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Enchanted Ivy, Page 2

Sarah Beth Durst

  He clasped her hand. "My dear, we are acquainted," he said. His voice was soft and gentle. "Do you not remember?"

  Uh-oh, Lily thought.

  Mom's lips pinched into an O. Silently, she shook her head.

  As soon as Mr. Mayfair let go of Mom's hand, Lily took it. She spread her fingers over Mom's whitening knuckles.

  "You have known me for many years," he said. "I even officiated at your wedding...." He looked as if he wanted to


  say more, but he halted. "I'm sorry. I'm distressing you."

  "Not at all," Mom said, all politeness and cheerfulness.

  "Richard, she shouldn't be here," Mr. Mayfair said. "She should be home."

  Grandpa shook his head. "She chose this, and I promised to see it through. I'm not going back on my word now."

  Lily thought that was a rather melodramatic way to put it. She squeezed Mom's hand. A smile was still plastered on Mom's face, as if she didn't mind that people were talking about her.

  Grandpa turned to Mom and asked, "Will you stay right here in this room until we return?" He spoke carefully, making sure the words sank in. Everyone had to be extra clear with Mom. Mom could forget where she was and wander off. Two summers ago at the beach on the Jersey Shore, Mom had insisted on fetching ice cream by herself. They found her an hour later, watching the carousel a mile down the beach. She said she was waiting for the horses to fly. After that, Lily didn't like leaving her alone anywhere.

  "Mom ...," Lily began.

  Mom squeezed Lily's hand and then let go. "I'll be right here when you return," she promised. "I'll practice my piano!" She pointed at the grand piano.

  "You know you don't play piano, right?" Lily said.

  "Hence the need for practice, practice, practice!" She wiggled her fingers in the air. Lily grinned and then kissed her mother's cheek. Mom was such an amazing person. Her


  own mind betrayed her on a near-daily basis, and she still found the strength to be gracious and funny. "I shall be a virtuoso by the time you return," Mom said.

  Grandpa escorted Lily to the cream-white door by the fireplace. Mr. Mayfair preceded them and then halted before the door. In a low voice, he said to Grandpa, "She didn't even recognize me."

  In an equally low voice, Grandpa said, "Her rate of decline is worse than we expected."

  "Perhaps we should--"

  Grandpa interrupted. "My family, my decision. We must act now."

  Mr. Mayfair regarded him for a moment, then nodded and opened the door. Before Lily could ask Grandpa any questions about this odd exchange, she heard Mr. Mayfair announce, "It's time."

  A knot formed in the base of Lily's stomach. "You know I hate surprises," she said under her breath.

  "No, you don't," Grandpa said just as softly. "You love them. And I promise this will be the best surprise of all." He held the door open for her, and Lily ducked under his arm. She halted in the doorway.

  A dozen men and women waited inside a private library. Each was positioned as if for a painting ("Old Boys at Princeton," Lily instantly dubbed it--if there was such a thing as an Old Boys' Network, this was it). A man in a black suit posed before a marble fireplace. Hands clasped behind


  his back, he regarded the cold ashes in the hearth with the solemnity reserved for a funeral. Another man leaned pseudocasually against the frame of a stained-glass window. He held an open book loosely in his hands. Lily noticed he was holding it upside down. A third man, portly and elderly, filled a thronelike chair that had armrests shaped like tiger heads. He puffed on a pipe, and smoke drifted in lazy curls over his head. Two women with impeccable posture perched on a red leather settee, and another woman with an ivory-tipped cane occupied a wingback chair. Others were perched on chairs and sofas or standing beside bookshelves.

  The room itself overflowed with leather-bound books and Tiffany lamps. Above the marble fireplace was an oil painting of St. George and the Dragon. The stained-glass window depicted a tableau of knights and scholars around an emerald-green dragon with ruby talons. The green glass dragon wore a silver chain around its neck.

  Lily heard awkward piano notes drift in from the main room. One of the younger men winced at a particularly inventive chord, and Mr. Mayfair shut the door.

  Silence fell over the room.

  Lily strained to hear the plunk of piano keys, but no sound penetrated the door. Her own breathing echoed unnaturally loudly in her ears. She wondered why a random room was so well soundproofed. She glanced at Grandpa. He was beaming, his smile as broad as the Cheshire Cat's. It wasn't reassuring.


  As if he were introducing her to a concert audience, Grandpa said, "This is my granddaughter, Lily!" Pride swelled his voice until he nearly crowed. "She is ready for the test!"


  What test?

  No one had mentioned a test. She hadn't agreed to a test.

  Snap! Lily jumped. The man at the window had shut his book. Now he straightened and smiled at her, not unkindly. "Splendid. Welcome, Lily. Are you ready to claim your destiny?"

  "Presumptuous," the heavyset woman in the wingback chair said. She thumped her ivory-tipped cane on the floor for emphasis, but the ruby-red Oriental rug muffled the sound.

  Lily opened her mouth to defend herself--she couldn't be presumptuous when she didn't even presume to have the least idea of what they were talking about. Before she could speak, Grandpa squeezed her shoulder. "She was born for this," he said.

  The woman sniffed. "We shall soon see."

  This could be some sort of admissions interview, she thought. Lily's heart hammered faster. If Grandpa had arranged an alumni interview, he should have warned her. He knew how important Princeton was to her! If this had anything to do with admissions--

  "Oh, for pity's sake, Joseph," the man with the book said. "Put the child out of suspense before she pees on the floor from nerves."


  Lily felt her face redden. She wasn't that nervous.

  Should she be?

  Honestly, these people could make a rock nervous. All of them were staring at her as if they were a pride of lions and she was a plump gazelle. She wanted to shout, Stop looking at me! But thankfully, before she blurted out anything she'd regret, all eyes shifted to Mr. Mayfair.

  He drew himself straighter, and Lily suddenly understood what the term "presence" meant. This man had presence. You couldn't not look at him. It felt as if all the oxygen in the room had been pulled toward him. "Lily Carter, you are here because your grandfather, Richard Carter, has recommended you for the Legacy Test."

  She dragged her eyes away from Mr. Mayfair to look at Grandpa. He was still smiling in that rather alarming way.

  "First, we must ask you not to speak of this test to anyone beyond this room," Mr. Mayfair said. She thought of Mom and wished she could still hear the piano notes.

  The man with the book chimed in. "It isn't a pain-of-death sort of command. We'd simply prefer that the media not catch wind of our little tradition. They would misunderstand. Willfully misunderstand, I might add."

  Everyone nodded so solemnly that Lily thought maybe she'd misheard and he'd said it was a pain-of-death command. Standing here in this room, she could believe it. She felt as if she were surrounded by royalty. These people radiated


  self-confidence. She had the sense that each of them could fill a room with his or her presence if he or she so chose. Together, they made the air feel thick.

  "Can we have your word that you will keep the contents of this conversation private?" Mr. Mayfair asked. In the same kind voice he'd used with Mom earlier, he added, "Of course with the exception of your family."

  She didn't dare do anything but nod.

  He smiled approvingly, and Lily's knees shook. She didn't know why it mattered to her that he approved, but she felt a flood of relief when he smiled. "The Legacy Test is offered only to the very select few," Mr. Mayfair said. "Passing means automati
c acceptance to Princeton University."

  She stared. Obviously, she must have misheard. Automatic acceptance? As in no grades, no SATs, no essays? Just "yes, you're in"? She looked from face to face, ending on Grandpa's. He looked as if he were about to burst into a song and dance routine, which was wholly uncharacteristic of him. "Grandpa? Is this a joke?" She'd heard rumors that legacies were sometimes favored, but she'd never imagined a formal process.

  "Surprise!" Grandpa said.

  Surprise? Surprise?! That was all he had to say? "Why didn't you tell me?" She could have prepared! She could have studied! She could have at least worked herself up into a fine state of nervous nausea!

  "He was not permitted," Mr. Mayfair said.


  Yeah, right. Since when did Grandpa need permission from anyone for anything? He ran his own business. He ran their family. If he tried, Lily thought, he could run the world. He was the strongest, smartest man that Lily had ever met ... but maybe she'd only seen Grandpa next to ordinary people. Maybe next to giants, he wasn't so tall. That was a disturbing thought. She felt as if she were betraying Grandpa to even think it.

  Lily realized that everyone was staring at her again as if waiting for her to say something, but she had no idea what she was supposed to say. "What's the test?" she asked at last.

  She heard a whoosh as the Old Boys exhaled en masse. Several smiled, and a few even chuckled. Mr. Mayfair graced her with an avuncular smile, and she basked in his approval. "The test varies from candidate to candidate," Mr. Mayfair said. "For you, Lily ... you must find the Ivy Key."

  She flashed back to a treasure hunt at a classmate's fifth-grade birthday party. Back then, the prize had been gummy bears and a yo-yo.

  The woman with the ivory-tipped cane said, "Find the Key, and your future will be assured. Your destiny, secure."

  "You will still need to complete an application form, of course," the man with the book said. "Appearances, my dear. Must keep up appearances. But you will be guaranteed a yes response."

  Her head spun. She wished she were sitting down.


  The man with the book laughed at her expression. "All you have to do is pass."

  "And if I don't pass?" Lily asked.

  One of the perfect-posture women said, "If you fail, you are free to apply with the rest of the applicants. This test is outside the purview of the admissions committee. But if you fail here, you should not expect an invitation to join Vineyard Club. Indeed, you would not be welcome."

  Success meant her dream come true; failure meant exclusion from this (admittedly nice) clubhouse but still a shot at her dream come true. Yeah, she could totally live with that. No wonder Grandpa was smiling so widely he looked like he might burst. She felt the same expression spreading across her face. She was smiling so hard that her cheeks ached. She felt as if a hundred birthday presents, including the pony she'd wanted in third grade and the lime green Volkswagen she wanted now, had landed right in front of her. "What's the Ivy Key?" she asked. "What does it look like? What does it open? What do I do to find it? How do I start?"

  At her flood of questions, Mr. Mayfair and several others smiled indulgently.

  "That's the test, my dear," the man with the book said.

  But ... it could be anything! A locker room key, a dorm room key, a key to a top-secret safe in the university president's office where he kept world-domination plans ... How would she even know if she'd found the right key?


  "Do you accept our challenge?" Mr. Mayfair said. His eyes bored into hers. His expression was so intense that there was only one possible answer.

  "Yes, of course, I accept!" she said.

  All the Old Boys applauded.



  Mr. Mayfair opened the library door, and music--or sort of music--poured in. Piano notes fell over one another like a rushing waterfall. The cascade of chords exactly matched how Lily was feeling. She pictured herself years later with gray streaks in her hair and an alum's black and orange jacket, remembering this day and saying, Here, right here, this moment--this is when my life changed.

  Better not screw up.

  As Mom hit another discordant jumble of notes, Mr. Mayfair's smile slipped. He leveled a look at Grandpa that Lily would have labeled "meaningful" if she could have identified what it meant. "Are you certain?" he asked Grandpa again. "Once she knows--"

  "I am," Grandpa said firmly.

  "Very well then. It begins now," Mr. Mayfair said. "Good


  luck, Lily Carter." He shut the door, leaving Lily, Grandpa, and Mom alone.

  As soon as the door closed, Mom sprang off the piano bench. "She's starting?"

  Grandpa beamed. "She accepted the test!"

  "Oh, sweetie, yay!" Mom skipped across the room and enveloped Lily in a hug.

  Lily felt her jaw drop. "You knew about this?" Mom had kept a secret? Lily was torn between being annoyed and impressed. How long had Mom known about the Legacy Test? Days? Weeks? Years? "When did Grandpa tell you?"

  As soon as the question was out of her mouth, Lily wished she could suck it back in. She knew better than to ask Mom to remember anything.

  Mom's shoulders slumped, and her face collapsed. "I ... I don't know."

  "Never mind," Lily said quickly. But the damage was already done.

  Shooting Lily a look that made her feel as if she'd poisoned a baby, Grandpa patted Mom's hand as he guided her toward the door. "We'll be checked in at the Fiftieth Reunion tent," he said to Lily. "Ask for our room number at the registration desk when you need to sleep."

  She trailed after them. "Wait, can't I come with you? I don't know where to start!" Stepping out the front door of Vineyard Club, she blinked into the midday sun. As her eyes adjusted, she noticed that the tiger-haired college boy was


  leaning against the brick wall in front of the club. His hands were shoved deep in his jeans pockets, and he stared up at the cloudless blue sky.

  Grandpa shook his head. "You're going to pass with flying colors, and I don't want anyone to doubt that you did it on your own." He sounded fierce.

  Lily wondered how many favors Grandpa had had to call in to arrange this. Mr. Mayfair had said only a select few were chosen, and she knew she wasn't anything special. "I won't let you down, Grandpa."

  He softened. "That's my tigerlily. Remember that I believe in you, however the test ends and whatever mysteries you unlock along the way."

  The striped-haired boy was regarding them with mild interest, but Lily told herself to ignore him. This was more important than any college boy. "Can you at least tell me what the rules are?" she asked. "Is there a time limit?"

  "You have until the end of Reunions," he said. "Sunday, we go home."

  Before she could ask any more questions, he turned and strode down the walk. Mom blew her a kiss and scurried after him. Feeling like a toddler left at preschool for the first time, Lily watched them head out the gate and onto the sidewalk.

  The tiger-haired boy watched them too.

  The street that Mom and Grandpa were walking down (Prospect Avenue, according to the street signs) was lined


  with other mansions in both directions--more eating clubs, she guessed. She saw an oversize cottage, a Gone with the Wind -like house with white pillars and a broad porch, and a squat brick monstrosity with an orange and black cannon on its front lawn. All were past their peak glory. Paint chipped off the grand entrances, and plywood covered several windows. One had a couch on its roof. She couldn't imagine how or why anyone would put a couch on a roof.

  I'm so not ready for this, she thought.

  As she watched Mom and Grandpa pass the club with the cannon on the lawn, Lily wanted to chase after them. But Grandpa's words rooted her where she stood. She couldn't let him down, and if she ran after him in full view of Vineyard Club ... She pictured the Old Boys peering out the windows, clucking their tongues in disapproval. The he
avyset woman with the ivory-tipped cane most likely already had a notebook full of Lily's inadequacies: drops her r's at the end of words, wears uneven socks, doesn't curtsy at greetings, isn't clever enough or pretty enough or perky enough ... Stop it, she ordered herself. She could do this. Grandpa believed in her. She was just freaked out because she hadn't pictured herself alone on a college campus so soon.

  But she wasn't alone. There was the tiger-haired boy.

  She grinned at herself. Yeah, right, as if she could walk up to a real-life college boy and ask him about the Ivy Key. He still leaned against the brick wall, as coolly casual as a modern James Dean. She couldn't talk to him. She wasn't in


  the same league as guys like that. She was barely from the same universe. It was enough that she'd have to walk past him.

  And she would have to walk past him. Soon. If she kept dithering here on the steps of the club, the Old Boys would pronounce her the worst candidate they'd ever seen and blackball her admissions application to every college except those online schools that advertised in movie theaters. Lily ordered her feet to walk. She was hyperaware when she passed the college boy, but she willed herself not to look at him. If she looked, she'd stare.

  On the sidewalk, she halted. Right or left? she wondered. She selected right. She didn't want Grandpa to think she was following them.

  "Other way," Tiger Boy said behind her. His voice was soft, sort of velvety.

  "Me?" she asked, pivoting to face him. Up close, his hair looked amazingly natural. It was soft orange and black, muted like the fur of a tiger-striped cat. Stray bits fell over his eyes. She imagined brushing them away from his face. She looked down and studied her sneakers instead.