The problem with small towns, you think, is that they never have enough helipads. Never mind that Aglionby doesn’t have one –your private school did, you’re tempted to donate just to correct the error – there aren’t any skyscrapers with helicopter parking available either. You had to run down a full list of the boys in your brother’s year to find a family you knew, who had a manor in Henrietta, and a vacant helipad free for your use.
You can’t just leave your helicopter at Monmouth, of course. Their lot is too dusty.
So you park your helicopter with the Whitman family in exchange for a very precisely calculated gift basket of wine and cheese, taxi to the car rental and haul your suitcase from trunk to trunk. A lesser woman might have regretted packing so much, but you know you’ve brought exactly what you want to bring and the size of your suitcase is the corresponding burden.
The rental car is a terrible champagne colour with an odd stain in the back seat, but you assume that’s part of the ‘small town’ effect – it is probably one of two rental cars in all of Henrietta, even if it does splutter tragically. You think fond and distant thoughts of your Mercedes, and then you follow your phone’s GPS to the address you programmed in months ago. The fact that you still have the original, faded violet business card you were given – and the fact that you saw where the street was on the taxi ride – does not stop you from using the GPS. You don’t trust rural roads. You don’t trust anything prefaced with ‘rural’, or that doesn’t come with a micro USB port.
300 Fox Way is exactly what you expected, because you lowered your expectations as far as possible two weeks in advance. It’s the sort of building your brother would probably find charming, because he has the patience for things that can be lovingly described as ‘ramshackle’. You would sooner reach for ‘decrepit’ and ‘probable earthquake hazard’, and the collection of stained glass stickers and dreamcatchers you can see on the upstairs windows does nothing to charm you.
Too bad, you suppose. You weren’t expecting to be charmed. You park the rental beside a disappointingly serviceable Ford, shake your head at how natural they look together, and go to rummage through your case in the boot. Orla forearmed you with the knowledge that most gifts you could offer would be very poorly received, so you erred on the side of caution; out of season fruits, nuts, and pastries you picked up before the flight. A bad gift would be worse than nothing, but visiting someone’s home without a gift goes against your moral code. You’re sure no one would be rude enough to outright reject a gift, besides.
You knock on the door, mindful of the peeling paint underneath your unblemished knuckles as you knock. You’re left waiting too long, and through the door you think you can hear a series of shouts bounce from room to room, the demand for someone to answer you traded off like a chore. It takes a force of will to keep your face set and neutral, but you manage.
The woman who opens looks like the kind of woman who could reject a gift outright and is waiting for the chance to spurn something to prove a point, the set of her mouth firm and purple and deeply unimpressed. You tell yourself that this is fine, because your appeal couldn’t possibly be universal and, in your streamlined navy dress and practical heels, you’re clearly playing to the wrong demographic right now. You’re still not sure you’ve ever faced such pronounced disinterest before. “What do you want?” the woman asks, her accent making the words take longer than they would have taken you.
“I’m here to see Orla,” you tell her, and consider putting out a hand before thinking better of it. She looks like she might bite, and your manicure is expensive. “She should be expecting me - my name is Helen Gansey.”
A flicker of understanding crosses the woman’s face, but it doesn’t shift her expression to anything more reassuring. “Oh,” she says, “you’re another one of those,” and leaves the door open as she storms back inside. You suppose that’s your invitation, and you follow, though you lose her immediately as a stream of young girls crosses the warped boards of the hall. The girls stare at you, and you smile back, bland and congenial until they’ve passed.
With no guide, and with your hands still laden with your offering, you follow the smell of baking to the kitchen. You attempt to refrain from making judgements about the décor as you pass, on the very rare chance that a less-than-kind comment about the signed Steve Martin photograph will fall from your lips. Neutral seems to be a foreign concept in this house, as it bursts from the seams and strains to hold a thousand conflicting styles, but you endeavour to hold on to it all the same.
The kitchen is no less cluttered than the rest of the house, but at least miscellany seems to fit better on a countertop than sprawled over a hall. It’s busy with people too, and you set your gift on an edge of the table as you ask, “Excuse me – is Orla here?”
“She’s upstairs,” a shockingly small girl tells you. She looks like she vandalised a bin of fabric scraps to assemble her clothing, and is the most natural product of this house that you could imagine. A moment later she squints at you, and you realise you have seen this particular brand of eccentricity before. Your eyes skip over to the boy beside her at the table.
Your younger brother stares at you, completely affronted by your presence. “Helen,” he demands, and already you can tell that 300 Fox Way has had an effect on him, made him indecorous in front of company. His sleeves are rolled up to the elbows, a pile of very-poorly-kneaded dough lying before him. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to meet a friend, Richard,” you say, and bare your dazzlingly straight teeth in a smile. You think 300 Fox Way is having an effect on you, too.
Dick is trying to look put-out, but the effect is weakened by the flour dusting his aggressively cyan sweater. The girl – Blue, your impeccable mental rolodex supplies – is blinking like she’s having trouble with the possibility of you in her house. “Did you say you were here to see Orla?” she asks, faintly disgusted.
You are still trying to decide what tone is most appropriate to answer in when someone yells, “Helen!” and you are spared by the pair of arms thrown around your shoulders. You turn to greet Orla properly, and she is as radiant as the last time you saw her, taller than you even barefoot and glowing with the recent touch of the sun. “So good to see you again,” she says, pulling you directly into a kiss, the taste of artificial mixed berry suddenly eclipsing the rest of the world.
It’s a tie, whether Dick or Blue looks more revolted.
“Oh my god, Gansey, let’s go,” Blue says, snatching for his hand and leading him out of the kitchen, pausing only to grab the parcel of food you left. You think it might have been better served going to someone whose opinion of you could increase, but too bad. If it gets your younger brother to leave the room and leave you alone with Orla, then it’s still served you well.
Except as soon as the kids are gone, a new wave of women flood in, arguing in a fond and familiar kind of way and crowding you back against the cabinets. You try not to look cowed by them, but you don’t think you know the social rules very well here, and it is beyond unsettling to think you might be out of your depth. The women glance at you, sideways and derisive, and Orla speaks up for you; “This is Helen – the wedding planner, remember?”
“Weddings shouldn’t be planned,” the blonde one says, very softly, and you imagine the terrible, slapdash neo-pagan kind of event she must prefer instead. She picks up the dough your brother abandoned and rolls it expertly between ghost-white fingers. The other women only glance at you long enough to ask, “Calla said you brought fruit?” and then Orla is heaving a sigh, not getting the response she was after, and drags you out of the room.
She doesn’t help you get your suitcase out from the rental car, but you didn’t expect her to. She looks wonderful leaning against the side, anyway, and you can’t tell if she’s posing deliberately or if it’s just ingrained habit to be camera-ready at any given second, but the effect is remarkable and not the least bit lost on you. “Are we having dinner here?” she asks you, shading her face with one arm, casually modelesque.
You consider navigating a full, sit-down meal with the women of 300 Fox Way, and only your perfect manners suppress a shudder. “Why don’t I take you out, instead?” you propose. “If I’m staying with you, it seems a fair trade.”
She accepts easily, makes you wait while she hunts down the sweater that matches her nails, and climbs into the car like inconvenience is something erased by the gift of her presence. You’re as impressed as you were the first time you saw her. She directs you to her favourite restaurant in Henrietta – you don’t miss the difference between ‘best restaurant’ and ‘her favourite’ – and strolls in, far too familiar.
“Orla,” the host greets her, by name. He turns to you with an expression that tells you he’d say Orla’s newest ‘friend’ if he was braver, but he’s not. You breeze past him, unfazed. You are more than aware of Orla’s tastes and Orla’s habits, because she divulged them all to you, packing an incredible amount of astoundingly personal gossip into the time it had taken her to drink a single cocktail.
You had met her at a bridal shower, when the bride-to-be had thought that having readings done for her and the rest of the girls would add a little flavour. You’d asked Dick to pass along the number of someone legitimate enough not to waste your time, who was under eighty and possessed some sense of showmanship. You know psychics are his kind of people. You had not expected Orla to be his kind of person but he’d passed along her number with a note so perfunctory it had served as a warning.
You got to witness three and a half hours of Orla throwing around careless, contrary predictions. The bride had loved it. You’d thought her tawdry, until you’d had to excuse yourself to take a call and Orla had caught your arm to advise, “They’re going to lie to you.”
It had been a vendor, and she had been right, and after you had finished making the call excruciating for the salesman on the other end it had been your turn to catch Orla’s arm. “You can prophesise things other than handsome strangers appearing at opportune times?”
She’d shrugged with one perfectly shaped shoulder, as effortless as everything else she did. You are the product of a huge amount of effort and couldn’t help but admire her immensely. “I’m better over the phone.”
Your brother might be impressed by magic and prognostication and the surreal made real, but you are impressed by women who know exactly what they’re capable of. Even draped over a chair in Henrietta’s ‘finest’ restaurant, she is coy and calculating, exactly what she appears to be and still infinitely more.
You certainly wouldn’t have come all this way just to see Dick. If he wants to relocate to a paddock, he’s welcome; you are here to seduce a seductress, to see if you can’t lure her up to Washington for at least one party. Somehow she fitted it into conversation that every dress she owns is backless. Keeping a straight face through an event with her around is a challenge you long to attempt.
She orders wine, and you accept a single glass out of courtesy before you’re free to decline. There is nothing gluten free on the menu, and you’re not sure that the word ‘soy’ exists yet in Aglionby. You order a salad the way you would order a hearse, Orla downs a heavy dish of pasta and defeats it about the same time you abandon your plate completely, and you get to leave before the burgundy carpet makes you too sad.
“No one at home cooks,” she tells you, so scandalously free to tell you whatever happens to be on her mind. It is strangely compelling to be included in another family’s gossip, and Orla shares it like it’s not even a secret. To her, it isn’t. “My mother used to try but Maura never did and they all stopped bothering when I turned eighteen and learned how to make rice on my own. That’s why Blue’s so tiny, I know it.”
You can’t imagine being so forthright about your family, not even when talking just seems to be the thing Orla does. She tells you about Blue’s wild teenage rebellion, and about her own – far more impressive, especially if you’re using number of responding officers as a metric – and she tells you about Henrietta and her boyfriends, the tedious ones and the fun ones and the ones she blew off tonight, just for you. She laughs as she says it, sprawled imperially in the passenger side of your rental car. You are not the kind of woman whose heart makes strange shudders without permission, but approval circles your thoughts at the sight of her.
300 Fox Way is no less chaotic at night, because even with less children underfoot there are more women home from work, raucous and exhausted and hunting down distraction. Orla makes one last attempt to show you off, standing in the door to a room dominated by cat hair and sewing supplies and declaring, “So my girlfriend is staying over.”
“No one cares, Orla,” Blue snaps from a corner seat. She is doing something savage to a string of black lace, and you wonder if she surmises your brother’s taste. Better her than the boy with the shaved head, you suppose, though the dusty one had been alright.
“Because your four boyfriends are so impressive,” Orla snips back, and you suddenly have a lot of questions for this girl about Dick and no time to ask them. Orla sweeps up a flight of stairs, and you follow in her wake, vaguely perturbed to not be leading but unwilling to charge on and lose yourself between the sage candles.
Entering Orla’s room feels like a form of disaster tourism. It’s clearly a space she’s spent more than a few years, cluttered with orange bras and a hundred different colours of nail polish, magazines and tarot cards, lipstick and potted herbs and a fuchsia witch’s hat that looks like it belongs at a bachelorette party tackier than the ones you arrange.
There is a zebra-print blanket on her bed, and even though it is unmistakeably Orla, and even though you are unspeakably attracted to Orla, good taste attempts to claw its way up your throat because surely this is too much. Orla, unaware of the calamity draped over her bed, spares you from decision making once again by throwing herself back onto the covers and kicking off her wedges. You wouldn’t go as far as to call zebra-print anything acceptable, but it certainly is a lot more tolerable with her on top of it.
“You look like you’re overthinking something,” Orla tells you, with all the certainty of an expert in underthinking.
“Probably,” you agree. It’s a talent you have finely honed, and it usually serves you well. While a part of you acknowledges that you can’t approach sex with the same efficiency you use to approach event planning, the larger part of you feels strangely untethered by the idea of not having every step outlined and itemised and assigned an estimated duration.
But, there lies the appeal of Orla. She catches you by the wrist, slender fingers coiling around a thousand dollar bracelet, and pulls you down with her. Last time, you had not-very-long in a hotel room before your flight was due, and you hadn’t yet realised that the flight would be very worth cancelling; this time, you can afford to move much slower, taste the wine on her lips over top of the cheap mixed berry chapstick, appreciate her hair splayed out over the disaster of the zebra-print blanket, get unspeakably distracted by the smug determination in her lidded eyes.
“I have a psychic insight,” she tells you when you break apart, victory in the flush of her cheeks. “You are so into me.”
“Your standards for insight are too low,” you tell her. “Should I leave so you can call me and come up with something better?”
She laughs, sharp and confident. “No way are you leaving now. New insight,” she says, “you are dying to eat me out.”
It’s a more impressive divination. You feel your blush colour the tips of your ears red, something you never managed to rid yourself of, and only manage a “Well” in face of her wicked delight. You do know what you came for.
She kisses you again, one last burst of artificial grape from her plump lips, and then you slide down her, pressing kisses down the curve of her neck, into her collarbone, against the swell of her breasts and then down to her navel where her shirt has ridden up and the stud in her bellybutton glimmers at you. You don’t have words for how much you love it, and how little it would suit you, and you are so glad it exists on Orla for you to admire. You suck it into your mouth and feel a thrill of anticipation shiver up your spine as Orla’s hands wend their way through your hair.
You kiss her stomach as you undo the clasp of her jeans, pleased you don’t fumble them, pleased that her legs fall open for you in glorious invitation. She is so incredibly comfortable with herself, and with you between her legs, laying back on her bed like of course you want to do this for her. She’s right, and you grind your thighs together, splay your hands out over the vista of her skin and try to stay on task.
Her underwear is zebra-striped, because nothing good ever came easy and because it makes removing them that bit more rewarding. Orla stretches her legs out to help you shimmy them off, and then her knees hook easily around your shoulders, her grin distant and artfully content.
You slide one thumb up along her slit, and at least she’s as wet for you as you are for her, ready to twist her hips up to your touch, breath catching with anticipation. You lean in, bury your nose in her curls, drag your tongue over her clit and find your reward in the most relaxed sigh you have ever heard. Pointed nails rub along your scalp, easy and encouraging, and you lap at her again, feeling the rasp of your tongue over her silky skin and delighting in the tremor that shivers its way up her.
“God, Helen,” Orla says with feeling, legs tightening around you, “You should be too posh for this.”
You should be, but you also went to college after years of hearing the importance of keeping an open mind. You lick her again, slow, broad strokes of your tongue that have wonderfully pleased sounds bubbling up from Orla’s lips. You let one of your hands slide your dress up, push your improperly damp underwear aside, and mimic the motion over your own clit. You let out a little hum of satisfaction as your fingers ease the built-up ache, slipping over your skin, as warm and soft as Orla is under your mouth.
She keeps moaning as you work your tongue over her, until she’s finally, undeniably loud and you have to surface to ask, “Shouldn’t you be quieter?”
“Nah,” she says, turning her head to face the wall a little more directly, “Runt stole my lipstick the other day, we’re good.” When you don’t immediately resume – trying to work out if you are at all culpable for your involvement in this – her hands coil around your hair a little tighter, tug you back down.
You can feel how close she’s getting from the tremor building in her thighs, and you rub your own fingers against yourself, more insistent. She doesn’t let go of your hair, and the pressure is more pleasant than anything else. You work your free hand up to touch her, press a finger up into her until she actually gasps and the sound sends a spike of lust right through you.
She’s erased all thoughts of deadlines from your head, she’s stolen all the stress from your shoulders and replaced it with herself, demanding and perfect, a balm for busy minds. It is so unspeakably simple, mounting tension seeking release, everything about her effortless.
Your pulse is sweet and demanding between your legs, under your thumb, and Orla’s hips are starting to push back against you, angling to offer you the best access they can grant, legs spread as wide as she can spread them. And then, with a shudder, they curl closed around you, Orla’s cry achingly sincere as her hands grip you and don’t let go.
Your tongue stills, but her legs are trapping you against her and you can’t pull back. You finish to the sound of your name on her perfect lips, the reverence in the tone threading through your arcing pleasure, and the release that blossoms through your whole body.
Her legs relax and free you, and you stagger up onto the bed beside her. Her cheeks are a blissful red, but her expression has already sunk back into the easy contentment that rolls off her in waves, post-coital glow or not. Your tongue is very tired, and your jaw hurts, but you are warmly content, satisfied with a job well done.
In the silence that fills the space between you, you can hear the rest of 300 Fox Way settling around you – the loud, frustrated music filtering in through the wall, Blue’s attempt to drown Orla out, an argument downstairs, a television in a different room, someone singing nonsense to themselves from the attic. You only planned for a one-night stay, but you suspect that might still be trying.
“So,” Orla starts, wrapping herself up in the zebra-print atrocity, “Are you going to stay long in Henrietta?”
“No,” you tell her. “God, no. I will fly you up to Washington every time I want to see you.”
She laughs, careless and easy, and switches off the light.