Some families keep secrets.
“Fine, but the house is mine!” her father shouted.
“Then take Magnolia too! I’m done,” her mother said.
Magnolia crouched inside the closet of her parents’ bedroom, knees tucked to her chest, hands clasped around her shins. The wise-beyond-her-years part of her fourteen-year-old self had anticipated all this, but it still hurt to hear.
School could have been an escape, but it wasn’t. Once she arrived, the chatter in her head commenced, and she curled inward, shoulders hunched, jaw locked. Her mouth sewed itself shut. She followed the rules, did her schoolwork, attended biology club meetings. Repeat. No one acknowledged her muted misery.
Jessica knocked on Magnolia’s bedroom door at five o’clock the next morning, a Saturday. “You will go to live with your father’s Aunt Agnes in New York City while your father and I figure things out. I’ve packed your stuff. A car is waiting in the driveway.”
Magnolia shot upright out of bed and hoped to feel relief given the prospect of living somewhere else. How did I manage to skip over the part where I became happy? The fighting had become the background music in Magnolia’s mind, a constant reminder of her burdensome existence. So she made herself as invisible as she could. She’d never heard of this Agnes woman, but what did she have to lose?
She struggled to carry the over-stuffed suitcase down the stairs, but she didn’t want to impose by asking for help. When she got to bottom of the stairs, her mother was waiting to say goodbye. She hugged Magnolia tensely and whispered in her ear, “I’m not like your father and his family. I only live once.”
Jessica opened the door to reveal a black car in the driveway. The driver loaded Magnolia’s belongings into the car. “Thank you,” Magnolia said softly, averting her eyes as she stepped inside.
As they drove off, Magnolia didn’t know how to feel. The only thing to do was gaze out the window. She watched the sun rise above the Connecticut countryside, as quiet roads turned into infinite stretches of highway, then became surrounded by industrial buildings, and finally turned into bustling city streets. What did she mean, “I only live once”?
The driver parked at the entrance to a sleek apartment building.
“Thank you,” Magnolia said even more softly as she stepped out of the car.
The doorman helped her into the lavishly decorated elevator. The mirrored walls were bordered in golden, intricately sculpted frames, and a crystal chandelier dangled from the ceiling. The doors opened to a long hallway with deep red walls and ornate sconces. He led her to door number eleven and rang the bell. Rhythmic, high-heeled footsteps approached.
An elderly woman with hawk-like eyes and sharp cheekbones opened the door. She was pale and had gray hair elegantly fixed into a bun that accentuated the giant golden locket that hung around her thin, wrinkled neck. “You can call me Agnes,” she said.
“I’m Magnolia. Nice to meet you.”
“Thank you,” Agnes nodded at the doorman and paused to inspect Magnolia’s condition, as if she were a product on a shelf in a store. Do I look okay? Magnolia smoothed her hair and wiped any remnants of slumber and tears her amber eyes.
“I’ll show you to your room.” Agnes led Magnolia down another hallway that featured expensive-looking artwork. Once they reached the end, Agnes opened a door to reveal a sea of cream and light pink, a giant bed with satin sheets and pearl-trimmed pillows, and a mirrored vanity.
“This room is beautiful,” Magnolia said shyly. Why is a teenage girls’ dream room just waiting here to be occupied? Have my parents been planning to send me away all along?
“You should unpack your things. When you’re finished, I’ll show you the rest of the apartment. There are a number of rules that must be followed for you to stay here,” Agnes said and left the room.
Magnolia unzipped her suitcase to find the framed photo from her beside table of her parents on their wedding day. My mom must have wanted me to bring this. It reminded Magnolia of more vibrant times, a stark contrast to New York’s harsh winter—and her current situation.
“Magnolia, I don’t have all day,” Agnes called from down the hall.
Magnolia tucked the photo back in her suitcase and scurried toward Agnes’ voice.
“This is the living room. You may only sit in here when I have company. No food or drinks are allowed in this room under any circumstances,” Agnes said. A pristine velvet couch appeared untouched. Three twinkling chandeliers dispersed beams of light across the room. Agnes walked around the room’s perimeter, to avoid stepping on the immaculate rug, and into the white marble kitchen.
A plump woman stood at the sink, washing dishes with quick movements as a teapot whistled on the stove. “Marie will be preparing your meals in here.”
“So nice to meet you,” Marie dried her hands with a dishtowel and pivoted to shake Magnolia’s limp, cold hand.
“This is the bathroom,” Agnes pointed her long, shiny fingernails toward the entryway. She walked past the door and into the dining room. “The same rules apply in here as in the living room, except inevitably when there are guests, food and drinks will be served. But you will eat in the kitchen. And the other bedrooms are in a separate wing, where you will not be permitted.”
Magnolia noticed what appeared to be an additional alcove. Through the cracked door, Magnolia could see walls lined with bookshelves overlooking a huge terrace.
Agnes must have seen her looking. “You are never to enter that alcove. There are important records in there that will be of no use to you. For that matter, you are not to enter the dining room without an adult.”
Magnolia fought back tears.
“Good morning. What would you like for breakfast?” Marie asked kindly.
“I’ll just pour myself some cereal, but thanks” Magnolia responded deferentially.
“Don’t you want a proper breakfast before your first day of school?” Marie scurried to the fridge. She tucked her thick, dark hair behind her ears and swiftly constructed a gourmet breakfast for Magnolia. Fit for a queen. What did I do to deserve this? Magnolia ate the steaming plate of eggs, bacon, and toast that Marie slid across the counter. She was grateful for Marie’s efforts but consumed by the thought of starting ninth grade in the middle of the school year at a new school with new kids in a new city. And what was going on with her parents? Magnolia forced herself to eat, out of respect to Marie, despite the butterflies in her stomach.
After thanking Marie, Magnolia walked tentatively toward the door as she gripped the piece of paper Agnes had left for her with the scribbled address of Upton Prep: 102 East 88th Street. She peered out the window to orient herself. Bustling sidewalks and traffic stared back at her from below. Maybe Marie can direct me? No—I don’t want to bother her more than I already have. Magnolia whipped out her iPhone and plugged Upton Prep’s address into the “Google Maps” app, which she didn’t know how to use.
“Good luck, Magnolia. Have a good first day!” Marie called from the doorway.
Agnes was nowhere in sight.
“Is this Ms. McLean’s class?” Magnolia asked the woman at the desk in the front of the room. She had jet-black hair that framed her angular face and dark, thick-rimmed glasses.
“Yes, I’m Ms. McLean. And you are?”
“Magnolia Clark. I’m new today.”
“Oh, you’re a relative of Agnes Clark’s, I’m assuming…Welcome to Upton Prep.”
“Thank you,” Magnolia said. How does this woman know Agnes? Ms. McLean stood up and wrote today’s agenda on the SmartBoard, while Magnolia took a seat toward the back. She wanted to blend into the background, speak as little as possible, and minimize the attention drawn to her. Fortunately, other students filed in and didn’t even glance in her direction.
There was only one seat left, next to Magnolia. A girl ran into the classroom. Her cheeks were flushed, yet she looked like a miniature CEO. Her blonde hair hung stick straight with blunt edges that grazed her padded shoulders, and her blazer was perfectly pressed. Magnolia noticed its shiny buttons glinting.
“I am so sorry, Ms. McLean. I forgot to print the article that I wanted to show my biology teacher so I had to…” she said, out of breath.
“Sit down, Claudia. Class is starting now,” Ms. McLean snapped.
Claudia scurried across the classroom, collapsed in the empty seat, and meticulously arranged a notebook, a folder, two pencils, and two pens on her desk.
“Today, we will be begin our unit on plant biology,” Ms. McLean said, handing out note-taking packets to students in the first row.
That was the only information Magnolia absorbed throughout the rest of the morning. She was relieved when it was lunch and hoped to find a quiet table in the corner to read. While waiting on the lunch line, a familiar, tense, upbeat energy approached Magnolia. Déjà vu.
“Hi, are you new? It is so nice to meet you. My name is Claudia, and I’m class president and also head of the welcoming committee. I think I saw you earlier in Ms. McLean’s class. How is your first day going? I would love to give you a full tour of Upton Prep. I can also fill you in on the teachers, how to maximize your GPA, what clubs to join, where to sit. I’ve been going here since kindergarten,” Claudia spat out at lightning speed, making Magnolia’s head spin.
“Yeah, I’m Magnolia. It’s okay so far. Thanks.”
“I’m glad to hear that. It makes my position as head of the welcoming committee much easier when I’m in classes with new students. I love getting to know people academically and socially so I can gauge how to best help them. Why don’t we sit together at lunch and chat? I would love to hear all about you.” Claudia placed a sandwich, a carton of milk, and an apple on her tray. Magnolia did the same.
“Sure.” They both handed the cashier their prepaid student meal cards and scanned the cafeteria for open seats. Claudia led Magnolia to the last place she wanted to sit: the table directly in the center of the cafeteria.
When the day was finally over, Magnolia yearned for solitude. Outside, commuters were already on their way home. Bicyclists whizzed by. Taxis honked. Traffic lights changed from red to green to yellow. Magnolia watched and eavesdropped. The businessman in front of her struggled to balance his coffee thermos, newspaper, and briefcase while yelling at a colleague over headphones. She caught sight of a young couple running with a golden retriever through the park across the street and nearly tripped on the fishnet-covered legs of a goth teenage girl, resting nearly horizontally on a stoop, chain-smoking.
Suddenly, she was captivated by a flurry of color down the street. As she approached, she saw bunches of dahlias, larkspurs, roses, tulips, calla lilies, gardenias, hydrangeas, and her favorite, snapdragons. At her home in Connecticut, she loved their garden. She spent hours outside on the rickety antique bench beneath the vine-covered colonnade to escape her parents’ arguments. That bench was the only place she could hear herself think clearly. I wish I could go back. She yearned to be Dorothy, able to click the heels of her ruby red slippers and return to a familiar home. I can’t think straight in this city.
A wave of nostalgia enveloped Magnolia when she noticed the sidewalk florist’s purple snapdragons. Those look like the ones in my mother’s bouquet in her wedding photo. Magnolia scrounged a couple of bills from the bottom of her backpack and bought a potted snapdragon. Its buds were still tightly closed, like puckered lips. It curled inward away from the world. She thought of the apartment’s forbidden alcove and terrace. What a great place for this.
“Magnolia, come to the kitchen,” Agnes said sternly. Do I even get a hello? Even my mom would say hello. Magnolia saw that Agnes had laid out three stacks of paper on the counter and was dangling an expensive-looking pen between her right index finger and thumb.
“What’s this?” Magnolia asked. She looked down at the text but could only recognize the bolded word “signature.” The rest of the document was handwritten in illegible, minuscule script letters. She could barely squint long enough to make out three words before a headache set in.
“I need you to sign these, everywhere you see an ‘x.’ This is just a formality. In order for you to live here, with me, and attend Upton Prep, there are some terms to be agreed on. I need to get these back to my lawyer as soon as possible,” Agnes spoke with a sense of urgency.
The wedding photo once again flashed in Magnolia’s mind. So now she finally mentions my parents: when she wants something.
“So this is just because you’re my guardian now? What about my parents?” Magnolia’s voice quivered. She couldn’t reveal her suspicions to Agnes, for they had just met, and Magnolia wanted to remain in her good graces. Magnolia knew contracts could get people in trouble, and a signature was more than a name on a piece of paper.
“Yes, nothing to worry about at all.”
She sensed a change in Agnes, as if Agnes were halfheartedly attempting to comfort her.
Agnes must have recognized this and swiftly interrupted Magnolia’s thoughts about how to respond. “I am in a rush though and need to fax these back,” she said in her usual clipped manner. Magnolia froze. “Look, Magnolia, it’s now or never. If you don’t sign these, you have to leave immediately. But I don’t know how you think you’ll get yourself back to Connecticut. And let me tell you, I doubt your parents are even there anymore.”
Fear propelled Magnolia to sign the papers. As soon as she lifted the pen from the last page, Agnes snatched the contracts, turned on her heel, and left without another word.
What did she do to them? How have they not even called? Magnolia’s eyes filled with tears, but she only let them drip down her cheeks once she heard the door slam shut.
“I am leaving for the weekend shortly. I have some business to attend to. Marie will stay with you while I’m gone,” Agnes announced the next morning.
I can finally put the snapdragon outside. “Alright, have a safe trip.”
As soon as the doorman escorted Agnes out the door, and Marie left for her daily errands, Magnolia retrieved the snapdragon. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a green light flashing on the phone’s base. A voicemail. She couldn’t resist. Does this have to do with the contracts? What if whoever called knows where my parents are?
As if detached from her restless mind, Magnolia’s finger pushed the “play” button. “Agnes. The records were wrong. It was Clara’s last life. Call me as soon as you can.”
Magnolia would recognize that husky voice anywhere—it was her dad, Peter. She gasped and clicked “save.” The color drained from her face. Her mom’s words echoed in her head: “I’m not like your dad’s family. I only live once.” Who is Clara? What is this whole lives business?
She needed time to think. Instinctively, Magnolia retrieved the potted snapdragon from her room. Gardening always calmed her down. She unhooked one of the clips that secured a stem in order to pick the lock to the alcove and opened the door within seconds. What she had seen through the cracked alcove door was nothing compared to the real thing. Once inside, Magnolia observed what must have been thousands of color-coded files and books and rows of locked cabinets. I need to get my hands on what’s inside of these. But Marie will be home soon.
Magnolia walked through the rows of bookshelves toward the terrace. After some fiddling, Magnolia slid the terrace door open and basked in the white winter sun. She placed the snapdragon on a glass table and poured some water into the soil. I’ll nurture these snapdragons. I have to make the most of it. Inevitably, they only live once.
Marie opened the door the apartment. “Magnolia?”
Magnolia dashed out of the alcove, empty-handed, and locked the door behind her.
It was only half past six, Magnolia couldn’t focus on her homework, and Marie was cooking. Agnes would return from her weekend trip at seven o’clock sharp. Magnolia replayed the voicemail and her mom’s words in her mind. She’ll never know if I just look around the dining room. Once again, her mind said no, but Magnolia’s body entered the room and caught sight of a photo displayed on a ledge. She immediately recognized the woman as a youthful Agnes. Is that really her? Agnes actually looked happy. Her arms were wrapped around a teenage girl with wispy blonde hair and piercing blue eyes.
Magnolia lost track of how long she’d been staring at the photo. She could have sworn it had only been a few seconds. Suddenly, Agnes stormed into the room and slapped the framed photo face down on the ledge. She glared at Magnolia with disgust and left the room. Magnolia froze. She didn’t know what to do.
Getting lost in other people’s worlds was natural for Magnolia. No one had ever told her about her own life. Agnes didn’t join Magnolia and Marie for dinner after the photo incident. Magnolia avoided thinking about the confrontation that would inevitably ensue. That night, after she checked that Agnes’ lights were out, Magnolia snuck back into the alcove. She dug the clip out of her pocket and opened the alcove door. Just like I left it.
One by one, Magnolia used the same clip to open each file cabinet. Everything was arranged alphabetically, so it was easy to find information about her father, Agnes, and this Clara girl. She stacked the three giant files, found the corresponding books, and situated herself in a giant, leather chair. The inside cover of each book had a statement that read:
Each member of the Clark family has been granted multiple lives. Please refer to the index to determine the number of lives each member of your branch has left. Natural causes end each life, and the beginning of each new life is the same: a fresh start and a new identity. The Clarks do not have explicit memory of their past lives, or which life they are on, for that matter. However, they live with the knowledge that they have bright, limitless futures ahead. And they live without fear of death—to the fullest.
This situation is complicated by the fact that the Clark bloodline is obviously impure. That is why it is essential for the Clark alcove and records to be preserved, and the oldest Clark family member must inherit this apartment, and subsequently, this alcove when the former eldest Clark family member’s last life ends.
Magnolia was enthralled. How could this be? How could she not have known for all of these years? What her mom said before she left finally made sense. Jessica had tainted the Clark bloodline. She resented Peter for his ability to live more than once and for bringing Magnolia into such a complicated world.
Magnolia couldn’t put the pages down. She delved deeper into her family history, observing the handwritten records and tallies of lives. The book contained photos of her father at every age, report cards, annual weight and height measurements, and various travel and medical records. Same in Agnes’ book. And Clara’s.
It was clear that something was wrong with Clara’s records. Years of her life were missing, but one thing was definite: Agnes was her mother. Where is her father? Determined, Magnolia flipped through the papers for hours, searching for clues. She eventually fell asleep, surrounded by heaps of papers scattered all over the alcove. The cabinets were wide open. Even the alcove’s door was cracked.
Early the next morning, familiar footsteps approached. Magnolia was startled awake. Agnes entered the room. As she got closer, Magnolia could see tears rolling down her wrinkled cheeks.
Magnolia panicked as she spotted the evidence of the previous night’s detective work. Her whole body clenched up. Why is she coming so close to me? Agnes stifled her sobs and crouched down in front of Magnolia. She rested a hand on Magnolia’s shoulder.
Magnolia didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry about your daughter,” Magnolia blurted.
“Thank you,” Agnes said. An especially plump teardrop fell to the floor. The sun began the trek to its peak above the terrace, melting the ice from Agnes’ eyes and illuminating the snapdragons. Its buds had opened over night. With parted lips, it wasn’t so tucked away from the world anymore. Agnes picked up Clara’s records and stared at the fragmented pages. “I heard the voicemail. I should be at peace, but I still miss her so much. Every day.”
Magnolia embraced Agnes. “I’m so sorry,” she repeated. “It’s not your fault.”
“This is why your parents didn’t want to tell you. It’s so complicated. Your father wanted to protect you from the harshness of it all. But your mother thought you needed to know the truth. They’ve been fighting about it for years.”
“Where are they now?”
“They’re safe but no longer in Connecticut. Peter went to visit other relatives to review some more records. Jessica is staying with her sister. It’s going to be okay.”
“What if I want to have my own kids one day? How will I know how many lives they have left? How many lives will I have left?”
“I wish I could tell you, but I just don’t know.”
Eliza Rader is a sophomore at Penn majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. Her favorite childhood book is The Secret Garden, which served as the initial inspiration for her story. In addition to creative writing, Eliza is an avid list-maker, post-it note scribbler, and notebook hoarder. She loves writing non-fiction and is not particularly funny or spontaneous, but she’s working on it. She is obsessed with Buzzfeed, all animals, especially her Portuguese Water Dog and Cockapoo, volunteering, knitting, yoga, and ice cream.