Sound slammed into me hard as I stepped over the threshold of April’s house. A combination of blaring music and the outsized party banter of too many people crammed in, body to body, shouting drunken bon mots
over each other and laughing. I winced and took a moment to acclimate myself; I wondered if this was still culture shock, or if I’d always been this thrown off course by April’s parties and never realized. What am I doing here?
April herself was easy to spot - she was standing on a black leather couch, half-bouncing, holding a bunch of grapes. Center of the universe, as always. Her hair was longer, deep red, falling in gentle waves almost to her waist. It suited her. She was laughing at some suitor’s joke, and I took the opportunity to sneak up on her - I appeared by her side and presented her with a matryoshka. “A souvenir of my recent travels,” I said with a slight mock-bow.
She squealed and bounced down from the couch, delivering a hug that knocked the wind out of me. “Justin! How are you! When did you get back?”
“Just last week. And - good. Travel was good for me.”
“I missed you!”
I laughed and realized that I’d missed her, too. I’d gone on a wanderjahr to get some distance from my old life here… but not everything in my old life was bad. “Well, I’m not going anywhere now. Money ran out, so I’m back in the States and crashing with Dave til I find work.”
She scrunched her face in mock distaste. “You didn’t bring Dave, did you? He’s always hitting on me.”
The suitor brushed his hand along her waist, and she half-turned to mock-scold him, laughing. Everyone was always hitting on April, onstage and off. She was an exotic dancer - not a stripper, she’d be quick to remind you, because she didn’t take anything off. She just didn’t wear much to begin with. She was whip-smart, brain of an accountant in the body of a dancer, and she invested her earnings wisely instead of blowing the money on cars and jewels. She’d bought this enormous house on foreclosure - used to belong to a drug dealer, she said. She’d turned it into an artist colony of sorts.
So April had this lethal combination of beauty, sensuality, charisma, and brains, and no one could keep their eyes - or hands - off her. Me, I’d always seen her as a little sister, the brat who hit me over the head with toy trucks in preschool grown into the brat who went to bars with me and made fun of the music.
“No Dave,” I replied, drawing her attention back. She dismissed the guy with a kiss on the cheek and turned back to me. “He’s out with his girlfriend.”
“Dave’s getting some? Good for him! So. What are you going to do now that you’re back?”
There was a lull in the music, a movement out of the corner of my eye. I don’t know what it was. But suddenly I saw her, a slim girl with long dark hair emerging from the kitchen. She moved like a dancer, all economic grace, and she looked up at me, impossibly large eyes and the smallest quirk of a smile, and it was as if the decibel level dropped. It was as if everything just fell away. “Undine,” I whispered.
he girl slipped away into the crowd, and I suppressed the urge to follow her. Instead, I looked back at April, trying to find the dropped thread of the conversation. “I’m sorry, what?”
“You recognized her.” April popped a grape into her mouth, eyes darting away, anywhere but at me.
“From Peter’s photographs.” Peter Cooper had had a gallery opening for those photos when I was somewhere in India; he’d e-mailed me a few. My desktop background was the one he called “Undine” - that girl, the nameless model, standing in the lake we all used to swim in. She was up to her shoulder, and her long dark hair pooled around her, twining like snakes in the clear water. Her eyes were wide, her expression solemn and serene. The photo was black and white. I hadn’t known her eyes were blue, not til just now. “Um. How’s Peter doing?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know. He’s kinda fallen off the map.”
“I thought he was living here?”
“Only til he made it big, then he took off.”
“No reason to be. He got what he wanted.” She looked up at me finally. “You can have his room, if you’ve had enough of Dave.”
“Seriously? Is it one of the studio rooms?”
That alone would’ve been enough to convince me - the studio rooms were bedrooms with a not-so-secret door in the closet leading to another, only slightly smaller room, accessible only via the closet. The idea of secret hidden rooms was a powerful one, and April usually had about three or four people crashing here at a time, using the secret rooms as studios and workshops. I had to ask, though- “Is she living here? Undine?”
April held the bunch of grapes aloft, lowering it to my mouth; obediently, I bit into a grape, rich and tart and juicy. “Yes,” she replied. “And her name is Liana.”