Black Friday is here and we’re discussing the season with Carol Goodman’s Nathan Beckwith and Helen van Beek from Blythewood.
Welcome to Blythewood.
At seventeen, Avaline Hall has already buried her mother, survived a horrific factory fire, and escaped from an insane asylum. Now she’s on her way to Blythewood Academy, the elite boarding school in New York’s mist-shrouded Hudson Valley that her mother attended—and was expelled from. Though she’s afraid her high society classmates won’t accept a factory girl in their midst, Ava is desperate to unravel her family’s murky past, discover the identity of the father she’s never known, and perhaps finally understand her mother’s abrupt suicide. She’s also on the hunt for the identity of the mysterious boy who rescued her from the fire. And she suspects the answers she seeks lie at Blythewood.
But nothing could have prepared her for the dark secret of what Blythewood is, and what its students are being trained to do. Haunted by dreams of a winged boy and pursued by visions of a sinister man who breathes smoke, Ava isn’t sure if she’s losing her mind or getting closer to the truth. And the more rigorously Ava digs into the past, the more dangerous her present becomes.
Vivid and atmospheric, full of mystery and magic, this romantic page-turner by bestselling author Carol Goodman tells the story of a world on the brink of change and the girl who is the catalyst for it all.
Black Friday on Ladies’ Mile: 1911
“Honestly, Helen, who goes shopping on the day after Thanksgiving?” Nathan Beckwith asked his friend Helen van Beek when they met at the corner of Broadway and Fifth in front of the Flatiron building.
“It’s the perfect time to get an early start on Christmas shopping. My list’s a mile long–”
“So you thought you’d start on Ladies’ Mile?”
“Very funny,” Helen said, swatting Nathan on the arm with her fur muff. She was wearing a robin’s egg blue coat and matching hat trimmed with white ermine that Nathan recognized from last year. Odd that she hadn’t bought a new coat this season, but then this color did suit her and brought out the blue in her eyes. “… and there won’t be time to go shopping once final exams start,” she finished.
It was true that Blythewood kept its students busy with exams and … extracurriculars. “And I suppose I’m here to carry the spoils of war?”
“Exactly!” Helen said, unfurling a scroll that might have been an ancient list of spells from the Special Collections at Blythewood. “Now, let’s see … we’ll start with hats at Best & Company …”
An hour later the two were walking down 6th Avenue—or rather, Helen was walking while Nathan staggered under a mountain of hatboxes from Best & Company, Lord & Taylor, B. Altman, and Bergdorf Goodman.
“That takes care of the ladies on my list, now for the gentlemen. I thought handkerchiefs.”
“Handkerchiefs! Every female including ancient Miss Calendar gets great whopping extravaganzas of feathers and waxed fruit and we poor sods get … handkerchiefs!”
“Well, I had to get Daisy and Ava hats because neither of them has a really good one and if I got them hats I couldn’t very well get Miss Sharp or Miss Corey anything less, and then I couldn’t not get the other teachers the same. The problem is I’ve used up most of my Christmas budget.”
“Since when do you have a budget?”
“Since Daddy started acting funny this fall. He says it’s a temporary cash flow problem because he’s tied up some funds in an investment …” Helen waved a gloved hand in the air as if such matters were beyond her although Nathan had seen her master the most complicated Latin spell and shoot an arrow through the eyes of a rampaging troll. “So I promised not to buy on credit or go over the budget. Besides, what else do you men need? No one notices if you wear the same clothes day in, day out, year after year. Did you hear those salesgirls at Altman’s catting about me wearing last season’s coat? No one wants a dingy woman. We are expected to be pretty and be well dressed until we drop–”
“I love a good handkerchief,” Nathan said, cutting off Helen’s increasingly hysterical harangue. “Can never get enough.”
“Exactly,” Helen said, smiling gratefully at Nathan. “And Nichols & North are having a sale. Come along … and be careful not to drop anything.”
Nichols & North, with its six stories of gleaming Beaux-Arts marble crowned by a Palladian temple, was the grandest store on Ladies’ Mile. Nathan remembered coming here with his mother when he was little, meeting Helen and her mother “at the fountain” as so many other shoppers did.
“D’you remember when you dunked me in the fountain?” Helen said fondly as they passed the multi-colored jets of water spraying over a cluster of marble nymphs.
“I remember you dunked me back and I had to ride the train back to Rhinebeck in wet trousers–”
“Oh, look!” Helen said, veering off to a display case. “Isn’t that the most darling hat?”
“I thought we were done with hats,” Nathan said, eyeing the hat with distrust. True it was an innocent enough looking midnight blue velvet toque with a modest amount of plumage, but once swathed in paper and ensconced in a circular hatbox it would become an unwieldy object of obstruction.
“Yes, I suppose we are.” Helen sighed. “Oh, here’s the handkerchief counter.”
An array of handkerchiefs were displayed in a glass case, behind which stood a small thin man with sharp features and a turned up supercilious nose. He gave one look at Helen’s coat and sniffed. “Those are made from the finest French lawn,” the clerk drawled. “Perhaps you’d rather see some made of cambric.”
“Oh, but the French lawn is ever so much nicer, isn’t it? And I want only the best for my gentlemen friends. How much for a dozen?”
The clerk raised his nose even higher in the air—He’ll get a nosebleed if he sticks it up any higher, Nathan thought—and named a large amount.
Helen consulted her list, looked back at the handkerchiefs, did some counting on her fingers, and sighed. “And I suppose you charge extra for monogramming.”
“Bien sur,” the clerk murmured in an atrocious French accent. He certainly wasn’t French. In fact, with those pointy ears …
Nathan moved closer to the counter and looked over. The clerk’s pin-striped trousers narrowed to long pointy shoes that curled up at the ends. Nathan drew Helen aside. “Helen, I don’t think our clerk’s quite … human,” he whispered in her ear. “We should probably inform the Order so that Mr. Bellows and Miss Sharp can come investigate …”
Helen stared at the clerk. “You’re right, Nathan. He’s a …”
Before Nathan could stop her, Helen had pronounced the correct phylum, genus and species of the creature: Alfar, fatae, alfen-noel. In short, a Christmas elf.
Instantly the clerk’s skin turned green, blue wiry hairs sprung from his ears, and his fingernails grew into talons.
“Ooops,” Helen said. “I forgot–”
“That naming a creature unmasks its disguise?” The creature snarled, baring yellow fangs. “You idiot! This will cost me my job!”
The elf-clerk vaulted over the counter and sprung at Helen. Nathan flung himself between them and took the brunt of the impact—or rather the hatboxes took the brunt. Half a dozen hats flew out, their feathers quivering in the air.
“Miss Sharp’s pheasant cloche!” Helen cried. “That cost me next term’s pin money. You will pay for that, sir. Vivere!”
The pheasant on the hat came to life at Helen’s animation spell and flew at the elf-clerk. He ran screaming into women’s millinery, batting the re-vivified bird from his face. He had chosen his direction of retreat poorly. Helen animated each feathered hat as she passed it, instilling them with her rage at the clerk. The great hall of Nichols & North filled with the cacophonous cries of exotic birds—ostriches, herons, peacocks, pheasants—all pursuing the elf-clerk. How he got out of millinery into Ladies’ furs Nathan would never know—or understand why he would make such a foolish mistake. At a command from Helen an arm of angry beavers and slavering sables joined the pursuit. Shoppers shrieked and ran toward the central atrium. One woman fainted and was nearly trampled by the crowd. Nathan caught her and pulled her behind a display of alligator steamer trunks.
“Uh oh,” Nathan said, eyeing the trunks warily. “If you hear a hysterical girl screaming Latin get out of here quickly!”
He followed the wake of destruction up the grand staircase through footwear, where baby crocodiles snapped at his heels, and into children’s toys where a polar bear (surely, not a real stuffed polar bear, Nathan fervently hoped) had treed the clerk on top of a giant Christmas tree. Helen was standing beside the polar bear brandishing a mangled hat, screaming, “I just wanted a decent price on men’s handkerchiefs! Was that too much to ask?”
“Not at all.”
The words were uttered in such sonorous calm that instantly all the rampaging creatures—feathered, furred, and Helen—subsided into calm. Nathan turned to find a portly man in a burgundy silk smoking jacket with white hair smoothed back from a plump, cheerful face.
“Mr. Nichols, I swear I did nothing wrong,” the elf-clerk screamed from his perch. “This … this … harridan named me.”
“Ah, a student of Blythewood, I imagine,” Mr. Nichols said, beaming at Helen. “Have you come to expose my elfen staff to the Order? Because that would be a shame. You realize that if you chase all the fey from Ladies’ Mile back to Faerie the economy of the city will suffer.”
“I wasn’t trying to expose anyone,” Helen said, straightening her coat and tearing up when she saw the rip in the sleeve. “I was just trying to get an early start on my Christmas shopping and stay within my budget. I just … just …”
Nathan stepped next to Helen and put his arm around her. “She just wanted to make her friends happy. She hasn’t gotten a thing for herself all day.”
“Ah,” Mr. Nichols said, smiling at Helen. “That’s the true spirit of Christmas. Let’s see what we can do for you, young lady.”
A few hours later Helen and Nathan were seated on the Empire Line heading north to Rhinecliff. Helen sat on the west side of the car by the window facing forward. Nathan sat across from her. The other seats were taken up by piles of shiny red boxes all stamped with the gold insignia of Nichols & North.
“What a nice man,” Helen said, gazing out the window at the sun setting over the Hudson.
“Elf,” Nathan said, snapping open the evening edition of the Herald Tribune. “I believe he’s an elf. You do know that if it ever gets back that we didn’t report him we’ll be in trouble.”
“Oh, pish,” Helen said. “How could anyone begrudge such a nice gentleman carrying on his business. I do hope the little, er, scene I made won’t hurt the store.”
“I don’t think it will,” Nathan replied. “It says here in the Trib that the mob scene at Nichols & North today was a result of a big sale. Mr. Nichols says that it’s the store’s intention to hold a sale the day after Thanksgiving every year from now on.”
“See, I told you it was a good idea. They should name the day after me.”
“Perhaps they will. I can’t imagine what else they’d call such a damnable day. By the way, as long as we’re shopping early I thought we could exchange presents early. Here–” He handed Helen a large red box.
“Oh, Nathan, that’s …” Helen gasped as she took out the midnight blue velvet toque. It perfectly matched the midnight blue coat Mr. Nichols had given her to replace her torn one.
“Put it on. At least it will be one less box to carry,” Nathan said, gruffly retreating behind his paper but surreptitiously watching Helen’s reflection in the window as she adjusted her new hat. It suited her perfectly.
“I have something for you, too,” she said, sliding a small flat box underneath his paper.
Nathan put aside the paper and opened the box. Inside was a handkerchief.
Meet Carol Goodman!
Carol Goodman is the author of The Lake of Dead Languages, The Fairwick Chronicles, Watchtower Trilogy (with husband Lee Slonimsky), and the forthcoming young adult Blythewood series. Her work has appeared in such journals as The Greensboro Review, Literal Latt, The Midwest Quarterly, and Other Voices. After graduation from Vassar College, where she majored in Latin, she taught Latin for several years in Austin, Texas. She then received an M.F.A. in fiction from the New School University. Goodman currently teaches writing at SUNY New Paltz and lives with her family in the Hudson Valley.
Fairwick Chronicles (writing as Juliet Dark)
Black Swan Rising (writing as Lee Carroll)
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Thank you Carol for taking part in Literary Escapism’s Black Friday!