For over a week the envelope sat on the dining room table unnoticed, buried under a stack of bird-seed catalogues and household bills like a bomb waiting to go off.
Life went on around it. Work, grocery shopping, and housework for Lizzie Bea Carpenter. School, babysitting, and friends for her fourteen-year-old daughter Paige.
Tick tick tick.
Normal life. A good life. Well, maybe not great, but fine. Galton New York, centrally isolated the locals liked to say, wasn’t exactly the kind of town where remarkable things happened.
Until Saturday, September eighth, seven-twenty-two in the evening, when Lizzie’s world turned upside down.
“Who do we know in Geneva?” Paige asked, coming into the kitchen, holding up an envelope covered in foreign stamps. It had been Paige’s turn to clean the dining room. She’d swept the crumbs under the threadbare Turkish rug, pushed around the rag-tag assortment of antique chairs until they looked more-or-less orderly, and tossed most of the pile of mail, including an ominous-looking letter from her middle school, into the overflowing recycling bin with a quick, guilty, second glance.
Lizzie turned off the faucet, put down the mac-and-cheese pan she was scrubbing in the sink, saw the handwriting, and said, “Ratbastard.” She backtracked quickly. “I mean, Geneva? Ha! No one. Let me see that.” She grabbed for the letter, but Paige was too quick.
“Who?” Paige tore the letter open while dodging around the counter.
“It’s addressed to both of us.”
Lizzie didn’t know that she knew anyone in all of Europe, much less Geneva, but apparently she did because she had recognized that handwriting at a glance, even after fourteen years. Her traitorous body knew it too, and was responding as if it were still sixteen and stupid. “Paige, no!”
But Paige was already reading the letter. She stopped, frozen, on the other side of the counter. “Oh. I see,” she said, letting the letter fall to the counter. “Ratbastard.” She said it as if it were a first name like Steve or Joe.
Lizzie wiped her hands on the dishrag. “Well. He could have changed,” she said as carefully as she could. “We shouldn’t jump to any conclusions.”
“He wants to come here, Mom.”
Lizzie cleared her throat. “That’s lovely.”
“On Christmas Day.”
“Ratbastard! Sorry. Lovely. Hell.” Nice work. Lizzie needed a few minutes to pull herself together. She needed to sit and to breathe and definitely not to hit anything. Not now, in front of Paige. At least, not anything that would break. Lizzie looked around at her yellow and white 1950’s retro kitchen. It was clean, but failing. Two burners were dead on the stove. The icemaker had quit eleven months ago. The radio worked when you banged it. Hard. Couldn’t do much damage in here, even if she tried.
But Paige looked like she’d already been pummeled. Her face was blank and pale. Her black, chin-length Cleopatra hair made her face seem rounder and her brown eyes even huger than usual. She looked like an eight-year-old and an eighteen-year-old simultaneously, a special effect in a bad after-school movie about girls growing up too fast.
Lizzie picked up the letter carefully and examined it. If the ratbastard had walked into a store and asked for the stationary that screamed I’m rich and arrogant the loudest, then this was what the clerk would have given him. The cream-colored paper was heavy and stamped with a fancy watermark. The handwriting was neat, the tone straightforward. He spelled realize like a Brit, even though he was born and bred in Michigan—I realise this is out of the blue. But I’d like meet my daughter. I’ll be in the states over the holidays, and will stop by then. Twelve o’clock Christmas day? I hope she’ll be willing to see me. There was no return address, no phone number, nothing but a breezy signature—Ethan Pond. Then in parentheses, Dad.
Lizzie excused herself, climbed the stairs, turned on the water in the bathroom sink to muffle the noise, and threw up.
Ethan Pond, Paige’s father, the boy who’d changed Lizzie’s life forever in the back of his Lexus senior year of high school, was coming back.
This was a matter for the Enemy Club.