Althea Proserpine is raising her daughter on fairy tales. Once upon a time she was a girl named Anna Parks, one of the legion of midcentury dreamers who came to Manhattan with their hopes tucked into a suitcase. Then she went missing. Then she came back, and achieved an odd kind of fame, glittering from some angles but dark from others. Now she’s gone again, fled to a turreted house in the deep dark woods, where she lives with her five-year-old daughter and her husband, an actual royal—she just can’t quit fairy tales. When I get her on the phone, her voice is as alluring as her most famous photo, the one with the ring and the cigarette. I ask if I can come talk to her in person, and her laugh is hot whiskey on ice. “You’d get lost on the way to finding me,” she says. “You’d need breadcrumbs, or a spool of thread.”
—“The Queen of the Hinterland,” Vanity Fair, 1987
My mother was raised on fairy tales, but I was raised on highways. My first memory is the smell of hot pavement and the sky through the sunroof, whipping by in a river of blue. My mom tells me that’s impossible—our car doesn’t have a sunroof. But I can still close my eyes and see it, so I’m holding on to it.
We’ve crossed the country a hundred times, in our beater car that smells like French fries and stale coffee and plasticky strawberries, from the day I fed my Tinkerbell lipstick into the slats of the heater vent. We stayed in so many places, with so many people, that I never really learned the concept of stranger danger.
Which is why, when I was six years old, I got into an old blue Buick with a redheaded man I’d never met and drove with him for fourteen hours straight—plus two stops for bathroom breaks and one for pancakes—before the cops pulled us over, tipped off by a waitress who recognized my description from the radio.
By then I’d figured out the man wasn’t who he said he was: a friend of my grandmother, Althea, taking me to see her. Althea was already secluded in her big house then, and I’d never met her. She had no friends, just fans, and my mother told me that’s what the man was. A fan who wanted to use me to get to my grandma.
After they’d determined I hadn’t been assaulted, after the redheaded man was identified as a drifter who’d stolen a car a few miles from the place we were staying in Utah, my mother decided we’d never talk about it again. She didn’t want to hear it when I told her the man was kind, that he’d told me stories and had a warm laugh that made me believe, deep in my six-year-old’s heart, he was actually my father come to claim me. She’d been shown the redheaded man in custody through a one-way mirror, and swore she’d never seen him before.
For a few years I’d persisted in believing he was my dad. When we left Utah after his arrest, to live for a few months in an artists’ retreat outside of Tempe, I worried he wouldn’t be able to find me again.
He never did. By the time I turned nine, I’d recognized my secret belief for what it was: a child’s fantasy. I folded it away like I did all the things I didn’t need—old toys, bedtime superstitions, clothes that didn’t fit. My mom and I lived like vagrants, staying with friends till our welcome wore through at the elbows, perching in precarious places, then moving on. We didn’t have the luxury of being nostalgic. We didn’t have a chance to stand still. Until the year I turned seventeen, and Althea died in the Hazel Wood.
* * *
When my mother, Ella, got the letter, a shudder ran through her. That was before she opened it. The envelope was creamy green, printed with her name and the address of the place we were staying. We’d arrived the night before, and I wondered how it found us.
She pulled an ivory letter opener from the table beside her, because we were house-sitting for the kind of people who kept bits of murdered elephants around for show. With shaking hands, she slit the envelope jaggedly through its middle. Her nail polish was so red it looked like she’d cut herself.
As she shook it out, the letter caught the light, so I could see blocks of black text through the back but couldn’t read them.
Ella made a sound I didn’t recognize, a gasp of complicated pain that cut my breath off clean. She held the paper so close to her face it colored her skin a faint celery green, her mouth moving as she read it through again, again. Then she crumpled the letter up and tossed it into the trash.
We weren’t supposed to smoke inside that place, a cramped apartment on New York’s Upper West Side that smelled like expensive French soap and wet Yorkies. But Ella pulled out a cigarette anyway, and lit it off an antique crystal lighter. She sucked in smoke like it was a milk shake, tapping the fingers of one hand against the heavy green stone she wore at the pulse of her throat.
“My mother’s dead,” she said on an exhale, and coughed.
The news hit me like a depth charge, a knot of pain in my stomach that kept expanding. But it had been a long time since I’d spent my hours dreaming of Althea. The news shouldn’t have hurt me at all.
Ella squatted down in front of me, put her hands on my knees. Her eyes were shiny but dry. “This isn’t … forgive me, but this isn’t a bad thing. It’s not. It could change things for us, it could—” Her voice cracked in half before she could finish. She put her head down on my knees and sobbed once. It was a desolate sound that belonged somewhere else, out there with dark roads and dead-leaf smells, not in this bright room in the middle of a loud, bright city.
When I kissed the crown of her hair it smelled like diner coffee and the smoke twining up from her cigarette. She breathed in, out, and turned her face up to look at me.
“Do you know what this means for us?”
I stared at her, then around at the room we were sitting in: rich and stuffy and somebody else’s. “Wait. Does it mean we get the Hazel Wood?”
My grandmother’s estate, which I’d only seen in photos, felt like a place I remembered from some alternate, imaginary childhood. One where I rode horses and went to summer camp. It was the daydream I disappeared into when I needed a break from the endless cycle of highways and new schools and the smell of unfamiliar houses. I’d paste myself into its distant world of fountains and hedges, highballs and a pool so glittering bright you had to squint against it.
But my mother’s bony hand was around my wrist, pulling me out of the Technicolor lawns of the Hazel Wood. “God, no. Never. It means we’re free.”
“Free of what?” I asked stupidly, but she didn’t answer. She stood, tossing her half-smoked cigarette into the trash right on top of the letter, and walked straight-backed out of the room, like there was something she had to do.
When she was gone, I poured cold coffee on the trash can fire and pulled out the wet letter. Parts of it were eaten into ash, but I flattened the soggy remainder against my knees. The type was as dense and oddly spaced as the text on an old telegram.
The letter didn’t seem new. It even smelled like it had been sent from the past. I could imagine someone typing it up on an old Selectric, like the one in the Françoise Sagan postcard I hung up over my bed in every place we stayed. I breathed in its scent of ash and powdery perfume as I scanned what was left. There wasn’t much of it: We send our condolences, and Come at your earliest.
And one marooned word in a sea of singed paper: Alice. My name. I couldn’t read anything that came before or after it, and I saw no other reference to myself. I dropped the wet mess into the trash.
Until Althea Proserpine (born Anna Parks) died all alone on the grand estate she’d named the Hazel Wood, my mother and I had spent our lives as bad luck guests. We moved at least twice a year and sometimes more, but the bad luck always found us.
In Providence, where my mom taught art to senior citizens, the whole first floor of the house we rented flooded while we slept, on a rainless August night. A wildcat crept through a window into our trailer in Tacoma, to piss all over our stuff and eat the last of my birthday cake.
We tried to wait out a full school year in an LA guesthouse Ella rented from an earnest hippie with a trust fund, but four months in the woman’s husband started suffering from symptoms of chronic fatigue. After Ella moved to the main house to help out, the ceiling fell in over the master bedroom, and the hippie sleepwalked into the swimming pool. We didn’t want to start a death count, so we’d moved along.
When we traveled I kept an eagle eye on the cars behind us, like bad luck could take human form and trail you in a minivan. But bad luck was sneakier than that. You couldn’t outsmart it, you could only keep going when it had you in its sights.
After Althea died, we stopped moving. Ella surprised me with a key to a place in Brooklyn, and we moved in with our pitiful store of stuff. The weeks ticked by, then the months. I remained vigilant, but our suitcases stayed under the bed. The light in our apartment was all the colors of metal—blinding platinum in the morning, gold in the afternoon, bronze from streetlights at night. I could watch the light roll and change over our walls for hours. It was mine.
But I still saw the shadow of the bad luck: a woman who trailed me through a used bookstore, whispered something obscene in my ear as she picked my phone from my pocket. Streetlights winking out over my head, one by one, as I walked down the street after midnight. The same busker showing up with his guitar on every train I rode for a week, singing “Go Ask Alice” in his spooky tenor.
“Pfft,” Ella had said. “That’s not bad luck, that’s New York.”
She’d been different since her mother’s death. She smoked less, gained weight. She bought a few T-shirts that weren’t black.
Then we came home one night to find our apartment windows cracked into glittering stars. Ella pressed her lips together and looked at me. I braced myself for marching orders, but she shook her head.
“New York.” Her voice was hard and certain. “No more bad luck for us, Alice. You hear me? It’s done.”
So I went to public school. I hung Christmas lights around the plaster mantel behind our bed, and took a job at a café that turned into a bar when the sun went down. Ella started talking about things she’d never talked about before: painting our walls, buying a new sofa. College applications.
It was that last one that got us into trouble—Ella’s dream of a normal life for me, one with a future. Because if you’ve spent your whole life running, how do you learn to stand still? How do you figure out the right way to turn your straw house into brick?
Ella did it the way we’d seen it in the movies, all those black-and-white AMC lie-fests we’d watched in motel rooms, in rented bungalows, in converted garden sheds and guesthouses and even, once, student housing.
She married up.
* * *
Sharp October sunlight sliced into my eyes as the train rattled over the bridge to Brooklyn. I had a head full of my mother’s failing marriage and what felt like five cracked teeth in my mouth. I’ve had anger issues all my life, which Ella treated with meditation tapes, low-rent Reiki therapy she taught herself from a book, and the mouth guard I was supposed to wear but couldn’t stand. During the day, I bit back every nasty thing I thought about my stepfather. At night, I took it out on my teeth.
The man my mother married, not four months after he asked her out at an event she was working as a cocktail waitress, lived on the second-to-top floor of a building off Fifth Avenue. His name was Harold, he was rich as Croesus, and he thought Lorrie Moore was a line of house paint. That was all you needed to know about Harold.
I was on my way to Salty Dog, home of the first job I’d ever lived anywhere long enough to keep. It was a café owned by a couple from Reykjavík who’d put me through a six-hour cupping seminar before I was even allowed to clean the coffee machine. It was a good job for me—I could put as much into it as I wanted. I could work hard and make perfect coffee and be friendly to everyone who came in. Or I could do it all on autopilot and talk to no one, and tips barely went down.
Today I lost myself in the comforting rhythms of the café, pulling shots and making pour-over coffees, picking up scones with silver tongs and breathing in the burnt-caramel scent of ground beans.
“Don’t look now, but Guy in the Hat is here.” My coworker, Lana, breathed hot in my ear. Lana was a ceramicist in her second year at Pratt who looked like David Bowie’s even hotter sister and wore hideous clothes that looked good on her anyway. Today she was in a baggy orange Rebel Alliance–style jumpsuit. She smelled like Michelangelo must have—plaster dust and sweat. Somehow that looked good on her, too.
Guy in the Hat was our least favorite customer. Lana pretended to be busy cleaning the milk steamer, so of course I had to deal with him.
“Hey, Alice,” he said, making a point of reading my name tag even though he came in every day. He bopped his head to the T. Rex playing from Lana’s phone. “Cool tunes. Is that the Stone Roses?”
“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.”
“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.
Copyright © 2018 by Melissa Albert