A raging blizzard. A mysterious visitor. And the strangest birthday gift ever…the autobiography of her future self.
Anna should not open the door for the beautiful woman in black. How many times have her parents warned her against opening the door for strangers while she is home alone? Up until now, she has obediently ignored the various delivery people, politicians, salesmen, missionaries—and yes, even Girl Scouts, with their promises of Thin Mints—who have rung the bell at 12 Cherry Street.
Then again, none of those people were nearly as beautiful as the woman at the door. None of them arrived during the blizzard of the century. And none of them carried a box wrapped in shiny gold foil, tied up in a white ribbon.
Perhaps Anna should not open the door, but if she doesn’t, how will she open the box? And if she doesn’t open the box, how will her future unfold?
Anna should not open the door for the beautiful woman in black. But she does. Every action has its consequences. Even the simple act of opening a door may admit a future once unimagined.
The storm rides into Boston on the back of a howling wind. It shakes the glass in the windows and whips old maple and oak trees into a fury, clawing at the sky. Trillions of snowflakes whip along on the wind, making the whole world fade away as if behind a sheer curtain. Already the roads and sidewalks and lawns have vanished under an unbroken field of white.
At the corner of Cherry and Arlington streets, a school bus creaks to a stop. Two young girls hop off and make their way down Cherry Street, arms shielding their faces against the stinging snow. They wear trim gray coats (too thin for the weather), and carry book bags slung over their shoulders. The taller of the two girls turns to squint back at the other, briefly revealing her heart-shaped face, slapped red by the wind.
The girl does not notice the black Volvo parked across the street. Nor does she notice Elizabeth Stark, whose pale blue eyes watch her from behind the Volvo’s tinted windows. As the girls disappear inside the narrow three-story brownstone at 12 Cherry Street, Stark purses her lips and looks away from the window.
“Well?” she asks.
A middle-aged, stubble-faced man sits beside her wearing oversized earphones and tapping on the screen of a hand-held device. Another man sits in the driver’s seat, arms folded across his chest, head back, eyes closed.
“I couldn’t get a clear shot of their faces,” says the man with the earphones, still peering at the screen. “Not enough to make a positive identification. I’m getting audio, though.”
Stark glances at the screen, which displays an enlarged picture of the taller girl’s face, mostly obscured by passing snowflakes. The shot is clear enough for Stark, though.
“It’s her,” she says quietly. The girl’s hair is longer and darker than when Stark last saw her, but the eyes—those are the same. Dark and searching. Curious. Unafraid. And lit by a spark that could be laughter, or fire.
Stark’s companion glances at her, eyebrows raised, then turns back to the screen. “How can you tell?” he asks. “The last time you saw her she was, what, thirty-seven?”
There is a pause, as Stark remembers. “Some things never change,” she finally says.
“We have audio,” the man says again. He presses the headphones against his ear, listening intently. “She sounds like your typical twelve-year-old kid to me. Probably leaving her boots in the middle of the hall,” the man says. “Probably getting snow all over everything, just like my kid.”
“Typical 12-year-old kids don’t cause as much trouble as she has,” Stark replies. “Or will, anyway. Let me listen.”
The man taps the device and the dark interior of the car is suddenly filled with the sound of a girl’s laughter.
Anna laughs, bright and happy. She is kicking off her boots and (just as the man listening in the car across the street suspects) leaving them in the middle of the hallway, where the snow packed into their bottoms will melt into puddles that she will step in later, wetting her socks.
What is making her laugh is the way Elly has wrapped her scarf around the head of their calico cat, Fritz, so that he looks like a Russian peasant woman. She is sitting on the bench just inside the doorway, holding Fritz upright in her lap.
“I tell your fortune, cheap, birthday girl!” Elly says, making her voice croak like an old gypsy’s as she waves Fritz’s paws around. “Two krona for a good fortune. One krona for bad! Cheap! Madame Fritzy never cheat customer!”
Anna shrugs off her coat and deposits it on the floor by the bench. She plops down next to her sister and the fortune-telling cat, who looks at her plaintively. Please be my rescuer from this embarrassing situation, his face seems to say, but instead she holds out her palm.
“Oh, great fortune teller, tell me, tell me, what do you see in my future?” Anna asks, with a melodramatic flourish of her other arm.
Elly puts Fritz’s paw on her sister’s palm. “It is hazy, yes, so hazy,” she intones. “I see…yes, I see…you are walking into a dark room…a dark room with many dark strangers…and it smells like…sardines…and there is a purple panda….”
Anna smirks and rolls her eyes; she knows where this is going. Elly has closed her eyes, totally immersed in her role. Fritz, on the other hand, is trying to squirm away.
“…who says to you: ‘Welcome. Welcome to…Pandemonium Pizza!”
“Elly, I told you we’re not going to Pandemonium Pizza for my birthday dinner!” Anna jerks her hand away and liberates Fritz, lifting him out of Elly’s grasp. She stands and carries Fritz down the hall and into the kitchen.
Elly follows on her heels. “Oh, come on, Anna!”
“I want to go to the Beehive, Elly. Seriously,” Anna says, carrying Fritz into the kitchen. “And it’s anchovies that they put on pizza, not sardines.”
“Sometimes they put sardines on pizza!” Elly insists. “Ask Mom!”
Anna gives her a disgusted look and sets Fritz down on the floor. She opens one of the cabinets and fishes out a can of tuna.
“Madame Fritzy deserves to be paid anyway,” Anna says, “even if she is a lousy fortune teller.” She pops the can onto the electric can opener.
“You can’t use that,” Elly says. “The power’s out.” She opens the refrigerator door and quickly grabs the cream cheese and blueberry jam. The refrigerator light doesn’t come on.
“Argh. Not again,” Anna groans. “First the cell network is down. Now this.”
“The power is always out,” Elly says flatly. It’s an exaggeration, but not by much. She finds some bread, spreads two slices out on the cutting board, and proceeds to make an extremely sticky sandwich overflowing with cream cheese and jam.
Meanwhile, Anna digs through the utensil drawer until she finds the manual can opener. She dumps the tuna fish into the cat’s bowl; Fritz responds with loudly purred thank yous. Anna stands there watching Fritz eat, thinking about her homework. She is supposed to be keeping a daily journal for thirty days, writing down all her thoughts and experiences. It is due in a week, so now seems like a good time to get started, even if it is her birthday; after all, what is she going to do with the power out? She can’t work on her blog. And her parents will probably be late getting home because of the storm. Caroline Fox is an editor at the Boston Globe; David Fox is a professor of theoretical physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both are usually home late, but tonight they had planned to come home early so the whole family could go out for a special dinner celebrating Anna’s birthday. Her heart sinks at the thought that those plans might get scrapped.
“We might not even go to a restaurant tonight, if the storm gets worse,” Anna tells Elly. “Maybe Mom and Dad will pick up some takeout.”
“I can make you another cream cheese and jam sandwich,” Elly suggests, her mouth half full. A big gob of jam drips out of the far end of her creation and splatters all over the floor. “If you’re hungry,” she adds.
“Uh, no thanks.”
Anna loves her little sister dearly—but her taste in food, not so much.
Elly runs up the stairs to her third-floor bedroom—possibly to sing and dance around while listening to her iPod. “Ha, ha!” she calls over her shoulder when she finds out that Anna will be doing homework.
Anna finds the notebook that is supposed to be filled with journal entries from the past month. After digging around in her mother’s desk for a pen, she gets comfortable on the window seat in the front parlor. Fritz hops up next to her. They look out the window at the storm. Cars creep by slowly, headlights glowing and windshield wipers slashing furiously. A handful of parked cars are turning into hulking polar bears, huddled against the wind.
The blank notebook sits in Anna’s lap, its pages as white as the snow swirling against the cold window-glass. What to write? What to write? Anna broods over the empty journal, scowl-faced. She can’t really remember many details from the past thirty days; they all blur into one another. Cinnamon toast for breakfast. The sleepy car ride to school; the droning voice of Mr. Pathos explaining fractions; texting her friends, Isa and Sam…if she retrieves those texts, would they say anything worth mentioning in the journal? She guesses not. On the weekends, going shopping with Elly and her mother in the antique shops lining Charles Street. If only she were interested in antiques, she could fill three journal entries talking about that, but she’s not. She always sits in the corner, reading, while Elly and her mother explore the uncharted back rooms. Anna only goes along because afterward, her mother takes them out for lunch at Eduardo’s. Their quesadillas make Anna drool.
If you don’t know how to start, her mother has often advised, start anywhere, with anything. You can always go back and re-write. Easy enough for her to say; her mother did all her writing on computer screens, not in a notebook. Also, her mother wrote about interesting things, not the boring details of her everyday life.
“It would be a lot easier to write about my life if I had lived a different one,” she says to Fritz, absently rubbing his stomach. She begins to think that she will have to resort to making things up. Fiction, she can handle; real life, not so much.
The parlor, Anna suddenly notices, has grown darker. Besides being crammed full of the prizes her mother and sister bring home from antique shops and estate sales—ancient wardrobes and mirrors and lamps and heavy wooden sidetables and bookshelves—it is now also filling up with shadows. She gets up and grabs a couple of small battery-powered lamps from a closet, flicking them on and setting them on a bookshelf and a side table near the window.
As she does, she glances outside to see how much more of the world has disappeared. Everything, it seems—everything but the black car that slowly glides to a stop in front of the house.
Anna stands frozen, wondering who it could be. These days, black cars with tinted windows tend to be bad news. Presently the passenger door opens, and a young woman steps out. She looks at the house. Her eyes find Anna in the window. Anna steps away from the window, back into the shadows, as shy as a fawn. She thinks of running upstairs, but she would have to pass the front entrance, with its glass windows, to do that.
As she wonders what to do, she catches the sad eyes of Abraham Lincoln—or his bust, anyway, proudly displayed on a tall wooden stand.
“Shh,” Anna whispers to Lincoln. She crouches down and crawls to the parlor entrance, where she can hide out of view but still get a pretty good look at the front door reflected in a mirror hanging in the hallway.
The woman is already standing there, reaching for the bell-pull; then the bell mounted inside the door swings and clangs.
Peering at the woman’s image in the hallway mirror, Anna is struck by her beauty: blonde hair pulled back neatly from a heart-shaped face, rose-colored lips, eyes as pale blue as a winter sky, and a smile as kind as a kindergarten teacher’s. And although she wears only a three-quarter sleeve jacket that is already covered in a thin white mantle of snow, she seems totally unperturbed. She must be cold, Anna thinks. If the woman’s beauty was not enough to persuade her to open the door, she might have done it just to bring the woman in out of the cold.
And then there is the package, wrapped in shiny gold foil and tied with a white ribbon. The woman holds it to herself, just high enough to be visible through the doorway window. Could it be a birthday present?
For all of these reasons—for beauty and compassion and, yes, a touch of concupiscence—Anna stands up, pads across the rug in her damp socks, and opens the door—just a crack. Cold air floods through the opening, along with the faint scent of a perfume that immediately reminds Anna of summer.
“Yes?” she says, coolly.
The woman looks at her calmly with ice-blue eyes, and smiles as if recognizing an old friend.
“Hello,” the woman says. “Are you Anna Fox?”
“Anna Quincy Fox?”
“Yes,” Anna says again, with a bit of an edge.
“I understand that it’s your birthday today, Ms. Fox.”
Anna says nothing, just looks the lady up and down, because nothing annoys her more than a condescending adult. Even one with great shoes, which Anna pauses briefly to admire. Pumps—black, of course, sunk ankle-deep in the accumulating snow. The woman also wears a thigh-length skirt; she must be freezing, Anna thinks again.
“May I come in?” the woman asks.
“I’m not even supposed to open the door for strangers,” Anna says.
“Then let me introduce myself.” The woman extends a hand, gloved in black leather. “Elizabeth Stark. I’m a colleague of your father’s.”
Anna accepts her hand, which Stark grasps rather firmly. She uses the handshake to maneuver Anna out of the way as she steps inside. She shuts the door behind her.
“I promise I won’t stay,” Stark says, with a smile and a wink. She hands the box wrapped in gold foil to Anna. “This is for you. It is a birthday present.”
From the weight of the thing, Anna decides it must be a thick book.
“What is it?”
“Open it,” says Stark, smiling coyly as she pulls off her gloves. Her eyes linger on Anna’s face.
Anna hesitates, remembering warnings about not accepting candy from strangers. Although Stark claims to be a colleague of her father’s, Anna does not remember her from among the many guests her parents have had for their frequent parties. There have been professors and reporters and activists and politicians, all of them chattering endlessly (if quietly) about the Crisis and the Emergency Government, but no fashion-model kindergarten teachers. Anna thinks she would have remembered someone as striking as Stark.
“You work with my father at the university?” she asks. “Are you a secretary or something?”
Stark’s face makes the tiniest frown. “Mmm, no. Administration, you might say. Your father has told us all so much about you and your sister over the years. Your backyard campouts. Gymnastics meets. The little musical plays you put on.”
Anna flushes a little; putting on musical plays sounds childish, coming from the lips of the elegant Ms. Stark. Anna and Elly always called them operas, even before they’d been to a real opera.
Stark steps into the parlor, slowly taking it all in. Her gaze lands on several pictures of Anna and Elly on the wall, and she steps up close to them, admiringly. There are some school portraits, and a portrait of the whole family—all four of them—from two years ago. Anna, Elly, and her mother have very dark hair, a gift from their Indian and Italian ancestors. David Fox has reddish hair—a little thin on top—and a full beard. He is grinning in a way that suggests he might not be taking this all that seriously. There are also several pictures from family vacations: Elly and Anna at the Grand Canyon, and another of them on the beach, during their trip to the Outer Banks last summer.
“Hasn’t your father ever told you about me?” Stark asks.
“No. He doesn’t tell me much about his work. He spends a lot of time doing math on computers.”
“Hmm,” Stark says. She suddenly turns away from the pictures. “You’re so much more patient than I am. If I were you, I’d have ripped that present open by now. Go ahead! It’s one of the many wonderful things that your father’s work makes possible.”
Anna sits down on the piano bench, knocking aside several music books that have been abandoned there, and carefully unties the ribbon, then pulls back the gold foil.
“It’s a book,” she says, a bit disappointed. The cover features a photograph of a woman in a red sleeveless dress standing against a clear blue sky. The woman, who is maybe as old as Anna’s mother, smiles as she looks off into the distance. For the Sake of the People is emblazoned across the cover in shiny gold lettering. Below the title, in equally large white letters, is her name: Anna Q. Fox.
“So…the author of this book has the same name as me? I’ve never heard of her.” Anna flips the book over and reads from the back cover: “‘In the wake of her triumphant return after ten years in exile, Anna Quincy Fox tells the story of her extraordinary life for the first time. Her now-legendary birth on the floor of the Boston Globe on the very night of the State of the Union Attacks foreshadowed a life at the center of the ensuing Crisis. In these pages, she recalls quiet moments from her Boston childhood, as well as the heretofore secret details of her rise within the ranks of the Restorationist movement….’ Oh, I get it,” Anna says, looking up at Stark. “I have a friend at school who got a book like this. This is one of those designer books, right? They put your name in the place of the main character, so it’s like you’re the center of the story.”
Stark raises her eyebrows, then slowly bends down, bringing her face inches from Anna’s. She looks at Anna as if she is both seeing her and seeing through her to someone else. When Anna looks back at her, it is with very large eyes.
“Anna,” Stark says in a whisper. “You’re the author of this book.” She lets this sink in for a moment, then continues. “You’re the author. This is you on the cover.”
Okay, Anna thinks. I have let a crazy woman into my house.
“I’ve never written a book,” Anna says to the beautiful crazy lady hovering way too close to her face. “Not about me. Not about anything.”
“No, you haven’t,” Stark says. “But you will.” She draws her fingertips lightly across the cover of the book until she reaches the edge, then lifts it open and turns the pages to the first chapter. “Go ahead, Anna. Read.”
Stark straightens up and begins to slowly walk through the parlor with her hands clasped behind her back, just as if she were casually sampling the displays in a museum.
Anna watches Stark’s back for a moment. She definitely does not like this woman. But what can be done? Besides, now she’s curious. She bends her head to the book and begins to read:
I was born at ten minutes to midnight on January 27, 2010—just hours after the State of the Union Attacks. Go ahead, wince and frown sympathetically—everyone does when I tell them this. Not exactly the most promising time to come into the world, was it? Some consider it bad luck. I did, as a child; but who could blame me? All those birthdays shared with the grim anniversary rituals. I don’t remember a single birthday before I was ten that wasn’t spent in my best dress, sitting or standing somewhere listening to somber music and somber speakers drone on and on while the adults around me—my mother, especially—dabbed at tears.
Speaking of my mother, I should share her perspective on my birth story, the one endlessly retold at countless parties: my mother, at the time the assistant metro editor at the Boston Globe, giving birth to me in the middle of the newsroom on that horrible night. Undoubtedly the story has been embellished over the years, but the way she likes to tell it, she went down still clutching her Blackberry, shouting questions at her staff between pushes. The captain going down with her ship, so to speak. “I don’t believe in letting a little thing like childbirth get in the way of a deadline,” she likes to deadpan. The hospitals were overwhelmed, anyway; it was either give birth in the newsroom, or in some chaotic emergency room hallway. Abbey Kakissis, who covered the cops and courts beat back then, delivered me into the world; she was the only person in the newsroom with any experience in this sort of thing, having had a couple kids of her own and not being too squeamish about a little blood.
And so the joke that followed me throughout my short-lived career in journalism: “Anna,” says every editor I’ve ever had, “it’s no wonder you’re always late. You were even late for the story of the century!”
To which I retort: “Ah, but at least I came in under budget.”
Anna shivers—not from the cold, but from the tingling feeling in her arms. Is it a practical joke? A really elaborate one? Lots of people know that story; everyone at the Globe, for starters. She flips to the cover photo again. It is hard to believe this woman could be her. The hair and eyes are the same dark shade of brown, though: almost black. The woman’s hair is cut in a bob, while Anna’s hair is tied back in a simple ponytail that falls just below her shoulders.
She flips the book open and turns a few pages before beginning to read again: “My introduction to the world of romance came by way of one Jasper Vanderbilt, my first serious crush—and my first serious heartbreak. He’d peek at me from under those long bangs with his teasing half-smile, and my heart would melt….”
Anna stops reading as her mouth slowly falls open and her face flushes. She has told no one, not even Isa, about Jasper.
This is real, she thinks, after re-reading the passage several times. She is so amazed, the fact that Jasper apparently is going to break her heart doesn’t even register. She sits down in the window seat, where Fritz is curled up fast asleep, holding the book open in her lap.
“Hard to believe, isn’t it?” says Stark from across the room. Turning gracefully on her heel, she strolls back to Anna’s side, languid as a cat. “How could you hold a book that you haven’t yet written? A book about a life you haven’t yet lived? Impossible! And yet, here it is. You, Anna Quincy Fox, hold the story of your life’s future in your hands.”
Standing over Anna, Stark reaches out and turns the pages of the book until she comes to a centerfold made of thick, glossy paper. On the left-hand page is a baby, presumably Anna, who has been posed in a jaunty red jumper, holding a blue and yellow ball in her pudgy hands. She is either laughing or screaming; it is hard to tell which. On the right-hand page is a group of young people sitting and standing around a cluttered office. A young woman who looks strikingly like Anna, but more grown up, has been highlighted with a sort of halo effect; she is sitting on the edge of a desk and smiling.
Before Anna can read the captions on these photos, Stark touches the picture controls that have been embossed into the bottom of the left-hand page, making the image flicker and change several times before it resolves into a picture of Anna as a young woman in a cap and gown. Anna’s grinning father is standing next to her on one side, arms around her shoulder. A teenaged Elly stands on the other side, looking away. Stark slides a finger over the controls again and the image begins to move. The voice of Anna’s mother comes through tiny speakers embedded in the spine of the book.
“You did it, honey,” her mother’s voice is saying. “You survived the longest, most boring graduation ceremony I have ever been so unlucky to attend.” Anna and her father laugh. Elly, who has been distractedly looking away, smiles as she turns to face the camera.
Their laughter makes the here-and-now Anna laugh, too. She can’t take her eyes off the video clip—or, more accurately, herself. The older Anna seems graceful, confident, at ease with herself and the world. Beautiful.
Finally the clip comes to an end and she looks up at Stark. “This is impossible.”
Stark cocks an eyebrow. “As I said. And yet, here it is.”
“How did you get this?”
“This is a unique and very valuable gift, Anna. People like to believe that they make their own destinies. The truth is that most people stumble into their destiny blindly. But not you, Anna Fox.”
Stark turns and gazes at her reflection in the mirror that hangs over the piano, absentmindedly pulling on her gloves. She seems wistful, as if her mirror image were a million miles away. The grandfather clock standing in the corner of the room begins to chime the four o’clock hour.
“But you didn’t answer my question,” Anna says, a little more insistently. “How did you get this? And what am I supposed to do with it?”
Stark turns her far-away eyes to Anna. “I think your first question is best answered by your father. It is his work that helped us to obtain the book, and it is because of him that you hold it in your hands today.” Her eyes twinkle. “Although I am sure that he will be surprised to see it.
“As for your second question; well, that’s entirely up to you. It’s your story, after all.”
She looks back at the mirror one last time, gently patting her perfect hair, then walks out of the parlor to the front door. Anna gets up and follows, still holding the book.
Stark opens the door. An icy wind blows into the house, lifting Anna’s hair and ruffling the pages of the book.
“Tell your father hello for me,” Stark says, smiling that kindergarten teacher smile. “Happy birthday, Anna Quincy Fox.”
And then she is gone, leaving Anna holding the story of her future in her hands.