Granddad says all the Milbourn women are extraordinary.
Amelia, the Shakespeare professor up at the college, says cursed.
Judy, the bookseller down at the Book Addict, says crazy.
Here in Cecil, girls are still expected to be nice. Quiet. All sugar. Maybe a little spice.
But not us. We Milbourn women are a complicated lot.
The Milbourn legacy goes back four generations. Folks were just starting to drive over from Baltimore and Washington, DC, to buy my great-great-grandmother’s portraits when she tried outracing a train in her new roadster. It stalled on the tracks and she and her two youngest were killed instantly. My great-grandmother Dorothea survived and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her love poems-but she was murdered by the woman whose husband she’d been sleeping with for inspiration. Grandmother painted famous, haunting landscapes of the Bay, but the year before I was born, she walked out the back door and down to the water and drowned herself. My mother had a voice like a siren, but she ran away from home the second time she got knocked up, and we haven’t seen her since.
And me? I don’t feel crazy or cursed. But I’ve grown up in this house, haven’t I? So I don’t know. Maybe there’s no escaping it.
I’m home alone tonight, and a storm is sweeping up the Bay. Through the open french doors I can hear the waves crashing against the shore. They make a frantic shh-shh, like a desperate mama rocking a colicky baby.
I hear mothers do things like that, anyhow. I wouldn’t know.
I’ve been reading Jane Eyre for about the twelfth time, but I set it down on the coffee table and leave the warm lamplight to go stand in the doorway. The wind catches at my hair and flings it back in my face. I push it away and squint down at the beach.
Lightning hasn’t split the sky yet, but I can taste it coming. The air’s so thick I could swim through it.
Jesus, but a swim right now would be delicious. I imagine tearing off my blue sundress, running down the sandy path, and diving right into the cool waves of the Chesapeake. I could swim almost before I could walk. Part fish, Granddad says. But he doesn’t like me to swim by myself. Says it isn’t safe, especially for a girl, alone and at night. That’s one of his rules. He’s got about a million. Some of them I fight; some I just let be. Given how his wife killed herself, it seems reasonable enough to humor him on this.
Behind me, something rattles in the wind and I startle. Goose bumps prickle my shoulders in spite of the heat. Lately it feels like a storm’s coming even when the sky’s blue. Like spiders crawling through my veins.
My friend Abby tells me I need to quit worrying and relax. It’s going to be golden, this summer before our senior year. There will be barbecues and bonfires and lazy days volunteering at the town library. She doesn’t believe in family curses or premonitions of doom. Her family has its own troubles, but they’re not town lore.
My friend Claire says “fuck the family curse; you’re your own woman.” Claire’s all rebellion and razor-sharp edges-especially since her dad had an affair with his secretary and moved out (such a cliché). Claire doesn’t believe in fate; she believes in making choices and owning them.
But she’s not a Milbourn girl.
The rain starts with a fury. It pelts the windowpanes and drums against the flagstones out on the patio. The wind picks up too, sending the gray curtains spinning into the room like ghosts. I pad back toward the sofa, trailing my fingers across bookshelves stacked with Great-Grandmother Dorothea’s prize-winning poetry. All along the walls hang Grandmother’s landscapes-our pretty Eastern Shore transformed by twisting rain clouds. She only painted hurricane weather.
They were all so talented. Troubled, sure. But look at their legacy.
What will mine be?
Granddad’s had me in all kinds of classes: piano, flute, ballet, gymnastics, oil painting, watercolors, landscapes, portraits, creative writing… I threw myself into every new subject, only to be crushed when I didn’t show a natural aptitude for any of it.
I’m on the swim team, but I’m never going to be an Olympic athlete. I’m an honors student, but I won’t be valedictorian. Sometimes I write poems, but that’s just to get the restless thoughts out of my head; my poems have never won any awards. I am completely, utterly ordinary.
Granddad won’t give up; he thinks there’s some bit of genius hiding in me somewhere. But over the last couple months… Well, I’m getting tired of trying so hard only to end up a disappointment. Maybe that’s not how this works. Maybe whatever spark blessed or cursed the other Milbourn girls skipped a generation.
To hear people in town talk, the women in my family weren’t just gifted; they were obsessed. And those obsessions killed them, three generations in a row. Maybe four. For all I know, my mother could be dead now too. Do I really want to continue that tradition?
Outside, thunder growls. Inside, something rattles. I stare up at the portrait of Dorothea as it twitches against the exposed brick wall. Just the wind, I reassure myself. There’s no such thing as ghosts.
Dorothea was fifteen when her mother painted her. She wears a royal-blue shirtdress and matching gloves, and her hair falls in short brown curls around her face. She wasn’t what you’d call pretty-too sharp featured for that-but there’s something captivating about her. She stands tall in the portrait, shoulders back, lips quirked. It’s not quite a smile. More like a smirk. A year later, she’d survive the collision that killed her mother and sisters. Her broken leg never healed quite right, Granddad says; she walked with a limp the rest of her life.
Lightning flashes. The lamp flickers. Rain is puddling on the wooden floor. I should close the doors, but Dorothea’s eyes catch mine and somehow I don’t want to turn my back on her portrait.
There’s no such thing as ghosts, I remind myself.
Then the room plunges into darkness.
I run for the french doors, but before I can get there, I slam into something. Someone.
My heart stutter-stops and I shriek, scrambling away, slipping on the wet wooden floor.
“Ivy!” Alex grabs my arm. His fingers are warm against my skin. “It’s just me. Chill.”
“Jesus! I thought you were a ghost!” I take a deep breath, inhaling the salty breeze off the Bay. My pulse is racing.
“Nope, just me.” He waves a flashlight. “Soon as the lights started flickering, Ma told me to bring you this. She knows how you get about the dark.”
I fold my arms across my chest. “Shut up. I’m not scared of the dark anymore.”
“Uh-huh. Sure.” Alex shines the flashlight up over his face like a movie monster. I should have known better than to mention ghosts. He’ll tease me about it forever. Remind me how he used to sneak over and scare Claire and me during sleepovers, how I used to sleep in my closet during thunderstorms, how I had a night-light till I turned thirteen.
“Gimme that.” I reach for the flashlight.
“If you’re not scared, why do you need it?” He holds it above his head. I’m tall-five ten-but the summer we were fourteen, Alex got taller, and he still hasn’t stopped lording it over me. As he stretches, his shirt lifts to reveal taut, tanned abs.
I drag my eyes back to his face, but sort of leisurely like. He got soaked on his sprint from the carriage house, and his red T-shirt is molded to his muscled shoulders. The summer we were fifteen, he started lifting for baseball, and the girls at school went all swoony over him. I am not immune to a nice set of abs myself-but Alex is my best friend. Has been since we were babies, since my mother ran off and Granddad hired Alex’s mom, Luisa, to be our housekeeper. There’s nothing romantic between Alex and me.
That’s what we decided after prom. What I decided. Alex and Luisa and Granddad are the only family I’ve got. What would happen if Alex and I started dating and it didn’t work out? It would be awkward and awful, and I don’t want to risk that. And if it did work? The baseball coach up at the college has already scouted Alex, all but promised him a scholarship if he keeps his grades up this year. If we were dating, Alex would be one more thing tying me to Cecil.
“I hate you,” I mutter.
“No you don’t.” He gives me a cocky grin. Sometimes I think he’s waiting for me to change my mind about us, but I’m not going to. Once I make a decision, I stick with it.
But the house presses around us, cold and quiet and more than a little spooky, and I fight the urge to snuggle up against him.
The front door slams. “Ivy!” Granddad hollers.
Just in time to save me from myself.
Alex relinquishes the flashlight. “I better go.” Granddad gets a little skittish about Alex being here when I’m home alone. Alex and I have never given him any reason not to trust us, but when your only daughter goes and gets herself pregnant twice before the age of twenty, you maybe have reason to be a little overprotective.
Like I said, I pick my battles.
“You going to be okay now that the Professor’s home? No more ghosts?” Alex licks a raindrop from his upper lip and smiles. It’s his placating-Ivy smile, the one that says I let my imagination run away with me. The one he uses when I get all dreamy over a boy in a book or want to watch an old black-and-white movie or point out shapes in the clouds. The one that makes me feel like maybe I am a Milbourn girl after all-sensitive and selfish and bound for a bad end.
I grit my teeth, but the worry in his brown eyes is genuine. “Yep. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay. See you.” He jogs off through the rainy backyard.
“Ivy?” Granddad cusses as he knocks into something out in the hall.
“In here!” I pull the french doors shut.
He limps into the room, tossing his battered briefcase onto the sofa. He nods at me and the flashlight. “How long has the power been off?”
“Not long. Couple minutes.” I smile as he heads right for Dorothea’s crooked portrait and straightens it. He might be a professor, but he’s only absentminded when he wants to be.
“What’ve you been up to?” he asks.
“Nothing. Reading.” I wave my copy of Jane Eyre at him.
“Reading isn’t nothing, young lady. Not in this house.” He gives me a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes and plops down into his brown leather recliner. “Have a seat. There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
That feeling slams into me again-impending doom-and I shiver. My skin feels like it’s coated in cobwebs. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing we can’t handle.” Granddad stares up at Dorothea. “You know that student of mine? The one who’s working in my office this summer?”
“Connor Clarke.” As if I could forget. He’s a rising sophomore who’s somehow made himself indispensable. He aced Granddad’s upper-level Twentieth Century American Poets course last semester.
Granddad nods. “I invited him over for lunch tomorrow. Remind me to leave a note for Luisa.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Tomorrow’s Wednesday.”
He runs a hand over his bristly gray beard. “And?”
“Wednesday is Luisa’s day off. Has been for years.”
“Ah, I forgot.” He steeples his fingers together. “You work the late shift tomorrow, don’t you? Maybe you could join us.”
Like I said-he’s only forgetful when it suits him. “And make you lunch?”
He shrugs. “You might enjoy yourself. Connor’s a good kid. Smart. Driven. He wrote an excellent paper on Dorothea. Most students are too intimidated to write a critical essay about my mother-in-law. It earned him an A on the paper and in the class.”
“So you’ve mentioned.” He hardly ever gives As in that class. Connor’s probably an insufferable suck-up. “Impressive for a freshman.”
“Would’ve been impressive for a senior.” Granddad grins. He gets a kick out of my “competitive spirit,” as he calls it. But he’s the one who raised me to be ambitious, to think I could do anything I put my mind to. “I offer that class every spring. You could take it yourself.”
We’ve had this conversation a million times. “If I stay here”-which I might, because I’d get free tuition and the college has a good swim team and a strong English program, and I worry about leaving Granddad all alone-“I’m not taking your classes. It would be too weird.”
“It wouldn’t be weird unless you made it weird,” he insists. “You’d have to earn your B like everybody else.”
“Except Connor,” I grumble, bristling that he thinks this boy is smarter than me.
“Connor’s an exceptional young man.” Granddad casts a dubious look at Jane Eyre. “Really, Ivy. You’d rather study the nineteenth-century English novel than twentieth-century American poetry?”
I stick out my tongue at him. “I am dying to take Amelia’s class on the nineteenth-century English novel, and you know it. Her Women in Shakespeare too.”
Granddad sighs. “No accounting for taste, I suppose.”
I grin, flopping back against the worn leather sofa. “You’re the one who raised me to be a feminist. And you’re perfectly capable of using the stove yourself, but I suppose I can make you and Connor some lunch. He’s not a vegetarian, is he?”
“Oh, I hope not.” Granddad shudders. “He seems so promising.”
I smile, tucking my feet beneath me. “Is that all you wanted to talk about? The way you looked, I thought it was something dire.”
“Actually…” He clears his throat. Drums his fingers on the armrest. The back of my neck prickles; it isn’t like him to hem and haw. “I heard from your mother today.”
“My-mother?” The word feels foreign on my tongue, like one you read in books and know how to spell but never learn to pronounce.
I must have misheard. Granddad hasn’t talked to my mother in years. She signed away her rights to me when I was four, and he hasn’t been in touch with her since.
The lamp flickers back on. It illuminates the tired slump of his shoulders, the crow’s feet perching next to his blue eyes. “Erica called me at the office. She… Well, the gist of it is that she’s being evicted from her apartment and needs a place to stay. She asked to come home. I told her that I had to talk to you first, but I don’t see how we can say no.”
She left before I was two years old. Got pregnant again, dropped out of college, ran off with her boyfriend to New York City, and hasn’t looked back since. Not once. Granddad says it’s impossible for me to remember her, but I do. I think I do. White-blond hair and a smoky alto.
“I could say no.” I click off the flashlight. “She needs a place to stay, so suddenly she remembers we exist? That’s bullshit. That’s not how family works.”
I’ve never gotten a birthday card from her. Not a single Christmas present.
Granddad sighs, pinching the bridge of his long nose. Same nose as mine. What did I inherit from my mother? Her height? Her mouth? There are so few pictures from when she was my age.
Maybe she took them with her.
Or maybe she threw them away. Maybe she didn’t want the memories any more than she wanted us.
When I was little, I prayed for her to come home.
But I’m seventeen now, and this is way too little, way too late.
“I know,” Granddad says. He’s the one who raised me to believe that family is everything: duty and love and legacy. “But we have to think about your sisters.”
“Sisters?” I clutch the flashlight, knuckles white. “More than one?”
“Came as a surprise to me too. Isobel is fifteen. Grace”-his voice wobbles. That was Grandmother’s name-“is six.”
I’ve got sisters. Two of them. I wonder if they are perfect little Milbourn girls with marvelous talents. I wonder if they know that I exist.
“I know this won’t be easy for you, Ivy. It won’t be easy for me either. But Erica and her husband are getting divorced, and she lost her job, and she needs a place to stay. It took a lot for her to ask. I couldn’t turn her away.” He avoids my eyes and fiddles with his big, silver watch.
Those are his tells. Granddad is a terrible poker player.
“You already said yes,” I realize. “When are they coming?”
That’s four days from now. I run my fingers through my long hair, catching at the tangles. “I see.” My voice is frosty.
“It’s only temporary. Just till she can earn some money and get back on her feet. I’m sure she’ll want to get the girls back to their schools in September.”
“September? But that’s the whole summer!”
And this summer was supposed to be perfect.
Every summer, Granddad signs me up for activities: writing camp up at the college or watercolors at the Arts League or a production of Oklahoma at the Sutton Theater. This year I put my foot down: no classes. I’m volunteering at the library and I’ll be swimming every day. I need this, I told Granddad-a real summer. A break before senior year and all its pressures: captaining the swim team, copyediting the yearbook, taking three AP classes, and applying for college. And most of all (though I didn’t say this part) I am desperate for a break from the restless, relentless search for my talent.
Granddad agreed, as long as I promised to submit some of my poems for publication.
How am I supposed to relax with my mother and newfound sisters living here all summer long.
“Can she do that?” I ask. “Take them out of New York? Their dad won’t mind?”
“I don’t get the sense that Isobel has a relationship with her father, and Grace’s dad-” Granddad clears his throat, avoiding my gaze again. “They don’t live in New York. Haven’t for a while. They’re over in DC now.”
“Oh. I see,” I say again.
And I do. Clear as day. My mother’s been living two hours away, and she still couldn’t be bothered to come visit. To join us for Thanksgiving dinner. To cheer me on at one of my swim meets.
I’m not even worth a tank of gas.