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Authors: Meredith Moore

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BOOK: Fiona
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Her voice is nearly shaking with anger. She marches away from me, and I watch her go, my mouth open in shock.

I try to think. Where would Poppy go? I don't know anything about this girl. I don't know if she has a favorite place on campus to escape to or has friends who do this kind of thing.

I need help. I sprint out to the garage, a separate building several yards from the side of the castle. Albert lives in the apartment above, and I climb the rickety spiral staircase and knock on his front door.

He opens it, a napkin tucked into his shirt collar and a questioning look on his face.

“Poppy's missing. She didn't go to school today,” I say in a rush before he can ask what's wrong.

He sighs, as if he's not entirely surprised. “Where do you think she's gone?” he asks, pulling the napkin out of his collar and gesturing me out the door.

“I don't know,” I say, grasping the bannister tightly as I descend. “She couldn't have gone far from the school, right?”

“Unless she had a friend's parent drive her someplace. She's friendly with a couple of other day-student girls.”

I look back at him as we hurry for the car. He must see the growing horror on my face, because he smiles reassuringly. “Och, lass, I'm sure she's fine. Not much trouble to get up to in these parts.”

I can think of plenty of trouble someone could get up to anywhere, but I don't say anything as we buckle up and head for the school. Poppy's young and grieving, but she seems pretty smart. I can't see her shoplifting or smoking a pack of cigarettes or something crazy like that.

I pick at the cuticle of my left index finger, bouncing my knees as we wend our way through the hills to the school. I can't keep still. I can't focus on anything out the window. All I can see is Poppy's face, the grief and hurt always present underneath the surface. I see her in the back of a stranger's car, lost in the woods somewhere, her broken body at the bottom of a cliff.

I tell myself to stop, but the images keep coming.

I'm out of the car before Albert even comes to a full stop in front of Bardwill, Poppy's school. It's two in the afternoon, and all of the girls are still in class. Safe, where they're supposed to be.

You're not going to find her
, I think, and then I freeze. Because my mind did not create that thought. It seemed to come from a voice in my head. A stranger's voice, like the ones my mother used to complain about, two hands pressed against her temples like she could squeeze them out. It's the first time I've heard a voice that wasn't my mother's.

I close my eyes, straighten my shoulders, and take a deep breath.
It's just me. Just my thoughts. I'm worried about Poppy, that's all.

The guard at the front recognizes me from drop-off, and he takes me to the headmistress's office while Albert searches the grounds outside the school.

The hallway that I step into is ornate, beautiful. Nothing like the cold linoleum and buzzing, harsh fluorescent light of my Texas public schools. Paintings and photos of distinguished-looking women line the hallways, their knowing countenances radiating confidence and superiority. I keep my head down as we climb the stairs to the third floor.

The headmistress's assistant, a woman with a dark gray bun and a kind smile, ushers me right into the office. “Headmistress Callahan will be with you in just a few moments,” she assures me. “Let me know if you need anything at all.”

She closes the door, and I'm alone. I sink into one of the chairs and bury my head in my hands. Albert isn't too worried
about Poppy, so I shouldn't be either. She just wanted to ditch school. She'll probably be home for dinner.

I try to take a deep breath, but I keep hearing the echo of that strange voice in my head. The air feels stuffy, so I spring up out of my chair and move to the window, where I can at least see some open space. It looks out on the back of the school below, old brick dorms and the huge new science center, its metallic sides and modern lines standing out like a goth among cheerleaders.

The door clicks behind me, and I turn to see the headmistress, who is much younger than I was expecting. She must be in her late thirties or early forties, and her dark brown hair is pulled back in a sleek ponytail.

“You must be Poppy's caretaker,” she says, shaking my hand. Her voice is high-pitched and nasally, discordant with her chic appearance.

“I'm Fee,” I say and release her hand quickly. “Do you know where she might have gone?”

The headmistress gestures me back to my seat, and I sit down reluctantly as she settles behind her desk. “Poppy is a very bright young girl who is going through a rough transition right now,” she says.

A rough transition?
One of the worst euphemisms for losing your parents that I've ever heard, and I've heard plenty. I resist
the urge to clench my teeth. “I'm still getting to know Poppy,” I say, my words clipped, “so I can't yet guess where she might have gone. But I would really, really like to find her.”

The headmistress gives me this smile that drips with sympathy and condescension, and I understand immediately why Poppy would be eager to run away from this place. “I don't know where she might have gone, but I do know that Poppy is a very special girl who needs a lot of attention right now. And we're all worried about her here at Bardwill.”

I stand up. “I'm worried about her, too. So if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go try to find her.”

She finally seems to catch on to the fact that I can't stand her, because there's the slightest purse in her lips as she rises from her desk. “Of course,” she says. “But once this situation has been resolved, I'd like to talk to you about how we can best help Poppy going forward.”

I nod quickly before hurrying out the door.

Students have filled the halls, scurrying off to their last class of the day. I push my way through the clusters and out into the yard, more anxious than ever about finding Poppy.

Where would I go if I were her? Nowhere within that claustrophobic building with teachers and other students looking at me like I'm suddenly different, like tragedy has stamped a tattoo across my forehead. Where would I go to be free?

I realize exactly where I would go just as I spot Albert waiting by the car. “No luck,” he calls. “You?”

I shake my head. “We should go back to the house. I think I know where she is.”

We drive for what feels like hours until we're finally heading back through the cathedral of trees and up the road to the familiar gray stone castle. As soon as Albert stops the car, I hop out and head straight for the stables.

Gareth is shoveling hay into one of the stalls. It's quiet, save for the soft nickering of horses. I peer around the stable, but there's no sign of Poppy. Or Copperfield.

“Can I help you?” Gareth asks, leaning on his shovel. I can't help but notice the corded muscles of his forearms before I look away.

“Sorry,” I say. “I thought Poppy might be here.”

“Not for hours. She and Copperfield are out for a bit of a wander now.”

“You've been helping her ditch school,” I say with a sigh, my suspicions confirmed.

He shrugs. “She needed to get away. She needs space and time to grieve, and no one else is giving it to her.”

“She's eleven!” I say, stepping even closer to him so that he can see the exasperation in my eyes. “She can't be traipsing around the country on her own!”

“She knows this part of the country almost as well as I do, and she mostly keeps to the estate anyway. She'll be fine.” He pauses, looking down at me seriously. “You need to let her breathe.”

I want to keep yelling at him the way that Mabel yelled at me, but I know he's right. All of the fight evaporates right out of me. “I don't know how to get through to her,” I say, sitting down on a bench outside the stall he's been working in.

He sits beside me carefully, resting his back against the stall door and stretching his long legs out in front of him. “I think you're doing a fine job.”

I snort. “What makes you think that?”

He catches my eyes. “She told me so. She told me that you lost your mother when you were young, too. She'll open up to you, if you give her time to keep learning to trust you.”

I lean back against the wall, my shoulder brushing against his. “I hope so,” I mutter.

It takes me a moment to realize that he's still watching me, and when I look over to meet his gaze, there's an easy smirk on his lips, a spark in those dark brown eyes that makes me blink.

I push myself up. “I should get back to the house. I've been helping Alice.” I didn't mean to add that last part, but as soon
as the words leave my mouth I know that I said them because I wanted to see his reaction to her name.

“That's nice of you,” he says simply. Those dark brown eyes don't change, still intent on mine.

“She's very nice.”

He finally reacts, dropping the smirk and raising his eyebrows.

“Well, she's not
, really,” I amend, officially babbling now. “She's not, like, the warmest person ever. But she's the only one in the house besides Albert who doesn't make me feel like I'm beneath them or that I'm bothering them or . . . or something.”

“Did someone tell you that Alice and I are together?” Gareth asks, standing up.

“Yes,” I confess, though I don't tell him it was Poppy, so I can pretend that I'm not breaking her trust.

“Well, we're not. We used to be.”

“What happened?”

He shrugs. “Didn't fit,” he says, like it's so simple.

“And what does she think about that?” I ask.

He looks away, and I have my answer. I can't keep this flirtation up. I'm not even truly into him, and he's not worth losing my tentative friendship with Alice.

“Yeah, well, look, I've got to go. Can you send Poppy inside when she gets back?”

He nods slowly and sits back down on the bench when I leave him.

I start to head to the house, but the thought of going back there, to the cold air and Mabel's disapproving scowl, makes me feel like I can't breathe. Instead, I let my feet lead me out beyond the stables, into the lush fields of grass. Poppy won't come back until she's good and ready, and I can talk with her then.

The wind lashes violently around me, and I wrap my arms around myself, pushing on. I wander around the castle, staying in this orbit so I don't get lost. The mud and bracken squelch beneath my tennis shoes. The afternoon fades into evening, the sun slipping behind the mountains. The air grows colder, unfriendlier, as the fog rolls in. This place is harsh, suited only for people with rugged souls and weathered faces. Or people like the Moffats, who are wealthy enough to build a fortress and surround themselves with soft, warm things.

My mother could have had that kind of shelter here. It was the life she was destined for, before she abandoned it all for my father.

Would she have lived if she hadn't followed that mad love and instead stayed here and married Lord Harold, like she was supposed to? Would she have had people to care for her
without judgment, to make sure she was on her medication and didn't harm herself? People who would have helped her more than I did?

There's another letter in the secret box in my closet. An email, from Lily to my mother, which Mom had printed out and saved, that I found after she died. It was well worn, as if my mother had read it and reread it hundreds of times. It was dated three months after I was born, long after my dad left us.

I'll keep your secrets
, Lily wrote.
I promise that I won't tell your parents anything you tell me. But you have to let me know how you're doing. I want you to know you can trust me and that you can always tell me anything.

Even though Mom's own parents ignored her in the years before they died, Lily never did. She cared about my mother, and it meant so much to her that she printed out that email and read it over and over, the way I do with her note telling me she would always love me.

I sigh. Dusk has fallen. “The witching hour,” Poppy called it. I feel as if the fog and my dark thoughts will consume me if I give them the chance. I need to head back before I'm late for dinner, but now I'm actually looking forward to being inside.

The fog is so thick that I can barely see. I hold my hands out as if I can feel my way through the air, stepping carefully so that I don't slip on the rocks or the wet grass below. There's a
snap of a branch to my right, and I freeze. Hold my breath. The evening around me is still again. “Hello?” I whisper.

There's a rustle. Or did I imagine it? A quiver runs down my spine.

And then, out of the corner of my eye, I see movement—a dark shadow, disappearing into the fog.

I yelp, and my feet are moving before I even realize it. I'm running toward the hazy outline of the castle, breaking through well-ordered shrubs in my mad dash.

I stop when I reach a gnarled tree in the immediate castle yard. I lean against it, taking deep gulps of breath.

What did I just see? It was—it looked almost like a person. A woman, with long hair. Was someone out here with me? Was someone watching me?

, I tell myself firmly. It was nothing. Just some animal, or a trick of the fog, and I overreacted.

Poppy's tales of the Grey Lady and the witching hour must have really gotten into my head. Because that rustle—I swear it sounded like the swish of a long skirt.

I think of my mother's tales of the
bean nighe
, a type of banshee. In the legends, she washes the clothes of those about to die, foretelling their doom. She can be an old hag or a stunningly beautiful young woman, whichever she pleases, and seeing her is a portent of impending death. I used to think
those stories, which Mom would whisper to me in the dark, were wonderfully terrifying. But then she had an episode and thought she saw a
bean nighe
washing her clothes in the middle of an Austin street. She said she saw a beautiful woman in a long dress, her gaze locked on Mom as she wrung the blood from her grave clothes. Mom raved that she could see the cold gleam in the woman's eyes, hear the rustle of her skirt, above all the street noise.

BOOK: Fiona
5.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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