Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Emily Henry
FROM my bedroom window, I watch the ghost flutter. She shifts and warbles in the dark yard, her pink sheen caught in moonlight. I wonder if she’s looking up at the spread of stars or if she’s facing the farmhouse, watching us. Maybe things like her don’t have eyes. Maybe they wander, unseeing, through the world.
At the edge of the clearing, the sudden shuffle and bob of branches draw my eyes from the ghost. A couple of giggly sophomores I recognize break through the brush and hesitate, half-shadowed, as they scour the hilltop our house sits on.
They look right past the shimmering pink spirit and focus instead on the cherry tree that sprawls out in front of our porch. The tree’s as old as the town itself, planted by my great-great-great- great-grandfather, Jonathan “Jack” Alroy O’Donnell, when he first settled here. He, like Dad, could talk roots into spreading anywhere, but part of the reason Jonathan stayed in Five Fingers was the taste of the cherries that grew on this hill. Like heaven on earth, Dad used to say, like the silent world before anything had gone wrong.
Within months of his arrival, Jonathan had started a farm a couple of miles from here, closer to the water, where the earth mixed with sand. For two generations, the O’Donnells built a legacy of roots and branches. It’s been four more since the Angerts, my family’s mortal enemies, foreclosed on the farm. But the cherries from that land are still sold in grocery stores and farmers’ markets, at festivals and fairs, beneath hand-painted signs and vinyl banners reading jack’s tart.
The sophomores, Molly Malone and Quincy Northbrook, run toward the tree now, folded in half like they’re trying not to block a movie-theater screen. Neither of them sees the ghost, but they both shiver as they pass through her, and Molly stops and glances back. Quincy’s halfway up the tree, trying to shake down the empty branches. He hisses at Molly, and she runs to stand below him, folding her shirt up like a grocery bag as a few shriveled cherries drop.
Gravel crunches then, and headlights swing up the curve of our long driveway. In the tree, Quincy freezes like a raccoon caught robbing a trash can, but Molly’s already running, halfway back to the woods with her spoils. At the breathy honk of the car horn, Quincy drops from the branches and takes off full tilt after her.
Hannah rolls the Subaru’s window down and shouts, “Yeah, that’s right! You’d better run, punks!” She shakes her head in mock disapproval then looks up at me, affecting surprise. “But soft!” she calls. “What light through yonder window breaks?”
“It’s me,” I yell back.
“Wait. June? You’re positively glowing. I thought that was the east and you were the sun.”
“Yeah, I’m ovulating. Common mistake.”
“Well, get those incandescent ovaries down here. We’ve got death traps and deep-fried John Doe waiting for us.”
I pull on my canvas tennis shoes, swing my leather backpack over my shoulder, and flick the lights off. But something makes me take one last look at my room from the hallway, at the wild constellations of green star stickers Dad and I tacked on my ceiling when I was six years old. I’d been sure back then they’d glow forever—that nothing Dad touched could dim.
Mom even used to say, “June, your daddy’s the sun.”
And he was. He could make anything grow. He warmed every room he stepped into. When he touched an animal, it would lie down and nap. He even went away in the winter, like the sun so often did, and without him the house became cold, lethargic.
It’s been almost ten years since he died, and not a single star sticker still glows. But some people are too alive to fully die, their stories too big to disappear, and he was one of them. I see traces of him all over our magic house. I hear him in the creak and groan of the floorboards as the summer nights stretch them, can visualize him sitting at the foot of my bed, saying, Other houses have support beams and foundations. Ours has bones and a heartbeat.
I close my eyes and listen to the house hum and yawn, stretch and curl. Outside, Hannah honks, and I close the door and jog downstairs.
In the soft light of the kitchen, Mom and Toddy, my stepdad, are laughing and tickling each other like freshmen on a first date while they choose a bottle of white wine from the fridge. Shadow and Grayson are in the living room, standing on the couch, playing a gladiator video game with motion sensors.
“Han’s here,” I announce, and Grayson screams something like katchaaaaaaw over my words and kicks the air.
Mom yelps with laughter and squirms in Toddy’s arms, turning her sparkly Torch Lake eyes on me. Dad always said they were the first part of her he fell for. They met far away from here, but she was a little piece of home to him, so he swept her up and brought her back with him, because he wanted all the home he could have in one place.
Mom smooths her T-shirt down over her improbably toned stomach. “Tell Hannah hi!”
Toddy wraps her waist in his arms and rests his chin on her head. “Go anywhere else after the carnival and you need to let us know, Junie,” he adds. “Don’t you girls get in any trouble.”
“Never.” I feign indignation and turn down the narrow hall for the door.
“Love you, baby,” they both call.
Outside, the throng of moths surrounding the porch light disperses around me. The hens, as usual, are asleep in the grass beyond the decrepit chicken coop, no cares in the world. As I slide into Hannah’s passenger seat, everything feels particularly right in a way I can’t explain. Like the whole world’s in harmony.
The house, the woods, the hens. Hannah in her floral minidress and me in my ratty summer tank top and shorts. The spirit.
I scan the yard for any hint of the wobbly pink thing. “Saw the ghost,” I tell Hannah.
Hannah pops a piece of gum into her mouth then holds the pack out for me. “Which one?”
The cozy pink presence isn’t the only one that has drifted across our yard since before I was born. “Feathers,” I answer.
Hannah chews on her lip. “Good.”
The other ghost—the shadowy one we haven’t named, that plume of darkness that makes you feel nauseated and cold if you brush against it—only ever appears before something bad happens. Even when we hadn’t actually seen the blackish thing, we’d know it had been there because all the animals on our land would freak. The always serene hens would flap, peck, break their wings, sometimes even kill one another. The normally merciful coywolves would mutilate rabbits and sparrows and leave their uneaten bodies on our hillside, scatterings of grisly omens. The last time it came was three years ago, the night before our porch collapsed and I broke my foot, but I haven’t actually seen the dark ghost in ten years.
Not since before the worst Bad Thing.
Hannah starts to reverse down the hill and into the woods. “Ugh, your house always makes me feel the feelings. I swear, there’s no place more nostalgia inducing than that leaning stack of lumber.”
I nod and look out the window.
“Is she here now?” Hannah asks as she reverses slowly down the driveway. “Feathers?”
I point out toward a curve in the edge of the forest where I can barely make out a pink tendril caught in moonlight. “There,” I tell Hannah. She gazes out toward that point with a dreamy, contented smile, then returns to easing down the driveway. “I wish you could see her.”
Hannah lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “I just like knowing she’s there. You know, not everyone gets to be best friends with someone who has a guardian . . . ghost.”
“Han, if she were my guardian ghost, don’t you think she would’ve intervened when I got bangs?”
“Who says guardian ghosts don’t have a sense of humor?”
When we were little, I saw the pink ghost all the time. Hannah couldn’t, but she could feel it. Sometimes we’d chase the shimmer across the yard and run through it, as if it were the spray of the sprinkler. It felt soft and lush, like running through a million falling feathers, thus our nickname for it. Dad always called it the Sprite, and when Mom shot him dubious looks— you shouldn’t toy with the kids like that—he’d wink and say, “You know, Léa, to enter the kingdom of heaven, you must become like a child.”
Then she’d smile as she turned back to hanging laundry, or rolling dough over the floured counter, or trailing her fingers along the gauzy wind-rippled drapes, and say, “Five Fingers loves its stories.” Like most transplants to this place, Mom had a hard time accepting the strange things that happened on our land as anything other than the shared imaginings of wild, summer-dazed minds and a town-wide tendency to exaggerate.
Five Fingers did love its stories, but Dad’s were true. Our house is magic, in some small way. The skinny halls and wallpapered rooms, the gnarled forest that encircled our hill—together they do all kinds of impossible things. My whole life kids have crept onto our property at night to make wishes and look for spirits, or to steal cherries from the first Jack’s Tart tree with hopes of shrinking their dogs’ tumors, healing their grandparents’ melanoma, even clearing up their acne.
As we pull onto the wooded road beyond my driveway, something flutters in my peripheral vision: the shift of a shadow, the undulation of something inky in front of the gatehouse.
My blood chills. My stomach clenches, a knot tightens my throat, and there’s a jarring halt in my heart. But when I glance in the rearview mirror, there’s nothing there. No shadowy thing, no darkness.
It’s gone, I tell myself. It’s been gone three years. It’s not coming back.
Hannah flicks the frayed edge of my jean cut-offs. “June?” “Huh?”
“You okay? You look sort of . . . not.”
I shake my head. “Sorry, just distracted.”
Still, tonight’s feeling of rightness has been disturbed. Something off buzzes in the air, like a single hornet circling my head, always out of sight.
WE leave Hannah’s car parked by Meijer and join the crowd rollicking across the highway toward the high school. The organ music playing on loop in the Tunnel O’ Love overlaps chaotically with the whoop and dingdingding of carnival games, and sweet, fatty smells mingle with the pine in the air.
We follow the curling path to the red-and-white ticket booth at the entrance to the school’s parking lot, and I try to leave behind any thoughts of the dark presence I imagined back at the house. It’s gone; it’s not coming back. It was never there.
Hannah squeezes my arm and squeals in excitement as we step into the ticket line. She may be painfully shy, but she loves crowds.
Our friendship couldn’t be any more of a teen-TV-drama cliché if we tried: Hannah Kuiper is a shy yet extroverted, violin-playing salutatorian. I’m a socially comfortable yet severely introverted underachiever who, if given the option for a weekend excursion, would choose Desert Island over Theme Park. She’s a waify, blue- eyed blonde, and I’m a dark-eyed, even darker-waved brunette who wore Hannah’s current pant size back in the seventh grade. Mom attributes my relative brawn to the fact that I, like Dad, never stop moving.
As we near the front of the line, Han rises up on her tiptoes, searching the crowd beyond the booth. “I think I see Nate Baars,” Hannah says.
“How,” I say, “in this writhing mass of Vineyard Vines shorts and North Face fleeces, did you pick out one little Vineyard Tendril–North Freckle?”
“Why are people crowded around him like that?” she asks, completely ignoring me. I squint and follow her gaze to the base of the Ferris wheel. Nate’s standing with a dozen kids from our school, most of whom have already graduated.
“Weird,” I say. “I’ve never seen people line up to hear someone make a fart noise with their armpit before. Is that Stephen Niequist with him?” I gesture to the rail-thin blond boy in the grandpa cardigan, Hannah’s academic rival.
She shrugs. “Weirdly enough, they’re friends. No idea what those two have to talk about, but I see Stephen’s car at Nate’s house all the time.”
Nate and Hannah live on the same street. We used to ride bikes with him when we were kids, before the natural current of high school took him and us in two very different directions. One direction being distinctly toward flatulence-based humor.
“Maybe the world’s ending and Nate just found out he’s allowed to choose one person to save,” I suggest. Truthfully, Nate is exactly the kind of boy who might draw a crowd—he’s all suntanned muscle and shiny, chocolaty hair—if he weren’t so ridiculous. But he is, and so this visual makes no sense.
“Maybe he won the lottery,” Hannah says, “and now he has fifty new best friends who want a piece of the pie.”
The gaunt woman in the admission booth calls us forward, and we trade twenties for highlighter-pink wristbands. We wander partway down the aisle on the right and stop before the House of Mirrors, staring up at the pink archway over the entrance. “Hey,” Hannah says gently, taking my hand. She juts her chin toward it. “Maybe this year?”
The House of Mirrors was always Dad’s favorite, and it’s mine too. There’s something so thrilling about wandering around only to get yourself un-lost—especially when the thing you’re lost in blurs the line between dream and reality, possible and impossible. Like our house and our land. Like Dad himself.
Hannah and I come to this carnival every year, but I haven’t been into the House of Mirrors since Dad died.
“What do you think?” Hannah says, studying me.
I shake my head. Hannah squeezes my hand then lets go. “Maybe next year.”
We stand in silence for a few more seconds, like we’re at an altar or a grave and not five feet from a game where you shoot plastic clowns with mounted water guns.
“Huh,” Hannah says, breaking the reverie. I glance sidelong at her. Her eyes are back on the group at the bottom of the Ferris wheel. Now that we’re closer, it’s apparent that Nate is not, in fact, the center of their attention. He and Stephen are standing off-center, a little bit behind the others, and as a gaggle of middle schoolers jostles past, a gap in the group shifts to reveal the person they all seem uniformly focused on. At first, I can only see his back. He’s on the tallish side of average and the thinnish side too, but he somehow takes up more space than someone his size should, as if his presence bends everything around itself.
He turns a bit, and I get a partial view of his profile but I still don’t recognize him. Clean-cut dark hair, uniform five-o’clock shadow. A T-shirt whiter than I’ve managed to keep one in the time it takes to get from the cash register to the door. The kind of dark, slim-fi jeans you can get away with wearing to a Five Fingers wedding.
I realize then that the reason he stands out so starkly against the backdrop of our lakeside town is because he looks unnaturally clean. Even the tattoos covering his pale arms manage to look cleaner than plain Five Fingers skin.
Hannah takes a step past me, trying to get a better look. “Is that . . .”
A couple of people laugh, and Nate Baars smacks the stranger on the back. He turns then, so I can see his full profile, and he forces a fraction of a smile before discreetly maneuvering away. The curvature of the group shifts to accommodate his movement.
“Is that . . . a moderately attractive stranger?” I finish Hannah’s thought. “The most elusive legend in all of Five Fingers?” Hannah doesn’t seem to hear me. “Han? Do you know him?”
Mandy Rodriguez, who graduated two years ago, grabs the boy’s arm and pulls him into a hug. Something along the lines of good to see you passes between them, and Hannah releases one crack of laughter before red splotches rush into her cheeks. “Not exactly.”
The boy turns to wave as Mandy and her friends move off toward a cart selling fried-dough elephant ears. In that moment, his face becomes fully visible.
“Oh my god,” Hannah gasps. “It is. It’s him.”
The buzzing I felt back at the gatehouse swells within me now. It’s not a hornet or a bit of darkness circling me. It’s everywhere, everything. It’s Saul Angert. Saul Angert, and the fact that he shouldn’t be here.
And that I definitely shouldn’t be here with him.
“HOW long has it been since anyone’s seen him?” Hannah asks. “Three years,” I answer automatically.
“Right,” Hannah says. “Of course.”
Three years ago everything changed for the Angerts, like ten years ago it changed for my family.
I was about to start high school, and for the first time since second grade, he and I were going to be in the same building. We’d spent the fourteen years prior avoiding each other, and, barring a few brushes, we’d done a good job.
I was nervous to see him on a regular basis, but a little excited too. My parents had never been the rule-setting type, so the more they drilled into my head that I must, at all costs, stay away from the Angerts, the more I obsessed over keeping tabs on them. I wanted to know everything about the people I wasn’t allowed to know.
Saul and his twin sister, Bekah, were my personal forbidden fruit, the one thing in Five Fingers I could never touch.
“God, why do you think he’s back?” Hannah says.
I shake my head. The snag in my throat returns. At this point, it’s more like a double knot.
“Maybe Santa got my letter,” Hannah pans, then shoots me an apologetic smile. She’s had a crush on Saul for nearly as long as I’ve been under strict orders to avoid him.
One of my earliest memories is of Dad perching me on a stool in our summer-warm kitchen and telling me about the Angerts— what they did to the O’Donnells way back before I was born, how they still treated us. And, most importantly, what happens when we cross paths with them. I have dozens more memories like that one, snippets of panic and curiosity whenever I spotted one of them at the grocery store or in our elementary school’s bus lane, fear and embarrassment when we met at the neighborhood pool and I watched Dad’s face storm over.
Hissed insults in parking lots.
Ignorant backwoods dick, from Saul’s father, Eli.
Elitist asshole, from Dad. Yanked arms and hasty retreats. Slammed doors and peeled tires.
Even years after Dad was gone, Mom dragged Shadow and Grayson away from the Cone’s walk-up window, milkshake-less, when she saw Bekah Angert working the register.
So I spent much of the summer before freshman year mentally preparing myself to get regular, prolonged, and up-close looks at the supposed face of evil. But when my first day came, Saul wasn’t there.
“We should go say hi,” Hannah says timidly, like not even she believes that. She knows the sordid saga of the O’Donnell/Angert feud, but as with most things that cause her displeasure—spiders and peplum tops and that Richard Harris song about the melting cake—she tries to ignore it.
When the bus dropped me off after my first day of high school, I wandered toward the Angerts’ summer cabin. I watched from the woods as Saul trekked in and out of the front door, carrying taped- up cardboard boxes and milk crates full of records. He looked less solid then than he does now; he looked wilty and tired.
“I was seriously starting to resign myself to never seeing him again,” Hannah forges on.
That was what I’d thought three years ago: that the packed car meant the Angerts were leaving town. But the next day a group of upperclassmen—Mandy Rodriquez among them—marched up to my locker and asked if I was the reason Saul had transferred last minute. It turned out he was going to spend his senior year at boarding school, the pretentious arts academy two hours south of town.
The news traveled fast, and by lunch everyone was speculating that Mandy was right. People paid attention to what our families did. They knew about the bad blood, and the pains we took to avoid each other, because, for all intents and purposes, Dad and Eli Angert were local celebrities: Dad for the cherries and general magic surrounding our house, Eli for a series of boring-ass man-vs.-nature novels the New York Times had lauded, and the both of them for the roles their ancestors played in the founding of Five Fingers.
I understood why Saul’s friends would think Eli had yanked Saul out to keep space between us, but it was impossible to be sure. After all, the Angerts had had their own Very Bad Thing happen a few months before, and even from a distance, I could see the family slowly falling apart. A few weeks before Saul left, Rachel, his mom, had ditched her job as the school nurse and moved to Chicago without his father, who—much to Mom and Toddy’s displeasure—moved full-time into the summer cabin that bordered our property.
Weeds had quickly overrun the once magnificent garden, beer bottles and cans had piled up on the front porch for weeks, news- papers had lain at the lip of their driveway getting soggy, and when someone knocked the mailbox off the post, Saul’s father hadn’t bothered to fix it.
I expected things to settle down and Saul to come home, at least for the summer. But he didn’t, and, after art school, he left for Vanderbilt without so much as a weekend home first. Then I resorted to tracking his movements through covert Google searches, history cleared on the off chance that Mom or Toddy ever used my computer. A year ago, Saul turned up in a “10 Under 30” feature New York magazine ran. Six months ago, I watched Toddy angrily stuff the local newspaper into the kitchen trash can, and when I fished it out, one of Saul’s terrible junior high yearbook photos stared back at me alongside a piece alerting Five Fingers that its very own Saul Angert had sold an untitled book of essays to Simon & Schuster. I’d been watching for it to pop up online or in bookstores but never heard another peep about it.
Three years, and in all that time, he’d never come home. And yet now here he is. Standing a few yards away near a pile of puked-up popcorn, as if he never left.
“It’s a miracle,” Hannah says hazily. “A back-to-school miracle.” Or a tragedy I’ve brought on with the sheer force of my curiosity. My mind flashes to the darkness I saw undulating across the gatehouse earlier.
The nameless thing is gone, was never there. You imagined it. “How long do you think he’s here for?” I say. “I mean, he can’t be staying, right?”
“I have no idea, Junie.” Hannah’s voice strains under nerves and excitement. “That’s why it’s essential we hang out with him tonight.” A thrill of curiosity and panic shoots through my stomach. “Hello? Hannah? It’s me, June, your best friend who’s forbidden from interacting with him.”
“I know, I know!” she cries, glancing between me and the group below the Ferris wheel. They’ve rearranged again so that Saul’s facing our direction, and I jerk my gaze away before he can catch me looking at him. “But,” Hannah begins, “this is quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Don’t act like you’re not curious.”
“You know what curiosity did to the cat.”
“Convinced it to help its shy cat-friend woo her childhood crush?”
I laugh despite myself. I can’t blame Hannah for trivializing my family’s feud with the Angerts. Even Mom used to roll her eyes at Dad when he did things like steer us away from the shore and back to the car when we turned up for a beach day only to find the Angerts there. Backing out of the parking lot, Mom used to sigh in exasperation as Dad mumbled under his breath: Think they’re better than everyone, just ’cause they paid thousands for a piece of Ivy League paper and some froufrou shoes. Before he died, we stayed away from the Angerts only because Dad did. But after, I think we all started to wonder if he’d been right: if the Angerts’ hate for us really did somehow cause our bad luck.
It wasn’t just us who said it. The whole town did—maybe just for fun, but they said it. Once, when I was in middle school, I even overheard a teacher explaining it to a substitute in the lounge: The families hate each other'so much that when tragedy strikes one, fate lashes out at the other. And when they cross paths? Well, they don’t. And for good reason.
But Hannah would never hear of it. Bad things happen, June, she’d say. They just do. To everyone.
“Pleeeeeeeease.” she says now, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Let’s just say hi.”
“Hannah, my mom and Toddy have literally two rules: no swimming at Five Fingers Falls and no Angerts. You know this.”
She squeezes my arm and says, “Sorry. I get it. I do. I’ll just have to be happy knowing that, in another universe, the one where your family doesn’t hate Saul’s, we’re having a lot of fun tonight. You, me, Saul, and”—she pauses, tipping her head toward the Ferris wheel—“Nate.”
I look over, and as if on cue, Nate spots us. He waves with the unfettered ferocity of someone stranded on a desert island trying to catch the eye of a chopper flying past.
“Are you kidding, Hannah? You just dreamed up another universe and you made Nate Baars my unofficial date! You could’ve chosen anyone!”
She laughs and waves back. “He’s not that bad,” she says. “Besides, he’s Saul’s cousin. He’s the whole reason I know Saul.”
“Know is a pretty strong word for someone you’ve never spoken to. Aloud, I mean.”
Hannah waves off my comment. “You used to think Nate was super cute.”
“In the fifth grade!” I say. “He didn’t have that walk yet.”
“Oh please, since when aren’t you into boys who walk like they just dismounted a horse after fifteen hours of riding bareback?”
“He probably has chronic hemorrhoids.”
“Junior,” Hannah says reproachfully, and I know she’s serious because she never uses my full name. Or, at least, my fuller name. Despite my being a girl, my full name is Jack O’Donnell IV, after my father and his father and his father’s father, who apparently got his name because he was the spitting image of his father’s father’s father, Jonathan “Jack” Alroy O’Donnell, pioneer settler of Five Fingers and purveyor of magic cherries.
Mom used to call me Jackie, but Dad always called me Junior or June. After he died, everyone else started to too. “Oh my God!” Hannah grabs my arm again. Her face is reddening rapidly. “They’re coming over here. I’m so sorry—I think I just willed that to happen. Oh my God, am I a witch?”
The tension in my throat snarling again, I glance over my shoulder. The Ferris wheel group is disbanding, but Nate and Saul are distinctly headed in our direction.
“Shoot,” Hannah says, as if she weren’t just begging the universe for this exact scenario to unfold. “He’s actually coming over here! What do we do?”
I search for somewhere to hide. Hannah, realizing how actually terrified she is to talk to her forever-crush, also searches for somewhere to hide. I book it toward the House of Mirrors, and she chases after me. I spin back to her, my heart jarring at the realization of what I’m about to do. “Wait.”
Hannah stops short, wide-eyed, and I glance toward the entrance, the spurt of adrenaline from seeing Saul spurring me on. “I want to go in alone,” I say, and Hannah’s face twists with worry. “You want to talk to Saul; now’s your chance.”
She and I lock into a staring contest. I can practically see the debate happening in her mind. “Hannah. You can do this. You can talk to him.”
She shoots another glance over her shoulder and takes a deep breath. “Okay. Okay, go.”
I kiss my pointer and middle fingers and hold them out to her. Hannah does the same, our two fingers meeting in the middle like a tiny high five. “When I get back, be ready to tell me which song you chose for your wedding processional.”
Hannah’s eye roll evolves into a grin, and I turn and step into the dark, where everything becomes me.
The room glows neon. Blues, purples, pinks cross-fade along the edges of mirrors, and so do the versions of me they reflect. The whirring of the fans dulls the screeches and giggles of the other people hustling through the maze as I take my first steps.
I come up against an unexpected pane of glass, then veer right. As I move, I allow myself to forget where I’m going, like Dad used to do—he loved to lose himself first. Then, only when he was sure we were in the epicenter of whatever maze he’d led us into, he’d make a plan and swiftly guide me out.
“When you’ve been as lost as I have,” he once said, “you get good at finding your way home, June-bug.”
I feel him in the whip of the fan-stirred wind. Like he’s rustling my hair, egging me on. By the time Jack the First was your age, he’d tell me, he’d flown across the Atlantic with Amelia Earhart, gone over Niagara Falls in a rubber ball, and climbed Backbone Mountain to catch a falling star. By now, Jack II had saved dozens from drownin’ in an Alaskan mega tsunami, using only a sliver of glacier for a row- boat, a broken pine for an oar, and a box of cherries for medicine. By your age, Junior, I’d stopped a tornado with a matchbook and a glass factory.
I turn into a new room, all semblance of laughter and chatter fading. Blue-green arches frame the mirrors here, and swipes of glow-paint on the floor create the illusion of ornate tiles. This, I decide, must be the epicenter.
Channeling Dad, I become more purposeful with my turns, but when I change directions I come up against cool glass, and my breath catches in my chest. I laugh off my surprise the first few times it happens, but eventually my lostness, my aloneness, starts to unnerve me. It’s been too long since I’ve seen anyone else.
And I keep remembering that outside these walls there’s an Angert, and Bad Things happen when an O’Donnnell crosses paths with an Angert.
Bad Things happen, and I’m locked in a glass labyrinth with no escape.
I stumble forward and collide with another mirror. My pulse quickens. I try to calm myself, try to keep moving.
Keep moving. I turn and jolt to the left. A pane of glass stops me. I spin right. Keep—
I slam hard into someone as I turn the corner, barely managing to stifle a scream.
“Shit,” someone—a boy—gasps. In the strand of neon green light, I see his hand clutching his collarbone. Either my skull or my teeth just slammed into it, but apparently I’m too high on adrenaline to feel any pain.
“I’m so sorry!” I stammer, moving forward with my hands held out apologetically. “God, I’m sorry. I thought you were—”
He looks up, the light slanting across his face. Saul Angert.
That’s who I’m looking at. Who I just bit. Saul “If You See Him Dying on the Side of the Road, Keep Going” Angert.
He raises one hand and massages his clavicle with the other. “It’s fine. You were right. I was.”
“—the ghost of Jack the Ripper.” The words escape like air from a tire.
“Oh,” he says. “I thought you were going to say, having a com plete meltdown about being trapped in this god-forsaken nightmare.”
My heart hammers against my ribs. “No. The vibe I got was definitely Jack the Ripper.”
His laugh is gravelly and warm, so at odds with his coolly rigid appearance. His dark hair is cropped close on the sides and a little longer on top, pushed back in a smooth swoop away from his fore- head, and now that I’m closer I can see the minor imperfections that keep his face from being perfectly symmetrical: the slight turn of his right canine tooth and the lone dimple on his left cheek. He takes a half step back. “Well, I’m sorry I scared you.”
“Oh please. I scared myself. I’m sorry I bit your collarbone,” I reply. “If it helps, it’s super unlikely I have rabies.” Despite what you might have heard.
Although if he knew who I was, would he be standing here?
He gives me that scratchy laugh again. “Oh yeah. Right. I’m not sorry—you are. That’s what I meant to say.”
“I was just being polite,” I say. “I feel no remorse.”
“Wow,” he says with mock disbelief. “Stone cold.”
I tip my head down the mirrored aisle. “Most of me is made of glass, so.”
“Most of you are made of glass.”
“I feel like if you’re not in uniform, you’re not allowed to police someone’s grammar.”
When he smiles, his mostly straight white teeth glow blue along with his white T-shirt and pale arms, except for where his tattoos cut inky shadows through the light. He is handsome, in a way. Just not my way, which is usually either (1) brawny pseudo-lumberjack types whose personal hygiene regimen amounts to a lone spray bottle of Febreeze or (2) NOT SAUL ANGERT.
It would be best for me to walk away now. I know that. But I’m standing face-to-face with someone I’ve heard about my entire life, Googled regularly for at least three years, and never, before now, spoken to.
And I haven’t burst into flames. The ceiling hasn’t collapsed, the earth hasn’t opened to swallow us, and he’s acting pretty . . . normal.
Which, I assume, can only mean that he doesn’t recognize me.
Did not Google me.
I’m a little offended. And guilty. Also curious, and shaky with adrenaline. Like I’m about to jump off a diving board or crest the peak of a roller coaster.
“Well,” I say, not so much returning to my senses as chasing them down with a hatchet. “Good luck.”
Saul nods, and I turn a corner toward the outer ring of pink and blue mirrors. I watch him in the reflections in front of me as I go. He’s trailing me a couple of yards back, the faint trace of a smile curving one corner of his mouth. I stop and face him. “What are you doing?” I say. “You can’t follow me. That’s cheating.”
“Who says you’re going the right way?”
“If I’m not, then why are you following me?”
“I’m not,” he says. “This happens to be the right way. I’m just trying to get out of here. It’s purely coincidence.”
“Fine. Then you can go in front of me.”
He shakes his head. “Are you kidding? I’m not going to let you cheat off of me. You bit me and didn’t apologize.”
“That was self-defense,” I say. “At that point, there was still a ninety- nine percent chance you were the ghost of an English serial killer.”
A slow smile spreads across his face, and for a second we’re silent. Another thrill bubbles up in my chest. My midsection feels like a shaken-up champagne bottle, fizzy and light.
“Fair enough,” Saul says. I start moving again.
He gives me a few yards’ head start before he follows, and again my eyes keep rebounding toward his reflection. Whenever he catches me peeking, a microscopic river of embarrassment jolts through my atoms, and the corner of his mouth twists up in a quiet way, like we’re sharing an unspoken joke whose punch line is our families hate each other, ha-ha!
Or at least that’s what the punch line is for the few moments before I take a distracted yet forceful step and slam my face into a mirror. Saul lets out one rough laugh, then jogs over to where I’m clutching my nose and groaning. He ducks his head to get a better look. “You okay?”
“Could be worse,” I say, still covering my nose. “A cartoon anvil didn’t fall on my head.”
“Lemme see.” He pulls my hand away from my face, and his dark eyes zigzag over my nose, which hurts way less than my dignity. Now we’re really close, and I can smell his wintergreen tooth- paste and his laundry detergent, and something else that’s warm and a little earthy.
He brushes his fingertips over my nose. “That hurt?”
If his voice had a taste it would be like one of those artisanal chili-pepper dark chocolate bars. If it were a color it would match the eyes that are currently boring into mine.
A memory resurfaces: his name at the top of the marry column in the kiss/marry/kill chart Hannah wrote on her closet wall in seventh grade. The image doesn’t quite exterminate the butterflies in my stomach, but it does remind me that if Greg Schwartz turns up dead, Hannah will need a very good alibi.
“Doesn’t look broken or anything,” Saul says, narrowing his gaze to peer at me through the neon light.
It’s probably my turn to talk, but his hand is warm on my shoulder and we’re standing, like, six inches apart, and the vast majority of my brain has already rejected the memory of face- planting into a smudgy fun house mirror so that it can fully devote itself to screaming, I WONDER IF SAUL ANGERT’S MOUTH TASTES MORE LIKE COOL MINT OR SPICY CHOCOLATE.
Finally, Saul releases my shoulder, and it’s then that I notice the fullness of the noise in here, the eerie music and wash of voices pul- sating from everywhere. I spot the barely visible gap where one mirror flares right and another just left to hide the opening between them. I lean to the right until the two separate in my vision. “Hey, guess what,” I say.
Saul stares at me for a long moment. “What?”
“I win.” I slip between the panes and out into the buzzing night. As soon as I set foot on the asphalt, my eyes land on Hannah and the bowlegged boy beside her.
“June freakin’ O’Donnell,” Nate Baars calls to me.
Saul’s shoulder bumps mine as he emerges behind me, and all the fizz in my chest turns to lead and sinks. He lowers his mouth beside my ear and murmurs, “O’Donnell, huh?”
But he doesn’t say it like it’s an accusation. He says it like a joke.
He brushes past me to meet Hannah and Nate, then looks back with a faint, mocking smile.
He said it like he was waiting to, like he knew who I was the whole time.