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Archive for the ‘Bête Noire (novel)’ Category

Nocturne (NaNoWriMo 2009)

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Catskill Mountains
Spring 1969

FULL BORE,  GRASS SCOURING HER CALVES, HER THIGHS, HER HIPS, Elizabeth blazed across the unmown field, smashing through pockets of warm air cold air hot air like invisible walls. She pushed for speed, racing for the woods ahead. It was critical. It was fire. It was blood, honor, and joy. Her hair flew like the tail of a comet, snagging on thistles as she refused to yield. Her nose filled with the smell of wildflowers and black earth. And her feet struck with thundering force. She felt it through her bones to the top of her head, burning so hot she felt the only other step was flight.

Forget the library. Forget studying. She was alive, alert, and hungry for battle.

The boulder! Shifting the momentum of her sprint, she clambered atop, rising to the balls of her feet, scanning between home and the woods, watching wind tide on the open field, feeling it wrap her hair around her waist, her arms. She ignored the sting of cuts and scrapes, ready for signs of Him, the fiendish boy next door.

She’d just turned her back on the woods when he sprang, no more than a few yards away, blue eyes narrowed, triumph in his smile. The terrible boy crouched, lean and muscular as a wild cat, pale hair falling over his face, sweat shining on his bare chest, hands digging into the ground. He was danger, he was cunning, and he was dying to take her down.

But she’d been ready, hand at her oversized pocket, and as he lunged, she threw an apple, striking him on the shoulder. He recoiled, and she powered another toward his knee, striking just where she’d aimed.

One glance at his delight, and she was off through the grass again. She felt him on her tail. Felt herself move in and out of his sight as if it were a straight beam of turbulence, magnetism.

No other girl would run from this boy. For him, it was all toward and never away. A different boy might have been offended by her scorn for his beauty, by her irreverence, might have kept a haughty distance. But he was a nineteen-year-old who refused to grow up, and she was an eighteen-year-old who’d never had a real childhood.

So they played.

Now the woods loomed ahead. Relying on intuition, nothing to lose, Elizabeth grabbed a pine cone from her pocket and spun just long enough to throw it in the direction of her invisible foe before leaping into a sprint once more. His yelp satisfied her to the core.

She entered the shadows and ran for her favorite places, knowing it was her best bet. He disappeared, all traces lost. More than anything, that raised the hair on her arms. In battle, she preferred the trampling, galloping chase of the fields. The woods had been her haunt since arriving at her new mountain-top foster home months earlier, but he’d haunted them since birth. Every tree was his for the strategizing. Most bore runes he’d carved. And he moved among the branches as though gravity had no power over him. It was no wonder she’d had fancies of angels and elves when she first met the luminous boy in the great chestnut tree he called Aslan’s Nest.

Reluctantly, she admitted he was a beautiful creature, this wild boy of the woods. Better than his goofy knight-jester persona back at the house. Definitely better than the Ivy-League heartthrob who blasted Beach Boys from his convertible in Stonebriar Village, the town below. His socialite admirers would scream in horror at him now – sweaty, filthy, twigs in golden hair that was twisted and standing on end, and, of course, that blood-thirsty smile.

That smile.

Elizabeth clenched her jaw. He wasn’t going to use it on her. She’d destroy him before letting him win. The only smile she hated worse was the one he used on town girls – sweet and affectionate, but somewhat detached, expecting no challenge, no fire. When he used that on her, she turned into a spitting cat. And he knew it. And used it well.

A bird cried in a nearby tree.

Abruptly, Elizabeth crouched. The wind couldn’t penetrate the mighty trunks, but it roared overhead, and the swollen creek did its best to match the volume. She strained to hear anything more.

Rising, she slid along a tree trunk, facing outward. She managed not to break a twig, made no sound. That concerned her. If even she was that undetectable by ear, hearing him would be impossible. Elizabeth looked up and blinked to adjust her eyes to the high contrast world of the overhead branches, scanning for movement that was more animal than vegetable, but she found only infuriating amounts of nothing.

She hadn’t abandoned her studies to serve as prey to an invisible fiend. Time to go back to dusty textbooks and the dreary real world, continue the fight later.

Elizabeth turned and screamed. He’d been behind her – now in front – mouth pressed tight in suppressed mirth. How she’d missed that combination of aftershave, wild grass, and overheated boy, she couldn’t say.

He clucked his tongue. “Poor training, My Lady. Always guard your flank.”

At the word “flank,” he grabbed for her, but she ducked and ran.

Running in the woods was far better than creeping. She heard him clearly now, hot on her heels, both snapping scores of leaves and twigs. Her foot slid on loose mulch, and she barely maintained her bearings. His fingers brushed her arm before she outstripped him again.

With only the slightest hint of breathlessness, he called, “The Nest is out of your reach, Dragon! You know the prize. I can almost taste it!”

Taste it! He’d told her many times that if he ever caught her before she reached the tree, he was going to hold her down and kiss her. He thrived on the outrage that produced. Elizabeth was tall with a narrow, boyish figure, tangled Mars-colored hair, and perplexingly Oriental features, courtesy of a few Siberian ancestors. She wasn’t a bit like the Barbie Doll town candidates for this Prince Charming’s glass slipper.

He called her his lady, his princess, his queen whenever they were in public, but it was a tease. He’d wait for her temper as though he couldn’t bear its deliciousness. He’d ignore other girls’ outrage at his use of those titles on her. At home, he called her his dragon and ruffled her hair. He taught her how to play chess, climb trees, and battle with medieval weapons. He made faces when she wore makeup or miniskirts. He thanked her – frequently and ardently – for telling him he stunk, that he was awful, and, best of all, gross. He loved being gross.

When Elizabeth first arrived at Bastlemort Mountain the previous fall, she was a timid, friendless bookworm. He’d delighted in kindling her ferocious side, coaxing her to show him rudeness and aggression. As much as the beautiful boy loved to be gross, Elizabeth loved to be fierce.

She’d reached the great chestnut now, its mammoth limbs twisting and curving in all directions. The kraken, the gorgon, the octopus. And, to her and this incorrigible neighbor, a place away from the world.

She barely slowed before leaping at the tree, groping for now-familiar hand- and footholds. Victory was within reach when arms seized her around the waist and plucked her off the tree like a kitten. Landing, she found herself pressed to his chest, encircled by his arms, shaken by his laughter.

She did her best to do damage with her knee. “Robin Oliver Bastle! Let me go!”

He lifted his face, crying with the laughter he held between closed lips. His skin was hot, the fair hair on his chest tickled her nose, and his arm lock was steel. Leaning his forehead on hers, Robin caught his breath and shook his head. “I want to hold you down and kiss you now.”

“I was at the tree! I was on it!”

“You’re in my clutches now, My Lady.”

She twisted her face away from his mouth – so stupid and soft, always looking upturned and flushed, ready to be kissed. It mocked her, threatened to turn her into one of the inconsequential crowd of girls he’d kissed and dismissed – what his sister Amie called his discard pile. Amie said one kiss from Oliver, as he called himself in town, and you had no more than forty-eight hours before you were done, gone, mist and memory, no more. Oliver’s kiss was poison. At home, he went by his first name, Robin, but she suspected that persona’s kiss was no better.

He pressed that mouth to her forehead now, then her ear and her cheek, grinning at her struggles. The first time he’d kissed her hand, she’d been a wreck, waiting to lose his friendship. She didn’t. The first time he kissed her cheek, she’d punched him, doing more damage than she’d done before or since – she didn’t really want to hurt him – but it failed to kill her. So she knew it was the mouth kisses, the passionate kisses, that killed his interest in a person.

She’d kill him if he ever endangered her like that.

Besides, she knew her kisses were more poisonous than his. One love-filled kiss between her and Robin’s best friend, James – at first an adoring stranger at a party – and James turned cold, offering her nothing but hostility until he returned to Berkeley for college. Months ago. Turns out James was her foster brother and second cousin, although she’d thought she had no living family. James had thought the same of himself – but he’d been glad. He hated his birth family, and their kiss only convinced him his loathing was right.

Her lip wobbled. Robin was insanely loyal toward James. They were like brothers. Maybe all this teasing was just to avenge James. To humiliate her. But she didn’t think Robin knew about the kiss.

She went limp, lowered her face, and muttered into his chest, “You cheated. I was on the tree.”

Robin let go and nodded. “I did. Of course.” He kissed the top of her head before ruffling her hair. “Not becoming conduct for a knight of my rank. My apologies, My Queen.”

Elizabeth growled.

That made him smile. “Dragon, you’re a mighty foe.” He pointed at his shoulder – a red welt darkening where she’d struck him with the apple – and he grinned. “To The Nest!”

She followed him. At the junction between trunk and limbs, there was a natural basin. Half a dozen people could sit in it, but since she’d learned of it, only she and Robin had.

Robin knelt and looked at the trio of carvings on the side: a chessboard’s knight atop crossed swords, a spiky wolf, and, on the other side of the knight, fresher, a tiny calligraphic E. Above this letter there sat a small silver thimble. Nothing sat above the other two figures.

Robin lifted the thimble and hopped it back and forth between the initial and the knight, at last sighing and replacing it above the E. He twisted his face to look at her, a hint of wild cat flickering in his eyes. “You’ll see. One day.” Then he flopped back against The Nest wall, legs outstretched, yawning.

Elizabeth watched him. “Where’s your shirt, Tarzan?”

He twisted his mouth, and dimples bloomed before he opened sleepy eyes. “Dunno. Don’t care.”

He slid his arm around her shoulders and raised his face to the boughs overhead, closing his eyes. She felt him relax, heard him draw a happy breath.

How often had he done this? Did town girls know how to climb trees? Had he taught them?

“Have you brought many people here?” she asked.

His eyes opened, the lattice of branches reflecting in his deep blue before he turned to her. A long scrutiny, and then he shook his head. “Only you. And James.”

More than anything else he’d ever claimed, this impressed her, made her head spin from the honor of that fellowship, and she felt her cheeks heat.

Robin leaned closer, peering at her. “You’re blushing, aren’t you?”

She couldn’t bear his gaze, turned her face, but he slid his fingers beneath her chin and turned it back toward him. His eyes were soft, warm, surprised. Then, not saying a word, he slid closer, tilted his head, and leaned in.

The sound, the world – they compressed through a wringer of pulling, rough-edged, deafening panic.

And then his mouth moved straight past hers and pressed itself warmly to her left brow, leaving her gasping from surprise. Disappointment?

Robin let go of Elizabeth’s face and fumbled in his back pocket, hand re-emerging holding a red-enameled pen knife. He held it aloft, blade closed. “Formal indoctrination.”

She closed her hands and pulled them to her body, fearing a blood brother ritual, but Robin just flipped open the knife and twisted, facing the nearest edge of their nest. Glancing at her first, he scraped the blade across the wood, twisting it, pressing, lightening his touch. Elizabeth forgot to breathe, watching the boy work. She already knew who the creator of the runes was, but to watch him in action made them seem more magical, not less. Like catching elves making shoes in a fairy tale.

At last, he sat back. Her E was gone. In its place, a sinuous, fire-breathing dragon shone golden next to its elder companions – Robin’s knight and James’s wolf. She ran her finger over her dragon, noticing Robin’s pride from the corner of her eye. Then she touched his other symbolic companion.

He said, “James,” and put his finger over hers. “His stepfather really beat it into him that he’s a dastardly wolf.”

“But he’s not.”

“No.” Robin smiled at her, pleased. “But I’m surprised he hasn’t got you convinced otherwise. Sometimes I think he takes all those language courses just to find one where he can communicate without putting his foot in his mouth or coming across as a ghoul when he’s emotional…” Robin bumped her with his shoulder. “He’s lucky you’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”

“I’ve seen his scars,” she said. James had been badly abused as a child.

A shadow passed across Robin’s face.

She hurried on. “Anyway, dragons just know things.” Overhead, the wind set the branches swaying and dappled their nest with spots of light. “Like that when summer comes, you won’t fight me anymore because that not-wolf will be home from Berkeley.”

Laughing, Robin stowed his knife, shook his head, and reached for her. “Dragon. Lap. Now.”

“I’d rather bite you or burn you to cinders.”

Pulling her onto his lap and wrapping his arms around her, Robin said, “You wouldn’t be a dragon, if not. I like that about you. Need it.”

Elizabeth fought her way free.

They kept a metal footlocker in The Nest. She opened its creaking lid and pulled out a book and one of James’s old shirts, although the day was warm. Tall as she was, the sleeves still puddled around her wrists and the hem fell to her thighs.

She read, but a noise startled her after a while, and she saw Robin peering down at her from between the branches, strangely intent, sober.

She stared back.

At last, he said, “There’s a tree like this in Nordic mythology. A giant tree of life. It was made by the gods and holds all the world within its branches.”

He pursed his lips and puffed air upward, trying to clear his vision as he resumed his climb. She saw he’d found a shirt – also one of James’s castoffs, but it nearly fit Robin.

All the world…

Elizabeth said, “So which part of this world do I belong to?”

Robin curved one arm around the trunk and pointed upward with his other. “Up there, where the sun touches the branches.” He tilted his head, smiling. “But not yet. Each man must earn his perch through hard work and good deeds.”

She scoffed. “And which perch have you earned?”

“All perches are my perch.” He pulled himself to a higher branch, feet swinging loose for a moment, just like he’d taught her not to do. “This is my tree.”

“Then you admit you really are a Norse god, like Cathy said.”

“Oh, don’t you start that garbage, too.” He pelted her with leaves and twigs.

“…Or are you just a liar?” she said, ducking.

“Lost your fire so soon, Dragon? Is that why you cower below?” A snort. “Hurling insults instead of battling like a warrior?”

“Pig!” She leapt to her feet, hurling chestnuts, bark, and debris up at him.

“Can’t catch up? Ready to surrender the thimble?” He laughed, ducking behind a limb, although he was out of range.

Elizabeth rolled up her sleeves, took one last look at the rune-carved nest, and then studied the upper branches. She didn’t need to remember Robin’s path; the tree remembered for her — more than a decade of passage polished darkly into its limbs.

The air was damp in The Nest, but it lightened as she climbed, dappled sunshine adding ribbons of warmth. It was intoxicating, scaling such a majestic tree, invading the secret world of Robin Oliver Bastle.

She was just beginning to feel like an immortal, invincible, when her foot slipped off its branch. Her body clenched, and she spun into an eternity of pounding, hot-scented confusion, unable to tell up from down or feel her legs. She waited for impact.


Slowly, she realized his training saved her. Her hands were tight on their separate branches, and her other foot had slipped but not lost its hold. In her relief, she wanted to cry, go limp and unconscious right there, forget, but, clearly, that was impossible. What seemed liberating a moment earlier now felt like a trap.

She looked down — a maze of branches funneling into darkness. She looked up and found Robin’s face, astonishingly close, pale, his posture that of a jungle cat about to spring. Had he thought he could leap down and catch her?

As Elizabeth watched, he inhaled and squeezed his eyes closed until his face wrinkled. When he exhaled again, both jungle cat and Peter Pan were gone. His eyes were sad, and there was a glaze of distance that looked an awful lot like regret, like the loss of every inch of respect she’d earned. Just a dumb little girl after all that he’d have to babysit instead of roughhousing. That felt worse than the near fall – worse, she imagined, than actually falling. At least she’d have fallen a warrior instead of a pathetic damsel like the rest of them.

Summoning the dragon Robin claimed dwelled within her, she shot him a dirty look and resumed her climb. Every inch was terror, filled with certainty she’d slip again, dreading that shock, despite her idea that falling hurt less than the loss of Robin’s respect.

A branch shivered beneath her hand; a mossy patch made her foot shift; she cut her forearm against rough bark; a dead leaf stuck in the hair that fell over her brow, and she was suddenly sure there were spiders everywhere.

Up and up she climbed until her legs and arms ached and she could no longer look up at Robin without getting dizzy. But she heard him. He was laughing under his breath, murmuring words like fearless and dragon and heir to the wolf, making her feel warm and proud again, easing her aches and pains.

The tree was moving now in a way she could feel, adding to the difficulty of the climb, making her palms sweat.

“Robin.” She was close enough to hear him breathing. “I’m surprised you didn’t build a platform up here to stabilize –”

He had.

It was small. About six feet long and three planks deep – lord knew how he’d brought those up here – but it had a shallow rim and bridged a semi-circle of outward angled branches. That was where he crouched, smiling with a breathless anticipation she didn’t understand.

He held out a hand, and she saw the platform sway, rise, and fall. It was moving with the tree.

“It can’t hold us both!”

Robin laughed, patted the wood beside him, and held out his hand again.

“Why doesn’t the tree tear apart the platform when it moves?” She hadn’t expected a platform to be more frightening than clinging to the branches beneath.

“My lady doubts her knight?” Robin pointed. There was some sort of rigging with chains and large screws ending in loops.

“Only that he’s in his right mind.”

He rolled his eyes and extended his hand with exaggerated slowness. This time she took it and scrambled to crouch on the platform.

Robin pointed upward. “Look.”

She did, and she whimpered from vertigo. It was sky. Clear and blue and speckled with tiny bits of pollen from the tree.

“No.” He touched her knee. “Look.”

Tearing her eyes from the treetop, she saw him raise his palms impatiently. He wanted her to stand.

It took every ounce of courage she had, but she stood and put her hands on a horizontal branch at chest height. Robin stood beside her and parted the foliage.

Elizabeth lost her ability to breathe, lost her place in the murky world below. Every story she’d ever heard about paradise, every symphony’s swell, every fairy tale, every happily ever after – they all belonged to the world she looked out on now.

They were surrounded by woods but not among them. Not deep in a forest but soaring overhead, a tower on a cliff overlooking Narnia or Middle Earth. Below were the sloping tops of a sea of trees. To the left and curving to a position opposite their own, there were sheer rock cliffs lit tawny by the sun, more trees clinging to their sides, topping them, and an endless sparkle of birds swooping, diving, and wheeling through rosy golden air. The fresh breeze lifted her hair, filled her lungs as she learned to inhale again.

Beside her, Robin positively glowed, savoring her reaction. He said, “Elle?”

“This is heaven.”

He smiled. “No, this is The Roost. Out there is heaven.”

Speaking as though he were proxy to the trees and the birds and the sky, she said, “I love you, Robin.”

When he finally answered, his voice was strained. “You’re everything fierce, My Lady. And the only other person to ever lay eyes on the sight.” A pause. “My sign. Proof.”

“What about James?”

Robin’s voice fell. “He just called me a reckless fool and refused to climb. I dragged these boards up here just to spite him. Made him watch. He may have cried.”

She finally heard what he’d said. “I’m proof of what?”

Robin paused. “We’re different, you and I. From the rest of them, I mean. Two of a kind.”

“Two lunatics.”

“Anyone else would say, ‘Oh, the Masons’ property,’ or, ‘I think I see Millhook,’ but we know better. We know that’s not the point. We know that’s a different world out there.”

She kept her eyes on the golden Eden. “I want to go there.”

“Help me, then.”


Right then, they were Adam and Eve, the only humans in this new world, and that was surprisingly good.

Robin didn’t answer. He just buried his face in her hair and held on, shivering although his face felt quite hot. When she lifted her hand to his cheek, he caught it, held it to his chest, then raised it to his lips and kissed the inside of her wrist. The world changed color. Went orange. His mouth moved up her arm, and he slid James’s shirt off her shoulder, kissed her neck, still clutching her hand in his. At last, he raised his eyes to hers. They were full of tears. He said, “Together, Elizabeth. Only together. Only with you.”

She suddenly didn’t care if she died, if he was fatal. Suddenly realized how much she’d been lying to herself about her motives.

He said, “Please take me seriously.” Then, cupping her face in his hands, Robin leaned in and pressed his mouth to hers. The Roost, the tree, and the view disappeared, drew inward. If he was fatal, at least she was on the doorstep of heaven.

Robin whispered, “Rescue me, dragon.”

He felt warm and sweet and strong and safe.

She nodded. “I promise.”

“Then you have my oath.” He kissed her hand. “Everything for you. Always.”



“You’re still smelly and gross.”

His kisses tickled from his laughter. “Thank you.”


June 1969

DEFYING ALL FAIRY TALE LOGIC, Prince Charming’s kiss resulted in neither death nor Happily Ever After. Whatever Happily Ever After even was. Elizabeth always imagined it as a smooth golden path to eternity, unbroken, without stress or strife – and definitely without questions and uncertainty.

She was supposed to be living happily ever after. So why didn’t she feel that way? All she felt was restlessness and a spiraling descent back to Earth.

Right now, it was breakfast time. She and Robin sat in the kitchen, talking about their plans for the day: glorious things like swordplay with a friend from Cornell and boring responsible things like getting gas and making dinner reservations.

She scarcely heard him. She held his hand but didn’t feel it.

They hadn’t gone through death after that first kiss. Forty-eight hours passed, and Robin remained devoted. Then they told the others, and his sister, Amie, insisted on another forty-eight-hour test, celebrating with ferocious glee when Elizabeth proved she’d broken the curse, glad that when her brother finally fell for a girl, it was one who knew what a mutant he was.

Their woodland battles continued at first, albeit with a new twist, and Robin caused controversy by all but moving out of the Bastle home in favor of Elizabeth’s room. The parents, as always, scarcely noticed. The three Bastle siblings already spent most of their time at the Mortimer house, and both sets of parents spent most of their time in Manhattan.

Then the battles dwindled – from the rising summer heat, perhaps. She and Robin found other pursuits, spent more time talking, napping, reading. Despite what the others thought – Robin thrived on scandalizing them – nights were uneventful. The two former insomniacs got really good at entwining and falling straight to sleep as soon as the lights went out. Luxury. The lack of other activities didn’t matter to Elizabeth. Much.

Three months had passed. They were happy, but Happily Ever After happy? If so, maybe life on the far of sunset was overrated.

She wasn’t sure, but, that morning, she did her best to eat her breakfast and be good. Normally, listening to the radio could make her feel better, but it wasn’t helping right now. The song hit too close to home.

Within the prison walls of my mind
There’s still a part of you left behind

Robin’s voice broke through her fog. “…Do you? I mean, you liked that godforsaken cherry tart last month, but their steak…”

Elizabeth nodded, hoping that would serve as an answer and disguise what she could only think of as her illness.

Sinking her chin into her hand, she leaned on the table and watched James the Dastardly Wolf — Robin’s best friend and her supposed cousin. He closed a drawer, raising one plaid-covered arm to hide his face as he yawned. His sleepy breakfast preparations were more riveting than any movie she’d ever seen. Right now, he was shuffling around, yawning, eyes mostly closed like a kitten. A warm kitten. In flannel pajamas. Cheeks flushed and dark hair sticking out in spikes.

“…I mean, you agree, right?” Robin said. “After what we talked about the other day?”

“Oh. Sure.” It was a struggle to keep the uncertainty out of her voice. She managed to twist her face most of the way toward Robin and smile, but it made her so tired. At least he was watching James, too, so he didn’t notice her distraction.

She didn’t know where to look. Then a flash of red plaid entered her peripheral vision, and she was drawn back into helpless orbit. James glanced up and caught her watching. She blinked and shook herself into a smile. He frowned at his pajamas then back at her, suspicious. At last, he relaxed and offered her half a wobbly smile before turning away, ears pink.

Elizabeth forced herself to focus on breakfast, but James remained in her thoughts. Their parents knew nothing of each other. Their grandparents knew of each other only by name. So flimsy, that so-called “cousin” link. But it stood between them like a brick wall — and probably for the best. She didn’t need this madness.

“Well… You look beautiful today, My Dragon.”


She hadn’t realized he’d gone silent. For how long?

His warm hand slid off her arm, so she turned and found him grinding his fists into his eyes. “Sorry. Guess neither of us got much sleep last night.”

James grunted. “Don’t make me sick.”

Robin said, “You’ve always been sick. That’s not what I meant. I was studying in the library.”

She peered at James as he stirred his coffee with unnecessary vigor.

He glared at Robin. “Studying paper and ink?” Then he saw her looking at him and froze, blushed. He turned his back to them, leaning against the window to drink his coffee.

From this angle, she could see only his profile and one sideburn. He was tall, elegant, classic – except for the adorable plaid and little boy sulk.

Robin said, “Actually, it was vellum and ink, knave.” His eyes went distant. “I read the story of Cupid and Psyche in that old mythology book.”

James said, “Sounds like you. Psychotic in love.”

“Takes one to know one.”

Robin stole a berry from Elizabeth’s plate and flung it at James’s head. He missed, but James turned and flashed a smile – boyish and dimpled. It transformed him, lit green in eyes that were normally black.

“No,” Robin said. “Psyche was a beautiful mortal who won the heart of the god Cupid. All quite scandalous, so Cupid only visited at night, and Psyche wasn’t allowed to light a lamp or speak. Wasn’t allowed to know who shared the bed. When Psyche did peek, things really went to hell.”

“You mean went to Hades,” said James.

Robin threw another berry. “You would know.”

That made James laugh, although he swallowed such unruly emotion immediately. She caught him darting a glance at her sidelong. “Nice day, Devil,” he said. That was his pet name for her. “You’ll be breaking eardrums later, I assume.” He turned to face her. “Serenading hapless knights as they battle for your hand and their doom.”

She could only stare, throat tight, not in the mood for their usual game of insults. Things had been getting out of hand since his return two weeks earlier, and this morning was the worst. She didn’t want to feel this way.

James winced as the expected retort didn’t surface.

Robin filled the awkward silence. “You besmirch my lady’s reputation, both in character and skill. Don’t make me get my sword.”

James ducked his head, flinching. “Just… We… I mean… She’s supposed to fight!”

Elizabeth wondered if his mouth was as warm as she remembered. She shook herself from her reverie and found him staring at her, perplexed.

“Um, okay then.” Robin’s voice again split the fog, bringing back mundane morning. She looked at him, and he squinted. “You gonna be okay?”

She nodded, cheeks burning.

He said, “See you in a few hours,” and kissed her with a mouth much prettier than the one she’d been contemplating. She just wished her main feeling wasn’t impatience and then relief as Robin released her and stood.

Had they both aged decades since spring? Lost their fairy tale, altogether? She hated herself for even thinking it.

Robin raised a brow to James. “Be good, Hades.”

“Hades” dropped into an exaggerated bow, and Robin ruffled his dark curls as he passed.

For a few minutes, the kitchen was silent. James went back to facing the window. At last, she stood and went to the coffee pot, one cup shy of her daily quota. A shadow slid between her and the light, radiating warmth. James. Right next to her.

He waited as she poured, then took the pot from her, watching her scoop sugar into her cup as he filled his own. He handed her a spoon, still not meeting her eye, still not speaking. She handed it back, and the side of his hand touched hers. Lingered.

“Did I–” He cleared his throat. “Back there. The teasing. Are you…mad?”

Talking with him was new – something Robin forced upon them. It was always tense or awkward unless they were trading insults. And it affected her far too much.

Her mouth tried to shape itself into all sorts of inappropriate words as she looked up at his profile. He’d meant angry, but she blurted, “Completely out of my mind.”

Startled, he looked at her, head tilted. Time and air turned to caramel – golden, thick, flexing. She bit her tongue to ground herself, slow her heart, and she saw his gaze drop from her eyes to her mouth. That was the worst. And the best. He’d been doing things like that all week.

“Stop fighting over the coffee. It’s not like you don’t know the recipe.” Amie slouched onto a stool.

James jumped, hurrying to his spot by the windows and turning his back. Elizabeth stayed by the pot, drinking coffee and listening to Amie complain about the day ahead. James ignored them both, and, after a few minutes, he slammed his mug down on the counter and left the room.




July 1969

ROBIN ROLLED OVER in bed and looked across Elizabeth’s sleeping form at the clock, brightly lit by the moon. Four o’clock. The worst possible time to come to such a place, but he had. The desperation, the pressurized panic attacks – they’d kill him if he didn’t get this over with. Now.

So much for stoicism. So much for his knight’s vow. No more pretending or turning a blind eye. This was the moment. He hesitated, but his gut was always right, had been the one nagging him since puberty, had let him know that Elizabeth was his only chance for a normal life. But chance was different from success. He had to take a different chance now – and give her one, as well.

How long had it been since he’d seen her running and laughing, since she’d called him teasing names? He’d considered egging her on a few times, but he lacked the energy. This was good for neither of them.

He touched her arm. “Elle?”

To his surprise, there was none of the usual struggle to wake her. She sat up and sighed, eyes closed. Said, “Get it over with.”

That threw him. Was she waiting for this? Did she know? No. Impossible. He powered on. “You know I love you, right?”

She nodded.

“I do. I love you. We have fun, we kiss, and it’s all great.”

She nodded, so he continued.

“But it’s not great. And it’s not right. I–” He froze, paralyzed. Too quick. Too soon. He’d never said it at all. How could he just come out and say it now? To her, the girl he’d tried to grow up for, the girl he thought he’d marry, the girl whose name was on his lease in Ithaca?

She whispered, “I’m sorry, Robin.”


“I can’t help it,” she said. “I’m…broken. Filth. It’s the same problem I had when I was dating David. Same flaw.”

“David was g–” He caught himself. “What do you mean?”

“I got closer with you. A lot closer. You’re better to me than I deserve. But…” She stopped. “But I’m a terrible person.”

“Not even close.”

“Yes. I am. What else can you call a girlfriend who’s in love with someone else?”

He’d been right. He’d sensed her distraction. He’d seen her starry-eyed daydreaming end in so much frustration when he interrupted her that he knew it hadn’t been about him.

She crumpled, began to cry. “What kind of monster has you and wants somebody else? You’re perfect.”

He took a deep breath. “Not perfect, Elle.”

“Why? Because you snore? Because I call you smelly and gross? Or because you were stupid enough to take up with me?”

He said, “No. Because I was stupid enough to let you take up with me.”

“How could you know?”

“I tried not to know. Told myself it was all a bad dream, that you could wake me up. Thought you could be the princess to my frog.”

Elizabeth pulled her hands from his and hugged herself. When she averted her face, he realized she’d taken that as her failing.

“No princess can change this frog, Elle.”

Her voice grew low, muffled. “Dreams, spells, frogs. You’re making up fairy tales again.”

“I- No.”

Elizabeth turned back to him, eyes wide. Robin had heard the terror in his voice. She had, too.

He had to get it over with. “Elizabeth, I’m in love with someone else, too. Always have been.”

The room grew still. Was she breathing? He touched her hands. They were cold. She yanked them away. Ferocious to the end.

He hurried on, losing his courage. “It’s the only thing that kept me from jumping off a cliff when I realized you were in love with someone else, too. When I noticed how much I annoyed you.”

She jumped, pulling the sheet up to her mouth. “What?”

“I’ve known for a while, Elle.”

She moaned. “Oh god oh god oh god. And you still kept talking to me, treating me like a human being?”

“Well…yeah…of course.” He was perplexed.

“Everyone knows?”

Robin shrugged. Why was that the issue here?

“What about him?”


“James,” she said. “Does he know?”

“I–” He stared. He hadn’t gotten to that part yet. Had he? Did she know him that well? Panic struck. “About what?”

Her eyes widened, and she covered her face entirely, shook her head. He heard her keening into the bunched sheet and cold washed over his body. He could almost hear an audible click as everything fell into place.

She didn’t mean James and him.

Vindictive joker universe.

It was right there in front of him. Her tension whenever her cousin entered a room. The way she’d watch James so fixedly when they were together that Robin teased she was afraid he’d lunge the moment she turned her back. Their bickering. Their entire twisted relationship.

And that something inside that he’d always felt they shared… He’d told everyone they were two of a kind.

When she looked up at last, eyes wet, chest hitching, Robin said, “James. It had to be James.”

Silence drew out, stunned, horrified. Through her open window, he heard the wind chimes, too cheerful for the hour, too cheerful for his life. He buried his face in his hands.

At last, he forced himself to speak, although it came out as no more than a whisper. “Too much. Too much alike. And who to avenge?”

“We aren’t,” she said. “We’re not alike. Barely share blood.”

He shuddered, still unable to fathom that. “I mean me, Dragon. You and me. Same boat.”

“The impossible thing? You have a cousin?”

“I swore I’d die for you.” Goddamned oaths. Did it have to mean this? It felt like death.

“Who’s the girl?” Elizabeth lowered the sheet. “Where’ve you been hiding her?”

He snorted. “The closet.”

“Don’t laugh at me, Robin.”

“I’ve never felt less like laughing.”

“Tell me.”

How could he? It was too much now.

“I’ll never guess. You’ve been with every girl in the galaxy.”

It wasn’t going to end. It was just getting worse. This was as good an entry as any.

“I have,” he said. “Exactly. Wearing out my glass slipper. Stupid when I knew all along whose foot it fit.”

Her voice wavered. “Once, you said it fit mine.”

He took a deep breath. “I also said you and I have too much in common.”

“The shoe fits your foot?” She laughed in a way that sounded more like madness.

“How many girls would it take you, Elle? How many feet would you have to try before you found your true princess?”

“It’s a stupid question,” she said. “I’d have to search forever or not at all. I don’t want a princess.”

Vertigo. He teetered at the edge of a cliff. Suicide.

“Robin, I’m tired. Please help.”

He floundered. “How?”

“Who do you love?” The bed shook from the force of her angry fist.

“I’ve never told anyone. Barely told myself. Thought this would be easier.”


“I’m scared to death, Elle.”

“I told you I’m in love with my cousin. What makes you think you’re so much more tragic?” She was up on her knees now, eyes blazing.

Robin couldn’t breathe; his mouth went dry. Maybe he was wrong. All worked up because of the riots in the city.

The riots…

Stonebriar Village. Stonewall Inn.

His epiphany…

He closed his eyes, made the leap. “Because I’m in love with your cousin, too.”


Written by Caroline

September 26, 2011 at 11:49

The Society of Unicorns & Other Exotic Goats

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Flagstaff, Arizona
September 1968

Elizabeth fit her feet into the rut of a forgotten rainstorm, one sneaker before the other down the old dirt road. Just a needle in a record’s scratchy groove, she sang dirges to the dying summer sun and surrendered to the pull of her secret haven. From her perch atop Mars Hill, she’d gaze over town, imagine herself as one of the soaring ravens, and forget real life, find her breath again. She couldn’t remember ever needing it more.

Well-bred young ladies didn’t sneak off campus. Girls who needed to stay invisible to the headmistress didn’t ditch class and head for the hills. But today was September twenty-first, and if she wasn’t in her spot on top of Mars Hill at exactly half past one, the agony would destroy her mind.

Half past one marked one year past the moment she’d lost her guardian, Bebe, the only person she’d ever called her own. She hadn’t been there when Bebe died, but maybe if she could look down at the distant speck of their former home at the exact anniversary moment, Bebe would know. Bebe would help. Things would get better. Or maybe she’d finally feel some closure and cry. She hadn’t been able to cry for a year, and she missed that release.

Approaching the slope, Elizabeth’s rut narrowed, clutching her shoes until they crushed the earth, emerging clad in dust the shade of the rumbling sky. She savored the rhythm, the mindlessness. Closing her eyes, she allowed the rut to guide her steps, tried to ignore the stifling heat.

“One foot, two feet, dust, wobble, dust wobble, dust wobble dust,” she sang in whisper to the rhythm of her walk. Cicadas sang backup, their whine that of a rusted fan, and Elizabeth longed to feel its imaginary breeze. But there was no slowing for the heat. Time was running out.

She continued along the rut, pressure mounting, and found she was hungry for stretches of narrowness, living to smash the sides to powder. She demolished the rut with every step. A little satisfaction. Not much. But some. Dulling a corner of the misery.

A louder growl of thunder made her eye the trees, imagining lightning, craving it. She wanted a storm. She’d hurl herself into it and dance, scream, burn, drown, taking it as commiseration from the universe itself. Some kind of change.

Or, as always, she’d just huddle beneath the boulder’s ledge in her secret spot, watching the storm boil its way over Flagstaff, letting the rain be her tears.

She was so close now.

And then a voice. “No meals to ruin, Bug? Have to destroy the earth itself?”

Shadows detached from the gloom of the woods, sharpening into a group of her classmates as they entered the light. Biting the skin inside her cheek until her vision blurred, she managed not to bolt like a jackrabbit. They’d only chase.

The group’s leader, Trish, pouted, crossing her arms. “What? Has my family sentenced you to dig trenches one shoe at a time?” Trish was granddaughter of the school’s founder. She nodded at Elizabeth’s dusty feet. “Couldn’t you afford a black pair, at least? Some boots? Those pathetic little sneakers used to be white like your dress, right?”

Elizabeth lowered her gaze. The hem of her dress was dark, dust-stained, fading from taupe to white where the clouds of grit hadn’t reached.

Another growl of thunder. Good. But the rain didn’t come for her; the girls did. They surrounded her in their crisp gray and white uniforms, adding a thick blanket of claustrophobia to the already overwhelming heat.

Trish’s eyes crinkled in revulsion. “Just like our Red Chinese to wallow in the dirt like a pig.” She punctuated the last word with a light shove.

The girls laughed, a venomous Greek chorus.

“Total disgrace.”

“Little Orphan Annie!”

“Little my ass! She’s tall as a giraffe.”

“And almost as orange.”

“Except those freaky Chinaman eyes.”

“No wonder she’s always hiding behind a book.”

“Maybe we should get her an even bigger book,” Trish said, shoving Elizabeth’s shoulder.

Fly away fly away fly away fly away… Elizabeth closed her eyes, taut with pressure. She backed away, thought of a song. Tried to send her mind into the music. Tried to shut out the world, these monsters.

Trish nodded. “Like I told you, girls. Doesn’t even talk, just hums. Raised by wolves.” A snort. “And washed-up showgirls.”

A gust of wind from nowhere pushed between the girls, warm at the head, icy at its tail, rattling the trees. Elizabeth felt it draw everything inside her into deadly tightness. “Leave Bebe out of it.”

Trish curled her lip. “Yes, Bebe. That horrible old hag. Crazy. Must be where this one gets it.” A pause. “Not that she was her real mother.”

“Please.” Fire blazed to life inside Elizabeth. The pressure shifted from urgency to something heavier, more focused.

A spark of pleasure lit Trish’s expression. “No real mother would have this ginger half-breed without a salary. Just that lunatic. Ugly, loud, always babbling about Vaudeville…”

“Stop.” But Elizabeth actually found herself wanting the opposite. Her scalp prickled.

“…Then pitching dead right in the middle of town! Took any way out to get away from Miss Elizabeth Cory. Just like her dead auntie. Just like her real mom.”

It happened so quickly. A sudden crouch, one swoop of Elizabeth’s arm, and Trish stumbled, eyes huge, wiping at the spot where a clod of dirt had exploded on her chest. Elizabeth hurled the second one, striking Trish on the face. Looking her in the eye, glad for once that she towered over the awful girl, Elizabeth deliberately wiped her gritty hands down the sides of her dress, leaving twin streaks.

While Trish sputtered, spat, and wiped in revulsion at her mouth, Elizabeth crouched, ready for more. For one delicious moment, she felt dangerous, powerful. Happy. And then the sky split open. A blinding flash of lightning, a deafening roar, and somewhere nearby the crackle crash thud of a falling tree. The girls dropped to the ground, covering their heads, and Elizabeth’s emotion overtook her. When the chaos ebbed, she remained flat on the ground, face in the dirt, crumpled and finally in tears. No release came, though — just fury.

Now the girls were up and pelting her with something much harder than dirt — rocks, by the feel of it. Great chunks of Mars Hill rained down upon Elizabeth, along with fat drops of water from the sky.

As the wind rose, the other girls fled, shrieking, but Trish paused. She said, “What took you so long, freak? Grandfather always knew you’d do something like this.” She kicked dirt into Elizabeth’s ear. “Just you wait.”

Elizabeth felt a blow to her back — Trish’s foot or the biggest rock yet. She lay still until she could no longer hear the percussion of the girls’ retreat, until the rain filled her ears, soaked her dress, and threatened to stifle her with mud.


Elizabeth limped back onto the campus of Lefton Academy for Girls after dusk, streaked with mud, ragged and soaked. Her knees stung from scrapes, and her back ached from the assault.

No longer imitating a fan, the cicadas’ hiss now seemed a rattle of bloodthirsty anticipation, an executioner’s drum roll. One way or another, she was in for it. Ms. Johnson, the headmistress, would be beside herself. Rarely did she have anything but impatience for Elizabeth, who added nothing to the academy’s prestige, who was there only because of dwindling loyalty between Ms. Johnson and Elizabeth’s late aunt, old friends.

“If it weren’t for your aunt…” How many times had Elizabeth heard those words? How many times had they shrunk her, stolen the padding from her nerves? She had no merit of her own. One day, she intended to discover her true family history and prove Ms. Johnson and the Leftons wrong.

After today’s fight, Elizabeth finished climbing Mars Hill, but she’d missed the anniversary moment. The world carried on, uncaring. Huddling beneath the rock ledge that formed her secret spot, she’d examined her wounds and watched lights flare and sparkle along Route 66, watched neon signs buzz to life over gas stations, motels, and fast food. From the observatory at the peak of the hill came the sound of nearby university’s coeds shouting, cackling, and blasting The Doors. The smell of sweet, charred smoke wafted down toward her.

Elizabeth’s throat tightened, burned. She’d been an idiot to think of Bebe as a fairy godmother, to think the anniversary mattered in a world like this. There she was, same as ever: a creature without a tribe, a seventeen year old who still felt twelve, searching for a world of fairy tales.

The wind lifted the smell of fried onions and hot asphalt from town below, marbled it through the sweet smoke, and blew away feelings of magic or closeness to Bebe and childhood.

For a long time, she considered not returning to Lefton. Maybe her secret spot could be her home.

She abandoned the idea after the first coyote howl.

Now, she padded past Lefton’s red-brick elementary and junior high buildings, deceptively cheerful with warmly lit windows and bright paper art projects to hide the hostile territory within. Before her rose the white plaster walls of the high school, covered in thorny, flowered vines. Elizabeth tightened her fists. It was around the time she advanced to this building that her Aunt Kate died. Her only relative. She couldn’t mourn her — had never met her. To Elizabeth, Aunt Kate was just the one who paid Bebe, the widow of her former driver, to care for her on holidays.

In her head, Elizabeth heard Bebe’s gravelly voice, saw her waving one of her endless cigarettes. “Your aunt, she was a smart one. Killed two birds with one stone, sending us out here. Couldn’t just kick this old broad out — wouldn’t look genteel. And couldn’t have her dead sister’s brat running around speaking Russian — would expose our dear Miz Katya’s secret past.” Bebe didn’t know more than that, so Elizabeth treasured this one gem of information, even if mentioning her heritage once had brought on all the commie talk, adding to the Red Chinese situation.

Her aunt’s death meant the end of the money. Her tuition was already paid, but Bebe, now without income, went ahead and married that awful Harvey Rausch, traveled with him for years, leaving Elizabeth lonely in the sterile, echoing halls of Lefton during holidays. Bebe returned the summer before Elizabeth’s junior year, but as summer turned to autumn, Bebe was gone — the heart attack in the street that people seemed to see as more of a disgrace than a tragedy.

The world took a slow spin around Elizabeth, and she shook off the memories.

So, if she wasn’t going to live in the mountains, her other alternative was town. But then there was the vision of a Lefton employee finding her, coming to get her and punish her anyway. Even more painful was the idea that they’d never bother to look for her at all. And, if they didn’t, who would? She had no one. Elizabeth clutched her arms, suddenly feeling in danger of blowing away, nothing left to anchor her.

In the long run, it was the horror of that void, that utter lack of connection that kept her from fleeing. They might despise her, but at least they knew her. Besides, she had to come back for her books and Bebe’s locket. They couldn’t have those. If nothing else, she’d go in, and–

Elizabeth scuffed to a halt, feeling the sharp motion in every joint. She’d reached the building. A long rectangle of amber light spilled down the back steps, and Ms. Johnson stood in the open doorway, arms crossed, brow furrowed. Only the highest relief of this expression was brushed by the light inside, the rest was dark, like the shadow that stretched between them, a two-dimensional guard, ready to seize Elizabeth or turn her away.

For a long moment, it was a standoff, neither moving. She wished she were the type to faint. If she could turn off her mind, black out, then she could wake up later and deal with the consequences. But she couldn’t bear the idea of the going through the fire right now. The confrontation might just kill her.

An icy voice emerged from the bulky silhouette. “Miss Cory. You will come with me.” As Elizabeth remained frozen, Ms. Johnson said, “Now!”

Scuttering down the hall in Ms. Johnson’s wake, avoiding the curious eyes of her classmates, Elizabeth had a sudden vision of herself sleeping on a park bench in nothing more than her current rags, cast off from the school.

At the end of the hall, Ms. Johnson paused, back to Elizabeth, shoulders drawn tight, head down. Then she spun, eyes narrowed and glittering, taking in Elizabeth’s appearance. Her dress still clung to her, still dripped water on the tile floors. She wore socks of mud, and her shoes were unrecognizable as such.

Ms. Johnson opened her mouth as if to speak, then snapped it shut again. Passing a hand over her eyes, she drew a deep breath and took a step toward Elizabeth, pointing her finger, but, again, she stopped. She looked frantic for a moment, glancing this way and that as if in search of help, support. She finished by squeezing her eyes closed. “No.” Another glare at Elizabeth’s dress, a quick glance down the hall toward her office, and Ms. Johnson said, “Miss Cory.”

Elizabeth said, “Yes, ma’am,” but all that came out was a hiss of air. Ms. Johnson thrived on taking students to her office, delivering long sermons on behavior and decorum, doling out punishment with the greedy delight of a child hovering over a box of chocolates. Now she couldn’t speak?

Ms. Johnson swallowed and took a breath, closed her eyes. “There is nothing I can say to you right now. I think it’s best if you just go to your room and let me frame my thoughts.”

Nodding, Elizabeth began to turn, not trusting a cat who allowed a mouse to run, but Ms. Johnson stopped her. “I will say this…” Grimacing and thumping her chest again, fumbling for the antacids she was famous for carrying, she shook her head. “I placed a duffel bag in your room. Bring me your keys before breakfast.”


As long as she could remember, Elizabeth had wanted to be fat.

“Stars shining bright above you…” Elizabeth’s song was so soft, she could barely hear herself. Not that she was listening. She was lost in the Ottoman Empire, tracing the full, dimpled thighs of odalisques, harem girls, as painted by Victorian artists.

“Night breezes seem to whisper I love you…” Her finger stroked a silken curtain, painted to show the golden threads woven into its folds. For the last time, she pondered the round, shining sweets on golden platters, wondering if they were fruit or some other confection.

“Birds singing in the sycamore trees…” Memory tried to intrude. It had taken her all night to build up a flimsy amnesia, a thin wall of denial. “Dream a little dream of me.” She forced the part of her mind that wanted to think and worry into the shape of the song, a favored survival technique. The future was blank and terrifying. Right before her, there was beauty, safety, warmth. She poured her heart and imagination into those women. Those lucky, beautiful women. Everything about these paintings, including the abundance of dimpled flesh, spoke of plenty, of being valued, treasured. Loved. These women seemed as precious as the luxuries that surrounded them. All very much wanted.

These women were never going to snap, dry up. Blow away.

So Elizabeth wanted to be fat. Fat and pale and wanted. Valued. Loved. Maybe the Victorians had it all wrong in their romantic vision of the Orient, but she pined for it anyway.

“Miss Cory! Have you no ears?” The boom of Ms. Johnson’s voice at her elbow frightened her into stumbling forward. In doing so, she overbalanced the podium, and, as she watched in horror, it crashed to the floor, spilling its contents, sending books skittering throughout the previously silent, echoing reading room — so beloved that Elizabeth had always been eager to visit it even though it stood just across the hall from the lion’s den, Ms. Johnson’s office.

Elizabeth dropped to her knees and began picking up the books, mourning bent pages, straightening paper jackets.

Ms. Johnson grunted her way the floor, gathering books and occasionally despairing, “A gift of the Astors! Such a rare binding. And this, from the Balfours. Such good donors. Such admirable daughters.”

Elizabeth cradled a book of Renaissance sculpture in her lap, stroking its pages and murmuring, “Goodbye. I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to hurt you.” When she looked up again, Ms. Johnson was sitting back on her haunches, hands on her thighs, staring.

“To a book,” Ms. Johnson marveled. “You’ll say it to a book, but not to a person.”

“I am sorry about yesterday, Ms. Johnson.

“Yes, well. Too little, too late. I’ve tried to pass you off as quirky to our other parents, but I think you just crossed the line into deranged.”

Ms. Johnson was clutching her chest again, swallowing hard. Elizabeth heard the sound of footsteps, and after a moment, a group of girls walked by. Silence reigned until the girls were gone.

When Ms. Johnson resumed, she tried to lower her voice, but her fury was clear. “I worked so hard. Kept you out of the orphanage, young lady! Put my job on the line. But now! Now that you’ve injured their little baby girl. Well… Now it’s all for nothing!”

“I’m sorry.”

“Just twelve years of hell with no reward!”

“But I didn’t hurt her.”

Ms. Johnson froze, staring. “There were witnesses! Ruined clothes! Pebbles in her hair! What were you thinking?”

Elizabeth didn’t reply for a moment, too distracted by the image of Mars Hill’s rough cinder stones nesting in Trish’s teased hair, occasionally tumbling down like gumballs in a gleaming blonde machine.

Ms. Johnson wrenched the last book from Elizabeth’s hands and dumped it on a nearby table. Elizabeth fought the urge to reach for her odalisques. “Well, what’s done is done. To my office, Miss Cory. We’re out of time.”

They crossed the hall, Elizabeth dragging her duffel bag full of books and clothing. Ms. Johnson closed her door, motioning Elizabeth across the rug to a stiff chair by her desk. Ms. Johnson waited until Elizabeth obeyed, then sank into her own chair, reaching out to lift a framed photo of a tropical lagoon and slam it face down on the desk. Breathing deeply, Ms. Johnson sat taller, tightening her jaw, folding her hands on the desk before her. “Miss Cory… Oh, hold on.” The woman reached for a glass candy dish, removing an antacid and chewing before resuming the lofty tone she used when chastising students. “Miss Cory. Although I’ve tried my best to keep you here at Lefton Academy as your aunt wished, tried my best to give you a consistent environment, a steady home, your actions have now made that impossible. And this makes you vulnerable to outside interference.”

Elizabeth waited, staring, trying to understand.

Ms. Johnson grunted, fumbled in a drawer. “For the past year, we’ve had repeated inquiries from a man in New York. A perfectly ghoulish man. What did he call himself?” She wrinkled her nose, shook her head. “Barrister. Think that was it. Philip Mortimer, Barrister, Esquire, Et Cetera. He seemed to feel that was a fine joke. He works with the lawyer for your late uncle. And he’s been perfectly tenacious in his efforts to take you from us, bring you ‘back’ to New York.”

“But…” Elizabeth’s mouth worked, trying to force the question of why.

Ms. Johnson nodded. “Thoroughly suspect, if you ask me.” Elizabeth noted her eyes darting toward the overturned photo again. “Anyway, I held him off as long as I could. My inclination in this situation would be to go through proper authorities here in town. Unfortunately,” Ms. Johnson stood, “your aunt was not a fan of proper authorities. Your documents, your paperwork — all snarled, some of it shady, and this Mortimer knows it. It’s the reason he didn’t know about you until last year. Now he’s ready to hold that over our heads.” She scowled at the manila envelope in her hands. “My head. I was just trying to help. Your aunt was bent on hiding your Russian blood. Emphasized your American father, claimed you were born in West Berlin, not East.”

“I was born in Germany?” This doubled what Elizabeth knew of her origins.

Ms. Johnson tossed the envelope onto her desk and wiped her fingers on her sleeve. “And half smuggled to this country. I suspect more than a few dollars were thrown here and there in the process. Mostly there.” Another dark look at the overturned photo.

There was a knock at the door, and Ms. Johnson walked toward it slowly, still facing Elizabeth. “The Leftons want this dealt with cleanly. No court time, no delay, no money spent. They’re slow, but when they move, they move decisively.” She opened the door to reveal the school secretary and a man in a dark suit and driver’s cap. “They inform me you are to become the ward of Philip Mortimer, Barrister, Esquire, Et Cetera, since he’s already waiting in the wings and ready to cross all the Ts, dot all the Is.”

The man took Elizabeth’s bag and helped her to her feet. Ms. Johnson beckoned when Elizabeth didn’t move, but Elizabeth didn’t know if she could. Every extremity felt numb. She’d expected to leave Lefton, but she’d never expected to leave Flagstaff altogether. To leave Arizona. This was rejection and banishment on a scale she could barely comprehend.

Ms. Johnson seized Elizabeth’s wrist as she shuffled toward the door, forcing her to speed her step. “The Leftons’ driver will take you to the airport.” Elizabeth fumbled for the manila envelope Ms. Johnson pressed into her hands. “You’re a big girl. You can handle the flight on your own. The Mortimers’ driver will meet you on the other side.”

Elizabeth turned back once in the hall, still in shock. This was it?

Ms. Johnson nodded, icy. “Safe journey.” Then she slammed her door, leaving Elizabeth alone with the courier of her new life with this barrister and his mysterious intentions.


Sometimes she fancied she saw it — the tight, straining coil inside. Not just a spring, a spring on a trampoline, on top of it all, a great hand. As each new emotion arose, that giant hand would press down, condensing the spring, depressing the trampoline, and keeping her feelings in check.

Don’t react, don’t hope, don’t hurt.

Through this method, Elizabeth long ago mastered the art of equilibrium, of suppressing her highs and lows, of hiding her heart, even from herself. It was how she got through. As long as that giant hand flattened her emotions, then her mind was free to detach, go about its business.

Unfortunately, this flatness of emotion fell to pieces if the routine was broken and she became nervous – if in this nervous state she was given a shock. At that point, the invisible hand would slip, the trampoline would launch the decompressing spring, and all that suppressed emotion would burst forth in the form of either tears or giggles – insane amounts thereof. She tried to stem the tide of this resulting Cory Hysteria (as her classmates dubbed it) but only to minor success.

Standing in the lavender-scented foyer of the Mortimer house for the first time, the pressure built with each beat of her heart, which was pretty much the only sound in the dusty silence.

Her new home… She still couldn’t wrap her mind around it. How was she supposed to act in this house? What did she do now?

Life at Lefton had been regimented. Everything about this house spoke of its difference. Nothing was linear, nothing solid or predictable. The ornate red-shingled Victorian was a mass of curves, florals, doilies, chaos. It said that anything went, that everything went, and Elizabeth felt like a small child in Grimm’s forest.

Soon she’d see goblins peering around the moldings, eyes in the wallpaper. Then Mary Poppins would slide down the banister.

She swallowed a laugh. The coil pressed lower.

A hand touched her lower back, and Elizabeth jumped. Minor shock, no hysteria. It was just Ms. Graber, the Mortimers’ tiny, gruff house manager. She led Elizabeth upstairs to a bedroom Ms. Graber called The Chalet, explaining that Mrs. Mortimer had a penchant for naming things — the rooms, the furniture. Across the hall was The Alhambra. Downstairs the sofas had names like Chaucer, Silver, Tonto, Trigger.

Elizabeth said, “Does the house have a name?”

Ms. Graber twisted her mouth. “It refused to take one. They just kept slipping off until she gave up.”

Leaving her with that confusion and a welcome to explore at will, Ms. Graber left — errands in town, she said. Elizabeth remained standing.

Had she been wishing for change? So much dust billowed in her life right now, she couldn’t focus, found it hard to breathe. Not two days ago, she was scuffling along that rut, on her way to disaster. Yesterday morning she was packing her bags then huddling in the raging headmistress’s office.

And now?

She looked around.

Now she didn’t know where she was, other than Stonebriar, New York. She rather suspected it was a new world altogether. The Mortimer driver’s hateful news channel had crackled and faded along with graffiti and fast food signs as they climbed the mountains, and when they made the drop into the misty rock-covered village of Stonebriar, reports of war and unrest cut out altogether in favor of classical music, leaving more air to breathe, room to think.

And then the final turn up the road to her new home. Five miles from town and a quarter mile above the fog, the Mortimer House rose like the brightest autumn leaf in the woods surrounding it. Red turrets soaring, gilt and stained glass sparkling, the grand Victorian defied the mossy weight of the village below.

Inside, however, the house had weight. Looking around The Chalet, she found a room with dark wooden furniture, heavy olive green curtains, and a small marble fireplace. A red and white Persian rug covered most of the floor. The bed was enormous – not as wide as the one she’d spotted in the enviably book-filled Alhambra, but so tall it required a small set of stairs to mount.

After her long solo flight, she’d expected to meet the Mortimers, but the house was empty, and she felt like its newest ghost. She also felt ungracious because The Chalet was a bit too heavy, suffocating her, emphasizing her own flimsiness by its contrast. Bebe always said to enjoy the view from the top of Upper High Hog when it came along, and the room was everything she’d dreamed of as a child, but it didn’t feel quite right.

Drifting to the window, she found a line of trees to the north. At the center of its rough-textured curve stood a pair of great gnarled oaks, entwined over a small dirt path, a fairy tale welcome, an ancient, organic arch.

Wrestling with the grinding, protesting sash, she uncovered an inch or two of screen, and surprisingly sweet air puffed in, shimmying the brocade of the curtains. She heard birds, wind, and somewhere the whinny of a horse.

Taking a deep breath, she smiled. That felt right.

Shedding the sweater and wool skirt she’d changed into at the Phoenix airport, imagining autumn in the Catskills to be chilly instead of a balmy eighty degrees, she pulled on a pair of sandals and a pale green shift. Loosening the sensible low ponytail she’d adopted for travel, she let her hair fall free, its squiggles brushing against the small of her back, her scalp relieved of taut pressure.

There was a tray on a nearby table, bearing roasted chicken, odd tiny grapes of green and red, and a small cake iced in darkest chocolate. Elizabeth hastily devoured the cake and left the room.

After an embarrassingly long fumble to find her way out of the house, Elizabeth reached the arching branches. She’d never seen such trees. Flagstaff trees were vertical, simple in form — aspens and pines, widely spaced like columns in a bright hall. The trees before her now were multi-trunked, curving, dark, and leafy.

The sun was warm, as was the breeze, but when she passed beneath the first set of branches, the air grow cooler, damper. The smell was hypnotic — a smoky, musky, ancient scent. Frankincense. Myrrh. And maybe a touch of Bebe’s cedar treasure box.

The sound of water caught her ear. Turning a bend, she saw the source, a broad creek bed whose dark water glittered as it rippled around stones.

As she followed the path, the trees grew taller, thicker. Light dimmed; sound hushed. Here and there, long sparkling fingers of sunlight penetrated the tree tops, illuminating a stand of greenery or a patch of tumbling creek water, reminding her of paintings she’d seen of cathedrals. She heard small crackles in the shrubbery but never saw the feet that created them and started imagining gnomes, leprechauns, talking mice. She paused frequently to peer into a hollow tree’s gaping doorway, to trace the nose on a tree burl’s face, or to hear the rhythm of the tree song so she could hum along.

She’d just noticed a shift in both the angle of the light and the key of music from the birds when she found the side path, the sort of narrow track made by deer. Briefly, she felt guilt over her long stay in the woods, considered returning to the Mortimer house, but the path’s curving trajectory was too appealing, leading down toward the now-distant creek’s babble and a particularly magnificent cluster of trees. She followed.

The path wound on and on, never quite reaching the water. She’d just decided to turn back, nervous about how far she’d gone, when she came around a bend and found herself at the edge of a small clearing with one heavy finger of sunlight poking down to touch the earth. Beyond this spotlight was a mammoth, sprawling, grasping shape. A tree? It was hard to tell. She shivered.

And then she heard it. A low moan. A growl. Coming from the Medusa shape beyond the light. Elizabeth stumbled, meaning to flee, but then the noise shifted, became a higher keen of sorrow. A lost child. Was it a wild cat? Some kind of trick? Recklessly, she took a step forward, circling the patch of light, staying in the dark until the light was behind her.

The shape was a tree, a multi-armed towering giant. Eyes adjusted, she could see it clearly. It wasn’t sinister; it was glorious. She could imagine the Swiss Family Robinson building their house in its limbs. She could picture it as the home of elves. She could–

She couldn’t breathe. Something moved in the tree. Something tawny. And bigger than her. She went still, and it moved again. A pair of legs swung her direction. Human legs. Bare feet rising to brown pants rising to a young man’s bare chest rising to — she gasped, suddenly understanding what breathtaking meant as her lungs seized.

The boy sat on a massive branch, sorrowing at the treetops. He had lilting features, a full pouting mouth, and great, long-lashed eyes that shone violet-blue even from her distance. Topping this was a tousled mop of pale hair. She thought of angels, of elves. His beauty was marred only by the dirt streaked on his face, the leaves and twigs ornamenting his hair, and his expression — wild with misery. The long-fingered hands that held his balance on the branch were clenched, white-knuckled. His mouth was drawn tight, and, as she watched, he squeezed his eyes tightly, too. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Another unhappy noise, and he fingered his right forearm.

She stood, frozen, not knowing what to do.

After a while, the boy relaxed. His breathing slowed and she saw one corner of his now softened mouth twist upward, rueful. He ground a fist across his eyes then ruffled his hair, knocking bits of debris to the ground. Shaking his head like a dog, he dislodged even more. He laughed without sound, watching it fall. And then he froze, eyes wide.

Elizabeth realized she’d laughed, too.

She tensed, ready to run, but before she could move, the wild boy was on his feet, one hand resting on the trunk of the tree, the other rising to shield his eyes as he scowled into the dimness. Elizabeth leapt backward but only managed to place herself in the center of the spotlight, blinding herself. She stared, exposed, and then she scrambled sideways, aiming for the shadows but instead falling, tangled in something that scratched and pulled at her hair.

Then it was gone. She was free and looking up into wide storm cloud blue eyes with an exotic tilt, a confused expression. The boy was at her side, holding the fallen branch that had tripped and tangled her. He was far too pretty. Again, she questioned her grip on reality.

When she did nothing more to alarm him, his shock shifted to curiosity, then delight. She couldn’t move under that gaze. He dropped the branch and took a step, grin fading to a wondering smile. Unable to help herself, she began to echo his smile, then she noticed the forearm he’d been touching in the tree. A thick scar curved from the inside of his wrist to just below his elbow, a shallow S. Ugly. No elf or angel would have a mark like that.

He seemed unable to speak, and before she could do so, a distant male voice called sharply. Her wild boy turned, alarmed. He gave her one more glance, then with surprising speed he was gone, just the faintest rustle of the underbrush betraying his flight.

Elizabeth stood, and as the forest resumed its normal rhythm, she grew less sure of herself, more certain she’d imagined the whole thing. He was too luminous… but also primitive. Maybe there was a tribe of wild men in the Catskills.

She covered her eyes and took a deep breath, laughing. She was losing it. Maybe she’d taken a rock to the head and was actually still in that muddy rut on Mars Hill, unconscious and hallucinating.

Walking back to the Mortimer house, throwing occasional glances over her shoulder toward where she’d seen the boy, she muttered to herself. “Barristers, Victorians, ghosts, elves, and savages. Good gravy! This is 1968, dummy. You’re almost eighteen. Wake up.”

But she wasn’t sure she wanted to awaken. If she’d found a haven from real life trauma, then so be it.

Returning to The Chalet, house still deserted, she glanced out the window at the woods, closed her curtains against the midday sun, and went to sleep, wondering if she’d always be alone in her enchanted castle, in her fairy tale woods, away from the jangling world. It was almost a pleasant thought.


The first thing she did was fall out of bed.

Opening her eyes to the purple light of dusk, Elizabeth couldn’t remember who she was, where she was, and, forgetting the little staircase, swung out of bed and crashed to the floor, hurting her already bruised and scraped knees, bumping her nose so she saw stars.

But, this close to the floor, she heard noises downstairs. Voices.

She wasn’t aware she was digging her fingers into the rug until the fibers poked beneath her nails. She’d grown used to the haunted house, and, now that it was occupied, it felt like another house altogether. Another move, another change.

And people to meet. People she needed to keep on her side — something she’d never before accomplished.

Elizabeth wound her hair into a knot to contain its chaos, then changed into a dark brown dress, her only adornment Bebe’s gold locket on its long chain. She went to the rear stairs. Stepping softly on each tread, trying to lighten her weight by leaning her hand on the polished rail, Elizabeth slipped into the back hall, listening, knees wobbly.

A glance revealed no corseted or long-whiskered occupants, as she’d imagined the Mortimers. Nor did it reveal Ms. Graber. Elizabeth despaired. Ms. Graber would have been her escort, bridging the gap between ghost and guest. Adrenaline flashed, drummed relentlessly on her throat, in her ears.

The lower hall was a different world, post dusk. The grand Victorian seemed positively subterranean. Wall sconces did little good, were no more than frosted glass moons casting weak islands of light on the runner — an endless flying carpet trampled into submission by a century of feet. In between, colors faded to charcoal. She couldn’t make out any detail at the far end of the hall.
Somehow, that gave her the horrors. Being the ghost, being alone, finding elves in the woods — none of that traumatized her. But the darkness and the feeling of being in someone else’s home — someone who was there but out of sight — that stole her breath.

Elizabeth forced herself toward the doorway to the grand hall and held her ear to the wall. The voices were loud, just out of sight.

This was it. She’d longed for a fairy tale world of her own, and now she’d find out if she was worthy of such adventure, if in this new world she’d finally find home or if she’d be no more acceptable than before. The risk terrified her. For the moment, she held hope that might never return, a pocket full of gold that, once spent, could not be retrieved.

Her eyes fell on the velvet curtains framing the foyer doorway, and she held her breath. It might be a fairy tale, but the entrance was a stage. And if there was nothing else Bebe tried to teach Elizabeth, it was how to enter a stage.

“Sock it to ‘em, Turtle,” Bebe would say. “No matter how hard you’re clutching the curtains backstage, when it’s your cue, you throw back them shoulders. Lift your chin and cram more life into those old peepers than ever before.”

Elizabeth went to the curtains, unable to see much besides the grandfather clock she’d noticed that afternoon — it seemed to have grown – and she clutched the deep red velvet, thinking of it as part of the method, a step in the spell.

Somewhere nearby, people laughed.

In her head, Elizabeth heard Bebe’s voice again.

“It’s like meeting a new dog for the first time. Gotta show the audience who’s boss. Slouch onto the stage, and you’re nothin’ but a cleaning woman for them to fling trash at.”

Elizabeth threw back her shoulders, rose to full height, and pasted on a vivid smile. Then she adjusted, wanting to be friendly, not maniacal.

It was going to work.

She stepped from the curtains, ready to perform…

And found an empty room.

That knocked the air right out of her fragile charade.

The voices were in the parlor — and not adult, as she’d hoped. She knew how to please adults. What she heard were teenagers, and Elizabeth knew teenagers to be the most bloodthirsty predators in this realm or any other.

Resting one damp hand against the clock’s side, she reminded herself — this was a new state, a new coast, a new terrain, new everything.

She’d think of these as a new species of teenagers.

And so they seemed.

Most of what she heard came from a boy whose tone was mischievous. He spoke of kings and queens, knights and dragons. A harpy. That last drew a snarl, and the boy’s voice sounded a bit out of breath amid shuffles and thumps, but the overall tone of the room seemed friendly, happy.

“Not content to scar the features of those who dared look upon her grotesque countenance…” Another scuffle, a giggle, a girl’s growl, and the boy laughed. “The harpy bulleted toward our hero, bent on stealing his prize.”

A girl spoke. “Harpies don’t have bullets, Mutant!”

“Our wise hero, however, knew better than to bear one prize only.”

The girl’s growls became a muffled shriek.

“In stealth,” said the boy, “he’d stolen the harpy’s treasure and held it now aloft, awaiting the foul creature’s move.”

In her fascination, Elizabeth lost track of her fear and was halfway across the foyer when there was a cry, a crash, and the illusion of another world shattered to the tune of The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari.” The shock of that was followed by fright as a young man in glasses walked into the foyer, thumb planted between his eyebrows, head down. The sinking that started with the Beach Boys went into full plummet. This was neither a Victorian ghost nor a crusading knight. Just a guy with sandy, slicked-down hair, a madras shirt, and ratty jeans.

He raised his face, yawned, and stretched.

This was it. He’d see her any second now.

Sure enough, he turned her way.

She braced herself.

And nothing happened. The boy looked right through her with utter calm.

Written by Caroline

September 26, 2011 at 11:37

Nocturne: The Summary

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The Blurb:

It’s the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but not for seventeen-year-old outsider, Elizabeth Cory. Closing her eyes to the modern world, she buries herself in fantasy novels and the music of another era to escape her pain. When she’s taken in by an eccentric family whose turreted home sits on the edge of an ancient forest, she thinks she’s finally found refuge. But in her search for love and a doorway to a peaceful, magical world, she’ll find that not every Prince Charming leads to happily ever after, not every wolf is big or bad, and when you try to live in a fairy tale, the only magical doorways lead to real life.


The Trilogy:

Book I: The Society of Unicorns & Other Exotic Goats

It’s the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but not for seventeen-year-old outsider, Elizabeth Cory. All she wants is a fairy tale refuge from the war and strife of the ugly outside world. But when she’s expelled from her sheltered Arizona boarding school, she finds herself facing the real world a little too soon, forced into a distant foster home until she reaches eighteen.

To her amazement, when she arrives at her new home in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Elizabeth doesn’t find a harsh modern world; she seems to have found the fairy tale world of her dreams – a kind, if eccentric, foster family, a turreted mansion where the sofas have names, and, best of all, a deep forest whose “magic” brings her a new best friend, the local Prince Charming, Robin Bastle. He strives to transform her from damsel to dragon, teaching her to fight, climb trees, and and become a ferocious tomboy companion.

Unfortunately, her new world also brings trouble in the form of accidental betrayals, a cruel lover, and hostility from James – her foster brother and Robin’s best friend.

Book II: Nocturne

The second book begins with what should be a fairy tale ending – a kiss from Prince Charming, Robin Bastle. But this is the real world. Elizabeth learns that fairy tale endings can mean the end of fairy tales, altogether. At the peak of her disenchantment, James returns for the summer, acting strangely. When Robin discovers her feelings for James, his agony exposes a long-closeted secret, changing Robin and Elizabeth from lovers into foes.

Tensions rise until the three are driven apart.

Book III: Bête Noire

As summer ends, James flees back to college but finds no comfort there. Robin embarks upon a journey to live his life honestly, but, unable to accept himself, he falls into dangerous hands. Elizabeth resolves to go on a quest of her own. She’ll fight for what she really wants – the secret of her family’s so-called sordid past and the heart of her true love. In order to do so, however, she’ll have to face her lifelong fear – the outside world – because James attends college in the epicenter of late ’60s unrest: Berkeley, California.

Written by Caroline

December 1, 2010 at 00:42

Summary and Blurb

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The Blurb:

It’s the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but not for seventeen-year-old outsider, Elizabeth Cory. Closing her eyes to the modern world, she buries herself in fantasy novels and the music of another era to escape her pain. When she’s taken in by an eccentric family whose turreted home sits on the edge of an ancient forest, she thinks she’s finally found refuge. But in her search for love and a doorway to a peaceful, magical world, she’ll find that not every Prince Charming leads to happily ever after, not every wolf is big or bad, and when you try to live in a fairy tale, the only magical doorways lead to real life.


The Trilogy:

Book I: The Society of Unicorns & Other Exotic Goats

It’s the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but not for seventeen-year-old outsider, Elizabeth Cory. All she wants is a fairy tale refuge from the war and strife of the ugly outside world. But when she’s expelled from her sheltered Arizona boarding school, she finds herself facing the real world a little too soon, as she’s forced into a distant foster home until she reaches eighteen.

To her amazement, when she arrives at her new home in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Elizabeth doesn’t find a harsh modern world; she seems to have found the fairy tale world of her dreams – a kind, if eccentric, foster family, a turreted mansion where the sofas have names, and, best of all, a deep forest whose “magic” brings her a new best friend, the local Prince Charming, Robin Bastle. He strives to transform her from damsel to dragon, teaching her to fight, climb trees, and and become a ferocious tomboy companion.

Unfortunately, her new world also brings trouble in the form of accidental betrayals, a cruel lover, and hostility from James – her foster brother and Robin’s best friend.

Book II: Nocturne

The second book begins with what should be a fairy tale ending — a kiss from Prince Charming, Robin Bastle. But this is the real world. Elizabeth learns that fairy tale endings can mean the end of fairy tales, altogether. At the peak of her disenchantment, James returns for the summer, acting strangely. When Robin discovers her feelings for James, his agony exposes a long-closeted secret, changing Robin and Elizabeth from lovers into foes.

Tensions rise until the three are driven apart.

Book III: Bête Noire

As summer ends, James flees back to college but finds no comfort there. Robin embarks upon a journey to live his life honestly, but, unable to accept himself, he falls into dangerous hands. Elizabeth resolves to go on a quest of her own. She’ll fight for what she really wants – the secret of her family’s so-called sordid past and the heart of her true love. In order to do so, however, she’ll have to face her lifelong fear — the outside world — because James attends college in the epicenter of late ’60s unrest: Berkeley, California.

Written by Caroline

June 16, 2010 at 10:39

The Mortimer House floor plan

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First floor:

Second Floor:

Third Floor (not pictured)

Written by Caroline

January 1, 2009 at 10:28

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