Home > The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)(2)

The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)(2)
Author: Melissa Albert


“Free of what?” I asked stupidly, but she didn’t answer. She stood, tossing her half-smoked cigarette into the trash right on top of the letter, and walked straight-backed out of the room, like there was something she had to do.

When she was gone, I poured cold coffee on the trash can fire and pulled out the wet letter. Parts of it were eaten into ash, but I flattened the soggy remainder against my knees. The type was as dense and oddly spaced as the text on an old telegram.

The letter didn’t seem new. It even smelled like it had been sent from the past. I could imagine someone typing it up on an old Selectric, like the one in the Françoise Sagan postcard I hung up over my bed in every place we stayed. I breathed in its scent of ash and powdery perfume as I scanned what was left. There wasn’t much of it: We send our condolences, and Come at your earliest.

And one marooned word in a sea of singed paper: Alice. My name. I couldn’t read anything that came before or after it, and I saw no other reference to myself. I dropped the wet mess into the trash.

 

 

2


Until Althea Proserpine (born Anna Parks) died all alone on the grand estate she’d named the Hazel Wood, my mother and I had spent our lives as bad luck guests. We moved at least twice a year and sometimes more, but the bad luck always found us.

In Providence, where my mom taught art to senior citizens, the whole first floor of the house we rented flooded while we slept, on a rainless August night. A wildcat crept through a window into our trailer in Tacoma, to piss all over our stuff and eat the last of my birthday cake.

We tried to wait out a full school year in an LA guesthouse Ella rented from an earnest hippie with a trust fund, but four months in the woman’s husband started suffering from symptoms of chronic fatigue. After Ella moved to the main house to help out, the ceiling fell in over the master bedroom, and the hippie sleepwalked into the swimming pool. We didn’t want to start a death count, so we’d moved along.

When we traveled I kept an eagle eye on the cars behind us, like bad luck could take human form and trail you in a minivan. But bad luck was sneakier than that. You couldn’t outsmart it, you could only keep going when it had you in its sights.

After Althea died, we stopped moving. Ella surprised me with a key to a place in Brooklyn, and we moved in with our pitiful store of stuff. The weeks ticked by, then the months. I remained vigilant, but our suitcases stayed under the bed. The light in our apartment was all the colors of metal—blinding platinum in the morning, gold in the afternoon, bronze from streetlights at night. I could watch the light roll and change over our walls for hours. It was mine.

But I still saw the shadow of the bad luck: a woman who trailed me through a used bookstore, whispered something obscene in my ear as she picked my phone from my pocket. Streetlights winking out over my head, one by one, as I walked down the street after midnight. The same busker showing up with his guitar on every train I rode for a week, singing “Go Ask Alice” in his spooky tenor.

“Pfft,” Ella had said. “That’s not bad luck, that’s New York.”

She’d been different since her mother’s death. She smoked less, gained weight. She bought a few T-shirts that weren’t black.

Then we came home one night to find our apartment windows cracked into glittering stars. Ella pressed her lips together and looked at me. I braced myself for marching orders, but she shook her head.

“New York.” Her voice was hard and certain. “No more bad luck for us, Alice. You hear me? It’s done.”

So I went to public school. I hung Christmas lights around the plaster mantel behind our bed, and took a job at a café that turned into a bar when the sun went down. Ella started talking about things she’d never talked about before: painting our walls, buying a new sofa. College applications.

It was that last one that got us into trouble—Ella’s dream of a normal life for me, one with a future. Because if you’ve spent your whole life running, how do you learn to stand still? How do you figure out the right way to turn your straw house into brick?

Ella did it the way we’d seen it in the movies, all those black-and-white AMC lie-fests we’d watched in motel rooms, in rented bungalows, in converted garden sheds and guesthouses and even, once, student housing.

She married up.

* * *

Sharp October sunlight sliced into my eyes as the train rattled over the bridge to Brooklyn. I had a head full of my mother’s failing marriage and what felt like five cracked teeth in my mouth. I’ve had anger issues all my life, which Ella treated with meditation tapes, low-rent Reiki therapy she taught herself from a book, and the mouth guard I was supposed to wear but couldn’t stand. During the day, I bit back every nasty thing I thought about my stepfather. At night, I took it out on my teeth.

The man my mother married, not four months after he asked her out at an event she was working as a cocktail waitress, lived on the second-to-top floor of a building off Fifth Avenue. His name was Harold, he was rich as Croesus, and he thought Lorrie Moore was a line of house paint. That was all you needed to know about Harold.

I was on my way to Salty Dog, home of the first job I’d ever lived anywhere long enough to keep. It was a café owned by a couple from Reykjavík who’d put me through a six-hour cupping seminar before I was even allowed to clean the coffee machine. It was a good job for me—I could put as much into it as I wanted. I could work hard and make perfect coffee and be friendly to everyone who came in. Or I could do it all on autopilot and talk to no one, and tips barely went down.

Today I lost myself in the comforting rhythms of the café, pulling shots and making pour-over coffees, picking up scones with silver tongs and breathing in the burnt-caramel scent of ground beans.

“Don’t look now, but Guy in the Hat is here.” My coworker, Lana, breathed hot in my ear. Lana was a ceramicist in her second year at Pratt who looked like David Bowie’s even hotter sister and wore hideous clothes that looked good on her anyway. Today she was in a baggy orange Rebel Alliance–style jumpsuit. She smelled like Michelangelo must have—plaster dust and sweat. Somehow that looked good on her, too.

Guy in the Hat was our least favorite customer. Lana pretended to be busy cleaning the milk steamer, so of course I had to deal with him.

“Hey, Alice,” he said, making a point of reading my name tag even though he came in every day. He bopped his head to the T. Rex playing from Lana’s phone. “Cool tunes. Is that the Stone Roses?”

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