. It was simple. Clear-cut. A transaction performed not out of love for a would-be spouse, but for one’s own family.

But wasn’t an arranged marriage beneath me? I wasn’t really Indian, after all. I was Canadian. A girl who refused to feel out of place in her mostly white, middle-class suburb in west Toronto. I had Rollerbladed and held lemonade stands, rolled my eyes on “Culture Day” at school when Shay and I were forced to wear lenghas, the other kids crowding around us for a chance to paw at the fake crystals sewn onto the sleeves. I only saw other Indians when I was dragged to dinner parties, and at temple every Sunday. When we went bulk grocery shopping in Scarborough because the corner Safeway didn’t have the right brand of lentils or coconut milk. And even though Ravi Shankar always seemed to be playing on the radio at home, and my clothes perpetually reeked of masala, I grew up fully committed to my role in what otherwise seemed to be a white narrative. I played a girl who couldn’t believe in arranged marriage—not only because of the cliché of her own family shambles, but because the cynicism of her Western world, the literary fiction on her bookshelf, barely allowed her to believe in marriage at all.

So I resisted. I resisted the idea of a planned union that might make me happy. That might make Nani happy.

“Did you like Sachin?” she asked after he had left. She stood beside me as I washed the dishes, the side of her head lightly resting on my shoulder.

Did I like him? I didn’t dislike him. After he told me he just wasn’t interested, and Nani came back with the tea, the pressure had evaporated. It wasn’t a chaperoned date, a three-hour festival I’d have to immortalize in the diary I’d outgrown so I could one day tell my daughters about all the silly things their father said the first time our eyes locked.

It was just lunch.

“Will you see him again?” Nani asked.

“No.” I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”

“Don’t think so?”

I didn’t answer, and she leaned forward on her tiptoes and turned off the tap.

“You got along with him, nah?”

“I don’t know.” I turned to face her, not quite sure how to tell her I’d already been rejected. “What did you think of him?”

“Only you know what you need in husband, Raina. What you need to be happy.”

“I am happy.”

She wiped a fleck of foam off my neck and stared at me, attempting to read my expression the way she attempted to read English.

“I am!”

She grimaced and glanced away, as if she’d heard it, too. The urgency. The insistence. I attacked the rice cooker, knuckles and steel wool, my palms burning red in the hot water. The suds washed off, and I held it up, set it sideways on the dish rack. Why did I sound like I was trying to convince myself? I was happy, wasn’t I? I had everything, less the one thing that, to Nani, defined the rest. The boxes for college and career had been ticked; only marriage remained.

She rolled up her sleeves and handed me a frying pan. Staring at it, she said, “You agreed to this.”

“I know. But I said thirty.”

“You’re twenty-nine now, Raina. What difference is one year?”

“Yeah, what is the difference?” I squirted dish soap onto the pan, and set the bottle down firmly. “What’s the difference if I get married now, or in five years, or never—”

“Don’t talk nonsense.”

“Really, Nani. What’s the rush? Kris isn’t married.”

“When he’s ready, he will.”

“It’s because he’s a man.”

She didn’t answer. She walked around me and inspected the rice cooker propped up on the drying rack. Tapping on a spec of white caked onto the side, she handed it back to me.

“Just because he’s been married before, or just because he can have children whenever he feels like it, and his sperm—”

“Beta. Enough.”

She finally met my eye. The slight scowl that had formed on her face vanished, and she reached for my cheek. “A husband, a family—it will bring you so much joy. You remember how happy your nana made me?”

I wasn’t so sure I agreed, but I was too tired to argue. Her hand was soft, slightly wet from the dishes, and I let my head rest against it.

“You remember, I told you, when I was young, my father was in army and we had to move. Moving, moving constantly—and I never had anything of my own.” She nodded, pressing her lips together. “And then I had your nana. I had family of my own.”

I turned back to the sink.

“And don’t you want children?”

I sighed. “I do, but—”

“Beta, you are getting older. Your auntie Sarla, everyone at temple—they always ask me: Why is Raina not married? Why always at that office? You cannot marry your Blueberry!”

“It’s called a BlackBerry, Nani. And I’m not picky. I’m just not ready.”

“You work, and work, and life is passing by. Men are passing by. Tell me, when is the right time? When will you be ready?”

I watched the pan fill with water, bits of brown bubbling in the froth. To Nani, a man unmarried in his thirties was fine—but for me, it wouldn’t be. I took a deep breath, and willed myself not to fight back.

She reached for my hand, and as her slight brown fingers interlocked with my own, that’s when I realized that in my silence, I was being complicit. I realized how much I truly loved this vivacious, slightly insane little woman, and what I would do to be the only person in her life never to break her heart. I would go along with it. I would live up to her expectations, and that promise I made to her two years ago—brokenhearted and desperate for my life to make sense once again—that if I wasn’t married at thirty, I’d let her make the arrangements for me.

“So we will try again?” she asked. “We will find you someone else?”

“Sure, Nani.” I forced out a smile. “We’ll try again.”

She dried her hands on her slacks and headed into the den. “Good, stay there,” she called. “I am bringing the list.” A few moments later, she reappeared in the kitchen, light steps on the hardwood, a piece of loose-leaf paper fluttering like she was bidding at an auction.

Was my future husband’s name somewhere on that list?

She sat down at the kitchen table and pulled out the chair next to her. Dragging her thumb along the edge of the page, she muttered names under her breath.

Did I want it to be?

I abandoned the sink and sat down next to her. Looking through the list, I feigned interest as she enthusiastically explained who each of the candidates were. Going on these dates would make Nani happy, and I supposed it didn’t really matter who I wanted—or who I still wanted. This was happening, and with only three hundred and sixty-four days to go, the arrangements had already begun.

Sachin—Reetu’s son in Scarborough, some kind of doctor—birthday lunch??

 

 

2

It was light out now when I left; summer, it seemed, was on its way. I ran most mornings before 6 a.m., before the commuters clogged the streets and the city became a mess of traffic, delivery trucks, and the hammering from a nearby construction site. I loved the feel of bare concrete and unbreathed air, of the urban sprawl temporarily abandoned. My legs twitched, and I picked up speed, nothing but the sound of my feet beating against the pavement. I headed north past the still-closed shops, St. Michael’s Cathedral, then cut through Queen’s Park. The paths were damp and crusted in last season’s leaves, and as the sun peeked through the branches and the sweet scent of dew filled my lungs, I exhaled and smiled into the light. Running was how I survived sitting upright in an office chair, sometimes eighteen hours a day; how, as a child, I had learned how to survive.

I ran home through the university, the boundaries of four years of my life walled in brick and mortar, paper and pencil, the glare and hum of a screen. I brushed by the buildings dotting St. George Street, each of which harbored memories that became vaguer with each run: the eastern brownstone where I had a class on political economy and advanced econometrics; the building perpetually under construction where I took a seminar on microfinance in the developing word.

Had it really been over ten years since I started university? I thought back to myself in those days: slightly skinnier, commuting back and forth from Nani’s house on overcrowded buses, highlighting textbooks and writing in the margins as I awkwardly stood in the aisles. There hadn’t been wild frat parties with beer pong and hours of missing memories, or shots of tequila after a Monday evening lecture.

I’d studied. I’d graduated. And, exactly according to plan, I’d gotten a well-paying job.

I was soaked by the time I completed my loop. I sprinted up the stairs of my building, and each floor greeted me with a new smell. Week-old garbage and wet dog. Compost and fresh bread. I heaved my body up the last few stairs and smelled curry—like Nani’s, but tangier—from the Sri Lankan family who lived across the hall. I opened my front door, and for a moment just stood in the entrance, panting as I tried to catch my breath. It never failed to strike me how, two years after moving in, my condo still smelled of absolutely nothing.

Only a shadow of me even lived here between scenes at the office in this catalog-clean condo with two bedrooms and a view, a gallery of wicker and eggshell and midnight blue accents. Here, there were only egg whites and salsa in the fridge, vodka in the freezer, and thanks to the previous owner, everything seemed to match but me.

I’d bought it as is a month after flying home from London and hadn’t changed a thing except for the handful of framed photos I’d nailed indiscriminately to the walls. Shay and our group of high school friends at graduation next to the fridge. A rare, complete family photo hanging in the front hall: Nani and Nana, me in a frilly dress sitting on their knees, Kris and Mom standing just behind. If anyone asked, I wouldn’t know how to explain each of these characters in a way that made sense, or my relationships to them all. Kris is your uncle—but grew up with you like a brother? And your mom is alive, but didn’t raise you?

I poured myself a glass of orange juice, and, leaving the empty carton on the counter, I finished it in one long swig. But no one ever asked those questions. In the two years that I’d lived here, I hadn’t had anyone over who didn’t already know the answers.

I showered and changed into a linen suit, and by the time I left again, the city was awake. I turned south on Yonge Street toward downtown, maneuvering through pedestrians and lampposts as I answered e-mails on my BlackBerry. Shay was already at the diner, slumped over in our usual booth, and I slid in across from her.

“Already ordered.” She leaned back, her eyes half closed, and I grabbed a sticky newspaper off the seat. There were mornings when neither of us spoke—when I read, and Shay, straight from a night shift at the hospital, napped at the table. We’d been coming to the same diner since we moved out together into a shared apartment in the building above it. At the time, she was still in medical school, but tired of living with her parents, and I’d received my first big-city paycheck. I’d get home after work and find her studying her medical textbooks at a booth, and we’d nurse our free refills of coffee beneath the neon light of a decorative Hollywood sign, Shay learning how to make a differential diagnosis, while I kept her company, and stuck straws in my nose and tried to make her laugh.

Our usuals arrived: black coffee, three fried eggs and ketchup, crunchy breakfast potatoes, and four thick slices of rye, and for a while, we ate in silence. She looked exhausted, and I waited until after she’d had her first cup of coffee, and was well onto her second, to bring it up.

“Aren’t you going to ask me how it went?”

“Sorry.” She smiled groggily, and then nodded her head. “What was he like?”

I shrugged. “He was okay, I guess.”

“Are you glad I warned you?” Shay asked, setting down her fork. She was nearly finished her meal, and she rested her elbows on the table. “I was worried you wouldn’t turn up.”

Somehow, Shay’s mother, Auntie Sarla, had found out Nani was inviting Sachin over—and, of course, Auntie Sarla had told Shay. Seemingly, there were no secrets in our community, and nothing Auntie Sarla wouldn’t involve herself in. She was my best friend’s mother, and one of Nani’s closest friends, but it was hard to be in the same room with her. She judged and criticized and berated, and treated Nani and me like inferiors. She was particularly critical of her own children, even though Shay and her brother, Nikesh, had lived up to every expectation.

Sarla was a matriarch of our community, and in a way, she represented everything that was wrong with our traditions. At the same time, Nani owed so much to her—making it difficult to despise her.

After they moved to Toronto, Nani and Nana made their living as restaurant owners, running an Indian café that is now called Saffron. But the trendy, upscale establishment was nothing like it used to be: strip mall locations and empty plastic seats, Nani and Nana packing up yearly, rifling through the classified pages of the Toronto Sun after getting evicted. They were a homely couple, food (not business) savvy, and intent on viewing the world the way they were themselves: honest. Business parks were rezoned, neighborhoods gentrified, but more often than not, landlords took advantage. And back then, the idea of taking a slum landlord to court, asking an authority in broken English for help, was simply too foreign a concept.

It was Auntie Sarla who had turned things around for them. One of the useful features of a woman who never shut up was, well, she never shut up about their food. She and Nani became friends, and Saffron grew to be the unofficial caterer to the Indian doctors, professors, and obnoxiously rich that populated Auntie Sarla’s inner and outer circles. Gradually, as Nani and Nana could afford to move the business to Roncesvalles, and brand their humble business as more grandiose, they graduated from being one of Auntie’s philanthropic pursuits into full members of their community.

“Would you see him again?” Shay asked after a moment.

“Maybe. I’m not sure. But it doesn’t matter, because he’s not interested in me.” I reached for my coffee. “When Nani was in the other room, he said he wasn’t interested.”

“In you?”

I nodded. “In me.”

“Sachin, in the middle of your date, actually told you he—”

“Can we drop this?”

Shay bit her lip, and then nodded slowly. “Sure. Sachin doesn’t matter—”

“Thank you—”

“Because I have someone else for you.”

“Tell me he’s not a cardiologist.”

“He’s one of Julien’s groomsmen,” she said, her mouth full again. “He spent the last ten years abroad teaching, traveling—something like that.”

“You want to set me up with a drifter?”

“Asher’s not a drifter. He’s amazing. He’s—”

“Homeless?

“Don’t be bitchy.”

“I’m not.”

“You’re being skeptical, Raina. You’re single, it’s okay, but you need to start giving guys a chance. Asher, or”—she gestured to a balding man eating alone at the counter—“that guy over there. Can’t you just try and date, or do something—for once?”

I groaned at Shay’s authoritative voice. Just because she had her own love life sorted, my best friend was allowed to control mine, too?

When Shay and I had lived together, I’d never taken the men that stumbled out of her room too seriously. They were disheveled, red-eyed boys who groggily waved to me as they slipped past the kitchen, Shay still sound asleep. At first, Julien seemed no different. But unlike the rest of them, he kept coming back, and recently, proposed. And so Shay got to skip the queue of suitable Indian men Auntie Sarla had been lining up for her since birth, opting for the debonair French Canadian boy in her class, the fellow pediatrician.

She didn’t need an arrangement. And I couldn’t help but think, then why did I?

Shay’s eyes flicked back from the balding man and onto my plate, and I pushed my last piece of toast toward her. She lunged for it, watching my face as she stripped the edge off with her teeth.

“So Sachin’s a no.” She looked up at me hopefully. “Asher is . . .”

“A no.”

She took another bite of toast. “Last week I met a few residents from South Africa. There’s one who might—”

“Actually,” I said, looking at my hands, “I’ve already decided to start dating.”

“Really?” Shay nearly screamed.

“Nani gave me this . . . list. I told her I’d look it over, maybe start making a few calls.”

“Can I see it?” She grabbed my purse. “Is it in here?”

I watched her rifle through my bag and dump its contents onto the table—Kleenex, pens, tampons, passport and all. She eventually found it, and started scanning the list.

“Nani knows them through the temple, or they’re friends of friends, or—”

“My cousin Rohit is on here!”

“Have I met him before?”

She shook her head. “No. He is such a jerk. Even Ma knows that. I don’t even want him at my wedding.”

“Why would Nani put him on the list then?”

“I guess because he’s”—Shay shrugged—“well, single.”

“So she’d rather have me be with some Indian guy nobody likes, than be alone.”

“She just wants you to be happy—and open. You don’t only have to date Indian men”—she shook the paper—“from this little list.”

“My birthday was three days ago, and do you know she’s called me every day just to ask if I’ve met anyone from the list yet? If I’ve emailed or called any of these guys?” I shook my head. “A date I find online, or one with Asher or that bald guy, isn’t going to be enough.”

“So you’re really going to do this then. Date, and”—she hesitated—“marry one of them?”

I didn’t answer, and watched Shay as she deliberately crossed out Rohit’s name with my pen.

“So this is . . . it,” she said after a moment.

“I guess so.”

“But I’ve never pictured you with an Indian, Raina.”

I shrugged, and reached for my coffee. An Indian—one, in particular—was the only man I’d ever pictured myself with.

Rohit—Sarla’s nephew, lawyer in Boston

Absolutely NOT

 

 

Date #1

“So here we are,” Vishal said, tugging at the sleeves of his white collared shirt, which were sticking out from his navy blue suit. I looked down, wondering what kind of omen it was that I was wearing virtually the same outfit.

“Have you been here before?”

I shook my head. “It just opened, didn’t it?”

“It’s been two years, actually.”

“Two years?” I glanced around the coffee shop, one that I could have sworn until recently used to be a take-out sushi joint. “Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

A waiter brought us each a latte, and I tried to brainstorm conversation topics as I laconically stirred a packet of sugar into my cup. Had it only been one week since I turned twenty-nine? For a woman who once spent three months deciding on what handle she wanted as an e-mail address, Nani sure didn’t waste any time. Within days of receiving “the list,” I’d received a text message from Vishal—the fellow Bengali boy who also liked “business things.” Unfortunately, he happened to work in the building next door to my office, and I wasn’t able to find an excuse not to see him.

I thought I’d be nervous, but I wasn’t. It was like having an awkward meet and greet with a client, or a job interview for a position you really didn’t want. He wasn’t that short, and sure, he was handsome—but within thirty seconds of shaking hands, I could tell we lacked chemistry. Or for that matter, failed to have anything in common. Funny how Nani thought that we could be a match made in heaven just because we both worked on Bay Street and understood how the stock market worked. The conversation was stilted, awkward, but eventually we found some things to talk about. Afterward, I insisted on paying for my own coffee, and then he walked me back to my office. Shaking my hand, he held eye contact just a bit too long. Was he also thinking about how he would spin this date to his family? I was about to joke that we should make up an excuse together for why there wouldn’t be a second date, when he sighed loudly.

“Look, I’m dating someone. I have a girlfriend.”

I guffawed. “Are you kidding me?”

“I’m sorry—”

“Don’t say sorry to me,” I said, crossing arms. “You should be saying that to your girlfriend!”

“I know, I know . . .”

“What on earth are you doing?”

“My mom doesn’t like the fact that she’s not Indian. And she’s been on my case to meet you for months.” He shrugged. “I just thought this would make everything easier.”

“On you, maybe.”

“I know.” He shrugged. “This was a stupid idea.”

“Stupid is an understatement, Vishal.”

He smiled at me for the first the time. He didn’t seem so dull when he smiled, and I half wondered whether we would have been friends had we met under different circumstances. Vishal ran his hands through his hair, and I wasn’t sure what to say to him. Shay was right; Nani wouldn’t care one way or the other if the guy I ended up with wasn’t Indian—but that was Nani. Not everyone was lucky enough to have that.

“It sounds like you need to call your girlfriend,” I said after a moment. When he smiled, I added: “And maybe stand up to your mom?”

“Perhaps.” He cocked his head to the side. “But it’s not like you wanted to meet me, either. I mean, how many times did you check your BlackBerry in the last forty-five minutes?” I hesitated, and he continued. “Sounds like you need to stand up to someone, too.”

I nodded, even though I knew I wouldn’t. What was the point of standing up to Nani? So I could let her down like the rest of her family had?

I didn’t have a boyfriend, or even a prospect. The only men I met were through work—and they were all married, or single for a reason. And Dev . . . Well, Dev was nothing but a memory.

Vishal—Bengali boy, also likes business things—but maybe too short

Not single!

 

 

 

3

The humidity of early summer was starting to set in, and the air conditioners were ill prepared as the sun arched over Bay Street and streamed in through the windows. I heard the usual chatter of the break room across the hall; the slow drip of the percolator, the opening and shutting of the fridge as Emma from reception gossiped to someone in a low whisper. I sat back down at my desk, and as my wrists hovered above the keyboard, I realized I’d completely forgotten what it was I’d been working on before I’d left for coffee.

To me, work meant doing a lot of sinfully boring things that, regrettably, I’d once found interesting enough to get me through a minimum eighty-hour workweek without dabbling in self-mutilation. These days, I wasn’t sure what kept me going. Everything had become routine. Work meant graphing variables and predicting outcomes for clients. Analyzing NASDAQ figures, Excel spreadsheets, and financial statements, and researching and sourcing investment products. It meant keeping my passport on hand and an extra pantsuit at the office just in case I needed to fly somewhere last minute to talk to or learn from people who did largely the same thing.

I’d once tried to explain to Nani the macroeconomic world and how exactly I fit into it, but she’d smiled sweetly, blankly, and then turned back to the television. She enjoyed strangers’ reactions when she told them her granddaughter worked at a multinational investment bank, but that was as far as her pride went. She didn’t want to understand what my job really was, or why choosing this career meant I had so little time for her, let alone anyone else.

It had been a few weeks since my date with Vishal, and I’d started texting with two other men on Nani’s preapproved list. It felt wrong to have more than one guy “on the go,” but Nani insisted. “Sprinkle your seeds, and see which flowers grow,” as she liked to say. Arjun seemed normal, as did Jayesh—although with conflicting work schedules, I had yet to find a good time to meet either of them.

I’d overworked myself on my morning run, and my thighs and lower back throbbed. I reached up my arms and stretched, then closed my eyes. When I opened them again, Zoey’s face had appeared in the doorway.

“Have a sec?” Without waiting for me to respond, she pushed through and closed the door behind her. She sat down in the chair opposite my desk, stretched out both legs, and drummed her stomach with her palms.

“You all right?”

She shrugged, and then glanced up at me slyly. “I accidentally saw Alice last night.”

“Accidentally?” I laughed.

“How many weeks did I last this time?” She started counting on her fingers, and then gave up.

“Six,” I said. “It’s been six weeks since you last broke up.”

“And I did really well. I didn’t see her once—”

“Until last night!”

“Raina, she just showed up out of the blue. Handed me a bottle of wine, and waltzed in like nothing had happened. Like we had never broken up. And then . . .”

“And then?” Zoey didn’t reply, and I grabbed a pen and gently lobbed it at her to get her attention.

She caught it, and, blushing, set the pen down beside her. “It’s fine. I’m fine. Really. It’ll be—it’ll be different this time. Won’t it?”

“I may not be the best person to give you relationship advice.”

“No one’s perfect. You can’t be worse than anyone else.”

I laughed, trying to figure out what to say. Zoey was several years younger, the most junior—and intelligent—analyst on my team. I’d been assigned to train her on her first day, and by the time I’d showed her around the office and she’d laughed at one of my jokes, we were friends. Over a year later, she’d become more than that. We’d confided in each other quickly, and she’d told me about her life growing up in Canada’s prairies, the difficulties she had experienced coming out as gay to her family, her on-again, off-again relationship with Alice—a law student she’d met her first week in Toronto.

I’d always considered Shay to be my best friend, but these days it was Zoey who seemed to know me best. She was the person beside whom I battled each day. These days, when Shay and I saw each other, we talked about her wedding plans, or she analyzed my text messages with Arjun and Jayesh—and then she’d lecture me about how I needed to be more “open.” But Zoey and I actually talked.

My cell phone vibrated. It was an unknown number, and tentatively, I answered it.

“Hi, is this Raina?” The voice paused. “It’s Sachin.”

I covered the receiver with my palm and looked up at Zoey. She’d heard all about the birthday ambush, and when I mouthed to her who it was, she swiped the phone from my hand and set it on the desk with a thud. She pressed the speakerphone button, and his voice, the tone now less formal, blared out.

“Hello? Hi? Is anyone there?”

“Hi,” I said, slowly. “It’s Raina.”

“Yeah, hi! It’s Sachin, the, uh—”

“Cardiologist. I remember.”

He cleared his throat, his voice scratching through the room, and I tried not to laugh as Zoey gestured vulgarities at the phone.

“And how are you today, Raina?”

“I’m fine. And you?”

“Great—great, thank you. Well, no.” He cleared his throat again. “Actually, I lost a patient this morning.”

“I’m so sorry . . .”

“It happens.” His voice trailed off, and as I caught Zoey’s eye, her hands dropped slowly back to her lap.

“I had a great time with you and your nani a few weeks back,” he said after a moment. “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to call.”

“I didn’t know you were planning to.”

“Yeah . . . About that. I’m sorry I was so rude to you. My mother only told me that morning about the lunch, and I was annoyed with her. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. I’m sure you understand.”

I did understand, but I didn’t say anything.

“I really shouldn’t have said that I wasn’t interested. I hadn’t even met you yet, and—well, you really are a nice girl, Raina. I am interested in getting to know you.” I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out, and after a few seconds of static, he spoke again. “Would you like to have dinner with me?”

“Did your mother tell you to call me?” I blurted.

“No, I wanted to.”

“Really.”

“You’re intelligent and forthright and attractive and—well, frankly, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t want to get to know you. So will you have dinner with me?” He spoke quicker, as if he had somewhere to rush off to. “Just dinner. With no pressure or anything. Just a normal date.”

I listened to Sachin as he breathed heavily over the speaker, to Zoey’s fingernails against her BlackBerry as she seemingly grew bored waiting for my answer.

Except for my coffee with Vishal—with whom I’d had less chemistry than my toaster—I hadn’t been on a date in years, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever even been on a normal date. My brief relationships in college had started in the library, at a frat party—and then there was Dev, although nothing about that date had been normal.

I could barely even remember the last time I was alone with a man. Last winter, was it? The securities seminar Zoey and I had flown to New York for last minute. Zoey had been on a break with Alice then, and she’d briefly disappeared with a woman she’d met at the hotel lobby a few hours before the flight home. Sitting there alone, I’d somehow become tipsy chatting to a broker from Atlanta. I could vaguely recall his hand grazing my waist next to the empty coat check, ignoring the longing in his glances when I refused to take a later flight home. But that was as far as it went: turning away from the kiss, forgetting the business card in an airplane seat pocket. I never let it lead to normal. I leaned forward against the desk and stared at the phone. Getting to know each other over dinner. This was what normal meant. Later, we’d go for more dinners, movies, and lunch dates—and then what? Months of sex and the superficial? A natural segue into the serious?

“Dinner,” I repeated slowly, conjuring up Sachin in my mind. Indian. Intelligent. Handsome.

Nani-approved.

If I was going to do this, really going to do this, then it might as well be Sachin. And squinting into the glare from the window, I said, “I could do dinner.”

Sachin—Reetu’s son in Scarborough, some kind of doctor—birthday lunch??

*Dinner 9:30 p.m., Tuesday @ Eldorado

 

4

My boss, Bill, was pissed that I left work early, but Nani had insisted I come see her before my date with Sachin. After nearly an hour battling through rush-hour traffic, I arrived home to find that she wasn’t even there yet.

She’d left all the lights on, and I walked around the house turning them off and then put the kettle on to boil. My head throbbed, and I flopped down on Nana’s side of the couch and closed my eyes. I knew I was imagining it, but the sofa still smelled of him. I could picture him there reading me Little House on the Prairie, my head resting against his knees, impatiently tugging on the cuff of his trousers whenever he stopped mid-sentence to sip his tea.

No one was home with Nana the morning he died, and I don’t think Nani ever forgave herself for believing him when he claimed his chest pain was merely indigestion. Watching her lose him was harder than dealing with my own grief. The horror of finding her collapsed sideways on the stairs clutching to his parka, her wet eyes and nose buried in the garlicky tobacco scent of the goose down, would never leave me. She became a widow at the age of sixty. An arranged life drastically rearranged, Nani had to start over; create a life from scratch that didn’t revolve around the man to whom she’d been assigned.

It took her years, but her vivacity returned, as did the color in her cheeks. She was always practical and compassionate—most of all toward Nana and I—but these days it wasn’t strange to find Nani teasing the busboys and running Saffron better than Nana ever did; driving her Mini Cooper from an afternoon tea to temple, from one charity project to another. I suppose she had to find a new balance in the equilibrium that life had imposed on her.

In a way, Nani and I grew up together. Discovered each other all over again as adults. I’d learned the way she watched the Ellen show, her toes wiggling in her pressure socks whenever Ellen DeGeneres and the audience danced. The way Nani showed she loved you through food—and then, through more food. The way she only called me beta when she was upset, or irritated. How she pronounced “vegetable”—veg-ee-table—or invented idioms like to “take a sleep” or “open the light.” English was her fourth language, she liked to remind me, after Bengali, her mother tongue, Hindi, and Punjabi. English for her came last, not until 1969 when Nana moved his new bride across the world to Canada. To the land of opportunity.

To the land of, well, land.

I also learned that Nani could be vain, ignorant of what didn’t concern her or her own family. I’d switch on the news, or buy her a book I thought she should read, and she’d sigh like the idea of something new tired her right out. For a while, I’d tried to get her interested in politics, coming home on election night—provincial, federal, American—and she’d cluck her tongue and leave the room, annoyed that I’d disrupted her favorite Hindi soap. She thought the oil sands were polluted beaches and didn’t understand why Palestine and Afghanistan, and not India, was on the news so often.

Nani had never been like the other “aunties” in the community. She wore Western clothes most of the time—Sears pantsuits and polyester sweaters—and had refused to stay home and play house. She’d worked side by side at the restaurant with Nana and kept her chin high when her teenage daughter brought home a baby. She was modern, generations in front of so many of her friends—small-minded women who gossiped and pettily talked about one another’s children. But still, for Nani, getting married and having children was a woman’s one true path.

Her daughter had become a mother too young, and now she feared I’d become one too old or not at all. But couldn’t she try and understand how it worked now? Women didn’t have to get married and have children anymore—and even if they did, it didn’t always mean they were happy.

I was tired of arguing with her, but at the same time, maybe Nani and Shay were right: Work consumed my life, and I was lonely. So what reason did I have to resist?

I heard the back door open, and I leaped up. I beat Nani to the kitchen and had the tea poured into two china mugs by the time she sat down at the table. She sighed as she brought the cup to her lips, and I watched her face, the fine lines dancing and stretching as she blew on the tea.

“How was work?”

She smiled, and sank back in her chair. “I am very tired.”

“I can make dinner?”

“But you will eat with Sachin, nah?”

“Sure, but that’s hours from now.”

“Aacha. Make some rice, and we will heat up dal I have in freezer.” She took a sip of tea, and then shook her head. “But first we must discuss Sachin. I called his mother today.”

“You did what?”

“She is in my sewing group with temple, nah? I had to call anyway. And then I mentioned your dinner tonight, and she grew very happy.”

I groaned. “Nani, I asked you not to tell anyone.”

“Reetu is his mother. She has every right to know where her son is.”

“But Sachin and I said we wouldn’t involve the families yet, that it wasn’t any of their business until—”

“None of our business?” Nani snapped. She stared at me, and I shrunk back into my chair.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“None of my business.” Nani’s glare tore through me, and then landed on her hands. “Your mother used to say this to me.”

“I’m not like her, Nani,” I said, and for several long minutes, she didn’t answer.

I drove back downtown and found the door to my condo unlocked, and Shay going through my wardrobe. Nani had put me in a bad mood. Her trump card for any argument: comparing me to Mom. Telling me that I, too, wasn’t good enough.

I mindlessly changed in and out of outfits Shay selected for me. Leather pants I’d bought on a lark and never wore; skinny jeans from college that, when I sucked in, still sort of fit. Work blouses paired with too-short skirts I hadn’t worn since London; dresses Shay brought over, silky and static, tight or loose in all the wrong places.

“You look great,” Shay said as I stood in front of my mirror, only a wisp of pale peach chiffon differentiating me from a nudist. “I’m jelly of your legs.”

I whipped around. “My legs look like jelly?”

“No, it means jealous.” She bit into an apple, crunching loudly. “It’s what the kids in my ward say.”

I turned away slowly, pulling down the hem of the dress. The evening before, I’d waxed and filed and moisturized and polished. Groomed and straightened. Shay, lying sideways on my bed, still in hospital scrubs, nodded or shook her head vigorously at each outfit I tried on—but still, everything felt so wrong. My clothes felt like costumes, designed to impress the guy that may or may not become my husband. I just wanted to wear one of my work suits, what I felt most comfortable in and most like myself, but I had the feeling Shay wouldn’t agree.

Through the mirror, I saw Shay lean down from the bed and smirk as she felt my smooth leg.

“You’re going to sleep with him.”

“No, Shay.” I pulled at the hem of a skirt, forcing it down past my thighs. “I’m not going to sleep with him.”

“It’s an urban myth that men won’t call you after.”

“And they always called you?” I saw her stick out her tongue in the mirror, and I turned around. “Sorry. I meant . . . I meant I don’t even know if I like him.”

“Then why do you care so much?”

“Nani’s the one who cares,” I grumbled.

“You did this with Dev, too.” Shay got off the bed and started walking toward the bathroom. “You built everything up in your head before you even knew him.”

“If you came over just to lecture me, you didn’t need to bother.” I turned back to the mirror, and a moment later, I heard the bathroom door shut.

I sat down on my bed. I felt the skirt digging into my stomach and the sides of my thighs. I groaned, and rolled over and grabbed my BlackBerry from where it was charging on the nightstand. I had one new text message from Zoey wishing me luck on my date, and a handful of grumpy e-mails from Bill.

I could hear Shay still in the bathroom, and so I scrolled down to Dev’s last message. For more than a year after we broke up, we’d stayed in touch, emailing every few days or at least once week from our work accounts. But then weeks turned into months, and that last message I’d sent him more than four months earlier had gone unanswered.

It was only a few sentences: I’d told him about Shay and Julien’s engagement, a new coworker in the New York office, and then asked after his family. It was small talk; really, it was nothing. Then why was I still unable to bring myself to delete it?

I heard the toilet flush, and I stuffed my phone into my bag. A moment later, Shay appeared in the doorway. The irritation had disappeared from her face, and now she just looked tired; the dopey blue of her hospital scrubs poking out from the top of her hoodie. I wasn’t sure if she’d come over straight from work, or was on her way to a night shift; I’d forgotten to ask.

“How’s work?”

She flopped onto the bed beside me, and put her arm around my neck. “Okay. It’s going by quickly.”

“When are you done your residency again—less than a year, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “I’ll be done just a few weeks before the wedding. It’s perfect timing.”

Her arm felt heavy, and I shifted away from her on the bed.

“Raina, my ma set the date. It’s—”

“I know,” I said, holding the top against me in the mirror. “Nani already told me. Don’t worry about it.”

Auntie Sarla had confirmed Shay’s wedding date. The day Shay got married to the love of her life and fulfilled her mother’s wishes would be the day I turned thirty.

Thirty.

I grabbed a cardigan from the closet, nearly tearing the sleeve as I ripped it from the hanger, and walked back to the mirror.

Perfect timing.

close this panel
The Broken Girls
Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Simone St. James

 

prologue

Barrons, Vermont

November 1950

The sun vanished below the horizon as the girl crested the rise of Old Barrons Road. Night, and she still had three miles to go.

The air here went blue at dusk, purplish and cold, a light that blurred details as if one were looking through smoke. Squinting, the girl cast a glance back at the road where it climbed the rise behind her, the breeze tousling her hair and creeping through the thin fabric of her collar, but no one that she could see was following.

Still: Faster, she thought.

She hurried down the slope, her thick schoolgirl’s shoes pelting stones onto the broken road, her long legs moving like a foal’s as she kept her balance. She’d outgrown the gray wool skirt she wore—it hung above her knees now—but there was nothing to be done about it. She carried her uniform skirt in the suitcase that banged against her legs, and she’d be putting it back on soon enough.

If I’m lucky.

Stop it, stupid. Stupid.

Faster.

Her palms were sweaty against the suitcase handle. She’d nearly dropped the case as she’d wrestled it off the bus in haste, perspiration stinging her back and armpits as she glanced up at the bus’s windows.

Everything all right? the driver had asked, something about the panic in a teenage girl’s face penetrating his disinterest.

Yes, yes— She’d given him a ghastly smile and a wave and turned away, the case banging her knees, as if she were bustling off down a busy city street and not making slow progress across a cracked stretch of pavement known only as the North Road. The shadows had grown long, and she’d glanced back as the door closed, and again as the bus drew away.

No one else had gotten off the bus. The scrape of her shoes and the far-off call of a crow were the only sounds. She was alone.

No one had followed.

Not yet.

She reached the bottom of the slope of Old Barrons Road, panting in her haste. She made herself keep her gaze forward. To look back would be to tempt it. If she only looked forward, it would stay away.

The cold wind blew up again, freezing her sweat to ice. She bent, pushed her body faster. If she cut through the trees, she’d travel an exact diagonal that would land her in the sports field, where at least she had a chance she’d meet someone on the way to her dorm. A shorter route than this one, which circled around the woods to the front gates of Idlewild Hall. But that meant leaving the road, walking through the trees in the dark. She could lose direction. She couldn’t decide.

Her heart gave a quick stutter behind her rib cage, then returned to its pounding. Exertion always did this to her, as did fear. The toxic mix of both made her light-headed for a minute, unable to think. Her body still wasn’t quite right. Though she was fifteen, her breasts were small and she’d started bleeding only last year. The doctor had warned her there would be a delay, perfectly normal, a biological aftereffect of malnutrition. You’re young and you’ll recover, he’d said, but it’s hell on the body. The phrase had echoed with her for a while, sifting past the jumble of her thoughts. Hell on the body. It was darkly funny, even. When her distant relatives had peered at her afterward and asked what the doctor had said, she’d found herself replying: He said it’s hell on the body. At the bemused looks that followed, she’d tried to say something comforting: At least I still have all my teeth. They’d looked away then, these Americans who didn’t understand what an achievement it was to keep all your teeth. She’d been quiet after that.

Closer, now, to the front gates of Idlewild Hall. Her memories worked in unruly ways; she’d forget the names of half the classmates she lived with, but she could remember the illustration on the frontispiece of the old copy of Blackie’s Girls’ Annual she’d found on a shelf in the dorm: a girl in a 1920s low-waisted dress, walking a romping dog over a hillside, shading her eyes with her hand as the wind blew her hair. She had stared at that illustration so many times she’d had dreams about it, and she could recall every line of it, even now. Part of her fascination had come from its innocence, the clean milkiness of the girl in the drawing, who could walk her dog without thinking about doctors or teeth or sores or scabs or any of the other things she had buried in her brain, things that bobbed up to the surface before vanishing into the darkness again.

She heard no sound behind her, but just like that, she knew. Even with the wind in her ears and the sound of her own feet, there was a murmur of something, a whisper she must have been attuned to, because when she turned her head this time, her neck creaking in protest, she saw the figure. Cresting the rise she’d just come over herself, it started the descent down the road toward her.

No. I was the only one to get off the bus. There was no one else.

But she’d known, hadn’t she? She had. It was why she was already in a near run, her knuckles and her chin going numb with cold. Now she pushed into a jog, her grip nearly slipping on the suitcase handle as the case banged against her leg. She blinked hard in the descending darkness, trying to make out shapes, landmarks. How far away was she? Could she make it?

She glanced back again. Through the fog of darkness, she could see a long black skirt, the narrow waist and shoulders, the gauzy sway of a black veil over the figure’s face moving in the wind. Unseen feet moving beneath the skirt’s hem. The details were visible now because the figure was closer—moving only at a walk, but already somehow closing in, closer every time she looked. The face behind the veil wasn’t visible, but the girl knew she was being watched, the hidden gaze fixed on her.

Panicked, she made an abrupt change of direction, leaving the road and plunging into the trees. There was no path, and she made her way slowly through thick tangles of brush, the dead stalks of weeds stinging her legs through her stockings. In seconds the view of the road behind her disappeared, and she guessed at her direction, hoping she was heading in a straight line toward the sports field. The terrain slowed her down, and sweat trickled between her shoulder blades, soaking into the cheap cotton of her blouse, which stuck to her skin. The suitcase was clumsy and heavy, and soon she dropped it in order to move more quickly through the woods. There was no sound but the harsh rasp of her own breathing.

Her ankle twisted, sent sharp pain up her leg, but still she ran. Her hair came out of its pins, and branches scraped her palms as she pushed them from her face, but still she ran. Ahead of her was the old fence that surrounded Idlewild, rotted and broken, easy to get through. There was no sound from behind her. And then there was.

Mary Hand, Mary Hand, dead and buried under land . . .

Faster, faster. Don’t let her catch you.

She’ll say she wants to be your friend . . .

Ahead, the trees were thinning, the pearly light of the half-moon illuminating the clearing of the sports field.

Do not let her in again!

The girl’s lungs burned, and a sob burst from her throat. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t. Despite everything that had happened—or perhaps because of it. Her blood still pumped; her broken body still ran for its life. And in a moment of pure, dark clarity, she understood that all of it was for nothing.

She’d always known the monsters were real.

And they were here.

The girl looked into the darkness and screamed.

 

chapter 1

Barrons, Vermont

November 2014

The shrill of the cell phone jerked Fiona awake in the driver’s seat. She lurched forward, bracing her palms on the wheel, staring into the blackness of the windshield.

She blinked, focused. Had she fallen asleep? She’d parked on the gravel shoulder of Old Barrons Road, she remembered, so she could sit in the unbroken silence and think. She must have drifted off.

The phone rang again. She swiped quickly at her eyes and glanced at it, sitting on the passenger seat where she’d tossed it. The display glowed in the darkness. Jamie’s name, and the time: three o’clock in the morning. It was the day Deb would have turned forty if she’d still been alive.

She picked up the phone and answered it. “Jamie,” she said.

His voice was a low rumble, half-asleep and accusing, on the other end of the line. “I woke up and you were gone.”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“So you left? For God’s sake, Fee. Where are you?”

She opened her door and swung her legs out into the chilly air. He’d be angry, but there was nothing she could do about that. “I’m on Old Barrons Road. I’m parked on the shoulder, at the bottom of the hill.”

Jamie was quiet for a second, and she knew he was calculating the date. Deb’s birthday. “Fee.”

“I was going to just go home. I was.” She got out of the car and stood, her cramped legs protesting, the cold air slapping her awake and tousling her hair. She walked to the edge of the road and looked up and down, shoving her free hand into the pocket of her windproof jacket. Back the way she’d come, she could see the road sign indicating thirty miles to Burlington and the washed-out lights of the twenty-four-hour gas station at the top of the hill. Past the hill, out of her sight, she knew there was the intersection with the North Road, with its jumble of fast-food restaurants, yet more gas stations, and a couple of hopeful big-box stores. In the other direction, ahead of the car’s hood, there was only darkness, as if Old Barrons Road dropped off the face of the earth.

“You didn’t have to go home,” Jamie was saying.

“I know,” Fiona replied. “But I was restless, and I didn’t want to wake you up. So I left, and I started driving, but then I started thinking.”

He sighed. She could picture him leaning back on the pillows, wearing an old T-shirt and boxer shorts, the sleek muscles of his forearm flexing as he scrubbed a hand over his eyes. He was due on shift at six thirty; she really had been trying not to wake him. “Thinking what?”

“I started wondering how much traffic there is on Old Barrons Road in the middle of the night. You know, if someone parked their car here and left it, how long would it be before someone drove by and noticed? The cops always said it wasn’t possible that Tim Christopher could have left his car here for so long, unseen. But they never really tested that, did they?”

And there it was: the ugly thing, the demon, coming to the surface, spoken aloud. The thing she’d become so good at keeping buried. The idea had been niggling at her for days as Deb’s birthday approached. She’d tried to be quiet about it, but tonight, as she’d lain sleepless, her thoughts couldn’t be contained. “This isn’t healthy,” Jamie said. “You know it isn’t. I know you think about your sister a lot. I know you mourn her. But actually going to Idlewild—that’s different, Fee.”

“I know,” Fiona said. “I know we’ve been over this. I know what my therapist used to say. I know it’s been twenty years. I’ve tried not to obsess about this, I swear.” She tried to keep the pleading from her voice, but it came out anyway. “Just listen to me, okay?”

“Okay,” he replied. “Shoot.”

She swallowed. “I came here and I parked by the side of the road. I sat here for”—she checked her watch—“thirty minutes. Thirty minutes, Jamie. Not a single car passed by. Not one.” By her calculations, she’d been here for forty-five minutes, but she’d been asleep for fifteen, so she didn’t count those. “He could have parked here and done it. The field at Idlewild Hall is only ten minutes through the trees. He would have had plenty of time.”

On the other end of the line, she heard Jamie breathe. They’d been together for a year now—a fact that still surprised her sometimes—and he knew better than to say the usual empty words. It doesn’t matter. This won’t bring her back. He’s already in prison. It was twenty years ago; you need to move on. Instead, he said, “Old Barrons Road wasn’t the same in 1994. The old drive-in was still open on the east side of the road. It didn’t do much business by the nineties, but kids used to party there, especially around Halloween.”

Fiona bit back the protest she could feel rising in her throat. Jamie was right. She swiveled and looked into the darkness across the road, to where the old drive-in used to be, now an abandoned lot. The big screen had been taken down long ago, the greasy popcorn stand razed, and now there was only a dirt clearing behind the trees, overgrown with weeds. She remembered begging her parents to take her and Deb to the drive-in as a kid, thinking with a kid’s logic that it would be an exciting experience, a sensory wonder. She’d soon learned it was a fool’s quest. Her intellectual parents would no sooner take them to the drive-in to see Beverly Hills Cop II than they would take a walk on the moon. Deb, three years older and wiser, had just shaken her head and shrugged at Fiona’s disappointment. What did you expect? “There wouldn’t have been many kids at the drive-in on a Thursday in November,” she said.

“But there were kids there,” Jamie said with the easy logic of someone whose life hadn’t been ripped apart. “None of them remembered seeing Christopher’s car. This was all covered in the investigation.”

Fiona felt a pulse of exhaustion behind her eyes, countered by a spurt of jagged energy that wouldn’t let her stay still. She turned and paced away from the hill and the lights of the gas station, toward the darkness past the hood of her car at the other end of Old Barrons Road. “Of course you think they covered everything,” she said to Jamie, her voice coming out sharper than she intended. “You’re a cop. You have to believe it. In your world, a girl gets murdered, and Vermont’s greatest minds come together to solve the case and put the bad guys away.” Her boots scuffed the gravel on the side of the road, and the wind pierced through the legs of her jeans. She pulled up the collar of her coat as a cold shudder moved through her, an icy draft blasting through the layers of her clothes.

Jamie wasn’t rising to her bait, which was one of the things that drove her crazy about him. “Fiona, I know they covered everything because I’ve been through the file. More than once. As have you, against all the rules and regulations of my job. It’s all there in the murder file. In black and white.”

“She wasn’t your sister,” Fiona said.

He was quiet for a second, acknowledging that. “Tim Christopher was charged,” he said. “He was tried and convicted of Deb’s murder. He’s spent the past twenty years in maximum-security prison. And, Fee, you’re still out there on Old Barrons Road at three o’clock in the morning.”

The farther she walked, the darker it got. It was colder here, a strange pocket of air that made her hunch farther into her coat as her nose grew numb. “I need to know how he did it,” she said. Her sister, age twenty, had been strangled and dumped in the middle of the former sports field on the abandoned grounds of Idlewild Hall in 1994, left lying on one side, her knees drawn up, her eyes open. Her shirt and bra had been ripped open, the fabric and elastic torn straight through. She’d last been seen in her college dorm thirty miles away. Her boyfriend, Tim Christopher, had spent twenty years in prison for the crime. He’d claimed he was innocent, and he still did.

Fiona had been seventeen. She didn’t much like to think about how the murder had torn her family apart, how it had affected her life. It was easier to stand on the side of the road and obsess over how Christopher had dumped her sister’s body, something that had never been fully understood, since no footprints had been found in the field or the woods, no tire tracks on the side of the road. The Idlewild property was surrounded by a fence, but it was decades old and mostly broken; he could have easily carried the body through one of the gaps. Assuming he came this way.

Jamie was right. Damn him and his cop brain, which her journalist brain was constantly at odds with. This was a detail that was rubbing her raw, keeping her wound bleeding, long after everyone else had tied their bandages and hobbled away. She should grab a crutch—alcohol or drugs were the convenient ones—and start hobbling with the rest of them. Still, she shivered and stared into the trees, thinking, How the hell did he carry her through there without leaving footprints?

The phone was still to her ear. She could hear Jamie there, waiting.

“You’re judging me,” she said to him.

“I’m not,” he protested.

“I can hear it in how you breathe.”

“Are you being serious?”

“I—” She heard the scuff of a footstep behind her, and froze.

“Fiona?” Jamie asked, as though he’d heard it through the phone.

“Ssshh,” she said, the sound coming instinctively from her lips. She stopped still and cocked her head. She was in almost complete darkness now. Idlewild Hall, the former girls’ boarding school, had been closed and abandoned since 1979, long before Deb died, the gates locked, the grounds overgrown. There were no lights here at the end of the road, at the gates of the old school. Nothing but the wind in the trees.

She stiffly turned on her heel. It had been distinct, a footstep against the gravel. If it was some creep coming from the woods, she had no weapon to defend herself. She’d have to scream through the phone at Jamie and hope for the best.

She stared into the dark silence behind her, watched the last dying leaves shimmer on the inky trees.

“What the fuck?” Jamie barked. He never swore unless he was alarmed.

“Ssshh,” she said to him again. “It’s no one. It’s nothing. I thought I heard something, that’s all.”

“Do I have to tell you,” he said, “to get off of a dark, abandoned road in the middle of the night?”

“Have you ever thought that there’s something creepy about Old Barrons Road?” she asked. “I mean, have you ever been out here? It’s sort of uncanny. It’s like there’s something . . .”

“I can’t take much more of this,” Jamie said. “Get back in your car and drive home, or I’m coming to get you.”

“I’ll go, I’ll go.” Her hands were tingling, even the hand that was frozen to her phone, and she still had a jittery blast of adrenaline blowing down her spine. That had been a footstep. A real one. The hill was hidden through the trees from here, and she suddenly longed for the comforting sight of the fluorescent gas station lights. She took a step, then realized something. She stopped and turned around again, heading quickly for the gates of Idlewild Hall.

“I hope that sound is you walking toward your car,” Jamie said darkly.

“There was a sign,” Fiona said. “I saw it. It’s posted on the gates. It wasn’t there before.” She got close enough to read the lettering in the dark. another project by macmillan construction, ltd. “Jamie, why is there a sign saying that Idlewild Hall is under construction?”

“Because it is,” he replied. “As of next week. The property was sold two years ago, and the new owner is taking it over. It’s going to be restored, from what I hear.”

“Restored?” Fiona blinked at the sign, trying to take it in. “Restoring it into what?”

“Into a new school,” he replied. “They’re fixing it up and making it a boarding school again.”

“They’re what?”

“I didn’t want to mention it, Fee. I know what that place means to you.”

Fiona took a step back, still staring at the sign. Restored. Girls were going to be playing in the field where Deb’s body had lain. They would build new buildings, tear down old ones, add a parking lot, maybe widen the road. All of this landscape that had been here for twenty years, the landscape she knew so well—the landscape of Deb’s death—would be gone.

“Damn it,” she said to Jamie as she turned and walked back toward her car. “I’ll call you tomorrow. I’m going home.”

close this panel
Solace Island
Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Meg Tilly

 

One

Maggie Harris had her cell phone jammed against her right ear, a finger stuffed in her left, but still, Brett’s voice was an indistinct murmur. “Sorry, honey. Could you please speak a little louder? It’s kind of noisy in here.”

That was an understatement. The club was packed with writhing, sweaty bodies undulating to the pounding pulse of the music, not to mention the shrieking laughter of her eight bridesmaids and assorted female family members and friends.

Maggie felt a tug on her arm. It was Carol Endercott from the office, who had been knocking back shooters since they had arrived an hour ago. Maggie didn’t know her well, but the woman’s husband had walked out on her and their kid after ten years of wedded bliss. Probably not the best person to invite to one’s bachelorette party; however, Carol had overheard Maggie and Sarah making plans and Maggie hadn’t had the heart not to include her.

“Magsters,” Carol slurred, leaning close, stumbling slightly. “Come on, girl, off za phone. It’s pardy time!” She wore a big, sloppy smile, her mascara was smeared, and wisps of frizzy blond hair clung to her perspiring face. “Let’s have fuuun!” she bellowed like an elephant in heat.

Maggie held up a finger. One moment, Carol, she mouthed. It’s Brett.

“Ooooh,” Carol said, throwing up her hands and tiptoeing backward, eyes wide, like a cartoon character removing herself from a bomb site. “The luuuvebirds. I bettah give you some privacy, seeing as how yer talkin’ to za fabulous Mr. Nolan!”

“Yes, well . . .” Maggie smiled at Carol. “Thanks. I think I’ll just . . .”  She tipped her head toward the bathrooms and started moving past Carol.

“Good idea!” Carol said, giving Maggie a crazy-hard nudge in the ribs and an attempt at a wink. “I’ll tell the gang you’re in za potski having phone sex, so they won’t barge in at an inopportune moment,” she bleated, and lurched off.

“Jeez,” Maggie said, watching her leave. “I am very grateful not to have a drinking problem.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing, Brett. Hang on a second,” Maggie said. She started weaving her way through the crowd.

Once she was in the restroom, she heaved a sigh of relief. It was cooler in there, almost peaceful. She could still hear the thump and roar of the music, but it was muffled. “Thank goodness,” she said. “You still there?”

“Yeah,” Brett said, his voice mostly clear, just a little static.

“What time is it?”

“Uh . . . ten fifteen. Look, babe, I wanted to—”

“Ten fifteen! Oh my gosh, we’ve only been here an hour? I’m pooped already. How long do you think I need to stay? Don’t want to be rude or anything. Everyone’s come from so far away. But I gotta say, this going to clubs, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, the meat-market behavior typical of these places? It’s not really me.” Maggie laughed. “Well, you know that better than anyone, don’t you? Honey, I am so glad we met.”

“Yeah, well . . .”

“I can hardly wait until this is over. Maybe I can drop by after, if it’s not too late, and snuggle in bed with you. Oh my goodness, my feet are sore,” Maggie said, slipping off her heels, the polished concrete floor cool and soothing under her feet.

“That might be a problem.”

“I know, right? I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow! I don’t know why I let my sister talk me into those strappy, sparkly heels to finish off my wedding ensemble. I should have stuck with my original idea and bought those glittery Doc Martens. Nobody cares what you’re wearing underneath, and then I’d be comfort—”

“Margaret,” Brett cut in. “I need you to stop talking for a minute. Can you do that?”

“What?” Maggie’s breath caught in her chest. He’d used her formal name, and his voice sounded strange. “Are you all right? Is everything okay? You didn’t get in an accident, did you?”

“No, I’m fine. I just want to—”

“Oh, thank goodness!” A wave of relief rushed through her. “How horrible would that be—you having to hobble up the aisle in your handsome tux on a pair of crutches.”

“Can you shut up for a second? I’ve been trying to tell you something for the last five minutes, but you just keep jabbering on and on.”

Wait. Did Brett just tell me to shut up?

“I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching the last couple months,” Brett said. “And I just . . . I can’t do it.”

Maggie’s stomach lurched as her world, her happy-ever-after future, suddenly swerved off course. She felt both removed from her body and hyperaware of her surroundings, like she was an alien observing the events of her own life. The water dripping from the faucet, the beating of her heart, it all sounded loud, loud, loud. Her mouth tasted like chalk, throat constricted.

“Can’t . . . You can’t do what?” she asked, but she already knew the answer.

 

 

 

Two

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” Rosemund Harris asked. There were violet shadows under Maggie’s mother’s eyes, as if she, too, hadn’t been able to sleep for the last three nights.

“I’m totally fine, Mom.” Maggie managed a smile. She glanced at the departure display board. Good. Their flight to Tampa was on time. Another couple minutes and her parents would have no choice but to go through security.

Her sister, Eve, had taken the red-eye back to New York last night, and the plane’s departure had been delayed twice. While they’d waited, Eve had managed to extract a promise that Maggie would go on vacation with her. Who knew what kind of concessions her parents would’ve wiggled out of her had their flight been delayed.

By some miracle Maggie had been able to maintain her composure through contacting the wedding guests, canceling what services she could and donating the rest. She still had to contact the store where she’d registered and arrange to return the enormous pile of gifts so credit cards could be refunded. However, first she needed to sort through the presents so she could personalize the thank-you notes that had to be written. There was too much to do. No way in hell was she going to allow herself to fall apart now and start bawling in the middle of the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

“I want to kill that son of a bitch,” her dad said. Her dad had always been even-tempered and slow to anger, but he was angry now. She could tell by his voice.

Maggie dragged her gaze from the departure board to where her dad stood beside her mom. Bill Harris’s large hands, hardened by years of construction work, were clenched, and worry had etched deeper grooves in the lines on his face.

“Dad,” Maggie said, reaching out and patting his arm, “really, it’s all right.” Her parents looked at least five years older than they had a week ago, and for that alone, she wanted to kill the bastard herself. “I’m just sorry you flew all this way for nothing—”

“Nonsense,” her dad said, his voice gruff.

“We’re grateful we were here,” Rosemund said, pulling Maggie in for a hug. Her mom was small, a tiny bird of a woman, but seriously strong for a woman of any age, let alone one in her sixties. All those years pitching in on sites, running wiring, lugging pipes, installing pot-lights, had kept not just her mom but the whole family fit.

Maggie felt her dad’s arms encircle the two of them. A part of her longed to give herself over to the comfort of her parents’ support, but she couldn’t. She didn’t want to shatter. “Not every occasion,” her mom continued as if Maggie weren’t standing stiffly in her arms, “is going to be a happy one. But it’s the spending of time, the sharing of experiences, that is the glue that bonds a family together.”

The boarding announcement for the flight to Tampa came over the loudspeaker just in time. Maggie blinked her eyes hard and pulled away. “You gotta go,” she said, her voice cracking slightly. “You don’t want to miss your flight.”

There was a final hasty hug, and then her parents left, turning to wave a few times before disappearing from sight.

 

 

Three

“Don’t you think you are being a little unreasonable?” Brett said, leaning forward and steepling his tanned, manicured fingers on the desk in front of him. Their desk. He was smiling that smile that used to make her melt. Funny how two weeks of hell can change one’s perceptions, she mused. She’d always thought he blow-dried his “sun-streaked” blond hair a little too poofy, but she had never noticed before just how practiced his smile was.

Her sister had. “He’s too slick,” Eve had said when she’d first met him. “Too smooth. I don’t trust him.”

Maggie had waved her worries aside. “Are you kidding? He’s perfect.”

“Yes, and that’s what worries me, because no one—Maggie, look at me—no one is perfect.”

And now, standing in the Camelback East Village office that she and Brett had shared, she saw what Eve had seen all those years ago. Five years and four months of her life Maggie had wasted on this narcissistic, insensitive creep. A frigging five-year engagement. Ha! That should have been a clue.

“Just because I decided I didn’t want to marry you doesn’t mean I don’t want to continue working with you. We’re a great team. I’m the ideas man and you implement all the details. Take that derelict church, for instance. Turning it into a high-end condo development was a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself. Presales are moving extremely well. Yes, I know you’re doing a lot of work, but we’re going to make a shitload of money on this one. Comfort Homes is just starting to hit the big leagues. Seriously, sweetie, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”

“First,” Maggie said, holding up her hand, palm thrust out like a traffic cop. “I am not your ‘sweetie.’ Second, even you, with your pin-sized brain, must know that calling off a wedding the night before it’s supposed to occur would not, under any circumstances, be classified as a molehill!”

Brett opened his mouth to speak, but Maggie steamrollered right over him. “If you were having all these doubts, why did you insist on making it such a big event? I wanted something small and intimate, but no! You felt it was necessary to invite three hundred and eighty-six friends, family members, and business colleagues to our wedding! Some of them could ill afford to fly themselves out here and put themselves up in a hotel, but they did it because they wanted to show us their love and support. My mom and dad rebooked their world cruise vacation because they wanted to be here for our special day. Did that even cross your mind, how you inconvenienced so many people? Then you get cold feet, and you don’t even have the balls to stand up like a man and let people know. What a jerk!”

“A guy’s entitled to—”

“You are entitled to nothing. Not after leaving me to make excuses and explanations and to settle the accounts. Oh, by the way, did you and Kristal enjoy our honeymoon holiday?”

Brett blanched.

“Yes, I know all about that. Carol enlightened me. Amazing how loose the lips of everyone at the office got once the shit hit the fan. I gather your little fling has been going on for some time. The silver lining, I suppose, is that I finally understand why you pushed so hard for her to get the VP sales position.” Maggie had been trying to keep her voice calm and modulated, to present herself as a woman in control, but it wasn’t working. She could feel the deep waves of anger rising. “Well, I hate to break it to you, buddy boy, but this?” she said, swirling her hands in the air. And it was as if the movement lit a match to the dynamite stockpiled in the pit of her stomach, because she heard herself bellow, “WAS NOT a frigging MOLEHILL!”

Brett shifted uncomfortably. “Toots, come on. You’re being unduly harsh—”

Eyes narrowed, Maggie snatched the John Fitzstien metal sculpture from the desk and brandished it. “Don’t you ‘toots’ me, you son of a bitch, or I’ll bash your brains out and enjoy every second of it.”

Brett shut up.

“Now,” Maggie continued, slamming the sculpture down on the desk with a satisfying thunk and enjoying the nervous expression on his face way more than she should. “This is the way it’s going to go down. Either you buy my half of the company, at fair market value—”

“That’s ridiculous. You’re the one who wants to walk away. So leave. No reason I should be penalized and give you half of my company—”

“Our company.”

“—just because your feelings got hurt,” Brett continued, shrugging. “I understand. I’d be emotional, too, if I was going to be missing out on all of this,” Brett said, gesturing to himself.

“Why, you self-satisfied, pompous peacock,” Maggie said, shaking her head. She couldn’t believe the nerve of this guy. “Yes, I am feeling a little emotional, but not because I’m going to miss you. Was it painful? Yes, but I’m glad my blinders were ripped off. I am angry I had such terrible judgment and didn’t see through you. I am pissed off that I let you talk me into plowing my entire inheritance from Great-aunt Clare into the start-up costs for this company. Our company. It’s amazing to me that I never noticed the timing between her death and our engagement.” Maggie had thrown that last comment in, hoping that she was wrong. That there had been something genuine in their relationship and that it hadn’t been all about money. Maybe Brett had truly wanted to marry her, and the timing of her inheritance and his sudden desire to get engaged and start their own company was a coincidence. But she could see from the expression on his face that it wasn’t.

Maggie had thought she was fine. Now that the blinders had been ripped from her eyes, any kind of emotional tie would no longer have its talons sunk into her. But the knowledge that she had been played all those years was like a fist to the gut. “Did you ever love me?” she heard herself whisper.

Damn. She hadn’t meant to say it out loud. That was a mistake. She knew it instantly. She could see Brett’s mind ticking over her question, figuring out how to use her vulnerability to his advantage. She’d seen him do it many times when they were negotiating contracts for the company.

“Won’t work, Brett,” she said before he could open his mouth. “Don’t even bother.”

He shrugged, giving her that boyish smile that used to make her go weak at the knees. “Maggie, come here. You look like you need a hug.”

“Over my dead body,” she said as she took a step back and crossed her arms. “Back to business. The seed money was mine. You didn’t put a red cent into the start-up.”

“I didn’t have—” Brett started to say.

“I don’t want to hear your sob story, and neither do the courts. I’ve put my money and my sweat, blood, and tears into this company. Count your blessings I’m only asking for what we wrote down in the original contract. And yes, I still have it.”

Brett’s fingers were tapping a staccato rhythm on his desk. He always did that when he was irritated.

Maggie didn’t care.

He leaned back in his chair, swiveled right and then left, eyes on her. “We have no idea what the current market value would be.”

“No worries.” Maggie reached into her purse and pulled out a file. “I had ten whole days to cost it out while you and Kristal were frolicking in the sun.” She slapped the file on the desk and slid it over to him.

“Forget it,” Brett said, crossing his arms, shaking his head. “Not going to happen.”

Maggie shrugged. “Either you buy me out, or I’ll talk to Pondstone Inc. They were sniffing around last year, and I’m sure they would love to own my controlling shares. Though I can’t promise they won’t decide you’re useless and toss you out on your highly toned ass. That would be their call.” She arranged her features into a polite, civilized veneer and then straightened up to her full height. “Are we clear?”

No answer.

“Good.” Maggie dusted off her hands. “I’ll give you a couple days to mull it over. If you decide to move forward with the purchase of my shares, two weeks should be sufficient time to arrange a loan from the bank.”

“Two weeks,” Brett choked out.

“Yup,” Maggie said over her shoulder as she headed toward the door. “Better get cracking.” Her hand closed over the brass doorknob. It was odd to think that after all these years, she would never walk through these offices again. “Oh, wait.” She turned and went back to the desk. “I’m taking this,” she said, scooping up the sculpture and shoving it into her purse. “A souvenir.”

Then she left with her head high. Too bad Mom and Dad couldn’t have seen me in action, she thought. They would’ve been so proud.

 

 

Four

Supporting her weight against the boat’s rail, Maggie tilted her head back and shut her eyes, enjoying the late-afternoon sun. She could feel the thrum of the ferry’s engine vibrating through the deck below her feet. The breeze off the Pacific Ocean was brisk, stinging her cheeks and making her snuggle deeper into her sweater. She was grateful for her hat. It was cold almost to the point of discomfort, but still she didn’t go in. Yes, the passenger lounge, with its thick, salt-splashed windows, was heated. But too many people were in there, families and couples laughing and living life, huddled next to the old radiators.

She took a deep breath, filling her body to the very brim, then exhaled and opened her eyes. It was better out here. The view from the top deck was glorious. The deep, green-gray water rushing past the bow of the boat, leaving a frill of white in its wake; the birds spiraling higher and higher, then swooping down again; the purple-blue, shadowy shapes of islands beyond islands; and the sun partway through its downward arch toward the horizon.

“I’m glad I left,” she said out loud, tossing the words onto the wind. Trying to rally the confidence with which she had stormed out of Brett’s office yesterday afternoon, but her throat suddenly felt constricted. “That spoiled trust-fund rich bitch Kristal can have him. Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say, because I really don’t care.” And then, inexplicably, her eyes filled with tears and overflowed. It must have been the cold wind, or the sun sparkling too brightly off the water—whatever it was, it was too much to bear. And she had to sit down and give way to the overwhelming sensation, sobs coming hard and fast, ripping through her body.

 

 

Five

Luke Benson slid the last batch of bread dough into the retarder-proofer to rise overnight. Some bakers swore that one should proof dough for one and a half to two hours, but Luke preferred the flavor and consistency that occurred with a long, slow rise.

He straightened and rolled his shoulders to release the slight tension that had accumulated there. He glanced out the window. The trail along the bay beckoned. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountainous peak of the neighboring island. Streaks of orange and gold with traces of purple slashed across the sky. He was grateful for the lengthening days that March had brought. It would be forty-five minutes to an hour before darkness descended on his Pacific Northwest paradise, and he felt restless. Years of intense physical training will do that, he thought. Like a damn gerbil in need of a wheel, my body’s desperately craving some kind of physical release.

Since he’d sworn off women after his last train wreck of a relationship detonated in his face a year and a half ago, a hard run would have to suffice.

He grabbed his sweater, slipped it over his head, and exited through the back door. His wolfhound, Samson, was close on his heels.

Rather than go down to the beach, Luke turned right out of the door and took the path that ran along the bluff. It would make for a smoother run. Especially given the dimming light.

He did a couple of stretches, then started at a slow jog, gradually building speed. The old injury in his leg complained violently, but as usual, he ignored it. He knew from experience that it was better to move than to not. For the first five minutes, there was always resistance. It would give way to the pleasure of the run, and he would enjoy the feeling of his lungs expanding. He picked up the pace, the sound of his sneakers making contact with the packed dirt of the trail accelerating, air rushing past him. He could feel his heart pounding, blood surging through his body, his arms and legs slicing through space. Samson galloped ahead, both on and off the trail, coming back to check in and then disappearing again, following some scent or another.

Sometimes they would arrive back at the cottage together. Other times they’d go their separate ways, and Samson would arrive at the door much later, muddy, happy, and uninterested in dinner.

Darkness was starting to settle around Luke, but his body had fallen into a familiar rhythm now, and he was reluctant to turn back. So he kept running. And as he did, his mind drifted past thoughts of the physical exertion to the ferry ride home that afternoon and the woman weeping on the outside upper deck. He didn’t know her. She must have been one of the multitudes of tourists that descended on the island.

It was odd that he’d had the urge to go to her, offer comfort.

He hadn’t. That would have been weird. Clearly, she had gone up there to be by herself.

He’d stayed in his truck. Trying to fix the world was not part of his job description anymore. It was a waste of time. Most things were unfixable. He had sat there on his worn leather seats, Samson beside him, the dog’s large body sprawled across the width of the front seat, his shoulders and shaggy gray head warm and heavy on Luke’s lap.

Luke stumbled over an exposed tree root and lurched forward, causing crippling pain to shoot through his left quadriceps. He managed to catch his balance.

He shook his head. Tripping was unlike him. Usually he was hyperaware of his surroundings. That was the problem with regrets and the past. If one dwelled on them, they could devour the present. A waste of time. Let it go. Be in the present.

Again, Luke was back in his body, aware of his breath and his limbs moving. Thankfully, the strain and burn from the old wound, where the bullet had entered his left thigh and exited again, was easing. This allowed him to focus again on the thump of his sneakers pounding on the path.

But within a few minutes, his mind had veered back to the same woman. I should have gone and offered help, he thought. Solace. No one should have to weep with that intensity alone.

By the time he reached the Point, it was difficult to see. Night had fallen. Fog was rolling in, turning the trees and the Olympic mountain range beyond the bay into blurry charcoal ghosts, silhouettes against the sky. Luke glanced up. Soon, even the moon and stars would be obliterated.

Although he was still heated from running, he could tell that the temperature had dropped considerably. His breath was turning into puffs of condensation as it left his mouth.

“Think we’d best take the road back,” he said to Samson. “No cliff to accidentally plummet off.”

It had seemed like a good idea to stop in the little town and pick up a few supplies. Then, once Maggie arrived at the rental cottage, Rosemary & Time, she could tuck in and wouldn’t have to venture out until after Eve arrived in the morning.

Eve loved vacationing along the Washington Coast. Adored Solace Island and had stayed at Rosemary & Time many times. “It’s magical, Maggs. Just what you need to soothe your aching heart and soul.”

Which Maggie had thought was overpoeticizing the situation. “I’m not sad, Eve,” she had said. “There is no aching going on. I’m angry. There is an enormous difference.”

“Ah . . .” Eve had said.

Like her big sister knew better. Which made Maggie angrier.

However, after her embarrassing meltdown on the ferry, she had to admit that perhaps her sister was right.

It was interesting, actually, because the minute Maggie had driven her car off the ferry and onto the road that led away from the small town of Westford and Westford Harbor, she’d felt something lighten in her chest. The lightness grew as she followed the winding road past craggy mountains, lush valleys, and thick wooded areas.

When she had arrived in the small, picturesque town of Comfort and purchased groceries, she found she was reluctant to leave. The idea of being in an empty, unfamiliar cottage, alone with her thoughts, was more than a little daunting.

One thing had led to another. She enjoyed a delicious organic latte at Solace Given, which was full of warmth and baked goods and chatter. She nursed her drink for as long as she could, savoring the warmth of the mug in her hand, the creamy, spicy goodness as it trickled down her throat, warming her inside and out. When she had drunk the last drop, she went out onto the street and wandered through cute little shops full of whimsy and handcrafted goods.

In hindsight, Maggie realized there’d been flaws in her hanging-out-in-town plan. Who knew it would get so dark while she ambled up and down the aisles, plopping groceries into her cart? Now she was careening down a bumpy dirt road, praying she wouldn’t get a flat tire or end up in a ditch.

She was out in the middle of nowhere alone.

She hadn’t thought to purchase a flashlight or matches and emergency candles. She wished she had. It was kind of spooky. She hadn’t realized just how dense, dark, and looming the forest was. Eve was nuts, vacationing out here. They could die or be carried off by a bear, and it would be years before anyone found their bleached bones.

If only she had located the cottage in daylight, then she wouldn’t have had to deal with not knowing where she was going. Her night vision had never been the best, but out here in the boondocks, it seemed to be practically nonexistent.

Apparently, the good folks of Solace Island didn’t believe in the modern magic of streetlights. Sure, the main town of Comfort had a couple scattered around, but out here? Zilch.

Maggie had also never realized quite how dark the night could get. It certainly never got this pitch black in Phoenix, and the stupid thick fog that had rolled in only exacerbated her vision challenges.

Thank heaven for GPS.

She glanced down at the dashboard of her rental car, and her heart sank.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she muttered.

Yes, the GPS screen was still lit up, but between the last time she had glanced at it and now, it had stopped functioning. It showed a lazy blue arrow sailing in the middle of nothingness. There was the outline of where the land ended. Apparently, the ocean was somewhere to her left, but there were no roads showing up on the GPS. No markings. Nothing.

“Seriously?”

Really, it was ridiculous for her to feel so surprised. The way things had been unfolding for her in the last few weeks, of course her GPS would malfunction right when she needed it most.

“GPS . . . fiancé . . . what’s next?”

She blew out a puff of air. Tried to make her hands not grip the steering wheel so hard.

“No big deal,” she said. “I just need to find a place to turn off. I can plug the address into my cell phone. Problem solved.”

She drove farther.

There was no turnoff.

“No worries,” she said, sounding extra loud and overly cheerful even to herself. But she had to do something to counterbalance the slight panic that was beginning to bubble up within her. “Ho hum . . . a little fog. It’s dark, and you don’t know where you’re going. So what? What do you care that there are thick woods all around you and maybe bears and mountain lions? Hungry mountain lions . . .” This sort of talk was not helping.

“Stop . . . right . . . now,” she told herself firmly. “You’re a grown woman of twenty-seven, not a frightened five-year-old. So you don’t know where you’re going, and there’s a slight glitch with the GPS. So what? You could have been in a crash. Your car could have caught on fire. There are a million things worse than this minuscule problem.”

The fog shifted, and for a second Maggie could make out a driveway up ahead on the left before it was swallowed by the mist again, but she had seen it. It was there: a place to pull over. Slowly, she drove forward, trying to peer through the darkness and fog, her body hunched over the steering wheel. Ah! There it was! She eased her rental car into the driveway and turned the engine off and her emergency lights on. She got her cell phone out of her purse and hit the power switch.

The signal-strength bars were nonexistent; however, the phone was searching.

“Come on,” she said, giving the phone an encouraging jiggle.

The jiggle seemed to help. The “searching” disappeared. Unfortunately, the tiny, depressing words “no service” arrived in its stead.

She sat there for a few moments while the reality of her circumstances set in. She ran several scenarios through her head. She shouldn’t continue on in the same direction. The fog made driving conditions dangerous and house numbers hard to read, and she wasn’t sure she was still headed in the right direction. Walking would be a mistake, as visibility was an issue. She might get hit by a car. Then there was the small matter of wildlife roaming about, looking for dinner.

Maggie quickly realized that her best option was to stay put. She would wait for the fog to lift, and then she could be on her way.

She didn’t know how long she’d be stranded. However, she had seen a wilderness survival show on TV once. The host had stressed that if one found oneself stranded out in the wild, one must find a way to maintain one’s body heat. Otherwise, hypothermia could set in. The handsome host, with gleaming white teeth, had shown how to make a bed of leaves and branches. Ha! Maggie could do better than that. Granted, it was a bit chilly, but there was no need for her to roll around in dead leaves and muck. She had a trunk full of resources!

She got out, opened her trunk, and rummaged around in her suitcase until her hands landed on a few items that seemed to have a little bulk and warmth. She grabbed them and walked speedily—okay, she ran—back and hopped into her car, slamming the door behind her. She locked the doors. Yes, there didn’t appear to be any signs of a living being for miles, but one couldn’t be too prudent.

Then she carefully wound the articles of clothing around and around her, paying special attention to her head. She had once heard that a lot of heat escaped through the top of one’s head.

Yes, it was a little scary being stranded in the wilderness, but Maggie felt good, too. Like an adventurer. A problem solver. A woman in control.

 

Six

“Great,” Luke growled, glaring at the abandoned car blocking his driveway, its red emergency lights flashing. “There’s a perfectly good turnout twenty yards down the road, but this idiot decides to abandon his car here.”

Samson approached the car, smelled something near the back, then batted the trunk with his enormous paw before following the scent around to the driver’s side of the car. There, the dog sniffed some more and let out a loud, sharp woof.

There was a shriek from the car. A head with some sort of strange headdress appeared at the window, face drained of all color, eyes wide, mouth a round O. He caught only a flash, and then there was another shriek and the head disappeared. The car rocked slightly from some sort of vigorous movement inside. From the high pitch of the shriek, Luke was able to ascertain that the owner of the oddly garbed head was definitely female.

Maggie lay as flat as she could on the floor of the car. It was an impossible task, because the gearshift was poking into her ribs. When she had been rummaging for clothes in the trunk, she should have thrown the groceries far away from the car. The smell of the food must have attracted the bear.

“Please go away.  Please go away,” she prayed.

Now the bear was banging on the door! Oh dear . . . oh dear. It wasn’t going to go away. Wait! Maggie had an idea. The creature must be hungry: better it feast on her groceries than on her. She pushed off the center console—her ribs thanked her—and, keeping low, she fumbled under the dashboard until she felt the trunk-release button. Ahh . . . She could hear the trunk fly open.

“Whaaa?!”

The bear had said whaaa?! That didn’t make sense. Bears don’t talk.

She must have seen incorrectly. It was a person, not a bear! A person who could help.

Maggie slowly rose and peeked out the window. A tall, fierce warrior of a man was standing outside her car. He looked grouchy as hell. Strong, too, like he could snap a person’s neck with his bare hands. But the weird thing was, Maggie instantly knew deep down to her core that she was safe with this man. Felt as if he were a trusted friend she’d known in a previous life. She didn’t know why she had that feeling, but it didn’t matter. She was safe. She was no longer alone. She wasn’t going to be eaten by a bear, because if anyone could beat off a wild bear, it was this man.

The car door burst open, and a woman tumbled out. Recognition flashed through him. It was the woman who had been weeping on the ferry. Although she had changed her outfit and was wearing a most peculiar ensemble. What he had thought was a headdress appeared, on closer inspection, to be a flannel pajama top with a sock-monkey print. One sleeve was loose and flopping around her face. She was also wearing a fuzzy pink bathrobe and a pair of red woolen long johns that were wrapped several times around her neck and shoulders.

“Oh, thank goodness!” She seemed excited, talking fast and loud, but underneath was a lazy trace of silk and whiskey in her voice that his body apparently found arousing. “You have no idea how relieved I am to see you.”

What are you doing? he chastised his stirring nether regions. The poor woman is clearly unhinged. Weeping violently, and now this? She needs your compassion, not an erection.

“I thought you were a bear!” she continued, oblivious to the battle he was waging below the belt. “A bear. Can you imagine?” She was waving her arms around like a bird trying to take flight. “That’s why I opened the trunk. I have groceries, you see, and—”

Samson chose this opportunity to amble around the car and rise onto his hindquarters to nudge her face with his wet nose.

She emitted a squawk that would raise the dead. “AAAAHHH! Bear! B-b-b-bear!”

The next thing Luke knew, she had catapulted into the air, as though shot out of a cannon, and landed in his arms. Clinging to him for dear life, her body nestled against his chest as if she belonged there. Even through her layers of apparel, he found himself aware of the soft, womanly curves hidden beneath all the fabric.

She smelled good, a mix of tea, fresh-cut grass, and honeysuckle. His cock went from partially to fully erect. This was not good. Not good at all.

“Ma’am,” he growled, his tone sharper than was called for. “Ma’am. I’m going to ask you to climb down.”

“There’s a bear,” she whimpered, her face turned toward his chest, her eyes squeezed shut.

“That’s not a bear. It’s a dog.” Her added weight was causing his thigh to ache rather badly.

“It’s not a dog!” Her voice was getting shriller. “It’s too big for a dog!”

“Ma’am, there are no bears on Solace.”

“What?” She looked up at him, and even in the dark, he could see moisture clinging to her lashes.

He gentled his voice. “It’s my dog. Samson.”

Samson looked up at Luke and cocked his head.

“Lie down, boy.”

The large wolfhound lowered himself to the ground with a soft groan.

“Ma’am. If you could open your eyes.”

She peeked over his arm.

“See? It’s a dog. He’s lying down. He won’t hurt you.”

“He’s so enormous,” she said, her arms still wrapped tight around his neck.

It felt nice to hold her. Felt right somehow. He hadn’t realized, until that very moment, how much he had missed human touch.

However, his thigh was throbbing quite violently, and if he didn’t put her down soon, they would both crash to the ground.

“Yes, now, if you could just get down. Please?” It wasn’t so dark that he missed the stain of color that raced across her face.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she said, scrambling out of his arms. “Thank you for your . . . um . . . forbearance. I didn’t mean to . . .” She took a deep breath and let it out. “Hi,” she said, sticking out her hand. “I’m Mag—”

It was then that apparently she noticed the pink arm of her bathrobe. Her horrified gaze traveled up her arm to the red long johns wrapped around her shoulders. Her hand shot up to her head. “Oh no,” she moaned, ripping the pajama top from her head. “Ha ha . . .” She laughed nervously. “How embarrassing!”

But Luke didn’t, couldn’t reassure her. The unexpected sight of her glorious, thick waves of auburn hair tumbling over her shoulders had momentarily decimated his verbal capabilities.

close this panel
Dracul
Excerpt

NOW

Bram stares at the door.

Sweat trickles down his creased forehead. He brushes his fingers through his damp hair, his temples throbbing with ache.

How long has he been awake? Two days? Three? He doesn't know, each hour blends into the next, a fevered dream from which there is no waking, only sleep, deeper, darker-

No!

There can be no thought of sleep.

He forces his eyes wide. He wills them open, preventing even a single blink, for each blink comes heavier than the last. There can be no rest, no sleep, no safety, no family, no love, no future, no-

The door.

Must watch the door.

Bram stands up from the chair, the only furniture in the room, his eyes locking on the thick oak door. Had it moved? He thought he had seen it shudder, but there had been no sound. Not the slightest of noises betrayed the silence of this place; there was only his own breathing, and the anxious tapping of his foot against the cold stone floor.

The doorknob remains still, the ornate hinges looking as they probably did a hundred years ago, the lock holding firm. Until his arrival at this place, he had never seen such a lock, forged from iron and molded in place. The mechanism itself is one with the door, secured firmly at the center with two large dead bolts branching out to the right and the left and attached to the frame. The key is in his pocket, and it will remain in his pocket.

Bram's fingers tighten around the stock of his Snider-Enfield Mark III rifle, his index finger playing over the trigger guard. In recent hours, he has loaded the weapon and pulled and released the breech lock more times than he can count. His free hand slips over the cold steel, ensuring the bolt is in the proper position. He pulls back the hammer.

This time he sees it-a slight wavering in the dust in the crack between the door and the floor, a puff of air, nothing more, but movement nonetheless.

Noiselessly, Bram sets the rifle down, leaning it against his chair.

He reaches into the straw basket to his left and retrieves a wild white rose, one of seven remaining.

The oil lamp, the only light in the room, flickers with his movement.

With caution, he approaches the door.

The last rose lay in a shriveled heap, the petals brown and black and ripe with death, the stem dry and sickly with thorns appearing larger than they had when the flower still held life. The stench of rot wafts up; the rose has taken on the scent of a corpse flower.

Bram kicks the old rose away with the toe of his boot and gently rests the new bloom in its place against the bottom of the door. "Bless this rose, Father, with Your breath and hand and all things holy. Direct Your angels to watch over it, and guide their touch to hold all evil at bay. Amen."

From the other side of the door comes a bang, the sound of a thousand pounds impacting the old oak. The door buckles, and Bram jumps back to the chair, his hand scooping up the leaning rifle and taking aim as he drops to one knee.

Then all is quiet again.

Bram remains still, the rifle sighted on the door until the weight of the gun causes his aim to falter. He lowers the barrel then, his eyes sweeping the room.

What would one think if one were to walk in and witness such a sight?

He has covered the walls with mirrors, nearly two dozen of them in all shapes and sizes, all he had. His tired face stares back at him a hundredfold as his image bounces from one looking glass to the next. Bram tries to look away, only to find himself peering back into the eyes of his own reflection, each face etched with lines belonging on a man much older than his twenty-one years.

Between the mirrors, he has nailed crosses, nearly fifty of them. Some bear the image of Christ while others are nothing more than fallen branches nailed together and blessed by his own hand. He continued the crosses onto the floor, first with a piece of chalk, then by scraping directly into the stone with the tip of his bowie knife, until no surface remained untouched. Whether or not it is enough, he cannot be sure, but it is all he could do.

He cannot leave.

Most likely, he will never leave.

Bram finds his way back to the chair and settles in.

Outside, a loon cries out as the moon comes and goes behind thick clouds. He retrieves the pocket watch from his coat and curses-he forgot to wind it, and the hands ceased their journey at 4:30. He stuffs it back into his pocket.

Another bang on the door, this one louder than the last.

Bram's breath stills as his eyes play back over the door, just in time to see the dust dance at the floor and settle back down to the stone.

How long can this barrier hold against such an assault?

Bram doesn't know. The door is solid, to be sure, but the onslaught behind it grows angrier with each passing hour, its determination to escape growing as the dawn creeps nearer.

The petals of the rose have already begun to brown, much faster than the last.

What will become of him when it finally does breach the door? He thinks of the rifle and the knife and knows they will be of little use.

He spots his journal on the floor beside the basket of roses; it must have fallen from his coat. Bram picks up the tattered leather-bound volume and thumbs through the pages before returning to the chair, one eye still on the door.

He has very little time.

Plucking a pencil from his breast pocket, he turns to a blank page and begins to write by the quivering light of the oil lamp.

THE JOURNAL of BRAM STOKER

The peculiarities of Ellen Crone. That is, of course, where I should start, for this is as much her story as it is mine, perhaps more so. This woman, this monster, this wraith, this friend, this . . . being.

She was always there for us. My sisters and brothers would tell you as much. But how so, is where inquiries should lie. She was there at my beginning, and will no doubt be there for my end, as I was for hers. This was, and always shall be, our dance.

My lovely Nanna Ellen.

Her hand always reaching out, even as the prick of her nails drew blood.

My beginning, what a horrid affair it was.

From my earliest memories, I was a sickly child, ill and bedridden from birth until my seventh year, when a cure befell me. I will speak of this cure in great length to come, but for now it is important you understand the state in which I spent those early years.

I was born 8 November 1847, to Abraham and Charlotte, in a modest home at 15 Marino Crescent in Clontarf, Ireland, a small seaside town located about four miles from Dublin. Bordered by a park to the east and with views of the harbor to the west, our town gained fame as the site of the Battle of Clontarf, in 1014, in which the armies of Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland, defeated the Vikings of Dublin and their allies, the Irish of Leinster. This battle is regarded as the end of the Irish-Viking Wars, a bloody conflagration marked by the death of thousands upon the very shore over which my little room looked. In more recent years, Clontarf found itself the destination of Ireland's rich, a holiday setting for those wishing to escape the crowds of Dublin and enjoy fishing and strolls across our beaches.

I romanticize Clontarf, though, and in 1847 it was anything but romantic. This was a period of famine and disease throughout Ireland that had begun two years prior to my birth and did not find relief until 1854. Phytophthora infestans, otherwise known as potato blight, had begun ravaging crops during the 1840s and escalated into an abomination in which Ireland would lose twenty-five percent of its population to emigration or death. When I was a child, this tragedy had reached its peak. Ma and Pa moved us inland in 1849, to escape hunger, disease, and crime; and the fresh air, it was hoped, would avail my poor health, but all it brought was further isolation, the sounds of the harbor sought by my young ears falling more distant. For Pa, the daily walk to his office at Dublin Castle only grew as the world died around us, a damp web of grief lacing over all that was left.

I watched all this transpire from my attic room high atop our home, known as Artane Lodge, as nothing more than a spectator, relying upon the tales of my family to explain everything taking place beyond our walls. I watched the beggars as they ravaged our neighborsÕ gardens of turnips and cabbage, as they plucked the eggs from our chicken coop, in hope of staving off hunger for one more night. I watched as they pulled clothing from the rope-strung laundry of strangers, still damp, in order to dress their children. Despite all this, when they were able, my parents and our neighbors opened their homes and invited these less fortunate inside for a warm meal and shelter from the storm. From my humble birth, the Stoker family motto ÒWhatever is right and honorableÓ was instilled in me and guided all in our home. We were by no means well-off, but our family fared better than most. In the fall of 1854, Pa, a civil servant, was toiling in the chief secretaryÕs office at Dublin Castle, as he had for the thirty-nine years prior, having begun in 1815 at only sixteen years of age. Pa was substantially older than Ma, something that did not resonate with me until I was an adult. The castle was the residence of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and his office handled all correspondence between English governmental agencies and their Irish counterparts. Pa spent his time cataloging these communications, ranging from the mundane day-to-day business of the country to official responses on topics having to do with poverty, famine, disease, epidemics, cattle plagues, hospitals and prisons, political unrest and rebellion. If he wished to ignore the problems vexing our time, he could not; he was deep in the thick of it.

Ma was an associate member of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, a major force in the food drives and relief efforts of Dublin, a post previously reserved only for men. Not a day would pass when she wasn't haggling with a neighbor for milk, only to trade it with another neighbor for cloth. Her efforts kept food on the table for our large family and helped to feed countless others who crossed our threshold in these times of need. She held our family together-and as an adult, I see that now, but my seven-year-old self would have testified otherwise. I would have told you she locked me in my room, trading my happiness for isolation from the world's ailments, not willing to allow even the slightest exposure.

Our house stood off Malahide Road, a street paved with stone extracted from the quarry near Rockfield Cottage. I was confined to the attic, its peaked windows my only escape, but I could see much from such a height-from the farmlands around us to the distant harbor on a clear day-even the crumbling tower of Artane Castle. I watched the world bustle around me, a play for which I alone was the audience, my illness dictating my attendance.

What ailed me, you wonder? That is a question with no real answer, for nobody was able to say for certain. Whatever it was, my affliction found me shortly after birth and clung to me with wretched fingers. On my worst days, it was a feat for me to cross my room; the effort would leave me winded, bordering on unconsciousness. A mere conversation drained what little energy I possessed; after speaking but a few sentences, I often grew pale, and cold to the touch, as sweat crawled from my pores, and I shivered as my moisture met the seaside air. My heart would sometimes beat fiercely in my breast, irregular, as if the organ sought rhythm and could not find it. And the headaches: they would befall me and linger, day upon day, a belt tightening around my head at the leisurely hand of a fiend.

I spent the days and nights in my little attic room, wondering if my last dusk had just passed or if I would wake to see the dewy dawn.

I was not entirely alone in the attic; there were two other rooms. One belonged to my sister Matilda, eight at the time, and the other was occupied by our nanny, Ellen Crone. She shared her room with Baby Richard, my recently born brother and her most pressing charge.

The floor below mine housed the home's only indoor privy as well as my parents' room and a second bedroom occupied by my other two brothers, Thornley and Thomas, nine and five, respectively.

At the ground level could be found the kitchen, a living room, and a dining room with a table large enough to seat the entire household, with the exception of Ellen Crone, who preferred to take meals alone after our repasts came to an end. There was a basement as well, but Ma forbade me from ever descending those steps; our coal was stored down there, and exposure to its dust could consign me to my bed for a week. Behind our house stood an old stone barn. We had three chickens and a pig there, all tended by Matilda from the time she was three years old. In the beginning, she had named the pigs, but around her fifth year she realized someone was switching the larger sows for smaller ones at least twice a year. By her sixth year, she realized those same pigs went to the butcher and found their way onto our supper plates. She stopped naming them then.

Over all of this, Ellen Crone watched.

THE JOURNAL of BRAM STOKER

Where to start? There is so much to tell and precious little time to tell it-but I know when all things changed. By the time one particular week came to a close, I would be healed, our dear Nanna Ellen would be gone, and a family would be dead. It started innocently enough, with a little eavesdropping. We were but children-me, seven; Matilda, eight-and yet that fall season was never to be forgotten. And it began with only two words.

close this panel
How to Invent Everything

How to Invent Everything

A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler
edition:Hardcover
More Info
Excerpt

2

 

a special note if you are stranded

 

between 200,000 bce and 50,000 bce and you are thinking, "the humans here are crazy

 

and i am definitely doomed forever"

 

Great news! You can actually be the most influential person in history!

 

BAs your careful study of the flowchart on the previous pages likely revealed, humans first evolved around the year 200,000 BCE. We call them "anatomically modern humans," and they mark the moment when humans with skeletons exactly the same as ours first appeared. As an experiment, we could put your skeleton beside that of an anatomically modern human from 200,000 years ago and it would be impossible to tell them apart.

 

We will not be performing this experiment, but we could.

 

But what's fascinating is despite the fact that modern human bodies were now available, nothing really changed. For more than 150,000 years, these humans behaved pretty much the same as any other protohuman species. And then, around the year 50,000 BCE, something happened: these anatomically modern humans suddenly started acting like us. They began to fish, create art, bury their dead, and decorate their bodies. They began to think abstractly.

 

Most important, they began to talk.

 

The technology of language-and it is a technology, it's something we've had to invent, and it took us over 100,000 years to do it-is the greatest gift we humans have ever given ourselves. You can still think without language-close your eyes and imagine a really cool hat and you've just done it-but it limits the kinds of thoughts you can have. Cool hats are easy to imagine, but the meaning of the sentence "Three weeks from tomorrow, have your oldest stepsister meet me on the southeast corner two blocks east from the first house we egged last Halloween" is extremely difficult to nail down without having concrete words for the concepts of time, place, numbers, relationships, and spooky holidays. And if you're struggling to express complex thoughts even in your own head, it's pretty evident that you won't be having those complex thoughts as often, or at all.

 

It was language that gave us the ability to imagine better, grander, more world-changing ideas than we otherwise could, and most important, it gave us the ability to store an idea not just in our own heads but inside the minds of others. With language, information can spread at the speed of sound, or, if you're using sign language instead of speaking, at the speed of light. Shared ideas lead to communities, which are the basis of culture and civilization, and which brings us to our first Civilization Pro Tip:

 

civilization pro tip: Language is the technology from which all others spread, and you've already got it for free.

 

This huge expanse of time-the 150,000 years between 200,000 BCE, when humans first appeared, to 50,000 BCE, when they finally started talking-is where you can have the single greatest effect on history. If you can help humans of this era become behaviorally modern as soon as they became anatomically modern-if you can teach them to talk-then you can give every civilization on the planet a 150,000-year head start.

 

It's probably worth the effort.

 

We once thought the change from anatomical to behavioral modernity was due to some physical change in our brains. Perhaps a random genetic mutation in one human-who suddenly found themselves able to communicate in ways no animal had done before-provided us with the huge advantage of a new capacity for abstract thought? However, the historical record doesn't support the idea of this great leap forward. The things we most associate with behavioral modernity-art, music, clever tools, burying the dead, making ourselves look cooler with jewelry and body paint-all appear before the breakthrough around 50,000 BCE, but in fits and starts, appearing locally and then disappearing. Much like the magic that rhetorical wizards have long revealed was actually inside us all along, so too have humans had the capacity for language. We just needed to unlock it.

 

The unique challenge facing you in this era is how to teach a language to people when the very idea of spoken language may be new to them. It's important to remember that most humans you encounter may not have language, but they'll still communicate with one another, through grunts and body language. All you need to do is move them from grunts to words, and don't worry: a complicated language like English with things like "subjunctive clauses" and "imperfect futures" (used here in the grammatical sense, not the time-travel sense) is not necessary, and you can get by with a simplified version of the language you already know, called "pidgin." You will also have better results if you focus on teaching children. The older humans are, the harder it is for them to learn languages, and fluent acquisition of a first language becomes much more challenging-if not impossible-after puberty.

 

 

civilization pro tip: Babies begin to focus on the noises used in language around them after about six months of age, so if you're inventing a language from scratch, you'll likely have more success incorporating whatever sounds the baby is already hearing from its parents.

 

Remember: evolution happens very slowly, and even 200,000 years ago the people you'll encounter are humans, just like you-indistinguishable at the biological level. They just need to be taught.

 

You can teach them.

 

And you will be remembered as a god.3

 

the five fundamental technologies

 

you need for your civilization

 

No, the list is not "a really good computer" five times.

 

BYour civilization is going to be founded on five technologies. Each of these technologies is information-based: once you have the idea of them, the rest pretty much follows. Because these technologies are conceptual rather than physical, they are extremely resilient: they are ideas, and ideas cannot be destroyed as long as members of your civilization survive (or at least some of their books do, see Section 10.11.2: Printing Presses).

 

While the five technologies listed on the following pages are all but invented once you understand the ideas behind them, they each nevertheless took an embarrassingly long time for us, as humans, to figure out.

 

Please carefully examine the following extremely embarrassing table.

 

Technology         First invented    When we could've invented it    Years spent not having this technology when we easily could have              This same time period, now expressed as how many colossal 500-year Roman Empires could've both risen and fallen in the huge expanse of time humanity spent sitting around not inventing this technology

 

Spoken language              50,000 BCE          200,000 BCE       150,000 years    300

 

Written language             3200 BCE             200,000 BCE       196,800 years    393

 

Non-sucky numbers       650 CE  200,000 BCE       200,650 years    401

 

The scientific method    1637 CE                200,000 BCE       201,637 years    403

 

Calorie surplus  10,500 BCE          200,000 BCE       189,500 years    379

 

Table 1: A table any human should be embarrassed to even be in the same room with.

 

As these are the absolute technological foundations of civilization, we will now go over the specifics of each. 3.1

 

spoken language

 

Listen to those voices in your head.

 

BBefore spoken language, humans communicated through grunts and body language. This allowed us to do the following things:

 

draw attention to ourselves

 

make noises or gestures expressing emotions like "fear" or "anger"

 

cry

 

Unfortunately, these expressions are easily misunderstood. As an example, babies-famously pre-linguistic-are notoriously difficult to understand. A baby's cry could indicate "I'm sad" or "I'm hungry" or "I'm tired" or "I'm frustrated" or several other emotions, but there's no way to tell what the child actually wants besides giving the baby different things to see if that satisfies it (a short-term solution) or, if you prefer a long-term solution, by gradually teaching the child a language over the course of the next several years until you can finally ask, "Hey, what was all that crying about when you were sixteen weeks old?"

 

In contrast, spoken language allows us to do the following things:

 

draw attention to ourselves

 

make noises or gestures precisely expressing nuanced emotions, like "fear of one day being trapped in the distant past," or "distinct anger at having now become trapped in the distant past"

 

cry (with words)

 

have ideas survive the death of their host

 

conceive of more complex ideas than we could otherwise express

 

transmit complicated sentiment with a reasonable confidence of minimal loss, corruption, or misunderstanding of intent

 

We tend to think of language as something natural, some property of the universe that we're exploiting. But it's not: we made it up, and it's arbitrary. However, while the sounds you choose, the order you put words in, and the ways words can interact and change one another are all up to you, there are some recurring patterns that you may want to keep in mind.

 

These "linguistic universals," as they're called, are found in every natural language on Earth, and while they're not mandatory-people can and have constructed artificial languages that don't use them-they may make it easier for people to use your new language. Please commit the following table to memory:

 

Universal property          Description of this property         Example phrases using this property       A grim vision into a dystopian world where this property does not exist

 

Pronouns exist in all natural languages.  Pronouns are words that let us refer to something without repeating the name of that thing.         I rented the FC3000ª time machine. It is as reliable as it is well designed, and I am happy to recommend it to everyone without reservation. I rented the FC3000ª time machine. The FC3000ª time machine is as reliable as the FC3000ª time machine is well designed, and I am happy to recommend the FC3000ª time machine to everyone without reservation.

 

No "thbbbth" sounds.    Spoken languages are built from the noises our bodies can make, but no natural language uses the "blow a raspberry" tongue-out-of-the-mouth thbbbth sound.    To be, or not to be: that is the question. To thbbbth, or not to thbbbth: that is the questhbbbbbbbttbbbbth.

 

If the language has a word for "feet," it also has a word for "hands," and if it has a word for "toes," it also has a word for "fingers."      Hands are generally more useful to most humans than feet, so if we've reached a point where we're naming body parts and gotten around to naming our feet, we've definitely already named our hands too.               I have ten toes and ten fingers. Yes, Chad, I know technically I only have eight fingers. Chad, yes, I know thumbs aren't fingers. Everyone knows, I was just . . . Chad. Chad. Chad, listen to me. See, Chad, this is why we don't hang out anymore.            I have ten toes and ten, uh . . . extra-bendy upper toes? Yes, Chad, I know two of my extra-bendy upper toes are opposable and therefore should be classified differently. Chad, listen to me. Chad. Chad. I'm doing the best with the words I've got, Chad.

 

All languages have vowels.          Vowels are sounds produced with an open mouth and often form the core of a syllable. For example, "cat" uses a as a vowel and c and t as consonants. It's hard to speak without vowels.            Chad, can we please talk about something else? Anything, Chad. Please.             Thhhbbbttth

 

Universal property          Description of this property         Example phrases using this property       A grim vision into a dystopian world where this property does not exist

 

All languages

have verbs.         Verbs are action words, which allow us to talk about things happening to other things. Since things tend to happen a lot on Earth, they are useful words to keep around.      The quick brown fox jumps over the reliable FC3000ª time machine and is happy to recommend it without reservation.            The quick brown fox. The reliable FC3000ª time machine. Happy without reservation.

 

All languages

have nouns.       Nouns are people, places, or things. They are objects or ideas in the world. Since there are a lot of those on Earth, they're useful to keep around too.            The quick brown fox jumps over the reliable FC3000ª time machine and is happy to recommend it without reservation.        The quick brown. Jumps. Reliable. Is happy to recommend.

 

Table 2: One advantage of being trapped in the past is you will have finally escaped Chad.

 

Which language you choose to build your civilization on is a matter of personal preference, and there are no wrong answers here. But while you have your choice of languages to build your civilization on, this also means you have the opportunity to fix these languages. Don't like English's pronoun system or French's insistence on giving every object in the universe its own entirely imaginary gender? Well, now's your chance to fix them forever.

 

Spoken languages solve a lot of problems with very few downsides, and they're a technology you're already carrying around in your head. However, they still share one tremendous vulnerability: they rely on human beings to transmit information. If a group of humans dies together, so too do their ideas. You can do better.

 

You are about to.

 

3.2

 

written language

 

The technology that made the spelling mistake possible.

 

BWhile the spoken word is great, it still suffers from significant limitations. It frees ideas from their original host, but it allows ideas to be transmitted only as far as the speaker can travel, or can shout, or can travel while shouting. Most critically, it depends on an unbroken chain of humanity for ideas to survive. Break this chain even once, and all information in it is lost forever.

 

Writing solves this problem. It allows ideas to become resilient, stronger than our fragile human bodies, which tend to get old and die all the time. It allows ideas to become fixed, immune to changing memories and historical revision. It allows ideas to be broadcast, reaching a much larger audience than could ever listen to your spoken words. Writing even allows ideas to survive not only when their original host has died, not only when everyone who has ever heard them has died, but even when everyone who has ever spoken their language has died too: the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs being the greatest example of this. Most incredibly, writing allows information to be shipped around the world with no more difficulty or expense than you'd encounter shipping grain: less, actually, since books don't go bad nearly as quickly. Despite its huge advantages, humans have spent most of their time on Earth-over 98 percent of it-stumbling around without this technology.

 

Like spoken language, which written language you choose to base your civilization around is not particularly important, but we do recommend (assuming you are multilingual or feeling ambitious) choosing a language that is not English. That prevents you from accidentally teaching others how to read this text, which may be something worth considering, especially since your current temporal circumstances have conspired to make this book the most insanely valuable and dangerous item on the planet.

 

Though the idea behind writing is simple-store invisible noises by transforming them into visible shapes-the invention of writing was actually an incredibly difficult thing for humans to do. It's so difficult, in fact, that across all of human history, it has happened a grand total of two times:

 

in Egypt and Sumer around 3200 BCE.

 

in Mesoamerica between 900 and 600 BCE.

 

Writing shows up in other locations, such as China in 1200 BCE, but this is a result of the Egyptians culturally contaminating the Chinese. Similarly, Egyptian and Sumerian script developed at very close to the same time, and while visually quite distinct, they share many of the same influences. One of these cultures invented writing while the other just lifted the idea, probably after seeing what a superuseful invention it was.

 

There are two other times when writing may have been invented: in India around 2600 BCE, and on Easter Island after 1200 CE but before 1864 CE. (We say "may" because this is one of several historical mysteries still unresolved. Confirmation could easily be obtained with an incident-free visit to the times and places in question, but for some reason most time travelers have historically been more interested in "experiencing the colossal breadth of human experience" rather than "settling obscure linguistic debates by running controlled temporal observation with an eye to publishing peer-reviewed research.")

 

The older Indian script (called "Indus") is pictographic and has never been deciphered. Most messages written in Indus script are short (just five characters) which does not suggest an actual language, but rather simpler pictograms or ideograms. What are pictograms and ideograms? We're very glad you asked:

 

Pictograms are when an item is represented by a picture of that thing: an image of fire, for example, means "fire." Along similar lines, the little icon of an envelope on the latest mass-market portable music player you purchased represents "email." When used in protowriting, pictograms can function as a memory aid to help remember an event or story, or simply as decoration.

 

Ideograms are when a collection of ideas are represented by a single picture: an image of a water drop could represent rain, but also tears or sadness. An image of sunglasses could represent extremely cool sunglasses, but also sunlight, fashion, or popularity. An image of a peach shaped so it looks like buttocks could represent either peaches, buttocks, or any number of activities humans have discovered they can perform with either.

 

It's important to note that neither pictograms nor ideograms are language, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between them and their meaning. Pictograms and ideograms are interpreted rather than read. As an example, consider the following images:

 

There are several different ways to interpret those images. If you know the story they're trying to tell, these pictures can remind you of it, but if you don't, you will have to make lots of assumptions. Perhaps it is the story of a very cool woman eating a peach. Perhaps it is the tale a regular woman eating a very cool peach. We will never know.

 

In contrast, the sentence "Cynthia waved, her hair catching in the warm ocean breeze, and in her sunglasses I saw reflected a horrible, monstrous giant peach: it was my body, forever transformed by those hateful scientists I'd once cut off in traffic" has a meaning that's much more clearly defined. While there is ambiguity in any language, the non-ideographic version has a much more particular and specific meaning than the alternative.

close this panel
Hum If You Don't Know the Words
Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2017 Bianca Marais

 CHAPTER ONEROBIN CONRAD13 June 1976Boksburg, Johannesburg, South Africa  I joined up the last two lines of the hopscotch grid and wrote a big ‘10’ in the top square. It gave me a thrill writing the age I’d be on my next birthday because everyone knew that once you hit double digits, you weren’t a child anymore. The green chalk, borrowed from the scoreboard of my father’s dartboard without his knowledge, was so stubby that my fingers scraped against the concrete of the driveway as I put the final touches to my creation.“There, it’s done.” I stood back and studied my handiwork. As usual, I was disappointed that something I’d made hadn’t turned out quite as good as I’d imagined. “It’s perfect,” Cat declared, reading my mind as she always did, and trying to reassure me before I washed the grid off in a fit of self doubt.  I smiled even though her opinion shouldn’t have counted for much; my identical twin sister was easily impressed by everything I did. “You go first,” Cat said. “Okay.” I pulled the bronze half-cent coin from my pocket, and rubbed it for luck before launching it into the air from my thumbnail. It arced and spun, glinting in the sunlight, and when it finally landed in the first square, I launched myself forward, eager to finish the grid in record time. I finished three circuits before the coin skittered out of the square marked ‘4’. It should have ended my turn, but I shot a quick look at Cat who was distracted by a hadeda bird making a racket on the neighbour’s roof. Before she could notice my mistake, I nudged the coin back in place with the tip of my canvas shoe and carried on jumping.“You’re doing so well,” Cat called a few seconds later once she’d turned back and noticed my progress. Spurred on by her clapping and encouragement, I hopped even faster, not noticing until it was too late that a lace on one of my takkies had come loose. It tripped me up just as I cleared the last square and brought me crashing down knee-first, my skin scraped raw on the rough concrete. I cried out, first in alarm and then in pain, and it was this noise that brought my mother’s flip-flops clacking into my line of vision. Her shadow fell over me.“Oh for goodness sake, not again.” My mother reached down and yanked me up. “You’re so clumsy. I don’t know where you get it from.” She tsked as I raised my bleeding knee so she could see. Cat was crouched next to me, wincing at the sight of the gravel imbedded in the wound. Tears started to prickle, but I knew I had to stop their relentless progression quickly or suffer my mother’s displeasure.“I’m fine. It’s fine.” I forced a watery smile and gingerly stood up.“Oh, Robin,” my mother sighed. “You’re not going to cry, are you? You know how ugly you are when you cry.” She crossed her eyes and screwed up her face comically to illustrate her point and I forced the giggle she was looking for.“I’m not going to cry,” I said.  Crying in the driveway in plain sight of the neighbours would be an unforgiveable offense; my mother was very concerned with what other people thought and expected me to be as well. “Good girl.” She smiled and kissed me on the top of my head as a reward for my bravery.There was no time to savour the praise. The trill of the ringing phone cut through the morning and just like that, one of the last tender moments my mother and I would ever share was over. She blinked and the warmth in her eyes turned to exasperation. “Get Mabel to help clean you up, okay?” She’d just disappeared through the back door into the kitchen when I became aware of whimpering and looked down to see that Cat was crying. Looking at my sister was always like looking into a mirror, but in that instant, it felt as though the glass between my reflection and me had been removed so that I wasn’t looking at an image of myself; I was looking at myself. The misery etched onto Cat’s scrunched-up features was my misery. Her blue eyes welled with my tears and her pouty bottom lip trembled. Anyone who’d ever doubted the veracity of twin empathy only had to see my sister suffering on my behalf to become a true believer. “Stop crying,” I hissed. “Do you want Mom calling you a cry baby?”“But it looks like it hurts.” If only it were that straightforward in the eyes of our mother. “Go to our room so she won’t see you,” I said, “and only come out when you feel better.” I tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ear. She sniffed and nodded, and then scurried inside with her head bent. I followed a minute later and found our maid, Mabel, in the kitchen washing up the breakfast dishes. She was wearing her faded mint-green uniform (a coverall dress that was too tight on her plump frame, the buttons gaping apart where they fastened in the front) with a white apron and doek.My mother was on the phone in the dining room using the carefree, happy voice she only ever used with one person: her sister, Edith. I left her to it, knowing that if I asked to speak to my aunt, I’d be told either to stop interrupting grown-ups’ conversations, or to stop being so in love with the sound of my own voice. “Mabel, look.” I said as I lifted up my knee, relieved that it wasn’t one of her few Sundays off.She cringed when she saw the blood, and her hands flew up to her mouth, sending suds flying.  “Yoh! Yoh! Yoh! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” she exclaimed as though she’d personally caused my suffering. To me, this litany was better than all the plasters in the world and an immediate balm to my pain.  “Sit. I must see.” She knelt down and inspected the scrape, wincing as she did so. “I will fetch the first aid things.” She pronounced it ‘festaid’ in her strong accent and I savoured the word as I savoured all Mabel-English. I loved how she made regular English words sound like a totally different language, and I wondered if her children (whom I’d never met and who lived in Qua-Qua all year round) spoke the same way. She fetched the kit out from the scullery cupboard and knelt down again to tend to the graze, the cotton ball looking especially white against her brown skin. She soaked it with orange disinfectant and then held it to the wound, murmuring words of comfort each time I tried to pull away from the sting of it.  “I am sorry! Yoh, I’m sorry, see? I am almost finished. Almost, almost. You are a brave girl.” You arra brev gell.I basked in her focused attention and watched as she blew on my knee, amazed at how the tickle of her breath magically eased the pain. Once Mabel was satisfied that the broken skin was clean enough, she stuck a huge plaster over it and pinched my cheek. “Mwah, mwah, mwah.” She placed lip-smacking kisses all over my face, and I held my breath waiting to see if this would be the day I finally got a kiss on the mouth. Her lips came as close as my chin before returning to my forehead. “All better now!”“Thank you!” I gave her a quick hug before heading out again, and I’d just stepped out the back door when my father called me. “Freckles!” He was sitting in a deck chair next to the portable braai he’d set up in the bright patch of sunlight in the middle of the brown lawn. “Get your old man a beer.”I ducked inside again and opened the fridge, pulling out a bottle of Castle Lager. My inexpert handling of the bottle opener resulted in a spray of foam across the linoleum floor but I didn’t stop to wipe it up. Mabel clucked as I made a run for it, but I knew she’d clean it without complaint.“Here you go,” I said handing the still-foaming bottle to my father who immediately used it to douse the flames that had leapt up beyond the barrier of the grill.“Just in time,” he said, nodding for me to sit in the chair next to him. My father’s blue eyes twinkled out at me from a handsome face that was mostly hidden behind a thicket of hair. Wavy blonde curls flopped over his eyebrows in the front, and grew long at the back so that they dipped over his shirt collar. He’d also cultivated long mutton chop sideburns that just fell short of meeting up with his bushy moustache. Kissing him was always a ticklish undertaking, and I loved the bristly texture of his face against my skin. I sat down and he handed me the braai tongs as if he was passing me a sacred object. He nodded in a solemn way and I nodded back to show I acknowledged the transference of power.  I was now in charge of the meat. My father smiled as I leaned into the smoke rising from the grill, and then he glanced at the plaster on my knee. “You been through the wars again, Freckles?”I nodded and he laughed. My father often joked about having a son in a daughter’s body. He especially loved to tell the story of how I’d come home from my first and only ballet lesson when I was five years old with ripped tights and my leg covered in blood. When he’d asked me how in the world I’d managed to get so roughed up in a dancing class, I confessed that I’d injured myself falling out of the tree I’d climbed in order to hide away from the teacher. He’d roared with laughter, and my mother had lectured me about wasting their money.Teaching me how to braai was something my father should’ve taught a son. If he felt cheated that he never got one, he never said so, and he encouraged my tomboyish behaviour at every opportunity.Cat, on the other hand, was a sensitive child and in many ways, my complete opposite. She was also squeamish about raw meat. There was no way my father would ever have taught her the subtleties of cooking meat to perfection, or how to hold your fist when throwing a knockout punch, or how to bring someone down with a rugby tackle.“Okay, now turn the wors. Make sure you get the tongs under all the coils and flip them together or it’s going to be a big mess. Good. Now, nudge the chops to the side or they’re going to be overdone. You want to crisp the fat but not burn it.”I followed his instructions carefully and managed to cook the meat to his satisfaction. Once we were done, I carried the meat in a pan to the table Mabel had set for us on the flagstone patio. The garlic bread, potato salad and mielies were all already there, protected under a fly net that I sometimes used as a veil when I played at being a spy disguised as a bride.“Tell your mother we’re ready,” my father said as he sat down. He didn’t trust the giant hadedas with their long beaks not to swoop down and steal the meat; they often swiped dog food left outside in bowls, and had been known to go for bigger prey like fish in ornamental ponds.“She’s on the phone.”“Well, tell her to get off. I’m hungry.”“We’re ready to eat,” I yelled around the doorway before stepping back outside again.I’d just sat down next to my father when Cat trailed outside to join us. She’d washed all evidence of tears from her face, and smiled as our mother sat down next to her.“Who was that on the phone?” My father asked, reaching for the butter and Bovril spread to slather over his mielie.“Edith.”My father rolled his eyes. “What does she want?”“Nothing. She’s got some vicious stomach bug that’s going around and she’s been grounded until it clears.”“I suppose that’s a huge crisis in her life? Not being able to serve shitty airplane food on overpriced flights to hoity toity passengers. God, your sister can make a mountain out of a molehill.”“It’s not a crisis, Keith. Who said it was a crisis? She just wanted to talk.”“Wanted to suck you into the drama of her life, more like it.”My mother raised her voice. “What drama?” Cat’s eyes were wide as they darted between our parents. She pulled her gaze away from them and stared at me. Her meaning was clear. Do something! “Everything’s a drama with her,” my father said, matching my mother’s increased volume. “It’s never just a small hiccup; it’s always the end of the world.”“It’s not the end of the world! Who said it’s the end of the world?” My mother thwacked the serving spoon back into the salad bowl. She glowered at him and the vein in her forehead began to bulge, never a good sign. “God! Why must you always give her a hard time? She just wanted to -”The doorbell rang. Cat’s expression of relief said it all. Saved by the bell! “Oh, for God’s sake!” My father threw down his cutlery so that it clattered across the table. “Look at the time. Who has no bloody manners rocking up at lunchtime on a Sunday?” My mother stood to go but my father held her back. “Let Mabel get it.”“I told her to take the afternoon off and said she could come in tonight to do the dishes.”As my mother disappeared into the house, my father called after her. “If it’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses, tell them to piss off or I’ll shoot them. Tell them I have a big gun and I’m not afraid to use it.”“I wonder who it is.” Cat asked and I shrugged. I was more interested in the gun. When my mother returned a few minutes later, she was flushed and carrying two books which she thumped down on the table in front of Cat.“What’s that?” My father asked. “Who was at the door?”“Gertruida Bekker.”“Hennie’s wife?”“Yes.” “What did she want?”“To complain about Robin who’s apparently corrupting her daughter.”“What?” My father looked at me. “What did you do, Freckles?”“I don’t know.”My mother nodded at the books. “You gave those to Elsabe?”“I didn’t give them to her. I borrowed them to her.”“Lent them,” my mother corrected.“Yes, lent them.”My father reached across the table to pick up the books. “‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ and ‘The Famous Five’,” he read. “Books by Enid Blyton?”“Yes, apparently Gertruida took exception to the character’s names and told me, in no uncertain terms, that Robin is a bad influence and she doesn’t want her playing with Elsabe anymore.”“What names? What is the bloody woman talking about?”My mother paused before answering. “Dick and Fanny.”“Are you being serious?”My mother nodded. “Yes, she said they’re disgusting names that shouldn’t be allowed in a Christian household.”My father guffawed and that set my mother off. They were both in fits of giggles and it was my turn to look to Cat in mystification. I didn’t know what was so funny. I hadn’t meant to upset Elsabe or Mrs Bekker; all I’d tried to do was start my own secret society like the children in the books. I wanted to solve mysteries and have hidden clubhouses; I wanted to think up exotic passwords about cream buns and jam tarts that no one else would ever guess. Unfortunately though, all the other girls in our whites-only suburb of Witpark in Boksburg were Afrikaners, and from what I could tell, were only interested in playing house. All that cooking, knitting, sewing, baking, looking after screaming babies and yelling at drunken husbands who came home late from mine parties didn’t appeal to me. I wanted, instead, to broaden their horizons, and introduce them to a whole new world they were missing out on.“I just wanted her and the other girls to read the books so they’d join my Secret Seven Club,” I said. “So far, it’s just me and Cat and we need five others.” “Bugger them,” my father said, reaching over and fluffing my hair. “You girls can have a Gruesome Twosome all on your own. Or better yet, forget the girls and go play with the boys.”            My mother rolled her eyes again, but she was still in a good mood and I didn’t want to ruin it by complaining about how none of the boys would play with me. She didn’t like whining and always said that instead of dwelling on the negative, I should try to think up solutions. Which is what got me thinking about what my father had said earlier.“Where’s your big gun, Daddy?”            “What?”            “Your big gun? The one you said you’d shoot the Jehovah’s Witnesses with?”            “I was just joking, Freckles. I don’t have a gun.”            “Oh.” This was disappointing. I was hoping to use it as a conversation starter with the boys. “Maybe you should get one.”            “Why?”“Piet’s dad said the kaffir black bastards are going to kill us in our sleep because we’re sissies. He said if we don’t own guns, we may as well just bend over and take it up the backside like the moffies do.”“Oh yes, when did he say this?” my father asked just as my mother told me not to say ‘kaffirs’ and ‘moffies’.“The other day when I was there playing with the dogs. What do the moffies take up the backside?”“That’s enough questions for one day, Robin.”“But -”“No buts.” He shot my mother a look and they both snorted with laughter. “End of conversation.”It had been an ordinary Sunday in every way. My parents fought and then made up and then fought again, switching from being adversaries to allies so seamlessly that you couldn’t put your finger on the moment when the lines were crossed and re-crossed. Cat perfectly acted out her part of the quiet understudy twin, so I could take my place in the spotlights playing the leading role for both of us. I asked too many questions and repeatedly pushed the boundaries, and Mabel hovered like a benevolent shadow in the wings. The only difference was that, without my knowing it, the clock had started ticking; in just over three days, I’d lose three of the most important people in my life.       CHAPTER TWOBEAUTY MBALI14 June 1976Transkei, South Africa  My daughter is in danger.This is my first thought when I awaken and it spurs me on to get dressed quickly.  Dawn is still two hours away and the inside of the hut is black as grief. I can usually move around the room and skirt the boys’ sleeping mats in the darkness, but I need a light now to finish the last of my packing. The scratch of the match against the rough strip of the Lion box is grating in the confines of the silent room, and my shadow rises up like a prayer when I light the candle and place it next to my suitcase on the floor. The lingering scent of sulphur, an everyday smell that has always made me think of daybreak, feels portentous now. I breathe through my mouth so that I do not have to inhale the smell of fear. I am quiet but there is nothing to help muffle my movements. Our dwellings are circular and entirely open within the circumference of the clay outer wall. No ceilings crouch above us, bisecting the thatch roofs from the dung floors. No partitions cut through the communal space to separate us into different rooms. Our homes are borderless just as the world was once free of boundaries; there would be no walls or roofs at all except for the essential shelter they provide. Privacy is not a concept my people understand or desire; we bear witness to each other’s lives and take comfort in having our own lives seen. What greater gift can you give another than to say: I see you, I hear you, and you are not alone?This is why, no matter how quiet I try to be, both my sons are awake. Khwezi watches as I roll up my reed mat; the reflected light of the candle’s flame burns in his eyes. Thirteen years old, he is my youngest child. He does not remember the day, ten years ago, when his father left for the goldmines in Johannesburg, nor the agony of the months of drought that came before. He does not remember the gradual slump of a proud man’s shoulders as Silo watched his family and cattle starve, but Khwezi is old enough now to be fearful of losing another family member to the hungry city. I smile to reassure him but he does not smile back. His thin face is serious as he reaches up absentmindedly to rub the shiny patch above his ear. The mottled pink tissue, in the shape of an Acacia tree, is what remains from a long ago fall into an open fire. There was a reason God placed the scar in a place where Khwezi cannot see it but where I, from my height as a mother, cannot overlook it. It serves as a reminder that the ancestors gave me a second chance with him; one I was not granted when I failed to protect Mandla, my firstborn son, from harm. I cannot fail another of my children.“Mama,” Luxolo whispers from his mat opposite his younger brother. His grey blanket is wrapped around him like a shroud to ward off the morning chill. “Yes, my son?”“Let me go with you.” He posed the same plea soon after my brother’s letter arrived yesterday. The crumpled yellow envelope bearing my name, Beauty Mbali, has travelled a circuitous route to get here from my brother Andile’s home in Zondi, a neighbourhood in the middle of Soweto. Our village is so small that it does not have an official name that can be found marked on a map of the Transkei, and so there is no direct mail delivery to the foothills of this rural landscape in our black homeland. Once the letter left my brother’s hands, the postal service carried it out of the township of Soweto - on potholed and sandy roads - into Johannesburg, the heart of South Africa, and then south across the tarred arterial highway out of the Transvaal, over the Vaal River, and into the Orange Free State. From there, it travelled south still over the fog-cloaked Drakensburg Mountains and then down, down, down zigzagging through hairpin bends to reach Pietermaritzburg, after which it branched off into the veiny, neglected side roads that would officially deliver it to the post office in Umtata, the Transkei’s capital city. Its journey not yet complete, the envelope still had to be passed hand-to-hand from the postmaster’s wife to the Scottish missionary in Qunu — a distance of thirty kilometers that would take six hours for me to walk, but takes the white woman forty minutes to drive in her husband’s car — and then onwards still from the missionary’s black cleaning woman to the Indian spaza shop owner. The final leg of its journey was made by Jama, a nine-year-old herd boy, who ran the three kilometres over dusty pathways to my classroom to proudly hand it across to me. I do not know how long the envelope took to travel the almost nine hundred kilometers from black township to black homeland to bring its warning; the post stamp is smudged and Andile, in his haste, did not date his letter. I hope I will not be too late.“Mama, take me with you,” Luxolo entreats again. It is only his desire to prove himself as the man of the house that spurs him on to challenge a decision I have already made. He would not risk disrespecting me for any other reason. Only fifteen years old, Luxolo fulfils the duties of a grown man in our household. He believes that protecting the womenfolk is as much his responsibility as tending the cattle that is our livelihood; by accompanying me on the journey, he will help keep his sister safe from harm and ensure that we both return safely.“The village needs you here. I will fetch Nomsa and bring her home.” I turn away from him so that he cannot see the worry in my eyes and so I cannot see his wounded pride.My bible is the last of my possessions I pack. Its black leather cover is careworn from hours spent cradled in my hands. I slip my brother’s letter between its hope-thin pages for safekeeping though I have already memorised the most worrying parts of it.You must come immediately, sister.  Your daughter is in extreme danger and I fear for her life. I cannot guarantee her safety here. If she stays, who knows what will happen to her. I blink away the vision of Andile writing in his cramped scrawl, the wave of ink blowing back over his sentences like ash from a veld fire as his left hand smudges over the words he has just written. With it comes the memory of our mother superstitiously hitting him over the knuckles with a sapling branch every time he reached for something with the wrong hand. She could not torture his left-handedness out of him no matter how hard she tried, nor could she quench my thirst for knowledge or my ambition. Just as I could not rid Nomsa of her obstinacy. Once I’ve wrapped a doek around my head, I slip the shoes on. They are as unyielding and uncomfortable as the Western customs that dictate the donning of this uniform. Here in my homeland, I am always barefoot. Even in the classroom where I teach, my soles connect with the dung of the floor. However, if I am to venture out into the white man’s territory, I need to wear the white man’s clothes.I unzip my beaded money pouch and check the notes folded inside. There is just enough for the taxis and buses as I journey north. The return fare will have to be borrowed from my brother and it is a debt we can ill afford. I slip the pouch into my bra, another constrictive Western invention, and say a silent prayer that I will not be robbed during my journey. I am a black woman traveling alone, and a black woman is always the easiest target on the food chain of victims. A cock crows in the distance. It is time. I hold my arms out to my sons and they rise silently from their beds to step into my embrace. I hug them fiercely, reluctant to let go. There is so much I want to say to them. I want to impart both words of wisdom and remind them of trivial matters, but I do not want to scare them with a protracted farewell. It is easier to pretend that I am leaving on a short journey and will return before nightfall. It is also important for Luxolo to know that I have complete faith in him to take care of his brother and the cattle while I am away; I will not belittle his efforts with entreaties for caution and vigilance. He knows what needs to be done and he will do it well. “Nomsa and I will be home soon,” I say. “Do not worry about us.”“And you, Mother, must not worry about us. I will take care of everything.” Luxolo is sombre. He wears this new responsibility well.“I will not worry. You are both good boys who will soon be great men.”Luxolo steps out of my embrace and nods as he accepts the compliment. Khwezi is reluctant to let go. I kiss his head, my lips touching his scar. “Try to get another hour of sleep.” Like the good boys they are, they obey me and return to their mats. I step out into the dawn with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders and make my way down the narrow hillside trail. The scents of wood smoke and manure rise up to say their farewells. Crickets chirp a discordant goodbye. My breath is visible in the cold moonlight; ghostlike puffs of air lead the way ahead of me, and I trail them just as I trail the phantom of my daughter down this sandy path. My feet fall where hers did seven months ago when she traded our rural idyll for a city education.  I try to recall how she looked on the day she left but what comes to mind instead is a memory of her at the age of five. Our thatch roof needed repairing and for that, I would have to use the panga to cut the long grass. Fearful of the children getting in the way of the blade, I sent them to the kraal to see the lamb that had been born in the night. Three-year-old Luxolo ran off trying to keep up with his sister and I set to work harvesting the thatch.Later when the cry tore through the fields, setting a flock of sparrows in flight, I dropped the panga and started running. By the time I neared the kraal behind two other women who were racing ahead of me, the cry had turned to shrieking. Another more ominous sound threaded through the noise though I did not register what it was until I cleared the last hut.There Nomsa was standing with her stubby legs apart in a fighter’s stance. She had inserted herself between Luxolo and a low-slung jackal that was snapping and snarling at her with foam frothing from its muzzle. The jackal was rabid and out of its mind with aggression as it tried to get to its prey: my son. Nomsa’s small fist was raised and she shook it while shouting at the beast that was sloping towards her. Before I could begin running again, Nomsa reached for a rock and threw it with such force that it hit the jackal square in the head, sending the animal staggering off to the side. When I got to them, I grabbed both Luxolo and Nomsa and pulled them up into my arms while the village women chased the jackal away. Nomsa was trembling with fright. My daughter, only five years old, had bravely fought off a predator to protect her younger brother. I expected to see tears in her eyes but what I saw instead was triumph.I force the memory and the accompanying uneasiness from my mind. There are still six kilometres of dusty paths to walk before I reach the main road near Qunu. A rural village like ours, sunken into a grassy valley surrounded by green hills, Qunu is inhabited by a few hundred people which has accorded it a proper name. It is rumoured that Nelson Mandela grew up in those foothills so the soil is said to foster greatness. Perhaps touching it along my journey will bring me luck.From Qunu, I must catch the first taxi to take me out of the protection of the Bantustan of the Transkei into the white man’s province of Natal, specifically four hundred kilometers northeast through sugar cane and maize fields to Pietermaritzburg via Kokstad. After that, I will need to make my way north past the Midlands, through the Drakensburg Mountains and then on to Johannesburg. My journey will take me from this rural idyll where time stands still to a city that is rocked from below its foundations by the dynamite blasts used in the mining of gold, and assaulted from above by the fierce Highveld thunderstorms that tear across its sky. Almost a thousand kilometres stretch out between here and Soweto in a thread of dread and doubt, but I try not to think of the distance as I hold my suitcase away from body to stop it from drumming into my thigh.I follow the morning star and look forward to sunrise which is my favourite time of day though Nomsa prefers sunset. There is no lingering twilight in Africa, no gentle gloaming as day eases into night; a tender give and take between light and shadow. Night settles swiftly. If you are vigilant, and not prone to distractions, you can almost feel the very moment daylight slips through your fingers and leaves you clutching the inky sap that is the Sub-Saharan night. It is a sharp exhalation at the closing of day, a sigh of relief. Sunrise is the opposite: a gentle inhalation, a protracted affair as the day readies itself for what is to come. Just as I now must ready myself for whatever awaits me in Soweto.I have just turned into the valley to follow the meandering path of the river when a thin voice calls out to me.“Mama.” The word expands in the hushed sanctity of the morning and is absorbed by the mist blanketing the riverbed. I think I have imagined it, that I have conjured up my daughter’s voice from across the country calling to me for help, but then I hear it again. “Mama.”I turn and look back upon the trail I’ve walked and a figure bounds down the path towards me. It is Khwezi, sure-footed as a mountain goat. Within a few minutes he is next to me, our breaths mingling in puffs of exertion as we face one another.“You forgot your food,” he says, holding up the bag in which I wrapped the roasted mielies and chicken pieces the night before. “You will be hungry.”He looks so much like his father — the boy his father was before the goldmines took his joy and crushed it — and he smiles an unguarded smile, proud of himself for having spared me from hunger. My hearts swells with love.“You will bring Nomsa home?” he asks and I nod because I cannot speak. “You will come back?”I nod again.“Do you promise, Mama?”“Yes.” It is a strangled sob, a fire of emotion robbed of air, but it is a promise. I will bring Nomsa home.  

close this panel
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...