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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.
Copyright © 2018 by Melissa Albert