Home > The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)(4)

The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)(4)
Author: Melissa Albert


 

3


I was ten the first time I saw the book. Small enough for a pocket and bound in green hardback, its cover embossed in gold. Beneath its strange title, my grandmother’s name, all in uppercase.

I was already the kind of girl who closed my eyes and thumped the backs of furniture looking for hidden doors, and wished on second stars to the right whenever the night was dark enough to see them. Finding a green-and-gold book with a fairy-tale name in the very bottom of an otherwise boring chest of drawers thrilled me. I’d been poking around the attic of a family we were staying with, a loaded couple with a two-year-old son who didn’t mind hiring a live-in nanny with a kid of her own. We’d stayed in their spare bedroom the whole first half of my fifth-grade year, miraculously without incident, until the husband’s increasing friendliness to Ella made her call it.

I’d sat cross-legged on the attic’s tacky rag rug and opened the book reverently, tracing my finger down the table of contents. Of course I knew my grandmother was an author, but I’d been pretty incurious about her up to that point. I was told almost nothing about her, and assumed she wrote dry grown-up stuff I wouldn’t have wanted to read anyway. But this was clearly a storybook, and it looked like the best kind, too: a book of fairy tales. There were twelve in all.

The Door That Wasn’t There

Hansa the Traveler

The Clockwork Bride

Jenny and the Night Women

The Skinned Maiden

Alice-Three-Times

The House Under the Stairwell

Ilsa Waits

The Sea Cellar

The Mother and the Dagger

Twice-Killed Katherine

Death and the Woodwife

Being named Alice, of course I’d flipped straight to “Alice-Three-Times.” The pages rippled like they’d once been wet, and smelled like the dusty violet candies my mother loved and I hated. I still remembered the story’s first line, which was all I had time to read before Ella came in, tipped off by mother-radar, and ripped the book from my hands.

When Alice was born, her eyes were black from end to end, and the midwife didn’t stay long enough to wash her.

It was so creepy it made my heart squeeze, and I was glad to see Ella. I didn’t understand why her eyes were so bright, why she was breathing so hard. “This book isn’t for children,” she said shrilly.

I wasn’t sure what to say. My mom never told me I was too young for anything. When I asked her where babies came from, she told me in Nature Channel–level detail. If her friends tried to change the topic of conversation when I walked into a room, Ella would wave away their concern. “She knows perfectly well what an overdose is,” she’d say. “Don’t insult her intelligence.” Then, more likely than not, she’d tap her glass and tip her head toward the kitchen, where I’d dutifully shake her up a perfect martini.

Hearing her pull the age card for the first time in memory made me horribly, burningly curious. I had to read that book. Had to. I never saw the copy from the attic again, but I remembered the title and bided my time. I looked for it at libraries and bookshops, and on the shelves of all the people we stayed with, but I never found it. It showed up on eBay once—I used to have a Google alert set for the title—but the bidding quickly climbed beyond my price range.

So I turned to finding out more about its author instead. That’s how my obsession with my grandmother, Althea Proserpine, began.

* * *

Lana left, and a guy named Norm came in to replace her. He spent the next three hours talking about a hangout he’d had with Lana that may or may not have been a date, not that he was worried about it, but what did I think and had Lana mentioned him?

I gave him noncommittal answers until finally I cracked. “Jesus Christ, Norm. This is the ‘move on with your life’ dance.” I did a dance like I was imitating a train. “There, did that work? Lana’s literally never said your name in my presence.”

The injured look on his face gave me a flush of dark satisfaction. “Damn, Alice, that’s cold.” He took off his hat, folded the brim to make it more pretentious, and re-perched it on his head.

His silent treatment for the rest of the night gave me time to think—time to replay what I’d seen, again and again. When my shift ended, I stepped out into the night feeling skinless. The light was gone, and the houses I passed on the way to the train looked closed and clannish, like that one house you skip on Halloween. I jerked back when a man brushed too close against me on the sidewalk. His skin smelled burnt and his eyes seemed too light in the dark.

He kept walking, barely acknowledging me. I was being paranoid. Everywhere I looked for the stocking cap, the blue eyes. Nothing.

There were a handful of people waiting for the Q. I stood close enough to a woman pushing a baby in a stroller that it might’ve seemed like we were together. She didn’t look at me, but I saw her shoulders tighten. When the train came, I got in and jumped out again at the last possible moment, like I’d seen in the movies.

But then the platform was even emptier. I put one earbud in and played the white noise app Ella put on my phone and made me listen to whenever I started acting like a loaded gun.

When the next train came, I practically leapt on. The scene from the café kept unfolding like a movie in my mind: the crack of the plate, the blue of his eyes, the way he’d vanished out the door with the book in his hands. But already the edges were rubbing off the memory’s freshness. I could feel it degrading in my hands.

My neck hurt from holding it tight, keeping it on a swivel. The constant vigilance became a beat behind my eyes. When a guy holding a saxophone case threw open the door between cars, panic made a hot, hard starburst in my chest.

What if there was an explanation for the man’s unlined face, the sense I had that he hadn’t aged a day? Botox, French moisturizer, a trick of the light. My own black hole of a brain, writing an image from the past over the present.

Even so, he would still be a man who had a book that was impossible to find. Who’d told me ten years ago he knew my grandmother and was taking me to see her. What if he really had been? What if Ella had been wrong about him being a stranger?

What if Ella had been lying?

Years after I thought I’d buried it, the old obsession stirred. When the train finally rose up from underground and onto the bridge, I pulled up an article about Althea on my phone. It was once my favorite, the longest piece I could find. I even had an original copy of the magazine it ran in, which I came upon by some miracle in a used bookstore in Salem. Vanity Fair, September 1987, featuring a six-page spread of my grandmother on her newly bought estate, the Hazel Wood. In the photos she’s as slender as the cigarette she’s smoking, wearing cropped pants and red lipstick and a look that could slice through glass. My mother is a black-haired blur by her knees, a wavering shadow under the glitter of the swimming pool.

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