Shakespeare's Secret

Elise Broach

Henry Holt and Co.

from CHAPTER ONE

It was the last day of summer. Hero Netherfield stretched across the quilted bedspread in her sister's room, her feet drifting over the edge of the mattress. She wasn't thinking about their new house. She wasn't thinking about school. She wasn't thinking about stepping off the bus tomorrow into a sea of strangers. If she thought about any of those things, she'd get that old, tight, panicky feeling--and what was the point?

So instead, she rested her cheek against the soft cotton and breathed. The air was thick with summer smells: lawn clippings and sun lotion and late-blooming roses. She could hear the distant shouts of a tag game down the street. She closed her eyes and made her mind completely blank, as heavy and blank as the summer day.

It took a lot of concentration. Too much. After a minute, she rolled on her side and said to her sister, "You got the best room."

Beatrice's room in the new house was full of angles and alcoves, like Hero's, but it was bigger, with more windows. Beatrice had hung posters on the sloping ceiling, and they floated colorfully overhead, like the inside flaps of a circus tent.

Her sister sat at the desk with one foot propped on an open drawer. She painted her toenails with quick, smooth strokes. "So?" she said. "It was my turn."

That was true. They took turns choosing bedrooms every time they moved, and Hero had chosen first at the house in New York.

"You have a good room, too," Beatrice said. "You just need to put stuff up on the walls."

"Yeah, I know," Hero sighed. But what? She'd finally opened the moving boxes from her old bedroom yesterday. They were filled with stuffed animals, seashells, crunched wildlife posters, all the things she'd collected since she was five. She wasn't sure she even recognized that person any more. None of it belonged in the room of a sixth-grader. A little wistfully, she'd packed it all up again and shoved the boxes in one of the closets under the eaves. That was the strange lthing about moving so often. It forced you to think about starting over every time, whether you really wanted to or not."

The only things Hero kept out for her new room were her books and a shoebox of antique bottles she'd found at a garage sale, colorful glass vials that once held medicine, hair tonic, maybe perfume. The books she wedged into the dark corner bookcase, stacking a pile of favorites next to her bed. The bottles she arranged in a cluster on the window seat, thinking about all the places they must have been, all the hands that must have held them. She liked the way they caught the sunlight and scattered soft shadows of green and lavender on the floor and walls. But the walls themselves were still completely bare. Hero couldn't think of what to hang on them.

She rolled onto her stomach and covered her face with her hands. "I can't believe school starts tomorrow."

"Me neither." Beatrice fanned her toenails. "But maybe it won't be so bad this time."

"It never is bad for you, Triss."

Sometimes it amazed Hero that she and her sister were actually part of the same family. When she was little, she used to suspect she was adopted, an idea that struck her as both upsetting and exotic--and somehow much easier to believe than the truth. Beatrice was tall and pretty, with wavy reddish hair and an open, sunny face. She always seemed about to smile, if she wasn't already smiling. Hero, on the other hand, was small and dark. She knew that much of the time, without meaning to, she wore a pinched, worried look. At the grocery store or the mall, complete strangers would touch her arm and ask sympathetically , "What's the matter, honey? Don't you feel well?"

At school tomorrow, Hero knew exactly what would happen. After a brief sizing-up, Beatrice would be swept into a throng of would-be friends, girls who'd show her the restrooms, save her a place in the cafeteria, share their phone numbers and e-mail addresses. They'd admire her hair, they'd compliment her nail polish. By the end of tomorrow--even though it was only her first day--Beatrice would fit in. Her plans for the weekend would include half the eighth grade.

For Hero, it would be a different story entirely. She'd still be the new kid months from now. She flinched when she thought of what lay ahead: figuring out the lockers, the right clothing to wear, the acceptable food to pack for lunch. Every school had its own customs and fashions, and if she wanted to blend in, she never had long to find out what they were. Hero frowned, thinking about it. It was such hard work, that constant, draining effort to slip into the crowd unnoticed. "Blending in" was completely different than "fitting in." It was the difference between camouflaging yourself in the forest and actually being one of the trees.

"Oh, come on, Hero," Beatrice said. "Maryland is almost the South. People seem friendlier here." She laughed suddenly. "Besides, last year everything worked out okay. You had Kate and Lindsey."

"Ugh!" Hero made a face. "Kate and Lindsey. That was totally not worth it."

Kate and Lindsey had been her friends in fifth grade. They had identical blond ponytails and high-pitched, unstoppable squeals. Hero had nothing in common with them. It still amazed her that they'd ended up spending so much of the last year together. It was a relationship based purely on need. Kate and Lindsey, struggling not to fail Language Arts, had to find a third person to help with their Greek myths skit. They chose Hero, who ended up writing the whole play while the two of them huddled together and whispered about their one consuming interest, a boy named Jeremy Alexander. They stalked Jeremy throughout the school day, without ever actually talking to him, and then spent hours in endless, inconclusive conversations about whether he knew they even existed. In return for putting up with this, Hero found herself with a lifeline of sorts. She had someone to sit with at lunch, to hang out with at recess, to join for team activities in gym. Of course, if the game ever called for partners, it was understood that the pair would be Kate and Lindsey, and Hero would be on her own.

"They were awfull," Batrice said, still laughing. "Remember how obsessed they were with that boy?"

"Remember? That was my life." Hero raised her voice several octaves. "He looked at me! Did not! Did too! In Social Studies! Sideways or did he turn his whole head? Whole head! No way!"

Beatrice mimicked their ear-splitting scream. "Remember how Dad always used to forget Lindsey's name?" she asked.

Hero smiled. "He called them 'Kate and the other Kate.' How could he forget a regular name like Lindsey?"

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Beatrice shrugged. "It didn't come from Shakespeare."

Hero and Beatrice were both named for characters in the play Much Ado About Nothing, thanks to the English literature class where their parents met in college. Naturally, Beatrice had gotten the familiar name, one that lent itself to bouncy nicknames like Trixie, or Bea, or Triss. Hero's name was inevitably misunderstood, questioned, and laughed at. For several months at the last school, one of her teachers had called her Nero.

Of course, she hadn't told her parents that. Her mother loved Shakespeare, but her father actually lived it. It was his job. For as long as Hero could remember, he'd been reading, studying, and writing about Shakespeare. When she was little, she used to wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of his voice floating through the darkness. She would pad through the otherwise sleeping house to find him, usually at the dining room table, hunched over the wings of a book, reading out loud. He would always let her listen for a while before he carried her back to bed. The words didn't make any sense--Hero never understood what was happening--but the language was musical and full of feeling. She liked sitting in the dim room and hearing the rhythm of it.

Her father's years in graduate school and a string of teaching and research jobs had taken them from Illinois to Massachusets to New York, and finally here to Maryland, where he would be working as an archivist at the Maxwell Elizabethan Documents Collection in Washington, D.C. When the whole family had visited the library last week, Hero thought its stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings made it look like a cathedral. It was filled with books and long, shining wood tables. There were glass cases everywhere, with old, curling brown manuscripts in them.

"Dad seems to love that Maxwell place" she said to Beatrice. "And everybody there looks just like him. Sort of rumpled and tweedy."

"Yeah," Beatrice said. "Even the women have beards. It's perfect for him."

It was amazing to think of a place that was perfect for their father. He was so weird, and not just in the way all parents were weird. He used words like "Fie" and "tetchy," and he could quote long passages from Shakespeare by heart. He never did the things that other dads did, like play golf or watch football on TV. He had no idea how to grill a steak. But Beatrice was right: Compared to the rest of the staff at the Maxwell, he seemed normal.

"Do you think that's how it is for everybody?" Hero asked. "Do you think even the weirdest people seem normal if you put them in the right place?

Beatrice thought for a minute. "Are you talking about Dad or yourself?"

Hero grabbed the pillow and hurled it at her, almost knocking over the nail polish.

"Hey!" Beatrice said. "I was just kidding. Relax, school will go fine tomorrow. You worry too much."

Hero shook her head. "No, I don't. When you're me, it's not possible to worry too much."

At that moment, their mother appeared in the doorway. She was holding a large pair of pruning shears, and her cheeks were streaked with sweat. From the expression on her face, they could tell she'd been listening.

"Well," she said to Hero, "I suppose if you worry too much, you'll always be pleasantly surprised."

Copyright © 2005 Elise Broach
This text is from an uncorrected proof