The Last of August

By: Brittany Cavallaro

one


IT WAS LATE DECEMBER IN THE SOUTH OF ENGLAND, AND though it was only three in the afternoon, the sky outside Charlotte Holmes’s bedroom window was as black and full as it would’ve been in the Arctic Circle. I’d forgotten about this, somehow, during my months in Connecticut away at Sherringford School, even though I’d grown up with one leg on either side of the Atlantic. When I thought of winter, I thought of those reasonable New England nights that arrived punctually just after dinner, disappearing into morning blue by the time you’d stretched awake in bed. British winter nights were different. They came on in October with a shotgun and held you hostage for the next six months.

It would have been better, all told, if I’d visited Holmes for the first time in the summer. Her family lived in Sussex, a county that hugged England’s southern coast, and from the top floor of the house they’d built you could see the sea. Or you could if you happened to own a pair of night-vision goggles and a vivid imagination. England’s December darkness would have put me into a mood all by itself, but Holmes’s family manor was stuck up on a hill like a fortress. I kept waiting for lightning to break the sky above it or for some poor, tortured mutant to come stumbling out of its cellar, mad scientist in hot pursuit.

The inside didn’t do much to dispel the feeling that I was in a horror movie. But a different kind of horror movie—some art-house Scandinavian deal. Long dark uncomfortable couches that weren’t designed to be sat on. White walls hung with white abstract paintings. A baby grand lurking in a corner. In short, the kind of place that vampires lived in. Really well-mannered vampires. And everywhere, silence.

Holmes’s rooms in the basement were the messy, living heart of that cold house. Her bedroom had dark walls and industrial shelving and books, books everywhere, organized alphabetically on shelves or tossed on the floor with their pages flung open. In the room beside, a chemistry table crowded with beakers and burners. Succulent plants, twisted and knobbled in their little pots, that she fed a mixture of vinegar and almond milk each morning from an eyedropper. (“It’s an experiment,” Holmes told me when I protested. “I’m trying to kill them. Nothing kills them.”) The floors were scattered with papers and coins and busted cigarettes, and still, in all the endless clutter, there wasn’t a single speck of dust or dirt. It was what I’d come to expect from her, except for maybe her stash of chocolate biscuits and the entire hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica, which she kept in the low bookshelf that served as her nightstand. Apparently Holmes liked to pore over it on her bed, cigarette in hand. Today was volume C, the entry “Czechoslovakia,” and for some unknowable reason, she’d insisted on reading the whole of it out loud to me while I paced back and forth in front of her.

Well. There might have been a reason. It was a way to avoid our talking about anything real.

While she spoke, I tried to avoid looking at the Sherlock Holmes novels she’d stacked on top of volumes D and E. They were her father’s, filched from his study. We’d lost her own copies in a bomb blast this fall, along with her chemical experiments, my favorite scarf, and a good deal of my trust in the human race. Those Sherlock Holmes stories reminded me of the girl she was when we met, the girl I’d so badly wanted to know.

In the last few days, we’d somehow managed to retreat backwards from our easy friendship, back to that old territory of distrust and unknowability. The thought made me sick, made me want to climb the walls. It made me want to lay it all out at her feet so we could begin to fix it.

I didn’t do that. Instead, in the grand tradition of our friendship, I picked a fight about something completely different.

“Where is it?” I asked her. “Why can’t you just tell me where it is?”

“It wasn’t until 1918 that Czechoslovakia liberated itself from the Russo-Hungarian Empire and became the country as we knew it in the twentieth century.” She ashed her Lucky Strike on the coverlet. “Then, a series of events that transpired in the 1940s—”

“Holmes.” I waved a hand in front of her face. “Holmes. I asked you about Milo’s suit.”