Frost - Marianna Baer

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Frost - Marianna Baer
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For my mother, with love


Part One


Chapter 1

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

of us.

“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

hers—high-bridged, Roman.

“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.”

“What happened?”


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

solid plane.

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

in here.”

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.


Chapter 2

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?”

I nodded.

“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

whole year.”


“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.

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