“Count me in,” I say. “My taste buds thank you.”
Theo lifts the basket and leads me away from the mess hall. Rather than go to the sloped lawn behind the Lodge, where I assumed we’d head, he instead guides me past the cabins and latrine and into the woods.
“Where are you taking me?”
Theo grins back at me before entering the forest. “Someplace special.”
Although there’s no path for us to follow, he walks with purpose, as if he knows exactly where he’s going. I trail behind him, stepping over downed branches and crunching through fallen leaves. The idea of being led into the woods by Theo would have made my thirteen-year-old heart sing. Even now my pulse quickens a bit as I ponder the strange possibility that Theo might be interested in me. Young Emma would certainly think he was. Cynical, adult me highly doubts it. He couldn’t. Not after everything I’ve done. Yet here we are, whisking through the forest.
Eventually, we come to a small clearing so unexpected that I force myself to blink just to make sure it’s real. The area is a small circle cleared of dead leaves and underbrush. In its place is a patch of soft grass punctuated in spots by clusters of wildflowers. A halo of sunlight pours through the gap in the trees, catching the pollen drifting in the air and making it look as though a light snow is falling. A round table sits in the middle of the clearing, similar to the one where Franny and I had lunch in her fantastical greenhouse. And just like at that months-ago meal, Franny is present, already seated at the table with a napkin across her lap.
“There you are,” she says with a warm smile. “Just in time, too. I’m positively famished.”
“Hi,” I say, hoping I don’t sound as surprised as I feel. More heat spreads across my cheeks—a combination of disappointment that this picnic isn’t some romantic gesture on Theo’s part and embarrassment that I ever thought it might be. I feel something else, too. Apprehension. Franny’s surprise appearance tells me that this isn’t an impromptu picnic. Something else is going on.
Not helping is the presence of six marble statues arranged on the outskirts of the space, almost tucked into the trees, like silent witnesses. Each statue is of a woman in artful stages of half-dress. They’re frozen in unnatural poses, their arms raised, hands open, as if waiting for small birds to perch on their delicate fingers. Others carry baskets overflowing with grapes, ripe apples, sheaths of wheat.
“Welcome to the sculpture garden,” Franny says. “One of my grandfather’s more fanciful ideas.”
“It’s lovely,” I say, even though the opposite is true. While beautiful from a distance, the clearing gives off a creepier vibe once I’m seated in its center. The statues bear the scars of years spent exposed to the elements. The folds of their togas are crusted with dirt. Some have cracks running up their sides and chips in their otherwise flawless skin. One statue’s face is stained by moss. All have blank eyes. It’s as if they’ve been blinded. Punished for seeing something they shouldn’t have.
“You don’t need to be polite,” Theo says as he places the picnic basket on the table and starts to unpack it. “It’s creepy as hell. At least, I think so. I hated coming here as a kid.”
“I’ll admit it’s not to everyone’s taste,” Franny says. “But my grandfather was proud of it. And so it must remain.”
She gives a helpless shrug, drawing my attention to the statue directly behind her. Its face is exquisite, with fine-boned features and a daintily elegant chin. Yet whoever sculpted it had added an extra layer of emotion to the statue’s face. Its lifeless eyes are wider than they should be and sit beneath a pair of dramatically arched brows. Its rosebud lips are parted ever-so-slightly, either in ecstasy or in surprise. I suspect it’s the latter. The statue looks, for lack of a better word, startled.
“Lunch is served,” Theo announces, snapping my attention from the statue to the table. A plate bearing an open-faced sandwich of smoked salmon heaped with crème fra?che, capers, and dill now sits in front of me. Definitely not what the others are currently being served in the mess hall. When Theo pours me a glass of prosecco, I take an extra-long sip in an effort to calm my nerves.
“Now that we’re all cozy,” Franny says, “I think it’s time to reveal why we’ve brought you here under such mysterious circumstances. I thought it might be a good idea to have our conversation in relative privacy.”
“Yes,” Franny says. “There’s an important matter Theo and I would like to discuss with you.”
“Oh?” I say it while cutting into my sandwich, pretending to be calm when I’m anything but. Apprehension clings to my insides. “What is it?”
“The camera outside your cabin,” Franny says.
I freeze, a forkful of smoked salmon poised halfway to my mouth.
“We know you’ve seen it,” Theo says. “We watched the footage this morning.”
“To be completely frank, we were hoping it wouldn’t be noticed,” Franny adds. “But now that it has, I do hope you’ll give us the chance to explain why it’s there.”
I set my fork on my plate. Any appetite I might have had is gone. “I’d certainly appreciate one. I didn’t see any others around the camp.”