Home > The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)(8)

The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)(8)
Author: Melissa Albert


Audrey’s phone chimed again, insistent, and something she read in the misspellings and emoji cluttering its screen made her voice harden. “Just so you know, my dad’s never had a marriage last less than a year. So your mom’s gold-digging skills must be super on point.”

I looked at her flatly, my guilt melting down to a fine white anger. She felt the shift and her hands went nervous, jittering to a stop on her phone screen.

There was a time when I would’ve used words to make one clean, cold cut in her, in the place where she was softest—the rubble of acne beneath the foundation layer that ended at her chin; her father’s offhand comments about the fit of her jeans; her own mother, out of touch but still plenty capable of cashing Harold’s monthly checks—then gone in for the evisceration.

But I couldn’t do it without hearing Ella’s voice in my ear, her hands a warm weight on my shoulders. Breathe in the light, Alice. Breathe out the anger.

I hated that hippie shit.

“Just so you know,” I said, nicer than I wanted to, “Ella’s never dated a guy who’s owned anything bigger than a motorcycle before. So she’s that good at gold-digging on her first try.”

Audrey made a face like my stupid retort was acceptable, then turned her attention toward using her phone’s reversed camera as a makeup mirror.

The courtship of my mom and Audrey’s dad, in three acts:

Act One: Harold spies Ella across the room at a cocktail party. “I thought she was one of us,” he liked to say jovially. “I didn’t think she was the help!” This passed for charm when you were Harold.

When the sea of people between them cleared, he’d seen she was dressed all in caterer black, holding a tray at the level of her waist. If you held them any higher, she’d told me, men had an excuse to get a good angle on your cleavage.

Harold ate a spanakopita and asked her to write her number on the napkin. Which she did. This is the part I still can’t understand. Was it his Jersey accent that got her? The hair coming out the top of his shirt? My guess is it was the expensive watch glittering around his thick wrist—or, if I’m being less jaded, his eyes. They were a deep, melancholy blue, the kind that hinted at something interesting in their depths. Even if I’d never seen him deliver on the promise.

Act Two: The first date. Ella left our apartment at eight to meet Harold for a drink, and found a town car waiting for her. Drinks turned into dinner turned into a drunken two a.m. phone call letting me know she wasn’t coming home till morning. This was an Ella I hadn’t seen since I was nine, when she’d driven her boyfriend’s motorcycle barefoot into a duck pond in the middle of a still August night. It freaked her out enough—the obsession, she’d told me later, with the idea of “What if Alice had been on the back?”—that she swore ever after to be home and mostly sober by midnight.

She’d returned from her date with Harold almost twenty-four hours after she’d left, shoeless (always a bad sign) and wearing a suit coat over her dress. I sniffed it when she wasn’t looking. It smelled like the drunk finance guys who pressed too close against me in the crush of the train when I took it at the wrong time of day. I’d shaken my head. Poor Harold. Ella’s going to eat you alive.

Act Three: The whirlwind courtship. Epic fifteen-course tasting menus, weekends in the Hamptons, an awkward high tea with me and Audrey. And, of course, the fateful opera date that literally began with him sending her a dress.

“I just threw up in my mouth, that’s so cheesy,” I’d told her.

“We can pawn it if the date’s a fail,” she’d shot back, smoothing it over her hips. There was a funny glitter in her eyes as she watched herself in the mirror. I thought of that later, when she came home with a twin glitter on her ring finger: a rock as big as the Ritz.

My memory of that night is tattered, a movie screen clawed to strings. The glint of the ring lodged in my eye like a shard of demon glass, and the anger overwhelmed me. I remembered Ella’s drawn face as she slammed the bathroom door between us, the splintery give of its cheap wood when I kicked the bottom panel out. The slide of honeyed whiskey over my throat the next day, scalded with screaming, and the miserable heat behind my eyes when I saw Ella was still wearing the ring.

The person who married Harold six weeks later wasn’t my mother. The woman who was making him miserable now? That was the Ella I recognized, coming out of deep freeze.

Harold’s driver pulled up in front of Whitechapel, and my stomach did its usual roller-coaster drop. Audrey slipped her phone into her bag, hustling out of the car so quick she was absorbed into a pod of rich girls by the time my feet hit the sidewalk.

I’d spent my entire life as the new kid, and it never stopped sucking. It didn’t matter if you were starting seventh grade in Podunk nowhere, or your junior year at Whitechapel, the fancy-ass Upper East Side academy Harold paid my way into. The students were the same wherever I went: clannish, judgmental, and unwilling to make an independent move.

My Monday-morning ennui was overlaid with a low-level dread. I kept expecting to see the red-haired man. He’d broken the skin that separated me from that strange, dreamlike day in my childhood, brought it close. Now that he’d shown himself, he could be anywhere: the man pretending to look at his cell phone on the corner of Eighty-Sixth Street. The jogger running with a Starbucks cup. Maybe I’d walk into class and he’d be there, disguised as a substitute teacher and reading that green book. I ran my hands down my uniform skirt and breathed.

The first half of my day was Comp, Medieval Lit, Calculus, and lunch. My performance in those classes could be rated as good, fine, bad, and terrible, respectively. After lunch was Drama with Audrey and her gang of future Real Housewives. It was the one class she never skipped, which had something to do with the fact that our teacher was a floppy-haired former TV actor who made us call him Toby.

But she ditched today. Her absence meant that, for once, we had the right number of people to pair up for scenes at the end.

And when Toby started flinging his corduroy arms around, pairing us up at random, I had a premonition: I’d get partnered with Ellery Finch.

 

 

5


Everyone at Whitechapel was rich, but Finch was on another level. Back when she still thought I was impressable, Audrey had given me a Google-powered tour of her school’s best and brightest—aka, richest. She’d shown me a photo of a younger, geekier Finch at a fancy event, sandwiched between a silver-fox type and a beautiful brown-skinned woman wearing a necklace Ella would’ve loved, which looked like a chain of throwing stars.

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