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A room away from the wol.., p.11

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 11

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  I tried to think. “I mean, I don’t remember. I wasn’t feeling too good last night. So you stayed out? All night? Where’d you go?”

  “You didn’t hear me say that,” she said.

  She stood there with the most unreadable face I could imagine, and I hadn’t been able to read her this whole time. It seemed like a mask on a stick, one made with cardboard and two pinholes for eyes poked out, held over her real face.

  “You don’t have to tell me.” I could piece it together on my own. The dirt on her feet gave her away—she must have spent the night in the garden. Was she teasing about being right behind me and missing curfew?

  I noticed that she was leaning her weight against the wall, as if spying all through my things had worn her out and she needed to rest now, to take a moment. Her breathing was kind of labored, too, though the air in the room was perfectly okay. Maybe this was why she wouldn’t leave.

  “It’s your first morning, so I’ll tell you something,” she said. “You’ll miss the good breakfast if you sleep too long. All that’ll be left is the cereal and the bread. They take away the toaster, and they stop serving eggs. But sure, take your time if all you want is cornflakes and dry toast.” She made no move for the door herself.

  I swung my legs over the side of the bed, and she had to move away, closer to the door. Yet she didn’t make any effort to open it. Was there something she wanted from me? And would I have minded so much if she stayed?

  “You still have an hour,” she said. “I’m only telling you for tomorrow.”

  “Oh.”

  “Then again, who knows if you’ll be here tomorrow.”

  “What do you mean? I just got here. I rented the room for the whole month.”

  “So you’re staying?”

  “I’m staying.”

  “Even though you’re the one who woke Catherine up? And you don’t know what she wants from you?” She was trying to scare me away. Ever since she ran into me on the street and toppled my suitcase, she’d been trying to get rid of me.

  “What does she want from me?” I asked. Everything that happened after I stepped up to the portrait and put my finger to the glass the evening before had a different kind of light to it. I could hardly face it in my memory.

  My mouth went dry, even drier than it was. In the back of my throat, there was a taste that was gritty, like a faint coating of dirt.

  “I’m messing with you, Bina. I know you’re not leaving. I was only wondering if you knew.” I was noticing how drained she appeared, her light-brown skin more tepid than I remembered, as if she’d spent the whole night sipping drain cleaner and was mildly poisoned by sunup. Hungover like I was, that’s all.

  “I signed the lease,” I said stupidly.

  “And the vow,” she added sadly. “We all put our names to that.” She said it, but it wasn’t like she followed the rules. I already knew of a couple she’d broken.

  She leaned forward, changing the subject. “I have something for you . . . Do you want it?”

  “Sure,” I said, confused.

  “That’s why I came up here. To give it to you. It’s yours. Now where did I leave it? Oh, right. Out there.”

  I peeked out at the fire escape. I didn’t believe that this was the reason she’d climbed into my window at three or four in the morning, or whatever time it had been, but now I was curious.

  “What, you’re not afraid to climb out there, are you?” she asked.

  Even back home, where the cliffs met the night and my friends—before I lost them—liked to touch their toes to the vacant air at the mouth of the ravine, I stayed back, on solid ground. Even then, I kept myself apart from them, so apart that when I needed someone to have my back, no one was left. “I’m not so much a fan of heights.”

  “Good to know. Don’t worry, I won’t make you climb the ladder. You’ll find what I brought you on the windowsill. Outside. You’ll just have to reach out there to get it.”

  I slipped my hand out and patted around on the ledge. All the while, my eyes were locked on hers as if she could keep me from falling.

  When I found it and pulled it in, even she seemed surprised. “There was a good chance it could have dropped in the wind and gotten lost forever,” she said. “I don’t think Catherine would have liked that, do you?”

  I couldn’t be sure if she was joking.

  In the palm of my hand was the silver comb from the display table downstairs. The same comb I’d left as an offering in the garden. She’d known somehow that I hadn’t wanted to give it up.

  It had felt delicious to take it, that sense of sneaking something that didn’t belong to me and making it mine. I’d had it snug and cold at my waistline until it warmed to the temperature of my skin. But I’d thought I’d lost it forever. Like the opal.

  I stiffened. The comb wasn’t really what I wanted anymore.

  “What’s wrong?” she said. “I thought you’d like it back. Even if you shouldn’t have it in the first place.”

  “Thank you.” It was in my hands, and the sharp teeth and the smooth, shiny surface reminded me why I took it, but it wasn’t enough.

  “Remember the vow?”

  “You know I remember the vow. You just said we all signed it.”

  “Then you’ll remember what’s squeezed in there between curfews and hot plates. No theft. Theft is cause for eviction. Now, I think it means stealing from other girls, because who here wants one of those grimy old teacups downstairs? But still. You should watch yourself.” She knew, as much as I knew, that there would be a next time. That this was habit and I’d only just begun.

  “It’s not like you follow the rules yourself.” I pantomimed a swift inhale of a tightly rolled joint and then waved the smoke away.

  “Touché.”

  She heaved herself up off the wall. For someone who’d scaled the fire escape to get up here, it seemed to take a lot of effort. She went for the door.

  “Wait. Don’t go yet. I want to ask you . . .”

  “Ask me what? All the questions you couldn’t ask last night?”

  I nodded.

  “All the questions you don’t even know you should be asking?”

  A chill crept along my arms, though the morning heat was already rising.

  “Sometimes a person can’t tell you what you already know,” she said. “Sometimes you have to see it for yourself. Then you’ll believe.”

  She must have meant the figure on the rooftop, that outline created out of blue light. A single flash that disappeared. I should have been scared to think of it, wanting to run from this place. But I was more curious than afraid.

  “Why did Ms. Ballantine want Catherine de Barra to wake up?”

  She laughed. I liked her laugh. “If you were sleeping for over a hundred years, wouldn’t you want somebody to wake you up already? I’d figure you’d be so hungry.” She said this so matter-of-fact.

  I shrugged. It was a silly answer to the wrong question.

  “How did she die? I heard some of the stories . . .”

  “If you’re so interested in all of that, you should ask Gretchen. She sleeps with that diary she found. I’m shocked she hasn’t eaten the pages out of it yet so no one else can read it. But do you want to know what I heard?”

  I nodded.

  “You want to know what people said back then? What was in the newspapers?”

  The creeping sensation was now up my back. Behind me was the door in the wall—I was abruptly aware of it, and then it was all I could think about, the fact that I was right up against the extra, unwanted door.

  “It all starts with a terrible boyfriend . . .”

  “It does?”

  “Obviously,” she said, as if the story couldn’t begin any other way. In fact, that was how my mother’s story had started, which made me want to listen all the more. “He wante
d to keep her, and he wanted everything she had all to himself. So he thought he’d come here and curse her. That way, she’d do whatever he said. Right? He knew she liked presents, that she collected things from all over the world that her father brought her. She had her collections in every room, on every shelf and table, some even showing from the windows, so he had to bring her something really different. Special, even.”

  Though her complexion was still pallid, her eyes shone. Maybe she was making this all up. Maybe. I didn’t care.

  “A black opal,” she said. I kept myself so still. “Very rare. But he was such a dumb dolt of a thing and believed what people told him, that it was evil, cursed after a countess in Prague died while wearing it and someone stole it off the gnarled finger of her cold corpse. What he didn’t know was that this opal was really good luck. It saved that countess, helped her escape and run away to whole new lands, safe and apart from him forever. She lived a long, happy life because of it. So when he gave it to Catherine meaning to trap her? Didn’t work. She didn’t want him, she couldn’t be bought. She left him downstairs and told him not to dare follow her, but he did. He started chasing. So she ran up all five flights to the roof, and—” She whistled as if to create a gust of wind. Her hand formed the shape of a bird, and it flew.

  “That’s impossible,” I said. “There’s no way to reach the roof from in here, is there?”

  “No.” Monet cocked her head at me. “There isn’t. But I haven’t even gotten to the weird part.”

  “You haven’t?”

  She smiled. “So she fell, or she jumped, or maybe he pushed her—nobody knows for sure, and it was this giant question mark for a long time. But the biggest question mark of all was what happened to her body.”

  She waited for me to react, or to guess.

  “They never found it. The story goes, she went over the edge of the roof—and disappeared into thin air.”

  I scoffed. It was a quick reaction, like nervous laughter, but Monet didn’t blink.

  “So she never landed?” I asked.

  A single shake of her head.

  “So no one knows what happened to her,” I said. “If she died, or escaped?”

  It was only a story. A story that ended right where she’d left it. In the air. In the night. The way she was staring at me made me feel like I was in a police lineup, and she was on the other side of the one-way glass, trying to determine if I’d done the crime.

  “I’m deciding if I should trust you,” she said. “Should I?”

  “You can trust me.”

  “Can I? I barely know you.”

  “You can,” I insisted.

  “Tell me why you’re here then, out of the blue. Tell me the truth.”

  I didn’t know why I longed for her trust so badly. This whole time, I’d been wanting her to get off my bed, give me back my pillow, leave my room, and whenever she was about to take off, I wanted her to stay a few more minutes, I wanted in.

  “The real reason?” I said. “The real truth?”

  She waited.

  “There was a fight.” Even speaking of it trampled me over inside. “With my mom.”

  “She didn’t beat you, did she?” She traced a circle around her eye. “Because we should call child services.”

  “I’m not a child, I’m practically almost eighteen.”

  She heard that and smirked. The boardinghouse didn’t rent rooms to anyone underage, not technically.

  “I mean, I am eighteen now.”

  “Right, of course you are,” she said. “Go on.”

  “The fight happened after. I was going to leave before that, anyway, when my mom kicked me out. She heard a rumor about me, and she didn’t even ask me if it was the truth.”

  “Like she kicked you out on the street?”

  “No, she wanted me to stay with some friends of hers. For a month.” Saying it aloud turned it flimsy. My whole reason for being here could be swept out the fifth-floor window, and me with it, down into the gutter.

  “So did you tell her the truth?” she asked.

  I shook my head. I’d wanted her to know it, innately, the way a mother should know.

  Monet was leaning against the bare brick wall. She could have said so many things, and yet she didn’t, and I was grateful.

  “You know how it is,” I said. I shrugged and glanced at my blank, dark phone. I wondered if I should call my mother.

  “The thing is, I don’t. Know what you mean. I don’t even have a mom.”

  “Oh god, I’m so sorry.” Had she hinted at a tragedy, and had I missed it? Didn’t she mention a mother and father and great-aunt and cousins, a whole family?

  She stretched, getting a kink out of her neck as if she’d slept funny. She did look so tired. “She took off. The last time I saw her I was maybe eight or nine? She got this urgent overseas call in the middle of the night and hopped a helicopter. I was at the window, and she waved. Then she flew off into the clouds. She was heading west, for the Pacific. I haven’t seen her since.”

  I didn’t know how to respond.

  “I figure she’s CIA. She could be watching me from the window across the way as we speak.”

  The lie had flown from her lips like the helicopter, and as a kindness to her, I accepted it without a word.

  “Man, you’ll believe anything I say. Maybe she lives in Ohio or Idaho somewhere and drives a Toyota, works in real estate, does yoga on Wednesdays.”

  “Does she?” I said quietly. My mother drove a Toyota. She worked in a real-estate office, as the office manager. She did yoga on Mondays and Thursdays, and sometimes Sundays, in the afternoons, if she was up for it.

  Monet shook her head.

  I changed the subject, as swiftly as if I’d run the light in my mom’s borrowed Toyota when I’d been drinking and swerved to take a turn so fast that I hit a tremendous oak, centuries old, impassable. The oak had no give, but the Toyota crumpled. That wasn’t a story I was going to tell Monet.

  “Thanks for the comb. And thanks for not telling anyone I took it.”

  “I would never,” she said. “And I decided. Right now. I’m going to trust you. I’ll keep your secret, if you do something for me.”

  She trusted me. My eyes lifted to meet hers. “Of course,” I said, probably too fast. But I meant it.

  “Let me see it.”

  “Let you see what?”

  “You have it. I can almost smell it in the room, but I can’t find it anywhere. All I want is to see it, to be sure. Where’d you hide Catherine’s ring?”

  I blinked, and so did she, and an awareness shot back and forth between us. I didn’t think of it that way—as belonging to Catherine—or even as something to be worn on a hand, because I hadn’t let myself do it yet.

  Also, she was wrong. I’d had it in my fist the night before, and then my hand was empty. I’d lost it, the way I may have lost my mother.

  “It’s like that, is it?” She turned toward the common room. “Don’t forget, breakfast starts soon. Get there early. I need to sleep this off.” She said this without a glance back, and slipped out for good this time, through the door.

  ━━━━━

  Catherine House served one meal a day to its residents. Down a series of hallways, short and swiftly turning, dead-ended and short-stopped, the floors covered in peeling linoleum, there was the dining room. I followed the instructions from the day before: Walk through the kitchen antechamber and write your request for eggs or omelets, if you wanted any, on the sheet of butcher paper on the counter by the door. No one was there to see what I wrote, but I left my name, Bina, and my preference, scrambled, and the number, 2.

  I waited, to say good morning or thanks for personally making me some scrambled eggs, but the view into the kitchen showed only a cast-iron pan on a cold burner, empty, and a carton of eggs, half-full, on the
cutting board. “Hello?” I called.

  No one came out, so I pushed through the swinging door to enter the adjoining dining room.

  The linoleum stopped here, and creaky hardwood floors took over. My first step inside the room announced me with a high-pitched shriek. I’d hit an extra-creaky spot. At this, four heads lifted. Gretchen and Harper and two other girls were at the very end of the long dining room table, as far from me as they could get, and my entrance had interrupted their conversation. The surface of the table between me and them was practically oceanic. I turned, awkward, making the floor groan again, and searched for something to drink. They went back to talking as if I weren’t even there.

  It wasn’t what I expected, after the night we went through and what we’d witnessed. I thought I remembered Harper’s arm slung over my shoulder, Gretchen whispering in my ear, some girls whose names I didn’t catch—bonded moments that made me so sure we’d be friends in the light of morning. Now I was stung by their lack of greeting. Ashamed.

  Set up on two smaller tables by the door were the cold food items to choose from: yogurt, cereal, fruit, a few pastries. Next to a stack of bread was a toaster, and a stick for retrieving toast when it got stuck. Pitchers of juice and water sweated on the sideboard, goblets arranged in rows beside them.

  I set my bread to toast and filled a bright-green goblet with orange juice. I took a seat in the chair at the end of the table, as far as possible from the others.

  Their voices were hushed, but the ceiling in this room was high and some of the sounds carried. “What did she look like? Are you sure it was her?” I heard one of the girls whose name I couldn’t recall say. I heard an attempt at describing the blue light on the roof, and I heard Gretchen say she knew, positively and without a doubt, that it was the founder of this house herself, if not in the flesh then in some other form, trying to communicate with us.

  A cold breeze at my back made me jump in my chair and I almost knocked over my goblet. A shadowy arm swiftly slipped a plate before me. It gleamed with fluffy yellow eggs, a bloom of a flower for garnish, and a delicate sculpture made of an artistically carved orange slice, the most elegantly prepared breakfast I’d ever seen.

 
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