The Party

EXCERPT: A young bride-to-be harbors a dark secret.

On the morning of the party, rain hit the bedroom windows in blustery waves. It had a sly quality, that rain, tapering to near silence before striking again. I lay awake, listening. Even during the storm’s quiet lulls, I was aware of it breathing, building, returning.

Will stirred beside me. “No,” he groaned. “Not rain.”

He propped himself on his elbows and looked toward the large bay window. A thick curtain of rain blocked the view of the Pacific Ocean.

When Will noticed that I was awake, he kissed my shoulder. “You haven’t been up all night worrying about the party, have you?” he asked. “This storm—”

“No.” I wrapped my arm around him and rested my head on his bare chest. I wasn’t worried about the party, and it wasn’t the rain that had roused me from sleep. I’d dreamed of swallowing a red bird whole and then awakened abruptly, heart racing. I’d had the same dream many times, but it never failed to leave me unnerved. It was so real. I’d felt the flutter of the bird in my throat, the weight of its still-beating body in my chest.

When I was a little girl my father told me that red birds held the spirits of departed loved ones. The past never leaves us, he’d say. It only changes shape. He’d meant to comfort me, but instead the image haunted me. And how could it not? Even now, there were people from my past I would have done anything to see again—and others who the thought of seeing again left me blinking up at a dark ceiling, terrified.

Another letter had arrived that week, its envelope smudged and ragged. I did not need to open it to know that it had come from Horseshoe Cliff. I wondered how he had found my new address so quickly. I hid the letter with the others. Even the handwriting on those letters was menacing, a tangle of fish- hooks glinting at the back of a dark drawer.

I know what you did, Merrow Shawe. All that you have, I can take away.

Will eyed the rain-streaked window. Despite the heavy morning light, despite his pensive expression, his face seemed to contain a glow. Even when he was worried, Will emanated optimism. Of all his fortunes, this seemed to me the most valuable. It certainly made him charming company, beloved by many, his gaze so kind and blue, his temperament so calm and compassionate. He was also intelligent, a walking encyclopedia, a curious student of the world who loved history, art, and literature. What I liked most about Will was how much he enjoyed reading, and how serious his expression turned with a book in his hand.

I often experienced a strange longing when I looked at him, a feeling of coveting something that was already mine.

Now, I hugged him. My skin was dark against his. I swam every day, and my arms were brown and freckled from the sun. I swam even on the days when I knew I shouldn’t, when the surf teemed with rage and the undertow threatened to make every stroke my last. The ocean swept through my mind, swelling it with memories, and then cleared it, dumping me on the sand exhausted and sore. Over the years, my body had been marked countless times by wayward waves that knocked me against rocks and jagged shells. You had to know where to look for my scars, hidden as they were among freckles.

Will had the sort of smooth, creamy skin that showed every bruise. His skin was always cooler than mine, too, a perpetual comfort when I tossed and turned through the night, overheating. It was our differences, I thought, that made us such a good match.

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “The rain will stop.”

Will looked at me. His smile filled his eyes first. “‘The . . .rain . . . will . . . stop,’” he intoned. He could no longer contain his grin. “Cancel the tent! The Oracle has spoken!”

I rolled my eyes but laughed. It was a long-standing riff of his, this idea that I was part soothsayer. Over our years together, I had come to understand that he wasn’t entirely joking; Will really did believe that my “rustic childhood” (his words) had given me a unique connection to the workings of the earth, a mystical ability that seemed to toe the line between hippie and witch. (I suspected there was some self-preservation hidden within his teasing; he also liked to claim that I’d ensnared him with a love spell when I was still a minor and he an otherwise law-abiding adult.)

“The Oracle also sees breakfast in bed in her future,” I said. “Oh, does she?”

I nodded, but when he moved to get out of bed, I held him closer. “Not yet.”

He settled back onto the pillows. “The caterers arrive at three?”

“Four. The band will be here at five. Valets at five thirty. Guests at six.”

He shook his head. “When I suggested that we throw this party, I thought we would plan it together. I never meant for you to do it all yourself.”

“I know. I wanted to.”

I was eight years younger than Will, and I had no idea where I would be—who I would be—if I had never met him. My thoughts moved incessantly between the past and the present, my heart beating in two worlds at once. And so when Will suggested we throw a combined engagement, housewarming, and wedding party before eloping, I had thrown myself into the planning with the hope that I would land, finally, solidly, in the present.

Will smoothed my hair from my forehead—a sweet but fruitless gesture as my hair would never be so easily tamed. Seaweed, my brother used to call it, usually punctuating the insult with a tug hard enough to make me yelp.

“Everything will be great,” Will assured me.

Wind rattled the balcony door, bringing with it a feeling of unease about the night ahead. A fervent wish that I had never agreed to the party, that Will and I were married already and enjoying our honeymoon in Morocco, shuddered through me.

I had never told Will that sometimes when I stood on our balcony and looked out at the sea, I felt sure someone watched me. I did not tell him of the red bird in my dreams. I did not tell him how guilt grasped me, yanking me back to a room that I longed to forget. I did not tell him about my feelings for a boy who had been missing for nine years but was with me every moment of my life, so real that I felt his breath on my neck in the night. And I had not told Will about the letter that had arrived that week or any of the letters before it.

How could I tell him one thing and not everything?

***

The martini bar was at one end of the living room and the band at the other, with space for dancing between the two. In the dining room, there was a shimmering display of raw oysters, which admittedly were more to my taste than to Will’s. (Earlier I had walked into the kitchen to find two of the caterers shucking those oysters with detached efficiency. The twist of the knife; the air sharp with brine; my senses immediately quivering and alert.) Our home had filled with guests, and after two glasses of champagne, my nagging worries faded and I began to enjoy myself. As a kid, if I had come across a photograph of a fancy party like this, or an illustration in a children’s book, it would have fueled hours of delighted fantasy play and feverish writing in my journal. Now, I passed a mirror and saw a woman in a beautiful pearl-colored dress who appeared flushed with excitement and she was, of course, me.

Will was in a corner speaking to his mother, Rosalie, and the sight of them together made my heart swell in a way that frightened me. I knew how far I was willing to go for love, how capable I was of blindly clinging to it.

I stepped outside and breathed in deeply. On the patio, overlooking the ocean and, to the north, the Golden Gate Bridge and the distant hills of Marin, servers weaved through party guests with trays of champagne and perfectly round tartlets baked to a rich shade of gold. The rain had cleared, leaving in its wake wispy clouds that captured and stretched the pink glow of the gloriously setting sun.

The group outside mostly comprised Will’s former classmates and law firm colleagues. When I first met Will, I would never have guessed that someone so serious could have so many friends. I had thought that perhaps only I noticed his charm, or even that he turned it on only for me. But I was wrong— laughably wrong. Will’s life was crowded with friends that he had made easily at every turn.

I scanned the crowd, my gaze landing on Will’s sister. “Emma!” I called.

She turned, her blue eyes shimmering with boozy excitement. Emma was nineteen years old, but I suspected that her ability to hold her liquor would not improve with age. There was a purity about her that simply did not mix with alcohol; two sips in, and she would tell you all of her secrets, not one of which was any deeper or darker than a puddle of spilled milk.

On the evening of our engagement party, she had chosen to wear a shapeless brown dress, and yet she looked lovely, her blond curls soft and shining. Even in her drab attire, it was clear that she belonged among the smart crowd that surrounded her—she had, after all, been attending parties like this all her life. Emma’s low regard for fashion prompted the only moments of tension I had ever witnessed between her and her mother, Rosalie, who had a wardrobe full of beautiful clothes that I’d never seen worn twice. The first dress I ever owned was a gift from Will and Emma’s mother, selected from her own closet. (I was sixteen at the time, and Rosalie’s Doberman had recently taken a chunk of flesh from my calf.) I had not worn that dress in years, but I cherished it still and kept it wrapped in tissue paper and safely stored with my most treasured possessions.

“This weather!” Emma exclaimed, landing a light kiss on my cheek. “It’s beautiful. Where did you put the rain?”

“Will persuaded it to come back another day.”

“Lawyers!” Emma laughed. “But just look at that sunset.”

Between the sunset and the alcohol, everyone seemed to have fallen under the illusion that the evening was warmer than it actually was. Men’s cheeks were pink below their sunglasses; women’s bare shoulders glowed. The ocean was an expanse of light. Voices engulfed the air, nearly but not quite drowning out the waves that crashed against the shore.

I caught the eye of a waiter passing with a tray of champagne flutes. He stopped so quickly that the glasses wobbled, bubbles multiplying. Emma and I each took a glass.

“We haven’t seen enough of you lately,” I said. “How are the seals?”

Her eyes grew round. “Oh, Merrow, they’re wonderful. So playful and funny and smart. You have to come visit soon. The little one I told you about—the one born with the mangled flipper? She’s as strong as any other seal now.” After a sip of her champagne, she added, “Actually, she could end up being the strongest of them all.”

I felt a pang of indignation before quickly forgiving my future sister-in-law. It might have been difficult for her to imagine how a creature born at a disadvantage could manage to thrive, but Emma’s heart was in the right place. Besides, her love for the sea rivaled mine, and I found that this connected us every bit as much as the fact that I was on the cusp of marrying her brother. Emma was a sophomore at Berkeley with an internship at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. I still remembered how I’d felt when I’d heard ten-year-old Emma announce with utter confidence that she planned to be a marine mammal veterinarian. When I was ten, the idea that I might one day become a marine mammal veterinarian would have seemed as likely as someday becoming the supreme leader of a distant galaxy.

“And how are you?” she asked. “How’s work?”

I hesitated. That week I’d worked with a nine-year-old boy named Assim whose scrawny limbs and milk chocolate eyes had made my heart contract. He’d asked, quietly, if I could help with an essay he was writing about bullying, and we’d waded steadily deeper into a conversation about the ways that life might shape a person, the possibility that inside every bad person was someone good. Every action is a link in a much longer chain of events, I’d said. I knew that Assim had recently been placed with a foster family, but I didn’t ask him about that. Not yet. Over the years that I’d been working at the after-school program, I’d learned that if I asked too many questions early on, the children would not return.

It was difficult to talk about certain aspects of my job with Emma, or even with Will. The conversations I had with the children felt private.

“I’m trying to get everything in place before our trip,” I told Emma. “I don’t want the kids to lose momentum while I’m away.”

“Morocco.” She sighed. “It’s so romantic. When do you leave?”

“Three weeks.”

“And then you’ll finally be a Langford.”

“Well, I don’t know if I’ll change my name, but I’ll officially be your sister-in-law, and that’s a much greater cause for celebration.” I meant this, truly. The Langfords were a tight-knit tribe that I had longed to call my own almost from the moment, years earlier, when I’d met them.

Emma grinned. “I’m going to need to see that ring again.”

I held out my hand. Will had given me a ring with a large blue sapphire. Its color reminded him of the sea that our hotel room in Italy had overlooked five years earlier. We were falling in love before that first trip together, but our vacation had solidified our feelings. It was as though breaking from our regular lives had allowed us to see each other, and the possibility of our future, in a new light. Since that trip, we’d traveled together as often as our jobs allowed.

“It’s so beautiful.” Emma touched the stone lightly with her long finger. “And unique. Like you.” She tilted her head and looked at me. “And you deserve it,” she added firmly, as though I might argue with her. Even sober, Emma was prone to make sweeping, sentimental statements. I knew she meant that I deserved not only the ring, but all the many gifts that Will had given me over our years together, and she probably meant even Will himself, really, because my parents had died when I was young, and my brother—

Enough. The past was a fast-moving current that perpetually threatened to sweep me from my feet.

Emma was effortlessly generous with her affection, just like Will. I loved this about them, but sometimes I could not help but wonder if kindness meant as much when it came from someone who had never experienced anything else. My doubt made me feel ashamed, as though something small and petty and hateful had shaken loose from where I’d hidden it and fallen to the floor for all to see.

When I tried not to think of the letters, I failed. The words haunted me, as I knew they were meant to.

I know what you did, Merrow Shawe. All that you have, I can take away.

***

Inside, after toasts were given, after Rosalie and Wayne Langford and their posh, silver-haired friends hugged and kissed Will and me and wished us well, the band switched from the toothless jazz it had been playing throughout the evening to music we could really dance to. I moved through the house, turning down the lights, leaving a blur of candles in my wake. The rooms grew warm. When someone passed me a drink, the glass was so beaded with sweat that it nearly slipped from my hand. A caterer refreshed the rapidly melting ice in the raw bar, each piece a glittering, diminishing diamond in the candlelight. Most of the men had shed their suit jackets; a few women had already taken off their heels. I flung open the windows, as I often did late at night. I liked how quickly the salt air seeped in, making the dark floors gleam like tide pools below the moon.

I was only dancing by myself for a moment or two when Will found me and wrapped his arms around my waist. “You’re a sight for sore eyes,” he murmured in my ear.

A loud crash interrupted us.

In the dining room, the tiers of the giant raw bar had toppled over. Oyster shells and ice cubes spun across the floor. Caterers rushed from the kitchen with trash bags and brooms and kitchen towels and I knelt to help, the wet floor cold beneath my bare knees. I moved a towel over the floor and when I lifted it I was jolted by memory.

A lifeless weight in my arms; blood, not water, soaking through my clothes; in my chest, rage rising from grief like a flame from kindling.

I dropped the sodden towel to the floor and stood, swaying and desperate for air. Nearby, a caterer filled a trash bag with soiled ice and oysters.

“I’ll take that,” I said, ignoring his protest as I grabbed the bag and hurried toward the door to the garage.

I set the garbage in the bin and replaced the lid. Then I opened the garage door and stepped onto the sidewalk.

Above San Francisco, the stars were always small. I wasn’t sure I would ever get used to this. I breathed in the air, feeling the city moving around me. I thought of the kids I worked with at Learning Together and wondered if the noises of the city floated through their dreams. It was hard for me to imagine a childhood here, below stars that did not insist you look up with wonder.

I had hoped that a party would solidify my hold in this place, but all it had taken to summon the past was the weight of a wet rag.

When I looked down from the sky, he was walking toward me. At first, I felt annoyed. I’d had too much to drink; my mind was playing tricks; of course it was not him. I had seen him so many times over the previous nine years . . . everywhere Will and I traveled, I saw him . . . only to be wrong.

But now . . .

If this was him, a powerful new silhouette had swallowed his wiry body. He moved in a new way, too, gliding from the shadows with confidence. His beautiful dark hair was shorn close to his scalp.

And then he was before me, and I saw the silver scar near his temple, as pale as a sliver of winter sky. Up close, the boy he had been at sixteen was no longer hidden in his face.

“Merrow,” Amir said, and the sound of my name in his voice made me feel as though he were rousing me from a long sleep, whispering “fire.”

Excerpted from You, Me, and The Sea by Meg Donohue. Copyright © 2019 by Meg Donohue. On sale May 7 from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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