The Girl in the Glass
Aimée wasn’t dead. Not unless this was what death felt like. An odd floating in and out of consciousness without light, without pain, without any sense of time or place. All she could remember was the sensation of falling. And then a kind of explosion. She’d always been terrified of heights and often dreamt of falling, but never as vividly as this.
Slowly, by infinitesimal degrees, Aimée Marie Garnier Whitby became aware of a breeze blowing against the left side of her body. The sound of waves pounding against rock. The scraping of pebbles as retreating waves drew them back into the sea. She shivered as a cold spray struck her skin. Bare skin lying on cold, rough stone. Odd. She didn’t know why she wouldn’t be dressed. But at least she wasn’t dead. Not unless her immortal soul had descended into a hell that smelled, sounded and felt like a cold northern sea.
She heard a squawking of birds close by. Forcing reluctant eyelids open, she was blinded by the sudden glare of a sun almost directly overhead. She quickly closed them, waited a few seconds and then tried again, opening her lids more slowly this time. When her eyes had, at last, adjusted to the light, what she saw filled her with dread. A dozen crows, maybe more, circling above. All large, loud and very black. All focused on this wounded thing that lay beneath them. A murder of crows. That’s what the English called them. A parliament of owls. An exaltation of larks. A murder of crows. Birds as black as night. Harvesters of death.
Lying alone on this cold, flat rock, Aimée wondered if perhaps she really had died and her soul had descended to hell. A hell filled not with the fires of damnation that the village priest back home in Provence frightened her with as a child, but a hell nevertheless, to which a vengeful God had condemned her. But for what was she being punished? The sin of adultery? The sin of loving another man more than she loved her husband? All the times she and her lover had been together, it had never felt like sin. Moreover, if adultery was a sin worthy of damnation, why wasn’t Edward lying here beside her? She had had only one lover, who was indeed someone she loved. Edward, in their ten years of marriage, had had dozens, many hired for a single night in the high-class bordellos of Boston or New York.
Aimée watched the winged black shapes circle above her. Steeling herself to fight back, she shouted at the birds to get away. Managed to swing a fisted arm, striking one who dared fly too close. The bird and its murderous comrades retreated to higher altitudes. Some circling. Others watching from small outcroppings on the wall of rock rising above her.
She lay her head back down against the rock, her eyes moving past the birds, examining the wall itself. Suddenly, she knew exactly where she was. She’d never seen it from this angle but knew without a doubt that she was lying at the bottom of the sixty-foot metamorphic cliff that formed a nearly sheer wall on the seaward side of Whitby Island.
She had no memory of coming to the island. Had she come alone, or had someone been with her? Aimée often sailed out in the summer to paint. Sometimes alone. Sometimes not. If Mark or perhaps Edward had come this time, surely there was a chance, even a likelihood, of rescue. Sooner or later he would miss her and come looking. The island wasn’t big. Only thirty-three acres of rock and piney woods rising from the ocean three miles out from the city of Portland.
Aimée shivered. Soon the sun would be going behind the cliff and she would get even colder. Clutching her arms around herself for warmth, she wondered if crawling closer to the cliff would be a good idea. The large rocks at the base might provide some shelter from the wind and sea spray. On the other hand, being tucked in like that would make it impossible for anyone at the top to see her and come to her rescue.
How strange it would be, she thought, for her life to end here. In this cold, foreign place with its rigid Puritan ways. So far from the Bohemian artist’s life she’d lived in Paris. So far from the warmth of Provence. So odd she had come here to live. It was all Edward’s fault. No, perhaps her own fault. After all, it was she who had fallen so hopelessly in love with this intense American with his dark, dangerous eyes.
Aimée’s mind went back to the wet September day in 1894 when Edward Whitby first walked into the drawing studio at the Académie Julien, the art school just south of Montmartre, where her father was an instructor. The moment Edward spotted her, he stopped in his tracks and stared.
Even as he was setting up his bench and arranging his supplies, his eyes kept darting, not to the nude female model standing on the platform in front of him but over to Aimée, who sat, trying hard to concentrate on her own sketches and not quite succeeding. After class, he walked over carrying his sketch pad.
“Pardon, mademoiselle,” he said. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes,” she smiled, “quite well. My mother is English.”
“That is good,” he said.
“Because my French is appalling.”
“Ahhh. May I see?” she asked, pointing at the sheets he carried.
He hesitated, as if debating whether or not to show her the work.
“It’s only fair. It was easy to tell you were drawing me and not the model.”
He blushed. The first and possibly only time she’d ever seen Edward blush. He handed her the sheets one at a time. She leafed slowly through them. “They’re very good. You’ve captured me quite well even though I was moving. You should show these to my father.”
“Yes. Auguste Garnier. I am Aimée Garnier.”
“Auguste Garnier is one of the most respected portraitists in France.”
“So I’ve heard. But he is also my father. And your instructor. It is only because my name is Garnier that I am allowed to attend the men’s classes.”
“And why do you want to attend the men’s class?”
“Because the instructors are better.” She paused. “And the male students so much more interesting.”
Edward smiled at what he took to be a compliment. He obviously thought she was talking about him. And perhaps she was. How very forward of her.
“May I invite you for a cup of coffee? Or perhaps a glass of wine?” he asked.
“Why don’t you join us instead?”
“Yes. A group of students meets regularly after class at the Café Lézard just up the street. Mostly Americans. The Académie has more American students than mice in the basement. But that’s all right. I like Americans. You all take everything so very seriously.”
“Oh, do we now?”
“Oh, yes, you do. Art. Politics. L’amour …” She paused. “What is your name?”
“Edward. Are there other women in this group?”
“No. They’re all men. Except for me.” She said the last with a wicked smile.
He smiled back, and she knew he was hooked. What she didn’t know was that from that moment on, for Edward Whitby to share Aimée’s attention with even one other man was, for him, intolerable. And always would be.
The sun descended behind the cliff. The air grew colder. Aimée fought a fierce desire to sleep. To sleep was to die. How long had she been lying here waiting for rescue? It seemed like hours, but for all she knew, it could have been days.
“Mark, Edward, someone, anyone. Please, won’t someone come and take me out of this place?”
Aimée knew that if she lay here much longer, the crows, sensing her growing weakness, would become ever more eager for their meal. No. She couldn’t just wait and do nothing. She had to think of a way to save herself.
She looked out toward the sea. Studying the waves crashing angrily against the rocks, she knew instantly that any thought of swimming around the island to the other side was madness. The water was freezing, the waves fierce, the tide coming in. If she didn’t die from the cold, she would almost certainly be dashed against the rocks and drown.
Could she possibly climb back up the cliff? If she didn’t look down, perhaps she could summon the courage and strength to struggle back up. She was certain she knew the contours of the cliff better than anyone else. She couldn’t count the number of calm, sunny days she’d sailed to this side of the island to study and sketch its craggy face, the sketches serving as starting points for many of her paintings. She knew there were hundreds of possible handholds and footholds to use. Properly clothed and uninjured, she felt certain she could make it. Naked and injured was a different story.
The first thing Aimée needed to know was how badly she was hurt. Whether climbing the cliff was even a remote possibility or just a pathetic fantasy. There was no way she could assess her injuries lying on her back. But raising her head high enough to examine herself seemed an enormous undertaking. Placing both arms flat on the rock, she tried to lever her head and shoulders upwards, toward a sitting position. A shock of pain tore through her middle. She clenched her teeth and told herself to deal with it or die.
As she looked, she saw a deep vertical wound in her abdomen two inches above and to the right of her navel. There were some other seemingly random cuts above her breasts, but it was the lower wound that truly hurt. The intensity of pain told her the cut must have been deep. And, in spite of the drying blood surrounding the incision, she could see it was more than an inch long and perfectly straight. A cut like that had to have been made by a knife. Suddenly it all became clear. There was someone else on the island. Someone who wanted her dead.
Portland, Maine, June 2012
Graduation week in Portland. All six of the city’s high schools, public, private and parochial, had scheduled their commencement ceremonies to take place at some point during this week. Some of the events would be large, with hundreds of graduates. Others much smaller.
Thursday morning was Penfield Academy’s turn. It was a bright, sunny day, warm for early summer, with temperatures edging well into the seventies. By 10:50, all eighty-seven graduating seniors of the smallest and, arguably, most prestigious secondary school in the city had gathered in an excited cluster on the far side of the lacrosse field. Forty-five girls and forty-two boys. Marilyn Bell, the headmaster’s assistant, scurried among them, clipboard in hand, determined to create order out of chaos. One by one, she called out the graduates’ names in a loud whisper. Told each where she wanted them to stand and, when necessary, pushed and prodded an inattentive body into his or her proper position.
Finally all eighty-seven were in place, waiting restlessly in the warm sunshine for Headmaster William S. Cobb to finish telling the assembled audience what a terrific school Penfield was. How smart and talented the students. How capable the faculty and staff. How generous the trustees, parents and alumni.
At the head of the waiting procession stood the class valedictorian and, by general consensus, the class beauty as well. Veronica Aimée Whitby, Aimée to almost everyone who knew her well. Aimée was the kind of girl teenage boys dream about, talk about, follow in the halls at school. Nearly every one of the Upper School boys had, at one time or another, found themselves breathing a little faster and walking a little more slowly when either good fortune or good planning placed them five or six steps behind her in the halls or on the paths of Penfield. When this occurred, most would try to position themselves to catch the most revealing glimpse of flesh, especially when Aimée came to school, as she often did in warm weather, wearing a low-cut tank top, a high-cut miniskirt or both.
For four long years, several hundred hormonally charged Penfield boys had been inhaling Aimée’s scent. Dreaming about burying their faces in her silky blonde hair. Imagining her long, muscular legs, tan from the summer sun, wrapped around their bodies. They’d feel themselves growing hard watching or even just thinking about her perfectly rounded ass as it swung in an easy, sensuous rhythm that was all her own. The shyer, less confident boys looked away when she caught them checking her out. The bolder ones kept looking. Hungrily. Pointlessly. Even though the smiles she bestowed were always warm and occasionally flirtatious, virtually all the boys knew they didn’t stand a chance. Perhaps with one of the other Penfield girls, perhaps with Aimée’s less beautiful sister, Julia. But not with the princess herself.
Still they couldn’t help looking. Try as they might, not one among them could resist a stolen glance, and Aimée enjoyed every one. Enjoyed them even more because she knew, and had known since the beginning of senior year, that the Penfield boys weren’t the only ones who noticed her. Weren’t the only ones who wanted her. There were others. Older, more interesting and, as far as Aimée was concerned, more desirable. At least for the moment.
To Aimée’s right, at the head of the long line of graduates, stood Aman Anbessa, the class salutatorian. A supersmart Eritrean kid, Aman’s parents had come to Portland from their native land eight years ago. After four years in Portland’s public schools, Aman had won a coveted full scholarship to Penfield and had proved himself worthy of it, finishing second in the class and winning a full scholarship to Tufts University in the fall. Still, his ambitious father wasn’t quite satisfied. He drilled it into Aman’s head that if only his son had studied ten hours a day instead of just six or seven, perhaps he wouldn’t have gotten that one B that ever so slightly lowered an otherwise perfect record and allowed Aimée Whitby to slip past him into the number-one spot.
Inwardly, Aman didn’t resent his parents for their relentless encouragement. If he harbored any anger, it was directed at Aimée. He was sure she’d achieved her perfect record not just because she was smart and worked hard but also because she came from one of the richest families in Maine. And because of her endless sucking up to the teachers. Especially the male teachers. Double especially Mr. Knowles, the AP English teacher who had given Aman his only B.
Aman told himself he should hate Aimée. Not just for beating him out as valedictorian but for being rich and spoiled instead of a hardworking scholarship kid like himself. For driving a fancy car to school instead of walking two miles from an apartment off Fox Street. But what made Aman Anbessa truly resent Aimée was the fact that she barely noticed him. That she didn’t want him like he wanted her. That made him feel diminished. Like less of a man. And that was something he could never forgive her for.
Nell Barnhart, president of the senior class, stood behind Aimée. Next to Nell, and behind Aman, was Emily Welles, who rated a place up front because she was the winner of the headmaster’s award for good citizenship. The rest of the seniors were paired off and lined up behind the first four in alphabetical order. At the end of the line, along with the other two Ws in the class, was Aimée’s half sister––her half twin, some said, though they looked almost nothing alike––Julia Catherine Whitby.
All the girls were dressed modestly in knee-length white dresses. Some, like Julia, had their hair up. Others, like Aimée, let it fall loosely around their shoulders. Each carried a dozen red roses. The boys wore khaki trousers, blue blazers, white button-down shirts and ties.
There was a pause in the headmaster’s remarks and the kids looked up, wondering if, at long last, he’d actually stopped thanking people. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said, “parents, relatives, alumni, faculty and staff, as well as other honored guests, please rise and welcome our graduates. I proudly present Penfield Academy’s graduating class of 2012.”
The strains of the school’s traditional processional march emerged from half a dozen speakers strategically placed around the field. The crowd of more than four hundred rose to its feet. Cameras, smartphones and video recorders were plucked from pockets and handbags. The graduates entered and passed slowly down the center aisle through the crowd.
As she walked, Aimée glanced around, acknowledging faces she recognized. Smiling at some. Finger-waving others. She blew a kiss at her father and Deirdre, her stepmother, who were seated among the trustees. Next to Deirdre was Charles Kraft, Whitby Engineering & Development ’s director of corporate security. She wondered why Kraft was here. A Penfield Academy graduation didn’t seem like his kind of show. Or one where Daddy would need security.
Aimée felt Kraft’s eyes study her as she walked by closely enough for him to smell the delicate scent she was wearing. Perhaps he had come for her. A frisson of desire passed through her at the thought. Or was it simply fear? Charles was definitely sexy, but also more than a little scary, even to a girl as sure of herself as Aimée. One of the few men she didn’t feel certain she could handle. Still, he was exciting. Maybe she’d play the game a little and see what happened.
She wondered if Charles would show up at the party tonight. She wouldn’t have expected him to, but then she wouldn’t have expected him to come to graduation either. Having passed, she glanced back for just an instant. He caught her look and smiled. She turned away. Felt herself blushing. Aimée hardly ever blushed.
Reaching the front row of seats, the two lines of graduates split left and right and climbed the steps on either side of the wooden stage constructed for the occasion. Aimée, Aman, Nell and Emily took their designated places, front and center. The other graduates filled the remaining front-row seats, then filed into the second, third and fourth rows. Aimée glanced back and spotted Julia off to the side in the last row. Threw her a smile and a wave. Jules smiled back.
When the graduates were settled, Headmaster Cobb began talking again. He introduced the Penfield trustees one by one, asking each to rise and be acknowledged. He then launched into his favorite subject. Money. For ten minutes he spoke about how generously the families of the graduating seniors had supported the school once again this year. And how he hoped he could convince those few families who hadn’t yet given to do so soon. “Any amount helps,” he said. “Even just a few dollars will help sustain this school we all love and the programs it offers.” Cobb paused for effect … and then went on. “While we’ve received many generous gifts, I feel obligated to make particular mention of one very special graduation gift given by one of Portland and New England’s most prominent business leaders in honor of his two daughters, both of whom are graduating today.”
Aimée could see the eyes of her classmates and their parents honing in on her father.
Cobb continued. “Two million dollars has been given by Edward Whitby, a sixth-generation Penfield alumnus and the father of both this year’s valedictorian, Veronica Aimée Whitby, and her sister, Julia Catherine Whitby. It represents,” said Cobb, “the largest single donation this school has ever received and will be used, as Mr. Whitby has directed, in the construction of a new visual and performing arts center that will rival and, I daresay, surpass any offered by any other independent school in New England. An appropriate use of the money I think, given that one of Mr. Whitby’s two graduating daughters”—Cobb turned and gestured with one hand toward Aimée, who smiled back— “is not only this year’s class valedictorian but also one of our most talented artists. And his other daughter …” Cobb turned and stretched a hand in Julia’s direction. She raised a hand in response. “… Julia has proven herself an exceptional actress, whom many of you applauded for her brilliant performance in the lead role of Blanche DuBois in this year’s senior production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Naturally, our new facility will be named the Edward V. Whitby Center for the Arts.”
The audience rose and applauded. Ed Whitby rose and waved. Cobb waited for silence, then started speaking again. “Now it’s my distinct pleasure to introduce the valedictorian of the class of 2012. A young woman who has achieved an unprecedented record in her four years in the Upper School. Thirty-six courses. Thirty-six A pluses. All the while distinguishing herself not just as a student and an artist but also as a member of both the women’s soccer and lacrosse teams. Next fall Aimée, as we all call her, will be taking that remarkable record to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where she will follow in the footsteps of her namesake, a celebrated turn-of-the-century artist and her great-great grandmother, Aimée Marie Garnier Whitby. When Aimée enters the American art scene four years from now, I would warn all the current icons of the contemporary art world to pick up their game. Aimée will be gaining on you. Ladies and Gentlemen, it is now my distinct pleasure to present Penfield Academy’s newest valedictorian.” Cobb again extended his hand.
As Veronica Aimée Whitby stepped to the dais, she was thinking that she had seldom, if ever, felt so good or so excited about the future. This indeed would be the first golden day of the rest of her golden life.
She had no inkling it would also be the last.