Before he met Todd, in those first few weeks at Berkley Academy, Ethan Whitley sought refuge in the cool calm of the art studios, amidst the smells of dried paint and eraser shavings. The heat had surprised him; Massachusetts in September was balmy, sweltering, mosquitoes buzzing around brackish pools, verdant lawns that spread for acres beyond the brick facades of Berkley’s Colonial campus. The advanced studios of the Stevenson Art Center were air-conditioned, a rare luxury for a school that prided itself on its Spartan, character-building accommodations. When he was working alone in these rooms, Ethan imagined that they protected him from all that lay waiting outside.
As he worked, he would think ahead to the next hour or two, safely tucking his portrait in his cubby, shuffling across the linoleum floor, walking upstairs, past the library, its 50,000 volumes tempting him, across the inlaid marble of the school’s foyer, through its atrium of white columns and vaulted ceilings, out the French doors of the main building. His fellow classmates—he didn’t know their names; they were as anonymous as strangers in Grand Central Station—would lay sprawled on the grass under a cluster of birch trees like a clothing advertisement, a triple page spread, their chlorinated blond locks falling lazily over their eyes, tanned legs, scratched in the right places (sports injuries, not clumsiness), skin free of blemishes. They lived in a world where people made witty remarks to each other, and no one worried too much about things like money or popularity or sex.
He was shocked then to find himself one evening, three weeks into the school year, sitting in a taxicab, a rattling old station wagon, barreling into town with Todd Eldon, a boy who lived on the floor above him. Five days earlier, Todd had burst into Ethan’s room with the force of a raid—Hands up! We know you have no friends, and we’re going to do something about it!—and asked him to summarize the week’s English reading, the first section of Jane Eyre. Since that evening, the friendship had progressed so effortlessly that Ethan had nearly forgotten those horrible weeks prior, the sitting alone in his room after check-in, staring at the Jackson Pollock poster he had tacked to the wall above his bed, dreading the mealtime ritual of finding people to sit with, making conversation, smiling politely even when everyone who was done got up to study or goof off in the dorms.
Now Todd rifled around in his messenger bag and pulled out a nearly empty pack of cigarettes, its crumbs of tobacco littering the back seat. “Need to get more on the way back,” he muttered.
Ethan felt his brow furrowing in disapproval, and he forced his visage to soften. He didn’t smoke and had always suspected that people who did were not to be trusted. The cab pulled into the gravel driveway of Wilton’s tea room, one of a handful of places where students could eat in town, and Ethan reached for his wallet. Todd waved him away, signing the charge slip with a scribble.
The boys entered the tea room and Todd greeted a young woman who was wiping down several of the tables, introducing her to Ethan as Laura. The room felt cozy, with yellow walls, ancient red tea canisters on high shelves, antique tables and chairs of varying sizes, a potted palm next to a fireplace. A group of girls from school, Fourth Formers, were chattering at the front table, occasionally giving the boys flirtatious glances; a local woman and her two children sat in the far corner. A sideboard held an assortment of desserts—fruit cobblers, pies, bread pudding, chocolate, pound, and carrot cakes. Ethan breathed in the deep warm aroma of vanilla and cardamom.
Madame Beauchamp, the old French lady who owned the tea room, led them to a table near the window looking out on the back garden. They followed her, the wake of her old lady perfume trailing behind.
Laura came over and handed them menus. On the back were all the varieties of tea; on the front were the food selections. Ethan read the menu—soups, salads, sandwiches, scones—and then looked hungrily over at the cakes and pies on the sideboard.
The little that Ethan knew of Todd already made him feel inadequate. He had an older brother who had gone to Berkley, he had apparently had numerous girlfriends (surely he had already had sex), played sports, and had grown up in New York City. Being from California, Ethan was embarrassed to admit that he had only been there once.
The door of the tea room opened, bringing with it a burst of cool air, and in stepped a woman with flowing blond hair and light freckles on her cheeks. She wore a white dress and was carrying four boxes, the type used to carry baked goods. She was older than a student, but she didn’t quite look like a teacher, either.
“Just in time!” She brushed past the boys and placed the four boxes down on the counter of the open kitchen, smiling at Madame Beauchamp.
“Carrot, cheesecake, blueberry cobbler, and a strawberry rhubarb. All fresh from the oven.”
Madame Beauchamp took the desserts and placed them on the island in the small kitchen, opening up the top box and examining its contents. “Délicieux,” she said.
The woman with the blond hair turned toward the boys and smiled.
“You guys look like you’ll be wanting dessert.”
Todd and Ethan stared at her. Ethan wondered why this woman, this exotic creature, was speaking to them.
“You’re—hold on—Todd, right?”
“I’ve seen you here before. And who’s your friend?”
Ethan felt a blush blooming in his cheeks as he looked up (he had noticed her dress, its neckline, the pale skin on her breastbone; his eyes darted away from this area, as though he had touched a hot tea kettle and been burned). “Ethan Whitley,” he said.
“Well, hello, Ethan Whitley,” the woman said. “I’m Hannah. Ms. McClellan. You can call me Hannah.”
Ethan was confused; he thought he had seen her around. “Are you a teacher?”
“That’s what they tell me. I make some of the desserts here, too. Sort of a hobby I do on the side. Gets me out of my head.”
Ethan wondered why she was inviting them to use her first name. Perhaps the younger Berkley teachers, the ones right out of college, might do this in private, but no one on the Berkley faculty who was Hannah’s age—she had to be at least thirty—would ever do this.
She sat down on a chair at the counter, facing the boys. “Ethan Whitley…you’re new, right? Did I read some of your short stories last year that came in with your admissions packet?”
His blush deepened. “It’s possible. I submitted a few.”
“I loved them. They were really gorgeous. The one about the mother. I hope you keep writing.”
“Thanks,” Ethan croaked.
“Anyway, have some dessert. It’s on me.” She winked at Madame Beauchamp. “What do you guys want?”
“I usually get the carrot cake,” Todd said.
“Um, blueberry cobbler?” Ethan said.
“Give them extra big pieces,” Hannah said to Laura. “They’re growing boys.” She smiled again. “I haven’t made as much of the blueberry cobbler lately. It’s hard to find good local blueberries this time of year.”
“It’s my favorite,” Ethan said. His mother used to bake it for him and his father when he was growing up. But not recently—recently she hadn’t been doing much cooking at all.
“I’d better get going,” Hannah said. “Laura, if they want it, give them seconds.”