Authors: Alice Hoffman
Jet's initial mistake was to go to the pharmacy that day, or maybe the error was made when she sat at the counter and ordered a
vanilla Coke, but disaster was definitely set in motion as soon as she began chatting to the two handsome brothers who were entranced by her as soon as they spied her. She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful girl they had ever seen. They were so utterly enchanted they followed her to the house on Magnolia Street, which they should have known well enough to avoid. Franny was sprawled in the grass, eating raspberries and reading one of Aunt Isabelle's books on how to raise poisonous plants when she heard the rumble of voices. The cats were sunning themselves, but as soon as the strangers approached, they leapt into the shadows.
Jet came bursting into the yard, waving at her sister, but the boys hesitated at the gate. Seventeen-year-old twins, one with brown hair, the other fair, both daring and brave. When she saw the strangers Franny grew quite pale; the freckles sprinkled across her face stood out as if they were spots of blood.
Jet cheerfully gestured to the boys. “They've heard it's dangerous to come here.”
” Franny said to her sister. “What
The blond boy, called Jack, geared up his courage and came traipsing through some blustery raspberry bushes that pricked the hand of anyone who tried to pick their fruit. The lovestruck boys begged Jet and Franny to meet up with them that night, and frankly both girls were flattered. Jet turned to Franny and pleaded. “Why can't we have some fun? April would.”
“April!” Franny said. “She's in trouble more than she's out of it.”
“She's right about some things,” Jet said.
They climbed out the attic window after midnight, then shimmied down a rain pipe. All the while, Franny thought about
how Hay would laugh if he could see her sneaking out of their aunt's house.
Don't you even check the weather report?
he would have asked.
Is it really worth climbing onto the roof?
The night was indeed cloudy, with a storm brewing. It was Massachusetts weather, unpredictable and nasty with sparks of electricity skittering through the air. As they made their way down Magnolia Street, a pale drizzle had already begun to drip from the overcast sky. By the time they reached the park, buckets were falling. The girls were so drenched that when Franny wrung out her long hair, the water streamed out red. That's when she knew they had made a mistake.
The boys were making a mad dash through the park. Even the swans were huddled beneath the shrubbery. A clap of thunder sounded.
“Oh, no,” Jet said, overwhelmed by the turn fate was taking.
The sisters signaled for the boys to run back to safety, but it was now impossible to see through the sheets of rain and the boys raced onward. The sisters were at the edge of the pond when lightning struck, but even before the incandescent bolts illuminated the sky, Franny could smell sulfur. The boys were hit in an instant. They stumbled as if shot, then fell shuddering to the ground. Blue smoke rose from their fallen bodies.
Franny pulled Jet along with her, for an alarm had been sounded and patrol cars already raced toward the green. If the sisters were present, they would surely be suspected of wrongdoing. They were Owens girls, after all, the first to be blamed for any disaster.
They fled to Magnolia Street, then flew through the door and up the back stairs. Breathless, they sat in the attic listening to sirens. People in town said it was an accident, they said
that lightning was unpredictable, and the boys had been foolish to run through the stinging rain in their Sunday clothes. But Franny knew better. It was the curse.
They dressed in scratchy black dresses scented with mothballs they'd found in the attic but made certain to stay away from the crowd of mourners, remaining poised under some old elm trees. Jet cried, but Franny was tight-lipped; she blamed herself for what had happened. April's point was well taken. This was what love did, even in its mildest forms, at least in their hands.
When the girls came home sweating through their woolen dresses, Isabelle offered them advice along with glasses of lemonade flavored with verbena. “Avoid local people,” she said simply. “They've never understood us and they never will.”
problem,” Vincent commented when he overheard.
Perhaps he was right, but from then on, the sisters rarely ventured beyond the garden. They wanted to make sure there were no more tragedies, but it was too late. People ignored Franny, with her glum expression and blood-red hair, but Jet had become a legend. The beautiful girl worth dying for. Boys came looking for her. When they saw her on the far side of the old picket fence, with her long black hair and heart-shaped mouth, they were even more ardent, despite the fate of their predecessors, or perhaps because of it. Vincent came out and threw tomatoes at them and sent them running with a snap of his fingers, but it didn't matter. On one day alone, two unhinged
fellows went ahead and did crazy, senseless things for the love of a girl they'd never even spoken to. One stood in front of a train barreling toward Boston to prove his mettle. Another tied iron bars to his legs and jumped into Leech Lake. Both sealed their fates.
The sisters went directly to the attic in a state of shock once they'd heard the news. They would not eat dinner or speak to their aunt. When night fell they stole out of the attic window and climbed onto the roof. There were thousands of stars in the night sky. So this was the Owens curse. Perhaps because no one had yet figured out how to break it, it was stronger than ever. The whole world was out there, but for other people, not for them.
“We have to be careful,” Franny told her sister.
Jet nodded, stunned by the events of the summer.
Then and there they made a vow never to be in love.
Franny told Jet not to go to the funerals of the boys whose names she didn't even know. She wasn't responsible for other people's illogical actions, but Jet sneaked out the window and went anyway. She stood in the tall grass, her hair tied up, her eyes rimmed with tears. She wore the black dress, though the weather was brutally hot. Her face was pale as snow. The same reverend had presided over the grave site services for all four funerals. Now Jet could hear his voice when the wind carried as he recited a quote from Cotton Mather.
Families are the Nurseries of all Societies: and the First combinations of mankind.
A boy in a black coat had come through the woods. He had a somber expression, and kept his hands in his pockets. Like Jet, he was overdressed for the hot summer weather.
Wilderness is a temporary condition through which we are passing to the Promised Land.
At first Jet thought she should run, the stranger might be another suitor, ready to do something crazy to win her love, but the tall, handsome boy was staring at the gathering, his eyes focused on the speaker. He paid her no mind.
“That's my father,” he said. “Reverend Willard.”
“They killed themselves over me,” Jet blurted. “They thought they were in love with me.”
The boy gazed at her, a serious expression in his gray-green eyes. “You had nothing to do with it. That's not what love is.”
“No,” Jet said thoughtfully. “It shouldn't be.”
“It isn't,” the boy assured her.
“No,” Jet said, feeling something strange come over her. She felt comforted by his calm, serious manner. “You're right.”
“Unable are the Loved to die, for Love is Immortality,” the boy said. When he saw the way Jet was looking at him he laughed. “I didn't come up with that, Emily Dickinson did.”
“I love that,” Jet said. “I love Emily Dickinson.”
“My father doesn't. He thinks she was depraved.”
“That's just wrong.” This summer Jet had become a huge admirer of the poet. “She was a truly great writer.”
“I don't understand many of the things my father believes. He makes no sense. For instance, he'd have my hide if he caught me talking to you.”
“You're an Owens, aren't you? That most certainly would not
fly with him. He wishes the Owens family had disappeared long ago. Again, depraved.”
Perhaps it was this thought that made the two edge farther into the woods for some privacy. All of a sudden their discussion felt secret and important. The light fell through the leaves in green bands. They could hear the mourners singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”
“We're related to Hawthorne,” the boy went on, “but I've never been allowed to read his books. I'm grounded for life if I do. Or at least while I'm in this town, which believe me will not be long. My father has all sorts of rules.”
“So does my mother!” Jet confided. “She says it's for our protection.”
The boy smiled. “I've heard that one.”
He was called Levi Willard and he had big plans. He would attend divinity school, hopefully at Yale, then head to the West Coast, far from this town and his family and all their small-minded notions. By the time he'd walked Jet to Magnolia Street in the fading dusk, she knew more about him than she did most people. It was nearing the end of the summer and the crickets were calling. She suddenly realized she didn't want the summer to end.
“This is where you live?” Levi said when they reached the house. “I've never been down this street before. Funny. I thought I knew every street in town.”
“We don't really live here. We're visiting for the summer. We have to go back to New York.”
“New York?” he said. “I've always wanted to go.”
“Then you should come! We can meet at the Metropolitan Museum. Right on the steps. It's just around the corner from
us.” She had already forgotten the pact she had made with her sister. Perhaps the world was open to them after all. Perhaps curses were only for those who believed in them.
“To friendship,” he said, shaking her hand with a solemn expression.
“To friendship,” she agreed, although for the longest time they didn't let go of each other and she knew exactly what he was thinkingâ
This must be fate
âfor that was what she was thinking as well.
The siblings packed up their suitcases. The summer was over. It had vanished and all at once the light falling through the trees was tinged with gold and the vines by the back fence were turning scarlet, always the first in town to do so. Vincent, bored and edgy, fed up with small-town life, was eager to throw his belongings into his backpack and sling his guitar over his shoulder. He'd been itching to return to Manhattan and get his life back on track. On the morning of their departure they had an early breakfast together. Rain was pouring down, rattling the green glass windows. Now that it was time to leave, they felt surprisingly nostalgic, as if their childhoods had ended along with their summer vacation.
Aunt Isabelle handed them their bus tickets. “You'll have a good trip. Rain before seven, sun by eleven.” And sure enough the rain ceased while their aunt was speaking.