The cab driver glanced in his rear view mirror as the taxi slowed to a stop. A girl of about seventeen sat hunched in the back seat. He couldn’t tell if she was awake or dozing, but as the light turned green and the car accelerated, the exhaust pipe backfired and the girl jumped, tugging the headphones from her ears.
“You okay back there, kid?”
“It’s Ella,” the girl reiterated softly for what seemed like the hundredth time in as many miles. “I’m fine,” she managed and pursed her lips together.
She looked from the back of the driver’s head to her window where the trees were rushing by, but the sight made her queasy and she lowered her gaze, silently tallying the stains on the seatback in front of her.
“Is it much farther?”
“At least another hour,” he replied brusquely, “but tell me if you’re gonna be sick again and I’ll pull over.”
The driver squinted back at her through the mirror once more. The girl wore a short-brimmed newsboy cap and under the cap, trailing over her shoulder was a braid of thick, black hair. The hat obscured her eyes, but her skin appeared nearly as pale as her lace-trimmed white shirt and at the moment was tinged a delicate green.
“I’m fine,” she repeated, more convincingly this time. “It’s not the car. Just a nervous stomach. I wish I could get in touch with my aunt. I don’t have a key, so if she isn’t at home when I get there…”
Ella trailed off, staring at the single name and address printed on the creased sheet of paper in her hands. Meg Keller. 324 Hemlock Terrace, Whitfield, Vermont. She folded the page in half, rotated it, and folded it another time, again and again until the sheet was a dense, crumpled square. She dropped it on the seat next to her.
Meg Keller. Her only aunt had once been special, but was little more than a name to her now. A signature on a drawer full of old birthday cards.
Ella’s stomach tightened into a knot but relaxed while her fingers traced the outline of a worn patch on the seat.
Spending a year with an absolute stranger was worth it if it meant attending the most prestigious school in the United States, she reminded herself. Worth moving away from home. Not that it was much like home now with Mom and Mal both gone. Worth leaving her friends her senior year. Not that there were so many friends to leave behind.
“I just wish I could get in touch with my aunt.”
The driver’s gruff voice softened. “Nothing to worry about. I’ll bet she’ll be waiting at the door to meet you,” he reassured her, reaching toward the dashboard. “Hey, kid, do you mind if I turn this song up? It’s a classic.”
He looked back to see her nod, but missed the secret smile that spread across her face as a familiar voice came on the radio. Leaning back against the headrest, Ella closed her eyes to listen. She was nearly asleep when the taxi backfired again.
CHAPTER ONE: AN ARRIVAL
Meg Keller looked up sharply from her knitting. A sudden sound like a gunshot a few miles off had ripped through the sleepy afternoon silence. Gently, she shook her head and attempted to soothe her rumpled nerves before raising her knitting needles once again. Long since reformed from a wild youth, she had grown accustomed to stillness in her middle age. The town of Whitfield, nestled at the foot of a mountain in southwestern Vermont, was an ideally tranquil spot.
Meg lived at the edge of Whitfield, down a long lane that had only been paved in the last three years, and over one of the county’s five quaint covered bridges. Every summer the town was overrun by tourists whose population peaked over the Fourth of July and trailed off as the August humidity set in. The first week in July, visitors began venturing from the candy shops and antique stores in town out to her quiet country lane for photographs of the historic old bridge. In vain, Meg would shut the windows and close the blinds to block out the murmur of voices and rumble of engines. But the days were growing shorter and cooler now. The tourists had flown and – although it was not yet autumn – it seemed the little town had already settled down for its proverbial long winter’s nap.
The only cars to pass by the house now were those of the three neighbors on the street and the instructors at the private boarding school at the end of the lane – Whitfield’s sole claim to fame – and those were seen but seldom. Meg could sit in the kitchen near the sunny window and neither see nor hear another soul for hours, especially during these lazy summer days.
As Meg rested there this particular August afternoon, she paused to massage her arthritic hands. She was a small woman, with a lean figure and surprisingly graceful limbs. Her recently greying hair was pulled back into a smooth bun, but a few wisps had escaped and were curling in the thick humidity. She tucked a loose ringlet behind her ear, and picked up the ball of green yarn resting in her lap and the wooden needles she always had close by, like a child with a favorite blanket.
A roaring engine approached the house, and a squeak from the brakes reverberated through the neighborhood. Meg hoisted herself out of the hard chair, and glancing out the window, spotted a dull yellow taxi parked in her driveway.
By the time she reached the front door, the driver was slamming the trunk shut with his elbow, a suitcase in each hand.
“Wait! What –?” she sputtered, flinging open the screen door. On the porch, she nearly tumbled over a bulging blue duffel bag.
“I’m gonna need the last fifty dollars, ma’am,” barked the driver, stepping forward with the last two suitcases.
“Round trip from Albany. The fare is two hundred fifty dollars,” he added, “and that’s a good rate.”
“I’m sorry,” Meg stammered. “I’m afraid you must have the wrong address.”
“I don’t think so.” He pulled a crumpled half-sheet of paper from his back pocket. “Three twenty-four Hemlock Terrace. That’s you, right?”
“Yes, but –”
“And you must be,” he said, looking down at the sheet, “Meg Keller.”
“I am. But I don’t see –”
“Your niece already paid the two hundred, and she told me you’d pay the rest when I dropped off her bags.”
“My niece?” Meg asked skeptically. “Ella? I don’t understand. Where is she?”
“She said she had a meeting at that school down the way, and she’d walk here after.”
“Yes, I know she’s going to the school, but what are these bags?”
“Look, ma’am, I don’t know. The girl only told me she was going to that school but needed her stuff left here and you’d pay the last fifty.”
Meg stood rooted to the porch.
“The meter’s running, ma’am.”
Though her brain lingered in a cloud of confusion, Meg’s legs seemed to move of their own accord and she stepped inside the house to retrieve her purse.
A short distance away, Ella peered through a high iron gate. Her face – lifted to the sprawling brick building – was slender, the nose and cheeks slightly freckled below wide eyes, which were grey with flecks of emerald that flashed to life when her emotions were heightened.
Her eyes appeared very green indeed as she took in the prospect beyond the gate. Perfectly trimmed hedges lined the school grounds. Far off, she could only just see the boarding house with a long row of windows gleaming in the fading afternoon light. Though she had studied the school’s website assiduously, Ella hadn’t paid much attention to the description of the boarding house. Since she wouldn’t be living there, it hadn’t seemed important at the time. But now a sudden curiosity gripped her and she strained her eyes to make out the building in the distance.
She was recalled from her scrutiny by a voice, and turned to see a young woman approaching her from the ivy-covered main building. She wore a short sleeve, black sweater and her pinstripe pencil skirt fell gracefully about her knees as she strode slowly along the path.
“Eleanor Parker, I presume?” the woman inquired, as she reached the gate. Her dark blonde hair lay loosely about her face, which looked fresh and youthful apart from the deep circles under her eyes.
“I’m Ms. Walsh. I believe you’ll be a member of my World History course next week.”
“Please call me Ella. Most people do,” she responded, snatching the cap from her head and smoothing her own untidy skirt as she stepped through the massive gate and shook hands. “I’m so sorry. I hope you haven’t been waiting for me long.”
Ms. Walsh assured her of the contrary.
“I would have called to reschedule but I couldn’t get through to the headmaster’s office, and I didn’t have another number to try. I was supposed to arrive last night,” Ella explained in a rush of words, “but one of my flights got cancelled and my aunt’s phone keeps going straight to voicemail. So I had to convince a taxi to make the trip for me, which was probably good because I have this thing with flying…and heights in general… And I’m…sorry for babbling,” she added with a grimace. “It’s been a stressful day and this place is…much bigger than I’d imagined.”
“Don’t mention it. I’m sure I would be giddy myself after traveling all day. Headmaster Tutwiler sends his apologies, of course. I’m afraid he had some pressing business, but I’m more than happy to introduce you to the Academy, if you’ll follow me.”
The young instructor started up the hill at a brisk pace and began her rapid-fire speech.
“As I’m sure you are aware, Whitfield Christian Preparatory Academy was founded in 1910 as a college preparatory school for boys. In 1972, the Academy merged with the Edna Earle Percy School for girls. Following the merger, the Academy dropped the ‘Christian’ portion of its title, though we do still offer religious studies and there is a nondenominational chapel on campus.”
As Ella stepped over the threshold through a pair of massive double doors, she gaped at her surroundings. Light streamed through a wide window above the entry and glistened off the sleek marble flooring under her feet.
Worth it. Absolutely worth it.
The click clack of Ms. Walsh’s high heels echoed through the corridor as she continued, “The campus consists of fifty-two classrooms, three science wings, an art gallery and sculpture garden, a state-of-the-art computer lab, and a library with access to two hundred fifty thousand print and electronic volumes,” she rattled off as they passed a glass trophy case spanning the length of the wall. “Athletics are emphasized as a central part of life at the Academy. In addition to a weight room and track, all students have access to our nine tennis courts, four volleyball courts, three soccer fields, and two basketball courts, when not in use by an Academy team.”
Ella hoped to ask something intelligent, but only managed to inquire, “And music?”
“Certainly! We have a Fine Arts Center with special studios for chorus, art, photography, and orchestra. Also, an audio-visual recording studio was recently added to the fine arts suite. In addition to our standard courses, the curriculum offers many opportunities to participate in arts, science competitions, clubs, and foreign language. The Academy boasts of having the most sought after foreign language instructors in the country. Our faculty includes two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, the former undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and the former ambassador to Morocco.”
“That’s impressive,” Ella said, once again wishing she could think of a better remark. She’d felt so mature and self-assured that morning when she’d embarked on this adventure but suddenly, next to this businesslike young woman, her clothes seemed disheveled and her thoughts jumbled.
Ella glanced up from her outfit to see Ms. Walsh looking at her quizzically and wondered if she appeared as lost and vacant on the outside as she felt on the inside.
“I’m sorry,” Ella laughed sheepishly. “I should probably be asking questions or something. I’m a little overwhelmed now that I’m actually seeing the Academy in person.”
Ms. Walsh smiled sympathetically. Ella found her much less intimidating when she smiled.
“I understand. It is a lot to take in all at once.” She looked around at the oil paintings adorning the long corridor and glanced at her watch. “I think we can skip the formal tour for now. I’m sure you’re anxious to see your aunt. What’s your first class?”
“Yours. World History.”
“Perfect! I’ll show you how to get to my classroom so you’ll know where to go on your first day. I’m certain the other students will help you with the rest and you’ll find the campus easy to navigate within a few days.”
Trying her best not to gawk, Ella walked briskly at Ms. Walsh’s side, mentally mapping her path. Later, when Ms. Walsh opened the high iron gate at the edge of the grounds, Ella thanked her enthusiastically, already excited for her first day.
Ella saw her Aunt Meg sitting in the porch swing as she approached the house. She was bent over, knitting needles working rapidly in her hands. From this distance, Ella could almost imagine the figure on the porch was her mother, the two sisters were so similar.
Ella crossed the porch in three nimble steps.
“Hi, Aunt Meg,” she said with a sweet, clear voice and offered a tired smile. “I tried to call.”
“Ella! You’ve gotten so tall!” her aunt exclaimed, standing and giving her a stiff hug. “My cell phone must have shut off. I don’t get many calls, but if I’d known you were coming today, I would have made sure it was charged. I didn’t expect you to visit so soon.”
Ella opened her mouth to reply, but only hiccupped.
“Visit?” she finally asked, her eyes wide.
Meg’s answer was cut off as a rusty truck rattled into the driveway. The old pickup door opened with a creak and a short, thin man with silver hair and a bristly grey beard crossed the lawn. He stooped with age and fatigue, but his hazel eyes were bright and sparkled behind his thick glasses.
In a low, trembling voice he said, “I daresay that’s little Ellie Parker! How are you doing, doll?”
Ella grinned at the town’s elderly handyman. “It’s been a few years since anyone’s called me ‘little’, Mr. Sherman. But I’m good,” Ella replied, as he tousled her bangs. “I’m good.”
“Well now, when Meg here invited me over, I had no idea you’d be visiting. What a treat!” he said, adjusting the suspenders holding up his loose, shabby shorts.
“To be honest,” Meg put in, “I was only hoping you could take a look at the Buick for me.” She flashed Ella a brief but sincere smile. “I didn’t know you’d be here myself.”
The green faded from Ella’s eyes as her gaze flitted from one face to the other.
“My mom talked to you, didn’t she?”
Her aunt nodded. “We spoke a few weeks ago. Your mother said everything was finalized and you’d be going to the Academy in the fall.”
Another hiccup formed in Ella’s chest.
“And…and staying here. Has the plan changed?” Ella faltered.
Meg’s light brown eyes stared blankly at her.
In the silence, Ella’s pale cheeks reddened and she felt tears coming to her eyes. “Mom said boarding at the school would be too expensive, but…but she would talk to you about living here.”
Looking between the two distressed faces, Mr. Sherman cleared his throat.
“Ahem. Meg, I could sure use a cup of coffee before I get started on that old Buick. Maybe we could all go inside.”
In an instant, Meg’s aggravated expression melted away. “Well, we certainly can’t get to the bottom of this here in the front yard. Ella, your things are right inside the door. We can put them in the spare room at the top of the stairs. I’ll see if I can get your mom on the phone and correct this misunderstanding.”
Ella simply nodded and followed her aunt inside. A haunting scent of lavender hit her as she stepped through the front door. Many years had passed since she had last been in the house, and a rush of memories came back to her with that scent. She saw a perfect picture of her father sitting at the piano in the living room, her mother standing beside the piano bench, smiling down at him.
Though her father’s memory would remain the same forever, the mother of her memory was more blithe and youthful than the woman who’d kissed her goodbye earlier in the week. The lines and wrinkles marking her now had little to do with the years that had gone by. Sorrow and grief had aged her in a way time could not.
With a sigh, Ella shook off these heavy thoughts. She slipped the strap of her duffel bag over her shoulder and lifted the two suitcases from the floor. Maneuvering up the narrow staircase behind her aunt, Ella did her best not to scuff the walls as the ancient stairs groaned under the weight of the luggage in her arms.
When they reached the top, Meg opened the door in front of her and ushered Ella into the glaringly plain room. A soft blue and cream quilt was spread across the bed – the blue standing out sharply as the only color in the room. Four bare walls stared down at the cream carpet and white lace curtains fluttered in the window. A thin, wooden desk and chair peered shyly out of the far corner of the room.
“You must be tired,” her aunt said tactfully. “I’ll leave you to get settled, and there’ll be a cup of tea waiting for you in the kitchen whenever you’d like to come down.”
When she was alone, Ella shoved the duffel and the largest suitcase into the closet. The air within it smelled stale and she shut the door firmly. Setting the smaller suitcase gingerly on the bed, she removed her toothbrush and comb. Unpacking was useless if she wasn’t going to stay.
Unconsciously, she hummed a quiet tune as she loosened her braid and combed through her tangled hair. But there was no one else there to hear it and the notes died as they hit the blank walls.
She walked to the window and as she looked out, the curtain fluttered against her cheek. She shivered and recoiled as if the touch had been the cold fingers of a ghost. Taking a calming breath, she hugged her arms to her chest and looked out again.
Although her nervous stomach would have preferred a room on the ground floor to the height of the second story, she couldn’t complain about the view. The scene outside could have been a postcard picture. Carefully tended lawns surrounded the old Colonial houses. Leaves shimmered as a breeze swayed the limbs of trees lining the avenue, and vibrant flowers beamed at her from her aunt’s garden. The neighborhood was the essence of peace and hominess, yet, Ella didn’t feel at home. She felt homesick. Closing her eyes, she breathed out a prayer.
Dear God, help me. Coming here was a mistake. I somehow thought I’d be less alone and out of place in Whitfield with Aunt Meg than on the far side of the world, but the opposite is true.
All at once, the prospect of traveling to the war-torn Middle East with her mother was more appealing than attending her dream school and living with her aunt. Here, not only did she feel alone and out of place, she felt – with a stab of pain – unwanted. Being a stranger was one thing, but being considered an encumbrance or a nuisance was completely different.
Ella fought to remember her initial impression of the Academy, like a fairytale castle, and regain the excitement she’d felt such a short time ago. The cost of boarding there for a year would be a challenge, but not an insurmountable obstacle, if there really had been a misunderstanding with her aunt. Spending a perfect year at the Academy was worth sacrificing a chunk of money from her college trust fund – especially since she wasn’t sure where she wanted to go or what she was going to do with the rest of her life anyway.
Ella tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear and pushed the vague, uncomfortable thought of the future away to focus on the present.
It’s going to be worth it, she insisted half-heartedly, but couldn’t suppress the growing fear she didn’t belong here.
The feeling wasn’t new. She hadn’t managed to belong anywhere since her father died. The cancer had taken him in less than a year and their family was left reeling. In time, the others seemed to have regained their footing. Ella’s older brother, Malcolm, had focused his entire being on sports. Scouts from Michigan State had taken note of his talent and Mal was kicking off his sophomore year with a hockey scholarship. Ella’s mother had likewise buried herself in work, winning multiple awards for reporting and receiving a coveted journalism assignment overseas.
Still, after eight long years, Ella felt lost. It had been surprisingly easy to leave her hometown and social circle. While she had a number of friends, none were close. She had retreated into herself, quietly filling her days with school and books and above all, music. Her passion for music had been shared by her father and she felt nearest to him when they sang together. Even after his death, she sang, though more and more often in a minor key.
Despite everything, the Aunt Meg she held in her mind was constant, never changing. Her family visits to Whitfield were the happiest part of her childhood, seemingly untouched by her season of grief. The years and distance had consecrated this place to her memory.
As she turned from the window and took a seat on the bed, Ella faintly heard the sounds of water being heated in the kettle on the stove below, and the soft murmur of voices. In the kitchen, her aunt was having a different conversation.
“How can a campus that size be completely vacant? You’d think the headmaster – or someone – would be on call,” Meg snapped, as she removed her delicate tea set from the cupboard.
“It is still summer, after all,” Mr. Sherman interjected meekly.
“And what do you mean ‘keep her’? She’s not a stray dog that wandered off the street. There’s no way Kate would ever trust me to look after Ella, and the school will be expecting her. I can’t keep her.”
“But don’t you want to?” Mr. Sherman coaxed.
The water in the kettle was boiling furiously now. Meg lifted it from the stove just as it began to whistle, poured the steaming water deftly into her rose-print teapot, and turned back to Mr. Sherman. She held his gaze for a long time, and when she spoke again there was an ache in her voice.
“Of course I do. Of course I want her to stay with me.” She raised her eyes to the ceiling, as if she could see Ella sitting forlornly in the room above and said, almost in a whisper, “Poor girl.”
Mr. Sherman pulled off his thick glasses, wiping them with a napkin. “I can’t believe that young woman is our little Ellie. The last time I saw her, she had pigtails and was singing like an angel at her father’s knee – with a lisp, if I recall. Does she still sing?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything about her. You should have heard my heartbeat when she walked up to me. For one idiotic second, I thought it was Kate standing there on my porch.”
“She looks very much like her mother,” Mr. Sherman agreed. “Like both of you girls at that age.”
“Except her eyes. I think her voice and her eyes came from Axel, not Kate.” Meg chuckled ruefully. “It’s funny, I almost didn’t recognize Kate’s voice when she called to tell me about Ella and the Academy. It’s no wonder we misunderstood each other. Honestly, I was so flustered to find myself on the phone with her, I barely remember the conversation.”
“Maybe it’s not my place to say, but wouldn’t having Ella here for a time help to mend that bridge?”
“It’s possible,” Meg said hesitantly. “But if Kate meant to send her to the Academy, I’ve no right to force her to stay here.”
“Don’t you think she’d be better off?”
“She might be. And I suppose I’ll enjoy her company while she’s here. But you can’t honestly think she’d be happy here with only an old woman like me for company?”
“Take it from someone who knows,” Mr. Sherman ordered with a twist of his silver beard, “you’re still a spring chicken, Meg Keller.”
She gave him a look of mingled gratitude and exasperation.
“I certainly feel old and worn out lately,” she said, rubbing her swollen hands, “but maybe you’re right.”
Lifting the teapot, Meg filled a pair of cups to the brim and took a long, slow sniff of her tea.
“Still,” she went on, “I’m not her mother. I’m sure Kate knows what’s best.”
“But –” Mr. Sherman began again.
“When Kate returns my call, I’ll go by whatever she says, and that’s that.”
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