Dalnushka’s pool radiated light. Its bottom was a bed of crystals that glittered in the halo of Nikolay’s magefire. Above the pool, curtains of rock wreathed the ceiling in brilliant oranges, whites, and golds, like solidified flames. Had the pool been on Earth, Jane was sure it would have been featured in National Geographic, or at the very least, made into a screensaver.
The only sound, apart from their breathing, was the slow drip of water, echoing through the cavern.
“What happens now?” Jane whispered. There was something about the Pool that made you want to whisper reverentially; it was not a place for shouting. “Do we drink the water?”
Nikolay gave a mocking bow. “Ladies first.”
Jane knelt by the water’s edge and touched the pool. The water was ice-cold, so clear she could see every crystal on the bottom. She brought a handful of water to her mouth and touched it to her tongue. It tasted sweet, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Before she could second-guess her decision, Jane took a gulp, then braced herself for magic, or pain, or an onslaught of visions.
Nikolay’s voice was expectant.
He has no idea what’s supposed to happen either. Jane wasn’t sure whether to feel vindicated or uneasy. She shrugged. “I don’t feel any different. Aren’t I supposed to see things?”
“Perhaps the pool found you unworthy.”
“If it found me unworthy, I hate to think what it’ll make of—”
Jane broke off.
The water of the pool had darkened. Images swam on its surface—a college classroom, her bedroom back home, a room that resembled a morgue. She reached toward her bedroom, and the image expanded, shifting, until she could see small details—the bookshelves, the fake plants, the penguin-patterned coverlet on her bedspread.
“What do you see?” said Nikolay’s voice in her ear, but Jane shook her head. Fingers trembling, she reached out farther, until her fingers brushed the surface of the water—
The world around her shifted.
She was in a hospital room—small, dimly-lit, with one window. The air stank of antiseptic, wood polish, blood. On the bed, a woman hunched over a baby. Tears leaked from her eyes, dripping down on the infant who screamed in her lap.
“I don’t know,” the woman was crying. “It’s too much. I don’t know. Stop, just stop crying. Stop crying.”
The baby screamed all the louder, her face screwing up in a wail.
“I didn’t want you,” the woman sniffed. “I didn’t want you. I didn’t want this. Please just stop crying, stop crying, stop crying.”
Jane looked down at the sign on the crib, down to the place where the name of the baby was scrawled in pink marker, cursive and scrawling. The name on the bassinet was—
A toddler looked up, a magic marker clutched in her chubby fist. She had been doodling on the wall, and there were purple lines all over the peeling plaster. The room was dingy and small, scarcely better than the hospital room she’d just left.
The woman was there again, seething with fury, bearing down on the toddler, who had started to cry. “What are you doing?” she screamed.
There was a smack and a wail, the thunk of a marker being hurled in a trash can.
“Stop crying,” the woman snapped. “There’s a man coming tomorrow, and if I play my cards right, maybe I’ll be able to get rid of you once and for all. What d’you think he’d say if he saw you doing this? I betcha he wouldn’t be—”
“—happy!” Her adopted mom was beaming, the corners of her eyes crinkling in delight. “She’s finally opening up to us. Well, opening up to you, anyway.”
Jane’s adopted dad smiled. “Come here, Jane.”
Toddler Jane waddled toward him, grinning toothily. But halfway there, she paused, sat down, and reached for a toy computer.
“Jane? What are you doing?”
“Anfwerig emailf,” Jane lisped.
“Oh my God, she’s mimicking you. It’s official. She likes you best. Isn’t she amazing? She really is—”
“—perfect.” Her dad smiled as he scanned the problem set. “I’m so proud of you, Jane. You’re mastering these concepts really fast! We’ll start you on basic algebra next!”
Young Jane beamed up at him. “Is that the thing with ‘x’s and ‘y’s?”
“Yes, it’s the thing with the ‘x’s and ‘y’s. Good memory! Why don’t you give this one a—”
“—try.” Her mom hugged her. “That’s the most important thing, that you try. It’s okay to get things on the second try. Or even the third.”
Young Jane shook her head, turning away, tears in her eyes, a mulish stubborness clouding her face. “Daddy says Phillip got this the first time he did it. He’ll be back Friday, and I have to get it. Give me the problem again.”
“I’m not sure it’s healthy to keep trying right now, sweetie—you’re obviously upset—”
“I want to try again,” said Jane angrily. “I know I can—”
“—do it!” Her dad’s beaming face stared down at her. “Top of your class in the fifth grade! I’m so very proud of you! Your teachers all say you are the brightest student they’ve had.”
“As bright as Phillip?”
“As bright as Phillip!”
“I thought you said he has a perfect memory. Do I have a perfect memory?”
“Eidetic is the word you’re looking for—an eidetic memory. It means he can remember everything he sees. Not everyone has that. It’s a rare an special gift. But for someone who doesn’t, you have done so, so well!”
Young Jane frowned. “I really don’t have one?”
Her dad shook his head.
“It just means you’ll have to work a bit harder than him, sweetie. Not right now, but eventually, when you get older. But that’s not a bad thing. I’m sure you’ll do—”
“Fantastic.” Their dad paced before them, his eyes hard like diamonds. “First Phillip disappears, now the two of you think you can slack off in your classes?”
“We’re upset too!” Sandra sniffled. Jane stared at her hands, wishing she could disappear like Phillip. “Jane was being bullied.”
Her dad sucked in a breath. “I know this is a hard time for you girls. And I’ll call up the mom of that girl who was teasing you. But I need you to be on your best behavior right now. Do well in school, obey your teachers, and don’t make a scene. If there’s any major issues, come to me. Your mother is not well, and I don’t want you both to disturb her with minor—”
“—problems.” Her dad shook his head, glancing distractedly at his phone, which was buzzing, a steady stream of messages. “Twelve wrong answers is not good enough for the score you want to get on your SAT. I want you to do one practice test a day from now on. Getting a perfect score will open a lot of doors for you when it comes to colleges.”
Jane nodded. “D’you think…” she said timidly, “…since you’re home… that maybe we can go to a movie tonight?”
“I’ve still got some work finish up, unfortunately. And now’s not the time to be slacking off.”
She nodded again, like she had been expecting this. “The math used to be easier,” she said, her voice quavering slightly. “Back in eighth grade I never had much trouble scoring perfectly at things. Is it because my memory’s not like Phillip’s?”
Her dad sighed, staring down at his phone. “Anyone can solve easy problems, Jane. There’s no real pride in that. You’ve passed the easy stage, the part of your education where things come naturally. Now you have to learn how to study. You have to work hard at it. Actually apply yourself, instead of just coasting. It’s really—”
Her sister Sandra bounded into the room. “Didn’t you hear me knocking? Were you tuning me out? I need to talk to you about something important.”
“Can it wait?” Jane looked up from her flashcards, annoyed. “I can’t deal with your drama right now. Test tomorrow, paper due Thursday, math team Friday. Can’t you talk to one of your friends?”
“Seriously?” A disbelieving laugh. “First you skip my birthday party, now this? Some big sister you are! You’re a freaking workaholic, just like Dad!”
Jane glanced at the slammed door, then resolutely returned to her flashcards. It couldn’t be that important. If it had been, Sandra would have talked to her regardless. What was far more important was—
The test. The test was tomorrow, and she was in her room, staring down at the sheet of exam questions she’d stolen.
She already knew almost all of the answers. But she was still going to memorize the rest.
Because being excellent wasn’t good enough. It was vital, so vital, that she always be—
“—the best! The absolute best class I’ve ever had.”
At the front of the classroom, her teacher’s eyes lit up. “It’s so great to find enthusiasm among one of my students.”
“I love it!” Jane lied. “It’s just so interesting. I love differential equations. I love math.”
Tell them what they want to hear. Make them like you; make them love you; make everybody love you; they’ll give you good grades, and then maybe, just maybe, your Dad will be—
“—proud,” she said.
“What?” said her father.
“I said, I hoped I’d made you proud. I might not have got into MIT like Phillip, but I did make school valedictorian, and I got into lots of colleges, including Williams.”
“Mm.” He wasn’t even looking at her. He shot off a text on his phone, and then grimaced up at her. “Sorry, there’s an emergency at work. Motor vehicle crash, aortic rupture. I have to go in. We’ll talk about colleges later. It’s a shame about MIT and Harvard, but we’ll make do.”
“Oh,” said Jane, fighting back tears. “I… I thought you’d be happy… even though Williams might not be… I mean… it’s still a good college.”
“I am happy.” But her father didn’t sound happy. He gave her a quick pat on the shoulder, and Jane felt the weight of his disappointment crash over her, crushing and onerus. “We’ll talk more about it when I get back. Don’t send in the acceptance quite yet, though, I want to review things, make absolutely sure there wasn’t some mistake with you not getting into the other schools. Do you—”
Do you understand yet what I’m trying to tell you? said the Pool, in tones of faint annoyance.
She sucked in a breath. The darkness closed in on her, grappling and cloying. You just gave me a series of random flashbacks without context, she said. I’m afraid you’ll have to be a bit clearer. What is it you want me to understand?
Who you are. Where you come from. Your cracks, your flaws, your breaking points.
She drew back, her insides twisting.
Perhaps a longer vision, said the Pool.
This time, time didn’t fly past her.
It seemed to slow instead, so that everything in the vision became crystal-sharp, like glass. Jane wasn’t sure she appreciated the change. She was still unsettled from the highlight reel of her life she’d just witnessed, still struggling to grasp what the Pool wanted her to see. A migraine was building in her temples, and her head was starting to swim.
Focus, she told herself.
Her past self sat at the kitchen table, next to a girl in a gray hoodie. For a moment, Jane struggled to place who the girl was. Then she remembered. This was Alyssa, Sandra’s vapid friend, who Jane had agreed to tutor one summer while on break.
Jane made a face. Tutoring Alyssa had been an exercise in frustration. She had struggled to explain simple math concepts to the girl. Nothing had stuck.
Of all memories the Pool had picked out to show her, why had it chosen this one?
Reluctantly, Jane approached the two girls in the memory. Her younger self was explaining trigonometry. Judging by the impatient set of Younger-Jane’s jaw, she must have been on explanation number four or five.
“I would do problems every night, until you really understood the concepts. Your exam’s in ten days. That’s plenty of time to pick this up, if you work hard at it. Do twenty or thirty problems a night, then check your answers against those in the textbook. If you keep looking at the material, you’ll eventually understand it.”
“Yeah, I’ll try that, thanks,” Alyssa mumbled. “Do you ever…?”
“Do I ever what?” Younger-Jane didn’t look at the girl. She pulled up her phone and frowned down at a flashcard.
“Like… you’re such a genius. You just see a problem and you know the answer instantly. Do you ever… have to think about things?”
“Well… for me,” said Younger-Jane, still staring down at her phone. “For me, doing the simpler math problems like the ones in your book is really easy, because I’ve worked so hard at it and had so much practice.”
Present-Jane cringed. She wanted to shake her younger self. Wipe that self-confident smirk off your face! she thought furiously. At least pretend to be humble.
“But I still do have to think about things sometimes,” Younger-Jane continued. “Last night I sat up half the night staring at this one really hard problem for my Linear Algebra class. I got it eventually. I know you’ll get this if you just apply yourself to the material.”
She was, Jane noticed uneasily, not even looking at the other girl, but continuing to stare down at her phone. For some reason, Jane was reminded of the vision she’d just seen, the memory of her dad ignoring her announcement about getting into college.
Something lurched inside her stomach.
Alyssa was nodding, but her expression was unconvinced. She seemed to be deeply contemplating something. Lines furrowed her forehead as her wide face twisted into a frown.
“Say… you were adopted right? Sandra told me.”
“Yeah. What about it?”
“I’ve never met another person who was adopted. Do you ever feel like…”
Alyssa paused, and there was something in her face, something in her eyes, that made Present-Jane think she was hovering on the edge of something important.
“Like what?” said Younger-Jane.
“Like nobody understands,” Alyssa mumbled. “Like you’re invisible. Like no matter what you do, taking care of your brothers, working part time, getting a gold medal for track, it’s all not enough. You’ll never be what they want.”
But Younger-Jane wasn’t looking at her, was barely paying attention, was staring down at the message in her email. “Oh my god,” she said breathlessly. “Sorry. I just found out I got accepted to the summer internship I wanted!”
“Oh,” said Alyssa. “That’s great!”
“I’m super excited. I’ve been studying my butt off for this and… Sorry, I just completely zoned out… I think you said something before this.”
“Nah, it’s cool,” said Alyssa. “Hey, where’s the restroom again? I gotta pee.”
Present-Jane had expected to remain in the kitchen, but the Pool had other ideas. Before she knew what was happening, she found herself being dragged after Alyssa, up the stairs, to the small commode at the top of the landing.
In the bathroom. Alyssa stared into the mirror. Present-Jane did too. For the first time, she looked, really looked, at the girl’s shadowed face, at the prominence of her cheekbones, and the bitterness that gleamed in her eyes.
Alyssa made a face at her reflection. Then, before Present-Jane could so much as cry out in protest, she shoved two fingers into the back of her throat—
—and retched into the toilet.
The scene changed.
This time, they were in some sort of hospital waiting room. Her mom sat at one of the chairs. Sandra was next to her, playing with her phone. Younger-Jane was nowhere in sight.
Still rattled by the previous vision, Jane stared at the two of them, trying to gauge what year this was. Judging by their outfits and Sandra’s overall appearance, they were in the very recent past.
“Thanks for coming with me today, sweetie,” their mom was saying. “I’m glad you’re here. You really didn’t have to, you know.”
“Ummm, yeah I did!” Even in the hospital waiting room, Sandra’s voice was a little too loud. Her golden hair was pulled back in a ponytail today, and her pink nails tapped against her purse in a cheery stacatto. “Didn’t you sign a thingy saying you wouldn’t drive after it’s over?”
“I could have taken the subway home. It’s just a little biopsy, I should be up and about straight afterwards.”
“Here,” said Sandra, “I’ll make you a playlist, you can have one of my earbuds. What do you want to listen to? The Beatles, Bon Jovi, Adele, or 90s Pop?”
Their mom smiled. “As long as it’s not the Spice Girls. People might not take me seriously anymore.”
“How big was the lump on your mammogram? Was it like… your entire boob? Or just a little dot?”
“Somewhere in between, I think. A few centimeters.”
“Did you tell Dad yet?”
“I don’t want to worry anyone.”
“Mom! You’re making my inner feminist curl up and cry.”
“I’ll tell Dad and Jane if the results are positive. If not, there’s no point worrying everyone. Your dad’s busy with work. And Jane’s got so much on her plate already, what with trying to prepare for her internship and all those extracurriculars and studying all the time. She always looks so stressed. Don’t tell her about this.”
“Mom,” Jane said. She reached out a hand, trying to touch her mom’s shoulder, but her hand went right through. Something big and hard was rising in her throat. Panic clawed at her insides.
The biopsy was negative, she thought. It must have been! Someone would’ve told me if it wasn’t.
Sandra fiddled with her phone. “Hey Mom,” she said.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“I believe you just did. About ten questions, in fact.”
“Mo-om. What made you and Dad decide to adopt Jane?”
Jane turned away. She didn’t want to hear this. Tears clogged her throat, threatening to choke her.
“Well,” their mom said slowly. “Your dad and I really wanted a second child, but we were having a hard time conceiving. So we applied for adoption.”
“And then the paperwork took so long that you ended up having me while you were waiting, right?”
“It’s a funny thing.” Their mom’s face was distant. “It’s lucky you were so healthy, because Jane was so sick when she came to us. Somehow she still managed to follow your dad everywhere when he was home. She latched onto him immediately.”
Their mom smoothed Sandra’s hair, looking sad. “Sometimes,” she said in such a low voice Jane was barely able to catch it, “I wish Jane was a bit more like you.”
“What?” Sandra barked a disbelieving laugh. “Um, I’m pretty sure I’m having a stroke, because I think you just said—”
Her mom nudged Sandra playfully. “I wish that she’d understand that it’s enough to be who she is. That she doesn’t have to always work and work and work. Your dad puts all these ideas in her head, that she has to be fifty shades of perfect. I’ve tried to tell her that it’s okay to be who she is, but I’m not sure it gets through.”
The lump in Jane’s throat expanded, blurring her vision. She swiped at her eyes furiously.
“Join the club.” Unlike Jane, Sandra didn’t seem impressed. She was staring at her playlist, her eyes glinting mutinously. “She doesn’t listen to me either.”
“Jane might be Daddy’s little girl.” Their mom grinned at Sandra. “But you’ll always be mine. So, it balanced out in the end, don’t you think?”
The hospital waiting room faded. Jane scrubbed at her still-damp eyes with her shirt, trying to swallow a sob.
Please, let the biopsy results be negative, she thought. Please.
She bit her lip, already dreading what the Pool would show next.
The last scene was different from the others.
They were in the family house, in the living room. The sky outside was dark, and a rainstorm was raging outside. Every so often, the lights flickered ominously. A deep sense of foreboding crackled through the house; even the air felt oppressive.
Phillip was seated on one of the sofas, his face dark with rage. Across from him sat their father, his eyes also snapping.
Jane’s stomach lurched. In all the years she had lived with them, she had never seen Phillip and her dad looking at each other the way they did now. Hell, she had never even seen them argue when she was growing up, not once. Phillip had always been the perfect one, Dad’s perfect child; they never argued…
“Why does it matter?” Phillip was saying. “Why does it matter if I’m dating a guy? Why does it matter if just once, in my senior year of high school, I want to take an easy semester?”
“It matters,” said their dad, in a cool, measured voice that he often used on her and Sandra, but never on Phillip, “because you leave for college in less than four months. I’m trying to protect you. Partying, posting pictures online… you may not think it would reflect badly on you now, because you’re young, but suppose you want to do something later where image matters? You might think of some drunk photos as just a fun lark, but what about twenty years later, when they resurface to circulate online?”
Jane’s mouth was dry; the skin on her arms was prickling.
She knew what day this was.
It was the day Phillip had vanished, a day that was burned into her memory. It was the day their family had changed forever.
Phillip’s dark eyes were narrowing in rage. “Bullshit!” he spat. “It’s not like I’m running for office! I want to be a physicist, and I’m not stupid enough to take pictures that would stop me from doing that. No, this isn’t about me at all, is it?”
“You’re worried about your reputation if I’m seen around town with a guy. You just want to keep me as busy as possible so I won’t have free time to do fun things, so there’s no chance I might embarrass you in some way—”
Jane pressed her hands to her mouth. Stop, she wanted to say, stop, stop, just stop, but even if she had been able to get the words out, it wouldn’t have mattered. She was deep in the past, and the two men couldn’t hear her.
Their dad’s face was stony, the lines in his jaw set and rigid. She had never in her life seen him this enraged. But whereas Phillip’s rage burned hot, her dad’s anger was a cold thing, terse and chill and tightly-wound.
“Phillip, please. Your mother and the girls will be back soon—do you really want them walking in on this conversation?”
Phillip barked a sharp laugh. “Even now! Everything’s about images with you, isn’t it? ‘Don’t argue where the family might see us! Don’t disrupt the squeaky-clean image of filial harmony!’ Images and prestige, so you can boast to your colleagues at work about how perfect your life is. Well you know what?”
Phillip was shaking. He raised a finger up, jabbed it toward his father’s sternum like a javelin, eyes bright with unshed tears.
“I’ll never be good enough! Jane and Sandra—they’ll never be good enough! You push them and push them—especially Jane! What kind of messed up dad makes ten-year-old daughter do advanced trigonometry and then gives her the cold shoulder when she can’t finish it?”
But it seemed there was no stopping Phillip, once he was riled up. “I’m not done yet,” he ground out, in a voice Jane knew boded nothing good, and there were actual tear tracks on his cheeks when he spoke next. “We haven’t even started talking about how you treat Mom.”
“I know about those ‘work calls’ you take late at night. You think you’re being soooo clever, pretending they’re from patients, but you know what the problem is with raising a family of geniuses? We won’t just roll over and swallow your lies.”
“I really think this is not appropriate—”
“SHUT UP!” Phillip screamed.
Their dad took a step back. For the first time during the argument, he looked rattled.
Phillip heaved a breath, and then another, his cheeks pink with rage. If he realized he had scored any kind of victory, he didn’t show it.
“I should do it,” he said. “Post pictures around your workplace of you with your secret woman. Let’s see what that does for your image! At the very least, it’ll help Mom wisen up to see the monster she marri—”
Her dad struck Phillip across the face.
Jane let out a shriek, the sound lost to time. The handprint gleamed crimson on Phillip’s already flushed cheeks.
Phillip started to laugh.
He laughed and he laughed, almost doubling over. He laughed until he was almost wheezing, a sharp wild sound.
“You’re such a fucking hypocrite,” he said.
“Leave,” their dad said, and he was not the same father Jane knew; he was cold and cruel and terrifying, and in that moment she felt something inside her shatter. “You are not my son.”
Phillip’s eyes narrowed. For a moment he looked just like their father, his jaw tight, his eyes swimming with rage.
“I’m going to stay with Uncle Bauer. He’s a better father than you’ll ever be. Don’t try to call me. I don’t ever want to speak to you again.”
The door slammed shut behind him.
Do you understand? the Pool asked again.
No, Jane said, her voice quivering, but she did understand now, she understood all too well, and the truth was almost too much for her to bear.
Daddy’s little girl.
You’ve been living your life under a lie.
Trying to meet an unmeetable standard.
Trying to please someone unpleasable.
Trying to be someone despicable.
And the worst part is,
She pressed her hands to her mouth, so hard her lip hit her teeth and started bleeding, but she barely felt it. Tears streamed down her face. She did not know who she was crying for. For herself? For her mother, who might be dying of cancer? Or for Phillip—poor Phillip, who had hidden his feelings, who had sought refuge with Uncle Bauer after the fight before being swept away in the portal against his will. Maybe she was crying for all of them, for the whole disastrously screwed up mess that was her family.
She fell to her knees, trying hard not to retch. She had to find Phillip. Find Phillip and go home. Go back to the house, talk to Sandra, apologize to their mother, do… whatever needed doing, when it came to their dad…
Her eyes were closed, but she was starting to see a faint light through the skin of her eyelids. Jane kept her eyes tight shut, hoping if she ignored it, ignored everything, she could leave the Pool, but the Pool had other plans for her.
A light cough invaded her consciousness. A soft laugh whispered through the air, followed by a rustling of paper.
Against her will, Jane opened her eyes.
She stood at the front of a classroom, but it was the strangest classroom she had ever seen. The classroom was unadorned, save for the presence of twenty desks. At each desk sat the same figure, in skinny jeans and a white sweater.