What would you sacrifice for everything you ever dreamed of?
Imogen has grown up reading fairy tales about mothers who die and make way for cruel stepmothers. As a child, she used to lie in bed wishing that her life would become one of these tragic fairy tales because she couldn’t imagine how a stepmother could be worse than her mother now. As adults, Imogen and her sister Marin are accepted to an elite post-grad arts program—Imogen as a writer and Marin as a dancer. Soon enough, though, they realize that there’s more to the school than meets the eye. Imogen might be living in the fairy tale she’s dreamed about as a child, but it’s one that will pit her against Marin if she decides to escape her past to find her heart’s desire.
Kat Howard’s debut novel Roses and Rot is available May 17th from Saga Press.
Marin sat on my bed, next to my half-packed suitcase. “I wish you weren’t leaving, Imogen.”
I couldn’t say the same, not and answer honestly. “I’d be leaving for college in two years anyway.”
“Yes, but that’s two years from now.” She picked through my T-shirts, separated one with a rose embroidered in tattered ribbon on its front from the pile. “This is mine, by the way.”
“Sorry, forgot,” I said. I took her hand, rubbed my thumb over her fading scars. Mine hadn’t healed as well, which had been the point. “You know I can’t stay here, Marin.”
“I know,” she said, looking down at our joined hands. “I can’t believe she’s letting you go.”
“Blackstone’s fancy. It gives her bragging rights.” I had planned my escape carefully. I knew I had to feed my mother’s ego enough to outweigh the pleasure that thwarting me would give her. It had been an agonizing two weeks after I’d been accepted, before she decided to let me enroll. She didn’t say yes until she’d found a press release about some ambassador’s son attending attached to an invitation to a parents’ social.
I had made sure she found it.
“True. And she can delicately cry about how much she misses you, but she doesn’t want to get in the way of your dreams, mothers sacrifice so much for their children.” Marin gave a sniff, and pretended to wipe tears from her eyes.
“That was almost scary, how much you just sounded like her.”
“Thank you.” She bowed. “I’ve been working on character interpretation. It helps my dance.” She paused. “You’ll come home for Christmas?”
I squeezed her hand, let it go. It was the previous Christmas when we’d gotten our sets of scars. It wasn’t exactly my favorite holiday.
“For you? Of course. And there is email there. Cell phones, even. I’m going to boarding school, not Mars.” Christmas break would only be a couple of weeks. For Marin, I could endure it.
“Marin, if you’re not down here in three minutes, you’re walking to class.” Our mother, her voice creeping up from downstairs.
Marin rolled her eyes and picked up the bag full of pointe shoes and tights and all the other assorted dance paraphernalia she had dropped inside my door. “She’d make me, too. Driving along behind me all the way.”
“Marin, now. If you don’t take your training seriously, you’ll never be the best. There are hundreds of girls out there, thousands, with talent. I’m trying to give you an advantage, but you need to take it seriously.” Our mother, again, more impatient this time.
“Is this the week you start the new classes?” I asked.
“Extra training for an extra advantage.” That same sarcastic mocking of our mother’s voice.
“You’re already better than anyone at your studio.”
“I’m good for here.” She shrugged. “I need to be better if I want to dance for real. Extra classes will help.”
She stopped in the doorway, looked back. “I just don’t understand why I can’t come, too. To Blackstone. If you had told me about it, I could have applied. Didn’t you want me to be there with you?”
“I’ve been saving money to pay tuition for the last year and half, Marin. And I still couldn’t have gone until next year if I hadn’t gotten a scholarship. There was no way I could afford to pay for both of us.” I’d hidden the account from our mother, then paid all the tuition up front so I wouldn’t have to worry about it accidentally disappearing.
She shrugged her bag onto her shoulder. “Fine. Whatever. See you at Christmas.”
* * *
When I unpacked my suitcase in my new dorm room, Marin’s rose T-shirt was inside. I traced my hand over the ribbon, telling myself that she would be fine, that I had done what I’d had to do.
I didn’t go home for Christmas, or any other holiday. I didn’t even speak to my sister again for four years. We didn’t live under the same roof for almost seven years after that.
A decade after I’d stopped living with my sister, I was packing to do so again. This time, I wasn’t just packing a suitcase, but my entire apartment, and Marin wasn’t sitting on my bed, she was on speakerphone.
“I get in four hours after you do,” she said. “So I’ll just meet you at the house at Melete. Unless you want to wait?”
“At the airport? For four hours?” I asked, taping shut the box of dishes. Most of my things were going into storage. I wouldn’t need them at Melete. All incidentals—including dishes, sheets, towels, and the like—were provided as part of our residence at the artists’ colony.
“You’re right. That would be silly. I’ll meet you there.”
“Are you okay?” I asked. “You sound nervous.”
“It’s not nerves. It’s the echoes from your speakerphone. Love you!”
Marin did sound weird, though, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t from being on speakerphone in my almost-empty apartment. It was a weirdness I thought I understood—I was nervous too, about living in the same house, and the memories that might bring back. I loved my sister, and I missed her, but it was hard to put the past behind you when the past was living down the hall.
I taped up the last box, smoothed my hands over it to check the seal. Living together would be fine. We would both be fine.
* * *
The shuttle I had gotten into at the tiny Manchester airport sped down the pock-marked highway. We crossed a river, gleaming like silver ribbon wound through the green of the hills. I felt like I was being driven through a Robert Frost poem, and I shook my head as we passed the freeway sign marking the exit for his house. Because of course the Frost house would be Melete’s neighbor. One more perfect thing about it.
“This place—it’s too amazing to be real, Marin.” I had called her after she sent me the link to Melete’s website. An artists’ colony. Full funding for nine months, including housing and meals. A personal mentor to work with—an artist who was working at the top of her or his field who would also live at Melete in order to guide your work for that time.
“I’m applying. You should, too, Imogen. It would be so great if we were there together.”
“It would take a miracle to get in. I bet they get thousands of applications.”
“Probably. But it might as well be us,” she’d said.
“You have a point.”
So I had put together a portfolio, written my artist’s statement—an activity that always made me feel like I was writing some strange manifesto that had nothing to do with why I actually wrote—and sent in my application. I’d been astounded when I’d gotten the email telling me I’d made it through the first round.
“I knew you would!” Marin had said. She had, too. “I’ve got such a good feeling about this.”
Her good feeling turned out to be right. We were both among the forty fellows awarded residencies at Melete.
Before she lent her name to an artists’ colony, Melete had been one of the three original Greek Muses—the sisters Aoide (song), Mneme (memory), and Melete (practice). The colony’s founders wanted it to be a place for up-and-coming artists to be able to practice their art without interference from the outside world.
It had been around for just over seventy-five years, long enough to generate a distinguished list of alumni, a terrific reputation as a cauldron in which artists could refine their talent, and even a few scandals, one so dramatic as to almost close Melete’s doors. That last bit wasn’t listed in the application materials.
Everything had been too good. I didn’t trust the polished website, the shiny testimonials. No place could be so perfect. So I had looked, and looked hard for the tarnish on the shine.
There was curiously little written about the scandal anywhere, but even with the dearth of mentions, the tiny blip stuck out because it was the only discordant note in the near-identical chorus of glowing praise.
Something—and the details were obscured, spoken on the slant—happened about fifty years ago. A fellow involved with one of the mentors, an extramarital pregnancy, a disappearance that might have been a suicide. Allegedly. Everything was qualified by that word,“allegedly,”and—very carefully—everything was phrased to suggest that it could have happened anywhere, that nothing that Melete did or didn’t do could have changed things. At least officially. But there were changes in the program after that, mentors no longer in the same housing with fellows, and allowed to bring their families to live on the grounds, so at least some of the rumors must have been true.
But everything that had been said publicly since then was near-Stepfordian in its similarity. Everyone who had attended had the experience of their lives, and even the most successful alums continued to mention Melete in acceptance speeches for ever-flashier awards. The excess of glory made me nervous. Nervous enough that I had left the application—completed but unsigned—sitting on my desk.
“The deadline is tomorrow, Imogen.”
“I know, Marin, I know. I just… there’s something weird about it.”
“You are seriously the only person I know who decides not to trust someplace because it’s too perfect.”
“I want to sleep on it.”
“Fine. Maybe you’ll get some sort of sign in a dream. Will that be good enough for you?”
I laughed and hung up.
I didn’t dream of Melete, or of winning a literary prize, or anything else that might be taken as an omen about going. I did, however, sit bolt upright at around three in the morning, realizing that I was about to lose the chance to possibly study with my favorite living writer because of a bad feeling. I picked up my pen, rolled it through my fingers, stretching the stiffness from my scars, signed it in the red-black ink I used for luck, dated the application, and sent it off.
Even though she applied before I did, the fellowships were all announced on the same day. Celebrating our acceptances with Marin on the phone was one of the happiest moments in my life—I was so proud of us.
Melete’s campus was tucked away in New Hampshire, about an hour out of Boston. Close enough to New York that artists could come up and give guest seminars and performances, or that the fellows could go down to the city and see shows, but still isolated enough that we could be alone with our art. Our practice. It was possible to feel utterly apart from the world while you were there, if that was what you wanted.
As we drove through slanted sunlight and green-leafed trees that scraped the sky, the outside world fell farther and farther away. Here were graveyards old enough to have footstones as well as headstones marking their bounds, inside of stone walls that had stood for hundreds of winters. I cracked open the window and let the late August breeze tug and tangle my hair.
“Here you are,” the driver said. “Enjoy your time at Melete.”
I gathered my bags, then looked at the house where I would be living for the next nine months, and burst out laughing. In front of me was a beautiful and slightly mad-looking Queen Anne, painted in autumnal shades of red and cream and gold. It had gabled windows and spindle work, and a porch that wrapped around the front and left side. Best of all, it had a tower. Had I been asked to design my ideal writer’s house, this was what I would have come up with.
I barely registered the house’s other details as I rushed up the steps to the front door, and then continued up the spiraling staircase to the tower. The room at the top was indeed a bedroom, and unoccupied, the key still in the door. I turned the key in the lock and walked into the center of the room. Stood, eyes closed, breathing in.
For that breath of time, my doubts and worries fell away, and I was utterly happy. It seemed just possible that all of the praise for Melete was nothing more than true, that I was in an extraordinary place that was exactly as perfect as it seemed. Best of all, it was my writing that had brought me here. For a moment, everything felt golden.
I slid the zipper of my suitcase open and started unpacking. Then stopped. Unpacking could wait. I went to the window and looked out.
Ivy twined around the window frame, a dull green that I hoped would turn scarlet in the fall. Through the glass, I could see some of the other buildings, houses and studios, of the place that would be home for the next nine months.
A strange word to think about. The house I grew up in was never home, and I had left it as soon as I could. After that, I had moved through a series of temporary places. Dorm rooms, cheap apartments, two months on a friend’s couch when things were tight. Most of them had been no more than addresses. None of those places felt like mine. Maybe, at least for a little while, Melete could.
“Didn’t it occur to you that maybe it would be better to wait until we were all here before you claimed a room?”
The woman in the doorway was whippet-thin and had a messily chopped shock of fuchsia hair. She looked angry at everything, and specifically at me.
“Considering we could move in any time from two days ago until tomorrow, not really,” I said.
She stood in the doorway, as if perhaps the weight of her presence might make me change my mind. I started putting my lingerie away, hoping that unpacking something that personal would send the signal that I had no intention of trading. “I’m Imogen, by the way. I’m a writer.” I smiled.
“Helena. I’m a poet. I have two collections out already. Both with independent presses. This is supposed to be my room.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t see how that’s possible. There was nothing in here when I arrived, and the key was in the lock.” The welcome packet I had received had specified that while residences were assigned, individual rooms were not. They were available on a first-come, first-served basis during the move-in period, and keys would be left in the doors until the rooms were claimed.
“Whatever,” she said. “It was supposed to be mine.”
“If someone promised you that, they were lying. Or at the very least, mistaken. Check your welcome packet.”
Silence. She was gone. I shook my head and continued unpacking.
The tower was the highest part of the house, its own small third floor. Mostly unpacked, I walked back through the rest. The second floor was made up of the other three bedrooms, all generously sized. Each bedroom had its own full-size bathroom. Whoever had designed the house had clearly been thinking of harmony between the people living there as much as aesthetics—there would be no need to fight for showers in the morning. One door, at the far end of the hall, away from the stairs, was closed. I assumed it was Helena’s, and didn’t knock, glad, at that moment, for closed doors and distance.
The front door opened.
“Hello? Anyone here?” a voice called—a voice I knew.
My heart flung itself into the back of my throat as I clattered down the stairs to see my sister. Marin smiled, arms open, and I stepped into them.
As we hugged our hellos, I marveled, as I always did, at the strength of her. Dancer’s muscles, and skin and bones made fearless by a life dedicated to throwing itself against the constraints of gravity.
She squeezed me one more time. “I’m so happy you’re here, Imogen. So happy. Keep me company while I unpack?”
“Sure.” I grabbed one of her bags and followed my sister up the stairs.
* * *
“This one,” Marin said, after walking back and forth between the two unoccupied rooms, gazing from the windows. “I like the view of the river.”
I stood next to her, looking out as the sun sparked mirror flashes off the water. “I can’t believe how different it looks from here—I look out at the opposite side of the house, and you can’t even see the river. It’s like living in two different places.”
“Well,” she said, opening up her suitcase, “for the first time in far too long we’re not, and I’m glad.”
Watching Marin unpack was like watching a very precise whirlwind. She seemed like chaos, but everything wound up folded and hung, neat and exactly where she wanted it.
“Have you looked around the campus yet?” she asked.
“My plane was delayed getting in, so I didn’t get here that much before you did. Long enough to mostly unpack, and to steal an unoccupied room from one of our housemates.”
Marin rolled her eyes over the story. “Maybe she didn’t understand the whole ‘open move-in period.’ Or she has unbelievably bad people skills.” She zipped her suitcase closed and tucked it in the back of her closet. Just like that, her room looked as if she had always lived here.
“Maybe. Maybe it was just a bad day. I hope she gets over it. I don’t relish the idea of living for nine months with someone who hates me from the start. Speaking of bad people skills, have you heard anything from our mother?”
Marin’s mouth twisted. “The usual passive-aggressive bullshit. The idea of Melete seemed very nice, but was I sure I was doing the right thing by attending, and yes, I would have a great teacher, but if no one else saw me dance for a year, would they remember me, blah blah blah. I told her we weren’t allowed to communicate in any way with the outside world while we were here.”
I gaped. “You didn’t.”
“I did.” A dimple winked in and out as she grinned. “Doesn’t mean she won’t fill our inboxes with nasty email, but it does get us out of dealing with her.”
“You are a genius. An evil genius, and I love you.” What she had said wasn’t quite true. No one who wasn’t a resident was allowed on the campus, but we were certainly allowed to communicate—to email or FaceTime or call. Not that I wanted to, when it came to our mother, so I was delighted that Marin had put up that extra barrier.
“It was the best way I could think of to keep our sanity. Mom’s always going to be Mom, which means she’s never going to be happy, and will do her best to make sure we aren’t, either. Literally the only thing she asked when I told her about being awarded the residency was when I’d be performing, so she could come ‘visit.’ Which I knew was code for ‘stage some sort of scene.’ Remember opening night of Swan Lake?”
“How could I forget? That was maybe her worst.” Our mother had always made a point of attending Marin’s performances, and an even greater point of making sure everyone knew she was there. That night, she had fainted—from excitement, she said later—in the middle of Marin dancing the Black Swan variation. She had done so noisily enough to bring the entire production to a halt, and she got more words in the next day’s review than Marin did.
“Right? Or at least her most dramatic. So yes, it was an utter delight telling her that no one who wasn’t a mentor or resident was allowed on the grounds.” Marin stretched, rolling her shoulders and shaking the last vestiges of travel away. “Want to take a walk, get to know the place?”
“That’d be good.”
We wandered through the other residences, marveling at the ridiculous and amazing all around us. It was the opposite of cinder block and sameness—nothing on campus looked like a normal house. “That place looks like Cinderella’s castle,” Marin said.
It did, formed in miniature, down to the front door fashioned like a drawbridge. It was even painted the same shade of semisparkling blue that her ball gown had been in the Disney movie.
“The one next to it is like something out of a Russian novel, all onion domes and red,” I said. “Who designed this place?” Gravel crunched beneath our feet, and the air smelled honey-green, like warm grass.
“The people who came here as architects. Or maybe the sculptors. I forget exactly.But it’s a thank-you tradition.They do bridges over the river, too. Kind of amazing, right?” She grinned, her whole face lighting up.
It was impossible not to smile back. “So far, everything about this place is.”
We returned to our house as the sun was setting, dappling everything in golden light. We heard the voice before we saw her, pure and clear, singing, “O mio babbino caro.”
The woman singing was standing in front of our house, eyes closed. She looked like a darker-skinned Louise Brooks in leather leggings and a slouchy T-shirt—effortlessly cool.
Everything narrowed to a point—the small magic of her voice, the setting, that song. Hearing her was an ache in my heart.
“Brava, brava!” Marin called out.
“Thanks. Seemed like the time and place for it. I mean, how do you stand in the middle of this and not sing?” She spread her arms open wide, taking in everything. “I’m Ariel, by the way. You two live here, too?”
“We do.” Marin smiled. “A fact that is still sinking in. I’m Marin, and this is my sister, Imogen.”
“You have a great voice,” I said. “Are you an opera singer?”
“Singer singer. My voice doesn’t really do the opera thing, but I love that aria. It just gets me, right here.” She thumped her fist over her heart. “I still kind of can’t believe this place is real. I mean, look at this house. Are they all like this?”
“The house next door has a moat,” I said.
“Seriously, a moat?” Ariel asked.
“I know. I’m trying to convince Imogen that we should stage an invasion. Or go skinny-dipping in it. I haven’t decided,” Marin said.
“Invasion,” Ariel said. “You just know people skinny-dip in the moat all the time, and we’re not here to be conventional.”
“I like how you think,” Marin said, and bumped her shoulder against Ariel’s. She had always been so much easier with new people than I was.
“What are you planning on working on while you’re here?” I asked. One of the quirks of Melete was that we weren’t required to work on anything. No one had to give recitals or have portfolios reviewed before they left. It was, in fact, completely possible to be accepted, then come to Melete for nine months to just hang out—or, in the language of the official paperwork, to take the time in residence to think deeply about the nature of your art. But there was an unwritten tradition of working on a large, ambitious project, and many of those projects had proven to be breakout ones, an ever-growing list of the origins of the next big things.
“I’m writing a rock opera about Joan of Arc. When it’s staged, I’ll be Joan.”
I turned the idea over in my brain. “That really works. She is one of the few people I can think of where the idea of a rock opera sounds fitting, not weird.”
“Working on it seems just scary enough,” Ariel said. “Which is the way I like to pick what I’m going to do next. You know, how much does this idea make my stomach hurt? Oh, all the way to nausea? Why yes, that’s exactly what I’ll do.”
“Just being here for me is a kind of terror,” Marin said.
I blinked in shock. This was the first time I’d heard Marin say anything about Melete that wasn’t a rave. She had never hesitated when we discussed applying, never given any hint that this wasn’t the thing she wanted more than anything else.
“Seriously?” Ariel said.
“Leaving my company for a year,it’s insane. Just not done.There’s no guarantee I’ll have a place to go back to.” Her foot described a half-circle on the ground as she spoke, a piece of a dance step, Marin’s version of fidgeting.
“Why come then?” Ariel asked. I was glad she did, so I didn’t have to. It was fine for someone we’d just met not to know this huge, important thing. Not so much for a sister.
“To study with Gavin Delacourt. Hopefully, working with him will be enough of a career boost that I won’t need to go back to my old company. To make myself be extraordinary.” She shrugged. “Same reason as anyone—to be so good that nothing else matters.”
“That’s the truth,” Ariel said. “How about you, Imogen?”
I hedged, not stepping close to the specifics. Talking about my work made me feel like the weight of my words might break the thing in my head. “Something big, and, like you said, something that scares me enough that I know I’m supposed to be writing it. I feel like this is the best time to try something huge and ambitious, the kind of thing I wouldn’t even consider somewhere else.”
Ariel nodded. “I couldn’t even think about a project this big without a place like this to work on it. In my real life, there would have been no way to buy myself the time to take it seriously.”
“Exactly.” I smiled.
Still, I watched Marin, who hadn’t bought herself time by coming here, but maybe had given part of it up. I wondered what had happened, to make a risk this big seem safe, or whether safety had stopped mattering to her.
“Happy as I’d be to talk art with you ladies all night, I haven’t even started to unpack,” Ariel said, “and I really should.”
“I still need to finish, too,” I said. “Which is sad, since I’ve been here longer than you both.”
“We should have that all-night art talk soon, though,” Marin said. “That’s part of why we’re here, right?”
Plans made, we went back to our new rooms. I glanced down the hallway as I walked up. Helena’s door was still closed tight, a bar against the rest of the house.
Once I got upstairs, I opened the windows to let the night in. The dark blanket of the night was my favorite time to write. It was easier to think about impossible things then, when there was no one else around to see or judge. It was the time of day most conducive to naked honesty, the time that made me feel like it was safe to tell secrets, to reveal desires.
At my desk, alone in the falling evening, I opened my notebook. Even though I hadn’t said so, I knew exactly the thing I had come to Melete to write—a novel told in stories, told in interweaving fairy tales, about the girls who get lost in the woods, and how it is that they come to be lost there, and whether or not they can save themselves. About the stories that lead them into the dark places of the forest, of their lives, and then become the maps by which they find their way out. I had known for a while that this was something I wanted to do, a story I needed to tell.
I picked up my pen, then set it back down. Put my hands on the desk to steady myself, and breathed deep, pulling the late-summer air into my lungs.
The truth, the night-dark truth of it, was that I was afraid of what it meant to write this book, of how close to the bone I would have to cut myself to do it. I was afraid if I thought about it too deeply, talked about it too much, I would talk myself out of writing it. I had done that before.
It was so much easier to hide, to stay safe and write the kind of thing I knew I was good at, the kind of thing I had sent in as a sample of my creative work when I applied. Quiet stories about girls with tragic pasts who faded away and became less. Lots of metaphor, lots of melancholy. I could write them beautifully, make you cry, before you realized you didn’t know anything about the character you were crying for.
Easier to write, but less real.
Not now. Not anymore. I was here to see what I could do if I pushed everything else aside except the story. To see if I could, like Marin said, make myself extraordinary.
I stretched my hand, rubbed the ache out of the scar tissue, and picked up my pen.
* * *
You always tell yourself that there’s someone who has it worse, and if you lived through the abuse, there almost certainly was. There’s a horrible sort of comfort in reassuring yourself in that fashion—maybe you were hungry some nights, but you had food. Maybe you got slapped, but at least you didn’t get beaten. Maybe you got beaten, but at least you never had broken bones. You think of the worst thing that happened to you, and then you think of something even worse than that. If you survived, you always can, and so by pained, contorted logic, what happened to you wasn’t really that bad.
Maybe your mother tried to break you, to tell you that you were nothing, that you’d never matter, that you were a waste of her time, but she never succeeded. Maybe you still have scars, but those marks on your skin mean you’ve lived long enough to heal.
Maybe you lived, once, a life full of secrets. Ones you could never tell, not because you didn’t know the words, but because you had learned, time and time again, that the words didn’t matter. People would rather believe a pretty lie than an ugly truth, and you were always the one who wasn’t believed. So you learned the power in silence, and in secrets. Maybe you still look over your shoulder, but at least you got away.
And after all, if you’d had a childhood that was different, one that didn’t always feel like walking on knives, maybe you would never have found your voice. If you hadn’t been forced to swallow your words, you would have never learned the power in speaking them.
This is what you tell yourself. This is how you keep breathing. This is what happily ever after means.
* * *
I woke soon after going to sleep, as the fingers of dawn were beginning to pluck at the edges of the sky, to find my room full of butterflies. An entire kaleidoscope of them, orange and red and black and electric, Nabokov blue. Their wings were opening and closing slowly, and it seemed as if my walls moved in time with the beat of some unknown heart.
I lay in bed, not moving, barely even breathing, just watching. Minutes passed, or maybe hours. It felt like I was in a cathedral, some holy place outside of time.
The next time I woke up, the butterflies were gone, no sign that any of them had ever been there. I had nearly convinced myself that it was a particularly vivid dream when I saw, on the open page of my notebook, a smear of iridescent dust.
I don’t like the idea of signs and portents. People like to say fate is inescapable, but I believe there’s always an escape. We make our own luck, and we do that by bending our will and energy toward what we want. I think that if you look for an omen, you’ll find one, and it will tell you exactly what you desire it to, for good or ill. It would have been easy, had I wanted, to think of that tiny, shimmering smudge as some sort of sign, but I didn’t need it to be. I didn’t need signs. I had myself.
Excerpted from Roses and Rot © Kat Howard, 2016