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A room away from the wol.., p.10

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 10


A Room Away From the Wolves

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Eighteen years, Ms. Ballantine had said. That was the summer my mother lived here and may have stood in this very circle holding her candle flame and listening for the dead. Another thing she’d never thought to share with me.

  The circle disbanded. Whatever magic had electrified the parlor and set us off drinking and dancing had fallen flat outside. I wasn’t so special anymore, was I? I glimpsed Ms. Ballantine heading for the gate. Girls followed, until only a handful of us remained. What was supposed to have happened? Why did I feel like I’d let everyone down?

  “Should we head in?” one of the girls asked. “It’s almost midnight.”

  “That’s it? It’s over?” someone else said. “Ms. B?”

  “She left,” I said, speaking up for the first time.

  The garden was set between buildings, and directly above it was the night sky. For a moment, the rooflines overhead turned jagged, like mountains, and that was familiar to me, that was something I knew. I could have closed my eyes and transported my mind back to where I started, but I didn’t want that. I refused.

  “What’s the point of you, anyway?” a girl shot out from the darkness. “I thought you’d come for a reason. I thought, with you here, something would change. But nothing changed.”

  She was a vaguely familiar face, but I couldn’t recall her name. “What do you mean?” I asked. “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go live somewhere else?”

  “What did you just say to me?” She got up in my face. She seemed furious, buoyed by it as if whatever had happened with the candles had been her last straw.

  Monet intervened with her body. All of a sudden, she was there in front of me, as if shadowing me all along. “She doesn’t have what we need, obviously. She can’t help us. Leave her alone.”

  The other girl put up her hands in surrender, and then both of them—Monet and whoever among the tenants had been so upset at me—were gone.

  A couple more girls filtered away until I had a small pocket of space of my own deep in the garden. I was near the offerings, near the black spot at my feet that felt like it went down and down until nothing could be made out below. Monet didn’t come back. I could hear the last few girls whispering, but no one stepped over. The drinks I’d had (how many? my mind scrubbed details) made me want to catch my balance, and I reached out a hand. It landed on the hard-edged stone of the monument.

  My hand began to close. A growing warmth inside my fist. I’d left the comb—everyone had seen me leave it, even if they hadn’t recognized where it had come from—but that wasn’t what found itself captured in my grasp. I didn’t even know what it was at first, only that there was weight in my palm now. I’d taken something else, and it was the taking that calmed me.

  It felt like a small oblong stone. Ordinary and cold at first. The band cut a groove into my flesh as I kept my fist shut. The longer I held it, the more the stone warmed. It sparked and hissed. Something inside it rumbled and spun. When I parted my fingers and peeked in, I understood immediately and at the same time didn’t think it possible. I kept my fist closed to conceal it. I was trying to make sense of it. The black opal ring had been buried in the ground upstate—deep in dirt; I’d seen it myself eight years ago. I’d witnessed my mother do the digging. Then how that patch among the rows of tomato plants had been paved over and covered in bricks to make a patio. How it was gone. Gone forever. We’d never rescued it.

  Yet here it was. In my hand.

  As soon as I squeezed it in recognition, there was a shout.

  Harper was crying out, and she was pointing up into the sky.

  “Look up,” I heard Gretchen say. “I can’t believe it, look up.”

  I emerged from the dense section of the garden and went for where I could see beyond the tree covering. I craned my neck to the sky above, shifting grays on gray. Light caught my eye, and I followed it to the place everyone else was pointing. And there it was. There she was.

  Five stories over the garden was a thing none of us would name. I saw it, and I couldn’t blame it on the champagne, or the wine, or the still-pounding spot in the back of my head making me dizzy, needing to lean on the closest girl.

  I’m not sure how I imagined a spirit would manifest itself. This wasn’t the photograph reanimated, not a replica of the young woman who’d posed for the camera in the tall-backed chair. It wasn’t so much a girl as a light. The glow was almost blue. The shape of her—the sense she had a shape—was three-dimensional, but the backdrop of city lights could be made out through her.

  She was at the edge of the rooftop. She wavered there for a long, heart-stopping moment. We all saw her up there—the few of us who stayed.

  Then she disappeared entirely, blotted from the city sky as if a light had been switched off.

  I felt a part of something, then. The small group of us together, barely allowing ourselves to move. Simply waiting. The stretch of rooftop—ours and all the other buildings around it—was empty, but we held still until we were sure it was over, and then we allowed ourselves to move again, to blink our eyes, to breathe.

  “Did you see?” Harper asked. Her hand was in Gretchen’s. The others who remained were huddled close together, chins lifted.

  I nodded. I had seen.

  “That’s where she jumped from,” someone said. “It’s exactly like in the stories.”

  “She didn’t jump.” Lacey spoke from out of nowhere. “She fell. It was an accident.”

  “She knows we’re here,” Gretchen said. “She woke up. Something we did . . . something that happened tonight . . . it woke her.” She was staring with intensity and longing up at the roof. But I knew it was over.

  I was afraid to slip the ring on my finger, so I kept my fist closed. Still, I felt it. The opal in my hand had gone calm, and cold.

  Lacey was near me now, her breath on my bare shoulder and her off-white dress practically aglow. “You did it, didn’t you?” she said, finding my eyes in the dark as best she could.

  I didn’t even open my mouth.

  I found myself staring up at the empty edge. Only my first night, and this would be a thing I would not tell a living soul. No one outside this space would believe me; we would all keep this secret through our lifetimes plus ninety-nine years, unless we shared it with our daughters, or—maybe, not that they deserved it—our mothers.

  I caught sight of Monet at the fringe of the remaining group. She’d removed the wig, and her ordinary hair stuck out, the silhouette of the cowlick giving her away.

  “It’s almost midnight!” someone called, and a sense of urgency leaked from the others. Quickly, they blew out the last few candles. In a rush they headed out of the garden for the house’s gate and, beyond it, the towering stoop. “C’mon,” someone said to me, and I followed. “Somebody lock the garden,” I heard someone else say. I didn’t see who stayed behind to lock it up, but I lingered at the gate for a moment, gazing out. I almost wanted to follow the sidewalk and see where it took me, head to the west side or the east side, downtown or uptown, let myself be led by shifting signs parsed from the moving crowd or the slack summer wind. My mother used to do that in her stories.

  But I couldn’t. It was near midnight. I had to go in.

  It was when I was back in the house that it came over me, sudden and strong. Dizziness rushing in like a wave. Through it, faintly, I heard the grandfather clock toll twelve times. I felt funny, slippery, and it wasn’t the slinky dress. My stomach was a roller coaster riding up into my head. I needed a glass of water.

  Should I have stayed upstate, where I was safe in the trees, safer than I realized, because it was what I knew?

  I wasn’t sure how I ended up in my room. I must have been helped up all those stairs, as I had a faint memory of leaning my weight on someone else, being dragged up the last flight, almost carried. At one point, I was puking into a cold porcelain toilet and someone—it might have been Anjali—w
as carefully holding back my hair, giving me a sip of warm water from a plastic cup and wiping it when it dribbled down my chin. I didn’t even remember getting that drunk, but I must have. I was cold. Then warm, and covered by something soft. I think I asked for my mother, but she was so far away. The pattern on the backs of my eyelids bloomed like a black stone full of uncountable, incomprehensible stars.

  The opal had been in my hand, I swore it, deeply burrowed into my fist. It was only when I was in bed, at some point during the night, that I realized I didn’t have it anymore.

  Liars and Thieves

  I woke to a rattling at my open window. I was still in bed. It felt like days had passed, but it was only the next morning. The sun was creeping its way up, burning orange at the edges. My head was buzzing and the light was confusing, but most confusing of all was the noise at my window. It was a person. Before I knew it, that person was crawling off the fire escape and into my room.

  She jostled into me. “Move.” There wasn’t room for the both of us in the bed, so I found myself sprawled on the small patch of floor, gazing up at where she’d planted herself by my pillow.

  “Where are you— What are you—” My words were chopped up in my mouth. They kept getting stuck or lost altogether.

  My mind struck a match inside me, then sucked it dark fast. For a moment, I couldn’t remember much of anything.

  Then her name came to me. It was Monet, the girl who lived downstairs, in the room directly below my room. I was in Catherine House; I wasn’t home. I remembered everything.

  She was wearing her dark clothes from the night before, but the shirt was wrinkled and smeared, and her pants were rolled to the knees. Her feet were dirty, her legs streaked in dried mud. Her hair was her regular short-chopped style, no sign of a wig. In a trick of the light, she’d become so unreal she turned practically translucent.

  But she was genuinely here.

  I was trying to tell her she had the wrong room, but it wasn’t working. She was curling into my sheets and balling up her body to go to sleep. She had my pillow crunched into her face.

  “Monet,” I said, nudging at her. “You can’t stay here.”

  My own head was pounding. I very much needed to close my eyes and lie down.

  “Hey,” I said.

  I pulled on her arm, her leg, her other leg. Her limbs were heavy. She’d closed her eyes, and mascara streaks made delicate butterfly lines all down her cheeks. Her smudged mouth opened, and a small drop of drool slipped out onto my pillowcase, glistening.

  “I think you’re confused.” I kept trying. “You’re in the wrong room.”

  No response. When I nudged her one more time, she simply sighed.

  It was almost officially morning—the sun rising and blazing between buildings told me—and a strange girl had taken over my bed. Surely no one else was awake in the house to help me deal with this.

  I sat for a while in the small space, considered compacting my body into one of the dusty, puffy chairs in the common area, or admitting I was awake and getting into the shower before anyone else did.

  I went to the bathroom, took my time, splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth, and came back, but she was still there.

  Then I noticed how she was curled up so carefully at the head of the bed, her knees tucked in, leaving the whole lower half of the mattress empty, almost on purpose.

  I took the bottom end, that small area of space between her body and the wall, and I said aloud, “Okay . . . I’m going back to sleep now,” as if that might rouse her, but it didn’t. She wasn’t budging.

  She’d stretched out her leg a few inches, and now one of her bare toes was touching my bare arm. I peeled open an eye to see if she was still there, and she was. She’d opened an eye to check to see if I was there, too.

  Caught, we both snapped our eyes closed at the same time.


  When I woke for the second time that morning, the sun was in my face and the bed was empty except for me.

  Still, I sensed I wasn’t alone in the room and rolled over. She was standing beside the bed. I covered myself as best I could in case she was looking. She was.

  “Hey,” she said from above. “Morning.”

  She eyed my exposed legs, and then her eyes traveled upward, to the rest of me, and I remembered what I was wearing. I’d never taken the dress off before falling asleep, and now it was rumpled and wrecked, one of the shoulder straps knotted, the hem torn in the front. I was starting to say I was sorry, but she caught me and spoke first.

  “Looked good on you. Maybe a tad too long, but the colors were perfect. Anyway, I don’t need it back. What am I going to do with it now? You keep it.”

  “Thanks,” I said. “But what are you doing in here? And couldn’t you use a door?” I pointed to the ordinary door that led to the common area, not the one I didn’t want to think about, right there behind the bed.

  “I was passing by and thought I’d stop in,” she said, indicating the wide-open window with the black-barred fire escape attached. I assumed she was joking, but I didn’t ask. She said it as if I didn’t understand the simplest of things—that the Earth wasn’t flat, that rocks weren’t for eating—and she couldn’t bear having to explain. She turned and resumed whatever she’d been doing while I was unconscious, which I guess was poking through the few things I’d put out on my desk. My phone (blank as a brick, without a single notification). My key ring with the two keys. My wallet (cash and useless ATM card only, no credit cards—I watched her confirm).

  “Um,” I said tentatively. I didn’t have the words. I sat up. I couldn’t really stand, because the room was so small and she was in the way. “Are you leaving?”

  “I didn’t think this is how our first real conversation would go, Bina,” she said. “I thought we’d be past this by now.”

  That quieted me. We didn’t exchange a spoken word at the party, but we did have a connection. I couldn’t deny that.

  She was still going through my things. Checking my desk drawer. My pants pocket. Inside the toes of my shoes. She hovered over me, her dirty feet all over my floor, her hands slipping into the drawers of my dresser, where I’d dumped the balled items of clothing my mother had chosen. She felt around beneath them, then, satisfied, closed the last drawer. All that was left was my suitcase.

  Her back was to me when she spoke. “I wasn’t named for the painter, you know. The man.”

  “You weren’t?”

  “I was named for my great-aunt, twice removed. Want to know something about her? She was a revolutionary. She gave up all creature comforts to fight for the voiceless, the suffering, the powerless. Last my family heard, she studied up on her Spanish and joined an armed leftist group in the jungle, fighting for the people. She had many lovers in the forest and would send us back locks of their hair in envelopes with dried leaves and flower petals. Never signed her name, but of course we knew they were from her. She died in a great battle, and they carried her body through the trees to the river, and then they let it float back to civilization covered in flowers so someone would find her and fly her home.” She said all this and stopped, waiting for my reaction.

  “She did what?” I said, trying to piece it together. I couldn’t help but be impressed. I knew how to recognize a great liar, could even taste that tanginess in my own mouth. I suspected she liked to put a thing out into the air only to see if it would sound true or flutter down to the ground and die. I admired her talent, because I couldn’t tell, not entirely.

  “Where are you from?” I asked.

  “Are you asking me what I am?”

  I didn’t think I was, but I flushed that she’d called me on it. I knew I looked Jewish—I’d always known, from the way people would say certain things in front of me, then add as an afterthought, Oh, that’s just a joke, you know we don’t mean you, right? But it was a rude thing to
wonder about a person. She was right. When it came to her, I’d turned rude and curious about all the things.

  “Some parts of my family are from Iran, some from France, Italy, Cuba, you name it. Plus, I have three Australian cousins. But to answer your question, Colorado. Where I’m from, the mountains are taller than you could even imagine and we have gangs of wild horses roaming around in our backyards. The air’s so thin up there not everyone can breathe it. But that’s just an address. Really, I’m from everywhere. I’m a part of the whole world. I’m the future, really, because one day everyone’s going to look like me.” The cowlick in her hair was quivering as she spoke, and her eyes were bright and her arms were gesticulating and bare. I couldn’t tear my eyes away—at least I didn’t want to.

  I was beginning to suspect she’d invented absolutely all of it. How glorious.

  “How about you?” she said. “Where are you from?”

  I hesitated and got ready for what might come. But when I opened my mouth, nothing near worthy spilled out. “The Hudson Valley,” I said, so simply. “A town up there. You wouldn’t know it.”

  “Why would you tell me that?” she snapped. Disappoint­ment in her voice, even disdain. “Anyway, that’s how I got my name. How’d you get yours?”

  The problem was, I couldn’t meet her eyes and lie. “My mom. She found it—Sabina—in a baby name book. She liked the way it sounded. That’s all.”

  She sighed, deeply, as if she knew what I was capable of and that now, here, in the face of a master, I’d choked. “You really need to come up with some better stories,” she said.

  She’d poked around in my suitcase—it was empty, every pocket and flap. She was now at the closet, noting the few items, the collection of empty hangers. I had no interesting or revealing secrets, at least not where she could find them.

  “Did you come in with the rest of us last night?” I asked.

  “Didn’t you see me behind you?”


  “Didn’t you see me slip in right after you did and close the gate?”

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