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Authors: Carol Windley

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BOOK: Home Schooling
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No one at Miramonte was allowed to say anything mean to anyone, but Nori had caught some of the children taunting Randal. They called him a crybaby and a mommy's boy and told him to grow up and act his age. She was furious. She'd said, “What do you mean: act his age? We are all the age we are, no older and no younger. Isn't that so?”

She'd made hot chocolate in blue stoneware mugs for her and Randal. They drank it at the kitchen table, so that Randal couldn't see the piano or start playing scales under the table, on his arm. She told him about her childhood. She told him about the hours she'd had to spend practising. Always other children were outdoors playing. Not her. She'd wanted to be two children: one at the piano doing her Czerny studies, while the other played hopscotch on the street outside. Her parents were strict. Her father was a renowned orchestra conductor. Her mother was an opera singer. Her mother's parents were from Norway. Her father was born in the city of Osaka, the third son of a professor at Kansai University.

Nori told Randal she'd met Harold at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts, in Cupertino, California. Harold had somehow got past the security guards to her dressing room door. He didn't have flowers to give her, or anything. He'd stared at her in a disconcerting manner. One minute he seemed shy, then brash. She didn't know what to make of him. He said he'd been overwhelmed,
captivated by her inspired interpretation of Schumann. She'd had the feeling he didn't know all that much about Schumann. Later, when they were seeing more of each other, he'd confessed it was her waist-length black hair and her Nordic blue eyes that had truly enthralled him.

A miracle, she'd said, that you could see the colour of my eyes from where you were seated.

That night she'd worn her favourite dress, burgundy chiffon, with a full skirt, a wide satin sash tied around her eighteen-inch waist. “I was twenty years old, ten years older than you are,” she told Randal. She laughed. She said she'd known right away that this man was going to mean something important to her. What she hadn't known was that he was going to change her life irrevocably. She hadn't known she'd have to give up her career completely and move to this isolated island, where, even though the house was practically in a swamp, the well ran dry in the summer.

“How could I have known?” she said to Randal. “No one knows their life in advance. It's the same with music. Even when you've practised a piece a million times and committed it to memory, you can only really only know one note at a time. Your heart has enough room for one note at a time, doesn't it? One note and then another.”

Sometimes, when she was at the piano, she believed he was right there beside her, itching to push her hands aside, so he could place his own on the keyboard. “You have a remarkable gift,” she had told Randal. “You just need to learn the one thing that really matters, which is how to survive such a gift.”

Randal had been a beautiful child. His hair was a rich chestnut brown, his eyes hazel, more green than blue, flecked with gold, long-lashed, dreamy. She'd tried to keep him safe, but she couldn't watch all the children every minute of the day and night, could she? She remembered a thin froth of cocoa and milk on his upper lip. His hands lay motionless on the kitchen table, quiescent, his fingers
raw from biting at his nails. He was a skinny, undersized, unhappy boy, but he had also been, Nori now understood, very strong, full of power. When he died he took everything with him: their chance at happiness, their future, their luck.

The first year they lived on the island, Harold had paid Patrick to tutor Annabel and Sophie in chess. Annabel remembered the first day he came to the house. This was in the summer, when Patrick was home from university. When he knocked on the door, she got there ahead of Sophie. She let him in. In the kitchen the three of them sat at the table. Patrick set up the chessboard. His hands trembled slightly.

“Anyone can learn to play chess,” he'd said. “But it takes a lot of dedication, more than most people have. You have to block out all distractions and concentrate like crazy on the board. You need an understanding of strategy in order to win. Not many players learn to win with any consistency. Not many get that far.”

“What about you, Patrick?” Sophie had said. “Do you win with consistency?”

He'd blushed, tossed his hair out of his eyes. “Yes,” he said. “Mostly I do win.”

After two weeks of lessons, Sophie said she was going to marry Patrick when she grew up.

“Oh, is that so?” Annabel said coolly. “Patrick doesn't even like you. He thinks you're a stupid little kid. I'm older than you. I'm the one he likes.”

“You don't act older, dearest sister. You act like a moron. ‘Oh, Patrick, that was my queen. I can't play without my darling queen.'”

“Shut up, shut up,” Annabel hissed at her. She pinched Sophie's arm and Sophie yanked at her hair.

Patrick was slender, not tall, with light brown hair and brown eyes. Annabel had written a poem about him, in which she'd talked
about his little monkey hands hovering over the chessboard. She'd meant dextrous, judicious, skilled, or something like that. She'd read the poem to Sophie.

“That stinks,” Sophie had said. “It has no rhythm. It's sentimental. And monkey hands. What kind of monkey? A howler monkey, or a marmoset? Dead monkey, live monkey? Monkey soup? Monkey brains? I think in a poem you have to be a little more precise than that.”

“You don't know anything about poetry,” Annabel said. “You have no imagination whatsoever.”

Sophie lunged at her. She grabbed the poem and tore it up. “Monkey hands,” she sang. “Let me feel your monkey hands on mine, you little ape.”

“Go ahead, tear it up,” Annabel said. “I memorized it, you little shit.”

“You memorized it?” Sophie said. “What a supreme waste of time.”

“I hate you,” Annabel said.

“I hate you,” Sophie said.

Now it seemed to Annabel that she and Sophie had both chosen Patrick. They had identified him as their likeliest means of rescue. Was that true? She didn't know. When she got back from her walk she was tired and hot, but she went straight upstairs to Sophie's bedroom and began looking for her sister's journal. If she couldn't ask Sophie outright, she could perhaps get at the truth by stealth. She pulled open dresser drawers. She looked under the mattress, in the closet. The journal was missing. Sophie must have hidden it outside, in the chicken coop, in the barn, in a hole in the ground. Maybe it was better not to find it. Did Annabel really want to read her sister's private thoughts?

She thought of Sophie running across the field in the dark, a flash of white like a flame or a falling star. She thought of Freddy and Jane and the actress, that vision of two susceptible individuals
yearning toward a third. Whenever there were three, one was going to get left out. She, too, seemed to be in a fever of paranoia. Some things you knew before you could possibly know them.

Nori was in the kitchen, cutting the cake Annabel had made. She cut a single slice and placed it carefully on a gold-rimmed china plate. She licked a crumb off her finger. “Too bad we don't have any icing sugar,” she said. She garnished the plate with a sprig of cherries from a tree near the barn.

“Come with me,” Nori said. Annabel followed her into the living room, where Nori assembled on the old Welsh dresser two candles in brass candlesticks, Mika's wooden boat that had belonged to Nori when Nori was a child, a Japanese doll in an embroidered blue kimono, a battered copy of
The Wind in the Willows,
the plate of chocolate cake, a glass of milk.

Nori gave her handiwork a critical look. “Ideally,” she said, “there should be red and white lanterns hanging from the roof of the house and in the trees. And there should be bonfires on the hillsides. In Osaka there were bonfires.”

A small fire would do, she said. It would serve to guide lost spirits to the house. Once they got here, the cake would comfort and sustain them.

“Is this about Randal?” Sophie said. She had just come in. Her cheeks were flushed. Her eyes were bright. Annabel kept looking at her.

“It might be,” Nori said. “I think it is, yes.”

“I didn't know you believed in stuff like this,” Sophie said.

“I don't know if I do,” Nori said. “Fire for light, food for comfort, toys for — I don't know, for amusement, I guess.”

“Well, I have some news,” Sophie said. “I have a job.”

Even before Sophie spoke, Annabel knew, or believed she did. If she'd found Sophie's journal, this was what she would have learned: Sophie was always ahead of her. Sophie already knew how life
worked, where to find the secret doors, what passwords to utter to get what she wanted. Sophie had a job. She danced around the room, her hair flowing around her like a scarf. She said she was starting work at the marina tomorrow. Patrick's mother had hired her. She would wait on tables, wash dishes, scoop ice cream. She'd do everything, pretty much. She would be paid minimum wage, plus tips, she said.

“You can have what I earn,” Sophie was saying to Nori. “You can have every single cent I make. It'll help, won't it?”

Before going into the house on the beach, Annabel showed Patrick where to find the Summer Triangle. She started to tell him a tale Nori had told her, about a peasant boy who walked across the River of Heaven to reach his lover, a princess. He and the princess were so in love they neglected their duties, weaving silk into cloth and caring for a herd of cattle. This made God so angry he tore them apart and flung them to opposite ends of the sky. Now every year the peasant boy, in the form of the star Altair, had to retrace his journey across the River of Heaven to find the princess, the bright star Vega. And even then they were allowed only the briefest interlude in which to find happiness.

“Just like us,” Annabel said.

“Well, being a star is never easy,” said Patrick.

The house smelled to Annabel like an apple slowly rotting from the inside. She and Patrick stood there in the darkness. There was no moon. The stars were shining with such brilliance. Annabel was wearing a long blue skirt and an embroidered blouse, gifts from her grandparents in Toronto. She'd brushed her hair until it gleamed.

“I have an idea, Patrick,” she said. “When you go back to school next month, I'll go with you. I'll get a job and you can go to school. We can find somewhere cheap to live. I've thought about everything. I know it will work. I want to be with you.”

Patrick was quiet. “Annabel,” he said. “I'm nineteen years old. And you're seventeen. What are you talking about?”

She moved away a little. “You think I'm too young?” she said. “After what we've been doing practically every night this summer, now you think I'm too young?”

She had an urge to accuse Patrick, right now, this minute, of seeing Sophie, her younger sister, Sophie. She wanted to tell him that if he dared touch Sophie, she would kill him, not because she was jealous, but because she loved her sister. What was she to do? She loved her sister, but she loved Patrick more. “Why didn't you tell me your mother wanted someone to work at the marina? Why did you let her give the job to Sophie?”

“You're mad because my mother hired Sophie? I didn't know she was going to. Neither did she, I think. Sophie just happened to turn up when my mom was complaining about how she gets tennis elbow from scooping ice cream. She gets eczema from washing dishes. It's not a plot or anything. Anyway, the job would bore you, believe me, Annabel.”

“I never get bored,” Annabel said. If I got bored, she wanted to say, do you think I'd meet you here in this empty old house night after night? “I really didn't come here to discuss your mother's tennis elbow,” she said. “I wanted to know what you think about my plan, us living together, now, this fall.”

“I think it's too soon for plans like that, Annabel.”

She walked through the kitchen door into what must have been a living room. A family lived here, once. A woman sat by the window, reading a book, or sewing. A man lit a fire in the fireplace. There might have been a radio playing. There might have been a child asleep upstairs. It gave her a strange feeling, to think of normal life going on in a house that was slowly dissolving into the soil, its rotten-apple smell mingling with the salt air. She heard a little cacophony — rustling sounds, rats, maybe, but incessant, like the
wind, or grains of sand drifting across the floor. “Listen,” she said, holding up a hand.

“What is it?” Patrick said. He was standing in the doorway, as if afraid to get any closer. She went to him, leaned her head against his shoulder. If you leave, I will die, she said, inaudibly. Without you I would be nothing. The words made her feel bereft. She wasn't sure if she'd spoken aloud or not. She didn't even know if she meant what she'd said.

“Did you touch my sister?” she said. She wanted to punch him. “Did you make her fall in love with you?”

“No,” Patrick said. “No, I didn't.”

“Did you bring her here? Tell me the truth.”

“All right, yes, I met Sophie here once or twice. Yes, we talked. It was a game. You know what Sophie's like. She thought it was fun, exciting. I would never hurt Sophie. How could you think I would? Sophie is just a child.”

“Sophie is almost exactly the same age I was last summer. You remember last summer, don't you Patrick?” She hit him on the arm.

“Ouch,” he said.

“That didn't hurt,” she said. “If you think that hurt, you just wait. I'll find out the truth, you know I will. Anyway, why use Sophie's age as an excuse? Why not say what you really mean?”

“Because you're twisting everything I say,” Patrick said. “I don't want to fall out with you, Annabel. I don't want to lose you.”

“Oh, Patrick,” she said wearily. Even in the dark, she saw the truth curled in his eyes like a snail and felt an urge to extract it with an ice pick. It was so cold in the house she could see her breath. She heard waves racing in along the shore. She thought: Imagine the house is a ship at sea, and the wind is singing in the rafters, or the sails. On deck, three passengers: Freddy and Jane and the famous actress, a triad, like the bright stars in the Summer Triangle. Freddy and Jane look just as she imagined they would. They're having a little party, with drinks and trays of delicacies, smoked oysters and
caviar. Jane wears a hat that shows off her perfect profile, her aquiline nose, her delicate chin. Freddy sits with her knees apart, her canvas skirt a hammock in which she rests her plump hands. “Let me get this straight, Annabel,” Freddy says. “Every night Patrick says he can't see you, Sophie sneaks out at midnight and doesn't return home until dawn.”

BOOK: Home Schooling
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ads

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