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Mom glanced over at me impatiently and said, "Come on, Juliana, what's with all the doom and gloom?"
As if she didn't know.
We were driving on a highway in England (a motorway, Mom called it). We were whizzing along-on the wrong side of the road, as far as I was concerned-through a chilly, windy afternoon, with rain from the wet road and the cars ahead sluicing over us in sheets. The wipers' rhythmic swoosh-swoosh had lulled me into a kind of trance as I sat there in the front passenger seat, staring out at the drizzly English day. How could I be filled with anything other than doom and gloom when I'd been dragged away from sunny California (and from Dad) to move to England like this in the middle of the school year? How else was I supposed to feel?
I didn't want to be here in the first place, away from Dad, away from friends, away from everything. In the second place, I felt tricked. Like, where were the little thatched cottages with roses around the doors and diamond panes of glass in every window? Where were the romantic castle ruins and sun-dappled stately homes featured on the "Visions of England" calendar Mom had given me for Christmas? Everything felt wrong. Nothing was the way it should be.
"Faulty advertising," I muttered. We'd landed at Heathrow Airport that morning after an eleven-hour flight, whizzed through passport control and customs, collected our luggage pretty fast, but then had to stand in line for another hour to get our rental car. Finally we'd crammed ourselves and our stuff into the car and set off, driving away from London. We'd been traveling a couple of hours already, and all I'd seen were clusters of dreary brick houses huddling together as if for warmth and wet fields dripping with sheep and cows.
"Fifteen years old, and you've never experienced an English winter," Mom said to me. She didn't even take her eyes off the road, which was probably a good thing, with all those cars driving on the wrong side and everything. "We're going to fix that!" Her voice was maddeningly cheerful.
"It's March, Mom. That's spring," I told her.
"Spring in California," Mom agreed. "But not here. This is still winter."
Our one family trip to England had been years ago, and in summer. We had visited Mom's father. I had a vague memory of Grandad's little house in a big city. It had been hard to fit us all around the kitchen table. After our one visit, Grandad always came to visit us in California instead.
In the backseat my nine-year-old sister and brother woke up. They had been dozing on and off, probably still on California time, ever since we left the airport. Now Ivy and Edmund, also known as the Goops because of their perpetually sticky fingers and dirt-streaked T-shirts, started clamoring about how they wished they could see Grandad Martin again, and more especially Dad-since he wasn't even dead-and it wasn't fair.
"I wish we could see Grandad again, too," Mom said, picking out the one thing we could all agree on. He had lived in the house where Mom grew up until he died three years ago. It had seemed strange not to have him come to us in California for Christmas. And it seemed very strange to be in England now and to know he wasn't here. Somehow that made everything feel even more dreary.
Mom circled our little car off the motorway. "We're almost there. Now you kids are going to love Blackthorn." And then she launched yet again into the irritatingly enthusiastic description of the place where we were going to be living. We'd already heard it a million times.
Mom's voice sounded dreamy. "It's a bustling little village right on the sea, and it's full of artists, Liza says. Just the sort of place where I can really get some work done. Where people respect art." Her voice hardened a little when she said "respect," and I knew she was thinking of Dad back in California. Mom and Dad were having a trial separation. Mom felt that Dad was too busy being a big-shot architect to notice that she wasn't happy anymore. She was homesick for England, she said, and decided that she needed to live there again, and start painting again, and be near other artists.
"People respect art in California, Mom," I said, although I knew it was pointless. We had already had this particular argument over and over.
"The point is that it's time for a change," Mom said firmly. "It's going to be great in Blackthorn. We're starting our new life."
I slumped in my seat and shut my eyes to hold back the sudden prick of tears. I had liked our old life.
"Hey look, the dog is driving that car!" Edmund shouted, and of course my eyes flew open to check it out. It looked so weird. In what should be the driver's seat of the car passing us sat a huge shaggy dog. As the car pulled ahead, the dog hung his head out the side window-open despite the miserable drizzle-and looked back at us, panting. Surreal, I thought. But what else was new these days? My whole life had been feeling as surreal as one of Mom's paintings ever since her decision to leave Dad. On a trial basis, of course.
"Keep your eyes on the road, Dog!" Ivy yelled out her window.
"And look there," added Edmund, "that other car doesn't even have a driver!"
"It's a ghost driver," declared Ivy, and both Goops broke out in tandem, ghostly whoooo-ooooos.
Our car followed the winding exit road to a narrower lane, where a sign announced: BLACKTHORN, 3. The lane, lined on both sides by high green hedgerows, bordered green fields dotted with white sheep and stands of gnarled trees. Almost like one of the calendar pictures, except for the constant patter of rain and the darkening sky.
"It's like night already," Edmund piped up. "And so foggy. Must be a storm coming."
"A huge, torrential storm," Ivy added with relish. "With thunder and lightning and floods."
"I don't think so," Mom replied in a mild voice, switching the headlights to low to help her see through the fog. "Remember, England is pretty far north. It just gets dark early here in the winter-and stays light long into the night in the summer. Remember how it stayed light till nearly ten o'clock when we visited Grandad?"
I didn't remember that, but-speaking of light-in the distance I could just make out other headlights approaching us. As the car neared, I could see that it was a long, low sports car, and a teenage boy was driving. He had bright red hair. But wait-of course he couldn't be the driver; the left-hand seat was the passenger side in England. The driver sat on the right. It was a man wearing a leather cap like somebody in an Italian movie. Twigs and leaves flew against my window as Mom veered hard against the hedges, trying to give the passing vehicle as much room as possible. The driver in the leather cap raised his hand to wave as he zoomed past, disappearing into the fog.
"Hey!" protested Edmund. "He nearly hit us, Mom!"
And Ivy declared, "He nearly ran us off the road!"
I was thinking the same thing. I was also thinking that the boy in the car had been very cute. I had told myself I was going to be surly and sour and not get the least bit interested in anything to do with this move to England, but a cute boy was something I hadn't expected. Did he live around here, or was he just passing through on his way to somewhere else?
"You'll get used to these narrow lanes," Mom was saying calmly. "They crisscross the whole country. Take a good look at the hedges, kids-they were planted hundreds of years ago as fences to divide property and to keep animals in the fields. The roads can't be widened without ripping out the old hedges. And they're home to all sorts of animals. Badgers and foxes . . ." Mom's voice trailed off as we rounded a bend in the lane and the fog lifted. A village that must be Blackthorn suddenly came into view.
"Whoa," I murmured.
"Whoa is right," said Ivy excitedly.
"Major whoa!" yelled Edmund right in my ear. "I can smell the ocean!"
I could, too, with the usual sick jolt to my stomach and a flutter of panic. I pushed the flutter away resolutely as I always did. I was just not a seaside sort of person.
Mom glanced over at me. "Our cottage isn't particularly near the water at all. Don't worry, honey. And you'll get used to the ocean air in no time. It's good and fresh and healthy."
I pressed my hands against my stomach and nodded. I couldn't help but look out the window now with interest. After all the weeks of talking about it, all the upsets and troubles, all the packing and arranging, all the good-byes to friends and promises to stay in touch . . . it was really happening. We were here.
Not a thatched roof in sight. Not a single rose trellis framing a doorway. No brilliant-hued gardens of flowers at all. Only one color had been used for this painting: gray. Or grey, as Mom said you'd write it in England. Gray stone buildings, two and three stories tall, marched downhill along both sides of the narrow street. The road split to allow for an island of dense, leafless shrubs, whose bare branches made a darker gray silhouette against all the other gray. They were planted thickly and had twined together to form what looked like an impenetrable, thorny thicket.
"Those bushes are called blackthorn," Mom said as we passed. "They're where the village got its name. They can look like trees, too, and grow to be something like nine or ten feet tall."
"It's like a movie set," Edmund exclaimed, "for a ghost story!"
"Or a mystery," shuddered Ivy. "All this foggy fog."
"A murder mystery . . . ," I added. I cracked my window and sniffed the air experimentally. My stomach clenched again at the fresh blast of sea air overlaid with woodsmoke-and something else. I breathed through my mouth.
We drove on. The paved road was gray and the sky above it was gray, and the seawall at the bottom of the street was gray, with gray water churning beyond. I decided I could tough it out. I rolled my window down further and felt the damp, cold fog on my face, and I smelled salt. And . . . there it was again. Something else besides. A smell-or was it just a feeling?-of something wrong.
What was I smelling that made me feel suddenly quite desolate and lost in this gray place? I'd been joking about the murder mystery, but what was I smelling that made me think of . . . death?
And where had I smelled it before?
Copyright © 2006 by Kathryn Reiss
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