The Initiation (Chapter Three)
Cassie winced as she scrambled up the sloping dune. The world around her seemed ordinary again, no longer full of magic and mystery. It was as if she'd been moving in a dream, and now she'd woken up. What had she been thinking? Some nonsense about silver cords and destiny and a guy who wasn't like any other guy. But that was all ridiculous. The stone in her hand was just a stone. And words were just words. Even that boy… Of course there was no way he could have heard her thoughts. No one could do that; there had to be a rational explanation…
She tightened her grip on the little piece of rock in her palm. Her hand was still tingling where he'd held it, and the skin he'd touched with his fingertips felt different from any other part of her body. She thought that no matter what happened to her in the future, she would always feel his touch.
Once inside the summer cottage she and her mother rented, she locked the front door behind her. Then she paused. She could hear her mother's voice from the kitchen, and from the sound of it she could tell something was wrong.
Mrs. Blake was on the phone, her back to the doorway, her head slightly bowed as she clutched the receiver to her ear. As always, Cassie was struck by the willow slimness of her mother's figure. With that and the fall of long, dark hair worn simply clasped at the back of her neck, Mrs. Blake could have been a teenager herself. It made Cassie feel protective toward her. In fact, sometimes she almost felt as if she were the mother and her mother the child.
And just now it made her decide not to interrupt her mother's conversation. Mrs. Blake was upset, and at intervals she said "Yes" or "I know" into the mouthpiece in a voice full of strain.
Cassie turned and went to her bedroom.
She wandered over to the window and looked out, wondering vaguely what was going on with her mother. But she couldn't keep her mind on anything but the boy on the beach.
Even if Portia knew his name, she would never tell, Cassie was sure of that. But without his name, how would Cassie ever find him again?
She wouldn't. That was the brutal truth, and she might as well face it right now. Even if she did find out his name, she wasn't the sort to chase after a boy. She wouldn't know how.
"And in one week I'm going home," she whispered. For the first time these words didn't bring a surge of comfort and hope. She put the rough little piece of chalcedony down on the night-stand, with a sort of final clink.
"Cassie? Did you say something?"
Cassie turned quickly to see her mother in the doorway. "Mom! I didn't know you were off the phone." When her mother continued to look at her inquiringly, she added, "I was just thinking out loud. I was saying that we'll be going home next week."
An odd expression crossed her mother's face, like a flash of repressed pain. Her large black eyes had dark circles under them and wandered nervously around the room.
"Mom, what's wrong?" said Cassie.
"I was just talking with your grandmother. You remember how I was planning for us to drive up and see her sometime next week?"
Cassie remembered very well. She'd told Portia she and her mother were going to drive up the coast, and Portia had snapped that it wasn't called the coast here. From Boston down to the Cape it was the south shore, and from Boston up to New Hampshire it was the north shore, and if you were going to Maine it was down east, and anyway, where did her grandmother live? And Cassie hadn't been able to answer because her mother had never told her the name of the town.
"Yes," she said. "I remember."
"I just got off the phone with her. She's old, Cassie, and she's not doing very well. It's worse than I realized."
"Oh, Mom. I'm sorry." Cassie had never met her grandmother, never even seen a picture of her, but she still felt awful. Her mother and grandmother had been estranged for years, since Cassie had been born. It was something about her mother leaving home, but that was all her mother would ever say about it. In the past few years, though, there had been some letters exchanged, and Cassie thought that underneath they still loved each other. She hoped they did, anyway, and she'd been looking forward to seeing her grandmother for the first time. "I'm really sorry, Mom," she said now. "Is she going to be okay?"
"I don't know. She's all by herself in that big house and she's lonely… and now with this phlebitis it's hard for her to get around some days." The sunshine fell in strips of light and shadow across her mother's face. She spoke quietly but almost stiltedly, as if she were holding some strong emotion back with difficulty.
"Cassie, your grandmother and I have had our problems, but we're still family, and she hasn't got anyone else. It's time we buried our differences."
Her mother had never spoken so freely about the estrangement before. "What was it all about, Mom?"
"It doesn't matter now. She wanted me to – follow a path I didn't want to follow. She thought she was doing the right thing… and now she's all alone and she needs help."
Dismay whispered through Cassie. Concern for the grandmother she'd never met – and something else. A trickle of alarm started by the look on her mother's face, which was that of someone about to deliver bad news and having a hard time finding the words.
"Cassie, I've thought a lot about this, and there's only one thing for us to do. And I'm sorry, because it will mean such a disruption of your life, and it will be so hard on you… but you're young. You'll adapt. I know you will."
A twinge of panic shot through Cassie. "Mom, it's all right," she said quickly. "You stay here and do what you need to. I can get ready for school by myself. It'll be easy; Beth and Mrs. Freeman will help me – " Cassie's mother was shaking her head, and suddenly Cassie felt she had to go on, to cover everything in a rush of words. "I don't need that many new school clothes…"
"Cassie, I'm so sorry. I need you to try and understand, sweetheart, and to be adult about this. I know you'll miss your friends. But we've both got to try to make the best of things." Her mother's eyes were fixed on the window, as if she couldn't bear to look at Cassie.
Cassie went very still. "Mom, what are you trying to say?"
"I'm saying we're not going home, or at least not back to Reseda. We're going to my home, to move in with your grandmother. She needs us. We're going to stay here."
Cassie felt nothing but a dazed numbness. She could only say stupidly, as if this were what mattered, "Where's 'here'? Where does Grandma live?"
For the first time her mother turned from the window. Her eyes seemed bigger and darker than Cassie had ever seen them before.
"New Salem," she said quietly. "The town is called New Salem."
Hours later, Cassie was still sitting by the window, staring blankly. Her mind was running in helpless, useless circles.
To stay here… to stay in New England…
An electric shock ran through her. Him. I knew we'd see him again, something inside her proclaimed, and it was glad. But it was only one voice and there were many others, all speaking at once.
To stay. Not going home. And what difference does it make if the guy is here in Massachusetts somewhere? You don't know his name or where he lives. You'll never find him again.
But there's a chance, she thought desperately. And the voice deepest inside, the one that had been glad before, whispered: More than a chance. It's your fate.
Fate! the other voices scoffed. Don't be ridiculous! It's your fate to spend your junior year in New England, that's all. Where you don't know anyone. Where you'll be alone.
Alone, alone, alone, all the other voices agreed.
The deep voice was crushed and disappeared. Cassie felt any hope of seeing the red-haired boy again slip away from her. What she was left with was despair.
I won't even get to say good-bye to my friends at home, she thought. She'd begged her mother for the chance to go back, just to say good-bye. But Mrs. Blake had said there was no money and no time. Their airline tickets would be cashed in. All their things would be shipped to Cassie's grandmother's house by a friend of her mother's.
"If you went back," her mother had said gently, "you'd only feel worse about leaving again. This way at least it will be a clean break. And you can see your friends next summer."
Next summer? Next summer was a hundred years away. Cassie thought of her friends: good-natured Beth and quiet Clover, and Miriam the class wit. Add to that shy and dreamy Cassie and you had their group. So maybe they weren't the in-crowd, but they had fun and they'd stuck together since elementary school. How would she get along without them until next summer?
But her mother's voice had been so soft and distracted, and her eyes had wandered around the room in such a vague, preoccupied way, that Cassie hadn't had the heart to rant and rave the way she would have liked.
In fact, for an instant Cassie had wanted to go to her mother and throw her arms around her and tell her everything would be all right. But she couldn't. The small, hot coal of resentment burning in her chest wouldn't let her. However worried her mother might be, she didn't have to face the prospect of going to a strange new school in a state three thousand miles from where she belonged.
Cassie did. New hallways, new lockers, new classrooms, new desks, she thought. New faces instead of the friends she'd known since junior high. Oh, it couldn't be true.
Cassie hadn't screamed at her mother this afternoon, and she hadn't hugged her, either. She had just silently turned away to the window, and this was where she'd been sitting ever since, while the light slowly faded and the sky turned first salmon pink and then violet and then black.
It was a long time before she went to bed. And it was only then that she realized she'd forgotten all about the chalcedony lucky piece. She reached out and took it from the nightstand and slipped it under her pillow.
Portia stopped by as Cassie and her mother were loading the rental car.
"Going home?" she said.
Cassie gave her tote bag a final push to squeeze it into the trunk. She had just realized she didn't want Portia to find out she was staying in New England. She couldn't stand to have Portia know of her unhappiness; it would give Portia a kind of triumph over her.
When she looked up, she had her best attempt at a pleasant smile in place. "Yes," she said, and flicked a quick glance over to where her mother was leaning in the driver's-side door, arranging things in the backseat.
"I thought you were staying until the end of next week."
"We changed our minds." She looked into Portia's hazel eyes and was startled by the coldness there. "Not that I didn't have a good time. It's been fun," Cassie added, hastily and foolishly.
Portia shook straw-colored hair off her forehead. "Maybe you'd better stay out west from now on," she said. "Around here, we don't like liars."
Cassie opened her mouth and then shut it again, cheeks flaming. So they did know about her deception on the beach. This was the time for one of those devastatingly witty remarks that she thought of at night to say to Portia – and, of course, she couldn't summon up a word. She pressed her lips together.
"Have a nice trip," Portia concluded, and with one last cold glance, she turned away.
"Portia!" Cassie's stomach was in a knot of tension, embarrassment, and anger, but she couldn't let this chance go. "Before I leave, will you just tell me one thing?"
"It can't make any difference now – and I just wanted to know… I just wondered… if you knew his name."
Cassie felt a new wave of blood in her cheeks, but she went on doggedly. "His name. The red-haired guy. The one on the beach."
Those hazel eyes didn't waver. They went on staring straight into Cassie's, the pupils contracted to mean little dots. Looking into those eyes, Cassie knew there was no hope.
She was right.
"What red-haired guy on the beach?" Portia said distinctly and levelly, and then she turned on her heel again and left. This time Cassie let her go.
Green. That's what Cassie noticed on the drive north from the Cape. There was a forest growing on either side of the highway. In California you had to go to a national park to see trees this tall…
"Those are sugar maples," her mother said with forced cheerfulness as Cassie turned her head slightly to follow a stand of particularly graceful trees. "And those shorter ones are red maple. They'll turn red in the fall – a beautiful glowing, sunset red. Just wait until you see them."
Cassie didn't answer. She didn't want to see the trees in the fall because she didn't want to be here.
They passed through Boston and drove up the coast – up the north shore, Cassie corrected herself fiercely – and Cassie watched quaint little towns and wharves and rocky beaches slip by. She suspected they were taking the scenic route, and she felt resentment boil up in her chest. Why couldn't they just get there and get it over with?
"Isn't there a faster way?" she said, opening the glove compartment and pulling out a map supplied by the car rental company. "Why don't we take Route 1? Or Interstate 95?"
Her mother kept her eyes on the road. "It's been a long time since I drove up here, Cassie. This is the way I know."
"But if you cut over here at Salem…" Cassie watched the exit go by. "Okay, don't," she said. Of all places in Massachusetts, Salem was the only one she could think of that she wanted to see. Its macabre history appealed to her mood right now. "That's where they burned the witches, isn't it?" she said. "Is New Salem named for it? Did they burn witches there, too?"
"They didn't burn anyone; they hanged them. And they weren't witches. Just innocent people who happened to be disliked by their neighbors." Her mother's voice was tired and patient. "And Salem was a common name in colonial times; it comes from 'Jerusalem.' "
The map was blurring before Cassie's eyes. "Where is this town, anyway? It's not even listed," she said.
There was a brief silence before her mother replied. "It's a small town; quite often it's not shown on maps. But as a matter of fact, it's on an island."
"Don't worry. There's a bridge to the mainland."
But all Cassie could think was, An island. I'm going to live on an island. In a town that isn't even on the map.
The road was unmarked. Mrs. Blake turned down it and the car crossed the bridge, and then they were on the island. Cassie had expected it to be tiny, and her spirits lifted a little when she saw that it wasn't. There were regular stores, not just tourist shops, clustered together in what must be the center of town. There was a Dunkin' Donuts and an International House of Pancakes with a banner proclaiming grand opening. In front of it there was someone dressed up like a giant pancake, dancing.
Cassie felt the knot in her stomach loosen. Any town with a dancing pancake couldn't be all bad, could it?
But then her mother turned onto another road that rose and got lonelier and lonelier as the town fell behind.
They must be going to the ultimate point of the headland, Cassie realized. She could see it, the sun glinting red off the windows on a group of houses at the top of a bluff. She watched them get closer, at first uneasily, then anxiously, and finally with sick dismay.
Because they were old. Terrifyingly old, not just quaint or gracefully aged, but ancient. And although some were in good repair, others looked as if they might fall over in a crash of splintering timbers any minute.
Please let it be that one, Cassie thought, fixing her eyes on a pretty yellow house with several towers and bay windows. But her mother drove by it without slowing. And by the next and the next.
And then there was only one house left, the last house on the bluff, and the car was heading toward it. Heartsick, Cassie stared at it as they approached. It was shaped like a thick upside-down T, with one wing facing the road and one wing sticking straight out the back. As they came around the side Cassie could see that the back wing looked nothing like the front. It had a steeply sloping roof and small, irregularly placed windows made of tiny, diamond-shaped panes of glass. It wasn't even painted, just covered with weathered gray clapboard siding.
The front wing had been painted… once. Now what was left was peeling off in strips. The two chimneys looked crumbling and unstable, and the entire slate roof seemed to sag. The windows were regularly placed across the front, but most looked as if they hadn't been washed in ages.
Cassie stared wordlessly. She had never seen a more depressing house in her life. This couldn't be the one.
"Well," said her mother, in that tone of forced cheerfulness, as she turned into a gravel driveway, "this is it, the house I grew up in. We're home."
Cassie couldn't speak. The bubble of horror and fury and resentment inside her was swelling bigger and bigger until she thought it would explode.