“The river’s this way,” said Calliope, interrupting my thoughts as we picked our way through the forest floor. I looked down as I walked, not wanting to trip.
I struggled to come up with something to say that didn’t involve Ava. “Does it run through the whole place?” I couldn’t remember seeing any river on the other side of the hedge.
“It goes underground,” said Calliope, as if this were perfectly normal. “I heard Ava almost drowned in it once. Is that true?”
“She didn’t almost drown,” I said, grimacing at the memory. “She did drown. I had to jump in after her. It’s how she died—hit her head on a rock.” I focused on the forest floor, not wanting to think about that night.
“What do you think you’d be doing right now if you weren’t here? If Ava hadn’t died?”
That was the very question I’d been avoiding asking myself for the past six months. “I don’t know. I’d be back in New York, I guess.”
“With your mother?”
I sighed. “No. She’d have died by now.” That was much easier to say than I’d expected. “She wanted me to stay in Eden and finish high school, but I don’t think I’d have been able to do that.”
Calliope shot me a sympathetic look, but I didn’t want her pity. “The clearing’s just up here,” she said, and peering through the trees, I saw it—a meadow about the size of my bedroom. I heard the river gurgling nearby. “What about your father?”
“What about him?” I said. “He’s never been in the picture. I don’t know where he is, and I don’t care. We’ve always done fine without him.”
“You’re not so fine anymore,” said Calliope softly. I ignored her. My mother rarely talked about my father, and I’d learned from an early age not to mention him. It wasn’t that she’d seemed angry or bitter about him. There simply wasn’t much to tell. They hadn’t been married, I hadn’t asked what happened, and that was that. Any fantasies I’d had when I was little about him showing up on the doorstep one day and embracing me, buying me ice cream and toys—they were long gone now. My mother and I were a team. We didn’t need anyone else.
Calliope and I set up our picnic in silence, her laying out the blanket and me rifling through the food. Remembering my promise to Henry was difficult while staring directly into a basket stuffed with sandwiches and macaroni and fried chicken and the same luscious desserts I was served every evening, but I managed. Barely.
“I’m sorry—this looks delicious, but I can’t eat,” I said. “I’m really not very hungry.”
“Sure you are,” she said, straightening out a corner of the blanket and flopping down in the middle. At the edge of the clearing, Nicholas loomed, looking surly. “You didn’t have breakfast. Besides, I’m eating, too, remember?”
“It’s not—” I bit my lip. The last thing I wanted was to insult her, but I couldn’t very well tell her it was a test. “After what happened…I promised Henry, that’s all. I’m sorry. I should’ve told you that before you hauled all of this out here.”
I waited for her to say something, but her expression was unreadable. Finally she smiled, though it didn’t reach her eyes. “It’s no problem at all. Would you mind if I…?”
“Not at all,” I said. “Help yourself, really. And don’t mind my growling stomach.”
She started to unpack the basket, and I sat down across from her, folding my knees to my chest. We weren’t very far from the spot where I’d first met Henry. It hurt to think about that, so I turned away, instead concentrating on Pogo as he pounced around on the grass. “Calliope? Can I ask you something personal?”
She didn’t look up from unpacking. “Of course.”
I glanced at Nicholas, who was still within earshot. “It has to do with the…um, the stuff that was in the hot chocolate.”
“Oh.” Her cheeks colored. “Maybe it’d be better if Nicholas…”
“Right.” I cleared my throat. “Nicholas? Do you mind giving us a few minutes?”
He looked back and forth between us warily.
“I promise that no one’s going to jump out and attack me in the middle of the forest,” I said with a grim smile. “And if they do, I’ve got Calliope and Pogo to protect me. Just a few minutes, I promise.”
“I’ll watch out for her,” said Calliope, and Nicholas caved, melting into the trees.
“How did you handle it? The thing that made me and Henry…” Now it was my turn to blush. Instead of doing the same, something unreadable flashed in Calliope’s eyes.
“I’m not seeing anyone, and I didn’t have enough of a dose to be climbing the walls, as you must have, so I rested.” Her tone was flat and unfriendly, and I frowned. What had I said?
“Why aren’t you dating anyone?” I said, figuring that was a safe enough question. “I mean, you’re pretty and smart and funny, and you must know a lot about everyone here—”
“You’re very kind,” she said stiffly. “But I’m afraid I will never be good enough for the person I want.”
My frown deepened. “Of course you are. Any guy would be crazy not to want you, you know.”
“No, Kate.” Her tone was icy now. “I’m not good enough for him, and I never will be. He’s made it perfectly clear that the only person good enough for him is you.”