“Almost there,” Grandpa said.
Pressing her nose against the car window, Lily frowned at the strip malls, gas stations, and industrial parks as they rolled by. “Really?” she said. She’d expected to see something a bit more picturesque than Wal-Marts and Home Depots en route to her dream school—at least a stately forest or a field with a few photogenic cows. And she should hear trumpets playing, plus a massive choir announcing in verse the approach of her destiny.
Maybe she’d built up this moment a bit too much.
“Just a few more miles and then I will don my illustrious blazer,” Grandpa said.
Grandpa’s orange and black striped Princeton University Reunions jacket hung from the back of the driver’s seat. Wondering why he’d mentioned it, she met Grandpa’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He shifted his eyes toward Lily’s mother, who sat slumped in the passenger seat in front of Lily. Oh, of course, she thought. If they were almost there, then it was time to cheer up Mom. “You know it looks like a psychedelic zebra’s pelt, right?” Lily said.
“You’ll see worse,” Grandpa promised.
“I doubt the skinless zebra would agree with that,” Lily said.
Grandpa nodded solemnly. “The Class of 1969 wears a vest and headband covered in orange and black yin-yang polka dots.”
Lily faked a shudder. “Oh, the horror!”
In front of her, Mom laughed. Her wild, tangled hair (today, dyed a beautiful soft green) shook like willow leaves in the wind. It was the first time since leaving Philadelphia that Mom quit looking half-wilted and smiled. Mom hated car rides. She felt caged, she said, inside all the steel and plastic and glass. If it wasn’t for worries about how it would react with her usual medication, Mom would have taken a Valium for the drive.
Normally, Mom avoided car rides altogether, but this wasn’t a normal weekend. It was Princeton Reunions weekend. Reunions weekend! Lily couldn’t believe Grandpa had offered to take them. He always attended, even in off years like his forty-ninth reunion. It was his “thing,” his once-a-year break from mothering both Lily and Mom. But this year, he’d said that Lily should see her future alma mater.
Not that she’d even applied yet. She was a junior, three weeks away from final exams, but Grandpa claimed this place was her destiny. No pressure, though. Yeah, right.
Grandpa pointed to an intersection. “Next left,” he said.
Lily’s heart thumped faster. She shouldn’t be this excited, she knew. It wasn’t as if she even had an application interview. At best, she’d take a campus tour and then spend the weekend with a bunch of seventy-year-olds who were pretending to be fifty years younger. But she found herself craning her neck for her first glimpse.
As they turned onto Washington Road, the industrial parks, motels, and malls of central New Jersey fell behind them, and all Lily saw was green, green, and more green. Her breath caught in her throat. Now this was more like it! Elm trees lined the road to Princeton University. Their branches arched over the car in a grand canopy of translucent green that stretched for half a mile. Leaves swayed lightly in the wind, and Lily wanted to reach her arms up and catch the wind in her hands. Her fingers bumped the roof of the car. Self-consciously lowering her hands, she contented herself with staring out the window. Ahead, she saw a stone bridge over a lake and, beyond it, a sprawling boathouse. Crew boats lay crisscrossed on an asphalt shore. It looked like a photograph from a college brochure, and Lily felt light-headed as she drank in the view. It was perfect!
Across the bridge, Grandpa stopped at a traffic light. “We’re here,” he announced.
“Home,” Mom said happily.
Lily closed her eyes as her perfect moment shattered.
“No, Rose,” Grandpa said in a calm and patient voice. “This is Princeton University, not our home. We’re here for my Fiftieth Reunion. Do you remember?” Opening her eyes, Lily studied Mom and wondered if she’d remember or fake it.
Mom frowned for an instant and then said, “Of course. Yes, yes. I’m sorry.” Her chiffon sleeve fluttered as she waved her hand at the window and said, “It’s very pretty here.”
“I have always thought so,” Grandpa replied gravely. “Did you take your medicine today?”
Lily answered for her: “She did. But I have another here.…” Unzipping Mom’s purse, she drew out a single-dose medicine vial.
“I’m fine. Fine,” Mom said, false cheer in her voice. “Just a little hiccup.” Mom had nicknamed them that: brain hiccups. A harmless name, as if that would make everything okay. “You can put that away.”
Lily’s fingers curled around the medicine vial. Mom had been happy for … what? Five minutes? Three? Lily slid the vial into her pocket, easily accessible if Mom needed it, and then she forced herself to look out the window again.
Grandpa turned right at a library with a roof like metal wings and drove past an observatory and a concrete stadium flanked by metal tigers, Princeton’s mascot. At a PRIVATE PARKING sign, he turned left into a gravel lot and parked.
“Vineyard Club,” Grandpa said. He pointed at a tree-choked hill.
Leaning forward, Lily saw hints of brick gables and peaked windows through the screen of trees, and her breath caught in her throat. Vineyard Club was the most exclusive and prestigious of all Princeton eating clubs. Grandpa had been a member.
Following her grandfather’s lead, Lily stepped out of the car. She inhaled the smell of Princeton: the earthy scent of pine and the sweet perfume of tulip trees, undercut with the sour stench of stale beer. It smelled exactly like it should. She smiled.
“Oh, freedom!” Mom cried as she jumped out of the car. She spun in a circle with her arms stretched in a V over her head. Her sleeves flapped around her. “I hear the world singing!”
Grandpa chuckled. “No more cars until Sunday,” he promised, coming around to the trunk. He lifted out their suitcase. Lily claimed the duffel bag. Without prompting, Mom fetched Grandpa’s hideous jacket and her purse from the backseat. Lily and Grandpa both watched her.
Mom’s smile slipped. “I’m fine. I won’t ruin your weekend.”
“This way,” Grandpa said, pointing toward a path through the trees. “We’re expected.”
Grandpa hadn’t said they were meeting anyone. Swinging the duffel bag over her shoulder, Lily hurried to follow Grandpa across the parking lot. “Expected by who?” Lily asked.
“By whom,” Grandpa corrected. He flashed her an enormous grin. “I have a surprise for you.”
The last surprise from Grandpa had involved escargot for dinner. (Lily had tried one; Mom had flat-out refused.) Surprise before last was a six-foot saguaro cactus that Grandpa had ordered for the shop. (Mom had loved it; Lily had found a desiccated scorpion impaled on a thorn.) For all his aura of being a respectable business owner, Grandpa tended to plan bizarre surprises. Now he had a twinkle in his eye as though he thought he was Santa Claus. “No snails this time,” Lily said.
“No snails,” Grandpa said. “Just a few people I’d like you to meet.”
“Really?” She’d never met any of Grandpa’s college friends.
The path through the trees opened onto a slope of perfectly manicured lawn, complete with a volleyball net and Adirondack lawn chairs. As Grandpa strode up the hill, Lily tried to picture him as a college student—subtract the salt-and-pepper beard, darken the white hair to black, erase the tanned wrinkles … She wondered if he’d learned his I-own-the-world-not-just-a-flower-shop walk here. She imagined herself striding across the lawns as if she belonged.
Coming up behind her, Mom hooked her arm through Lily’s. “I wonder what secret life your grandfather has been hiding from us. I’m thinking a dozen girlfriends.”
Lily grinned. “At least a dozen.” Her grandpa was a handsome man, after all. “First, we’ll meet Buffy, Muffy, and Fluffy, triplet bottle-blonde octogenarians who live on a yacht. And then will come Margaret, the divorcée with the hard shell hiding a soft, vulnerable heart. And of course Penny, the rich widow who loves sequins and feather boas …” As they climbed the stone steps to Vineyard Club, Lily trailed off. Here was her first close-up look at Grandpa’s infamous club.
Mom didn’t notice that Lily’s attention had shifted. “Don’t forget Clarisse,” she said, “the brainy brunette. And Martha, ex–third wife of his third-best friend …”
Gazing up at the ivy-covered brick, Lily breathed, “I think I’m in love.”
It was a mansion. No other word for it. Vineyard Club was a Victorian-style mansion with peaks and gables of aged brick, all trimmed with ivy. All the windows had wrought-iron frames, and most were stained glass. She craned her neck to try to see the pictures in the stained glass, but all she could see from this angle were colors. Sapphire- and ruby-and emerald-colored bits of glass flashed like jewels in the sunlight. “Can I move here now?” Lily asked. “Seriously, I want to live here.”
Like a formal butler, Grandpa swung the door open and gestured inside. Lily peeked in and saw mahogany: walls, floor, tables, chairs, bar and bar stools, all beautiful dark wood. It was … ugh! She recoiled as the stench of stale beer rolled out and over her like a tsunami wave. “Before I move,” she said, “we fumigate it.”
Grandpa inhaled deeply. “Smells like senior year.”
Was that the year his scent glands died? Retreating to gulp in fresh air, Lily turned back toward the brilliant green lawn sloping down behind them …
… and saw the boy.
He stood underneath a pine tree by the parking lot. He wore jeans and a black T-shirt, and he had orange and black tiger-striped hair. Clearly, judging by his school-spirit hair, he was a Princeton boy—the first one she’d ever seen. She felt like a bird-watcher who had glimpsed an elusive and rare specimen.
Oddly, he seemed to be staring back at her.
She was sure it was her imagination. He had to be admiring the architecture. Or waiting for a girlfriend. Guys like that had girlfriends. They didn’t notice rumpled-from-a-long-drive high school juniors who were hanging out with their relatives. Lily opened her mouth to ask Mom if she thought the boy was looking at her, but then she stopped. Mom might like the hair. Lily didn’t want to waste Reunions weekend on a search for orange and black hair dye.
Lily followed Mom and Grandpa inside and instantly forgot about the tiger-haired boy. She was inside Vineyard Club! She stared around her, feeling as if she needed to memorize every detail.
The taproom of Vineyard Club felt old but more in a finely-aged-wine sort of way than in a plumbing-never-works-right kind of way. Black-and-white photos of men in suits and ties (and women in the newer photos) adorned the wood-paneled walls. She studied the nearest photo, imagining herself in the group of students.
Don’t get carried away, she told herself. She had no idea if she’d be accepted to Princeton, much less the über-exclusive Vineyard Club. What if they saw that B from ninth-grade history? What if she hadn’t done enough extracurriculars? She’d thought she had an okay list: student council secretary (but never president), twice chorus for the school play (never the lead), part-time employee at Grandpa’s flower shop (not optional), one year of tap dance (big mistake), yellow belt in tae kwon do (Grandpa’s idea after the tap-dance fiasco), catcher for junior varsity softball. … Maybe she should have done more. She should have pushed to fit in one more AP class this year. Or joined the debate team. Or discovered the cure for cancer.
Grandpa led them across the sticky floor to the stairs. “We’re on a hill, so the taproom is essentially the basement,” he explained. “The rest of the club is upstairs.”
The wooden steps were worn from hundreds of feet over a hundred years. More photos lined the staircase. Mom lingered on the fourth step. “It’s you but it isn’t,” she said cryptically.
Lily froze. Please, not another brain hiccup. She was having them more and more often these days. “Are you okay, Mom?”
Grandpa doubled back. “Come on, Rose,” he said gently. He lifted her fingers away from a photograph and then guided her upstairs. He didn’t look at Lily.
Maybe it hadn’t been a hiccup. Sometimes it was hard to tell when Mom was being artistically enigmatic or actually crazy. Please hold it together, Lily prayed silently at Mom, at least while we’re in the club! She followed Mom and Grandpa upstairs.
Stained-glass windows cast red, green, and gold shadows across leather couches and high-back chairs. An Oriental rug covered the floor. Sections of the rug were worn to threads that looked like tan scars against the faded scarlet swirls. One end of the room was dominated by a stone fireplace with a massive marble mantel. It was flanked by an oil painting and a cream-white door. The other end of the room held a shiny black piano, as well as a doorway to a billiard room. It was all very grand and all very—
“Dead,” Mom said, as if completing Lily’s thought. “It needs sunlight. Fresh air!” She waved her hands at the stained-glass windows.
A new voice spoke. “But then we’d lose our carefully cultivated aura of stuffiness.” All three of them pivoted to see an elderly gentleman enter through the cream-white door. “Gentleman” was the absolute right word for him. Dressed in a starched Brooks Brothers shirt and sporting a meticulously trimmed beard, he looked like someone who would know which fork was the salad fork while blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back.
Grandpa dropped their suitcase with a thump. “Joseph!” He strode across the room with a wide smile on his face.
“Richard, we’re glad you made it.” The two men clasped hands and then patted each other on the back in a stereotypical grown-man hug. Clearly, this was one of Grandpa’s college friends. Lily tried to picture the two of them as boys here in this club, and she failed. This man had never been young. He looked past Grandpa to Lily. “And you’ve brought your precocious granddaughter?”
Lily nearly glanced behind her to see whom he was talking about. Yes, she took care of Mom a lot, and she managed the flower shop under Grandpa’s supervision, but that was due to necessity, not precociousness. Precocious kids had dimples. And wore pigtails and sailor suits and recited Shakespeare in twelve languages by age two … Oh, God, what if that was her competition for Princeton admission?
Grandpa beckoned her over. “Lily, I’d like to introduce you to my oldest friend, Joseph Mayfair.” Lily deposited the duffel bag next to the suitcase and joined Grandpa.
“Did you have to say ‘oldest’?” Mr. Mayfair said with an affected wince. He extended his hand to Lily. She shook it, and he closed both hands around hers, effectively trapping her hand. “Pleasure to finally meet you.”
She shot Grandpa a look. He knew she didn’t like to be talked about behind her back. She got enough of that at school. Grandpa looked unrepentant.
Mr. Mayfair continued to clasp her hand. “Are you ready?” he asked.
He sounded so intense that she felt a butterflies-in-the-stomach flutter. “Ready for what?” She considered how to squirm her hand away without being rude to this stately gentleman.
Grandpa scowled at his friend. “I know the rules,” he said. “I haven’t told her anything.”
Nodding approval, Mr. Mayfair released Lily’s hand. She flexed her fingers as she looked back and forth between Grandpa and Mr. Mayfair. Grandpa had never involved a stranger in his surprises before; they were a family-only tradition. Of course, this man wasn’t a stranger to Grandpa. Lily might not have heard of him, but Grandpa had claimed him as his oldest friend. For the first time, it bothered Lily that Grandpa never talked about his college friends. She didn’t like the thought of her beloved grandfather having any secrets from her, especially since he seemed to have told this man about her.
Joining them, Mom held out her hand. “I’m Rose Carter, Richard’s daughter.”
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!”
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 automatic 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.
© 2010 Sarah Beth Durst