1. the action or state of being moved apart
2. the process of sorting and then extracting a specified substance for use or rejection
The space between the stone library of Grayson Academy and the red brick science building created a ferocious wind tunnel, in any decent wind. Janie Scott ducked her head and leaned forward into the blast, on her way to dinner with her roommate’s parents in the town of Grayson, across the street from the school. It was November of 1954, and a cold autumn in New Hampshire. Janie wore a warm wool peacoat, but the wind cut through her clothes. It made its way under and over the wraps of her scarf. It found the vulnerable gap between the peacoat’s sleeve and her glove, where her wrist lay bare.
She had found the coat in her closet in London, when she was still at St. Beden’s School, and it had a strange combination of smells: seawater, smoked meat, and something sweet that Janie couldn’t identify. A girl from school named Sarah Pennington had said the coat belonged to her. But then she had taken one sniff, raised her eyebrows, and said that Janie could keep it.
Sarah Pennington also said that Janie and a boy named Benjamin Burrows had borrowed a necklace from her, with a little gold heart pendant. Sarah said they had melted the necklace down, and were supposed to bring it back whole, as some kind of science experiment. Janie had no memory of borrowing anything from Sarah, but it seemed doubtful that she could bring a melted necklace back. Three weeks of her life had been erased from her mind, and she had lost so many important facts and experiences that she wouldn’t have listed the coat or the necklace among the ones that mattered.
But Benjamin Burrows—that name had nagged at her. Sarah Pennington said he had sandy-colored hair, and was stubborn and defiant. Janie had concentrated, feeling the memory like something deep underwater, so deep it was lost in darkness. Before she went to sleep each night, she willed the memory to come up to the surface. After months of struggle, she thought she knew the shape of Benjamin and the sound of his voice. She couldn’t remember exact conversations, but she had a sense of him. Fragments started to come back, things he had said. She began to remember a flight over water. A plunge into bitter cold. The fear that Benjamin was dead.
Then a parcel arrived at her parents’ London flat, wrapped in brown paper: a diary in Janie’s own handwriting, with a note from Benjamin saying that he thought it was safe for her to read it now. The diary entries explained what she had lost, and some of her memories came back flooding and whole. Some came in scraps and wisps that vanished when she tried to focus on them.
Now she was sixteen, and had recovered most of her memories or thought she had. It was hard to know.
She had been on a journey by boat to Nova Zembla, an island off the northwestern coast of Russia, with Benjamin Burrows and his father. Benjamin’s father wasn’t an ordinary apothecary who sold medicine. He was trying to make the world safe from nuclear war. He had a book called the Pharmacopoeia with hundreds of years of secrets in it: alchemical secrets, elixirs made from plants, and ways of altering matter and transforming the human body.
Using the Pharmacopoeia, Janie and Benjamin and their friend Pip had become invisible—actually invisible—as they tried to rescue the apothecary from his enemies. They had become birds: Benjamin a skylark, Pip a swallow, and Janie an American robin. They had found the apothecary’s colleagues: a beautiful Chinese chemist named Jin Lo and an exiled Hungarian count named Vilmos Hadik de Galántha. Together, they had stopped a Soviet nuclear test that would have killed or sickened the people who lived in Nova Zembla, and the reindeer and fish that kept them alive.
Janie’s trusted Latin teacher, Mr. Danby, had turned out to be a Soviet spy. He had taken Janie prisoner in Nova Zembla, with the help of an East German agent they knew only as the Scar. Benjamin had become a bird again to try to rescue her. But it was dangerous, too soon for his body to repeat the trans-formation, and he couldn’t keep his shape. She had watched him plunge sickeningly from the sky into the Barents Sea. A man in a kayak rescued them both from the freezing water and took them back to Benjamin’s father.
In the meantime, not surprisingly, Janie had fallen in love with Benjamin.
But then something happened that she couldn’t quite forgive: Benjamin and his father had erased her memory with a glass of drugged champagne. The apothecary said that Janie was only fourteen and had to stay with her parents, in school. So, fine: Benjamin and his father got to be mysterious, magical peacekeepers, while Janie had to memorize French verbs and eat institutional English food. Was this a fair arrangement?
No, it was not. Not according to Janie. She had received exactly three letters from Benjamin after the diary, all with blurred postmarks from locations that she couldn’t make out. The letters didn’t say anything about where he was or what he was doing.
In London, Janie’s parents had been working as writers on a television program about Robin Hood. They had moved there from Los Angeles to escape investigation for being Communists, which they weren’t—that was another thing that hadn’t been fair. But now they were in Michigan, teaching at the university in Ann Arbor, without fear of U.S. marshals showing up at the door with a subpoena. The tide was turning against Senator McCarthy, who had never produced a single Soviet spy for all his insistence that he had a whole list of spies.
Her parents had been given the drugged champagne, too, and their memories of Janie’s vanishing were gone, which was good. It would have worried them too much. They would have made her come to Ann Arbor with them, which she didn’t want to do. Instead, they had settled for letting her board at Grayson Academy.
The original founders of Grayson had been Quakers, and the school prided itself on its progressive attitude toward women. It admitted a few girls every year, at a time when most girls’ boarding schools were training young ladies to become suitable wives. Janie wanted to study chemistry. She’d become preoccupied with chemistry at St. Beden’s, and had won a school prize there, and had gotten a scholarship to Grayson. She couldn’t imagine going back to Hollywood High now—t he easy, sunshiny school she had once missed so much. Hollywood High was the place to be if you wanted an agent to spot your blond hair and your violet eyes and put you in movies. But Janie knew enough about show business not to want that, and besides, she didn’t have blond hair or violet eyes. She had what Benjamin Burrows had called “American hair,” by which he meant there was a lot of it—brown—and it was a little out of control. In the chemistry lab, she tugged it back in a ponytail so it wouldn’t dangle in the hydrochloric acid or sizzle into smelly ash in the Bunsen burner.
Jin Lo, who was Janie’s role model, wore her hair in a long, smooth braid down the back of her neck. Sometimes Janie tried to braid her own hair like that, but wayward wisps escaped around her face by lunchtime, and the braid was never as perfect and smooth as Jin Lo’s.
The peacoat was Janie’s best reminder of everything that had happened. It had been cleaned, sadly, and no longer had its strange smell, but it convinced her that Benjamin and his father and their friends were real, that they had taken that long journey north together and returned, against terrible odds. It made her feel safe.
Her roommate at Grayson was a girl named Opal Magnusson, and on that windy night, Opal’s parents had invited the girls for dinner at Bruno’s, the Italian restaurant across the street from the Grayson campus. Janie leaned into the wind, peacoat clutched tight at the neck, and crossed the street into town. She pulled open the restaurant’s glass door and was enveloped in the cozy smell of tomato and garlic. The sudden warmth made her cheeks tingle, and the soft light from sconces on the walls made her blink.
Bruno, the owner, called out “Buona sera!” and the white-coated waiters turned and beamed at Janie. She thought they must be tired of serving Grayson students by now—so many of the kids were spoiled and entitled—but the waiters were always kind.
“Janie!” Opal’s father said, standing from his table. Mr. Magnusson had thick, wild, white-blond hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a ready grin. He held out his big arms to welcome her.
His wife, Opal’s mother, was tiny and dark-skinned, with wide dark eyes. Her thick black hair was pulled back in a chignon at the nape of her neck. She gave Janie a demure smile and a nod. She had been a Malay princess, as Janie understood it, the youngest daughter of a powerful sultan. Mr. Magnusson had vast holdings in Southeast Asia, and had met the princess there and whisked her away. The war had been inconvenient for him, but after the Japanese were defeated, he had become richer than ever.
Opal gave Janie a wan smile, looking sick of her parents already.
Janie took the empty chair at their table, and a waiter tucked it under her. “Sorry I’m late,” she said, unfolding her napkin. “I was in the chemistry lab.”
“On a Sunday?” Mr. Magnusson asked.
“The teacher gave me a key.”
“Such devotion to your studies,” Mr. Magnusson said. “Opal could use some of that.”
Janie cast around for some response. Mr. Magnusson was infuriating because he made his disappointment with Opal the subject of every conversation. “It’s just something I’m playing around with,” she said.
“But it shows you have real purpose and drive,” Mr. Magnusson said. “Unlike some young people I could mention. Now let’s order some food.” He waved to the waiter.
Janie caught Opal’s eye and mouthed, “Sorry.”
Opal just gave a tiny shake of her head and rolled her bread into round pellets. Opal had long silken brown hair, green eyes, and honey-colored skin. She made Sarah Pennington, who’d been the prettiest girl at St. Beden’s School, look ordinary: just another blonde. Opal was so beautiful it was hard to look at her, and she seemed to know it, so she hid behind heavy, clunky glasses she didn’t need. It was as if she were in disguise, like Clark Kent.
“So,” Mr. Magnusson said, after they had ordered. “The great experiment. Tell me everything.”
“Well,” Janie said, glancing again at Opal, “I’m trying to find an efficient way to desalinate large amounts of seawater. To take the salt out, and make it drinkable, without using a generator. So that the ocean could be a water source more easily.”
Mr. Magnusson’s blue eyes grew wide. “But this is magnificent,” he said. “It could alleviate so much suffering.”
“I hope so,” Janie said, tearing off a piece of warm bread.
“Wars will be fought over water,” Mr. Magnusson said. “It will be the great commodity. Cheap, large-scale desalination would change everything.”
“I haven’t done it yet,” Janie said.
“But you’re close?”
“I think so.”
“Who gave you the idea?”
Janie nearly choked on her bread. “Sorry?” she asked.
“Well, it’s not an idea that a schoolgirl has on her own. Am I right?”
Janie felt her cheeks getting hot. Why had she had to brag about the project? She couldn’t say anything about Jin Lo or the Pharmacopoeia. “I just—figured it out by working on it,” she said, which was sort of true. “It’s been a slow process.”
“But how did you become interested in chemistry?”
All Janie could think of was Jin Lo, who was not a normal chemist in the way that the apothecary was not a normal apothecary. “In London,” she said. “I had a good teacher. I won a prize there, and that got me the scholarship here.”
“Remarkable!” Mr. Magnusson said. “I’ll be your first customer! I can use your desalination in the islands. I predict, Janie, that you will do great things.”
Janie smiled, uncomfortable. “And so will Opal.”
Mr. Magnusson waved the idea away. “Oh, Opal will inherit a lot of money,” he said. “She might do good things with it. And she could marry a very rich man, if she stops making herself ugly.”
“Daddy!” Opal said.
“Seriously, though, Janie,” Mr. Magnusson said, leaning forward. “I would like to buy your experiment.”
“It’s not for sale,” Janie said. “Anyway, it isn’t finished.”
“When it’s finished, then,” he said. “I insist.”
There was a silence. Opal crossed her arms and slumped in her chair, her heavy glasses sliding down her nose. Her mother took up her wineglass and glanced at Janie like a frightened rabbit.
Food arrived, carried by a teenage busboy, and Mr. Magnusson made a big production of making sure there was room for everything on the table. Then he kept up a steady stream of anecdotes, so there was no room for other conversation.
Janie turned her attention to her plate of spaghetti. It was delicious, and she’d been hungrier than she knew. She concentrated on twirling the noodles on her fork and not splashing sauce onto her shirt.
But then her reprieve was over. Mr. Magnusson asked, “How soon do you think you’ll be finished with your experiment?”
“I don’t know,” she said. She meant to stop there, but he looked at her encouragingly, waiting. “It all depends on the recrystallization process,” she said, “and perfecting my seeding method.”
Opal yawned in protest. “This is so boring I’m going to cry!”
“Your capacity to be bored is the stuff of legend,” her father said.
“I’m tired, too, Magnus,” his wife said quietly.
“Raffaello!” Mr. Magnusson called to the busboy. “May I have the check? I must get these ladies home to bed.”
They were gathered by helpful hands into their coats. Mr. Magnusson held open a vast black fur cloak for his tiny wife, ready to swallow her up. As she backed into the fur, the princess shot Janie the frightened rabbit look again, and this time Janie thought it contained either a plea or a warning—or both.
Janie walked back with Opal to their room in Carleton Hall. The wind had died down and wasn’t so cutting, especially now that Janie had a belly full of food. They were silent for a while, and Janie was trying to think what to say that wouldn’t embarrass them both, but Opal burst out first.“W
hy do you try to show me up with Daddy?” she asked.
Janie was startled. “I don’t!”
“He’s my father, you know.”
“Of course he is.”
“He’s not yours.”
“I have my own father.”
“When you act all smart with him, it makes him think I’m stupid.”
“I wasn’t trying to act smart,” Janie said, though she kicked herself for not shutting up. “I just answered his questions.”
“He said that all I can do with my life is marry someone rich!”
He had said that. Janie couldn’t deny it. She thought of her own father, who had always been so supportive and encouraging— when he wasn’t teasing her and joking. Her parents had talked to her as if she were an adult, and played games with her as an equal, for as long as she could remember. She couldn’t imagine what it was like to have none of that confidence behind you. She said, “I think your dad was just making a joke.”
“No,” Opal said, shaking her head. “He meant it.”
“He said you’d do good things with the money,” Janie said. “It takes skill to be a good philanthropist.”
“It’s not like being a scientist.”
“So be a scientist, then,” Janie said, losing patience. “Show him he’s wrong.”
“I’m failing math!”
“Then let’s go over some problems. I’ll help you.”
“Don’t you dare patronize me, Janie Scott!” Opal said.
Opal marched ahead, the heels of her expensive boots striking the pavement, and Janie followed helplessly.
Their room in Carleton Hall was barely big enough for two narrow beds pushed against opposite walls, two desks, two dressers, and a single closet, but still Janie and Opal managed to get ready for bed without speaking. They stepped around each other with cold constraint. Janie wanted to bring up tomorrow’s math test, but she didn’t dare.
In bed, she lay looking at the ceiling, listening to Opal toss back and forth on her pillow, just a few feet away. She tried to think of something to say to apologize, but could only imagine Opal shooting it down. Then Opal’s restless rolling stopped, and her breathing became steady.
If she could sleep, then Janie could, too.