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For my mother, with love
BEFORE I LIVED THERE, before any of this happened, I
imagined Frost House as a sanctuary. It crouches on the northern
edge of Barcroft Academy in a tangle of lilac and evergreen
bushes, shadowed by oaks and sugar maples. Hidden enough that
I didn’t even know it existed until junior year, when I chased a
field hockey ball through the underbrush into its backyard. I
assumed the white-clapboard cottage was a faculty member’s
house. Most Barcroft dorms are three-story brick buildings; this
was a weathered old Victorian, small and squat, with a
wraparound porch and a mansard roof hugging the second floor.
The kind of place a family would live. The first time I saw it, I could
almost hear a whispered call mingling with the soft rattle of
leaves: Come inside, come inside. . . .
When I realized that the house was actually a tiny dorm, that
my friends and I could be that family for our final semesters, I
knew I’d discovered our school’s very own Shangri-La. I couldn’t
escape the reality of senior year at ultracompetitive Barcroft, but
at least my home life could be a fantasy.
Over the summer I kept thinking what good luck it was I’d
stumbled upon Frost House that day. If I’d believed in anything
more mystical than textbook facts back then, I might have
wondered if it had been fate. I have no idea, now, if fate exists.
But I do know one thing about the day I found Frost House:
Good luck had nothing to do with it.
The afternoon we moved in, a late-August storm turned the
surrounding leaves into a rain-whipped, electric-green frenzy.
Frost House waited in their midst. A little old lady.
“Isn’t she sweet?” I said to Abby as I eased my car up the
narrow driveway, branches scraping the windows on either side
“Sweet?” Abby said. “Maybe a couple hundred years ago.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of shabby chic?” I turned off the
engine of my equally ancient Volvo station wagon. The windshield
wipers died; Frost House melted into a blur. Abby and I glanced
back at the carful of stuff we had to unload.
“Let’s register first,” I said. “I’ll just check if Viv is here, in
case she wants to ride over with us.” I also couldn’t wait to see
my room. I’d been picturing how to decorate it for weeks—my
nightly fall-asleep ritual on the pullout couch at my dad’s.
Shielding myself with an armload of cotton tapestries, I
splashed up a brick path to the side door. Unlocked, luckily. I
stood in the snug entryway, smelled the fresh paint fumes, and
wiped the rain off my glasses. Music—The Black Keys—pulsed in
the humid air. I called Viv’s name up the staircase in front of me,
then realized the bass vibrations were coming from a suite of
rooms on the ground floor, tucked in the rear. Strange. Abby’s
and Viv’s bedrooms were upstairs. I was the only one living back
there for the next few months.
I passed through the common room—pausing to appreciate
the glistening, milk-white walls; the comfortable couch and
armchair; the mini-fridge and microwave—and down a short hall,
music getting louder with every step: Let me be your everlasting
light. . . . On the right, my bedroom door gaped wide. Cardboard
boxes, duffels, and garbage bags littered the floor. Piles of
colorful clothes covered one of the beds, which was made up with
a silky violet quilt and sunshine yellow pillows.
Classic Viv. She’d obviously mixed up our room assignments.
Sensing movement on the other side of an open closet door,
I laid my tapestries on the second, unmade bed. The pounding
bass line camouflaged my footsteps as I crept around boxes and
bags toward my unsuspecting housemate. I waited for a moment
in a spot where we still couldn’t see each other, only the
thickness of the door between us now, and then sprang—
“Jesus!” A guy spun around. Something fell from his raised
hands. I reached out, caught it. Owww. A sharp corner of the
poster-sized frame had stabbed my palm.
“What the hell?” The guy—dark hair; olive, freckled skin;
about my age—took the frame from me and set it on the floor.
“Are you crazy?”
“Sorry,” I said, my palm throbbing but not cut. “I thought you
“Wait a minute.” He edged past me and turned off the
speakers. The air took a second to recover. “Thought I was what?”
he said. “In need of a heart attack?”
For a moment, I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not. Then
he smiled, brows raised above his heavy-lidded, intensely blue
eyes. Whoever he was, he didn’t go to school here. I’d have
“No,” I said. “Thought you were someone else.” Duh, Leena.
Now he laughed and rested his hands on his hips. “I figured.
I’m Celeste’s brother. David. I transferred to Barcroft this year.”
Celeste. I knew only one—Celeste Lazar, the eccentric art
star of our senior class. After he said it, I recognized the delicate
lines of her face mirrored more roughly in his: wide forehead,
curved cheekbones, firm chin. His nose was more prominent than
“Oh. Cool,” I said as if he’d explained anything pertinent.
“I’m Leena. And, unless I am crazy, this is my room.”
David’s smile faltered.
“Don’t feel bad,” I said quickly. “The campus is confusing. I
can drive your stuff to the right dorm.”
“They didn’t tell you?” he said.
“Tell me what?”
“Man, I can’t believe they didn’t tell you.” He ran his hand
through his short hair and shifted his weight to his other foot.
“Celeste broke her leg.”
“Oh? That sucks.” A cold tingle began in my fingertips. There
could be no happy reason I needed to know this.
“Yeah, her room was supposed to be on the third floor of
some other dorm. So they decided that since your roommate is
away for the semester, and your room is on the ground floor . . .”
The blood drained to my feet. “So Celeste is living here?” I
said, sitting on the closest bed.
“Well, yeah. For one semester. But it’s not like they’re
kicking you out.”
I nodded and concentrated on an acid-green, zebra-striped
silk dress lying next to me. How could I have thought this stuff
belonged to Viv? Or to a guy?
“Try to contain your excitement,” David said.
“I’m just surprised.” I forced myself to look at him and
attempted a smile. “Where is she?”
“She had a thing at the hospital today. She’ll be here
tomorrow. It’s a bad break. Really messed up the bone.”
He hesitated. “She fell off the roof.”
“God.” An image of Celeste crumpled on the ground flashed
in my mind.
“Trying to get one of these birds’ nests she’s been
collecting,” David explained, answering my unspoken question.
He didn’t sound quite sure about it, though, and I wondered if
there was more to the story. Knowing Celeste, there probably
A muffled ringtone came from over by the door. “Speak of
the devil,” he said. “She can always tell when I’m talking about
her.” He pulled a cell out of a backpack and disappeared into the
hallway. “Hey. Everything okay?” was the only thing I heard
before his footsteps receded into the common room.
I stared out a window. Branches drooped and swayed under
the heavy rain.
Celeste Lazar. Living here.
A vise squeezed my chest. The same feeling I’d gotten before
every chem lab last year, only tighter.
We’d been partners. The mood of the period depended
entirely on what was going on in Celeste’s life that week—always
a new, convoluted drama: a fight, a hookup, trouble with a
teacher. . . . I’d spend the seventy-five minutes listening to her
stories while trying to keep her distraction from causing some
sort of fiery accident with the Bunsen burner and chemicals. To
make it worse, I was never sure what Celeste actually thought of
me. One day, she brought me a gift to thank me for advice I’d
given her: a chocolate-chili cupcake from the best bakery
downtown. As we walked out of class, me happily holding the box
with my exotic treat inside, I asked about her plans for the
weekend. “None of your damn business,” she’d snapped. Just like
that, I’d become some random, nosy stranger.
And now we were roommates? I’d chosen Frost House to
escape any drama.
Leaves swam together in my watery vision, melding into a
A crash shook the silence.
I turned. The print David had leaned next to the closet had
tipped over. I moved from the bed and picked it up. It was framed
with Plexiglas, so hadn’t broken. I studied the image for the first
time: a close-up of Celeste’s face—a self-portrait, I assumed. She
was lying in dirt, eyes glassy, lips slightly parted, hair fanned out.
A beetle—a big beetle—wrapped in and trailing a thin white satin
ribbon walked across her forehead. The ribbon wound its way
down and into Celeste’s mouth.
Ugh. I rested the frame back on the floor, leaning it so the
image faced the wall.
Before I could move away, though, a chill reached out from
the mostly empty walk-in closet. It felt good on my hot cheeks.
Not harsh and spiky, like air-conditioning, but soft, as if the door
led to a deep, cool basement. I took a step inside the shadowy
space, lifted my hair and let the chill skim the back of my neck,
closed my eyes and breathed in. A fragrant scent—woody, musky,
fermented—filled my lungs. In a strange way, the scent appealed
to me, warmed me inside as the cool air stroked my skin. I
imagined stepping further into the darkness and closing the door,
leaving behind this unexpected new reality.
“Did something break?” David said.
I let my hair fal . “No.” I faced him and placed a hand on the
closet’s doorframe. “This is mine.”
“This closet. It’s mine. Not your sister’s.” The words shot out,
sharp and unplanned.
David frowned slightly. “The other closet’s across the hall.
With Celeste’s leg, I figured she should have this one.”
I scanned the room, even though I knew he was right. “Oh.
Sorry,” I said, taking my hand off. “I forgot this was the only one
What had possessed me to be so rude? “Of course she
should have it,” I added.
As I said it, though, a word echoed in my head. Mine.
I HURRIED TO THE CAR and slid into the driver’s seat,
rainwater beading around me on the crackled pleather
upholstery. Abby had turned the rearview mirror to face her. She
stared up at it and flicked a mascara brush across her lashes. Her
warped copy of the play Buried Child lay spread-eagled on the
“What took you so long?” she asked, glancing over at me. “I
ran through all of my lines while you were in there.”
“Can you grab an ibuprofen from the glove compartment?” I
massaged the bridge of my nose.
“What? More shabby than chic?”
“No.” I waited until she handed me the orange tablet,
washed it down with a swig of flat soda followed by a cherry Life
Saver, and told her about the addition to our Frost House family.
“Hold on,” she said. “Celeste is Green Beret Girl, right?”
“Isn’t she completely nuts? She’s the one who burned all
José’s clothes last year!”
“Not all his clothes,” I said, remembering the story that had
been the talk of campus for a few days. “Just his boxers.”
“Whatever.” Abby waved her hand dismissively. “And, you
know, it doesn’t even matter if she’s crazy. They can’t just give
you a random roommate senior year. It’s not right.”
I turned on the engine. As the windshield wipers brought
Frost House back into focus, an elongated shape moved past a
downstairs window. David, I assumed. I rubbed the almost
invisible mark on my palm. He probably thought I was a selfish
jerk after that closet incident. But I couldn’t help having been
unnerved by his news. The administration shouldn’t just go
around changing rooming assignments.
Like Abby said, it wasn’t right.
Before backing into the road, I readjusted the rearview
mirror. I met my own gaze, and my eyes stared back with a
controlled confidence the rest of my body didn’t feel.
“I’ll talk to Dean Shepherd,” I said. Then, in a stronger voice,
“I’m sure she’ll understand.”
The registration room in Grove Hall swarmed with people. I
hugged, kissed, and how-was-your-summered my way to the R–Z
line at the check-in table. “Our last first-day-of-Barcroft ever,”
Whip Windham said as we waited for our information packets,
echoing the predictable, clichéd thought I’d been having ever
since I woke up that morning.
“I know,” I said. “I’m trying not to be maudlin. We still have a
“Dude.” Whip raised one eyebrow—his signature look. “I
meant it as a good thing. A friggin’ awesome thing.”
Oh. Of course.
Sometimes I forgot that most people were actually anxious
to graduate. I understood the feeling in general, but didn’t quite
get their “good riddance” fervor. While there were things about
Barcroft I was sure none of us would miss—curfew, off-campus
restrictions, tofu schnitzel at the dining hall—most of us would go
to college, so it’s not like we’d be free of classes or teachers or
Sisyphean mountains of homework.