A warm hand fell on my shoulder and the scent of mothballs enveloped me as our instructor, Mrs. Hayes, leaned over my shoulder.
"There's no wrong answer in writing, dear. It seems the spirit of the muse was upon you a page back. Perhaps entertain it. You never know where it might lead."
I gave her a small smile but hoped she wouldn't linger. I had only another ten minutes to start my literary masterpiece.
She left, but instead of concentrating on the birth of words, I looked across the room at my best friend, perched in front of the fireplace. Victoria scribbled furiously in her notebook, not seeming to come up for a moment of air. Story ideas seemed as plentiful to her as daffodils in spring, and although most of them involved Zack Morris or a New Kids on the Block love triangle, at least she had ideas—and guts enough to write about them.
I swallowed down my jealousy and forced my pen to move across the paper, scratching out a sentence that described a beautiful old English house. When Mrs. Hayes told us our writing time was nearing an end, I looked down at the flowery words I'd painted—beautiful, but without character or conflict within sight.
When it was time to file out of the room, I took the last place in line and discreetly ran my hand over Louisa's painted desk. For a fleeting second, the whisper of something extraordinary floated up to me . . . something that felt like possibility and hope and excitement. But before I could grasp it and claim it as my own, it vanished.
I pressed my hand harder into the white paint, searching, willing some trace of talent to seep into my being. If I concentrated hard enough, perhaps I would become someone special, perhaps a gift would be given to me, perhaps I would be able to support myself so that I would never again have to depend on the state or the foster care system, or even the Bennetts, to do so. If I could just find this secret something, I knew I would find where I truly belonged.
As the line moved forward, I let my hand fall from the cool wood of the desk. The girls made their way downstairs, their footsteps loud on the ancient staircase. Mrs. Hayes stopped me from following them.
"Please don't be discouraged, Taylor. Do you know that both Louisa and Jo had many false starts and even rejections before finding their voice?"
"They did?" I couldn't help the curiosity that crept into my tone.
She nodded. "Why, one of Louisa's stories was considered so sensational, no one would touch it. But guess what? It's being published—finally—later this summer. Your time will come, dear. Stick with it, and maybe your sister can help you."
For the first time I felt something shut down within me at the mention of Victoria. I supposed we were sisters in a sense. And yet sometimes—times like these—our differences seemed so apparent that I thought I was just kidding myself. Maybe it was a lie—me being a Bennett, me pretending I could be like all these other girls here.
For once, I felt a need to reveal the truth and set things straight, or it might wrap its cold fingers around my throat and strangle me.
"She's not my sister," I whispered and followed the rest of the girls down the stairs of the old house.
* * *
After we said goodbye to our classmates and teachers, I gave one last look at the beautiful, gabled house. Drapes decorated the sides of each window. A grand old chimney topped the historic house and I reminded myself again how lucky I was to be here, where my favorite book of all time had been written. No matter if the words didn't come today—perhaps they would tomorrow.
Turning, I joined Victoria on the walk back home, skipping over the cracks on the sidewalk, my backpack bumping against me with each jump as I listened to Victoria prattle on about the story she'd started that morning. Her words were as plentiful in speaking as in writing, and I listened with rapt attention as we passed the imposing white colonial that used to be Ralph Waldo Emerson's home.
"I'm sick of writing about surface stuff, you know? Being at Orchard House, it was like I felt Jo speaking to me, telling me about a new kind of story . . . a story she would have written."
I marveled at her imagination, her confidence in her story. Was it because she'd grown up with two loving parents? If I'd been with them from the beginning, instead of living in the house of an absentee uncle, would I have Victoria's surety?