Ninth House - Leigh Bardugo
By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her good wool coat, it was too warm to wear it. Spring had come on grudgingly; pale blue mornings failed to deepen, turning instead to moist, sullen afternoons, and stubborn frost lined the road in high, dirty meringues. But sometime around mid-March, the slices of lawn between the stone paths of Old Campus began to sweat themselves free of snow, emerging wet, black, and tufty with matted grass, and Alex found herself notched into the window seat in the rooms hidden on the top floor of 268 York, reading Suggested Requirements for Lethe Candidates.
She heard the clock on the mantel tick, the chiming of the bell as customers came and went in the clothing store below. The secret rooms above the shop were affectionately known as the Hutch by Lethe members, and the commercial space beneath them had been, at varying times, a shoe store, a wilderness outfitter, and a twenty-four-hour Wawa mini-mart with its own Taco Bell counter. The Lethe diaries from those years were filled with complaints about the stink of refried beans and grilled onions seeping up through the floor—until 1995, when someone had enchanted the Hutch and the back staircase that led to the alley so that they smelled always of fabric softener and clove.
Alex had discovered the pamphlet of Lethe House guidelines sometime in the blurred weeks after the incident at the mansion on Orange. She had checked her email only once since then on the Hutch’s old desktop, seen the long string of messages from Dean Sandow, and logged off. She’d let the battery run down on her phone, ignored her classes, watched the branches sprout leaves at the knuckles like a woman trying on rings. She ate all the food in the pantries and freezer—the fancy cheeses and packs of smoked salmon first, then the cans of beans and syrup-soaked peaches in boxes marked emergency rations. When they were gone, she ordered takeout aggressively, charging it all to Darlington’s still-active account. The trip down and up the stairs was tiring enough that she had to rest before she tore into her lunch or dinner, and sometimes she didn’t bother to eat at all, just fell asleep in the window seat or on the floor beside the plastic bags and foil-wrapped containers. No one came to check on her. There was no one left.
The pamphlet was cheaply printed, bound with staples, a black-and-white picture of Harkness Tower on the cover, We Are the Shepherds printed beneath it. She doubted the Lethe House founders had Johnny Cash in mind when they’d chosen their motto, but every time she saw those words she thought of Christmastime, of lying on the old mattress in Len’s squat in Van Nuys, room spinning, a half-eaten can of cranberry sauce on the floor beside her, and Johnny Cash singing, “We are the shepherds, we walked ’cross the mountains. We left our flocks when the new star appeared.” She thought of Len rolling over, sliding his hand under her shirt, murmuring into her ear, “Those are some shitty shepherds.”
The guidelines for Lethe House candidates were located near the back of the pamphlet and had last been updated in 1962.
High academic achievement with an emphasis on history and chemistry.
Facility with languages and a working knowledge of Latin and Greek.
Good physical health and hygiene. Evidence of a regular fitness regimen encouraged.
Exhibits signs of a steady character with a mind toward discretion.
An interest in the arcane is discouraged, as this is a frequent indicator of an “outsider” disposition.
Should demonstrate no squeamishness toward the realities of the human body.
MORS VINCIT OMNIA.
Alex—whose knowledge of Latin was less than working—looked it up: Death conquers all. But in the margin, someone had scrawled irrumat over vincit, nearly obliterating the original with blue ballpoint pen.
Beneath the Lethe requirements, an addendum read: Standards for candidates have been relaxed in two circumstances: Lowell Scott (B.A., English, 1909) and Sinclair Bell Braverman (no degree, 1950), with mixed results.
Another note had been scratched into the margin here, this one clearly in Darlington’s jagged, EKG-like scrawl: Alex Stern. She thought of the blood soaking the carpet of the old Anderson mansion black. She thought of the dean—the startled white of his femur jutting from his thigh, the stink of wild dogs filling the air.
Alex set aside the aluminum container of cold falafel from Mamoun’s, wiped her hands on her Lethe House sweats. She limped to the bathroom, popped open the bottle of zolpidem,