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A room away from the wol.., p.12

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 12

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  I must have stared at the plate a moment too long, because when I turned around to say thank you, whoever had served me was gone. They must have been fast. The door to the kitchen wasn’t even swinging.

  I scooped up some eggs and lifted my fork, and it was near an inch from my mouth when a quiver of movement made me lean in closer.

  The eggs were squirming on the fork.

  The entire pile on my plate moved and crawled over itself. The yellow was alarming and leaking ooze. Whatever had come from the kitchen was horribly still alive, not meant to be eaten, as if someone were trying to trick me, or feed me poison.

  I dropped the fork and shoved the plate away into the middle of the grand table. The plate knocked over a saltshaker—heavy, bronze—and the booming sound as it toppled and spilled made the other girls glance over at me, curious.

  I waited for a scream of reaction when one of them caught what was writhing on the plate, but nothing. None of them seemed to see what I did.

  “Aren’t you going to eat that?” Harper said.

  “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” another girl said, smiling, as if reciting something she’d heard from a regressive TV commercial from the ’50s. Her hair was sculpted into a blond helmet with the ends flipped up. She must have spent an hour under a hair dryer getting it to perform.

  Their eyes bored into me, much like the rows of black-and-white eyes on the stairwell walls. In fact, it was hard to tell the difference. The back of my head began to pulse.

  “You can have it if you want,” I told Harper. “Anyone who wants it can have it.”

  I was feeling so hot. I remembered my toast and went to get it from the toaster. It was cold and hard, but inanimate, like Styrofoam. I dropped it on my plate; no butter or jelly could save it.

  When I glanced at the eggs again, nothing was wrong. Nothing was moving, and the cheerful flower embellishment was bright purple. Harper smiled at me, and so did the girl with the hair flip. Gretchen was stone-faced. The fourth girl scrunched her face in concern.

  “Is she okay? She’s not eating.”

  “Maybe she’s hungover.”

  “She should really eat her breakfast.”

  “Whoa, check her out, she’s turned green.”

  “What did you say?” I heard. All four were watching me. Gretchen was the one who’d spoken. She was pointing at me with a lifted fork.

  “I didn’t,” I said. “I didn’t say anything.”

  “You’re Becca, right?” one of the girls said.

  “No, no, her name’s Bina,” Gretchen said. “Remember?”

  “It never happened until she got here,” another said, plain as fact.

  “That’s true,” Harper said, cocking her head to the side. “None of us saw Catherine before, until you got here.”

  I couldn’t read their expressions. I sensed they blamed me, thought I orchestrated it somehow, whatever had gone on in the perplexing dark, high over our heads and in our hearts, our stomachs, our minds. At least in mine. I couldn’t sense if this was a terrible thing worthy of punishment, or if they liked it and welcomed me all the more.

  “You need to come out with us tonight,” Harper said. “We’re going to see if Catherine comes back and—”

  Gretchen slapped her arm. “Not yet,” she said. “Not here.”

  Harper blushed and lowered her eyes.

  But I’d lost the opal, if I’d even had it at all. My memory, when I tried to turn to it, puckered into a small black hole. The opal wasn’t anywhere in my room when I’d searched for it after Monet left. Nowhere. And whatever I believed about what happened in the dark the night before, whatever I thought I saw and made everyone else see—it was connected to that stone I knew I’d held in my hand as certainly as I knew it was buried, unreachable, under a patio more than a hundred miles away.

  Gretchen had her arms folded across her chest in a gesture of menace. “Aren’t you going to eat something?” she said.

  Before I could answer or try to take a bite of toast, Anjali miraculously came rushing in, jumbling with noise, making the floorboards shriek all over again. “I overslept!” she announced. “I can’t believe I missed my chance at eggs.” She poured herself some cereal and turned to face the table. “Hi, Ana Sofía! Hi, Gretchen! Hi, Muriel! Hi, Harper!” The shift in mood was dizzying. Then she saw me. “Bina,” she said, her voice more contained. “Hi.”

  Anjali could have taken a seat anywhere at that giant table, but when she’d finished assembling her breakfast, she sat catty-corner to me, our elbows practically touching. I was grateful, though not sure why she’d chosen that chair. “Hey, are you going to eat those?”

  I shook my head as she pulled my plate of untouched food toward her.

  “Perfect,” she said. “So . . .” There was an awkward moment, grapefruit bit stabbed on the end of her fork. “How are you feeling? Any better?” Her cheery tone seemed forced, as if someone was watching us. In fact, they all were.

  I kept my voice low. “Better, I guess.” She must have been the person who took care of me last night. In fact, I was sure she was. She may have even put some fresh bacitracin on my lip.

  “That’s good. You must have had a lot to drink, huh?”

  I couldn’t remember, but it didn’t sound unlike me.

  “Anyway, glad to see you’re okay.” Something in her eyes—a flicker there—indicated she may have wanted to say something else, but she did not. Maybe she’d seen Monet slipping out my door when the sun was up, and that made her wary. Maybe she still held a grudge about when I’d stopped her from opening the small door. I saw the mark of my grip on her wrists. The bruises were purple now. Not pretty like the flower on each of our plates, more like my eye. I felt like a monster, which was a familiar feeling.

  Anjali started eating as the others finished up.

  I decided to say something. “I’m so sorry about yesterday, in my room . . . You know, after you left, I opened that door—”

  “No, no, stop,” she said, jabbing the words in. “Stop talking.”

  “What?”

  She was eyeing the girls across the dining room as they gathered their dishes to leave.

  Once we were alone, she lowered her hand. “I don’t want to know anything about it,” she said. “Please don’t tell me. I didn’t stay out in the garden, but I heard about last night. It’s happening again, and I don’t want to be a part of it.”

  “What did you hear? What’s happening? They said nobody saw Catherine until last night.”

  “Why didn’t you tell me who your mother was? It happened eighteen years ago, when she was here. That’s what I heard.”

  Some girls pushed through the swinging door and entered—also late. I noticed that not one of them was Monet. She’d been so intent on me making it to breakfast, yet never showed for it herself. Instead she’d needed to sleep in, as if she’d spent the whole night out dancing in the chaos of the city I hadn’t had a chance to witness yet.

  While the others were busy at the sideboard, banging around as they poured themselves juice, Anjali leaned in.

  “Listen,” she hissed. “I took it from you for safekeeping, but I don’t want it in my room. I don’t even know how you got your hands on it, but you can’t be dropping it on the stairs—anyone could have found it. Even Monet.”

  My face must have gone gray. It was in her eyes, plain as if she’d said it from her mouth. She was talking about the opal. It was real—not a dream.

  “Your door was locked, but I left it there, outside your room.”

  I was so relieved I could hardly speak. “Thank you,” I said. “I’ve got to go.” I stood up and pushed back my chair, making a screech. I hadn’t eaten anything, but I also wasn’t the least bit hungry. I rushed through the swinging door into the empty antechamber that connected to the kitchen. My name and order for eggs was
crossed out on the butcher paper, dirty dishes and green goblets stacked on top. The kitchen was still empty. The faucet in the industrial sink was running, but no one was there.

  ━━━━━

  As Anjali had promised, something was waiting by my door. It was wrapped in a T-shirt, folded, refolded, burrowed inside. The opal ring was cool, its surface smooth, the band thin and silver. If I’d dropped it somehow while climbing all the stairs last night, the stone didn’t chip, it didn’t break. It was perfect, the way it had been on my mother’s younger hand.

  With it was a note in neat, curled handwriting, unsigned.

  Get me out of here.

  It made no sense. I’d thought Anjali was happy here. I’d thought every girl was. Had she even written it?

  Something made me search the empty common room. The area was dim, dusty, and crawling with the gnarled shadows of the bra tree and the wobbly lampshades. A stack of shoes had spilled all along one wall, creating a dark lake. No one was up here with me, though a prickly whisper in the back of my head asked, was I sure?

  I carefully shredded the note and disposed of it down the toilet. Not everyone wanted to be here. Not everyone considered this a safe place. Anjali wanted to go, but I’d only just arrived. I wanted to stay. Still, when I went back to my room to get dressed for the day, I locked the door.

  Dirt and Concrete

  They wanted me to join them in the garden that night, but something kept me away. It might have been the pressure of expectation, all those eyes on me, but I told myself it was only a desire to see the city, to see what I might find in the growing orbit around the house.

  I slipped out the gate in front of Catherine House and started to walk. I got lost in the maze of the West Village and then found my way east, where the city’s grid of streets began to make sense. As the hours passed, I let myself stay out as late as I could stand it. There were no stars to be seen in the sky, but the building lights twinkled. And there was so much to pay attention to in the street I barely thought to look up.

  I hovered outside the windows of restaurants, reluctant to spend my remaining money and sit at a table all alone. I tried on near a dozen pairs of shoes on Eighth Street. I was a six and a half, my mother’s size, but I couldn’t afford a single pair. I found a used bookstore and a branch of the public library. Once, down a narrow alley, I thought I saw Monet poised at a splash of graffiti with a can of spray paint aimed high, but when I blinked it was only a blur of movement and a plain brick wall. Another time I thought I saw her ordering from a street cart. The girl who turned around had a different face and was eating only a pretzel.

  My head was hurting in that familiar spot, and by the time deep night had fallen I had blisters on my heels, a burning in the balls of my feet. My weak ankle gave out when I stepped on a patch of crooked cobblestone, and as I sat rubbing it on the curb while a stream of black-clad legs swept past, I marveled that it hadn’t crumpled hours earlier. No one bent to see if I was okay.

  It was close to midnight. When I looked across the street, where cobblestone met pavement somewhere in what I thought was SoHo, I saw her again. She had brighter hair this time, burgundy in the shadows, bloodred under a streetlamp. She disappeared into a subway tunnel before I could get up and follow her to be sure.

  I didn’t know where she was headed, but curfew was coming. There was an urgent beating in my chest to tell me it was near, that I had only minutes to get back to Catherine House and many blocks to cover. A magnet was pulling me, and I couldn’t resist.

  If I didn’t make it, would I have to rough it out in the street, like some of the people I saw setting up boxes under construction awnings? (One was a girl my age; she had nowhere to go, dark circles under her eyes, a busted suitcase. I left her a dollar in her paper cup, and she yelled after me that I’d ruined her coffee.)

  I was close to a panic when I finally reached the block and the black iron gate containing Catherine House and its tiny concrete yard. Beside it, through a different gate on the street, was the garden, but there was no time to even peek inside. There wasn’t a moment to spare before buzzing in and leaping up the stairs to the top of the stoop and getting myself through the sleek front door.

  I had to catch my breath on the other side, safe in the foyer, holding the arm of the coat stand to get steady and make myself right again.

  When I looked out at the street below, I saw that the chain was already on the front gate, though I hadn’t seen anyone who worked in the house go out and take care of it. I saw Anjali on the stairs inside, but she acted like she’d never left me a note, and with it traveling the pipes of the septic system, I wondered if I’d invented the words, and her desire to go. What did she expect me to do? Couldn’t she leave if she wanted?

  The others tried to knock on my door to tell me about Catherine, but I ignored them. I avoided her photograph. When I put my ear to the floorboards upstairs, the room beneath mine was a tomb of silence. I’d made curfew—as far as I could tell, all the other tenants had but one. Monet had not.

  When I next saw her, emerging from the fourth floor at two in the afternoon with wild hair and bleary eyes from sleeping in, she seemed sickly again. There was a point when she had a coughing fit and someone offered her a dusty lozenge found in the cushion of the gold-velvet couch.

  “Where were you?” Harper hissed at her in the linoleum-covered winding hallway between parlor and kitchen.

  Monet motioned that her lips were zipped, but she was zipping them all for herself. None of us knew where she spent the long, late hours of night, or why.

  My first week in the house went by like this, day after day. I didn’t have the money for movies or shopping, and I had to be careful about spending too much on things like a fan to cool my room. I lied on my résumé to say I’d graduated from high school, but none of the retail counters where I left it gave me a call. Riding the subway every day would have cleaned me out. What I could do was walk, and I did, from Tenth Street to 110th Street, from east to west, up the island and down.

  In the nights, light-headed after another day of walking, my phone dark after another day of no calls, I let myself listen to the room below mine, my ear suctioned to the floor. I was drawn to do it. I knew I shouldn’t be so nosy, but I had to know how close she was.

  I could hear her climbing the fire escape long after curfew and settling in when everyone else was asleep. A few times, I caught sight of her bare, swinging legs as she rattled around out there, passing my window to whatever was above—the roof, I suspected. She didn’t stop in on her way or leave a gift or a note on my windowsill. She’d defended me in the garden my first night, but she didn’t acknowledge it in any way since. It was almost like she was waiting for me to do something to catch her notice again.

  In her room, she stayed silent for long stretches and then talked to herself, whispers I couldn’t quite catch. She listened to sad songs, ones that were vaguely familiar to me, like old hurts. She slept through breakfast, so I started to do the same. She must have dreamed, but I never heard her shouting in her sleep as I woke myself up doing. I wondered if anything scared her, even the dark, dusty rooms of this house and the young woman with the black, shifting eyes downstairs, who the other girls said hadn’t shown herself since.

  The small door in my wall, I kept blocked and sealed shut.

  The garden, I avoided without asking myself why.

  When I slept, my dreams were memories, and always the same running nightmare of home.

  ━━━━━

  By the end of that first week, my mother hadn’t called to ask where I was, and curiosity got the better of me. I’d been checking my phone, expecting a series of messages, a string of texts, wanting to make sure I’d made it to the church people’s place okay, then when she didn’t hear from me, turning worried, getting serious, skipping emojis, asking me where I was, what happened, why I didn’t show. My phone had weak service
inside my room, the brick walls so thick, but I would have seen her attempts at contact when I was outside. There wasn’t a missed call for days.

  First thing Saturday morning, before I could stop myself, I pulled up her name in my favorites and called. I heard a faint hiss of air on the line and then a high-pitched beep as I lost the signal. I tried again, right next to the window, practically leaning half my body outside, though the sight of ground through the slats in the fire escape gave me the spins. The call dropped.

  I didn’t get a good signal until I was out on the sidewalk. I stood across the street from the house so none of the girls would hear. It seemed so taboo to miss our mothers.

  She answered straightaway. “Bina? Is that you? I’m driving. I can’t hear you. Bina?”

  She’d called me Bina, not Sabina—in fact, she kept repeating it as if she were surprised I’d called—a sign I chose to interpret as good. I softened, and it left me off guard, a door open.

  “It’s me,” I said, and let those two words hang. Not that I was sure she could hear with the wind in her ears, a static roar into her mouthpiece. She must have been on the highway with the windows down. That was something she liked to do now. I imagined she appreciated the way the wind threatened to peel away all her layers of hair and skin and flesh and muscle until she was down to the bone, and free.

  An exhilarating sense of power twisted its way through me. This was what it felt like to make your life your own, something I’d only witnessed my mother start to do. She’d failed. I wouldn’t fail. I wanted to share this with her—wouldn’t she want this for me? Wouldn’t she be proud?

  I surveyed the street—my new home. The block was made up of narrow apartment buildings and brownstones, some gated and none taller than five stories. They were in a series of hues from brown to tan to red to brick and back to brown. There were sidewalk trees, a corner store with a warm-green awning at one end of the street, a red-doored pub at the other, a bright-blue mailbox, a few random people out walking well-groomed dogs.

 
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