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PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for and may be obtained from the Library of Congress.

ISBN: 978-1-4197-1909-7
eSBN: 978-1-61312-141-2

Text copyright © 2017 A. G. Howard
Cover and title page illustrations copyright © 2017 Nathália
Suellen Book design by Maria T. Middleton

Published in 2017 by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the publisher.

Amulet Books and Amulet Paperbacks are registered trademarks of Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

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While writing this story, I was struck by how lonely and dark life would be for someone who had to make the journey without friendship. Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero once said,

“What sweetness is left in life, if you take away friendship? Robbing life of friendship is like robbing the world of the sun.”

So, to my two dearest friends, Bethany Crandell and Jessica Nelson, thank you for being my sun—for warming me when the chill of personal tragedy strikes, and for illuminating my footsteps when I take a wrong turn and find myself in the shadows. I love and treasure you both. May we light one another’s paths for years to come.

1

OVERTURE

“The opera ghost really existed . . .”

Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

At home, I have a poster on my wall of a rose that’s bleeding. Its petals are white, and red liquid oozes from its heart, thick and glistening warm. Only, if you look very close, you can see the droplets are coming from above, where a little girl’s wrist—camouflaged by a cluster of leaves—has been pricked by thorns as she reached inside to catch a monarch.

I used to wonder why she risked getting sliced up just to touch a butterfly. But now it makes sense: she wanted those wings so she could fly away, because the pain of trying to reach for them was more tolerable than the pain of staying grounded, wherever she was.

Today, I embrace that child’s perfect wisdom. What I wouldn’t give for a set of wings . . .

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On the other side of the limo’s window, a gray sky looms above thickly woven trees lining the country road. The clouds heave like living, breathing creatures, and raindrops smack the glass.

Not the ideal Sunday afternoon to be driven along the French countryside, unless I were here for a vacation. Which I’m not, no matter how anyone tries to spin it.

“The opera house has a violent history. No one even knows how the fire started all those years ago. That doesn’t bother you?” I mumble the words beneath the hum of the motor so our driver won’t hear. They’re for Mom’s benefit—at the other end of the backseat.

Mom bounces as the tires dip into a deep puddle while turning onto a dilapidated road of mismatched cobblestones and dirt. Mud splashes across the window.

“Rune . . . you’re understandably predisposed to hate any building that has suffered a fire. But it’s a fear you need to outgrow. The eighteen hundreds were a long, long time ago. Pretty sure by now, all the bad ‘karma’ is gone.”

I stare at the privacy screen separating us from the uniformed man at the steering wheel, watching the wipers slash through the brown muck on the windshield with a muffled screech as they clear a line of vision.

Mom uses the term karma like it’s a four-letter word. I shouldn’t be surprised at her cynicism. She’s always had a different view on Dad’s heritage than I have. She thinks my anxiety stems from Grandma Liliana’s impact on our lives. That my grandmother’s actions and accusations compounded the gypsy superstitions my dad had already imprinted on me, and they’ve affected how I see the world. Mom’s partly right. It’s hard to escape something so deeply ingrained, especially when I’ve seen proof of otherworldly things, having been possessed most of my life.

“Six weeks till the end of October,” I continue to bait. “And I’ll be spending it at a school haunted by a phantom. Things don’t get any more Halloween than that.”

“A phantom?” A tiny wrinkle bridges Mom’s furrowed eyebrows. “Are we on that again? Your life isn’t a Broadway musical. This place isn’t anything like the one in the story. Leroux’s Opéra Populaire was fashioned after the Palais Garnier in the city. You should know that, considering you’ve read the book at least three times now.”

I grip the door panel to brace myself against another dip in the road. If she thinks I’m going to just ignore what I found on the underground RoseBlood forums, she’s wrong. It’s the whole reason I checked out Gaston Leroux’s novel from the library a few weeks before we left in the first place. Although my reading the book so many times had more to do with the story itself—a mysterious composer using his unnatural gift of music to help a girl find the power in her voice.

“You saw the discussion,” I say. “The blueprint for Garnier was inspired by a building once owned by an eccentric Parisian emperor in the eighteenth century. A private opera house set out in the country called Le Théâtre Liminaire. AKA: my new school. The Liminaire is rumored to be where the phantom legend first originated.” I scroll through my recent searches on my phone, then hold up the screen so Mom can see the text alongside a morbid and lovely illustration of a caped man in a half-mask holding up a bloody rose. “So you’re right. I’m not stepping into a musical. It’s a horror story. With a side of obsession and gore.”

We hit two bumps in a row this time, nearly slamming our heads on the limo’s cushioned ceiling. An irritated puff of air escapes Mom’s lips, though I’m pretty sure it’s directed at me and not the driver. “I told you those forums are nothing more than wannabe students who were turned down by admissions. People say outrageous things when they feel slighted.” She opens the school’s pamphlet for the twentieth time. “According to the brochure, post-renovation, most of the opera house isn’t even the same anymore. Totally different place.”

I nibble on the end of my braid. “It just doesn’t feel right. Why did it take over a hundred years for anyone to rebuild or inhabit that place again?”

Mom presses the brochure to her thigh, signaling the end of our debate. “Just quit being so negative and focus on the positive. They’ve had a lot of rain here, so the leaves are changing early. Look out your window and enjoy the beginning of fall. That should remind you of home.”

I glance at my lap and make a marked effort not to see the jeweled leaves: the browns and oranges, the yellows as bright as the dandelions that overtake my flowers every spring, until I make my way out with a bucket and spade to dig them up. I’d rather not be reminded of what I’m missing at home right now, or of what I’ll be missing in six months when warm weather settles in Harmony, Texas, and I’m not there to take care of Dad’s garden.

Gardening is one of the two things that reminds me most of him. I inherited his green thumb but also his talent for music. Although I could never master the violin like he did. My instrument is something entirely different, and it masters me. Which is the real reason I’m being sent away, although Mom won’t admit it.

My braid drapes across my left shoulder, the end tapping the belt loops on my jeans in time with the car’s movement. I tug the silvery ribbons woven within, relieved I plaited the unruly waves this morning before our shopping spree. Otherwise, I’d have no control over them in this dampness. I pull my handmade knitted cap lower, wishing I could disappear inside.

If I were going anywhere but a music conservatory, I’d be more cooperative. Something happened in Harmony recently . . . something I have reason to run from. Something Mom doesn’t even know about.

But to send me to RoseBlood? She’s so desperate to fix me, she hasn’t stopped to consider the hell she’s sentencing me to.

“They found a skeleton in the deepest basement, floating in the water. A skeleton, Mom. Do I really need another reason to be scared of water? This weather . . . it’s an omen.”

“Right.” Mom scoffs. “Any minute you’ll start preaching about auras and visions.”

Tension knots in my shoulders. My dad and my grandma spoke of auras a lot, as if they could see them. And since I see rainbows when I sing, I used to think that ability passed on to me. There was a time I was convinced—if I focused hard enough—I could see halos of color around other people’s bodies. I made the mistake of telling Mom once. She took me to the eye doctor, and I ended up recanting the claim in order to get out of wearing glasses I knew I didn’t need. Now, I’ve convinced myself to stop looking for them. It’s not worth the hassle or the confusion.

“Consider this,” Mom continues, “every time you fall back into her way of thinking, you give her power over your life.” Mom’s voice falters on the obvious effort not to mention my grandma’s name. “I know she’s working to be a better person, so we’ll cut her a little slack. She talked your aunt into paying for your tuition. The least we can do is let her try to make amends since she’s dying. Just don’t let her get inside your head again.”

I press my lips tight. Suffering from congestive heart failure has to be horrible and painful, and I should at least feel something for Grandma Lil. But I remember images of my black hair swirling in dark, deep water as I tried to escape the wooden crate keeping me submerged; I remember her wrinkled, weathered hands on the other side of the planks tightening their grip to hold me under. And because of that, any sympathy eludes me.

I shudder. Yeah, Grandma’s got a lot to make amends for, no doubt.

“After all of these years of no contact,” Mom continues, “for them to reach out like this because you’re having so many problems? It gives me hope we can be a family again. Your dad would’ve wanted that. It wasn’t easy for Lottie to get your transfer moved to the top of the list. She was afraid to show favoritism. But she’s doing it as a favor to us. Let’s make an effort to show our gratitude when we get there. Okay?”

The famed Aunt Charlotte: retired sixty-something French prima donna and Dad’s older sister. I get the feeling this is more of a favor she’s doing for her incarcerated mom—so the old woman can save herself from continuing imprisonment postdeath, in purgatory.

I run my palm across the seat, the leather plush and foreign to my hand. Like nearly every woman in Dad’s family, Charlotte was a ballerina in the Paris Opera company. As a result, she snagged herself an aristocratic husband. It was love at first sight when he saw her dance. Now that she’s a wealthy widow, her generous donations have earned our family a spot among the boarding school’s most elite beneficiaries. Which explains my acceptance as a student without the usual three-month consideration period.

Nothing like nepotism to earn you a place in the hearts of your peers.

Hopefully the other students won’t know my aunt sent this limo to pick us up at the hotel this morning and drive us around shopping all day; that she is paying my tuition for the year; and that she wired Mom nine hundred and fifty euros last week—the equivalent of a thousand dollars, give or take—to help buy my uniforms and dorm accessories at the posh boutiques here.

I’ve never met her, other than through ten years of spotty, one-sided phone conversations with my mom. Charlotte’s never visited America, and I’d never been to Paris until now. According to Mom, she used to call once a month to talk to Dad. Until he got sick enough to land in hospice care; then she stopped. She didn’t even come to his funeral, so I can’t help but question her motives.

“It said in the brochure they coordinate their calendars with public schools in the states. That means it’s already one month in here.” I wind my hands together, an attempt to quell the pain in my heart at the thought of Dad’s absence—the wound that never heals, even after a decade. “Do you know how hard it is to make friends so close to the end of the first six weeks?” Not that I plan to try . . . but true intentions take a backseat when it comes to guilting Mom.

“It’s not unheard of,” Mom rebuts. “Lots of people are scrambling to send their kids, even late. Doesn’t that say something to the credit of the school? Only two years in, and there’s already a wait list. There were at least twenty names in front of yours.” Mom looks out her window where the wet trees have thickened to multicolored knots, like an afghan gilded with glitter.

“My point exactly.” I tap my fingers to some endless rhythm turning inside of me . . . an operatic aria I heard in an elevator earlier. It’s reawakened, and that’s not a good sign. The melody will writhe like a snake on fire and burn holes behind my closed eyelids in the shape of musical notes until I sing it out. It’s physical torture, like a constant spark in my skull that scorches my spine—vertebra by vertebra. “I’ll be winning friends left and right once they hear I jumped the list via my bloodline.”

Mom clucks her tongue. “Well, according to you, there’s still the phantom. I’m sure he’s not too picky about who he hangs out with.”

My jaw tightens as I suppress a snort. Touché.

I trace the window now curtained by mud, imagining the glass cracking and bursting; imagining myself sprouting wings to fly away through the opening—back to America and my two friends who were tolerant of my strange quirks.

Aching for another glimpse of the sky, I trigger the automatic window to swipe the pane clean, allowing a fresh, cold wind to usher in a spray of mud and rain. I smile as the moisture dots my face and neck, easing the sting of the song in my head. Mom yelps and I send the window up again.

“Rune, please.” She tightens her plump, red-tinted lips to a frown. Working her fingers through the dirty droplets in her cropped hair, she digs a Kleenex from her purse.

“Sorry,” I whisper, actually meaning it. Using my velvet scarf, I blot my cheeks then sponge the leather seat.

Mom’s scrubbing shifts to the taupe crepe jacket and pencil skirt, which hang like tissue paper on her small frame. With each movement, her signature fragrance wafts over me: Lemon Pledge. She cleans other people’s houses for a living, and can never seem to shake off the stench of dust solvent and Pine-Sol.

With her delicate bone structure and striking features, she missed her true calling. She did some print modeling back when Dad was alive, but she wasn’t tall enough to be on the catwalk. Once he got sick, she needed “job security” to help pay bills. Housekeeping filled that niche, but I know a part of her has always regretted switching professions. And now she’s determined to see that I don’t lose my shot at something better, something she thinks I was born to do.

Gray light and purple shadows take turns gliding along her high cheekbones as we pass through the trees. People say we could pass for sisters. We share her ivory complexion, the tiny freckles spattered across the bridge of her nose, the wide green eyes inside a framework of thick lashes, and her hair—black as a raven’s wings. The only difference is, I inherited my curls from a father whose laughter I still hear when I dance in rain puddles. Whose face I still see in the water’s reflections, as if he’s beside me.

Without being at home, close to our garden, my only remaining connections to him are the music he loved and his family, each inseparably intertwined with the other. Since Mom’s parents passed away before I was even born, she had no one to lean on once Dad got sick. So, Grandma Liliana came from France to live with us in Harmony. She was a lot of help in the beginning, but a few months after Dad died, she left our lives in a blaze of horror, literally. The last time I saw her she showed up at my second-grade Valentine’s Day party and purposely started a fire that almost wiped out an entire class of eight-year-olds.

She was carted back to France and has been locked away in the city of Versailles ever since, at a prison for the criminally insane. Ironic, considering that was her second attempt at killing me. Although I often wonder if I imagined the first . . . if the details got mixed up in my seven-year-old brain because I was fighting so hard for my life. According to what Grandma told Mom, it had all been an accident.

I shiver and rub the scar on my left knee that peeks through the rip in my jeans, a reminder imprinted on my skin. A reminder of the splintering wood I kicked my way through . . . a reminder that, accident or not, I didn’t imagine it.

“You have a gift.” Mom’s statement rakes across the intrusive memory, ripping through the cobwebs and dangling dead hopes in my heart that have settled where a loving and sane grandmother should’ve been. “This place will help you realize your potential. Be grateful for the opportunity.”

Mom doesn’t get that I want to be grateful. I miss how singing once made me feel: free, unique, complete.

But what if Grandma was right about me . . . about everything?

The aria I heard earlier in the elevator bumps against my ribs once more, making my breath shallow. From the time they started dating, Dad taught Mom French. He’d done the same for me since birth, and she continued his tutelage after we lost him. Because of that, I know enough to be comfortable here. But the opera piping through the speakers had sounded Russian. I have no idea what the name of it is or what it’s about. I don’t have to know. Now that the notes are woven within me, the words are imprinted alongside them. Whether or not I can translate what I’m singing, I’ll still remember how to form each syllable on my tongue when the time comes to release the song.

It’s like I have an auditory photographic memory, although it’s not something I can quietly absorb then let sit on the back of my eyelids like an image, hidden from everyone else’s view. There’s nothing private about my ability.

Dread tightens my throat. I need to ease the tension, to rid myself of the music. But I don’t want to lose it in the back of a limo. It’s too confined; and then there’s the driver . . .

Everyone has experienced the feeling, stepping into a room and the other people stop talking. This happens to me each time I sing. Wall-to-wall silence. If a sweat drop were to fall, you could hear it splatter to the floor. Not an awkward silence. More like an awed hush.

I have no right to be proud because it’s nothing I’ve earned. Up until recently, I’d never had a voice lesson in my life. Yet, ever since I was small, opera has been a living, breathing part of me.

The problem is that as I’ve grown, it’s become more demanding . . . an entity that controls me. Once a song speaks to my subconscious, the notes become a toxin I have to release through my diaphragm, my vocal cords, my tongue.

The only way I can breathe again is through a binge and purge of music. The worst part is what follows—how finishing a performance makes me feel. Stripped naked, cold and exposed. Physically sick. Only hours later, after the symptoms of withdrawal have run their course, can I become myself once more. At least until the next melody possesses me, like the one snaking through me now.

My legs start to jitter, and I clamp my hands on my knees. I cough to suppress the tune that’s climbing my throat like bile.

“Rune, are you all right? You’re awfully flushed. Is it . . . ?” She takes one look at my face and moans. My flushed cheeks and dilated pupils are her only cue. She’s never seen what I see in the mirror . . . what Dad used to see when music burned inside me: my irises brightening to a lighter, almost ethereal hue, like sunlight streaming through green glass. Dad called it an energy surge, but because Mom couldn’t see it, she laughed him off.

“Just get it over with,” she insists.

Another cough—hard enough to strain my vocal cords. “I can’t sing in here.” The nagging notes tangle in my throat. “What if I hit a high C and break the windows? Your clothes won’t survive that much rain.”

She frowns, oblivious to the way my skin prickles under my raincoat, to the sweat beads gathered at my hairline beneath my cap. I dig through the bag at my feet—an oversize tote, with burgundy, mauve, and green beads sewn onto the pearly front to depict roses and leaves—and drag out my newest knitting project.

Mouth closed, I go to work on the cream-colored sweater I started a few weeks ago. With each metal clack of the needles, the fluffy chenille skims lightly through my fingertips. The cold instruments are firm and empowering in my hands. I start the looping and rolling rhythm so the tactile stimulus can distract me—a strategy that sometimes works.

Mom’s frowning lips soften to a frustrated straight line. “The one good thing your Grandmother Lil ever taught you, and you use it for a crutch.”

Ignoring her, I snap my wrists so the needles loop and roll, twist and twirl. Chenille winds around the shimmery silver metal like strands of cotton candy on a cone.

“The music wouldn’t affect you like this if you’d just stop fighting it,” Mom presses, trying to stall my hands.

“Why should I have to fight it to begin with, Mom? Is that normal?” I pull free and return to my rhythmic escape.

Mom shakes her head, steadfast in her denial. Secure in her faith in me. If only I could borrow some of it.

I wish I were like those mimes we saw on a street corner when we shopped. If I could pantomime a song’s exit from my body—a silent and effective murder of melody—maybe I could once more be grateful for my gift, instead of fearing its gradual and violent consumption of me: body, mind, and soul.

2

THE THREADS THAT BIND US

“Sometimes, the Angel [of Music] leans over the cradle . . .”

Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

My dad first discovered my “gift” when I was four. I was in the living room with him, building a block tower as he practiced on his treasured Stradivarius violin. Up to that point, he played only concertos, overtures, and sonatas. But he’d decided to try his hand at an operatic accompaniment that day.

I stopped what I was doing, staring up at the stringed instrument. Dad said it was like I was seeing the violin for the first time, although I’d heard him perform since my birth. Knocking down the blocks in my path, I toddled over, placed my hand on his knee, and hummed the opera’s tune—the one he’d never played before—in perfect pitch.

When he asked me about it afterward, I answered that his violin sang words to me. They told me how to see a rainbow and follow the colors with my voice . . . he called them auras. He was convinced I was seeing musical scales come to life—that I had a connection to the energized pulses of music. Mom returned from the grocery store in time to catch our discussion. She got annoyed, insisting Dad was being melodramatic. She blamed his superstitious upbringing and overactive imagination, two things that I—according to her—inherited from him. Her father had been a fanatical small-town preacher and had forced religion down her throat for so long, she’d turned her back on anything remotely spiritual or supernatural the minute she was old enough to leave home.

To this day she still shuns all things otherworldly, but her skepticism about my voice died a swift death as she herself sat a few days later, stunned and muted, while Dad played a recording of a Spanish aria sung by a vocalist in accompaniment. I sang along, executing every foreign lyric and note as if I were the world-renowned diva. This from a toddler who’d only recently learned to sing her English ABCs.

After that, Dad began accompanying operatic recordings regularly, and many times, I would join in unprompted. One day, as we put on a concert for some close friends, Dad stopped and dropped his bow, listening in reverent silence with everyone else as I finished out the song in perfect German. But without his violin guiding me, something changed. I still carried the song perfectly, until the final pristine note.

At that point, the vivid prismatic colors of the melody dancing around my head bled to a thick red glaze that tinged my vision. I dropped to my knees, trembling and nauseated. I was sick the whole night.

Dad decided it was performance anxiety, that I needed him as an accompanist for support. I became his marionette and he my puppeteer, and I loved every minute of it. At first, he concentrated only on the arias I responded to, and as long as we were bound together by strands of music, his violin’s voice leading me, I could sing without incident. Then he taught me new songs. Each one lifted me higher, gave me more confidence. By the age of six, I was invincible. No note was out of range, no composition too complex.

He and Mom agreed I was too young to go public. They wanted me to have a normal childhood, so we didn’t seek out formal training, and we kept our rehearsals private.

Dad encouraged my budding talent at every turn—he was my biggest fan—until he was diagnosed with cancer. When he became too weak to accompany me with his violin, I tried to keep singing for him, in hopes to give him the strength he once gave me. But since the musical ties between us had been snipped away, my performances left me exhausted. I ignored the flu-like symptoms and kept pushing myself just to see him smile.

Yet no matter how pristine the clarity of notes, or how genuine and evocative the emotions interpreted through song, I couldn’t lift him out of the mire of feeding tubes, catheters, and chemotherapy. I couldn’t change his fate.

After he died, my grandmother insisted it was my fault. That my unnatural gift had somehow drained my father of life and killed him.

I can’t shake the belief that maybe in some way she’s right. How can something so strange and inexplicable be healthy or good? It’s not. I know that much. I know it by what happened between me and Ben. Although I’m hoping he’ll be okay, I’m also hoping that if he wakes from his coma, he won’t remember a thing. He’s the only other witness.

My shoulders slump at the thought of last time I saw him, hooked up to IVs and machines in the hospital, just like my dad before he died.

For my part in Dad’s death, Grandma Liliana wanted to send me to hell. An old woman terrified of a young child. Whereas Mom was, and is, convinced I’m the one with fears. She’s oblivious to the dangers, sees my curse as a talent, and thinks that with practice, I’ll get over my stage fright and learn to perform for the public one day.

If only.

It was hard enough feeling normal in Texas. At least there, an operatic aria popping up unexpectedly on the radio was a rare event. I don’t know exactly what the trigger is. Although it’s always a woman’s aria, it’s not every single one I hear. Some speak to me, some don’t. But once the spark has been ignited, the music eventually wins. And at RoseBlood, I’ll be exposed to opera every day, and forced to purge the notes in front of strangers who will see me at my most vulnerable.

No more blending, quiet like a raindrop siphoning into a stream on a windowpane.

Tiny rivulets of water jostle on the limo’s window, and I rest the knitting needles in my lap, forehead pressed to the glass. Coolness seeps in to counteract the hot rush rising from my neck to my face. Through the leaves, the sky darkens, as if borrowing from my mood.

“I don’t know why you’re being so morose today,” Mom says, the cadence of her words dancing around me like a taunting chime. “You’ve always talked about being involved with Broadway or theater. How’s opera any different?”

Behind the scenes.” I attempt to reason with her. “A costume or makeup designer.” In a last-ditch effort to change her mind, I pull out all the stops. “This is so unfair. I never asked for any of it.” I start up the knitting needles again, slower this time, and my pulse settles to a calm rhythm. The song recedes into my subconscious, but it’s only a temporary reprieve. It will be back.

Mom’s suit rustles. She grips firm, warm fingers around my jaw. I set aside my sweater to study her features, each one shadowed with disappointment.

“Oh, you asked for it,” she says. “You made poor choices. So now we’re going to get your life back on track. And the first step is surrounding you with kids your age.” She releases my chin.

And there’s where RoseBlood’s small populace of fifty students, made up of sixty percent juniors and forty percent seniors, comes in handy. That particular detail from the brochure stood out loud and clear while I was reading on the plane.

I stuff my knitting into the bag and kick myself for the thousandth time for going to that college frat party at the beginning of school. Getting drunk that night had nothing to do with the fact that I feel more comfortable around college kids than my own classmates. But I know better than to admit that to Mom, because were she to know the real reason I took that first sip of beer, she’d turn this limo around and drop me off in Versailles with Grandma Liliana. Bloodthirsty birds of a feather belong together.

“It’s the only time I’ve ever touched alcohol,” I say over a catch in my throat. “Can’t you give me another chance? I made one stupid mistake and you’re sending me to prison.” It might sound like a barb, but prison is something I probably deserve, which makes it a legitimate fear. “Just admit it. You want me gone so you can play house with your new fiancé without me there.”

“RoseBlood is hardly a prison,” Mom says. “How many foreign boarding schools offer admittance only to American kids? This is a rare opportunity . . . a taste of French culture in a setting that feels like home.”

I suppress the desire to point out that she’s quoting the Rose-Blood brochure almost word for word, and instead focus on how she avoided my accusation about her fiancé. A burst of contentment sneaks in unexpectedly. I smirk on the left side of my face. I won’t risk the right because she might see it.

I’m so glad she’s met someone after all these years of raising me alone. And Ned the Realtor is a really nice guy who treats Mom like a queen and me like a princess. I’m actually glad he moved in. It’s nice to have some semblance of a family again. Still, I’m not about to admit any of that since I’ve found some leverage.

“No Wi-Fi in the place,” I say. “That means no Internet access. And we’re out in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone service. How am I supposed to stay in touch with you . . . with Trig and Janine . . . anyone on the outside?”

“They do have a landline, Rune. You’ll be able to call home.” The other half of my smirk has found its way to her mouth. “As for the absence of texting . . . I’ve got the perfect substitute.” She bends over to sift through the shopping bags at her feet, the small ones that were left over after stuffing the trunk full.

I watch, suspicious, as tissue paper crinkles beneath her fingers. We spent the morning driving through the Louvre-Tuileries neighborhood, touring the grand squares, gorgeous gardens, and trendy bistros from the comfort of our limo. We visited several boutiques but were never apart any longer than it took for me to try on my uniforms—three sets comprised of a fitted jacket, vest, long skirt, and ruffled shirt—that look more like Victorian riding habits than any modern dress code. Even the gray, white, and red color scheme is drab and lifeless enough to make us all look like wax museum rejects. Mom stood there and handed me the separate pieces from the other side of the dressing room door. So when did she have time to shop behind my back?

Wrist-deep in a zebra-striped bag fringed with pink feathers, she draws out a rectangle. Tissue paper loosely drapes the gift.

I take it, biting my inner cheeks to contain a smile. She knows how much I like presents. Both getting and giving them. “What did you do?”

She shrugs, the same mom who used to insist we open one Christmas gift a week early every year because she couldn’t stand to wait any more than me. I love that side of her.

I feel a prick behind my sternum, as the biggest reason I don’t want to attend this foreign school hits me hard and sudden. For the first time since we lost Dad, my mom and I are about to be apart.

An ocean apart.

I force myself not to look at her, afraid I’ll break down.

With stiff fingers, I unwrap a fabric-covered box of rich brocade—black and gray striped with red-ribbon embellishments. A hinged lid opens to reveal fancy French stationery. Lacey black scallops trim the edges. The paper is a grayish shade, as soft and translucent as the light filtering through clouds outside. When I hold up a piece and open my hand behind it, I can see the silhouette of my fingers and palm. An embossed ribbon, shimmery red to complement the satin ones on the box, embellishes the stationery’s top. Matching envelopes are tucked in the corner next to a black feather quill. The set is exactly what I would’ve picked for myself.

“So . . . I’m supposed to write to everyone?” I ask, hiding how touched I am. “Kind of archaic, don’t you think?”

She tilts her head, smug. “Looks like you won’t be in solitary confinement after all.”

The smile I’ve been suppressing pushes its way out. “But I don’t have addresses or postage.”

“Ah.” She digs a roll of global stamps and an address book out of the zebra sack. She must’ve had them hidden in her overnight bag.

Sneaky. Another thing I’ve always loved about her.

She points to the red ribbon embossed on the stationery. “Did you really think I’d let you be thousands of miles away from me without a thread to bind us?”

Just that one reference and I’m back at the beginning of first grade, afraid to leave her side until she reached into her purse and retrieved a long red strip of yarn, tying it around my wrist. We’d spent the night before in Dad’s hospital room, talking on a toy phone made of empty soup cans and yarn. I’d poured out all of my fears to both of them, and they’d comforted me. When we left the hospital, Mom pulled the yarn from the cans and promised that all of her and Dad’s love and protection were woven inside the thread, and as long as I had it with me, they’d be there.

I still have that strip of yarn, marking a passage in my favorite fairy tale picture book that Dad used to read to me: Les Enfants Perdus, which translates to “The Lost Children.” It’s an old-world French version of Hansel and Gretel, a bit more grim, with the devil and his witch-wife holding two lost siblings—Jean and Jeanette—hostage in a forest. Together, the children escape, using their minds and wills to murder and outsmart their dark tormentors before they can be eaten. Although the book’s pages are water damaged and crumpled, I’ve never thrown it away.

I’d been so upset on the plane when I realized I forgot to bring either of those keepsakes to Paris. But Mom found a substitute for the red string.

“Wow, Mom—”

“Oh, and there’s this, too . . .” She hands me one other tissue-stuffed bag.

“Hmmm. Maybe I should go off to school more often after all,” I tease, dragging out the tissue. My breath catches at the glossy, brand-new Les Enfants Perdus staring up at me—as though she’s been reading my mind all along.

She shrugs when I turn a questioning glance her way. “It was in a display window at one of the shops this morning. It’s a modern edition . . . and the illustrations are different. But it’s the same story. Now you have your thread and your book to tie us all together.”

My eyes sting. “Thank you.”

She pats my hand and we share another smile. My lips wobble as I thumb through the pages, remembering Dad’s deep, strong voice reading the text to me in flawless French. I miss that so much. Just like I miss him speaking to me with his violin. When he got bad enough that we had to check him into hospice, I took up sleeping with the instrument under my bed every night. It almost seemed like a part of him—maybe because each time he played, he’d cradle it as one would a precious child.

I’d still have it with me to this day, had it not gone missing when Grandma Liliana first arrived in America. Mom suspected she took it, and confronted her. Grandma admitted mailing it back to Paris. Mom was furious, assuming she wanted to sell it due to its value. It was a one-of-a-kind Stradivarius, handcrafted of wood so black and glossy I used to think it had been carved from an oil slick. The scroll curled at the neck’s tip like a snail’s shell, adding to its uniqueness. But Grandma selling it didn’t make sense. The instrument had been a family heirloom since the early 1800s. One of our ancestors, Octavius Germain, had even engraved his initials on the lower bout, just inches from the waist of the instrument. I used to trace my fingers along that O and G, imagining a man in Victorian finery playing the very instrument my dad loved.

Now, sitting here with this book in my hands, I think maybe we misjudged Grandma’s motives. Maybe—just like I needed that piece of red thread to brave being without my parents that day in first grade, and this book to give me courage at a new school—she needed a piece of her son to be waiting at home for her, so when she returned she could survive in a world he no longer occupied.

I glance into the distance and swallow the words I want to say: Mom, I still miss him. Every day. I don’t want to be away from you, too. I don’t want to be alone.

Our limo slows to a crawl as we take a stone bridge over a giant river. I lean into the window, unnerved by how close the water is. Were it to rise just a few more feet, it would overlap the bridge. The river encompasses the academy on all sides, similar to a moat. The only land is the hill where the academy sits, and the eighty-some acres of woods surrounding it. Without any way to cross, it would be like an island unto itself.

I return the stationery box and my book to their bags. Unease roils through my veins in time with the blue-black depths swirling beneath the limo. According to the pamphlet, the water even surges underground beneath the estate’s foundation, flooding the third basement.

Water. My least favorite element, second only to fire. And now I’ll be surrounded by it. The fact that the rain has finally subsided relaxes me a fraction. Fog settles across the landscape, clinging low to the road as we roll off the bridge. RoseBlood Academy rises up, grim and ominous. The baroque architecture, looming and majestic, looks more like a brooding castle than an opera house in this isolated location.

The auditorium’s cupola—a cap of bronze that cuts through the dreary sky like a ghostly crown—descends to a gabled roof where a winged horse stands guard beside Apollo. The god lifts his lyre, as if it were a bow and arrow. In the Phantom book, a similar roof played a pivotal and romantic role in the story line. It’s where Christine met with Raoul and they claimed their undying love. They were spied upon by the Phantom, who then unleashed a series of events to punish them and make Christine his forever. But the school brochure claims this roof’s stairway was sealed off along with the top three floors after the fire.

The driver turns the car onto the long, gravel drive leading up to the opera house. Glistening trees bend over us like sequined actors taking their final bow. As we plunge out from the overhanging limbs, I begin to understand the uniforms. It’s as if we’ve crossed into an alternate time.

Ivy and lichen cling to the huge edifice. The wet façade reflects our headlights so it appears an ethereal white, but as we get closer, the stone’s true color comes into view. Time has eroded it to a scaly turquoise green, like a mermaid’s tail. Antique street lamps—the kind you would expect to see on a Victorian greeting card—dot the front terrace and cast an eerie yellow glow in the grayish haze. So engrossed in the scenery, I barely hear the bags rattle as Mom puts away the stamps and address book.

The boarding school is flanked on one side by an overgrown garden. The early autumn blooms follow their own call; silvery-green leaves, crimson roses, and frothy white flowers tumble like waves across a wrought-iron fence that at one time held them contained.

Behind the garden, off in the distance, sits a graveyard and a chapel. The abandoned stone building stands tall and proud, despite that it’s every bit as old and decrepit as the headstones and statues surrounding it. Busted stained-glass windows glisten like the talons of some violent rainbow creature slashing through the fog. Yet even in its sinister beauty, it seems to cower in fear from the encroaching forest’s shadow creeping closer with evening’s arrival.

Our limo cruises around to the other side of the academy. Pebbles grind beneath the tires on our coast into a gravel parking area across from the garden. Mom starts digging in her purse, mumbling about lipstick. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch someone half covered by a rosebush that hangs over an iron spike. I angle myself to see him better, nose pressed against the chilled glass.

His tall body turns and watches us, broad shoulders tensed. He grips a cluster of deep red roses—so velvety they’re almost black on the edges—and holds a pair of pruning shears in his other hand. The tails of his cape swirl on the wind, stabbing at the fog around his muddy boots. The vintage clothing seems out of place in our century, yet right at home in this setting.

He appears close to my age. The left half of his face stands out beneath the hood: one side of plump lips, one squared angle of a chin. Two coppery-colored eyes look back at me—bright and metallic. The sight makes me do a double take. As far as he is from the car, I shouldn’t be able to make out the color, yet they glimmer in the shadow of his cape, like pennies catching a flashlight’s glare in a deep well.

I’ve seen those eyes before—countless times—since the age of seven. But I can’t even consider why I recognize them. I can’t think beyond what they’re broadcasting, loud and clear: He’s warning us not to approach him—a part of the sprawling wilderness, neglected yet beautiful and thriving in his solitude.

Transfixed, I don’t stop staring until Mom opens the glass panel to speak to the driver. A hot blush creeps up my neck and I glance at my worn Timberland boots, all too aware of the patchwork embroidered vest beneath my jacket and the faded and ripped boot-cut jeans hugging my legs. For the first time since I started sewing and designing, I’m uncomfortable in my bohemian style, even if it is a tribute to Dad’s heritage. Here at this castle, faced with the stranger’s somber formality, I feel too casual . . . wayward and misplaced.

I’m almost aching to put on that outdated school uniform.

When the limo stops, I brave a glance again, in search of the caped figure and those shimmery eyes. The gardening shears lie abandoned on the ground, and the cluster of red roses he held are now withered, leaving behind a whirl of petals—coal black and crinkled—aflutter on the wind.

An icy sense of foreboding prickles the nerves between my shoulder blades. The gardener’s gone without a trace, as if he were never there at all.

3

GHOST WALKER

“The ghosts . . . try to remember the sunlight. Light has died out of their skies.”

Robinson Jeffers, “Apology for Bad Dreams”

He flung off his cape’s hood as he glided underground, breathing in the scent of mildew and solitude. Dripping water echoed in the hollowed-out tunnel. The shadows embraced him—a welcoming comfort.

He’d walked as a ghost in the gloomy bowels of this opera house for so long, darkness had become his brother; which was fitting, since his father was the night, and sunlight their forgotten friend.

Jaw tightening, he secured the oars in their rowlocks and stretched his arms to reveal the skin between the cuffs of his sleeves and his leather gloves. The hot rush of vitality still pulsed red light through the veins in his wrists. He’d spent all afternoon in the graveyard. Being somewhere so devoid of life had drained him and prompted an unplanned visit to the garden.

He should never have risked roaming in such close proximity to the parking lot. Curse his weakness for the hybrid roses; there was no resisting their scent, their flavor, their ripeness.

Shrugging off his annoyance, he began to row once more, water slapping the sides of the cave. He hadn’t expected anyone to be on the grounds this early. Not with what was taking place inside the academy. All the students and instructors were preoccupied. The garden should’ve been safe and isolated.

But there she was—appearing out of nowhere—several hours sooner than he’d expected. Damn his carelessness. Thankfully, he’d had the sense to wear his hooded cape; otherwise, she would’ve seen him unmasked.

Still, all wasn’t lost. If he’d learned anything watching the years play out on a stage, it was improvisation. He used the unplanned sighting to his advantage, vanishing and leaving nothing but dead roses in his wake. Though he’d hated siphoning away their life essence, it was a necessary sacrifice. A calling card for her eyes only.

No doubt she was puzzling over the event this very minute.

The boat scraped to a halt on a muddy embankment. He stepped out, alerted by movement in the darkness. His cape swept his ankles as he pivoted sharply at the familiar musical sound—similar to a trumpet yet softer and lower pitched.

He cast one of his gloves into the boat’s hull and flourished his bared hand, beckoning the life-force of a thousand larval fireflies along the cave’s roof. In reaction, spindly strings coated with orbs lit up and illuminated the surroundings with a tender greenish haze—like strands of glowing pearls strung high overhead. This particular genus wasn’t indigenous to this place but had been brought from a foreign land and kept alive over a century through an exchange of energy.

Reflections of rippling water flashed across the smooth stone walls and the curved pilasters supporting the opera house above him. A red swan waddled from the shadows, trumpeting another greeting. She lifted her long, slender neck and clacked her bill, wings spreading as she fluffed herself out, magnificent and fiery-rich—the same depth of the blossoms he’d murdered earlier.

“And hello to you, sweet Ange.” He knelt and stroked her silken feathers, fingers leaving trails in the crimson plumes. “Holding vigil for our new arrival, are you?”

She nudged a strand of hair from his temple with her beak. He smiled at her affectionate fussing.

“You shouldn’t be this close to the surface,” he scolded. “Diable’s on the prowl. We wouldn’t want the devil to catch our little angel.”

The swan nibbled his thumb, as his warning echoed in the cave. His voice magnified—bass and rumbling—an alien sound, as if pebbles filled his vocal cords and ground together with each word. The gruffness made him wince.

“Go on now,” he whispered this time and stroked her shimmery neck before standing. “Make yourself scarce.”

The red swan watched him with milky blue eyes too perceptive for any ordinary bird, especially one that was going blind. She waddled to the water and skimmed across the surface—afloat and waiting.

He studied her inquisitive pose. “I can’t come yet,” he answered softly. “You know your way through all the booby traps. Go on home. I’ll follow soon enough.”

Her head bent on an elegant curl, a nod actually, as if she were royalty and he a peasant who needed her permission to stay. She sailed toward the depths of the tunnel—growing smaller in the distance. He watched until she resembled a velvety rose petal drifting atop a midnight puddle. Plucking his glove from the boat, he slid his fingers back into their sheath of black.

He studied the strands of bioluminescent larvae he’d awakened overhead, lost in thoughts of the girl. He’d never expected her to be the one. To step out of the visions he’d had since his childhood into this place and this time. It was all wrong.

Maybe he was mistaken.