Authors: Vanessa Len
Ruth looked up. “Hey!” she said. “I can't believe you didn't wake me up when you got home! Tell me about your date with the hot nerd! Tell me everything.” She sounded so normal that Joan felt another swoop of disorientation. “Was it amazing?” Ruth said. “Did youÂ .Â .Â .” She pursed her lips in an exaggerated kiss.
“I missed it,” Joan heard herself say.
“You missed it?” Ruth's amusement faded. “You missed your
? What do you mean? You were so excited.”
Joan stared at her. Ruth's hair was all teased up. Her jacket had big shoulder pads, and her makeup was a little smeared. She looked like she'd just come home from a 1980s costume party.
Or from the 1980s.
“It's true, isn't it?” Joan said slowly.
Ruth was starting to frown. “What's true?”
“We're monsters,” Joan said. “
monsters. Our family steals life from humans.”
Joan couldn't look away from Ruth's familiar face. She'd known Ruth her whole lifeâsince before she could talk. Sometimes, in the summers, they'd shared a room. She'd argued with Ruth over stupid things, and made up with her again. Stayed up with her all night, talking about everything. Joan's throat felt chokingly tight.
, she thought to Ruth.
Please. Or be confused. Or deny it. Tell me I've lost it completely.
Please, Ruth. Please. Tell me it isn't true.
Ruth opened her mouth and closed it, as if she wasn't sure what to say. It was strange to see her looking so uncertain. She was usually so confident about everything. “Someone told you?” she said finally.
Horror settled in the pit of Joan's stomach. It was true. What Gran had said last night was true. “Why didn't
tell me?” she blurted.
The color was leaving Ruth's face. “JoanÂ .Â .Â .”
“You've been stealing life from people?” Joan said. “Gran has? Bertie has?” The whole Hunt family. Joan's stomach gurgled like she might be sick. “Ruth, that's so wrong! That's really wrong! That's
!” A horrible thought struck her. “Did you ever steal life from my dad? From me?”
Ruth looked shocked. “Of
not. How could you think that?”
Joan backed into the hallway. Her stomach lurched. She really was going to be sick.
“Hey!” Ruth said. She scrambled out of her seat. “Where are you going? You'll want to talk to Gran, okay?”
“Talk to Gran?” Joan said, incredulous. “I don't want to talk to any of you.” She needed to get out of this house. She needed to get away from her family.
” Joan's voice cracked. She backed up more. “I never want to see
of you ever again!”
Last night, Joan had run past Mr. Solt's house, afraid of him. Now, as she passed it, she ducked her head, ashamed.
He didn't do something to you
, Gran had said.
You did something to him.
Joan wished suddenly and desperately that she could go homeâreally go home. Not to Gran, but to Dad in Milton Keynes. But Dad was on holiday in Malaysia right now, visiting the other side of Joan's family. A friend of Dad's was house-sitting for them.
Joan felt as though she'd taken a step outside the real world. Over there in the real world, Dad was in Malaysia. Over there, Joan's friends were in the middle of their summer break.
And hereÂ .Â .Â . here, Joan's family had been stealing human life all this time, and Joan had never known it. Here, Joan had stolen life from someone yesterday too.
Joan turned the corner out of Gran's street and realized that she had no idea where she was going. If she called Dad, if she tried to go home to Milton Keynes, if she called a friend and asked to stay, there'd be questions. Questions she didn't know how to answer.
With nowhere else to go, she found herself heading to Holland House, the museum where she'd been volunteering. To Nick.
Holland House was an estate in Kensington that had been restored and transformed into a living museum. Each room was a perfect re-creation of the house's Georgian heyday. Inside, costumed historians guided tourists around the house and talked about how the occupants had once lived. Outside, there were picnic gardens, and a hedge maze for the kids.
Joan had been volunteering there three days a week since the start of the summer. The work was mostly cleaning and gardening, but Joan loved it. History was her favorite subject at school. Her friends talked about being actors and singers. Joan's dream was to work in a museum.
She walked the familiar route to Holland House. Around her, the world seemed surreally normal. The empty shells along Earl's Court Road looked like ordinary shops again. Even the blue skies of yesterday morning had turned back to London's more usual gloom. It was as though yesterday had never happened.
Joan reached Kensington High Street. On the other side of the road, the wrought-iron gates of Holland House stood open. It was late enough in the afternoon that tourists were leaving for the day, streaming out into Kensington.
It was strange to walk in against the current. Joan felt as if she were going the wrong way. Maybe she was. What would
she even say to Nick when she saw him? From his point of view, she'd ignored his messages and stood him up. Then, today, she'd missed her volunteer shift without calling in. What if he didn't even want to talk to her? Joan swallowed hard at the thought.
As she made her way up the elm-lined path to the house, tourists passed her with empty picnic baskets and souvenirs from the gift shop. Kids ran by, waving foam swords, their parents following more sedately behind.
As always, Holland House came into view in pieces. Red brick broke through the veil of trees, then white trim and shining windows, before the path gave way to smooth lawn and the house was revealed in full.
The living museum of Holland House was a redbrick-and-stone manor draped in ivy. The roofline was gently gabled and turreted, and on the lawn outside there was a fountain and roaming peacocks.
Joan stood on the cusp of the lawn now. She'd somehow expected the house to seem different. But it looked just as it had two days ago. The whole world looked the same: Gran's kitchen and Earl's Court Road. It was Joan who'd changed.
Now she knew that underneath the facade of ordinary London, there were monsters.
Joan climbed the back staircase that the staff used. Afternoon light filtered through the windows. The air smelled of sun-warmed polish and wood.
Nick was working in the library. It was a long gallery space
that stretched the entire width of the house. Bookshelves and oil paintings filled the walls. At one end of the gallery, windows looked out onto a formal garden; at the other, the front courtyard.
Joan hesitated in the doorway. Nick's back was to her. He was working alone, wiping down a picture frame with a soft dusting cloth. It was a little warm in the library, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up to the crooks of his elbows. Joan couldn't take her eyes off the sliver of bare skin between his collar and his hairline.
You touched him here
, Gran had said of Mr. Solt.
The surreal feeling was even stronger now. Joan remembered the first time she'd met Nickâher first day volunteering here. It had been a sunny Saturday at the start of summer. That morning, the crowds at the house had grown and grown until it seemed as if half of London were picnicking on the grounds, and inching shoulder to shoulder through the hedge maze. On Joan's lunch break, she'd retreated to the house, climbed the back staircase, and found herself alone here in this library. She had closed her eyes and breathed in the smell of paper and books bound in leather. The reprieve had been an intense relief.
A floorboard had creaked, and she'd opened her eyes again to find a boy walking into the library. He'd been a little older than herâseventeen, maybe. Her first thought was that he was classically handsome: clean-cut, with dark hair and a square jaw. And then he'd looked at her, and Joan had felt warmth roll over her, as if she'd stepped into a sunbeam.
Later she would learn that he was kind. That he never lied.
That he talked to everyone with the same respect and interest.
Joan shifted her weight now, and the floorboard creaked. For a moment, memory and reality converged as Nick turned.
Joan's heart skipped a beat as his dark eyes met hers. “I'm so sorry,” she said. “I'm so sorry I didn't meet up with you yesterday.”
Nick pushed a hand through his hair. In some lights, it was almost blackâ
Mr. Darcy black
, their friend Astrid called it. The window behind him had lightened it. “It's okay,” he said. And the words were casual, but there was a vulnerable note underneath. He seemed braced for rejection.
“There was a family thing,” Joan said. That wasn't exactly a lie, but it sounded like one. “AndÂ .Â .Â . and I'm sorry I didn't answer your messages. I lost my phone.Â .Â .Â .” She heard herself trail off.
But I found it again.
You must never tell anyone about monsters
, Gran had said. For the first time, Joan wondered if this secret would always stand between her and people she cared about. Here with Nick, and at home with Dad.
She imagined Nick waiting for her at that cafÃ©. She hadn't responded to any of his messages. But she knew him. He'd have waited and waited, just in case. How long had he been there before he'd realized that she wasn't coming?
Are you okay?
he'd asked in his last message.
She imagined him getting that curt message from her hours later that night.
A family thing came up.
“JoanÂ .Â .Â .” Nick was still standing there, waiting for more.
Now Joan saw the realization dawn on him slowly, along with the hurt of it. She wasn't going to give him a better explanation.
Downstairs, doors were closing. Footsteps tromped to the main entrance. The last of the tourists were leaving for the day.
Joan scrubbed a hand over her face. It was all too overwhelming. She needed something real. “I couldÂ .Â .Â .” She gestured awkwardly at the dusting cloth in Nick's hand. He blinked down at it, as if he'd forgotten he was holding it. “I could finish up in here. I know it doesn't make up for the shift I missed, butÂ .Â .Â .”
Nick searched her face. “You don't have to do that.”
“It won't take long,” Joan said. She went over to the cleaning kit. She could feel Nick's eyes on her as she rummaged for a cloth. She was being all weird, she knew. And she was only putting off the inevitable.
The picture frame was wooden with rose carvings. Joan cleaned it as they'd been taught, getting the dust out of the fiddly carved bits, careful not to touch the painting itself. The silence was heavy. She tensed, waiting for him to say it:
You really hurt me. That's not okay, Joan.
Or maybe he'd just leave.
She heard Nick's footsteps. Slow, like the way she'd walked to Mr. Solt. He wasn't walking away.
He stopped beside her. She felt overly aware of him: broad-shouldered and square-jawed. “Joan?” His voice was a soft rumble. “What happened yesterday?”
Joan's throat felt thick. How often did her family do it, she wondered. How much life did they stealâand from who? Had Ruth stolen time from neighbors? From people Joan knew?
She wished for a reckless second that she could actually confess everything to Nick. She always felt better when she talked to him. And what Gran had told her last night was so frightening that she needed to tell someone. But she could never tell Nick. He was human, and Gran had reminded her of the rule last night:
You must never tell anyone about monsters.
Downstairs, staff called goodbyes to each other. More doors were closing. People were going home. “I just came here to say I'm sorry.” Joan had to force the words out. Her throat felt so tight.
She shouldn't have come here at all, she realized now. She hadn't known who to turn to, but she shouldn't have turned to Nick. The truth was, she'd stepped into a strange and dangerous new world last night. One Nick didn't belong in.
Nick didn't answer for a long moment. Joan saw the emotions cross his face. Had he guessed that when she left, she wouldn't be back?
Joan's chest hurt.
I like him
, she'd said to Ruth. But that wasn't what she felt. When she'd met him, it was like she'd recognized him. Like she'd known him her whole life. And when he'd asked her out, she'd felt like a new part of her had opened up. She hadn't even known she could feel like that.
The thought of leaving nowâof never seeing him againâmade her heart break. But she knew that she had to. She knew herself. She wouldn't be able to lie to him. She'd already had a reckless urge to confess. She felt it still.
“Joan,” Nick said. They were standing so close. “Don't,” he
said. There was something raw in his dark eyes. “Don't just go.” So he
I have to
, Joan thought.
I don't trust myself around you. I'm scared of what I'll tell you. I'm scared of what I am.
But when he said, “Please,” Joan found herself nodding.
Staff weren't supposed to stay after hours. Joan felt strange about breaking that ruleâshe was usually a letter-of-the-law kind of person, and Nick was too. They retreated to the far end of the library to sit side by side on the bare wooden floor under the windowâwhere they couldn't damage anything.
Nick found a hazelnut Dairy Milk bar in his bag and laid down his jacket as an improvised picnic blanket. “Wouldn't want to drop any crumbs,” he said solemnly. His collar slid down as he smoothed out the jacket, and Joan tried not to look at his pale neck.
Nick's fingers brushed against hers as he passed her the chocolate. Joan suppressed a flinch. She'd taken time from Mr. Solt just by touching his neck. She would never forgive herself if she hurt Nick like that too.
By tacit agreement, they avoided the topic of yesterday. Instead they made halting small talk. “Were you gardening today?” Joan said. It came out sounding as awkward as she felt.
There were a hundred unspoken questions in Nick's eyes, but he answered her. “Still doing that audit for the insurance company.” He'd been born in Yorkshire and still had a faint northern accent. It sounded stronger when he was tired. Joan
could hear it now. “I cataloged that room you likeâwith all the little paintings.”
“The Miniature Room,” Joan said. It must have taken him ages to catalog all the curios. That was a two-person job, and he'd had to do it alone today. No wonder he was tired. She looked down at the floor. Her guilt felt like a live thing inside her. She'd hurt Mr. Solt yesterday. She'd hurt Nick. She might not have intended to, but she had. Was this what monsters did?
As they exchanged more awkward small talk, the air felt heavy with unspoken things. The conversation they weren't having seemed louder than the one they were.
Joan drew her knees up. Around them, the house got quieter and quieter, until even the settling creaks of the floor seemed to still. They were the only ones left in the house.
Across the room, the late-afternoon sun splashed against the half-dusted painting. “I didn't finish dusting the frame,” Joan realized. There was half an hour of work left on it. “I'll do it before we go.”
Nick's voice was gentle. “I'll do it tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. Joan didn't know how to think about tomorrow. She could barely imagine tonight. She let her head fall back against the wall. The painting was nearly life-size, but from here it looked like one of the miniatures. It was a portrait of a man in Regency-era hunting clothes. He was standing under an oak tree, chin at a haughty tilt.