ETTA LAWRENCE WASN’T the only one who came to Roosevelt Lodge to become someone else.
That’s why they’d all come.
Even after two months, Etta couldn’t believe she was here, especially tonight. It was Director Edwin Hardin’s birthday, and the forty students at the Buchanan Academy mingled in the great room waiting for him to descend the spiral stairs. The first fire of the season crackled in the granite hearth, which soared three stories to hold up the crisscross of fir ceiling beams. The reflection of flames flashed in the warbled iron-cased windows along the south wall, and in champagne flutes and eyeglasses.
The poets leaned on the grand piano, singing along as one of their brethren played Cole Porter songs. A group of aspiring novelists sipped drinks near the windows. An award-winning playwright chatted with a group of students near the stairs. It was exactly how Etta had imagined the academy when she’d first read Saul Bellow’s quote blazing across the website: “Eleven months at the secluded Buchanan Academy transforms an amateur into a literary master.”
Was it transforming them yet?
“He’s coming,” someone whispered. The pianist switched mid-song to the cheerful refrain of “Happy Birthday.” The familiar lyrics tangled in Etta’s throat with the sticky aftertaste of her champagne. She pressed onto her toes, hoping to catch a glimpse of the director on the stairs.
Edwin Hardin stepped in front of the fireplace wearing slacks, a vest, and a double-breasted jacket. His lanky frame swayed in front of the fire’s glow. Someone handed him a champagne flute. He raised it, lifting his jowls into something resembling a smile, as the students clapped and cheered.
The director held up a withered hand. “Thank you, thank you. What a surprise.” He cleared his throat. “But let us not waste time celebrating an old man whose best days have passed. Let us celebrate you—the future of American literature.”
Etta recognized the phrase even before Hardin pointed his glass at the bronze plaque above the fire: Roosevelt Lodge was constructed as a Works Progress Administration project in 1933. The legendary author Vincent Buchanan acquired it in 1958 to accommodate the Buchanan Academy, announcing: “The future of American literature will rise from Oregon’s primeval forest like embers lifting off flames into the heavens.”
The director lowered his glass and leaned forward, his gaze sweeping the room. “It takes courage to leave your family and friends. It takes courage to dedicate yourself to your craft. To immigrate to this hallowed hall.
“You were selected from thousands. And you have just nine more months away from distractions and commitments. Away from the pressures to submit and sell. Tell me, are you chiseling the world into words?” He raised his glass again. “What will you make of yourselves? What will you become?”
The students launched into another round of “Happy Birthday” as Director Hardin stepped away from the fire.
Etta squeezed her eyes shut. She was only half aware when the song ended and her classmates’ voices swelled into the spaces around her.
You were selected from thousands.
She’d been ecstatic when she’d received her acceptance letter praising her writing sample, a short story she’d published in the Michigan Quarterly Review six years ago.
But if Hardin knew about Etta’s past, she wouldn’t be here.
“Catching up on sleep?”
Etta opened her eyes, nearly sloshing champagne across her cashmere sweater. Her tension melted at the sight of Olivia Saxon’s grin. She inhaled the swirl of lavender floating from her roommate.
“My roommate snores like a drunken lumberjack.” Etta teased. “Keeps me awake.”
“Very funny.” Olivia narrowed her brown eyes and tucked her curtain of mahogany hair behind her ear. “Is it me, or is Mr. Hardin already sauced? I swear he slurred some of those words.”
Etta glanced at the director teetering next to the hearth, a group of students clustered around him. “Well, isn’t he, like, eighty?” Etta raised an eyebrow. “Surely he’s earned a little sauce.”
“Seventy-three.” Jordan Waterhouse stepped to Olivia’s side, a chunk of pale hair falling across one eye, and rested his hand on Olivia’s back. “He was born the year Buchanan won the Pulitzer. Apparently you haven’t had your one-on-one with the old man yet. Last year he mentioned that fact about five times during the longest twenty minutes of my life.”
Etta laughed. “I thought it was a nice speech.”
Jordan brushed the hair off his face. “You’d hope so. He gives the same one every year. Always leads with ‘What a surprise.’ That whole bit about chiseling ourselves into words was a tad grandiloquent, don’t you think?”
Etta made a mental note to look up grandiloquent as Olivia turned her gaze to Jordan again. Were they going to kiss? Right here? As the student writer-in-residence, Jordan seemed to consider himself exempt from the regulation that forbade romantic relationships between students, which the students jokingly referred to as the “Carnal Code.”
Last year Jordan had won the coveted Buchanan Prize, awarding him a second year at the academy sans the twenty-five thousand dollar price tag. Fevered calls from agents, editors, and literary magazines were sure to follow.
The Buchanan Prize was the real reason thousands of students competed to spend a soggy year studying at the isolated academy. It was why Etta had labored over her application for months, drained her savings account, and jammed everything she owned into a five-by-five storage unit. Of course, to win, she’d need to somehow write the most dazzling story of her writing career in the next seven days.
Hopefully, the chef’s assistant would serve the cake soon and the events committee would present the director with the rare first edition of Buchanan’s Rebellious Tides, which they’d collected donations to buy. Then Etta could zip back to her cabin and write for a couple of hours before bed. She still hadn’t crafted the opening yet . . . or the middle . . . or the end, despite upping her daily word count and employing all of the tactics that she’d honed over the years. She’d worked on a ten-page study of her main character, a forty-five-year-old magic shop owner, for two weeks before deciding he was duller than her droning Aunt Mary. Perhaps her main character should be younger. Or female. Or a toad.
Etta spun toward the windows, stunned by the sound of breaking glass, even as silence fell across the room.
As she drew her gaze from the windows, the hair on her arms and the back of her neck pricked up. Why was everyone staring at her?
No, not at her. At Olivia.
Etta’s roommate had dropped her champagne flute. The director gasped, as he perhaps calculated the value of the shards of glass glittering around her ballet flats.
Vincent Buchanan’s Federal Glass collection normally lined the china cabinets in the dining room like museum pieces—reminders of the author who founded the academy. But earlier tonight the events committee had dusted off the flutes, filled them with champagne and sparkling cider, and handed them out to the students, who’d run their wet fingers over the rims and compared the crystal’s eerie songs.
The director let out a laugh—a deep, breathless chortle. Then he caught his breath and asked Candy, the chef’s assistant, to retrieve a broom and mop.
When Candy appeared in the doorway a few minutes later with her cleaning implements, Etta and Olivia were the only ones still standing in the middle of the room. The rest of the students had flocked away from the broken glass. Olivia’s slender fingers trembled, and Etta reached for Olivia’s hand.
But Olivia was staring across the room.
Etta jumped at the sound of Candy behind her but followed her roommate’s gaze, blinking into the shadows next to the double doors leading to the foyer.
She recognized Robert North instantly. She’d seen his picture on the back of Portages: Poems from Life’s Passages. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise. The students had been gossiping about the famous poet all week. The director tried to keep the logistics of impending author visits quiet, insisting it kept the students more focused on their writing. But somehow the students always found out.
Robert North was the most famous author to come so far. Not quite a celebrity like Maya Angelou or Ted Kooser, perhaps, but still a famous poet. The female students had been speculating about whether he’d be as attractive as the grainy photo on the back of Portages, and Etta had spent an embarrassing amount of time examining Olivia’s copy. She’d even memorized the “About the Poet” passage beneath the photo: “Robert North became poet laureate of Maryland when he was twenty-eight years old . . .” Maybe that was because he’d become a poet laureate when he was the same age as Etta. And she was probably the oldest student at the academy by at least a couple years.
Robert North was thinner and more disheveled than in his picture. His blaze of black curls flamed out around the shadow of stubble on his chin. He looked like he’d stepped out of a J. Crew catalog, his hands barely tucked into the pockets of his crumpled black linen pants, his white dress shirt hanging loose, the first two buttons undone. Was he shaking his head at Olivia?
Or did Etta imagine that? A moment later Carl, the academy’s chef, strode to the poet’s side rolling an oversized suitcase and tipped his cowboy hat toward the stairs. Then Carl and Robert North disappeared behind the hearth.
“You okay?” Etta whispered as Olivia tugged her toward their classmates who were huddling in front of a banquet table along the east side of the room.
Olivia didn’t seem to hear. She gazed at the staircase, where the chef and poet were now spiraling toward the third floor. It was the one part of the lodge off-limits to students. Vincent Buchanan had once resided in a third-floor suite photographed in a 1965 LIFE Magazine spread that hung framed on the west wall of the dining room. Now the director, his administrative assistant, the librarian, and the resident authors lodged in their own third-floor suites. The remaining rooms were reserved for visiting authors—like the poet.
On the landing, the chef and poet talked for a moment then the chef strode into the long hallway, rolling the suitcase behind him. Robert North leaned on the log railing, looking down on the great room. He looked miles away, his face hidden in the low light.
Olivia yanked her hand from Etta’s and swirled around, darting into the flock of students who were now moving toward the middle of the room, talking and laughing. Etta searched the crowd for her roommate’s red skirt and glimpsed a flash of red on the other side of the hearth. Olivia? Etta made out her roommate’s slender form flitting toward the double doors leading to the foyer.
Olivia stepped into the glow cast from the antique sconces, gripped one of the ornate iron handles, heaved the door open, and left.
Etta glanced back at the third floor landing. The poet had vanished.