The house on the cliff looks like a ship disappearing into fog. The spire a mast, the trees whipping against its base, the waves of a ravening sea.
Or maybe Jane just has ships on the brain, seeing as she’s inside one that’s doing all it can to consume her attention. A wave rolls the yacht, catches her off balance, and she sits down, triumphantly landing in the general vicinity of where she aimed. Another wave propels her, in slow motion, against the yacht’s lounge window.
“I haven’t spent a lot of time in boats. I guess you get used to it,” she says.
Jane’s traveling companion, Kiran, lies on her back in the lounge’s long window seat, her eyes closed. Kiran isn’t seasick. She’s bored. She gives no indication of having heard.
“I guess my aunt Magnolia must have gotten used to it,” says Jane.
“My family makes me want to die,” Kiran says. “I hope we drown.” This yacht is named The Kiran.
Through the lounge window, Jane can see Patrick, who captains the yacht, on deck in the rain, drenched, trying to catch a cleat with a rope. He’s young, maybe early twenties, a white guy with short dark hair, a deep winter tan, and blue eyes so bright that Jane had noticed them immediately. Someone was apparently supposed to be waiting on the dock to help him but didn’t show up.
“Kiran?” says Jane. “Should we maybe help Patrick?”
“Help him with what?”
“I don’t know. Docking the boat?”
“Are you kidding?” says Kiran. “Patrick can do everything by himself.”
“Patrick doesn’t need anybody,” Kiran says. “Ever.”
“Okay,” Jane says, wondering if this is an expression of Kiran’s general, equal-opportunity sarcasm, or if she’s got some specific problem with Patrick. It can be hard to tell with someone like Kiran.
Outside, Patrick catches the cleat successfully, then, his body taut, pulls on the rope, arm over arm, bringing the yacht up against the dock. It’s kind of impressive. Maybe he can do everything.
“Who is Patrick, anyway?”
“Patrick Yellan,” Kiran says. “Ravi and I grew up with him. He works for my father. So does his little sister, Ivy. So did his parents, until a couple years ago. They died in a car accident, in France. Sorry,” she adds, with a glance at Jane. “I don’t mean to remind you of travel accidents.”
“It’s okay,” Jane says automatically, filing these names and facts away with the other information she’s collected. Kiran is British American on her father’s side and British Indian on her mother’s, though her parents are divorced and her father’s now remarried. Also, she’s revoltingly wealthy. Jane’s never had a friend before who grew up with her own servants. Is Kiran my friend? thinks Jane. Acquaintance? Maybe my mentor? Not now, maybe, but in the past. Kiran, four years older than Jane, went to college in Jane’s hometown and tutored Jane in writing while she was in high school.
Ravi is Kiran’s twin brother, Jane remembers. Jane’s never met Ravi, but he visited Kiran sometimes in college. Her tutoring sessions had been different when Ravi was in town. Kiran would arrive late, her face alight, her manner less strict, less intense.
“Is Patrick in charge of transportation to and from the island?” asks Jane.
“I guess,” Kiran says. “Partly, anyway. A couple other people chip in too.”
“Do Patrick and his sister live at the house?”
“Everyone lives at the house.”
“So, is it nice to come home?” asks Jane. “Because you get to see the friends you grew up with?”
Jane is fishing, because she’s trying to figure out how these servant relationships work, when one person is so rich.
Kiran doesn’t answer right away, just stares straight ahead, her mouth tight, until Jane begins to wonder if her question was rude.
Then Kiran says, “I guess there was a time when seeing Patrick again, after a long absence, made me feel like I was coming home.”
“Oh,” says Jane. “But . . . not anymore?”
“Eh, it’s complicated,” Kiran says, with a short sigh. “Let’s not talk about it now. He could hear us.”
Patrick would have to have superpowers to hear a word of this conversation, but Jane recognizes a dismissal when she hears one. Peering through the window, she can make out the shapes of other boats, big ones, little ones, vaguely, through the downpour, docked in this tiny bay. Kiran’s father, Octavian Thrash IV, owns those boats, this bay, this island off the eastern seaboard, those waving trees, that massive house far above. “How will we get to the house?” she asks. She can see no road. “Will we ascend through the rain, like scuba divers?”
Kiran snorts, then surprises Jane by shooting her a small, approving smile. “By car,” she says, not elaborating. “I’ve missed the funny way you talk. Your clothes too.”
Jane’s gold zigzag shirt and wine-colored corduroys make her look like one of Aunt Magnolia’s sea creatures. A maroon clownfish, a coral grouper. Jane supposes she never dresses without thinking of Aunt Magnolia. “Okay,” she says. “And when’s the spring gala?”
“I don’t remember,” Kiran says. “The day after tomorrow? The day after that? It’s probably on the weekend.”
There’s a gala for every season at Octavian Thrash IV’s house on the sea. That’s the reason for Kiran’s trip. She’s come home for the spring gala.
And this time, for some inexplicable reason, she’s invited Jane along, even though, until last week, Jane hadn’t seen Kiran since Kiran’s graduation almost a year ago. Kiran had stumbled upon Jane at her job in the campus bookshop, because, like many visiting alumni, Kiran had remembered it had a public restroom. Trapped behind the information desk, Jane had seen her coming, an enormous handbag on her arm and a harassed expression on her face. With any other ghost from her past, Jane’s first instinct would have been to turn her shoulder, hide behind her dark curls, and make herself into a statue. But the sight of Kiran Thrash brought Jane instantly to the strange promise Aunt Magnolia had extracted from her before she’d gone away on that last photography expedition.
Aunt Magnolia had made Jane promise never to turn down an invitation to Kiran’s family estate.
“Hey,” Kiran had said that day, stopping at the desk. “Janie. It’s you.” She’d glanced at Jane’s arm, where tattooed jellyfish tentacles peeked out from under her shirtsleeve.
“Kiran,” said Jane, instinctively touching her arm. The tattoo was new. “Hi.”
“Do you go to school here now?”
“No,” Jane said. “I dropped out. I’m taking some time. I work here. In the bookstore,” she added, which was obvious, and not something she wanted to talk about. But she’d learned to chat, to fill the silence with false enthusiasm, and to offer her failures as conversational bait, because sometimes it enabled her to head off the very next question Kiran asked.
“How’s your aunt?”
It was like muscle memory now, this steeling herself. “She died.”
“Oh,” Kiran said, narrowing her eyes. “No wonder you dropped out.”
It was less friendly, but easier to bear up against, than the usual reaction, because it brought a flare of annoyance into Jane’s throat. “I might have dropped out anyway. I hated it. The other students were snobs and I was failing biology.”
“Professor Greenhut?” Kiran asked, ignoring the dig about snobs.
“Known school-wide as a pretentious douche,” said Kiran.
Against her better instincts, Jane smiled. Greenhut assumed his students already knew a lot about biology, and maybe the assumption was just, because no one else in the class had seemed to struggle like Jane had. Aunt Magnolia, who’d been an adjunct marine biology teacher, had spluttered over the syllabus. “Greenhut’s a superior, self-righteous donkey,” she’d said in disgust, then added, “No offense to Eeyore. Greenhut is trying to weed out students who didn’t go to fancy high schools.”
“It’s working,” Jane had said.
“Maybe you’ll go to school somewhere else,” Kiran said. “Somewhere far away. It’s healthy to get away from home.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” Jane had always lived in that small, upstate university town, surrounded by students whenever she’d stepped outside. Tuition was free for faculty kids. But maybe Kiran was right, maybe Jane should have chosen a different school. A state school, where the other students wouldn’t have made her feel so . . . provincial. These students came from all over the world and they had so much money. Jane’s roommate had spent her summer in the French countryside and, once she’d learned that Jane had taken high school French, wanted to have conversations in French about towns Jane had never heard of and cheeses she’d never eaten.
How disorienting it had been to attend the classes she’d watched enviously through the windows her whole life, and wind up miserable. In the end, she’d spent most nights with Aunt Magnolia instead of in her dorm room, feeling like she was living a parallel version of her own life, one that didn’t fit her skin. Like she was a puzzle piece from the wrong puzzle.
“You could be an art major somewhere,” Kiran said then. “Didn’t you used to make cool umbrellas?”
“They’re not art,” said Jane. “They’re umbrellas. Messy ones.”
“Okay,” said Kiran, “whatever. Where do you live now?”
“In an apartment in town.”
“The same apartment you lived in with your aunt?”
“No,” Jane said, injecting it with a touch of sarcasm that was probably wasted on Kiran. Of course she hadn’t been able to afford that same apartment. “I live with three grad students.”
“How do you like it?”
“It’s fine,” Jane lied. Her apartment-mates were a lot older than she and too pompously focused on their abstruse intellectual pursuits to bother with cooking, or cleaning, or showering. It was like living with self-important Owl from Winnie-the-Pooh, except that their hygiene was worse and there were three of them. Jane was hardly ever alone there. Her bedroom was a glorified closet, not conducive to umbrella-making, which required space. It was hard to move around without poking herself on ribs. Sometimes she slept with a work in progress at the end of her bed.
“I liked your aunt,” Kiran said. “I liked you too,” she added, which was when Jane stopped thinking about herself and began to study Kiran, who had changed somehow since she’d last seen her. Kiran had used to move as if she were being pushed by at least four different urgent purposes at once.
“What’s brought you to town?” Jane asked Kiran.
Kiran shrugged, listless. “I was out driving.”
“Where are you living?”
“In the city apartment.”
The Thrashes’ city apartment was the top two floors of a Manhattan mansion overlooking Central Park, quite a distance away for someone who was just “out driving.”
“Though I’ve been called home to the island for the spring gala,” Kiran added. “And I may stay awhile. Octavian is probably in a mood.”
“Okay,” said Jane, trying to imagine having a gazillionaire father, on a private island, in a mood. “I hope you have a nice time.”
“What is that tattoo?” asked Kiran. “Is it a squid?”
“It’s a jellyfish.”
“Can I see it?”
The jellyfish sat on Jane’s upper arm, blue and gold, with thin blue tentacles and spiral arms in white and black reaching all the way down below her elbow. Jane often wore her shirtsleeves rolled up to show a glimpse of the tentacles because, secretly, she liked people to ask to see it. She pushed her sleeve up to the shoulder for Kiran.
Kiran gazed at the jellyfish with an unchanging expression. “Huh,” she said. “Did it hurt?”
“Yes,” said Jane. And she’d taken on an extra job as a waitress at a diner in town for three months to pay for it.
“It’s delicate,” said Kiran. “It’s beautiful, actually. Who designed it?”
“It’s based on a photo my aunt took,” said Jane through a flush of pleasure, “of a Pacific sea nettle jellyfish.”
“Did your aunt ever get to see your tattoo?”
“Timing can be an asshole,” Kiran said. “Come get drinks.”
“What?” said Jane, startled. “Me?”
“After you get off work.”
“So I’ll buy you a milkshake.”
That night, at the bar, Jane had explained to Kiran what it was like to budget for rent, food, and health insurance on a part-time bookstore salary; how she’d sometimes believe in absentminded moments that Aunt Magnolia was just away on another of her photography trips; about the detours she found herself taking to avoid the apartment building where they’d lived together. Jane didn’t mean to explain it all, but Kiran was from the time when life had made sense. Her presence was confusing. It just came out.
“Quit your job,” Kiran said.
“And live how?” Jane said, irritated. “Not everyone has Daddy’s bottomless credit card, you know.”
Kiran absorbed the dig with disinterest. “You just don’t seem very happy.”
“Happy!” said Jane, incredulous, then, as Kiran continued to sip her whiskey, seriously annoyed. “What’s your job, anyway?” she snapped.
“I don’t have a job.”
“Well, you don’t exactly seem happy either.”
Kiran surprised Jane by shouting a laugh. “I’ll drink to that,” she said, then threw back her drink, leaned over the bar, reached into a container of paper umbrellas, and selected one, blue and black to match Jane’s shirt and her tattoo tentacles. Opening it carefully, she twirled it between her fingers, then presented it to Jane.
“Protection,” Kiran announced.
“From what?” Jane asked, examining the umbrella’s delicate working interior.
“From bullshit,” said Kiran.
“Wow,” Jane said. “All this time, I could’ve been stopping bullshit with a cocktail umbrella?”
“It might only work for really small bullshit.”
“Thanks,” said Jane, starting to smile.
“Yeah, so, I don’t have a job,” Kiran said again, holding Jane’s eyes briefly, then looking away. “I apply for things now and then, but it never comes through, and I’ll be honest, I’m always kind of relieved.”
“What’s the problem? You have a degree. You had really good grades, didn’t you? Don’t you speak, like, seven languages?”
“You sound like my mother,” said Kiran, her voice more weary than annoyed. “And my father, and my brother, and my boyfriend, and every damn person I talk to, ever.”
“I was only asking.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m a spoiled rich girl who has the privilege to mope around, feeling sorry for herself for being unemployed. I get it.”
It was funny, because those were Jane’s thoughts exactly. But now, because Kiran had said it, she resented it less. “Hello, don’t put bullshit in my mouth. I’m armed,” Jane said, brandishing her cocktail umbrella.
“You know what I liked about your aunt?” Kiran said. “She always seemed like she knew exactly what she was going to do next. She made you feel like that was possible, to know the right choice.”
Yes. Jane tried to respond, but the truth of it caught in her throat. Aunt Magnolia, she thought, choking on it.
Kiran observed Jane’s grief with dispassion.
“Quit your job and come home with me to Tu Reviens,” she said. “Stay awhile, as long as you like. Octavian won’t mind. Hell, he’ll buy your umbrella supplies. My boyfriend is there; you can meet him. My brother, Ravi, too. Come on. What’s keeping you here?”
Some people are so rich, they don’t even notice when they shame others. What value was there in all the deliberate, scrabbling care Jane put into her subsistence now, if a near-stranger’s indifferent invitation, born of boredom and a need to pee, made Jane more financially comfortable than she could make herself?
But it wasn’t possible to say no, because of Aunt Magnolia. The promise.
“Janie, sweetheart,” Aunt Magnolia had said when Jane had woken extra early one morning and found her aunt on the stool at the kitchen counter. “You’re awake.”
“You’re awake,” Jane had responded, because Jane was the insomniac in the family.
She’d balanced her hip on the edge of Aunt Magnolia’s stool so she could lean against her aunt’s side, close her eyes, and pretend she was still asleep. Aunt Magnolia had been tall, like Jane, and Jane had always fit well against her. Aunt Magnolia had put her cup of tea into Jane’s hands, closing both of Jane’s palms around its warmth.
“You remember your old writing tutor?” Aunt Magnolia had said. “Kiran Thrash?”
“Of course,” Jane had responded, taking a noisy slurp.
“Did she ever talk about her house?”
“The house with the French name? On the island her dad owns?”
“Tu Reviens,” Aunt Magnolia had said.
Jane had known enough French to translate this. “‘You return.’”
“Exactly, darling,” Aunt Magnolia had said. “I want you to make me a promise.”
“If anyone ever invites you to Tu Reviens,” she’d said, “promise me that you’ll go.”
“Okay,” Jane had said. “Um, why?”
“I’ve heard it’s a place of opportunity.”
“Aunt Magnolia,” Jane had said with a snort, putting her cup down to look into her aunt’s eyes. Her aunt had had a funny blue blotch staining the otherwise brown iris in one of her eyes, like a nebula, or a muddy star, with little spikes, spokes.
“Aunt Magnolia,” Jane had repeated. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Her aunt had chuckled, deep in her throat, then had given Jane a one-armed hug. “You know I get wild ideas sometimes.”
Aunt Magnolia had been one for sudden trips, like camping in some remote part of the Finger Lakes where overnights weren’t exactly permitted and where cell phones didn’t work. They would read books together by lantern light, listen to the moths throw themselves against the canvas of the tiny, glowing tent, then finally fall asleep to the sound of loons. And then a week later Aunt Magnolia might go off to Japan to photograph sharks. The images she brought back amazed Jane. It might be a photo of a shark, but what Jane saw was Aunt Magnolia and her camera, pressed in by water, silence, and cold, breathing compressed air, waiting for a visit from a creature that might as well be an alien, so strange were the inhabitants of the underwater world.
“You’re wild, Aunt Magnolia,” Jane had said. “And wonderful.”
“But I don’t ask you for many promises, do I?”
“So promise me this one thing. Won’t you?”
“All right,” Jane had said, “fine. For you, I promise I won’t ever turn down an invitation to Tu Reviens. Why are you awake anyway?”
“Strange dreams,” she’d said. Then, a few days later, she’d left on an expedition to Antarctica, gotten caught too far from camp during a polar blizzard, and frozen to death.
Kiran’s invitation brought Aunt Magnolia near in a way that nothing else had in the four months since.
Tu Reviens. You return.
It’s unsettling, to be so far from home—all her usual anxieties lifted, only to be replaced with new ones. Does Kiran’s father even know Jane is coming? What if she’s just a third wheel once Kiran meets up with her boyfriend? How does a person act around people who own yachts and private islands?
Standing in the lounge of The Kiran, the rain falling in sheets outside, Jane tells herself to breathe, slow, deep, and even, the way Aunt Magnolia taught her. “It’ll help you when you learn to scuba dive,” Aunt Magnolia had used to say when Jane was tiny—five, six, seven—though somehow, those scuba lessons had never materialized.
In, Jane thinks, focusing on her expanding belly. Out, feeling her torso flatten. Jane glances at the house, floating above them in the storm. Aunt Magnolia never worried. She just went.
Jane suddenly feels like a character in a novel by Edith Wharton or the Brontës. I’m a young woman of reduced circumstances, with no family and no prospects, invited by a wealthy family to their glamorous estate. Could this be my heroic journey?
She’ll need to choose an umbrella appropriate for a heroic journey. Will Kiran think it’s weird? Can she find one that isn’t embarrassing? Teetering across the lounge floor, opening one of her crates, Jane lights upon the right choice instantly. The petite umbrella’s satin canopy alternates deep brown with a coppery rose. The brass fittings are made of antique parts, but strong. She could impale someone on the ferrule.
Jane opens it. The runners squeak and the curve of the ribs is warped, the fabric unevenly stretched.
It’s just a stupid, lopsided umbrella, Jane thinks to herself, suddenly blinking back tears. Aunt Magnolia? Why am I here?
Patrick sticks his head into the lounge. His bright eyes flash at Jane, then touch Kiran. “We’re docked, Kir,” he says, “and the car is here.”
Kiran sits up, not looking at him. Then, when he returns to the deck, she watches him through the window as he lifts wooden crates onto his shoulder and carries them onto the dock. His eyes catch hers and she looks away. “Leave your stuff,” she says to Jane dismissively. “Patrick will bring it up later.”
“Okay,” Jane says. Something is definitely up with Patrick and Kiran. “Who’s your boyfriend, anyway?”
“His name is Colin. He works with my brother. You’ll meet him. Why?”
“Did you make that umbrella?” asks Kiran.
“I thought so. It makes me think of you.”
Of course it does. It’s homemade and funny-looking.
Kiran and Jane step into the rain. Patrick holds a steadying hand out to Jane and she grabs his forearm by accident. He is soaked to the skin. Patrick Yellan, Jane notices, has beautiful forearms.
“Watch your step,” he says in her ear.
Once on land, Kiran and Jane scurry toward an enormous black car on the dock. “Patrick’s the one who asked me to come home for the gala,” Kiran shouts through the rain.
“What?” says Jane, flustered. She’s trying to shield Kiran with her umbrella, which sends a rivulet of icy water down the canopy straight into the neck of her own shirt. “Really? Why?”
“Who the hell knows? He told me he has a confession to make. He’s always announcing shit like that, then he has nothing to say.”
“Are you . . . good friends?”
“Stop trying to keep me dry,” Kiran says, reaching for the car door. “It’s only making both of us more wet.”
There is, it turns out, a road that starts at the bay, continues clockwise around the base of the island, then enters a series of hairpin turns that climb the sheer cliffs gradually.
It’s not a soothing drive in a Rolls-Royce in the rain; the car seems too big to take the turns without plummeting off the edge. The driver has the facial expression of a bulldog and she’s driving like she’s got a train to catch. Steel-haired and steel-eyed, pale-skinned with high cheekbones, she’s wearing black yoga clothes and an apron with cooking stains. She stares at Jane in the rearview mirror. Jane shivers, tilting her head so her boisterous curls obscure her face.
“Are we short-staffed again, Mrs. Vanders?” Kiran asks. “You’re wearing an apron.”
“A handful of guests just arrived unannounced,” says Mrs. Vanders. “The spring gala is the day after tomorrow. Cook is having hysterics.”
Kiran throws her head against the back of the seat and closes her eyes. “What guests?”
“Phoebe and Philip Okada,” Mrs. Vanders says. “Lucy St. George—”
“My brother makes me want to die,” Kiran says, interrupting.
“Your brother himself has made no appearance,” says Mrs. Vanders significantly.
“Shocking,” says Kiran. “Any bank robbers expected?”
Mrs. Vanders grunts at this peculiar question and says, “I imagine not.”
“Bank robbers?” says Jane.
“Well,” Kiran says, ignoring Jane, “I announced my friend ahead of time. I hope you’ve set aside space; Janie needs space.”
“We’ve set aside the Red Suite in the east wing for Jane. It has its own morning room,” Mrs. Vanders says. “Though regrettably it has no view of the sea.”
“It’s nowhere near me,” Kiran grumbles. “It’s near Ravi.”
“Well,” says Mrs. Vanders with a sudden softening of expression, “we still have sleeping bags if you want to have sleepovers. You and Ravi and Patrick liked to do that when you were young and Ivy was just a baby, remember? She used to beg to be included.”
“We used to toast marshmallows in Ravi’s fireplace,” Kiran tells Jane, “while Mr. Vanders and Octavian hovered over us, certain we were going to burn ourselves.”
“Or set the house on fire,” says Mrs. Vanders.
“Ivy would make herself sick and fall asleep in a sugar coma,” Kiran says wistfully. “And I would sleep between Patrick and Ravi on the hearth, like a melting s’more.”
Memory comes on sharply; memory has its own will. Sitting with Aunt Magnolia in the red armchair, beside the radiator that clanked and hissed. Reading Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. “Sing Ho! for the life of a Bear!” Aunt Magnolia would say as Christopher Robin led an expotition to the North Pole. Sometimes, if Aunt Magnolia was tired, she and Jane would read silently, wedged together. Jane was five, six, seven, eight. If Aunt Magnolia was drying socks on the radiator, the room would smell of wool.
The car approaches the house from behind, roars around to the front, and pulls into the drive. It’s not a ship anymore, this house, now that Jane sees it up close. It’s a palace.
Mrs. Vanders opens a small, person-sized door set within the great, elephant-sized door. There is no welcoming committee.
Jane and Kiran enter a stone receiving hall with a high ceiling and a checkerboard floor on which Jane creates small puddles everywhere she steps. The air whooshes as Mrs. Vanders closes the door, sucking at Jane’s eardrums and almost making her feel as if she’s missed a whispered word. Absently, she rubs her ear.
“Welcome to Tu Reviens,” says Mrs. Vanders gruffly. “Stay out of the servants’ quarters. We don’t have room for visitors in the kitchen, either, and the west attics are cluttered and dangerous. You should be content with your bedroom, Jane, and the common rooms of the ground floor.”
“Vanny,” says Kiran calmly, “stop being an ogre.”
“I merely wish to prevent your friend from skewering her foot on a nail in the attic,” says Mrs. Vanders, then stalks across the floor and disappears through a doorway. Jane, unsure if she’s meant to follow, takes a step, but Kiran puts a hand out to stop her.
“I think she’s going to the forbidden kitchen,” she says, with half a smile. “I’ll show you around. This is the receiving hall. Is it ostentatious enough for you?”
Matching staircases climb the walls to left and right, reaching to a second story, then a third. The impossibly tall wall before Jane almost makes her dizzy. Long balconies stretch across it at the second and third levels, archways along them puncturing the tall wall at intervals. The balconies might serve as minstrels’ galleries, but they also serve as bridges connecting the east and west sides of the house. The archways glow softly with natural light, as if the wall is a face with glowing teeth. Straight ahead, on the ground level, is another archway through which greenery is visible and the soft glow of more natural light. Jane hears the sound of rain on glass. Her mind can’t make sense of it, in what should be the house’s center.
“It’s the Venetian courtyard,” Kiran says, noticing Jane’s expression, leading her toward the archway. She sounds defeated. “It’s the house’s nicest feature.”
“Oh,” says Jane, trying to read Kiran’s face. “Is it, like, your favorite room?”
“Whatever,” Kiran says. “It makes it harder for me to hate this place.”
Jane studies Kiran instead of the courtyard. Kiran’s pale brown face is turned up to the glass ceiling, the pounding rain. She is not beautiful. She’s the kind of plain-looking that a good deal of money can disguise as beautiful. But Jane realizes now that she likes Kiran’s snub nose, her open face, her wispy black hair.
If she hates this place, Jane wonders, why does she consent to come when Patrick calls? Or does Kiran dislike every place equally?
Jane turns to see what Kiran sees.
Well. What an excellent space to stick in the middle of a house; every house should have one stuck in its middle. It’s a glass-ceilinged atrium, stretching fully up the building’s three stories, with walls of pale pink stone and, in the center, a forest of slender white trees; tiny terraced flower gardens; and a small waterfall shooting from the mouth of a fish. At the second and third levels, long cascades of golden-orange nasturtiums hang from balconies.
“Come on,” Kiran says. “I’ll show you to your room.”
“You don’t have to,” says Jane. “You can just tell me where to go.”
“It’ll give me an excuse not to go looking for Octavian yet,” Kiran says. Laughter erupts from a room not too distant. She winces. “Or the guests, or Colin,” she adds, grabbing Jane’s wrist and pulling her back into the receiving hall.
It’s strange to be touched by someone as prickly as Kiran. Jane can’t tell if it’s comforting or if she feels a bit trapped. “What’s Colin like?”
“He’s an art dealer,” Kiran says, not directly answering Jane’s question. “He works for his uncle who owns a gallery. Colin has a master’s in art history. He taught one of Ravi’s classes when Ravi was an undergrad; that’s how they met. But even if he’d studied, like, astrophysics, he’d probably have ended up working for his uncle Buckley. Everyone in that family does. Still, at least he’s using his degree.”
Kiran has a degree in religion and languages she’s apparently not using. Once, Jane remembers, Kiran wrote a paper on religious groups working with governments to encourage environmental conservation that fascinated Aunt Magnolia. She and Kiran had talked and talked. Aunt Magnolia had turned out to know a lot more about politics than Jane had realized.
Kiran backtracks through the receiving hall and takes the east staircase on their left. The walls going up are covered with a bizarre collection of paintings from all different periods, all different styles. On every landing is a complete suit of armor.
Dominating the second-story landing is a particularly tall realistic painting done in thick oils, depicting a room with a checkerboard floor and an umbrella propped open as if left to dry. Jane feels she could almost step into the scene.
A basset hound, coming down the steps toward them, stops and stares at Jane. Then he begins to hop and pant with increasing interest. When Jane passes him, he turns himself around and follows eagerly, but his long radius makes for slow turning, and basset hounds aren’t designed for steps. He treads on his own ear and yelps. He’s soon left behind. He barks.
“Ignore Jasper,” Kiran says. “That dog has a personality disorder.”
“What’s wrong with him?” asks Jane.
“He grew up in this house,” Kiran says.
Jane has never had a suite of rooms to herself.
Kiran’s phone rings as they step through the door. She glances at it, then scowls. “Fucking Patrick. Bet you anything he has nothing to say. I’ll leave you to explore,” she says, wandering back out into the corridor.
Jane is free now to examine her rooms without needing to hide her amazement. Her gold-tiled bathroom, complete with hot tub, is as big as her bedroom used to be, and the bedroom is a vast expanse, the king-sized bed a mountain she supposes she’ll scale later, to sleep in the clouds. The walls are an unusually pale shade of red, like one of the brief, early colors of the sky at sunrise. Fat leather armchairs sit around a giant fireplace. Jane opens her umbrella and sets it to dry on the cold hearth, noticing logs stacked beside the fireplace and wondering how one goes about lighting a fire.
The morning room, through an adjoining door, has eastern walls made of glass, presumably to catch the morning sun. The glass brings her very near the storm, which is nice. A storm can be a cozy thing when one isn’t in it.
Outside, formal gardens stretch to meet a long lawn, then a forest beyond, disappearing into fog, as if maybe this house and this small patch of land have floated out of normal existence, with Jane as their passenger. Well, Jane and the mud-soaked child digging holes with a trowel in the garden below, short hair dripping with rain. She’s maybe seven, or eight. She raises her face to glance up at the house.
Is there something familiar about the look of that kid? Does Jane recognize her?
The little girl shifts her position and the sensation fades.
After surveying her morning room (rolltop desk, striped sofa, floral armchair, yellow shag rug, and a random assortment of paintings), she returns to her bedroom, wrapping herself in a soft dark blanket from the foot of the bed.
A small scratching noise brings her to the hallway door, which she opens a crack. “You made it,” she says as the dog barrels in. “I admire your persevering spirit.”
Jasper is a classic basset hound in brown, black, and white; his nose is long, his ears are longer, his legs are short, his eyes sag, his mouth droops, his ears flop. He is a creature beset by gravity. When Jane kneels and offers a hand, he sniffs it. Licks it, shyly. Then he leans his weight against her damp corduroys. “You,” Jane says, scratching his head in a place she suspects he can’t reach, “are perfect.”
“Oh,” says a voice at the door, sounding surprised. “Are you Janie?”
Jane looks up into the face of a tall girl who must be Patrick Yellan’s little sister, for she’s got his looks, his coloring, his brilliant blue eyes. Her long, dark hair is pulled back in a messy knot.
“Yes,” says Jane. “Ivy?”
“Yeah,” says the girl. “But, how old are you?”
“Eighteen,” says Jane. “You?”
“Nineteen,” she says. “Kiran told me she was bringing a friend but she didn’t tell me you were my age.” She leans against the door frame, wearing skintight gray jeans and a red hoodie so comfortably that she might have slept in them. She reaches into her hoodie pocket, pulls out a pair of dark-rimmed glasses, and sticks them on her face.
In her gold zigzag shirt and wine-colored cords covered with dog hair, Jane feels awkward suddenly, like some sort of evolutionary anomaly. A blue-footed booby, next to a graceful heron.
“I love your outfit,” Ivy says.
Jane is astonished. “Are you a mind reader?”
“No,” says Ivy, with a quick, wicked grin. “Why?”
“You just read my mind.”
“That sounds disconcerting,” says Ivy. “Hmmm, how about zeppelins?”
“Were you thinking about zeppelins?”
“Then that should make you more comfortable.”
“What?” says Jane again, so confused that she’s laughing a little.
“Unless you were just thinking about zeppelins.”
“It’s possible I’ve never thought about zeppelins,” says Jane.
“It’s an acceptable Scrabble word,” says Ivy, “even though it’s often a proper name, which isn’t allowed.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Well, zeppelin, singular, anyway. I put it down once on two triple-word scores. Kiran challenged me, because zeppelins are named after a person, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin or somebody, but it’s in the Scrabble dictionary anyway. It earned me two hundred fifty-seven points. Oh god. I’m sorry. Listen to me.”
“No, really,” she says. “I swear I’m not usually afflicted with verbal diarrhea. I also don’t usually brag about my Scrabble scores two minutes after meeting someone.”
“It’s okay,” says Jane, because people who talk so easily make her comfortable, they’re less work, she knows where she stands. “I don’t play much Scrabble, so I don’t know what it means to earn two hundred fifty-seven points. That could be average, for all I know.”
“It’s an amazing fucking score for one word,” Ivy says, then closes her eyes. “Seriously. What is wrong with me.”
“I like it,” says Jane. “I want to hear more of your Scrabble words.”
Ivy shoots her a grateful grin. “I did actually have a reason for coming by,” she says. “I’m the one who got your room ready. I wanted to check if everything’s okay.”
“More than okay,” says Jane. “I mean, there’s a fireplace and hot tub.”
“Not what you’re used to?”
“My last bedroom was about the size of that bed,” Jane says, pointing to it.
“The ‘cupboard under the stairs’?”
“I guess not that bad,” says Jane, smiling at the Harry Potter reference.
“I’m glad,” says Ivy. “You’re sure you don’t need anything?”
“I don’t want you to feel like you have to take care of me.”
“Hey, it’s my job,” says Ivy. “Tell me what you need.”
“Well,” says Jane. “There are a couple things I could use, but I don’t really need them, and they’re not normal things I would ask you for.”
“A rotary saw,” says Jane. “A lathe.”
“Uh-huh,” says Ivy, grinning again. “Come with me.”
“You’re going to bring me to a rotary saw and a lathe?” says Jane, tossing the blanket back onto the bed.
“This house has one of everything.”
“Do you know where everything is?”
Ivy considers this thoughtfully as the dog follows them out into the corridor. “I probably know where almost everything is. I’m sure the house is keeping some secrets from me.”
Jane is tall, but Ivy is taller, with legs that go on forever. Their strides are well-matched. The dog clings close to her feet. “Is it true Jasper has a personality disorder?” she asks. “Kiran said so.”
“He can be quirky,” Ivy says. “He won’t do his business if you’re watching him—he glares at you as if you’re being unforgivably rude. And there’s a painting in the blue sitting room he’s obsessed with.”
“What do you mean?”
“He sits there gazing at it, blowing big sighs through his nose.”
“Is it a painting of a dog or something?”
“No, it’s a boring old city by the water, except for the fact that it’s got two moons. And sometimes he disappears for days and we can’t find him. Cook calls him our earthbound misfit. He’s our house mystery too—he appeared one day after one of the galas, a puppy, as if a guest had brought him and left him behind. But no one ever claimed him. So we kept him. Is he bothering you?”
“Nah,” says Jane. “This house,” she adds as Ivy walks her down the hallway toward the atrium at the house’s center. A polar bear rug, complete with head and glassy eyes, sits in the middle of the passageway. It looks like real fur. Wrinkling her nose, Jane makes a path around it, then rubs her ears again, trying to dislodge a noise. The house is humming, or singing, a faint, high-pitched whine of air streaming through pipes somewhere, though really, Jane’s not totally conscious of it. There’s a way in which background noises can enter one’s unconscious self, settle in—even make changes—without tripping any of one’s conscious alarms.
Ivy slows as she nears the center of the house. They are on the highest level, the third, and Ivy takes the branch of the hallway that goes to the left. Jane follows, finding herself on one of the bridgelike balconies she saw from the receiving hall. The bridge overlooks the receiving hall on one side and the courtyard on the other.
Ivy stops at one of the archways overlooking the courtyard. Someone’s left a camera here, perched on the wide balustrade, a fancy one with a big lens. Picking it up, Ivy hangs it around her neck. When Jane steps beside her, breathing through the heady feeling of vertigo, Jasper does too, shoving his head between two balusters.
“Jasper,” Jane says in alarm, reaching for his collar, then realizing he’s not wearing one. “Jasper! Be careful!”
Jasper demonstrates that he cannot possibly fall, by straining with all his strength to push himself through the balusters, failing, then looking up at Jane with an “I told you so” expression. It’s not a comforting demonstration.
“Don’t worry,” Ivy says. “He won’t fall. He’s too big.”
“Yeah,” Jane says, “I see that, but I still wish he’d stay back. Respect the heights, you long-eared bozo!”
At this, Ivy lets out a single, small laugh. “Quixotic,” she says.
She shakes her head at herself. “Sorry. It just occurred to me that if I’d been able to play the word quixotic in that spot instead of the word zeppelin, I’d have scored even more points. Because of the combined power of the x and the q. They’re valuable letters,” she adds apologetically, “because they’re rare. You make me want to talk. It’s like a compulsion. I could go get a muzzle.”
“I told you, I like it,” says Jane, then notices, suddenly, the words on Ivy’s camera strap: I am the Bad Wolf. I create myself.
It’s a reference to the TV show Doctor Who. “Are you a sci-fi fan?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” says Ivy. “I like sci-fi and fantasy generally.”
“Who’s your favorite Doctor?”
“Eh, I like the companions better,” says Ivy. “The Doctor’s all tragic and broody and last of his kind, and I get the appeal of that, but I like Donna Noble and Rose Tyler. And Amy and Rory, and Clara Oswald, and Martha Jones. No one ever likes Martha Jones but I like Martha Jones. She’s an asskicker.”
Jane nods. “I get that.”
“Were you going to say something about the house?” says Ivy. “Before?”
“The decorative stuff,” Jane says. “The art. Isn’t it kind of . . . random?”
Ivy leans an elbow on the balustrade. “Yeah, it’s definitely random,” she says. “Officially random, really. A hundred-some years ago, when the very first Octavian Thrash was building this house, he, um, how should I put it, he . . . acquired parts of other houses, from all over the world.”
“Acquired?” says Jane. “What do you mean? Like, the way Russia acquired Crimea?”
Ivy flashes a grin. “Yeah, basically. Some of the houses were being remodeled, or torn down. Octavian bought parts. But in other cases, it’s hard to say how he got his hands on them.”
“Are you saying he stole?”
“Yes,” Ivy says. “Or bought stuff that was stolen. That’s why the pillars don’t match, or the tiles, or anything really. He collected the art the same way, and the furniture. Apparently ships would arrive full of random crap, maybe a door from Turkey, a banister from China. A stained-glass window from Italy, a column from Egypt, a pile of floorboards from some manor kitchen in Scotland. Even the skeleton is made of the miscellaneous crap he collected.”
“So . . . the house is like Frankenstein’s monster?”
“Yup,” she says, “speaking of sci-fi. Or like some kind of cannibal.”
“Will it eat us?”
Her smile again. “It hasn’t eaten anyone yet.”
“Then I’ll stay.”
“Good,” she says.
“Some of the art seems newer.”
“Mrs. Vanders and Ravi do the buying these days. Octavian gives them permission to spend his money.”
“What things do they buy?”
“Valuable stuff. Tasteful stuff. Nothing stolen. Ravi works as an art dealer in New York now, actually, with Kiran’s boyfriend, Colin. It’s like his dream job. I think he cries with happiness every morning on his way to work. Ravi is bananas about art,” she adds, noticing Jane’s puzzled expression. “He’s been known to sleep under the Vermeer. Like, in the corridor, in a sleeping bag.”
Jane is trying to imagine a grown man sleeping on a floor beneath a painting. “I’ll try to remember that, in case I’m ever walking around in the dark.”
“Ha!” says Ivy. “I meant when he was a little kid. He doesn’t do it now. We used to play with some of the art too, like, pretend-play around it. The sculptures, the Brancusi fish. The suits of armor.”
While Jane tries to file all this information away, rainwater pounds on the glass ceiling of the courtyard. “What about the courtyard?” she says, taking in the pink stone, the measured terraces, the hanging nasturtiums. “It isn’t unmatching. It feels balanced.”
“Mm-hm,” says Ivy with a small, crooked smile. “The first Octavian rescued the entire thing from a Venetian palace that was being torn down, and brought it over on a boat in one piece.”
There’s something preposterous about a ship carrying three stories of empty space around the Italian peninsula, through the Mediterranean, and across the Atlantic.
“This house kind of gives me the creeps,” Jane says.
“We’re about to go into the servants’ quarters,” Ivy says. “It’s nice and simple in there, with no dead polar bears.”
“Does that bother you too?”
Ivy gives a rueful shrug. “To me, he’s just Captain Polepants.”
“That’s what Kiran and Patrick called him when we were little. They thought it was hilarious, because Kiran’s half British, and in the U.K., pants means underpants. Mr. Vanders had a name for him too,” Ivy says, screwing her face up thoughtfully. “Bipolar Bear, I think it was. Because he likes psychology. Funny, right?”
“I guess,” Jane says. “My aunt was a conservationist. She took pictures of polar bears instead of making rugs out of them.”
“Speak of the devil,” Ivy says, looking down to the courtyard below. An elderly man darts across the floor. He’s a tall, dark-skinned black man in black clothing, with a ring of white hair. He carries a small child on one hip, maybe two or three years old. All Jane can see of the child from above is wavy dark hair, tanned skin, flopping arms and legs. “Why?” the toddler yells, squirming. “Why? Why!”
“Kiran never mentioned there’d be so many kids here,” Jane says, remembering the little girl digging in the rain outside her window.
Ivy pauses. “That was Mr. Vanders,” she says. “He’s the butler, and Mrs. Vanders is the housekeeper. They manage a pretty big staff. He’s always in a hurry.”
“Okay,” Jane says, noticing that Ivy’s said nothing about the child, and that her face has gone measured, her voice carefully nonchalant. It’s weird. “You said we’re going into the servants’ quarters?” she adds. “Mrs. Vanders actually told me I’m not allowed there.”
“Mrs. Vanders can bite me,” says Ivy with sudden sharpness.
“Sorry.” Ivy looks sheepish. “But she’s not in charge of the house. She just acts like she is. You do whatever you want.”
“Okay.” Jane wants to see the house, every part of it. She also wants to not get yelled at.
“Come on,” Ivy says, pushing away. “If we see her, you can just pretend you don’t know which part of the house we’re in. You can blame me.”
She’s backing away across the bridge while facing Jane, willing Jane to follow her. Then she shoots Jane her wicked grin again, and Jane can’t say no.
“Every time I step into a new section, I feel like I’m in a different house.”
Jane spins on her heels, examining the unexpectedly serene, unadorned, pale green walls of the forbidden servants’ quarters, in the west wing of the third story. All the doors are set into small, side hallways that branch off the main corridor.
“Wait till you see the bowling alley downstairs,” Ivy says, “and the indoor swimming pool.”
Jane realizes she’s been breathing the faint, rather pleasant scent of chlorine ever since Ivy joined her. “Are you a swimmer?”
“Yeah, when I have time. You can use the pool whenever you want. Tell me if you want me to show you the changing rooms and stuff. That’s my room,” she adds, pointing down a short hallway to a closed door. “Hang on, let me put my camera down.”
“What are you taking pictures of?”
“The art,” she says. “Be right back.” She leaves Jane in the main corridor, where Jasper leans against her legs, sighing. Jane’s clothing has dried, mostly; at any rate, she no longer feels like a soggy, cold stray. She’s exposed out here, though; she imagines Mrs. Vanders peering at her disapprovingly around corners, and she also wishes she could see Ivy’s room. Do the servants have hot tubs and fireplaces too? Is Ivy always on the clock? Does she get to travel to New York like Kiran does? If she’s nineteen, will she go to college? How did she go to high school? For that matter, how did Kiran go to high school?
“Do you have a hot tub in there?”
“I wish,” says Ivy, grinning. “Want to see?”
Jane and Jasper follow Ivy into a long room with two distinct realms: the bed realm, near the door, and the computer realm, which takes up most of the rest of the space. Jane never knew one person could need so many computers. A jumble of ropes is propped beside one of her keyboards, along with two of the longest flashlights Jane’s ever seen. Large, precise drawings—blueprints, sort of—cover the walls. Jane realizes, looking closer, that they’re interior maps of a house that are so detailed that they show wallpaper, furniture, carpets, art.
“Did you make these?” asks Jane.
“I guess,” says Ivy. “They’re the house.”
“Wow.” Jane sees familiar things now: the Venetian courtyard, the checkered floor of the receiving hall, the polar bear rug.
Ivy seems embarrassed. “Patrick and I share a bathroom in the hall,” she says. “Mr. and Mrs. Vanders have their own suite, though, and it has a hot tub.”
“You could use my hot tub.”
“Thanks,” says Ivy, pulling the tie out of her messy bun, shaking her hair out, and winding it back up again. The air is touched with the scent of chlorine, and jasmine.
“Marzipan,” Ivy says randomly, giving her hair a final tug.
Jane is used to this by now. “Yeah?”
“Another great word to play in that same spot, because of the position of the z.”
“Are you always thinking up good eight-letter Scrabble words?”
“Nope. Only since you came along.”
“Maybe I’ll be good for your Scrabble game.”
“It’s looking that way. Brains are bizarre,” says Ivy, going back into the corridor and leading Jane and Jasper past more hallways and doors.
“If you grew up here,” says Jane, “how did you go to school?”
“We were all homeschooled,” says Ivy, “by Octavian, and Mr. Vanders, and the first Mrs. Thrash.”
“Was it strange? To be homeschooled, on an isolated island?”
“Probably,” says Ivy with a grin, “but it seemed normal when I was a kid.”
“Will you go to college?”
“I’ve been thinking about it lately,” Ivy says, “a lot. I’ve been saving up, and I took the SATs last time I was in the city. But I haven’t started applying.”
“What will you study?”
“No clue,” she says. “Is that bad? Should I have my whole life plotted out?”
“You’re asking a college dropout,” says Jane, then isn’t sure what affect to adopt when Ivy looks at her curiously. I’m okay? I’m not okay? I feel stupid? Back off, my aunt died?
“I didn’t mean to put you on the spot,” says Ivy. “There’s nothing wrong with being a college dropout.”
“It doesn’t feel very good, though,” says Jane.
“That doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” says Ivy thoughtfully.
That sounds like something Aunt Magnolia would say, though she’d say it in ringing tones of wisdom, whereas Ivy says it as if it’s a new possibility she’s considering for the first time. They’ve come to a door at the end of the corridor, made of unfinished planks, with a heavy iron latch instead of a knob. Ivy pulls it open to reveal a landing with elevator doors straight ahead and stairs leading up and down. She flicks a switch on the landing and the room above brightens. “West attics,” she says before Jane can ask. “The workshop is up there.”
“Mrs. Vanders said I wasn’t allowed in the west attics, either,” says Jane. “She said it’s dangerous.”
Ivy snorts, then starts up the steps. “Come see for yourself. If it looks dangerous, we won’t go in.”
“Okay,” says Jane, pretending to be the rule-breaker she isn’t, because she doesn’t want to lose Ivy’s respect. “Wow,” she adds as her climb brings an enormous room into view. It’s filled with neat rows of worktables, almost like a shop class. With tall windows and high, wooden rafters, it’s as big as the entire west wing, rich with the smells of oil and sawdust. Rain drums against the roof. Through the windows Jane can just barely make out the spire on the house’s east side, puncturing the storm clouds.
It’s a tidy, open, barn-like space, with no loose nails or shaky beams. Jane wanders, Ivy following. An unfinished chest draws her attention. It’s walnut—Jane knows her woods. It has a carved top depicting an undersea scene of sperm whales (Jane also knows her whales). Above the whales, a girl floats in a rowboat, oblivious to the creatures below.
“Who made this?” Jane asks.
“Oh,” says Ivy, looking embarrassed but pleased. “That’s mine.”
“Really? You make furniture too? It’s beautiful!”
“Thanks. I haven’t touched it in forever. I don’t get time for the big projects. Though my brother and I did finish a boat recently.”
“You and Patrick made a boat up here?”
“Yeah. A rowboat. We had to lower it to the ground on ropes through a window. There’s a freight elevator to the outside, and a dumbwaiter,” Ivy says, waving a hand back toward the stairs, “but it was a boat, after all.”
A DIY rowboat. Jane tries to make her umbrellas watertight, but it’s not like anyone’s going to drown if she screws something up. “Do you take the boat out?”
“Sure,” says Ivy. “It’s a great little boat.”
Who builds a boat, in her spare time, with her own hands, then slaps it onto the ocean and rows around in it successfully? Probably while announcing winning Scrabble words and being bold and daring.
“There’s a rotary saw in the back somewhere,” Ivy says, “and we have a few different lathes.”
“Thanks,” says Jane, feeling a bit desolate.
“You should help yourself to whatever you need.”
“Thanks,” Jane says again, hoping Ivy won’t ask her what she needs them for.
The house moans and grumbles, almost as if in sympathy with Jane’s feelings. As old houses do, Jane thinks to herself. She imagines this house curled up with its back to the sky, shivering around the center it must keep warm, holding its skin against the driving rain.
A tiny, self-contained glass room sits near the stairs. There’s a table inside, on which is propped a large painting of a white man with sloping shoulders, wearing a beret with a great, curling feather. Brushes, bottles, and light fixtures surround the painting.
“Is someone a painter?” Jane asks, pointing.
“Rembrandt’s a painter,” Ivy says, grinning. “That’s a Rembrandt self-portrait. It’s one of the house’s pictures. Mrs. Vanders is cleaning it. She has a degree in conservation, among other things. Maybe you can smell the acetone—sort of a sharp smell? She uses it sometimes.”
“Oh,” Jane says, feeling silly for not recognizing a Rembrandt. “Right.”
“That room is her conservation studio,” Ivy says. “It’s sealed, so the art is protected from sawdust, and the glass is a fancy kind that shields it from outside light.”
“Yeah,” says Ivy, understanding. “This is a house of serious art lovers. And Octavian has more money than God.”
A door at the back end of the attic opens with a scraping sound, startling Jane. Spinning around, she sees a flash of yellow wallpaper in a bright room beyond. A man with a pert mouth steps from the room, notices Jane, and clicks the door shut quickly. He has dark hair and East Asian features and wears a navy blue suit and orange Chuck Taylors.
Pulling latex gloves from his hands and shoving them into his pockets, he walks across the room toward them both. “Hello,” he says.
“Hi,” says Ivy, her voice carefully nonchalant again. “This is Philip Okada,” she tells Jane. “He’s visiting for the gala. Philip, this is Kiran’s friend Janie.”
“Nice to meet you,” says Philip, speaking with what sounds like an English accent.
“You too,” says Jane, glancing at the gloves dangling from his coat pocket.
“Forgive me,” he says. “I’m something of a germophobe and I often wear them. How do you know Kiran?”
“She went to college in my hometown.”
“Ah.” He smiles a polite smile, his face creasing into lines that make Jane think he must be at least thirty. Thirty-five? Even older? When do old people get laugh lines?
“How do you know the Thrash family?” asks Jane, deciding to be nosy.
“The New York party scene,” says Philip, his expression pleasantly bland.
“I see,” says Jane, wondering what that means, exactly, and how a germophobe manages a crowded party “scene.” Is there more here than meets the eye?
“Well,” he says, “see you later, no doubt.” He bends down to give Jasper a vigorous rub behind the ears. Then he descends the stairs, sliding his hand along the metal railing.
“You’d think a germophobe would avoid dogs and railings,” says Jane.
Ivy’s face is expressionless. “Take whatever you need,” she says, turning away. “Our attic is your attic.”
Definitely more here than meets the eye.
In the end, Jane borrows a rotary saw, a small lathe, a tarp, some beautiful birch rods, a can of stain, a can of varnish, and a worktable that’s a good height for her sewing machine. The workshop contains a thousand other things she could use, but she’s already embarrassed enough by her riches, especially when she needs to take two trips to get them downstairs.
While Jane is balancing her first armload, Ivy’s phone makes a noise like one of the horns in Lord of the Rings. “Sorry,” she says, glancing at it. “That’s Cook. You’ll be okay? Leave the worktable. Someone’ll bring it to you later.”
“Okay,” Jane says, “thanks,” wondering when she’ll see Ivy again, but too shy to ask.
Jasper follows Jane back and forth from the attics to her rooms, stumping along cheerfully behind her, waiting patiently at the base of the attic steps each time. “I like you, Jasper,” says Jane.
Her suitcase and crates arrived while she was gone. Dinner is hours away and the storm is still raging on the other side of the glass. At her morning room windows, Jasper beside her, Jane gazes out at the drenched world. She supposes it’s an appropriate day, an appropriate setting, to consider the making of umbrellas.
It wasn’t the colors that had first drawn Jane to umbrellas, it wasn’t the mechanics.
It was Aunt Magnolia.
On rainy days, when Jane was a child and Aunt Magnolia was away on a deep-sea photography trip, Jane would build an umbrella fort on the campus green and hide inside. The sound of rain thudding against a taut piece of fabric stretched above her was like being underwater. Jane could crawl into her umbrella fort and imagine herself where Aunt Magnolia was.
The elderly neighbors, who cared for Jane when Aunt Magnolia was gone, were warm and attentive and kind, but they were old, and Jane was generally left to play alone. Aunt Magnolia had given her an old scuba helmet to wear inside her umbrella fort, so that her own breathing sounded strange. Sometimes, depending on the weather, a chorus of tiny frogs joined the other noises. Jane would lie on her back in the wet grass, breathing through the nozzle, listening, pretending the umbrellas were giant jellyfish.
And once when she was in high school, when Aunt Magnolia had been taking pictures in the oceans of New Zealand for what felt like an eon and Jane had been staying in the apartment alone, she’d found herself in art class building an umbrella sculpture. Her art teacher had opened a closet full of miscellaneous junk and told everyone to go scrounging and make something. The closet had contained birch rods, various wires and metal fixings, and a huge piece of dark fabric spread across with fireflies. It had been raining that day, water coursing down the art room windows. It wasn’t really what the art teacher had meant by “art,” but it had somehow found Jane, this lopsided, water-absorbent thing with an open canopy like a real umbrella. It had been a mess, really. Made of lucky discoveries and countless mistakes. But tears stung her eyes when she looked at it.
Who can say how we choose our loves? After that first attempt, she’d rifled through the coat closet, snatched up the two bedraggled umbrellas she’d found, then applied herself to taking them apart.
Their tension came from branches that reached away from a central trunk and from each other—as far from each other, in fact, as they could get. The reaching away was what held the domed canopy taut and stretched in place. Why had Jane loved this, that the reaching away held it together? Who knows. But she had, and she’d taken apart every umbrella she could find, and experimented with waterproofing, and built rickety frames Aunt Magnolia would stumble over, or find piled in corners. She became particular about small variations in color and shape. She worked on them a little bit every day back then, almost compulsively.
“There is nothing wrong with impractical loves,” Aunt Magnolia had responded whenever Jane had apologized for spending so much time on them.
And then college had started up and she’d had no time for anything, except schoolwork that had felt like a hill of sliding rock.
“Janie-love,” Aunt Magnolia would say sometimes. “When did you last work on an umbrella?”
Jane’s grades had been passing when Aunt Magnolia had been around to help, but her aunt had had a lot of travel that fall and Jane found herself failing biology. And then Aunt Magnolia had died. Jane had dropped out of school. And umbrellas were all she could face, almost as if one perfect umbrella might make Aunt Magnolia come back.