“Do you have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving this year?“ Izzy Chatham asked after the last practice session. Lou hadn't seen the willowy girl at practice for several weeks and had been quite surprised when she showed up at the end of practice, precisely on a day when Myth was not around, having left for a week-long vacation with her single father. “I'd like you to meet my Grandmother.“ Izzy said. Lou blinked. She had already met Isabel Chatham after all, the woman had presented Lou with her scholarship to Willow Prep, not to mention checked in on her several times over the past year. But Lou was so taken aback by the question she just looked stone-faced at Izzy, waited.
Izzy smiled tentatively and bit her lower lip for a second. Seeing Lou was not going to say anything she said, "I would really... be pleased... if you came.“ Lou blinked at the other girl.
Izzy's eyebrows went up. Lou realized she had spoken the thought out loud and not in a very nice tone. “I told you, I'd like you to meet my Grandmother.“ Lou sighed on the inside. She really had no place to be, her workout finished and homework done, the holiday looming. She was a little annoyed by this, for the first time in years. Perhaps it was living on her own, living outside of institutions but she had pined for some kind of haven to enjoy the holiday. But she would never have admitted it to anyone. After a few more long drawn out moments Lou nodded brusquely. Izzy smiled brightly at her. Lou sighed on the inside again, this time at the token prettiness of the other girl. Lou was not gay, she had little interest in relationships of any kind, but beauty was compelling, wherever it occurred.
“Right, well, how's two in the afternoon on Thursday?“ Izzy said. Lou nodded in response.
“Great. See you then.“ And the other girl was gone, Lou left standing at the edge of the fighting area in Zahi's gym, staring at the wall, a slowly building mass of confusion.
Two days later Lou stood outside her apartment building looking across the street at the huge mansion situated next to Willow Prep. Just after one-thirty in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day she was looking at the mansion, Chatham House, where Isabel Chatham and her granddaughter Izzy lived, fidgeting slightly. Trying to figure out why taking a step towards the massive structure was so difficult. But eventually she sighed and said, “Quit being stupid.“ She moved resolutely towards Chatham House.
The building itself was monolithic and intimidating, possessing none of the filigreed grace of the Willow Prep building adjacent. Chatham House was more like a building which housed a modern art museum, all looming black marble and gleaming steel. The exterior facade was smooth and interrupted only by a rectangle cutout, inset with a seven foot tall steel door. A small access pad was set into the door with the layout of a phone dialing pad.
Lou stared at the pad, wondered what to do, there was no obvious doorbell, knocker, or even a door handle. She saw a scrolling line of code on the display of the access pad. Enter Code or press #9999 if GUEST. Lou dialed #9999. A ringing chimed, sounded like a telephone dialing. A thin, reedy voice answered, and strangely enough a voice Lou instantly recognized.
Lou had blurted out, “Mrs. Jones?“ Mrs. Jones was her appointed guardian. Lou had known the spry old woman lived somewhere in the area, but what was she doing at Chatham House? The old woman coughed lightly into the speaker, “Lou? Dear, what are you doing? You're expected at Chatham. Hop to it or you'll be late!“ The line went dead. Lou laughed. Mrs. Jones had seemingly forgotten she answered the Chatham House intercom and not the cell phone Lou used to call her when necessary. Lou dialed #9999 again and Mrs. Jones said, “Lou, honey? Is that you?“
Lou said, “Yes. I'm here.“
“Well that was fast!“ Mrs. Jones said, and Lou heard an insistent tone, followed by a distinct click. The steel door swung open and inwards.
Izzy was just inside the door. Seeing her made Lou instantly feeling rough and homely. The pretty girl smiled widely, welcoming. Her teeth are too white. It was dazzling. Things might have been easier if Izzy displayed some innate expression of haughtiness, but she didn't. Lou was exceedingly sensitive when it came to people condescending her. All Lou could feel from Izzy was a sort of blank, willing openness.
“Welcome to Chatham House, Lou.“ Izzy said, leading Lou inside the mansion into the foyer. Izzy flashed yet another bright, empty smile at Lou and Lou nearly missed a step. Accompanying the smile was a creeping redness across Izzy's face, it looked like a blush.
Is she a...? Is she flirting with me?
Lou recovered her step. Lou had experienced this several times in recent years. Twice at Willow Prep. The highly liberal nature of the school encouraged people to be true to themselves. Two lesbian girls, on separate occasions, had tried to befriend Lou, expecting Lou was a lesbian herself. Lou had been quite harsh in rejecting both. Too many time she had had to fight to define herself in group homes and Juvie and the instinct was difficult to push away. She didn't want to be so harsh with Izzy, not here, not now. But the invitation seemed to take on new meaning in Lou's perception. Lou sighed, aloud, softly.
Izzy did not seem to notice as she had already turned away, leading Lou deeper into Chatham House. They through a monstrous room, replete with marble-topped tables pushed against the walls, huge works of art hanging above. A massive grand staircase made of steel planks and cabling rose from the center of the room upwards. Izzy led Lou past the staircase towards a room off to the side and behind.
Inside the room was a stuffy sitting area of several high-backed chairs, a lustrous sofa and a blazing fireplace – a room wholly out of touch with the modernist bent of what Lou had seen so far. Lou took it all in, saw Isabel Chatham and another woman seated in the chairs. She could only see Isabel's face and the back of the other woman's head. Mrs. Jones puttered around, doing something, Lou couldn't see what. A low hum of classical music played. Izzy went right in, but Lou hung in the doorway for a moment trying to decide who the other woman was. The second woman's hair twisted and Lou saw the severe cut of her locks and she knew.
“Come in, please.“ Isabel said airily.
Lou walked in and sat on the sofa, where Isabel had gracefully indicated. Izzy plopped down next to her, still smiling.
“I believe you know Sue-Ann Dorsey.“ Isabel said, inclined her head towards the other woman seated near her. Sue-Ann did not smile at Lou but nodded, very much in the same manner Lou nodded at most people. Defensively. Mrs. Jones stopped puttering and winked at Lou. The older woman wore a voluminous MuMu-like dress, an apron tied over it, “Old Maid” stenciled in huge black letters across the front. Lou snickered.
“Well, let's cut right to the point, shall we?“ Sue-Ann said crisply. Lou went rigid, her fists balled over the armrests. Isabel looked a bit taken aback, but something told Lou the expression was forced, faked. The smile on Izzy's face slid a bit, as if she too were trying to consciously chose which of her emotions she wanted displayed.
Mrs. Jones blinked. Sue-Ann saw Lou tensed up. Mrs. Jones ambled over and put a comfortingly-wrinkled hand on Lou's shoulder, squeezed. Lou felt it, the old woman was surprisingly strong. Isabel reached over and lightly touched Sue-Ann's arm. Sue-Ann looked at her and nodded.
“Lou, you have no reason to be afraid.“ Isabel said, clearly trying to be soothing. “We will ask nothing of you that will be compulsory. I think once you hear us out, you will want to join.“
Lou's head swam.
Had the whole Thanksgiving thing been a sham? Why?
Lou ran through possibilities: had the whole scholarship offer been leading up to this? What could they possibly want with me? Unexpectedly, the realization she was alone with only women occurred to her. Lou pushed down absurd thoughts. They can't be a lesbian cult. That would be ridiculous.
And join? Join what? Lou's head turned towards the exit, then back, her eyes fell into Izzy's in between, saw only excitement and nervousness.
“The world is a very complex place, Lou.“ Isabel started, “There are forces at work, groups,“ she stressed the word, "dedicated to domination, destruction, chaos, and all manner of other horrid things. Disease. War. Economic crashes. Famine. Every imaginable crisis and disaster. I am sure you are aware of this.“ Lou was. “But behind all this is a complexity you could not be aware of.“ Isabel paused, eyes fixed on Lou. “Part of this complexity,“ Something about the way she said that word was odd, “includes a... project of mine, and Sue-Ann's. The Willow Society.“ Lou wanted to grimace, but kept her face blank. The Willow Society awarded my scholarship. “We actively work to keep the darker sides of this... complexity in check. And we would like you to join us.“ Sue-Ann looked on the verge of adding something but she didn't. Izzy chewed her lower lip and Mrs. Jones was grinned, her eyes twinkled. The pleasant woman put her hand on Lou's shoulder again, gave another squeeze before saying, "Don't fret, Lou, dearie. They aren't yanking you around. It's a good thing, it will be good for you.“ Mrs. Jones patted Lou's cheek, the old woman's skin warm and soft.
Mrs. Jones attempt at assuaging her eased Lou. The entire time Lou had known the woman Lou had never caught her in a lie, not even the slightest mis-truth. She was the most honest and caring person Lou had ever met. Lou didn't think her capable of misleading anyone, much less Lou herself.
Sue-Ann spoke, giving a much lengthier description of the Willow Society. Of Lou's place in it, the purpose and responsibilities which went along with being a member. But Lou still had not agreed. Finally, when Sue-Ann petered out, Isabel leaned forward, “What do you say, Lou?“ Izzy bounced in her seat, chewed her lower lip, the other teenager's attempts to control herself obviously having failed. Lou had to wonder, why is she a part of this meeting? How does she factor in?
Not that it matters. I want in.
“I accept.“ Lou said finally. It sounded like it might be fun. At least it wasn't a lesbian cult. Mostly, it seemed to Lou like a couple of old broads trying too hard to be relevant in a world which had passed them by. Women trying to sneak around, pretending to make a difference, enjoying the feeling of being covert and mysterious. These idea seemed funny to Lou, but she kept her laughter to herself.
Izzy said, “This is great, right?“ She was clearly excited, and also trying to hold the excitement in check. Sue-Ann frowned tightly at Izzy, Isabel ignored her.