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A room away from the wol.., p.13

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 13


A Room Away From the Wolves

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  It was picturesque, like a movie set of the city, which happened to be the way my mother had described it to me when I was a child. It could have been plucked from her stories and made real. I wanted to tell her, but she could hardly hear anything I said.

  All the while I kept saying, “Mom?” into the phone.

  She was kind of screaming over the wind. “I’m in the car. I can’t hear you. Did something happen? What happened? What did you do?” She had her hands-free headset on— she could easily roll up the windows and talk; she didn’t want to.

  “I’m not at your friends’ house,” I burst out. “I didn’t go.”

  “You’re not what? I can’t hear you . . .”

  It spilled. It spread clumsily all over my feet. Where I was, that I wasn’t coming home for a month at least, that maybe she could send money? I was in the city, like we should have been for the past eight years, and I might not come back ever again, at all.

  The power filled me now. Mine.

  “I’m supposed to be meeting the girls, but I’m pulling over,” she said. Her voice got so much clearer after she stopped the car, without wind shouting her down. “Please tell me you’re not at your father’s.” She didn’t use one of our sloppy monikers for him; she called him the low-down dirtiest thing she could, which was father, emphasis on your.

  “You are,” she said. “Aren’t you?”

  Her voice had shrunk so small that it squeezed my heart—more than squeezed, it flattened. There was so much I wanted to say, but then came the still-raw memory of the last day I saw her, when she brought me her old suitcase, one wheel so worn it traveled with a limp, and told me she was kicking me out. That was stronger. That was louder. I couldn’t even remember why I’d wanted to talk to her.

  “I can’t hear you,” I said, and ended the call.


  I headed back across the street, for the stoop. There was a breeze, cooler than the temperature inside the house, and it touched my arms and skimmed through my hair, lifting it from the damp, hot back of my neck. The light wind brushed my face, where the bruises and scratches still felt tender and fresh. Maybe the air and the sun would help them heal so I would stop looking like a victim and wouldn’t keep having people ask what was done to me. I closed my eyes for a second, to gather myself, when I heard it calling to me and I forgot all about my mother.

  The loud creaking sound was insistent. Sharp. It skittered through my body, twingeing into my head. I had to make it stop.

  The sound was coming from beside the house, from the lot sandwiched between the building and the town house next door. It was the private garden where we’d all gathered on my first night, the one I’d been avoiding all week and hadn’t yet seen in daylight.

  At its center was a gate with a shining gold lock, but I didn’t need a key, because the gate was open, and that creaking was its unsteady swaying in the wind.

  I grabbed it to make it stop, and then it happened.

  Somehow I wasn’t closing the gate, as I’d planned. I was stepping through it. I was going inside.

  Once I did, something rippled over me. It rinsed through my body, a soothing calm. The gate swung closed behind me, and the sound ceased. I kept walking. The area had felt so much larger in the dark, but in truth it was only the width of a narrow building. It was cluttered and fragrant with living things growing from the ground, with gnats, with rustles of movement, a forest hush, but it was still small and walled-in.

  I let my palm rest on the rough skin of a tree. It seemed a kind of tree too old to be growing here, in the middle of a concrete city, caught between brick buildings. The trunk was tall and gnarled, knots bursting out, and the overhanging branches provided cool patches of shade. When I looked upward, all I saw were tree branches and the ceiling they made over the garden. No peek of sky was visible from this spot.

  This place reminded me of home in a way that made me want to sit on the ground and touch the blades of grass. Home, before I’d ruined it.

  As I was trying to figure out which way to walk, I almost tripped over a wooden signpost covered in an unruly swirl of ivy. At the top was the sign itself, an arrow pointing at the back of the garden, which was impossible to see from the entrance. The sign said:


  The arrow led the way.

  I felt no surprise. It hadn’t been said outright, but it had been suggested. I should have figured that was why we’d all come outside my first night, to pay our respects.

  The path through the green growth was trampled, and I followed it to the end, near a brick wall that must have been the back of another building. There, a short wrought-iron fence marked off a small section of earth. I knew even before I saw with my eyes that Catherine de Barra was the name engraved on the gray monument. All around were wild weeds, green and growing, horned and clawing, but the base of the headstone itself was clean and carefully tended. A circle of worn, cleared ground surrounded the area—enough space for a small throng of mourners, if they packed in tight around the gravesite, tight enough to touch.

  On top of the monument was a collection of items, some weathered and rusted, oxidized into green, but some shiny-new and recent. Those had been left only a week ago. The candy necklace had been ravaged by squirrels and maybe (I couldn’t bear to let the word form) rats, but the miniature yellow cab was intact. There was also a tarnished gold bracelet. A silver button. A moonstone. A tiny black ceramic cat. All offerings for Catherine, from the girls who lived in her house.

  A stone bench, meant for a single visitor, was set beside the low fencing that surrounded the grave. I sat down and saw that at my feet a small tomato plant was growing. Tomatoes, in a city garden, right near a grave. Someone must have planted them here as another kind of offering.

  I felt an odd pull to touch them. These were cherry tomatoes, fully ripe and perfectly red, small and plump and ready to be picked, the same kind my mother once grew. I remembered the exact taste of them. Tangy but also sweet.

  I plucked one from the vine and held it in the center of my palm. I was about to lift it to my mouth and pop it open with my teeth when I heard a new sound.

  Not a gate creaking this time, and not the wind through the low-hanging leaves. Something else.

  I wasn’t alone here.

  The sound was tinny and artificial, not from nature. The electronic alert of a cell phone ringing, and not far away, from an overlooking window or the street. Close. It was coming from the other side of the gravestone, where the shadows hid a patch of tall grass.

  I must have crushed the tomato when I’d heard it—I felt the pulp and seeds in my hand. I dropped it to the grass and circled the fencing, and there, lying in a patch of unshorn weeds, was something green—too green. It was plastic with a glassy, almost-neon reflection. I leaned in closer and caught the pattern on its skin, reptilian. A fake-crocodile purse.

  The purse was stuck on the short fence that surrounded the gravestone, and I pulled until it came loose. Some muck and dirt had gotten on it. I shook it off. The crocodile skin—slick and cold to the touch, turning my stomach—was flapping open, revealing that the contents of the purse hadn’t been pillaged. There was the wallet and a nondriver ID for a Lacey Rhonda Garnett. A depressing DMV portrait and her statistics: She was five foot seven. She was eighteen years old. She was from Connecticut.

  My hand was in the purse again. Slithering in, separate from me, an insistent snake. Almost $200 in twenties was in the wallet. My fingers itched to slip the wad into my pocket, but I abstained, at least for the moment. I decided I’d bring it back into the house and leave it in Lacey’s mail cubby. She’d find it there, eventually. The only question was if she needed to find it with all the money intact.

  But the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. The cell phone at the bottom of the purse was lit up with an incoming call. A blocked caller ID. It could have been Lacey herself, call
ing to see if her purse and all its contents had landed in friendly hands.

  I hesitated, and then I answered.


  No words on the other end. Only labored breathing.

  “Lacey, if that’s you, I found your purse. It’s Bina—you know, from the fifth floor? I found your purse, and I—”

  “Stop,” the voice said. I heard the faintest touch of wind, as if it weren’t a road the caller was on but a high rooftop. No one told me that, but I saw it so clearly. A rush of vertigo in my knees.

  The voice sounded gravelly and weak. This wasn’t Lacey.

  “Who is this?” Something told me I didn’t want to hear the answer.

  The person on the other end ignored this question. Maybe she thought I knew already.

  “Hello? I said, ‘Who is this?’”

  “You look so much like your mother.”

  I lifted my eyes. Up and up, following the long brick expanse of the side of the house until the perimeter of the rooftop was in sight. In daylight the colors were orange and yellow. They went white where the sun hit. White until I couldn’t see anything out of either one of my eyes, the good one or the bad. White like what a dead body sees from under the sheet.

  I flung the phone away from me.

  As I did, I happened to lose my balance, and I happened to glance down and see it. The trail of hair on the ground behind the statue, long and deep brown. Braided.

  My hand reached out to touch it. The braid of hair was heavy, because it was attached to something. A neck.

  There was a body hidden in the shadow behind the gravestone. A girl with long braids, the same way Lacey wore her hair. This was her. This was her, on the ground, in the dirt, in the flesh. Her eyes were crusted closed. She lay on her back, arms limp at her sides. A prescription bottle was open beside her. Orange, white cap. The label was smeared with dirt, the name of the pills too blurred to make out.

  I went for her, stumbling over the grating that surrounded the grave and almost dropping down, half on top of her and half on Catherine de Barra, buried underneath.

  As I got ahold of her, Lacey’s eyelids jittered, and her arms jolted, and I heard gurgling coming from her throat. She was alive, and I had to help her.

  Everything moved fast after that.

  At some point I removed myself from the garden. I must have. I’m not sure if I yelled out for help from some passersby or if I called 911 from the sidewalk because I couldn’t get a working signal again and I couldn’t find Lacey’s phone that I threw. I was outside the garden as the ambulance pulled up, my arms up to flag it down, and she was inside, and I wasn’t sure why I didn’t stay beside her.

  Two EMTs burst out. Lights were flashing. Someone pushed me away. Someone else pulled me aside.

  “The garden,” I said, pointing wildly. “There’s a girl inside. I think she took some pills, but she’s alive, she’s alive.”

  The EMT asked me for her name, and I told her. I tried to offer the purse, which for some unknown reason I had on my arm, but she didn’t want it. She asked where Lacey lived, and I pointed to Catherine House, and then I said I had her room, and then I said she moved rooms, and I didn’t know what I was saying so I stopped talking. The EMT asked me if I was all right and what happened to me, and that part was confounding until I understood her mistake.

  “Did someone hurt you?” she asked, indicating the bruises on my face. “Do you want to press charges?”

  “No, no,” I said. That? That was old, already taken care of, I already saw a doctor (I lied). It looked worse than it was. This wasn’t about me. This was about the girl in the garden. This was about the girl.

  She told me I seemed flushed and I should sit down and wait there.

  She went in through the gate after her partner, calling out for Lacey as if she’d been buried in an avalanche and needed to know there was someone searching for her, she was not forgotten, she would not be alone, not ever again.

  I was on the sidewalk, sitting on the curb. I felt something on my face and realized I’d started to cry. I couldn’t bear the idea of Lacey’s being out there all alone, under the tree with no one helping her or even trying to find her all that time.

  Ms. Ballantine was on the curb above me, her thin shadow swaying. She’d come out of the house and now glared with intent at the garden gate, which was wide open. She wasn’t even bothering to go in. No other staff members came out of the house to join her. I still hadn’t seen anyone else who worked there. No one who cleaned or cooked or assisted Ms. Ballantine with what she did as landlady and manager of the estate.

  A police cruiser arrived behind the ambulance, and now two officers were in the garden, one guarding the gate. Now it was clear we weren’t allowed to follow.

  “Who called the police?” Ms. Ballantine asked in a flat voice. The sun seemed to be bothering her eyes, and she put up a hand to shield it from her face. Instead it hit mine.

  “I called nine-one-one,” I said, taking claim. “She’s still alive. I can’t believe it, but I think she’s still alive.”

  She looked down on me. I had to squint, and even then I couldn’t see the expression on her face.

  “Why are you sitting in the street like a beggar?” she said. “Get on your feet. Get up.” She pulled me upright.

  I was holding Lacey’s purse—the green plastic cold in my fingers—and all I wanted was to get rid of it. When I tried to hand it off to Ms. Ballantine, she pushed it away with a flinch, as if I’d offered her a severed finger. I would leave it in Lacey’s cubby after all. She could get it later—I hoped.

  A hush emerged from the open gate, but it wasn’t peaceful; it was jarring. I wanted to see in, but I also didn’t want to watch Lacey die. I imagined the scene instead: her cheeks losing color, her eyes showing only white . . .

  “How did this happen?” Ms. Ballantine said to me. “How could you?”

  I didn’t understand. I’d found Lacey before it was too late. I’d done a good thing. I could already picture her family—her mother and her father, her two sisters—pulling up to the curb and running out to take her in their arms. She would go home with them after all. She needed them. It was where she belonged.

  What did I do to make Ms. Ballantine so angry?

  “You shouldn’t have called,” she said in a low voice, uncomfortably close to my ear.

  The police cruiser at the curb said all. It was sinking in that there was a reason Ms. Ballantine wanted to keep the authorities away. It could have been about the garden, where everyone gathered in the night. Maybe there was something in there the city was not supposed to find, because if they found it, they might take it away from us forever.

  And I was the one who’d sounded the alarm and led the way.

  A minute later, both emergency workers came out. Neither was holding a body. No one was escorting a girl.

  I stepped up, even though the panic was flooding my chest. “What happened?”

  “There’s no one in there,” one of the EMTs said to me.

  “What do you mean?” I started for the garden gate, but they blocked my way.

  “There’s no girl.” This repeated in my face. People passing slowed on the street—the ambulance called their attention—but they weren’t trying to get a peek into the garden to see what happened; they were looking at me. Everyone was looking at me. I was the thing to look at.

  I noticed the old woman across the street with a gray cat in her arms. The yowling animal struggled in her grasp, butting its head against her chin, but the woman held fast, on thick exposed legs with slippers, mouth slightly open, judging me.

  There was talk of my wasting the emergency workers’ time and calling in a phony report, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to get into trouble. Then the police turned to Ms. Ballantine. There was something in the garden they needed to discuss with the property owner—
could she come this way?

  She walked in, head held high. Again, I wasn’t allowed to follow.

  “Miss,” the EMT said to me, her face right up in mine so I couldn’t see past her. “Are you hurt? Do you need medical attention?”

  I shook my head. It was Lacey who needed help. She was the one who swallowed all the pills. They might have to pump her stomach, which was supposed to hurt horribly, I’d heard, and she’d probably want company at the hospital. Where was Lacey? I put my hand to the back of my head and held it, to calm the thumping.

  “Did you fall? A concussion might be what’s causing this confusion. Why don’t you—”

  When the EMT reached out her arm, as if she might touch me, I barely escaped. I moved away as quickly as I could, and it felt like they were on my heels again, the whole pack of them. At any moment, they would catch me and take me down. If I skidded and stumbled and hit the pavement with my bare face, would it feel so different from leaves and twigs and pine needles and tree roots and dirt that night in the forest?


  I stood on a patch of random sidewalk a few blocks away. I stayed there a long time, loitering, nursing my ankle. When I circled the block again and saw that the ambulance and police car were both gone, that the crowd had dispersed and no one was across the street keeping tabs, I knew it was safe to come back. They’d forgotten all about me.

  It was late afternoon by the time I climbed the stoop leading back into the house and felt something wet and warm flick down onto my shoulders, like a rainstorm had found me. A few more drips, this time on the top of my head.

  Monet was there, her legs dangling off the fire escape.

  She was holding a bottle and had been dribbling water down on my head. Our rooms were in the front of the house, and she’d descended a few flights to sit at the lowest level of the fire escape, a single story suspended over the stoop.

  She seemed so unbothered. The word must have not gotten out about Lacey.

  I wiped my hair and looked up to her bare legs. Today she was wearing a midnight-blue pageboy wig. I was beginning to suspect she’d visited a Halloween store and bought herself a collection on clearance.

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