Henry debuts with an intriguing story of two lovestruck teenagers who appear to live in different versions of the same world. Natalie Cleary is about to finish high school, attend Brown University, and leave her small Kentucky town (and her complicated ex-boyfriend) for good. However, her visions—middle-of-the-night ones that involve a wise, storytelling woman she calls Grandmother—are now occurring during the day and revealing glimpses of a different town and a gorgeous stranger named Beau. With the deadline in Grandmother’s last ominous warning looming (“Three months to save him”), Natalie hopes that Beau can help her solve the mysteries of Grandmother’s vague words and of their separate worlds. Henry’s story captivates, both as a romance and as an imaginative rethinking of time and space. The relationship between Beau and Natalie sizzles while also reflecting the innocence of first love, and the unfolding mystery of their changing realities is enough to keep readers turning pages. The complicated final explanation may require rereading, but Henry delivers a story with depth, originality, and complexity. Ages 12–up. Agent: Lana Popovic, Chalberg & Sussman. (Jan.)
"A time-bending suspense that's contemplative and fresh, evocative and gripping."—USA Today
"Henry's story captivates, both as a romance and as an imaginative rethinking of time and space."—Publishers Weekly
"This time-traveling, magical, and beautifully written love story definitely deserves a spot on your bookshelf."—Bustle
Emily Henry's stunning debut novel is Friday Night Lights meets The Time Traveler's Wife and perfectly captures those bittersweet months after high school, when we dream not only of the future, but of all the roads and paths we've left untaken.
Natalie's last summer in her small Kentucky hometown is off to a magical start . . . until she starts seeing the "wrong things." They're just momentary glimpses at first—her front door is red instead of its usual green, there’s a preschool where the garden store should be. But then her whole town disappears for hours, fading away into rolling hills and grazing buffalo, and Nat knows something isn't right.
Then there are the visits from the kind but mysterious apparition she calls "Grandmother," who tells her, "You have three months to save him." The next night, under the stadium lights of the high school football field, she meets a beautiful boy named Beau, and it's as if time just stops and nothing exists. Nothing, except Natalie and Beau.
Gr 9 Up—Natalie is a teenager on the cusp of growing up in this romantic/sci-fi story of love in a small town. Her adoptive parents believe that preparing to leave for college may be to blame for the recurrence of "visitations" they thought therapy had put an end to. However, when Natalie meets Beau, an attractive boy she's never seen before, she must rush to uncover the truth behind the visitations and her new ability to slide between two realities in order to save him. While the romance and sci-fi aspects will feel reminiscent of many other teen novels, an original plot and likable characters will win over readers. The author weaves in elements of Native American folktales that give the novel impressive depth for a debut effort. Complicated family relationships and complex coming-of-age emotions will offer young adults much to relate to. VERDICT A first purchase for YA collections looking for a nuanced romance.—Sunnie Scarpa, Wallingford Public Library, CT
Time-slips on a time crunch give a teenage girl a long shot at love. Natalie had thought therapy had banished her favorite hallucination, a mysteriously knowing old woman who calls herself Grandmother and tells Natalie world creation tales and Native American legends. But now she's returned, with a cryptic message: Natalie only has three months to save an unknown "him." Before Natalie can puzzle this out, she starts experiencing strange time-slips into an alternate reality where small things are different, centering on a handsome boy who disappears and reappears, a boy to whom Natalie feels an immediate connection. But these moments are unpredictable and disturbing, and Grandmother's warning hangs overhead, forcing Natalie to spend her last summer before college trying to solve a mystery rooted in suppressed trauma from her past. Natalie, a Native American adoptee, already deals with identity issues that parallel the split worlds she finds herself bouncing between. Moments of introspection are balanced by fully realized secondary characters and occasional moments of hilarity. The story begins slowly but picks up speed and intensity as the clock runs out, ending in a conclusion of intricate twists. Natalie's specific tribal heritage is unknown, and her search for identity informs the plot in artful ways; although issues surrounding the ethics of cross-cultural adoption and cultural appropriation are carefully touched upon, it's still hard not to see Natalie's background as a plot device more than anything else. While the love is so at-first-sight as to be clichéd and the cultural issues problematic, this debut is otherwise sensitive, lyrical, and deftly plotted. (Speculative fiction. 12 & up)
"Henry’s story captivates, both as a romance and as an imaginative rethinking of time and space. The relationship between Beau and Natalie sizzles while also reflecting the innocence of first love, and the unfolding mystery of their changing realities is enough to keep readers turning pages.... Henry delivers a story with depth, originality, and complexity." –Publishers Weekly
“This story pairs a gorgeous narrative with exceptional voice for a truly profound debut.” –Buzzfeed
“A time-bending suspense that’s contemplative and fresh, evocative and gripping.” –USA Today
“This time-traveling, magical, and beautifully written love story definitely deserves a spot on your bookshelf.” –Bustle
"An utterly gorgeous and touching tale of love, hope and sacrifice; this novel broke my heart and then stitched it back together just in time to break it all over again. You will emerge breathless, longing for even a glimpse of those rolling bluegrass hills of Kentucky, and completely certain of the possibility of young love. I know I did." –Leslye Walton, author of the award-winning novel The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
“The Love That Split the World is a YA game changer. Every scene sizzles with emotional intensity, and Emily Henry’s pitch-perfect sentences will echo in my head for a long time to come.” –Kass Morgan, New York Times bestselling author of The 100
"With aching first love, stunning world-building and a supporting cast that beg for their own books, The Love That Split the World has everything a story needs to turn me into an obsessed reader, begging for more. I am absolutely in love!" –Christina Lauren, New York Times bestselling author
“The sweet, summertime mist of small-town Kentucky sets the perfect stage for this authentic, magical, and oh-so-swoony debut. An evocative exploration of first love, identity and the power of story! A must read.” –Wendy Wunder, author of The Probability of Miracles and The Museum of Intangible Things
"A well-written piece of magic realism about the price we pay for daring to love, and the price we pay if we don’t." –Booklist
“It’s got all the ingredients of a riveting read, like time travel and a mythology twist.” –EW.com
Read an Excerpt
The night before my last official day of high school, she comes back. I feel her in my room before I even open my eyes. That’s how it’s always been.
“Wake up, Natalie,” she whispers, but she knows I’m awake—if a fly buzzed in the hallway, I’d wake up—just like she knows the drooling, snoring rug of a Saint Bernard at the foot of my bed, the watchdog Mom and Dad got to help me sleep better, will keep drooling and snoring through our entire conversation.
I open my eyes on darkness, push back the covers, and sit up. The crickets are thrumming outside my window, and the blue-green moonlight shines through the foliage across my carpet.
There she is, sitting in the rocking chair in the corner, as she has every time she’s visited me since I was a little girl. Her ancient features are shrouded in night, her thick, gray-black hair loose down her shoulders. She wears the same ash-colored clothes as always, and though it’s been nearly three years, she looks no older than the last time I saw her, or even the first time I saw her. If anything, she might look a little younger. Probably because I’m older, and generally less terrified of wrinkles and age spots than I used to be.
I contemplate screaming—twisting the knob on the bedside lamp, doing anything my eighteen years have taught me will make Them disappear, just to teach her a lesson for leaving me for so long, for letting me think she was finally gone for good.
But despite my bitterness, I don’t want her to vanish, so I stay still.
“Nice of you to stop by,” I whisper. The words hurt my throat, which hasn’t woken up yet. My vision’s still settling too, piecing together the wrinkled details of her face, the laugh lines around her mouth, and the sweet crow’s-feet at the corners of her dark eyes. “Where have you been?”
“I’ve been right here,” she says. It’s one of her typical, cryptic answers.
“It’s been almost three years.”
“Not for me it hasn’t.”
Again—for the thousandth time—I survey her tattered shawl and the threadbare dress hanging on her bony body. “No,” I say, “you’re outside of time, aren’t you?”
Her right shoulder shifts in a shrug. “Your words, not mine. Have any others come to see you?”
I rub the heels of my hands over my eye sockets, stalling for time. I’m ashamed to admit that no one’s come and that I know exactly why. Though I want to be mad at her for abandoning me, it’s my fault I haven’t seen her in three years. I caused her disappearance. But it doesn’t matter whether I admit it or not—she already knows everything anyway. As if to prove that point, she says, “I think Gus farted.”
I lean over the bed and look down at the shaggy dog. His tongue is lolling in his sleep, and his perpetually oozing nose is busily sniffing. One of his back legs starts to kick in response to a dream, and the horrible smell she must’ve been referring to hits me.
I cover my nose with my forearm. “Ugh, Gus. You’re a monster, and I love you, and you’re disgusting.”
I wait for the worst of the odor to pass before I answer her question. “There haven’t been others. They’re all gone. Dr. Langdon thought the EMDR therapy worked. She said that’s why you stopped coming. Apparently any trauma I had was resolved. I’m a lucky girl. Or I was until five seconds ago.”
EMDR: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It’s a type of psychotherapy used to treat the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and, in my case, to shut out the woman in front of me and the various others who’ve appeared at my bedside over the years.
She thinks for a moment. “You know, just a moment ago—a moment for me, that is, three years for you—I told you something about Dr. Langdon. Did you pass it along?”
I keep staring hard at her.
“Do you remember what I told you, Natalie?” she presses.
I nod once. “You said she would die in a fire.”
“She’s still alive,” I supply. “She also suggested I try Ativan, though of course Mom didn’t approve. Apparently this is just a stressful time in a teenager’s life.”
God—the private name I gave her years ago, though she insists I call her Grandmother—laughs and looks down at her weathered hands, folded in her lap. “Girl, you have no idea.”
“Were you ever my age?” I ask.
Her thick eyebrows rise up over her cloudy dark eyes. “Yes,” she says quietly.
“And it was stressful?”
She jams her mouth shut. “When I was your age, I knew nothing. Nothing about myself, nothing about the universe or about heartbreak. I remember being terrified to grow up, afraid of losing my friends, sure I’d lose my mind. Life felt like a blender that wanted to eat me. But the things that happened to me when I was just a little bit older than you are—those things made the blender feeling seem like a bubble bath.”
I look down at the tear in my quilt. Mom made this blanket from a pattern while my birth mother was pregnant with me. It was going to belong to a different baby, from an adoption that fell through. Instead, it became mine when I became my parents’. “I missed you,” I tell Grandmother.
“I missed you too.”
“I thought you said it was only a minute for you.”
For a while we’re both silent, staring at one another. Then she asks, “How are the twins?”
“Good,” I tell her. “Coco’s transferring to a performing arts high school next year. Jack’s still playing football. Mom’s so proud of us all that she’s liable to explode any day now, so that’s good. At the end of summer she and Dad are taking us to San Francisco then up to Seattle.” The trip is a tradition they’ve had since they got married. Mom had never really traveled anywhere before, and her only reservation about marrying Dad was that she knew he loved Kentucky so much he’d never leave. They were poor then, but Dad still promised they’d see the world, or, at the very least, the continental U.S. Thus the annual Cleary Family Road Trip was born.
Grandmother closes her eyes for a long moment, and their corners crinkle prettily when they open. “I thought this year was Boulder down through Denver and into Mesa Verde,” she says. “Jack gets food poisoning, and Coco won’t eat anywhere that’s not a chain after that.”
“That was last year,” I say. “This year it’s all Highway 101. Probably a good time to buy stock in Dramamine, if you’re looking for a hot tip.”
“And you? How are you?”
“I’m great. Moving to Rhode Island in August, to go to Brown—but you probably already knew that.”
She nods, and again we fall into stillness and silence. I’ve missed this feeling, of sitting awake at night with her while the rest of the world dreams. The last three years have felt chaotic without these moments of quiet.
“Is it true that God leaves you when you grow up?” I ask. “Is that why I haven’t seen you?”
“I’ve never said I was God.”
It’s true—she’s avoided the question of what exactly she is since she first appeared when I was six, and not for lack of my asking, guessing, and hypothesizing.
Before Grandmother, the hallucinations had all been terrifying: black orbs floating a foot over my nose, grizzled men in green jackets with eyes like endless pits, women painted like clowns posing at my bedside. When they came, I’d scream, reach for the light, but by the time my parents came running to my bedroom door, the things would be gone, evaporated into the walls as though they’d never come at all.
“It was just a nightmare,” Mom would assure me, running her long fingers through the tangles in my hair. Then Dad would get blankets from the hall closet and make a nest on the floor beside their bed, and I’d finish the night in their room.
But when Grandmother appeared beside me that first time in the dead of night, things felt different. It’s not like I had an extensive vocabulary for the spiritual or metaphysical—my family is the “church twice a year” type, and those biannual visits have never done anything for me—but I also never had any aversion to the concept of God Itself, just to the idea that we could possibly nail down all Its details.
God is a thing I think I see in glimmers all over: an enormous and vague warmth I sometimes catch pulsing around me, giving me shivers and making tears prick my eyes; a mysterious and limitless Thing threaded through all the world and refusing to be reduced to a name or a set of rules and instead winding itself through millions of stories, true and made up, connecting all breathing things.
And I’d given Grandmother that nickname not because I thought she was that Thing but because I saw It in her, and knew she belonged to It. I had no other word at my disposal that could encompass a being who came out of the walls to protect me from the dark.
While The Shining-esque visitations hadn’t been enough to make my parents take me to a shrink, an elderly American Indian celestial being showing up to tell me creation stories had. When I’d mentioned Grandmother over breakfast, Mom immediately left the kitchen to call Dad. It was obvious I’d done something wrong—I just didn’t know what until a week later, when Mom got home from her meet-and-greet with a child psychologist and had her first talk with me.
“It’s only natural to wonder about your heritage, honey,” she’d said, voice shaking. It sounded like a line from one of the You Were a Special Gift books she read to me as a toddler, in lieu of the more devastating “You’re adopted” speech some other kids I knew got later. “It’s okay to explore your identity.”
“My eyes were open,” I told her then. “I wasn’t dreaming. Grandmother’s real.”
I couldn’t convince Mom or Dad or Dr. Langdon, but I still knew: Grandmother was real. And she may have never admitted to being God, but I knew she was something, or a part of something, sublime.
“Fine,” I say, “the Great Spirit, the Above Old Man, the Earth Maker, or Holitopa Ishki, or whatever exactly you are or call yourself—just answer the question. Are you going to leave me now that I’m an adult or . . . whatever it is I am?”
Grandmother’s mouth tightens. She stands, and my heart starts to pound—she’s never stood before, in all the dozens of nights she’s come to me. She crosses the room, perches on the edge of my bed, and takes my hands in hers. Her skin is impossibly soft, like velvet, like powdered sediments or antique silk.
“This,” she says, “may be the last time you’ll see me, Natalie. But I’ll always be with you.”
I blink back tears and shake my head. My oldest friend in the world, someone who doesn’t exist according to all the experts, who is only and fully mine. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. I’m leaving for Brown in three months. Soon, that rocking chair, this bedroom, the rolling blue hills of Kentucky will all be things of the past. Did I really think she’d come with me? Still, I hear myself ask her, “Why?”
She smooths my hair back from my forehead, the same way Mom always does. “Lie down, girl. I’m going to tell you one last story, and I want you to listen well. It’s important.”
“It’s always important.”
“It is always important.” She returns to the rocking chair, stopping to scratch behind Gus’s ear when he lets out an unconscious whimper. She sits and clears her throat. “This is the story of the beginning of the world, and the woman who fell from the sky.”
“I’ve heard that one before,” I remind her. “Actually, I’m pretty sure it was the first story you ever told me.”
She nods. “It was the first, and so it’ll be the last, because now you’ve learned to listen.”
Learn to listen, listen with your bones, let the story fill you. Things she’s always saying. Honestly, I have next to no clue what she’s talking about, partly because I only ever see her in the middle of the night when my brain’s full of fog, and partly because her voice is the phonic equivalent of a music box playing “Clair de Lune,” so soothing that the words get lost in the blanket of the sound. I lie back and close my eyes, letting that voice wash over me now.
“There was an old world that came before ours,” she begins, “a world that had never before seen death. And in that world there was a young woman who was very strong and very strange. The woman’s father was the first person to die in the world, and even after he did, she would speak with his spirit often. Death had opened her father’s eyes to all sorts of secrets the woman could not yet see, and because of this, his spirit told her to marry a stranger in a distant land whom he had chosen for her. So against her mother’s wishes, the young woman trusted her father’s spirit and journeyed to that distant land and presented herself to the stranger. This man was a powerful sorcerer, and he received the woman’s marriage proposal skeptically, since she was still very young and he would need a wife with strength and resolve. He decided that he would give her three tests, and if she should pass, then he would marry her.
“First, he took her into his lodge and gave her corn. ‘Grind this corn,’ he told her. And she took it and barely boiled it, and though there were many mounds of it, she ground it against the stone very quickly, and the sorcerer was amazed.
“For the second test, he ordered her to take off her clothing and to cook the corn over the fire. As she did, it popped and splattered on her, the mush burning her skin where it landed, but she didn’t flinch. She stood, unmoving, as the corn burned her until the mush was finished.
“For her final test, the sorcerer opened the door to his lodge and called to his beast servants, who came running, and he invited them to eat the mush from off her bare skin. And though their sharp teeth and tongues sliced and cut and repulsed her, she still remained serene and steadfast. So the sorcerer agreed to marry her.
“For four nights, the wed couple slept with the soles of their feet touching, and then the husband sent his wife back to her village with a great gift of meat for all her kin. He told her to divide it evenly among all the people in the village. He also told her that they should peel back their roofs so that he could bless them with a rain of white corn that night, and so she did, and it was so.
“When she returned, his lodge became her home too, and she began to spend her days with one particular tree that grew there. It was a tree with blossoms made of light so bright that they illuminated all of his land. The woman loved the tree—it made her feel less strange, less out of place—and she would sit under it and talk with all the spirits and with her dead father too. She loved it so much that once, late at night when everyone was sleeping, she went out and lay with it and became pregnant.
“Around that time, her husband grew sick, and none of the medicine people could heal him, but they all told him that the illness had been caused by his wife. He knew they were right; he’d never met a person as powerful as her. He asked them what he should do. Divorce didn’t exist there. The only death that had occurred was her father’s, and no one yet understood it. But the medicine people were wise, and they found a solution.
“‘Uproot the light tree,’ they told him, ‘and call her over to it, and trick her into falling into it. Then replace the tree, and your power will be restored.’
“That same day the sorcerer dug up the tree of light, but when he looked into the hole beneath it, he saw a whole other world below. He called to his wife, and when she came he said, ‘Look, lean over, there’s another world below us.’ She knelt beside the tree and peered down through the emptiness where the roots had been. At first she saw only darkness, but then, far below that, she saw blue, a shimmering bright blue that was beautiful. Full of hope and joy and dreams and the same kind of light that grew all through her tree. Here was the very source of all the light that had comforted her when she was lonely. She looked at her husband, smiling, and said, ‘Who ever would have guessed that the light tree was growing right over such a beautiful place?’
“He nodded. Then, carefully, he suggested, ‘I wonder what it’s like down there.’
“She said, ‘I wonder too.’
“He said, ‘Maybe someone could go down there and find out.’
“But his wife was shocked. ‘How could anyone do that?’ she asked.
“‘Jump,’ he said.
“‘Jump?’ she said, leaning over the hole again. She tried to guess how far below the new world was, but she had no idea. She’d never seen such a great distance, she was sure.
“‘Someone as brave as you could easily do it,’ her husband said. ‘Become a gentle breeze, or a petal or blossom from the light tree, or any number of things, and jump lightly and float down, or dive like a hawk, to that beautiful world below.’
“For a long minute she stared down into that glimmering blue, that endless blue of things she’d never seen, dreams she’d never dreamed. ‘I could jump,’ she said. ‘I could float. I could fall into the shining blue.’
“‘Yes, you could,’ her husband said. For another long minute, she stayed there, kneeling and gazing and meditating. Then she stood and flexed her hard muscles, bent her knees, raised her arms up high over her head, and dove down through the hole in her world into the beautiful blue.
“For a long while, the sorcerer—for he was no longer her husband now—watched her body tumble through the darkness. The medicine people who had advised him made their way toward his lodge and the hole where he stood. ‘She jumped,’ he told them, and then they all lifted the tree back into place and covered the hole that led to the new world.
“And because she jumped, our world began,” Grandmother concludes.
“Depending on who you ask,” I say, sitting up.
Grandmother tips her head. “Depending on who you ask.” About a third of the stories she’s told me are creation stories of some type, and no two are identical. I don’t know who all the stories belong to, precisely, although I can usually make a decent guess when the names are Squirrel and Corn Woman or Abraham and Isaac. “You know . . .” Grandmother takes a deep breath and glances down at her hands. “There’s a reason I’ve told you all these stories, Natalie.”
I sit up again. It’s not like I haven’t asked her a million times: Why do you show up in my room in the middle of the night to tell me these things? “You said the stories were the reasons.”
She sighs, and her voice becomes weaker, gruffer. “The stories matter. Separate from us, they matter. We are part of them, Natalie. We’re much smaller than them. But there’s another reason too.”
I see tears lining her dark lashes, and suddenly she seems so much younger. “What’s wrong?” I say. “Grandmother, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t want to scare you,” she says. “But you need to be prepared for what’s coming.”
Goose bumps prickle up along my arms as Grandmother buries her face in her hands, and I get out of bed to crouch in front of her. I’ve never seen her like this. I’ve only ever seen her the one way. She grips my hands hard, and her eyes find mine. “The stories,” she says. “It’s all in the stories.”
“Everything. The truth. The whole world, Natalie,” she says brusquely. “That girl jumped through the hole, not knowing what would happen, and the whole world got born. You understand that, right? The whole world.”
“I understand,” I lie, to calm her. Because I am scared now, and I need her to be the Grandmother I know, so I can be the child who’s soothed from her own fear of the dark.
“Good.” Her hand grazes my cheek. “Good. Because you have only three months.”
“What are you talking about—”
“Three months to save him, Natalie.”
“Save? Save who?”
Her eyes, immense and milky all of a sudden, dart over my shoulder, and her mouth drops open. “You,” she breathes. “Already—you’re already here.”
I look over my shoulder, neck alive with tingles, but no one’s there.
“Don’t be afraid, Natalie. Alice will help you,” Grandmother says. “Find Alice Chan.”
When I turn back, the rocking chair is empty, still nodding back and forth as though the ancient woman has just stood from it.
I’m alone again. I’m no longer the girl who talks to God.
I tumble out of bed and hurry to stop the shriek of my phone alarm. I don’t know how I got back to sleep after last night’s events, but apparently I did. The moonlight has faded, and the dim streetlights lining our cul-de-sac have popped on, sprinkling yellowy glares throughout the purple-blue of my dew-dampened windowpanes. The earliest birds and backfiring pickup engines are waking up, but the chirping crickets haven’t gotten the memo that this hellish hour is technically considered “morning.”
I flick the light switch of my walk-in closet, and Gus moos unappreciatively before turning over and going right back to sleep. I’m so jealous I throw a pillow at him, and would have immediately felt horribly guilty if not for the fact that he just lets out a snore and covers his eyes with one paw.
As exhausted as I am, I still can’t shake the fear left over from last night. For as long as I can remember, Grandmother’s been a force of calm in my life. I mean, her stories don’t tend to be happy or calming by any means, but her presence has always made me feel safe. Until last night.
What could she have been talking about?
My late-night Google trail of “Alice Chan” led to a dead end. It would seem that half the human population is composed of Alice Chans, each one less obviously significant than the last.
Three months to save him. I shake my head as if to clear the words.
I slip on a fitted black T-shirt dress and pull a denim jacket from a hanger on the top rack. It may be eighty degrees and ninety-nine percent humidity outside, but with Principal Grant in menopause, the school’s temperature is completely unpredictable. It’s best to be prepared. I survey the neat rows of heels that used to do something for me but now seem about as necessary as a pubic wig, and instead grab a pair of boots before walking back into my room.
Two of my walls are painted a ghastly orange, the other two a high-gloss black: Ryle High School’s colors. If that weren’t bad enough, one of the black walls has our mascot—the Raider, a one-eyed pirate with two swords crossed behind his head—taking up its majority. My bedding is white, and so are the tea-candle lantern and antique lamp on my desk. When I have headaches those are the three focal points I have to choose from, unless I feel like lying down inside my closet.
Mom and Dad decorated the room for me while I was away at dance camp the summer before seventh grade and already zealously looking forward to high school. Obviously the garish school-spirit color scheme was the best thing ever, until about a year ago, when I realized I had eyeballs, and it became just about the worst thing ever. With a better sound system and a few more Black Eyed Peas albums, my bedroom could give Guantanamo Bay a run for its money.
In the years since the original Makeover from Hell, I’ve also added my own touches: corkboards covered in notes from friends, shadow boxes full of dance team ribbons and medals, black-and-orange pompoms stuffed behind both my desk and my dresser, a dozen or so picture frames capturing carnivals and football games and dances.
There I am, a million times over, smiling back at myself: same coarse dark hair, deep brown eyes, and dark skin; same square face and high cheekbones. There I am kissing Matt Kincaid, for the four consecutive years I kissed Matt Kincaid. Standing in the gymnasium in the dead center of the dance team’s middle row, with all the other girls of perfectly average height. Hugging Megan and making that godforsaken Charlie’s Angels pose, in a completely nonironic way that can never be undone, all over Gray Middle School.
Since Grandmother disappeared, I’ve felt less and less like the girl in the photos, and more and more like I needed to get out of here. I quit the dance team, quit Matt, and ever since getting in to Brown, have started to quit Kentucky altogether. And now, three months away from my grand escape and new start, Grandmother’s visit has everything feeling messy again.
“NAT—JACK—COCO—BREAKFAST!” Mom shouts up from the kitchen, and my stomach flip-flops as I pass the rocking chair and head downstairs.
I’m usually the last one out of my room in the morning. Coco, being the very definition of efficiency, is always first to the breakfast table, doubling back upstairs a few minutes later to hurry Jack along as she sounds off a checklist of things he needs for school, while simultaneously texting, braiding her hair, or applying mascara. Without her, Jack would probably routinely walk out of the house without pants, and honestly, he’d also probably manage to have a pretty good day.
Downstairs, Jack has a plate full of only bacon, which he’s shoveling into his mouth with a fork. I’m pretty sure his eyes are closed. Across from him, Coco is texting over a bowl of fruit, her pretty blue eyes lined perfectly in clean layers of eyeliner and eye shadow. She looks exactly like Mom, except for her angular nose, which comes from Dad. I’ve always wondered what that must be like, to look like our parents.
One excellent thing about being adopted is that you always get to worry you’ll end up accidentally dating someone you share a gene pool with. If I were fully Native American, I wouldn’t have to think about that in a mostly white town like Union, but they tell me my biological father was white, so that complicates things.
Mom looks up from the stove, and she clamps a hand over her mouth and gasps like her sleeve’s just caught on fire. “Oh, honey. Look at you. You’re so beautiful.” She starts shaking out her loose strawberry blond waves as if it helps to fight back emotion, then holds out her arms. I shuffle forward reluctantly into the hug. “I can’t believe it’s your last day of high school! I remember the day we brought you home like it was yesterday.”
“Yeah, I was a real crybaby.”
“Oh, stop it, you were not. You were so quiet and so curious. That whole first night we just stayed awake looking at you, and you just looked back at us and didn’t make a sound—”
“Mom,” Jack says from the table.
“We knew you were special, and now look at what a smart, talented—”
“Mom, I think something’s on fire,” Coco says, without glancing up from her phone.
“What?” Mom spins back to the stove, immediately harried by the blackening omelet caked to her cast-iron skillet. “Shit.”
“I didn’t know you spoke French, Mom,” I say.
“Did you hear Mom say ‘shit’?” Jack asks Coco, his mouth full of more bacon.
“Yeah, she’s so weird,” Coco answers flatly. They’re polar opposites—Coco the goal-oriented perfectionist type and Jack the goofy, go-with-the-flow jock—and yet they’ve always been inseparable. I guess that’s what cohabitation in a womb for nine months does.
Mom waves a dishrag at the smoke plume. “Give me five minutes. I’ll make you another one.”
I pour myself a mug of coffee and step through the glass-paneled door onto the deck, where Dad stands, drinking coffee in his long-sleeved denim shirt, despite the hot morning mist. “Morning,” I say.
He flinches in surprise before turning back to me and ruffling my hair. “How you doin’, sugar cube?” I shrug, and Dad sets his mug down on the railing, folding his arms. “Nightmares?”
Dad has this way of knowing things, at least when it comes to me and horses, without understanding the nitty-gritty of how or why, but he won’t pry. I want to tell him everything, but I can’t speak, and I suddenly realize why: I’m terrified it’s him—what if it’s Dad I’m supposed to save?
I shake my head and lean out over the shadowy yard. Dad takes a long sip. “You remember those tantrums you used to have? I don’t know why, but I was just thinking about those. You’d lie down and scream and kick and bite and sob, no matter where we were.”
I sigh. “Some things never change.”
The sun peeks through the woods beyond our yard, turning everything golden at the fringes, even Dad’s brown eyes. It used to make me so happy when people who didn’t know any better would tell me I had his eyes. When I was little I thought maybe mine were the same shade as his because I really did belong so wholly with and to Dad.
“You know, when a horse bucks or bites, it’s just frustrated communication.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
He rubs the back of my neck like I’m a filly. “If you need to talk, I’ll always listen.” He kisses the crown of my head, then turns to go inside.
He turns back. “Yeah?”
It would be a relief to tell him about Grandmother’s warning, but I can’t get the words out. Sometimes it’s so hard to speak, scary even. My heart rate goes up, my hands shake, and it feels easier to keep things in the dark than to drag them into the light. “Be careful,” I manage.
Though he furrows his thick chestnut eyebrows, he doesn’t ask any questions. “For you, sugar cube, always.”
Three months to save him, and I don’t even know who. I’ve got to find Alice Chan.
I skip lunch and slip off to the bathroom, where I plug in my dying phone and resume my frantic Googling. I click through every result I can (Alice Chan the Local Dentist, Alice Chan the Criminal Lawyer Two Towns Over, Alice Chan the Professor at NKU) until the bell rings, then run back to my locker. I’m getting my things for class when I feel a pair of hands slide down around my eyes. “Guess who.”
“So close it’s insane.”
“Okay, give me a clue.”
“I’m one of your biggest fans.”
“I’m having a hard time, because the only thing that’s coming to mind other than Harry Styles is the ghost of River Phoenix, and I wouldn’t be able to feel his hands.”
Matt uncovers my eyes and leans against the locker beside mine, smiling that perfect golden-boy smile that not even the best orthodontist could’ve faked. His sandy hair’s pushed up off his forehead, and he’s sporting his football jersey. “Natalie Cleary, has anyone ever told you you’re really weird?”
“I think at some point that assessment even became Kentucky state law, which is partly why I’m going to college in Rhode Island.”
He sticks out his bottom lip. “I’m going to miss your weird.”
“Only because you were born without any.”
“Probably.” He holds my gaze for a little too long, and his fair skin starts to flush. We’ve been broken up for nearly a year, and we’ve both done our fair share of exploring since, but sometimes those old feelings seem ready to resurface.
As if prompted by my subconscious, which definitely knows I do not want to end up married to Matt Kincaid, living on his farm in Union, Kentucky, I break the silence with “Although your mom only eats beige food. That’s pretty weird.”
His forehead creases. “What are you talking about?”
“She told me she hates anything that’s green. She also once said the sentence ‘I don’t like fruit.’ ”
“Lots of people feel that way.”
“Yeah, people under the age of ten.”
“And, like, lots of people in general.”
“Anyway,” he continues, “I was just gonna see if you were going to Senior Night.”
“I am, in fact, a senior.”
“But you’re not on any teams anymore.”
“Yeah . . . ?”
“And you and I broke up.”
He rolls his eyes. “So you’re coming?”
“Okay, cool,” he says, smiling. “We should do something after. For old times’ sake.”
“Old times?” I say suspiciously. It’s not like Matt and I totally stopped hanging out when we broke up, but ever since we relapsed into old habits six months ago, for the third time, I’ve made it my solemn duty never to be alone with him outside school walls. The kiss itself had been fine, but the bottom line was, no matter how much I didn’t want to ruin our friendship, I did not want to keep dating Matt, and I was pretty sure he did want to keep dating me.
“I’m not sure ‘old times’ is what we should aim for, Matt.”
“Old, old times,” he clarifies.
Ah. That would put us squarely back in fifth grade, the dark ages before Matt Kincaid picked me to be his girlfriend and popular-girl counterpart. Even back then he was socially magnetic, the kid everyone wanted to be around, and his attention made me feel like the funniest, most interesting human on the planet.
Megan was already close with Matt, and soon he and I were friends too. By seventh grade, his glances became bashful, lingering, and that made me feel like the sun. It was another year before he kissed me, and four more until we broke up. By then, Grandmother had left, and I felt like a supernova mid–gravitational collapse, all the things I’d thought made me me falling away rapidly.
Matt tried to understand why I was withdrawing, why dance and popularity and school spirit had started to nauseate me. Truthfully, it wasn’t any of those things in and of themselves, and it wasn’t Matt himself either; it was what all those things brought out in me—the way that for years I did things I didn’t want to do, laughed at things that bothered me, went to parties I had no interest in because the thing that seemed most essential for my survival and happiness was being seen as Like Everyone Else in Union. Once I stopped fighting to be that person, Matt and I started fracturing. I ended things before they could get any worse, thus sentencing us to a life of perpetual though tolerable limbo.
He blushes at my lengthy silence. “You know, me, you, Megan. Everyone.”
“Okay, it’s a date, then.”
Why do I do that? Why do things like that just come out every time it feels like Matt and I are on the verge of moving forward? I try to make my voice light, teasing. “Yeah. You, me, Meghan, and the ghost of River Phoenix.”
“Who’s River Phoenix?”
I tilt my head at him. “Do you even have the Internet up on that farm of yours, Matty? What keeps you warm at night if not angst-ridden male celebrities who died before we were born?”
“Well, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect there are whole websites devoted to football too.”
“Duly noted,” he says. “Anyway, why do you care so much about this Phoenix guy when there’s a ghost haunting our very own Ryle High School band room?”
I gasp and grab his sleeve. “Wait—do you think River could be the Band Room Phantom?”
Matt rolls his eyes and opens his mouth, but before he can speak, I feel my stomach somehow rise up in my abdomen, and I double over, fighting against the sensation that I’m falling. The overhead lights cut out. The entire hall falls dark and silent. I swear under my breath and reach out for him, finding nothing but empty air. “Matt?”
The back of my neck prickles as the swarms of color fade, allowing my eyes to adjust. My heart starts hammering in my chest as my eyes try to tell me something impossible: Everyone has vanished. I’m alone in the nearly pitch-black hallway.
There’s a current in the air I’ve felt only in very specific moments of my life: the quivering charge of a dream breaking into reality, the same way the man in the green coat and the other hallucinations did before Grandmother came.
I’m dreaming. This is some new brand of hallucination, and, like always, it all feels too real, impossible and yet undeniable. I try to swallow but my throat’s too dry, and my arms are shaking as I shuffle forward, one palm sliding along the cool metal of the lockers. “Matt?” I call loudly. My voice echoes against the scuffed tile.
Something brushes my arm, and I stifle a half-choked scream as, all at once, the overhead fluorescents blink back on and everyone reappears.
“Oh, God.” I clutch my chest and try to ease my hyperventilation back into even breaths as my eyes register Matt’s faint freckles, his hand on my arm. His eyebrows pull together, and he glances over his shoulder, as if expecting to see a tornado barreling toward us.
“Nat?” He shakes my arm lightly. “You okay?”
“Power,” I pant. Matt tilts his head. “The lights just cut out.” And everyone disappeared.
“Huh.” He shrugs. “I must’ve missed it.”
I force my sandpaper throat to swallow. “Guess so.”
Matt looks around and lowers his mouth to my ear. “What’s going on, Nat?” he presses. “You can tell me.”
I take a step back from him, folding all my fear back down into the pit of my stomach. “Nothing. I’m fine.”
He sighs. “See you tonight.”
As he walks away, bumping his shoulder into Derek Dillhorn’s, I turn my eyes up to the light panels in the ceiling, watching, waiting. I don’t want to scare you, Grandmother said, but you need to be prepared for what’s coming.
After dinner, Jack and Coco ride back to Ryle with me in the Jeep, which is making a sound like there’s a cat stuck in the engine. “God, what do you think that is?” I ask them.
“I dunno,” Jack says. “Your radiator?”
“He doesn’t have a clue,” Coco says without looking up. “Hey, are you and Matt getting back together?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“Abby said he asked you on a date, and you said yes. I think that’s great.”
“Really? Because you sound like Stephen Hawking when he thinks something’s great.”
“That’s really mean, Nat,” Coco says flatly. “He can’t help that he sounds like that.”
“He doesn’t sound like that. His machine sounds like that. He could choose any voice he wants. It could sound like Morgan Freeman, if he wanted it to.”
“Could Matt get me on varsity if you guys got back together?” Jack says.
“Would you come home from college more often?” Coco says.
“That’s not how football tryouts work, Jack. More importantly, I’m not getting back together with Matt, and what the hell is making that sound?”
“The carburetor,” Jack says.
“He has no idea,” Coco says.
We park at the edge of the lot and make our way across the asphalt. There’s a slight breeze, but the humidity still has my hair and my dress clinging to every inch of me, and I’m hoping this night goes quickly so I can get back to the air conditioning.
I used to dream about this night.
We make our way down to the football field, whose bright white stadium lights beckon us like holy bug zappers. Parents have turned out in too-nice clothes, their formal wear too stifling for the heat, and have compensated for their inevitable body odor with too much cheeriness and zeal. I spot Rachel and the rest of the dance team just inside the chain link fence along the upper level, and they shriek and point and wave until I wave back and head over to them. Jack and Coco split off to find some of the freshmen from the football team and their popular girl friends and girlfriends to sit with.
“You guys look great,” I tell the Raiderettes. They’re performing tonight, so they’re dressed in full uniform and shimmering makeup, their hair slicked back in neat ponytails, their eyelashes impossibly long.
Rachel sticks out her bottom lip. “I wish you were dancing with us tonight. It’s still so weird to see you here out of uniform.”
“Yeah,” I stammer. “Pretty weird, but I needed the time to focus on school, and somehow you guys managed to plod on even without me in your back row. Anyway, good luck. Or break a leg. Or merde. Or just . . . whatever. Do some stuff, and do it well.”
I turn and make my way down the metal bleachers, and warm relief fills me when I spot Megan sitting at the edge of the girls’ soccer team. I go perch beside her. “Hi.”
“Hiiiiiiii,” she says, giving me a hug. “How are you?”
“Grandma’s in town.”
Her mouth drops open. “No way.”
I nod. I can trust Megan with Grandmother, because she’s the only one who really believes. More than anyone I’ve ever met, she believes in God and always has. And while God doesn’t talk to Megan quite how Grandmother talks to me, and our ideas of what God is aren’t identical, Megan didn’t bat an eye when I first told her my secret, because she believes in things that can’t be seen, and she loves me enough to think that if God were to appear on Earth, her best friend would obviously be the one It would appear to.
“Wow.” She gives me another quick squeeze. “Okay, you have to tell me everything.”
I nod again. The dance team is descending the bleachers in an even row, their poms behind their backs, elbows out to their sides, and chins held high. “I will,” I promise, “after Rachel shimmies us the meaning of life.”
And even as she does, there’s something magical hanging thick in the air tonight right alongside the humidity.
Maybe it’s the glow of the lights on the yellowing field or their glare on the bleachers. Maybe it’s the marching band in their white-feathered hats, all lined up to the left of the bright orange end zone, blaring out the fight song. They’re moving through the choreography like they’re all a little bit tipsy—not in a bad way. Like when Mom has a glass of red wine, how she walks with that sway. Normally she moves with perfectly upright posture, straight and aligned, as if she’s Miss October in the University of Kentucky Dance Team Calendar again, her pretty strawberry hair blown out around her by an off-camera fan.
But the wine makes her forget how to walk like that, or maybe she becomes just un-self-conscious enough to want to sway her hips. Either way, it’s nice, and the way the marching band’s playing the fight song, to no one but the home team, is kind of like that.
And all those feelings I forgot to feel today while I was at school, hugging people I’ve known forever and saying goodbye and promising to keep in touch, I’m feeling them now.
And then I think about Grandmother and how I may never see her again.
And I think about my front porch, and how many nights Megan and I sat out there when we were little, summer nights when we were sticky and dirty from playing, when Gus was just a puppy. All those evenings we played Ghosts in the Graveyard and tag with the neighborhood kids who went to St. Henry and St. Paul—and sometimes Matty, when his dad dropped him off after chores—until the sun dropped abruptly into the night.
And now I see fireflies in the grass down by the track that runs around the football field, and hovering around the hill sloping up the left side of the marching band—the very hill where I got my first kiss from Matt Kincaid, the quarterback himself, when we were in the eighth grade.
My eyelids are heavy, and the fight song is growing slower and slower, until suddenly, I must drift off, because there’s that abrupt falling sensation right through my middle, and then everything is gone.
Not the stadium or the field—but the sound, the band, the people. Even Megan.
Everything and everyone, except me and the crickets and those holy stadium lights.
As if another light is blipping into view, a person appears, out in the middle of the field. A boy, standing with his back to me, tall with broad shoulders, and long, kind of dirty dark hair. He’s holding a paper bag in his right hand, and he brings it up to his mouth, takes a swig of whatever’s inside, then tips his head back and looks up.
The silence is so big it makes the world swell, and the boy feels farther away than he possibly could be.
I follow his gaze upward, and the Kentucky sky seems miles higher than it ever has. There’s a waning crescent moon tonight, with a fair mix of clouds and a smattering of stars. I look back down at the boy’s shaggy hair, and his back and butt, trying to place him, but I can’t.
I’m dreaming about a stranger. I guess that’s not so strange, really. I’m reminded of that first time Grandmother appeared at my bedside, the way I should’ve been afraid and wasn’t, the way I knew to trust her and felt that I knew her, unlike all the visitors that came before her.
I stand and lean against the rail in the aisle between bleachers. I want to go down to the field, to stand with this boy between the sky and the grass until every part of me touches every layer of the world. It feels important, but even though I’m so sure this is a dream, I feel a little shy and embarrassed, like I won’t know what to say when I get down there.
But my need to get out there outweighs everything else. I go down one step, and the metal creaks under my foot.
The boy on the field must hear it, because he starts to turn around, but before I can see his face, everything snaps back into place: The fight song is ending; the crowd is shouting, clapping, cheering.
And he’s gone.
“Nat?” Megan shouts over the noise.
I’m standing in the aisle, holding on to the railing.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to leave?” she asks. “We can go.”
“No,” I answer honestly, sitting back down beside her. I don’t want to take my eyes off that field. Something’s happening here, and I’m afraid to miss it.
“Are you sure?”
I nod. What I need is to stay, and to watch. I need to figure this out.
Besides, I may not be on any teams, but Megan is, and this night matters for her and for all the girls we’re sitting with.
After the dance team’s performance come senior awards for softball and baseball, followed by the cheerleading team’s performance, then senior awards for soccer, at which point I’m forced to elbow Megan in the rib cage because Brian Walters’s icy blue eyes are so blatantly staring at her. “He wants to have your glorious, blue-eyed babies,” I whisper.
“So as long as no one tells him he doesn’t have a uterus, I have a chance?” she murmurs back.
The next award is for archery, which is when Megan and I first discover Ryle has an archery team. Then comes basketball, and then a color guard performance, and then, finally, it’s time for the football awards.
Coach Gibbons approaches the podium to call the seniors down, and the crowd bursts into whistles and foot stomping. Matty stands at the far end, looking both handsome and sheepish, and all around like a Disney prince come to life in his neat jersey and nice jeans.
“Most of y’all know I’m a man of few words,” Coach starts off into the microphone. “But I say them slowly, and that helps.” An appreciative chuckle rumbles through the bleachers, and, true to form, Coach slowly, methodically starts speaking about each of the seniors and the ways they’ve contributed to the team.
I’ve always loved watching Matt play. He has a grace that most athletes just don’t have. You can be good at a sport without it—good, but not great. Mom says Dad had that grace with basketball, before he tore his ACL his first semester of college; he was on track for the NBA when it happened, Mom says. That’s always been hard for me to picture, since I’ve never known him as anything but a horse doctor and trainer. Honestly, he’s so good at that, it doesn’t seem possible or fair he could’ve ever had another talent of that caliber. Right now, all Jack cares about is football, but a part of me wonders what secret talents he might discover if he couldn’t play anymore—and then I try to cast that horrible thought from my mind so I don’t accidentally will an accident on my baby brother.
Getting lost in Matty’s big moment almost makes me forget about the dream, but then it happens again: a flicker on the field, right beside the eight seniors lined up next to Coach. Suddenly, at the end of the row, there’s a ninth. Only that’s not quite right, because every time he flashes into view, the others vanish, leaving only him.
Tall, broad-shouldered, full mouth, long dark hair, and serious hazel eyes.
The two images flicker alternatingly four or five times rapidly, as though two giant invisible hands are taking turns covering first the team, then the other boy. When the glimmering stops, it’s the team that remains in sight.
I look around the crowd, searching for signs that anyone else saw the ninth boy appear on the field, but everyone remains riveted by Coach’s speech, totally unbothered by the way the world just shuddered.
“Nat?” Megan whispers.
“Did you see him?” I ask.
“That guy on the field?”
Her blue eyes dart over to Coach, and she maneuvers her posture to see around either side of the podium, but when I look back to the field, the boy’s already gone.
“I’m going crazy.”
“You are not,” she whispers back. “You said Grandmother’s in town. Couldn’t it be one of her friends?”
“I don’t know if she has friends.”
“Of course she has friends. What do you think angels are?”
“I’m not sure she’s like that God.”
“She tells you stories from the Bible, doesn’t she?” Megan’s always acted like Grandmother is Jesus in a mask. I, on the other hand, have never known what to think about where her God ends and where mine begins. Sometimes when Megan talks about her faith, I think yes, exactly, but Grandmother’s stories have made me feel like the concept of God is too big for a book or a group of bodies lined up in pews or even a world religion. God is a thing I know when I see, and I see It all over, in Megan, in the night sky and the morning sun, and especially in Grandmother.
“Yeah . . . sometimes. But she also tells me stories about people named Squirrel and Chipmunk. Are those people from the Bible? Did Grandmother Spider steal fire in the Old Testament or New, because I thought that was a Choctaw story.”
Megan knocks her elbow into mine. “Fine, I don’t know how all this stuff fits together, but the point is, I know you. You’re not crazy. Grandmother’s real, and whatever’s happening to you now isn’t just a figment of your imagination. We’ll figure all this out, okay?”
I dig my teeth into my lip and nod. I slide my phone out of my purse to pick up where I left off on the ongoing Google search, and the battery icon onscreen practically frowns at me. Just then I remember the charger I left in my locker, with the rest of the stuff I planned to clean out next week.
I’m about to tell Megan I’m going to run up to the school and plug my phone in when Coach finishes his awards and the crowd erupts into applause. As soon as the football players start filing back up to the bleachers, everyone else stands to fan themselves and shake out their sweaty shirts. Matt bounds up the steps to us and hooks an arm around our necks, kissing the sides of both of our heads, though I can’t help but notice how long his friendly forehead kiss lingers on mine.
“Ew, you’re sweaty,” Megan says, pushing him off.
Ignoring her, he says, “You guys wanna go get food?”
“Sure,” I say. “I just need to get something from my locker first.”
“Better hurry; they’re gonna lock up as soon as they’ve got the podium back in the gym.”
Mom and Dad have made their way down the steps to us now, and they’re hugging Megan and Matt. “Oh, how fun to see the three of you together again,” Mom says, squeezing Megan’s elbow and putting on that smile that earned her the real estate license. “Isn’t that fun, Patrick?”
Dad nods, says nothing. Coach thinks he’s a man of few words, but I’d like to see him spend a day at the stables with Dad. Mom turns to me and assumes an expression filled with so much empathy I think her soul must hurt to make it: “Was that hard for you, to watch the dance team perform?”
“It was hard for me,” Dad interrupts quietly. “I thought Rachel Hanson’s eyeballs were going to pop out of her head. What do they call that stuff she does with her face?”
“Facials?” Megan says.
“I think they call that particular facial ‘sharting while doing a grand jeté,’” I say.
“Natalie,” Mom says.
“When a horse makes that face, you know she’s in fight-or-flight,” Dad muses.
“When Rachel dances, everyone’s in fight-or-flight,” Megan agrees thoughtfully.
Mom buries her face in her hands. “She comes from a broken home.”
“Yeah, so did War Horse and Seabiscuit, Mom. That’s no excuse.”
The school’s pitch-dark and cool, though still heavy with humidity. I look over the balcony down to the cafeteria and the wall of windows overlooking the lawn, and then, remembering this afternoon, I do a quick once-over of the shadowy foyer before taking off through the too-dark halls.
The farther I get from the doors, the more terrified I am to be alone in the dark. Grandmother’s voice echoes in my head with every step. You need to be prepared for what’s coming.
I spin through my locker combination, dig through the obsessively ordered rows of binders and memorabilia still left in there, stuff the phone charger into my purse, and turn to leave before the inevitable axe murderer arrives.
Something stops me.
Beautiful music, spilling down the dark hall from the band room.
I’ve been hearing the myth about the Band Room Phantom for the past four years, but whenever I’d thought about what I would do if confronted by its siren song, I certainly hadn’t pictured myself venturing toward it.
But there’s no ghost, I remind myself. There’s just a sneaky senior, whom I must know, and a hauntingly beautiful song trailing un-self-consciously across the keys of a piano.
I creep down the hall and stand outside the wooden doors, just listening for a while. The song is sad, heartbreaking even, and I’m overcome with frustration that I don’t have a better word to describe it. It occurs to me then that Grandmother would. She’d have a whole story that would sound exactly like this song. I open the door as quietly as I can and slip inside.
The black grand piano sits in the far corner, heavily scuffed but still elegant. The person playing it hasn’t turned on a single light, which makes him hard to see. But if the broad shoulders and long, slightly dirty hair didn’t give him away, the paper bag sitting on top of the piano definitely would have.
Who the hell is this guy? Maybe he really is a being like Grandmother. Either way, I don’t want to interrupt the song. I stay close to the door with my head tipped back against its dewy surface as I listen and watch. His too-big hands travel gracefully over the keys, his too-big shoulders tensing under his worn-out T-shirt, and the image—a grizzly-bear-sized boy hunched over a piano, who shouldn’t be able to make the keys sing like that, so tenderly, so gratefully—would be funny if the song weren’t so arresting.
I close my eyes and think about all of Grandmother’s stories, finding the one that feels the most like this song.
“This story is true, girl,” Grandmother said. “So listen well.”
“You say that about all of them,” I argued. I was nine, and, so far, none of the stories had seemed true.
“They have all been true,” Grandmother said. “But you’ll think this one is truer than the rest.”
“So you mean it actually happened.”
“No story is truer than any other story that has the truth in its heart.”
“What are you even talking about?” I asked.
“Stories are born from our consciousness,” she said, lacing her fingers in her lap. “They come from the things we already know. They come from the things we learn from our ancestors and our kin. We all learn different things, depending on where we’re born, so the stories you hear will be different. So too the things your kin decide to do will be different. So too the things you decide to do will be different. The way to make the best decisions is to listen to all the stories and to know them by heart and to feel them in your bones. You need to know, Natalie, that no story is truer than truth itself. All good stories and all our lives are born from that knowledge.”
“So, what’s the truth?”
“It’s hard to say. That’s why it’s so important to listen and to look both backward and forward at the threads that Grandmother Spider spins between things. You understand?”
“I never understand a word you say,” I told her.