For three seventeen-year-olds, dark mystery has always lurked at the corner of the eyes and the edge of sleep.
Beautiful Morgan D’Amici wakes in her meager home, with blood under her finger nails. Paintings come alive under Ondine Mason’s violet-eyed gaze. Haunted runaway Nix Saint-Michael sees halos of light around people about to die. At a secret summer rave in the woods, the three teenagers learn of their true origins and their uncertain, intertwined destinies. Riveting, unflinching, and beautiful, Betwixt is as complex and compelling as any ordinary reality.
B E T W I X T
by Tara Bray Smith
So quick bright things come to confusion.
—William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
It hadn’t been a plan exactly. More like triage. Something to make Ondine feel better after her parents rolled out of the driveway; something to get her out from under her cornflower-and-cream-striped duvet before she convinced herself she’d made a huge mistake and called up Trish and Ralph and begged for a ticket to Glen-ho, Evanston, whatever. It was strange: just at the moment her “mirages” intensified — she didn’t know what else to call the visions she’d had since she was little — she’d chosen to distance herself. Desperate to believe she’d made the right decision by staying, she’d come up with a distraction. Ergo (with impeccable teenaged logic), party. She’d been thinking of it for a while, a real grown-up affair with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Trish had left phyllo dough in the freezer and a few bottles of booze in the liquor cabinet. The Masons trusted their daughter, and why shouldn’t they? Ondine was always trustworthy.
She supposed she should celebrate her newfound independence — isn’t that what unsupervised kids her age did? — even if she didn’t feel much like celebrating. Truth was, it was four in the afternoon and already she missed her family. She’d even made another cup of Starbucks just so that things wouldn’t feel so empty. She’d taken a nap in Ralph and Trish’s bed, pressing her head to where her mother slept. The pillow smelled like Trish’s sandalwood-scented hair.
In her dreams, butterflies with women’s heads flitted through red maple leaves. Max had turned into a huge white worm and was trying to climb onto a branch where Ondine and her father sat. Trish called to them from the house. Her voice sounded like bells ringing —
Ondine stumbled to her bedroom to pick up her cell.
“Hey,” she mumbled. It had been drizzling most of the afternoon, but now the sun had broken through the clouds and was shining outside her window in greenish yellow beams. She rubbed her eyes then glanced at the clock. “Right on time.”
At the other end of the line, Morgan D’Amici laughed.
“Yeah. I learned it in ’Nam. Jesus, Ondine, relax! It’s a party we’re throwing, not a tea for Laura Bush.”
“Oh, right. You’re right.” Ondine giggled awkwardly. She didn’t know her fellow senior very well, but one thing she did know was that Morgan D’Amici was funny, if a little pushy.
Flirtatious, Ondine was used to. Girls half hit on her all the time.
But Morgan: the chick was beautiful all right, but wow. Intense.
The two girls had just started to be friends when they found out they’d both be taking Raphael Inman’s painting class that summer at Reed. Ondine had always admired the girl from afar — student council; all APs; casually, indestructibly pretty — and had known her younger brother, K.A., since they were kids and played AYSO together. But she hadn’t known Morgan as well. They’d hung in different crowds, Ondine gravitating toward the artsy kids and Morgan sticking with one or two quiet, admiring girls who’d rotate out every few months. She’d always been aware of the dark-haired girl, though, as someone would be aware of one’s shadow.
Once they got to know each other, it turned out Trish Mason knew Morgan’s mother, Yvonne D’Amici, from the hair salon Yvonne worked at, and Trish frequented. Trish invited the D’Amicis — without the father, whom Yvonne had divorced a few years before — to their last Christmas party. Over virgin eggnogs and complaints about little brothers, Morgan and Ondine got to know each other.
“So what time are we on for?” Morgan paused and her light, scratchy voice became serious. “And how are we going to get the booze?”
Ondine was again impressed by the other girl’s initiative and laughed.
“Damn, Morgan. You’re not joking about being ready for a party.”
Morgan moaned. “I’m sorry — it’s just the end of school was a few weeks ago and all the graduation parties sucked ass and I’ve been so bored lately. I want to make sure our class gets senior year started right.”
“You’re telling me.”
“And I guess I’m just excited. You know — end of the year, Raphael’s class.” Her voice sweetened. “Our becoming friends . . .”
Ondine smiled into the phone. She liked the girl’s straightforwardness, even if it was a little much. Half pushy, half pleading.
“Right?” Morgan said now. We’re friends, right?
A picture of Morgan fl ashed in Ondine’s mind — except that it wasn’t her, quite. It was Morgan’s head — black-haired, doll-like — on a moth’s body. Dark wings; dark breast; clinging to white satin, spattered with red. It was a tiny, odd vision, but it made Ondine’s heart skip a beat. She took out a pen and a piece of paper from her bureau and shook her head. “All right. Party,” she said, writing it down then crossing it out. “No. Best — Party — of — the — Year.” On the other end of the line, Morgan mm-hmmed. Ondine added Ondine & Morgan presenting.
“So what do we need?”
“Well . . .” Morgan contemplated. “Those little spinach squares my mom put in her purse during your last party. And frankfurters.
We defi nitely need frankfurters. Cheez Whiz, threelayer bean dip. You know, all the really classy stuff.” The girl’s voice lowered to a sultry pitch. “Baby, all we need is al-kee-hol.”
Ondine groaned. At five three and small boned — despite the fact that she was grown-up enough for her parents to trust her to live alone for a year — she looked very young. She always hated it — even the perks, like getting into movies on the cheap.
Morgan, too, was small, fi ve four and petite as a ballerina, although something about her demeanor seemed older. Not old enough to buy liquor without ID, however.
“You don’t have a fake, do you?” Ondine asked.
“No.” There was a pause. “But you know, I’ve bought before, at O’Brian’s, out on Southeast Seventy-seventh. Even Tania Rabani bought there last week, and she looks about twelve. Except, of course, for those —”
Ondine dragged her pen across the page before her. An image flashed of Tania Rabani’s twinkly-eyed baby face, perched above dauntingly ample cleavage.
“Ah, I’m beginning to understand.”
Morgan laughed in a way that didn’t sound quite happy.
“We just have to make sure it’s a guy in the cashier’s cage when we go.”
“Preferably around fifty,” Ondine added. “Trucker’s hat, plumber’s butt.”
“Who just can’t say no to a sweet li’l thing.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” Morgan’s voice was low. “Some potential girl-on-girl action for him to chew on all night? It’ll be cake, baby. Ho Hos.”
Ondine wondered what it was that drew her to Morgan. She was so intense, her vision so focused. What was going on inside the chick’s head?
“All right then. I’ll pick you up at seven.”
“Seven it is,” Morgan replied.
Tossing her phone on her bed, Ondine smoothed her braids, and noticed her heart was beating — fast. She also noticed she’d drawn yet another butterfl y below the list that so far had nothing but her made-up party name written on it. Nothing out of the ordinary, the doodling, but something about the last image haunted her. It was urgent, even deranged: insistent, thick lines and a wicked face peeping out of an insect’s body. She tore off the fi rst page and started again, continuing to work until the sun went down. She drew bodies with wings, trees, worms — all the things she remembered from her dreams. It was the way she felt normal, when she drew. Emptying out the well of her obsession, it allowed her to release her mind from its track. When she awoke, a world would have been created on the page. Not real, but something like it.
By the time six-thirty rolled around, she had a guest list and ideas for food she and Morgan could make in a few hours, both pages dotted with butterfl ies she couldn’t quite remember drawing.
Sighing, she put a curlicue doodle on one of them, which had taken on the face of one of the girls in her dreams. The face was peaked and pretty, black haired, with delicate dark eyebrows and a pointed chin. The eyes were light but focused, the mouth narrow. Not selfi sh, just small. A tooth, just the slightest bit sharp, stuck out from under a thin, puffy lip.
“Morgan!” she whispered to herself, and laughed as she headed for the shower.
Morgan D’Amici approached her face in the mirror as she might any problem. She studied it, sized it up, memorized its strengths and weaknesses, then set about making it better. It was not a bad face. Two sky-blue eyes (so innocent!) under whips of black brow. A sprinkling of freckles across the pert little nose.
Her cheeks were a little full, her lips a slice too thin. Her hair was good. Thick and black — thanks, she imagined, to her Italian father, though he was blond. She fi gured it must have skipped a generation. She admired her neck, and her fi ne collarbones under luminescent skin, and the hollow where they met, like a sand dune. Morgan was a lovely almost-eighteen-year-old. A lot of people told her that.
A lot of people couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth. Only she knew where the small imperfections were: the too-thin lips, the cowlick she hid behind a wash of thick bangs, the scar at the base of her pinkie finger. Morgan knew she was far from perfect.
So she set about changing it. And here, in front of the mirror — the single place of solace in the vinyl-sided hell that some cosmic joke had made her home — was where she practiced.
Morgan picked at a small and fine eyebrow hair. She was having trouble grabbing it, though she’d spent half of last week’s coffee-slinging tips — she was a barista at Krakatoa, Southeast Portland’s busiest coffeehouse — on a year’s supply of wax and a deluxe set of Tweezermans her mom got her at cost.
“Everything still where you left it, honey?” Yvonne D’Amici entered the frame. She hummed to herself, walking back and forth across the space between the laundry room and the bedroom that Morgan had occupied for her vanity. Yvonne was used to her daughter spending at least an hour every evening in front of the mirror, but still couldn’t let it pass unremarked. Morgan flicked her eyes back to the glass.
“I would think you would want me to look my best, Mom. You always said you wanted better for me than you had.”
Yvonne set the white plastic basket atop the washing machine and looked out the window of the little house she and her daughter and son, K.A. — after Kevin Anthony, Yvonne’s father — lived in. The sun was setting, a toxic orange blob sinking into the forest.
That was a cut, she knew. Yvonne had been pretty in her day. Not as pretty as Morgan, but enough to win her a place in the 1986 Rose Festival Queen competition and catch the eye of the — jerk — son of one of the judges, Phil D’Amici of D’Amici & Sons, Oregon’s biggest grocery store chain. And she had wanted better for her kids. 14460 Steele Street was a crappy strip of tarmac laid down across a depressing swath of Portland’s far southeast quadrant. They’d started there when Phil Jr. was still working as a stock boy, waiting for his legendarily miserly father to die.
Then, he’d said, things would be different. They had been. The new girlfriend’s boobs, for example. The plugs for her ex’s early-onset male-pattern baldness. And the convertible red BMW to show off both. By the time the elder D’Amici had his first heart attack, the bastard had already taken off. The divorce went final just two weeks before the old man died, which meant that Yvonne and the kids weren’t entitled to a penny of it.
Most of the houses around them had wheels, but Yvonne paid her rent and she scrimped to send K.A. to soccer camp, and no matter what she said, Morgan had gone to France the summer after sophomore year. It wasn’t easy after Phil Jr. took up with a Portland Blazers cheerleader a few years older than their daughter, making it clear that he’d pay the minimum in child support. He wanted his kids to work for what they had, he said, just like he had. Right, Yvonne thought, but she had made it. She loved and was proud of her kids. Morgan’s insistence on perfection had made her a straight-A student and upcoming seniorclass president, and K.A.’s talent had won him a slot on McKinley High’s state-champion soccer team.
Still, there was something frightening about her daughter’s will. It was just that Morgan was so — flawless.
Yvonne cleared her throat: “Morgan. Sweetie. You know I think you’re beautiful.”
Walking over to the vanity where her daughter sat straight backed, Yvonne rested her hands on Morgan’s shoulders. She stiffened but let them stay.
“You just always did like the mirror a lot.”
Morgan smiled and touched her mother’s hand.
“And I think you’re wonderful, Mother. Especially after what Dad’s been doing —”
Yvonne cast her tired blue eyes to the ground.
“She’s almost my age!” Morgan sighed and shook her head — though not, her mother couldn’t help noticing, hard enough to mess up her hair. “Anyway, you know K.A. and I appreciate how hard you work for us.”
Yvonne crossed her arms, shivering. “Are you cold? Feels like it’s gotten cold in here.”
Her daughter’s smile, faked or real, disappeared. “Maybe it’s menopause.”
“Please, Morgan. Can’t you be civil, just once? I’m not old enough for menopause. And anyway, menopause is hot —”
“Little mother-daughter bonding time?” K.A. D’Amici walked in and both women’s eyes moved from the mirror to the tall, wavy-haired boy standing with a glass of orange juice in his hand.
“Speak of the devil!” Yvonne smiled and turned to her son.
“Well, if it isn’t my brilliant brother,” Morgan replied.
“Kaka, did they let you dribble around the cones at soccer practice today? Or are they still waiting for you to be able to learn your right and left?”
K.A. grinned. Morgan could do no wrong in her sixteen-year-old brother’s eyes. It was she who had come home from school and played with him when Yvonne was at the salon and Phil at the store; she who tucked him into bed when their parents were fighting, before the divorce; she who helped him with his homework.
“Nah.” K.A. stood behind his sister. “We just braided each other’s back hair.” He picked up a tube of lipstick, opened it, and put some on. Then he rubbed his cherry-stained lips as his sister might have and lowered his face to meet hers. Though they looked nothing alike — K.A. was tall, softly blond, and baby faced; Morgan petite, dark haired, and rather pointy — something about their twin beauty cemented the fact that they were siblings.
He pursed his lips and vamped. “I think I’ll wear this to Ondine’s tonight.” Turning the tube over to inspect the label, he asked, “What’s it called? She-Devil? Perfect!”
Yvonne laughed. “K.A.!”
Morgan affected a yawn and nudged her brother out of the mirror.
“How did you fi nd out about Ondine’s? You don’t actually think you’re coming, do you? It’s only for upperclassmen, you know.”
“What’s this? A party at the Masons’?”
“Just for kids, Mom. The Masons left for Chicago today.”
“Yeah,” K.A. chimed in. “We don’t need any more replays of you being the last person to stay at their Christmas party.”
“And the food! She wrapped up those spinach pies and put them in her purse!”
“Trish told me to!” Yvonne grimaced but laughed too. “All right, all right. I know when I’m not wanted.” She tousled her son’s hair and retreated into the kitchen.
Morgan had progressed to her eyeliner. Out of the corner of a black-lined lid, she shot her brother a death stare.
“I hope you don’t think you’re bringing that juvenile delinquent friend of yours.”
K.A. smiled lazily. “Nix is cool. Anyway, what do you care? Ondine’s not going to mind.”
“He’s a loser dropout, K.A.” Morgan rolled her eyes. “Why are you wasting your time?”
He ignored her. “He quit today.”
“Señor Stoney has a job?”
“I work with him. I told you that. Anyway, the word would be had. He walked out. Jacob said he thought there was something wrong with him.”
“There is.” Morgan tapped the side of her head. “It’s called inbred IQ defi ciency. It’s in the water up there.”
“Jesus, Morgan. Just because he didn’t fi nish high school doesn’t mean he’s not smart.”
“Anyway, are you bringing Neve?”
She undid her hair and it fell to her shoulders. Her brother was referring to her new friend Neve Clowes, the latest in a string of cute, shy girls Morgan always trailed behind her. Neve — funny and tough — was different, and stood up to her a bit more. Morgan was beginning to tire of her.
“Neve is off-limits, little bro.”
“She’s my friend, Kaka. I don’t like mixing. There are about a hundred chicks at McKinley you could date. Why don’t you pick one of them? Anyway, ever heard of not shitting where you eat? Clowes wouldn’t be too pleased to have you dating his daughter.”
Here K.A. had her. He smiled at his sister, his lips still red. “Jacob Clowes loves me. I’m his right-hand man. I’m his team leader.
He’d love it if I dated his daughter. Save her from all those bad seeds out there who just want to you-know-what.”
Morgan closed her eyes and tightened her jaw. Neve’s lacy blond hair, charmingly disheveled, pulsed behind her eyelids.
That and her expensive clothes, the navel ring that poked from a stomach that stayed flat and hard no matter how much pizza Jacob Clowes fed her. The Cloweses were rich and spoiled Neve, though she never seemed to take anything too seriously.
“You always do this, K.A. You always get involved with one of my friends and then you break up with them.” She turned in her chair. “Besides fucking over a number of very nice girls at McKinley, guess who else gets screwed?”
K.A. bent down and put his hand on her knee. A radio went on in the kitchen and the siblings could hear their mother humming along to Journey, washing the dishes. Both knew it would be another solitary night for Yvonne: Will & Grace reruns, a plate of leftovers, maybe a call to a girlfriend or a visit to her younger boyfriend at the bar he worked at down the road. Then sleep, and the whole thing would start over again the next day.
Morgan’s head fell. K.A. moved his hand to her shoulder.
“I’m not going to leave you alone, Morgue. I would never do that.”
“How can you say what you will and won’t do? You don’t know. He didn’t know.”
“Dad’s an ass.” K.A. held his sister’s chin and kissed her on the forehead. “And I’m not him.”
Morgan looked up.
“Yeah.” He nodded again, smiling his She-Devil smile. “Who loves you?”
She nodded and whispered, almost too quietly for her brother to hear: “I do.”