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Greenwich Country Day School
Twenty years ago
“Just take it, Jane.”
Jane Whitcomb grabbed the backpack. “You’re still coming, right?”
“I told you this morning. Yes.”
“Okay.” Jane watched her friend head down the sidewalk until a horn beeped. Straightening her jacket, she squared her shoulders and turned toward a Mercedes-Benz. Her mother was staring out of the driver’s-side window, her eyebrows clenched.
Jane hustled across the street, the rogue backpack with the contraband making too much noise, as far as she was concerned. She hopped in the backseat and stashed the thing at her feet. The car started rolling before she got the door shut.
“Your father is coming home this evening.”
“What?” Jane pushed her glasses up on her nose. “When?”
“Tonight. So I’m afraid the—”
“No! You promised!”
Her mother looked over her shoulder. “I beg your pardon, young lady.”
Jane teared up. “You promised me for my thirteenth birthday. Katie and Lucy are supposed to—”
“I’ve already called their mothers.”
Jane fell back against the seat.
Her mother’s eyes lifted to the rearview mirror. “Take that expression off your face, thank you. Do you think you’re more important than your father? Do you?”
“Of course not. He’s god.”
The Mercedes swerved to the shoulder with a lurch and the brakes squealed. Her mother twisted around, lifted her hand, and held the pose, her arm trembling.
Jane shrank back in horror.
After a moment of suspended violence, her mother turned away, smoothing her perfectly smooth hair with a palm that was steady as boiling water. “You…you will not be joining us for dinner this evening. And your cake will be disposed of.”
The car started moving again.
Jane wiped her cheeks and looked down at the backpack. She had never had a sleepover before. Had begged for months.
Ruined. It was all ruined now.
They were silent the whole ride home, and when the Mercedes was in the garage Jane’s mother got out of the car and walked into the house without looking back.
“You know where to go,” was all she said.
Jane stayed in the car, trying to collect herself. Then she picked up the backpack and her books and dragged herself in through the kitchen. Richard, the cook, was bent over the trash bin pushing a cake with white icing and red and yellow flowers off a plate.
She didn’t say anything to Richard because her throat was tight as a fist. Richard didn’t say anything to her because he didn’t like her. He didn’t like anyone but Hannah.
As Jane went out the butler’s door into the dining room, she didn’t want to run into her younger sister and prayed Hannah was in bed. She’d been sick this morning. Probably because she’d had a book report due.
On the way to the staircase, Jane saw her mother in the living room.
The couch cushions. Again.
Her mother was still in her pale blue wool coat with her silk scarf in her hand, and no doubt she was going to stay dressed like that until she was satisfied with the way the cushions looked. Which might be a while. The standard against which the things were measured was the same as the hair standard: total smoothness.
Jane headed up to her room. Her only hope at this point was that her father would arrive after dinner. That way, although he would still find out she was grounded, at least he wouldn’t have to look at her empty seat. Like her mother, he hated anything out of order, and Jane not at the table was big-time out of order.
The length of the lecture she’d get from him would be longer that way, because it would have to include both how she’d let the family down with her absence at the meal as well as the fact that she’d been rude to her mother.
Upstairs, Jane’s buttercup yellow bedroom was like everything else in the house: smooth as hair and couch cushions and the way people talked. Nothing out of place. Everything in the kind of frozen perfection you saw in house magazines.
The only thing that didn’t fit was Hannah.
The rogue backpack went into the closet, on top of the rows of penny loafers and Mary Janes; then Jane changed out of her school uniform into a Lanz flannel nightgown. There was no reason to put real clothes on. She was going nowhere.
She took her stack of books to her white desk. She had English homework to do. Algebra. French.
She glanced over at her bedside table. Arabian Nights waited for her.
She couldn’t think of a better way to spend her punishment, but homework came first. Had to. Otherwise she would feel too guilty.
Two hours later she was on her bed with Nights in her lap when the door opened and Hannah’s head poked in. Her curly red hair was another deviation. The rest of them were blonds. “I brought food.”
Jane sat up, worried for her younger sister. “You’ll get in trouble.”
“No, I won’t.” Hannah slipped in, a little basket with a gingham napkin, a sandwich, an apple, and a cookie in her hand. “Richard gave this to me so I’d have a snack tonight.”
“What about you?”
“I’m not hungry. Here.”
“Thanks, Han.” Jane took the basket as Hannah sat on the foot of the bed.
“So what didja do?”
Jane shook her head and bit into the roast beef sandwich. “I got upset with Mom.”
“’Cuz you couldn’t have your party?”
“Well…I gots something to cheer you up.” Hannah slid a folded piece of construction paper onto the duvet. “Happy birthday!”
Jane looked at the card and blinked fast a couple of times. “Thanks…Han.”
“Don’t be sad, I’m here. Look at your card! I made it for you.”
On the front, drawn in her sister’s messy hand, were two stick figures. One had straight blond hair and the word Jane written under it. The other had curly red hair and the name Hannah at its feet. They were holding hands and had big smiles on their circle faces.
Just as Jane went to open the card, a pair of headlights swept the front of the house and started coming up the driveway.
“Papa’s home,” Jane hissed. “You better get out of here.”
Hannah didn’t seem as concerned as she’d usually be, probably because she didn’t feel good. Or maybe she was distracted by…well, whatever Hannah got distracted by. She was mostly in her daydreams, which was probably why she was happy all the time.
“Go, Han, seriously.”
“Okay. But I’m really sorry thats your party got quitted.” Hannah shuffled over to the door.
“Hey, Han? I like my card.”
“You didn’t look inside.”
“Don’t have to. I like it because you made it for me.”
Hannah’s face split into one of her daisy smiles, the kind that reminded Jane of sunny days. “It’s about you and me.”
As the door shut, Jane heard her parents’ voices drift up from the foyer. In a rush she ate Hannah’s snack, shoved the basket into the folds of the drapes next to the bed, and went to the stack of her schoolbooks. She took Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers back with her to the bed. She figured if she was working on school stuff when her father came in, it would buy her some brownie points.
Her parents came upstairs an hour later and she tensed, expecting her father to knock. He didn’t.
Which was weird. He was, in his controlling way, as reliable as a clock, and there was a strange comfort in his predictability, even though she didn’t like dealing with him.
She put Pickwick aside, turned the light out, and tucked her legs under her frilly duvet. Beneath the canopy of her bed she couldn’t sleep, and eventually she heard the grandfather clock at the head of the stairs chime twelve times.
Slipping from bed, she went to the closet, got out the rogue knapsack, and unzipped it. The Ouija board fell out, flipping open and landing faceup on the floor. She grabbed it with a wince, as if it might have broken or something, then got the pointer thingy.
She and her friends had been looking forward to playing the game because they all wanted to know who they were going to marry. Jane liked a boy named Victor Browne, who was in her math class. The two of them had been talking a little lately, and she really thought they could be a couple. Trouble was, she wasn’t sure what he felt for her. Maybe he just liked her because she gave him answers.
Jane laid out the board on her bed, rested her hands on the pointer, and took a deep breath. “What is the name of the boy I’m going to marry?”
She didn’t expect the thing to move. And it didn’t.
A couple more tries and she leaned back in frustration. After a minute she rapped on the wall behind her headboard. Her sister knocked back, and a little later Hannah sneaked in through the door. When she saw the game, she got excited and jumped on the bed, bouncing the pointer into the air.
“How do you play!”
“Shh!” God, if they got caught like this, they were totally grounded. Forever.
“Sorry.” Hannah tucked her legs up and held on to them to keep from spazzing. “How do—”
“You ask it questions and it tells you the answers.”
“What can we ask?”
“Who we’re going to marry.” Okay, now Jane was nervous. What if the answer wasn’t Victor? “Let’s start with you. Put your fingertips on the pointer, but don’t push down or anything. Just—like that, yup. Okay…Who is Hannah going to marry?”
The pointer didn’t move. Even after Jane repeated the question.
“It’s broken,” Hannah said, pulling away.
“Let me try another question. Put your hands back up.” Jane took a deep breath. “Who am I going to marry?”
A squeaky little noise rose up from the board as the pointer began to move. When it came to rest on the letter V, Jane trembled. Heart in her throat, she watched it move to the letter I.
“It’s Victor!” Hannah said. “It’s Victor! You’re going to marry Victor!”
Jane didn’t bother shushing her sister. This was too good to be—
The pointer landed on the letter S. S?
“This is wrong,” Jane said. “This has to be wrong—”
“Don’t stop. Let’s find out who it is.”
But if it wasn’t Victor, she didn’t know. And what kind of boy had a name like Vis—
Jane fought to redirect the pointer, but it insisted on going to the letter H. Then O, U, and once more to S.
Dread coated the inside of Jane’s rib cage.
“I told you it was broken,” Hannah muttered. “Who’s called Vishous?”
Jane looked away from the board, then let herself fall back onto her pillows. This was the worst birthday she’d ever had.
“Maybe we should try again,” Hannah said. When Jane hesitated, she frowned. “Come on, I want an answer, too. It’s only fair.”
They put their fingers back on the pointer.
“What will I get for Christmas?” Hannah asked.
The pointer didn’t move.
“Try a yes or no to get it started,” Jane said, still freaked out over the word she’d been given. Maybe the board couldn’t spell?
“Will I get anything for Christmas?” Hannah said.
The pointer started to squeak.
“I hope it’s a horse,” Hannah murmured as the pointer circled. “I should have asked that.”
The pointer stopped on no.
They both stared at the thing.
Hannah’s arms went around herself. “I want some presents, too.”
“It’s just a game,” Jane said, closing the board up. “Besides, the thing really is broken. I dropped it.”
“I want presents.”
Jane reached out and hugged her sister. “Don’t worry about the stupid board, Han. I’ll always get you something for Christmas.”
When Hannah left a little later, Jane got back between the sheets.
Stupid board. Stupid birthday. Stupid everything.
As she closed her eyes, she realized she’d never looked at her sister’s card. She turned the light back on and picked it up off the bedside table. Inside it said, We will always hold hands! I love you! Hannah
That answer they’d been given about Christmas was so wrong. Everyone loved Hannah and got her presents. Jeez, she could even sway their father on occasion, and no one else could do that. So of course she would get things.
After a while Jane fell asleep. She must have, because Hannah woke her.
“You okay?” Jane said, sitting up. Her sister was standing by the bed in her flannel nightie, an odd expression on her face.
“I gotta go.” Hannah’s voice was sad.
“To the bathroom? You gonna be sick?” Jane pushed the covers away. “I’ll go with y—”
“You can’t.” Hannah sighed. “I gotta go.”
“Well, when you’re finished doing whatever, you can come back here and sleep if you wanna.”
Hannah looked to the door. “I’m scared.”
“Being sick is scary. But I’ll always be here for you.”
“I gotta go.” When Hannah glanced back, she looked…all grown-up somehow. Nothing like the ten-year-old she was. “I’ll try and come back. I’ll do my best.”
“Um…okay.” Maybe her sister had a fever or something? “You want to go wake up Mother?”
Hannah shook her head. “I only want to see you. Go back to sleep.”
As Hannah left, Jane sank back against her pillows. She thought about going and checking on her sister in the bathroom, but sleep claimed her before she could follow through on the impulse.
The following morning Jane woke up to the sound of heavy footfalls running outside in the hall. At first she assumed someone had dropped something that was leaving a stain on a carpet or a chair or a bedspread. But then the ambulance sirens came up the driveway.
Jane got out of bed, checked the front windows, then poked her head into the hall. Her father was speaking to someone downstairs, and the door to Hannah’s room was open.
On tiptoe, Jane went down the Oriental runner, thinking that her sister wasn’t usually up this early on a Saturday. She must really be sick.
She stopped in the doorway. Hannah was lying still on her bed, her eyes open toward the ceiling, her skin white as the pristine snowy sheets she was on.
She wasn’t blinking.
In the opposite corner of the room, as far away from Hannah as possible, their mother was sitting in the window seat, her ivory silk dressing robe pooling on the floor. “Go back to bed. Now.”
Jane raced for her room. Just as she shut her door, she saw her father coming up the stairs with two men in navy blue uniforms. He was talking with authority and she heard the words congenital heart something.
Jane jumped into her bed and pulled the sheets up over her head. As she trembled in the darkness, she felt very small and very scared.
The board had been right. Hannah got no Christmas presents and married no one.
But Jane’s little sister kept her promise. She did come back.