All her life, Annie has played it nice and safe. After being unceremoniously dumped by her longtime boyfriend, Annie seeks a fresh start. She accepts a teaching position that moves her from Manhattan to a small village upstate. She’s stunned by how perfect and picturesque the town is. The people are all friendly and warm. Her new apartment is dreamy too, minus the oddly persistent spider infestation.
Then Annie meets Sophie. Beautiful, charming, magnetic Sophie, who takes a special interest in Annie, who wants to be her friend. More importantly, she wants Annie to stop apologizing and start living for herself. That’s how Sophie lives. Annie can’t help but gravitate toward the self-possessed Sophie, wanting to spend more and more time with her, despite the fact that the rest of the townsfolk seem…a little afraid of her. And like, okay. There are some things. Sophie’s appearance is uncanny and ageless, her mansion in the middle of the woods feels a little unearthly, and she does seem to wield a certain power…but she couldn’t be…could she?
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.27(w) x 9.31(h) x 0.99(d)|
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The sky is a strange color. Not quite red but too violent to be orange. I search for the sun, imagine it tired and bitter, slouching into another long shift. I find it hovering over New Jersey. Poor sun.
"Annie," Nadia whines behind me, "you're bumming me out."
"Sorry," I say. I contort my mouth into what I think is a smile, but Nadia winces at the sight of it, so I'm guessing the attempt is unsuccessful.
"Girl," she says, "pull it together! It's your birthday."
"All right, all right," she says, roping her arm around me. "Let's get you wasted."
We dodge the bags of trash reclining on every curb, avoid the rogue dog turds swarming with flies, unashamed in the middle of the sidewalk. When I first moved to New York City twelve years ago, starry-eyed and energetic, a college freshman, it didn't seem so dirty. I can't tell if it was because I was young then, charmed by the skyline, always looking up, or if it used to be cleaner.
"Here," Nadia says, putting her hands on my shoulders and ushering me into a random bar. It's almost chic. Draped-bead chandeliers hang from a high ceiling. The place is crowded with couches and mismatched armchairs, stuffing sneaking out through straining seams. Nadia directs me to two stools in the corner where the counter disappears into the wall.
"Perfect," she purrs. She's wearing a low-cut leopard-print jumpsuit, which at first I thought was a smidge much, but now that we've received immediate attention from the bartender, I'm beginning to appreciate her strategic fashion choice.
She orders us vodka lemonades and tequila shots.
I've been out with Nadia only once before, at a karaoke fundraiser for our school that was near torture. She performed an earnest cover of Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn." I sat squirming in the corner, anticipating a flood of secondhand embarrassment, but the crowd was surprisingly into it.
I watch her now, as she sticks her pink acrylics into the bowl of assorted nuts on the bar. She tilts her head to the side, searching for a specific nut, exposing her long, delicate neck. Her hair is dark and thick and falls down past her shoulders, curving like a chain of crescent moons. She's got false lashes that are in a constant flutter.
She teaches biology. She's good at it, too. At school, she doesn't wear a lick of makeup. All the students whisper about how she's the hottest teacher.
It doesn't matter how old you get. A superlative will always be insulting when it's awarded to anyone but you.
The bartender drops the shots in front of us. They're accompanied by a tiny plate with two lime wedges and a crusty saltshaker.
Nadia lifts up one of the shots. "To you. And your new job. Oh, and fuck your ex."
She takes her shot.
I take mine, too. The mention of Sam is like an ice pick to the sternum. I begin to count the bottles of liquor lined up behind the bar. Are there enough? In this bar? In this city? In the tristate area? How much will it take?
"It's all happening," Nadia says, snapping her fingers as our cocktails arrive. "New job. New city."
"It's not a city," I say. "It's a small town no one's ever heard of."
"Yeah," she says, and pauses to aggressively suck the remaining juice from her lime wedge. "But that's how all romance movies start. You're going to move to this, like, small-ass town and meet some brooding lumberjack, and he's going to be named Lucien and have a six-pack even though he's a low-key alcoholic. He'll live in a trailer and have a tragic past. It'll be great."
"Sounds great," I say, my voice flat.
She nudges me. "Oh, come on, Annie. Loosen up! Have some fun. It's your birthday!"
I wish she would stop reminding me of that.
I hadn't planned on spending my thirtieth birthday with a coworker I barely know who just ate a bar cashew out of her cleavage, or drinking a vodka cocktail that's going down smooth as battery acid. Admittedly, it's not the worst. It's just not what I had envisioned.
I saw myself with Sam. On vacation somewhere. Butchering the French language while attempting to order food at a café in Montmartre, in the shadow of the SacrŽ-Coeur. Or in London contemplating the paintings at the Tate Modern and having cream tea, then smuggling back Cadbury bars in our suitcases. Or a simple weekend trip to the Hudson Valley or Mystic, somewhere we could take the train to and get a nice hotel room with a big tub and laze around in those cozy robes.
"Okay," she says. "What is it? Is it him? Are you thinking about him? Is it thirty? Because thirty is not old, okay?"
"It's all of it," I say. "I'm sorry. It was nice of you to come out with me."
She raises an expertly shaped eyebrow. "I told you all year we should go out. You were, like, not about it. Look, I don't know you that well. But I know you're not a super-social person. And it's easy not to be social when you, like, have a person at home who's there all the time. What I'm saying is, basically, maybe this is a good thing for you. You can get out there. Meet new people. Live your life."
"I guess," I say. Unfortunately for me, "getting out there" and "meeting new people" are among my least favorite things. I've forgotten how. The years since college have eroded my social skills, and I'm shy to begin with. I prefer the couch. I prefer familiarity.
I prefer Sam.
"Here," she says. She reaches out for a small tea light candle and lifts it up, the yellow flame spasming, the wick decaying. "Make a wish."
"You're serious?" I ask her. In this moment, I do regret not going out with Nadia sooner. I bet she's a good friend. She seems like one of those people who are born knowing exactly who they are. Her entire personality written in the stars, set in concrete.
"Yes," she says. "Quick! Before it burns out!"
I close my eyes and think.
We leave a collection of glasses sweating on the bar, along with a wad of crumpled bills and enough rinds to generously zest a pie. We stagger out into the June night, the air thick, sticky and sweet as syrup. It's going to be a hot summer. For the first time, I'm sincerely relieved to be leaving the city. I won't miss the humidity, thighs sticking to the seats on the subway, everyone grumpy and perspiring, any amount of deodorant rendered inadequate.
Nadia is on a quest for her favorite pizza slice. It's at some hole-in-the-wall place in the West Village she used to frequent during her "partying days." If her partying days are behind her, I'm a little curious what they were like, because right now she's saying hello to strangers in a truly horrendous British accent while somehow balancing on the tallest heels I've ever seen. On a cracked asymmetrical sidewalk. While drunk!
This must be a practiced skill.
I scamper behind her, the bumbling sidekick in a pair of practical flats.
"It used to be right here, I swear," she says as we stand on a side street at the foot of a domestic brownstone. She sighs, and it's interrupted by a single faint hiccup. We're far too drunk for this.
"We should call it," I say.
"It's ten o'clock," she says.
I'm assuming by her horrified expression that she thinks ten o'clock is early. I'm of a different opinion. Ten o'clock is bedtime.
"We're not giving up on pizza," she says, and hurries down the block, faster than expected, considering her shoes.
I follow her, breaking into a light jog as she disappears around the corner.
She's hopping up and down, one set of fingers stuffed in her mouth, while another finger points down the street.
"What is it?" I ask her.
"Look!" she squeals. "We're going."
I turn my murky drunken gaze in the direction she's pointing. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to focus on what's there. A neon sign floating in a glass window. A crystal ball.
"No," I say.
She seizes my wrist. "We're getting our palms read."
She's laughing. I'm not quite sure why, but she's got a fun laugh. It's loud and melodic.
"Please, please, please! It's probably extra accurate to get read on your birthday."
"Accurate," I repeat. Now I'm laughing. I'm laughing so hard I can barely stand; I'm hunched like a wilting flower, arms limp.
"It'll be fun," she says.
"Famous last words."
"Annie. Puh-leeeeasssse." In the orangey glow from the streetlamp, her eyes look crazed and inhuman.
"Okay," I say. "But if this goes poorly, I'll do nothing about it and suffer in silence."
"Yay!" she says, clapping and twirling around. The light from the lamp streaks through her black hair, and it looks like lightning threading a dark night sky.
She reaches out for my hand and I give it to her. She swings it back and forth, taking my arm with it. The closer we get, the more I regret agreeing to this. My apprehension quickly mutates into dread. The dread elbows around my chest like a stranger with somewhere to be. By the time we're standing at the door, engulfed in the neon haze from the crystal ball, I'm certain I do not want to do this. Above the crystal ball, there's another neon sign, on but barely functioning, sputtering and pale, that reads Psychic.
It's literally a bad sign.
But it's too late to object. Nadia is already pushing open the door. A bell chimes somewhere above us.
Thick curls of smoke writhe across the room. It smells of incense and antiques, like basement furniture. The smoke stings my eyes and monopolizes my lungs. I try, unsuccessfully, to stifle a series of awkward coughs.
"Hello, hello," says a disembodied voice. A woman emerges from behind a velvet curtain. She's short and covered in scarves. Her hair is in a chaotic bun. She's older. The deep wrinkles on her forehead remind me of the small, illegible script on historical documents. A constitution or peace treaty.
"Hiiiiii," Nadia sings. "We're here for readings."
"Yes," the woman says. "Welcome. My name is Atlas."
She looks more like a Linda to me.
"What kind of readings?" she asks us. "I do a fifteen-minute tarot, half an hour, and a full hour. Ten-minute palm. I could also do birth charts, chakras, numerology."
"Palm," Nadia says. She turns to me for my approval.
"Sure," I say.
"Okay," Atlas says, smiling at us. She's got a gold tooth. I wonder if it's real. "Who's first?"
"She is," I say, pushing Nadia forward.
She doesn't mind. "Me!" she says, swaying her hips back and forth.
"All right, here we go," Atlas says, lifting the curtain for Nadia. They both disappear behind it, leaving me alone.
I wasn't aware that a palm reading was a private affair.
The smoke has dispersed, revealing a room of excess. Congested bookcases. Ceramic figurines perched on crooked shelves. The walls are busy with a variety of charts and maps and the signs of the zodiac, various celestial bodies.
I eye the door. I could leave. I could bail. Nadia might get mad, but that doesn't really matter. We're not close, and I'm about to move hours away. We'll probably never see each other again after tonight.
I shouldn't. If it weren't for her, I'd be sitting at home alone on my birthday. My alternate plan was to cry in the fetal position while listening to "Landslide" on repeat.
I can stick it out.
There's a soft noise, like the hum of an invisible bird. Then a sudden ding that sends my shoulders knocking against my ears. I turn around, searching for the source, and find an intricate clock mounted high on the wall. I need to tilt my head back to see its face. Faces. It has two, both enclosed in a tower of carved wood. Despite being pretty tall, I need to stand on my tiptoes to examine further.
The bottom face tells time, but I can't read the top. It's strange and complex, with multiple cogs and golden hands moving in all different directions over a kaleidoscope of colors. Green, orange, yellow, blue, pink. The longer I stare, the more the colors blend together, like in a mood ring. It's purple now. There must be some kind of liquid inside. Mercury? As it morphs, I can almost make out a shape. What's maybe a flower.
"Oooh, cool clock!" Nadia says, popping up behind me. "Your turn."
"What'd she say?" I ask her.
"That I'm going to be filthy rich!" she says. "Just kidding. I'll tell you after."
"Through there?" I point to the curtain.
I lift the curtain back and duck underneath it. There's a short hallway that widens into a circular room. In the center is a round table draped in layers of silky fabric. It's slightly askew on a stack of Persian rugs. Two mismatched wooden chairs are tucked underneath. One of them is occupied by Atlas, who is shuffling a deck of tarot cards.
"Please, have a seat," she says, gesturing to the other chair.
I'm ready to get this over with. I step onto the rugs and seat myself in the chair. I wonder how many people have sat in it before me and what brought them here. A pushy friend. Spontaneity. Curiosity. Desperation.
Maybe I'm letting my cynicism deprive me of a positive experience. Even if this is nonsense, won't it be a comfort to hear about a future, any future, that could possibly be mine? To temporarily escape the pain of the present and be reminded that one day this will be behind me? That I won't wake up every day feeling like my chest is full of stones. That I won't be constantly thinking about Sam or about everything I might have done to prevent myself from ending up where I am now.
Maybe there's someone or something in my future worth moving toward. A dangling carrot.
Atlas sets the deck of cards aside. She reaches for my hand and I give it to her. She takes a deep breath, her heavily lined eyes closing. They stay closed for a long time. Too long.
Should I be closing my eyes?
Her eyes open. I wish they were still closed. They're gloomy and awful. She's grimacing.
"You have dark energy," she says.
"Sorry," I say, because what else?
She unfolds my hand. She squints. She shakes her head.
She pulls my hand closer. Since my hand is connected to my arm, which is connected to the rest of me, something she doesn't seem to realize, my entire body jerks forward, my ribs slamming against the table.