About the Author
Kate Jarvik Birch is a visual artist, author, playwright, daydreamer, and professional procrastinator. As a child, she wanted to grow up to be either a unicorn or mermaid. Luckily, being a writer turned out to be just as magical. Her essays and short stories have been published in literary journals including Indiana Review and Saint Ann’s Review. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband and three kids.
The party had already begun by the time I slipped out my double doors and onto the patio. Rosa had brought my dinner to my room instead of feeding me in the dining room because the congressman’s wife had been worried it would seem peculiar to the guests if I were seen eating one of my meals. But even though I’d just eaten, the smells that drifted over from the long tables by the pool house made my mouth water. What would I give to be able to try just a nibble of all those fancy foods? I’d seen them all pass through the house on their way to the tables: dishes of dainty finger foods arranged like tiny pieces of art on the overflowing trays.
The patio was sparkling with the white lights strung from the pool house and along the top of the new tent. In the pool, glowing orbs floated on top of the water. The night was warm, but not hot, and the music drifting out of the tent at the bottom of the hill floated over to me on a light breeze. I stopped to soak it all in. It was hard to imagine there had ever been a more beautiful evening in the history of the world, and here I was, able to enjoy it all.
Across the patio I took in the groups of people buzzing around the tables and talking in clumps by the edge of the pool. They all seemed so grand, so important, smiling to one another over fluted glasses full of sparkling drinks.
The congressman and his wife stood amidst the clump of guests. They looked striking. His wife was remarkable in her everyday wear, but tonight she seemed like an entirely different person. The soft light illuminated her honey-colored gown, reflecting in the tiny gold beads scattered across the bodice, which slowly disappeared as they neared the ground. It was sleek and elegant, accentuating her broad shoulders and long, slender body. Next to her, the congressman stood with his hand around her waist, staring at her unwaveringly while she spoke. It was so different from the way he looked at me.
I hovered at the edge of the party near the pool house and watched as the guests orbited one another.
“They really went all out, didn’t they?” Penn walked up next to me wearing a crisp black tuxedo.
I stared. He looked handsome in this change of clothes, polished and refined. His father would be happy to see his son blending in so well with his colleagues. But this new version of him made me nervous. It wasn’t until I looked up at his tousled hair and warm eyes that I relaxed, grateful that his new clothes couldn’t hide the real him.
In each of his hands he carried a long fluted glass. “I guess they don’t really get the concept of excess,” he said, handing one of the glasses to me.
I cradled the glass in my hand and took a tiny sip. The drink was utterly foreign. A million bubbles fizzed in my mouth. “It’s magical,” I said, looking out at the sparkling lights.
Penn smiled and stared at me before he turned to look out at the crowds of elegant people. Finally he looked back down into his own drink, where the bubbles climbed up the side of the glass like tiny strands of lights. “Sorry for being so cynical. Sometimes my parents bring out the worst in me.”
We stood silent for a minute, listening to the sounds of the other guests. Their voices were a soft hum, punctuated every now and again by the sound of laughter and clinking glasses.
After a minute Penn turned back to me. “You look different tonight. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you at first…when I came over. You’re really…beautiful. I guess I’m so used to seeing your hair down, but it’s really nice up like that.”
“Thank you,” I said, reaching up to touch the thick braid that wrapped around the top of my head. It was the same way I’d worn my hair for years in the training center, but it did feel different tonight.
“Do you want to go see the dance floor?”
“I promised your mother that I would stay toward the edge of things. She asked me not to draw too much attention to myself.”
Penn shook his head, as if he should have expected this from his mother. “It’s impossible for you not to draw attention.”
He grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the grass. In front of us, the tent was alive with light and noise. A wide wooden dance floor had been laid over the grass at the other end of the tent, and past it, the band stood on top of a small stage pouring music out into the night.
“I really wanted to dance with you,” Penn said, frowning as he looked out over the crowded floor where his father stood talking with a large group of men.
The ceiling inside was covered with large lanterns, which reflected off of the glossy wood, and as much as I wanted to stand beneath them, I didn’t want to disobey the congressman’s wife.
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Penn. I can’t.”
Watching the sweet way his face fell in disappointment made me laugh.
“Oh, you think hurting my feelings is funny?” he asked.
“No.” I smiled, covering my face with my hands.
Penn turned his head away from me, but his smile was impossible to disguise. “Good thing I don’t give up easily,” he said. He pulled me around the corner of the tent and down the dark hill into the shadows. “We’ll just have to dance out here.”
With a quick flick of the wrist, he grabbed me again by the hand and drew me into his chest. My breath caught in my throat. After all the Dance lessons we’d been given at the training center, this was my first time dancing with a man.
A wild tingling spread through my chest, as if all those tiny bubbles in my drink had begun exploding inside me the moment he began to move me across the grass in a slow waltz. He wasn’t a great dancer, but his arms were firm, his hand warm and strong against my back. I leaned my head on his chest, letting myself breathe in the clean smell of his starched shirt and the lingering fragrance of the bubbly drink on his breath.
“I…I’m sorry if I’ve been an ass. It’s just… I can’t figure out what to think of you. I didn’t want to like you,” he said, pulling me ever so slightly closer to him. “When my dad said he was getting another pet from Greenwich… God, I was so pissed. Not just because of what happened before, but because I don’t want us to be one of those showpiece families my dad wants us to be. And I guess I thought you’d be another plastic girl, one more plaything for my midlife-crisis dad, or something, and it made me sick. But then I met you…” He paused, looking down at me. “You aren’t anything like that other one. I mean, when I heard you playing the piano the other day… You can’t teach a pet to play that way, you know? With so much heart. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a person play like that.”
I wasn’t sure if the heat in my face was the exhilaration of dancing, or modesty from hearing someone compliment my piano playing. But was it really a compliment to tell me that I didn’t play the piano like a pet from Greenwich? Because that’s what I was. And even if he hadn’t liked the other girl, I couldn’t imagine how we could be that different.
“Thank you,” I said, trying to keep some decorum in my voice the way Miss Gellner had taught us to do when someone gave us a compliment, even though I still wasn’t sure if it was a compliment, an apology, or a confession.
The only thing I did know was how good it felt to be held by his strong arms as we moved in small circles across the grass.
“It’s a perfect night,” I finally said.
“Yeah.” He grinned. “What did I tell you? My parents don’t really hold anything back.”
“I didn’t mean the party,” I said, only realizing the words were too bold once they’d already left my mouth. But it was too late to take them back.
I looked back up at the gleaming tent. The congressman and two other men emerged, each holding a drink in their hands. He squinted up toward the house and then out across the lawn, obviously scanning the party for someone. My stomach flipped, knowing that someone was me.
Penn followed my gaze and the smile on his face disappeared. He grabbed me by the waist and pulled me farther down the hill where a stand of lilac bushes bordered the grass. My heels sank into the dirt, and branches smacked my arms as he dragged me in behind him. Cool green leaves enveloped us.
“Shh,” Penn whispered, pulling me closer to his side.
I held completely still. My heart hammered in my throat, drowning out the sound of the music drifting down to us.
“He didn’t see us, did he?” I whispered after a minute had passed.
Penn pushed aside a few branches and glanced back up to the tent. “I don’t think so,” he said. He stood up and smiled.
He shook his head, laughing. “It’s just funny,” he said. “Hiding like this from my dad. I feel like I’m a little kid or something.”
His laughter was contagious, and I covered my face with my hands.
Penn cocked his head and studied me. “You know, if you’re really trying to escape the party tonight, I have a much better place for us to hide.” He reached his hand out for mine. “If you haven’t seen a secret garden at night, you’ve never truly lived.”
I took a deep breath and grabbed his hand, stepping out of our hiding place.
“If you’ll kindly follow me, madam,” he said, plucking a stray twig from my hair before I wrapped my hand around his arm.
We wound our way along the back of the yard until we came to a small gravel path that wove its way through the orchard. Overhead, the moon shone on the pale stones making the path seem lit, even in the darkness.
We walked in silence for a minute, heading into the fruit grove. I’d never been there, even during the day, but in the moonlight, the garden looked completely foreign, all the colors compacted and condensed into cool silvers and blues.
Up the hill, the party was still in full swing. My feet crunched softly on the empty path and I took a deep breath, grateful to be away from it all.
“It’s right past the orchard,” Penn said as we traced our way between the trunks of gnarled old trees. They reached out to us with branches like withered, old arms, reminding me of the witches from Ruby’s stories, and I held a little tighter to his arm.
Finally we came to a tall hedge running along the back of the orchard. An archway was cut into the center of it with a rusted wrought iron door that stood slightly ajar.
“I used to come here all the time when I was a little kid,” Penn said, gently swinging the door inward. “Nobody else comes here because it’s so overgrown. And I guess the gardeners don’t want to bother with it if no one’s going to see it.”
We stepped inside the courtyard. On all sides the eight-foot-tall hedges acted as walls, enclosing it perfectly from the rest of the yard. If it hadn’t been for the bright moon shining down on us, it would have been completely dark inside. We walked farther in, along the same pale, gravel path that now curved through the courtyard, and the party all but disappeared. Through the wrought iron gate I could only catch a glimpse of the white tent flaming up the hill, and the sounds of the party disappeared, replaced instead by the sound of crickets and the wind blowing through the leaves.
“I guess it’s kind of a mess,” Penn said. “Sometimes I wonder who built it. My mom and dad had the rest of the grounds redone when we moved in, but this stuff has to be really old.” He ran his foot along the patio in the center of the garden. “You can tell from how worn the stones are.”
Penn kept talking, and I turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. Thick weeds sprouted up through the cracks in the pavers and drowned out the flowerbeds that must have lined the edges of the garden long ago. In the moonlight, a spattering of scraggly weeds with tiny blue flowers surrounded a gigantic overgrown rose bush, which spilled petals across an old stone bench. And next to the bench, water bugs scooted across a long, rectangular pond. The whole garden was a messy tangle of vines and leaves, but there was beauty in the chaos, a wild abandon.
“This is my favorite part of the whole garden.” Penn took my hand and led me to the far wall. “You can tell it’s been here for ages. The house was built in the thirties and I’m guessing it’s probably been here since then.”
He pushed aside a clump of vines and uncovered a small cavity in the hedge. Standing inside was a stone statue of a woman. Her face was tilted up to the sky, eyes closed, with an almost invisible smile on her lips.
“She looks like she’s waiting for something beautiful to happen,” I whispered, reaching out to stroke the rough stone.
“I think she looks a little bit like you.”
I swallowed, suddenly more aware of my own heartbeat than I’d ever been before. If I raised my hand to my throat I’d be able to feel it there, fluttering like a thing with wings trying to escape.
“I found her when I was ten. I lost one of my toy cars back in the shrubs and when I went to look for it, she was just standing there waiting for me. I’ve never shown her to anyone else. I’ve thought about telling my sisters, but I don’t know… I kind of like keeping her a secret. I guess I kind of like being the only one who knows about her.” He smiled. “Well now with you, I guess there are two of us.”
“I won’t tell.”
We sat down on a small bench near one of the walls. “So, what do you think?” he asked.
I breathed in deeply, savoring the dank and woody smell of the garden. It was so different than anywhere else on the property. “It’s so beautiful. It’s like the plants are celebrating.”
Penn raised one of his eyebrows. “Celebrating?”
“Never mind.” I shrugged, flustered. “It was a silly thing to say.”
“No, tell me,” he insisted.
I took a deep breath. Maybe here in the dark I could say things that would sound strange anywhere else. “It just seems like they’re happy not to be contained,” I said. “People might try to force them to be something different for a little while, but in the end, their true nature still comes through.”
“Yeah.” Penn smiled. “It’s just like that. Sometimes it’s nice to have a little bit of imperfection, isn’t it?”
Outside Penn’s garden, the music and the lights brought me back into the real world. At the top of the hill we both paused and stared at the gleaming tent.
Neither of us noticed his mother, but all of a sudden there she was, standing next to us.
“I’ve been looking all over for you.”
Penn’s reaction was immediate. His hand flew from the spot where it rested at the base of my spine and he stepped away from me. “Oh, hey Mom. How’s the party going?”
She dismissed his question with a wave of her hand. “Your father has been looking for both of you and I’m not sure I can hold him off much longer. I told him you were introducing Ella to the Dibellas, but there’s not very much longer—” She stopped talking midsentence and tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, composing herself. “Hello, dear,” she said, smiling as the congressman walked up behind us.
He took a long sip from his glass and let his gaze travel over us. “The Dargers and Mortensons are here with their kids. I thought you’d be entertaining them,” he said to Penn. “When I saw them a minute ago, they were actually looking bored.” He stopped talking, his gaze darting between the three of us. “What are you doing out here anyway?”
When none of us responded, he nudged Penn in the direction of the tent. “You certainly don’t need to be out here keeping Ella company.”
Penn glowered, but he let his mother lead him toward a group of people his age who were sipping drinks and laughing near the buffet table.
After they were gone he turned his attention to me. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself,” he said. “I’ve got some friends who are dying to meet you.”
He took me by the elbow, leading me in the direction of the tent, but before we entered, he pulled me close, leaning down to speak in my ear. “Try not to distract Penn anymore tonight, all right? There are plenty of other people here who’d enjoy your company.”
The congressman’s colleagues were all packed together on the far end of the tent, laughing loudly and puffing on thick brown cigars. The air was thick with smoke, but none of them seemed to mind.
“Not to worry. I found her!” he announced, patting a few of the men on the back as we wove through the crowd.
There was an empty seat at a table in the corner and the congressman sank down into it, smiling.
I stood uncomfortably at his side.
“So you weren’t lying,” a tall man with a mustache said. He placed his hand on my shoulder and twisted me around so that he could get a better look. “And this one’s even prettier than the last.”
“What did I tell you?” The congressman grinned and took another sip of his drink. “Come on, Charlie,” he called across the table to a man with blond hair. “You’ve got to admit that you’re curious. This doesn’t make you change your mind about the funding?”
The man gave a consolatory smile. “You always have to be right, don’t you, John? How do you expect a man to argue with a face like that? It’s unfair.”
The congressman threw his head back and laughed, clearly enjoying himself.
“Come here, love,” he said, pulling me down onto his lap. His breath was hot against my neck, pungent with the smell of his drink. I wanted to turn my head away, but I couldn’t. I took shallow breaths and forced a serene smile onto my face. They didn’t need to know the level of concentration it took to look this way, to keep myself looking pleasant instead of puckering with disgust.
It was a skill to silent my body. If I hadn’t been trained by Miss Gellner, I never could have sat perched on the congressman’s knee without squirming. And oh, how I wanted to. I wanted to peel his hand from my waist. I wanted to scoot forward so I couldn’t feel the way his belly pressed against me with each breath that he took.
I’d always been told that a pet was meant to be a showpiece, but this wasn’t what I’d imagined. I always assumed that I’d be admired, displayed even, but not handled like an object, like a toy.
By the time the congressman was done showing me off, the dewy turquoise sky had turned black, dotted with an abundance of stars. And still the band played and the people laughed and ate and drank. I watched Penn from where I sat on the low stonewall that ran behind the party tent. He didn’t seem to have any trouble entertaining the large group of friends clustered around him. I would have loved to know what they were talking about, but even though I could see their lips move and their heads tip back with laughter, I couldn’t make out their words.
After a while I stood and made my way back up to the lounge chairs by the pool. They were familiar and comfortable, the place I spent so much time lately, and I settled down on one. I wrapped my arms tightly around my body. Already, I missed the heat of Penn’s body so close to mine.
“Do you mind if I sit?”
I jumped a little, surprised to see one of the young men Penn had been talking to earlier standing next to the foot of my chair. He smiled broadly, bringing two deep dimples to his cheeks. He was dressed in the same sort of black tuxedo Penn was wearing.
“Please.” I gestured to the chair next to me.
“Thanks.” Ignoring my gesture, he brushed my feet to the side and sat down near my legs. “I’ve been looking at you all night. Have you not noticed?”
I shook my head.
“I’m Collin,” he said, sticking out his hand for me to shake. I took it lightly, surprised when he brought it up to his lips.
“I’m Ella.” I didn’t know how much Penn had told him about me, but I didn’t want to make the congressman’s wife angry by saying too much.
“It was kind of rude of Penn not to bring you over to meet us,” he said, resting his hand on the cushion near my leg.
I was suddenly very aware of how short this dress was compared to the other gowns I was used to wearing and I tugged at the bottom of it, trying to get it to cover my knees.
“But I can see how he’d like to keep you to himself,” Collin went on, scooting a little closer. “So, is it true what they say about pets?”
I fumbled to pick up my drink, which still sat on the small table by my chair, and took a small sip, but with the bubbles gone it didn’t taste good at all. I swallowed. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Sure you do,” Collin said, reaching out to put a hand on my thigh. “I’ve always wondered what they taught you at those kennels. It can’t just be how to sit there and look pretty.”
“I…well…there’s etiquette…” I stumbled.
“Not that I have a problem with you just sitting there looking pretty,” he said. “Has anyone told you how gorgeous you look?”
“That’s very kind of you.” I swung my legs over the side of the chaise lounge to give myself some distance. I needed to get out of here, somewhere where I wouldn’t be such a distraction. I was afraid this was exactly what the congressman’s wife had been talking about. “I’m sorry, but if you’ll excuse me.”
“Wait,” he said, tightening the grip on my leg. “We were just getting to know each other.”
My stomach knotted and I tried to scoot farther away from his grasp. “It really has been a pleasure meeting you, but I think Mrs. Kimball is expecting me.”
Collin laughed softly. “No, she’s not. Come on, we both know she’s trying to hide you. I mean, look at this dress.” He rubbed the fabric between his fingers. “When has a pet ever worn anything like this?”
I shook my head, trying to find my voice. “I don’t…I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s all right,” he said, stretching his hand more fully across my thigh.
I swallowed back the embarrassment that burned the back of my throat. “I…I shouldn’t be talking to you. Mrs. Kimball asked me to keep my distance from the guests.”
“How about we keep our distance from the other guests together?” He nodded his head at the dark house. “I bet it’s nice and private in there.”
My gaze traveled up the shadowed brick to Penn’s room on the second floor. My heart stuttered, imagining how different it would feel if he had been the one to invite me inside. I remembered the way he’d kissed me. Is that what this boy wanted to do? I didn’t want to kiss him.
“That sounds lovely,” I said, pushing down the fear in my voice. “I just need a minute to freshen up. If you want to head inside, I’ll meet you in the conservatory in just a few minutes.”
Collin grinned. “Don’t keep me waiting.” He traced a finger along the collar of my dress. “I’ve been imagining what’s under here all night. I don’t know how much longer I can stand it.”
“I won’t,” I choked out. As soon as he closed the door behind him, I slid out past the pool house and onto the cool lawn. A swarm of tiny bugs hovered in front of me like a cloud and I batted them away.
Never. I would never let him touch me.
My legs wobbled as I broke into a run. A dark undercurrent surged beneath the congressman’s picture-perfect world, threatening to pull me down and it frightened me…almost as much as what waited for me at the kennel if I was to make a mistake.
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