Home > The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)(3)

The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)(3)
Author: Melissa Albert


“Oh, my god,” Lana said in a stage whisper.

He stared at the menu for a good two minutes, playing the counter like a drum. Anger gathered under my skin as I waited, making it prickle. Finally, he ordered what he always did. I stuffed his biscotti into a bag, handed over a bottle of Pellegrino, and moved behind the register so he couldn’t force me to do the complicated high five he’d been trying to teach me my last few shifts.

I watched him walk away, hating the short stump of his neck, the fine blond hairs on his arms, the jumpy way he snapped his fingers off the beat. My blood went high as he brushed past a seated woman, then pressed his hand to her shoulder in heavy apology.

“God, what an asshole,” Lana said at full volume, watching Guy in the Hat fumble with the door on his way out. She hip-checked me. “Alice, chill. You look like you wanna strangle him. It’s just Fedora Closet.”

The anger receded, leaving a hot embarrassment behind. “I wasn’t going to—” I began, but Lana cut me off. She was always good for that.

“Did I tell you I saw Christian naked?” She propped her chin in her hand.

Christian was our boss. He had a tiny, beautiful wife and a huge, red-faced baby that looked like a demon in a book of woodcuts. I tried but failed to think of an innocent reason for Lana to have seen him stripped.

“Are you … is it because you had sex with him?”

She laughed like I was far less worldly than she was, which I was but fuck you, Lana. “Can you imagine? Luisa would sic her terrifying baby on me. No, he commissioned me to do a sculpture of the family.”

“Naked?”

“Yeah,” she said, already losing interest in her story.

“Oh. Was he … was it gross?”

She shrugged, looking at something on her phone.

I had the idea, when Ella started going out with Harold, that I’d make Lana into my friend so I’d have someone of my own, but it hadn’t really worked that way. She was more into having an audience than a pal.

I grabbed a rag and went out to bus, just to force Lana to make some drinks for a change. As I moved between tables, I got the prickling, shoulder-bladey feeling of someone watching me. I’m not Lana—in most situations, I go unnoticed—so it made me clumsy. I knocked over a teacup, cursed aloud, and swiped up the mess. As I did so, I cased the customers.

There was a table of women in flashing engagement rings, clustered around green teas and a single coconut donut with four forks. Two identically bearded, plaid-shirted guys at separate tables, hunched over matching Macs and unaware of each other. A woman trying to read Jane Eyre, side-eyeing the checked-out mom and spoon-banging toddler one table over. And a man in a Carhartt jacket and sunglasses sitting near the door. He wore a stocking cap despite the mugginess, and was nursing a cup of water.

Then three things happened: Lana dropped the plate she was holding, which landed with a crack on the checkerboard tile; the Carhartt man looked up over the tops of his sunglasses; and a shock wave of recognition rolled through me, leaving me shaking in my shoes.

We stared at each other, the man and I, and he saw me remember. As we locked eyes, I recalled things I’d forgotten: ten years ago, his car had smelled like Christmas trees. He’d ordered pancakes and eggs when we’d stopped for breakfast. I’d been wearing a purple corduroy jumper over a striped T-shirt and tights, and white cowboy boots with silver studs I was extremely proud of. He’d told me stories, some I recognized and some I didn’t. I could never remember what they were about, after, but I remembered the feeling they gave me: the feeling you get from good poetry, real poetry, the kind that makes your neck tingle and your eyes tear up.

He was the man who’d spirited me away in his blue Buick, the man I’d imagined was my father. His red hair was hidden, but I knew his eyes. Then I’d been little and only knew he was a grown-up. Now I could see how young he was—twenty, twenty-five at the outside. It was ten years since I’d seen him, and he looked exactly the same: impossibly young. It was impossible. But I knew with certainty it was him, and that he was here because of me.

As all of this hit me, he was already standing up, grabbing his book off the table, and striding out of the café. Before the bells on the door stopped jingling, I was after him. Someone’s laptop cord crossed my path, and I nearly sent the thing flying; by the time I finished apologizing and wrenched open the door, the man was out of sight. I looked up and down the quiet sidewalk, my hands itching to hold a cigarette—my mom and I had quit when we moved in with Harold.

But he was gone. After a few minutes, I went back inside.

On the table he’d left an empty cup. A balled napkin. And a feather, a comb, and a bone. The feather was dark gold, with a lacy glass-green tip. The comb was red plastic. The bone must’ve come from a chicken, but it had the shape of a human finger bone. It was bleached perfectly clean. The trio was laid out like a hieroglyph, a vague pi shape that impressed itself on my brain as I swept it all into my apron pocket.

“Okay, what was that?” I’d never seen Lana so curious about me before. “Girl, your … your lips look white. Did that guy do something to you?”

He kidnapped me when I was six. I think he might be a Time Lord. “Nobody. I mean, he was nobody. I was wrong, I thought I recognized him but I didn’t.”

“Nope. Nothing you just said is true, but fine. You’re going to sit here, and I’m going to bring you some food, and you’re not working anymore till you stop looking like crap. Oh, except I have to leave in twenty minutes, so hopefully you’ll look better by then.”

I sat down hard, my knees giving out partway. One of the engagement ring women frowned at me and tapped her cup, like we were the kind of place that did free refills. Oh, just tempt me, I thought, but I was too weak to get mad.

Too scared. Call it what it is, Alice. Maybe I could’ve talked myself into believing what I wanted so badly to believe—that he was a man I’d never seen before, who looked a little like someone I’d met briefly a decade ago. And maybe I could have forgotten about him altogether, if it weren’t for the book I’d seen in his hands as he sped out the door.

I hadn’t seen the book in years, but I knew what it was the instant I spied the familiar green cover.

He’d been reading Tales from the Hinterland, of course. Of course he had.

 

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