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A room away from the wol.., p.16

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 16

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  Then we were around the corner, and the awning of a neighboring building made a safe haven where we could stop, and I did, my back against brick, letting myself go calm, leaning my mother against the wall for a moment, simply breathing.

  Monet was only watching me now. She was perfectly silent, almost smiling.

  After a few breaths, I was back to myself and I straightened. I lifted my mother in my arms again, the canvas slick with panic-sweat. “I’m okay. I’m okay now, I’m okay.”

  “You sure are,” she said.

  She registered the painting in my arms and, as she did, she happened to notice my hand.

  “What’s that you have on your finger?” she said.

  I couldn’t hide my hand. It was out in front of me, on display. I’d been wearing it with the stone facing in, but it must have gotten turned around in the excitement.

  “It’s nothing,” I said.

  “Nothing?” I could see all the things she wanted to say flash across her face, and she uttered none of them. Maybe she decided to put it away for later. Maybe something about that night made her, too, feel changed.

  It was as we walked back to Catherine House that she bumped her shoulder into mine, a knock of appreciation. Her bare skin was cooler than it should have been in the heavy-hanging heat. She was so unbothered by everything, as if she knew already all the things that could be.

  “What did you do to him?” I asked. She knew I meant that man I’d never have to see for the rest of my life, who I’d never again call my father. He hadn’t come out of the back room, even with all the noise we must have made. For all I knew, she could have killed him.

  “I told you to stop fighting,” she said. “I told you you’d see some things, that they wouldn’t make sense.” She was setting off fireworks in my mind, bursts and pops in the wild field of my imagination. That was enough for now. More than enough.

  It was something I hadn’t even known I wanted, what each of us did forming one perfect whole.

  She put her arm around me, jostling my mother in my embrace. I didn’t mind the touch. The opal was near glowing. Monet could have stayed that way if she wanted, sidled up to me, the two of us against the world. Even though she’d stood by and watched me do all the destruction and then told me how much trouble I was in. It was almost as if she’d wanted me to get in trouble, was hoping he’d come out and catch me in the act. Even with that.

  “You surprised me,” she said. “I didn’t know you had that in you.”

  I didn’t know it, either.

  Dawn

  It was a physical sensation I couldn’t pinpoint in my body: knowing we were close to curfew and needing to be back inside—all of us there, safest together—before the clock turned.

  We only just made it. A few minutes more, and the front gate would have been chained, and no one, certainly none of the tenants and not even Ms. Ballantine herself, who could not be bribed with cash or with favors, would come down to open it. The garden gate was locked, police tape cordoning it from entry, so we would have had to spend the night sleeping in a doorway down in the street. Anything could have happened.

  Once we made it inside to the foyer, Monet stopped. “You’re limping again. Is it your leg?”

  I’d felt invincible in the gallery—still had, until she mentioned that. As soon as she put it to words, there was the dull throbbing in my ankle, the same ankle as the night in the woods, a thudding reminder. It wasn’t sharp like a new injury—it was faint, a low pull.

  But I kept walking. There was so much I didn’t want to think about. When I was in this house, I wanted to close the curtains on all of that.

  “Do you need to sit down?” Monet asked. “Here, let me take that.”

  She had her arms out to collect the portrait of my mother, but something in me—coarse, instinctual—would not let her have it. I clutched it to my chest, almost curling myself around it, and she backed off, arms up as if to defend herself.

  “All right, all right,” she said. “Keep it.”

  As we passed the front parlor, dim with only one gold-toned lamp left on, I had a sudden awareness that we had a witness. I’d been avoiding this room. For more than a week, I wouldn’t dare look toward the parlor when I passed. But tonight was different. I was different. I lingered in view of the archway and let myself peer in.

  I pretended at first, for protection. “Who’s there?” I called, as if I might find Gretchen curled up on an armchair, fallen asleep with that book she was always lugging around. Or Anjali and Lacey, maybe, having a quiet conversation near the low-wattage lamp on the giant boat of a couch.

  But I knew the room would be empty of tenants. Dust sifted and settled, charged and unable to take a seat. The long drapes hiding the street from view swayed ever so slightly along the gold carpet. The ceiling fan swept in circles. The grandfather clock ticked.

  I approached, concealing my mother’s face against my chest. Something told me I should. I walked closer, and Monet was right—I was favoring one leg.

  As I came near, the portrait above the mantel shifted. Catherine was easing nearer to the front of the frame, where glass met open air. The mist crept in all around her, an erasure of white fog forming around her mouth. It wasn’t mist at all—it was her warm breath contained in that cold tomb of glass.

  “You come down here and talk to her, too?” Monet asked.

  I started at her voice behind me.

  I hadn’t. Not once. After that first night—candlelight cupped in my hands, shimmer of blue light on the rooftop over our heads—I couldn’t face it.

  “Can you even imagine?” Monet said. She was beside me then. Catherine’s black eyes were trained on her as much as they’d been trained on me.

  “Imagine what?”

  “What it must be like to be her, to watch us every day and every night from behind that glass and not be able to do anything.”

  Monet tucked a bright-blond lock behind her ear, and I found myself staring at the black hole there, tiny and deep, that burrowed its way into her head. The opal on my finger was growing warmer.

  “Do you think she sees us?” I knew an answer to that question, if I let myself think it. Did Monet?

  “You know she does. This was her house, and she’s still in it, and now we’re everywhere. Putting our dirty feet all over her furniture . . . getting our grubby paws on her stuff . . . talking about her like she’s not here. That’s what I think sometimes. But other times I wonder if maybe she doesn’t want to be alone. Ever. So she makes sure.”

  We met eyes before the portrait, Monet and me. My hand was hot, and behind the painting pressed to my chest, my heart was thumping.

  “We should talk,” Monet said. “But not here.” She gestured at the mantel. Not in front of her.

  The portrait darkened, a tremor coming from behind the glass. It rippled through my body like a distant quake. We were upsetting her.

  There was the distinct sense that she knew what Monet was about to tell me, and wanted me kept in the dark. It felt like someone was shoving me backward, into the dust and the dim, into the dark gold, down on the ground, and though I was softening and growing dizzy with a drugged sense of numbness and part of me almost wanted to let it have me, another part of me tore away and headed for the stairs.

  I didn’t feel like myself again until I had my hand on the banister.

  We didn’t pass any other tenants on the way up—everyone else in the house seemed to be tucked in behind closed doors, lights out for the night. But we weren’t alone. Even after leaving the view of the front parlor, I still felt eyes at my back. Eyes on me from below, eyes from above. The portraits of the girls of Catherine House were awake as the tenants slept. The girls behind glass were gray-faced and murky-eyed. They were gazing at me in a way they hadn’t before—now there was an awareness. Whatever I’d done tonight—whatever Monet had encouraged a
nd nudged—and whatever we’d touched on while talking downstairs, it had caught their notice. They were wary of me.

  I quickened my steps, though my ankle twinged.

  On the landing below mine, Monet left for her room without a word. We’d shared something electric, a live wire exposed. But that had changed once curfew came and we’d reentered the house. “I thought you wanted to talk?” I called after her. She didn’t answer.

  As I turned the corner heading up to my floor, Gretchen came down, her shadow so towering and ceiling-bound, I almost didn’t know who or what was coming.

  What was she doing up there? Her room wasn’t on the fifth floor.

  As soon as she saw me, she grabbed my arm, pulled me close.

  “Monet told me not to talk to you,” she said, “but you’re going to do it, right? You’re going to help Catherine?”

  I pulled my arm away. The one she’d grabbed was still hurting from the night in the woods, but she also had jagged fingernails and a forceful grip. “Help with what?”

  “We need to wake her again. She’s trying to tell us something, and we don’t know what. Her book doesn’t say.”

  Something wasn’t right about Gretchen, something in the eyes, urgent and blooming. It unnerved me.

  “Were you upstairs in my room?” I asked.

  “How could I be in your room? Your door was locked. Nobody locks their doors around here, I don’t know why you do. What are you hiding? Why are you here?”

  “What do you mean? I needed a room,” I said simply. “I called, and they had a room for me.”

  “No one ever calls for a room.”

  But I had. It was almost as if I’d arrived here in the snap of two fingers. In the blink of an eye. A vacancy when I’d most needed it. And yet it was real—I could touch the walls on either side of me, I could feel the stairs under my feet.

  “What’s that?” Gretchen asked.

  I was cradling the canvas in my arms, and I wasn’t about to let her see it. When she pulled at it to turn it around, I kept it bound to me as if belted in place.

  “It’s like someone knocked you in the head and you don’t know anything,” Gretchen said.

  “Excuse me?”

  She was around the bend and thumping down the rest of the stairs before I could get an explanation.

  ━━━━━

  I closed my door, locked it, and set my mother’s portrait faceup on the bed. How was it that it could be a terrible rendition of her, the skill and detail not much better than a finger painting, and yet I felt her with me more than before? I felt her inside the canvas, and now I felt her inside this house. I was sure she was thinking of me, at that very moment, while I stared into the smudges meant to be her eyes. The smudges were grayish-greenish blue, a mash-up of colors that didn’t claim one more than the other, which seemed right.

  I found the largest item of clothing I owned—a hooded sweatshirt my mother had packed for me; it might have been hers once—and wrapped the portrait inside it. Then I slipped it between the box spring and the mattress, sandwiched it deeply in there, down where I’d put my feet.

  It was when I let go that my phone started ringing.

  The phone was in my bag somewhere, and I had to dig in there, searching, until I came up with its bright screen beaming with my mother’s face.

  Had she heard my thoughts, all the way across bridges and up the Thruway and along mountain roads, to know to call me this instant? We were that connected, rope frayed but holding even still?

  Phone service was spotty. I had only one bar, but I still hoped to hear her voice when I answered. I didn’t expect to get dead silence—static, faint and far-off, as if she were holding the phone up into the air to let me hear the wind blowing.

  “Mom?” I shouted into the phone, but it was useless. The signal cut off. When I tried to return her call, voice mail again and again, no answer again and again, her phone unreachable as if she’d entered a tunnel.

  She didn’t call back.

  I sat on the end of the bed, not thinking at first that I was sitting on her, and then I leaped up, feeling it all at once. She’d known to call me. Mother’s intuition. She was aware I’d betrayed her by going to the gallery. That was all it was—she’d called simply to let me know she knew.

  We’d had an understanding between us when it came to my father, and I’d broken it only once before, four years ago. After we’d visited the gallery, my mother made the promise that I’d never have to see him again, the promise she kept. Then she asked me to make a promise to her.

  I was not to tell that man whose bed she slept in, or his girls, where we’d gone and who we saw there. I was to swallow this information and keep it where no one could ever get it out of me. I was her girl, hers more than anyone else could be, hers more than Charlotte was, hers more than Daniella was. She knew she could trust me. Couldn’t she?

  I nodded. I’d always been her secret-keeper. I was born into it.

  After the gallery, the secret had kept its place while we rode the subway uptown and entered the museum, to meet them at the planned spot. She had to check the map to find it—Water Lilies, made in pieces and stretching like a giant muted smudge over a long wall. The secret kept as we waited, as I stared at the thing, squinted, saw only smears of color, ridged and textured and begging for a finger to mess with it. The secret was not coming out when he emerged around the bend with his daughters. The secret stayed intact throughout the interweaving halls of the museum, up and down escalators, in and out of grand and airy rooms with masterpieces on display.

  I thought I had a solid hold of it as I slept on the train headed to Poughkeepsie, the closest stop near home. That I had it stowed good and tight when we were back upstate and in the cheery yellow kitchen a dead woman had decorated.

  Dinner was veggie burgers and tater tots, and I was cleaning my plate. The hunger overtook me, and I couldn’t stop eating. I needed to stuff myself full of food, so nothing else would come out.

  My mother’s husband teased about how I could be so hungry if we’d had that big lunch downtown, my mother and I. Between mouthfuls, I said, “But we didn’t get anything to eat.” And there it went, the secret. It launched off my tongue and skidded across the table and dropped into his hands. Just like that, I had let the secret go.

  “What do you mean you didn’t have lunch?” he asked. Weren’t we meeting her old friend from scene-study class? What was her name, Marina? Didn’t we meet Marina downtown for lunch?

  When the truth spilled out, it tasted like a lie. My stomach turned sour with it, and there was a burn in the back of my throat. The sisters’ eyes batted back and forth, catching all of it. Worse was my mother’s face across the table. Gray stone.

  “Dawn?” he said. “What’s she saying? You didn’t meet Marina? You went to see him?”

  I flattened a tot in my fingers.

  “You know Bina and her wild imagination.” These words of my mother’s fell past me, littering the air in microscopic shards of hail. “Do you really think I’d make up a whole story about seeing Marina after all these years and go see him instead? What for?”

  He was quiet. The girls were quiet. The energy between my mother and me was so loud.

  “Sabina, why would you lie about something like that?” she said in a strange, stilted voice. She enunciated every word.

  My own strange voice answered her. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.” We were performing now—like a scene to be studied in her old class. Was that what she wanted from me? To make it better? To fix it with pretend?

  “Why are you trying to drive a wedge between us? This is our family now. You know this. I would never lie like that. Explain yourself.”

  I wasn’t as good at calling up the dialogue, and I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to explain. I’d said out loud that we went to see my father at his gallery. I wasn’t sure what
would erase those words now. My mind went a panicked white. I did the only thing I could think to do, my face burning, my stomach coiling, my mother playacting across from me, proving her worth as an actress. I put my head down on the table and closed my eyes. The darkness behind my closed lids was absolute at first, like a soft, thick blackout curtain.

  I heard my mother through the darkness.

  “Sabina, stand up.”

  I heard her but didn’t respond.

  “I said get up.”

  When I opened my eyes, I saw that the girls were delighted. Charlotte clapped her hands and kicked Daniella under the table so she’d clap hers. I saw my mother blazing with light.

  “Dawn,” I heard him say, his voice low. “That’s enough. She’s upset. She knows she was wrong. Let her be.” He was so forgiving. He wasn’t a bad man, and maybe I should have met his eyes when I spoke to him or called him by his name sometime.

  “Get up, Sabina. You’re done with dinner now. Now go.”

  I didn’t make it to my bedroom. There was a spot in the garage where my mother stored an old crate of our unneeded things from our last house, and sometimes I went there, simply to perch on it and feel it under me. I would touch the objects inside, but I never took them out where the girls might see them. The small covered garage smelled damp, like mildew and like the oil that puddled under the minivan. It was dark, without any windows to the outside. The corner with the crate was a cocoon, and I folded myself up there, confused and trying to cry without sound.

  It might have been hours later when she came to me and apologized. She was so ashamed. I was so ashamed. We’d both done awful things, and to each other, and we wouldn’t accept being forgiven so soon. She wrapped her arms around me in the dark corner, and I stopped shaking so much and calmed. She sounded like herself again.

  “Why do you spend so much time in here?” she said. “It smells.”

  “Why did we go see him anyway?” I said back. “Was it really for money?”

 
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