Home > The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)(9)

The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)(9)
Author: Melissa Albert


Finch was almost as short as me and skinny, with a crackling energy that followed him like an aura. His hair grew in every direction, and his eyes were caffeinated and quick, a brown a few shades lighter than his skin. He dressed kinda like old photos of Bob Dylan: work boots and high-waisted pants. I had no idea how he got his uniform pants to ride so high.

None of this would’ve mattered to me except for one thing: he knew who I was. Most people don’t, and if they did, they wouldn’t care. Being the estranged granddaughter of a minor, largely forgotten literary celebrity mattered to pretty much nobody, especially in a school where fundraiser auction items tended to include guitar lessons with somebody’s pop-star father. It was just my luck that one of Althea Proserpine’s few remaining superfans happened to go to Whitechapel, and managed to find out who I was. Finch had cornered me at my locker my first week of school.

“You’re Alice Proserpine, aren’t you?”

“Who told you that?”

Finch was beaming. I’d seen him around, even thought he was kind of cute, but right then I wanted to swipe the grin off his face. “Audrey. Not that she actually told me.” He made a gesture down his front, as if pointing out that being short and Dylan-y was enough to explain why Audrey would sooner shop at JCPenney than be seen talking to him. It was.

“I’m Alice Crewe,” I’d said quietly, looking over his shoulder. Considering Proserpine was a ridiculous last name of my grandmother’s invention, my mom was cool with me going by any last name I wanted. I’d chosen mine at age eight, after reading A Little Princess.

He nodded. “I get it. Proserpine’s a lot. I mean, I should know. Technically I’m Ellery Oliver Djan-Nelson-Abrams-Finch.” He clocked my look of horror. “No, seriously. People always say, ‘But what happens when two people with hyphenated last names marry each other?’ Well, that’s what happens. I go by Finch.”

People passing by were nodding at Finch and giving me the appraising new-girl look. I should’ve been used to it, but I wasn’t.

“Cool story, Finch,” I said, with more acid than I intended.

He blinked but didn’t walk away. “Your grandmother’s book is like nothing I’ve ever read,” he said in a quieter voice. It was a tone I was familiar with: the hushed voice of the true believer.

It made me prickle with discomfort, and with something else—a jealousy I didn’t want to look at too closely. “I’ve never met her,” I’d blurted, slamming my locker shut. “You probably know more about her than I do.”

I wasn’t sure if that was a lie or not. The bitch of it was, we probably knew the exact same stuff about Althea, from the same secondhand sources—except he’d gotten to read the book. Before he could say another word, I’d cut through the crowds and down the hall.

That should’ve been the last time we spoke, but Finch had a way of turning up.

First I saw him in the park, jogging in a corduroy jacket. I’d wondered if he was running from a mugger, then saw the embarrassing white sneakers and realized corduroy and denim were his exercise clothes. “Alice!” he’d yelled as he passed, his voice happy and his hair exploding around his headphones.

A week later I ran into him at a bookstore on Fifty-Seventh Street. It was like something out of a bad movie: I’d tugged a fat, tattered copy of Yeats down from a shelf, and there he was, a book-sized slice of him in the space it left behind. He was chewing his thumbnail, reading Patti Smith.

The third time I saw him he was under an awning at a restaurant a block from Harold’s, its long windows open to let summer in and a spill of rich people at tiny, marble-topped tables out. He was sitting with a man I recognized from the internet as his father and a gaunt woman with a sharp blonde bob, trailing a steak knife through crème brûlée. He caught me looking before I could turn away, and stood up like he was on strings. In three bounds he was away from the restaurant and walking beside me.

“You saved me,” he said. “I was starting to levitate back there. I was starting to think, What if my entire life has been watching my stepmom take fourteen minutes to eat one bite of dessert, and all my memories of the world before that were just implanted by the Matrix? Hi, Alice.”

“Hi,” I said, flustered. I was on my way home from work. My shirt was covered in scone crumbs and my hair was spiked with sweat.

“You smell like a coffee bean,” he said when we reached the corner. “It’s awesome.” He glanced back at the restaurant, his face so full of regret I almost laughed. “Okay, I better get back.”

“Back to stabbing your dessert.”

His smile reached his eyes then, just for a moment. A flicker of light on dark water. Then he swung around and walked back up the sidewalk.

After that he’d started waiting at my locker some mornings, leaning against it with one foot up like something out of an eighties movie.

“Crewe,” he’d say, nodding, then he’d stand there while I juggled my books. When I was done he’d pull a book off the top of my stack, walk me to class, and hand it back when we got there, like an inside joke he had with himself. Finch’s approval was armor. I wasn’t just Audrey’s weird stepsister, I was Finch’s … something. Charity case?

Friend?

It wouldn’t be a first, exactly, but close enough. I didn’t talk much to anyone. It wasn’t that people didn’t try—there’s always somebody who wants to adopt the new girl. I’m small, with blonde hair and dark eyes that look soft and surprised until I get angry.

“Aren’t you a pretty little house cat,” a teacher said to me once, in a low voice nobody else could hear. It was my first week as a freshman in Nashville. His words and the way he’d looked when he said them shivered under my skin and stayed there like poison. The only way to purge it was to pour a thermos of hot coffee into the keyboard of his laptop. I never got caught, and I never stopped hating the disconnect between what I saw in the mirror and how I felt.

But it was different with Ellery Finch. I’d grown up too steeped in fairy tales and shit luck that kicked in like clockwork to believe much in coincidence. I had … something with Finch. I’d never quite decided what that might be, but there was this skin of meaning that had attached itself to him. Maybe it was the Althea connection, or the way our paths kept crossing like we were skaters spinning in a figure eight. Or maybe it was wanting to see that light in his eyes again, a possibility that made my skin flutter with heat rash.

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