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A room away from the wol.., p.17

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 17

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  “He owes it to us. And I was ready . . . to ask.”

  I pressed my face into her shoulder, soaking her shirt. “Where would we have gone with it?” That money wouldn’t have been used to buy a car or a new pair of boots. It wouldn’t have landed in a savings account to earn interest. It wasn’t my future college fund or a vacation to Niagara Falls. She didn’t say it, but I knew.

  The secret my mother wanted to hide wasn’t that we visited the gallery and asked her ex-husband for money. It was what she would have done with that money. Depending on how much he gave, we could have gone anywhere, or stayed in-state and chosen a borough. The city—the sidewalks all around us, heading in every direction, river to river, bridge to bridge—had been in our reach. Now it was lost again.

  She held me, and I held her. She begged me to forgive her, and I said I would. The smell of oil tinged with gasoline filled the garage.

  ━━━━━

  A rattling at my window startled me.

  A head appeared. Monet again, now on the fire escape, leaning on the black-barred cage between air and brick to stretch her legs. Only her face and one bare elbow entered my window. The rest of her body seemed suspended over the city, ethereal.

  “Hey,” she said, acting casual, like she hadn’t left for her room before without a goodbye and wasn’t showing up now without an invitation.

  “Why can’t you use the stairs?”

  “Here,” she said. In her extended hand was a twenty- dollar bill. “I think you won the bet about Fred, or I did. Either way, here. Yours.”

  I didn’t want to take money from her, but when she placed it inside, on the windowsill, I didn’t push it away. For a second, the air smelled like gasoline and I thought of my mother. She had another secret, one she hadn’t told me, about an accident that had happened in this house. If she knew I was here, she might come running and show up at the door, and then what would I do? Go home with her? Pretend to be gone and have everyone cover for me, forcing her to lug crates of old towels and unwanted sweaters to the street to complete the charade?

  Monet was eyeing the closet. Maybe she thought I’d stowed the portrait of my mother in there, for safekeeping, since it wasn’t hanging plainly on the wall. I couldn’t understand why she wanted to see it, why she couldn’t let it be only mine.

  The night had tied us up together. She knew something about me now, something I’d thought was unknowable. At the same time, I didn’t know a single thing about her, or at least nothing I could say for sure was true.

  “I heard you with Gretchen on the stairs,” she said.

  I rolled my eyes. “She’s intense.”

  But Monet wasn’t smiling or making fun. The seriousness in her face skewed me. “Your mom really never told you about her accident, did she?”

  “You know about that?”

  She nodded as if she knew every last thing.

  “I’m going up,” she said. “C’mon.”

  She lifted her chin at what was above us. I knew she meant the rooftop, even though it was forbidden. I paused, and she leaned in. “Don’t you want to see the view?”

  I did. I wanted to see the skyline from up there. I wanted to know for certain if it was how my mother had described it, the way it made a pulsing electric beat in her toes, the way her eyes were marked by it, as if burned through, until she could see the city dancing on the backs of her eyelids for hours afterward, a drawing pinned up while she slept. I’d always believed that had I not come into the picture, she would have embraced these lights forever and committed to becoming one of them. She would have stayed.

  I didn’t move.

  Something was telling me that Monet meant another kind of view. She meant the thing I’d awakened, unwittingly, by coming here, by finding that opal, by being my mother’s daughter. It was all anyone seemed to care about, but how could I explain I didn’t want or need to know so much, unless it involved my mother?

  “It’s sturdy,” she said. “Watch.” She jumped up and down to show it would catch her weight.

  I shook my head. The fire escape had only open air beneath it. It seemed to defy gravity and was so fragile, tacked on to the front of the house, and I didn’t understand how it stayed wedged into the brick. I imagined taking a step out onto it, and then the fall.

  “No?” she said.

  “No,” I said.

  Monet didn’t fight me or force me or taunt me for my fear. She didn’t even ask if I was sure, because I wasn’t, as it seemed she was about to tell me something important and I’d miss it. She didn’t give me the chance—she was up the ladder beyond my reach in no time, seeing the buildings from here to the end of the island, whatever that looked like.

  I got ready for bed, washing all the makeup off my face to reveal the still-livid bruises. Shouldn’t they have faded by now? Shouldn’t I have recovered? The mirror showed only the worst of me, as if I’d never be over it.

  Back in my room, I curled up close to the window, where I could at least feel a touch of air in the stifling heat. I thought about my mother, about whatever sent her to the hospital when she lived in this house and about whether Monet was only pretending to know so she could lure me up the fire escape.

  There was no other way up to the roof—the stairs in the center of the house didn’t go any higher than my floor, and I didn’t know of another staircase except for the one behind my wall, bricked off.

  The small door was painted white, even the knob whited out. Everything in the gallery had been painted this same white. It was the color of trying to hide something. Of putting one over on you. Of lies.

  Lacey had said this door led to a closet, but that was a lie. This time I took my phone for a flashlight—even without a signal, it worked for that at least—and I was up the stairs and around the bend in no time. As before, the corridor was narrow and tight, and there was no door, only the hastily built wall of bricks. I could see more clearly this time the towering stack that filled the doorframe, rough-edged and red.

  I put a hand to the bricks. So cold.

  And quiet. I found the crack in the bricks where I remembered, a crevice through which to see. This had to be the way to the roof, and maybe I’d be able to spy Monet on the other side, but when I pressed my eye in, straining with all my might, all that reflected back was darkness. It was a darkness that held nothing and no one, apart from memories that had been stowed away where almost nobody could find them, walled in brick by brick by brick.

  ━━━━━

  My eyes open.

  “I’m right here.” That’s me. That’s my voice. I’m yelling into the woods. “Where’d you go? I’m right here.” I’m shouting it, but to no one, because they’re all gone now, they’ve given up on me and didn’t bother chasing me all the way out of the woods, to the road. My throat is ragged, my body filling with hot rushes of pain. There’s something wrong with one of my legs, and there’s something wrong with one of my eyes, so I’m crooked as I walk, like a suitcase with a broken wheel.

  I hear wind in the trees, and that’s all.

  Then I sense the vehicle approaching. Two headlights, brighter than exploding stars, and I’m waving my arms. Stop, I’m trying to tell them. Help me. Stop.

  It doesn’t stop.

  A van roars past, giant and bright blue, with a smoking tailpipe and screeching tires. There are stickers all over the bumper—unreadable as they blur past—and something blocking the windows so there’s no way to see who’s inside. I’m okay. I’ve lurched out of the way just in time.

  But I’m confused, turned around. I must have jumped too far into the trees, because when I stand again, I’m not clear on which way to go. My flashlight isn’t in my hand anymore, and I can’t remember the last time I held it. I start walking, or trying to. I’m pushing branches out of the way, stepping wrong on a path that isn’t a path at all. I keep going, and what I mean is
to head home, but in the dark I can’t see which way is out and which way is deeper in, where trails stop and no parties are held. Back there are wild acres of wooded forest, hilltops and climbing cliffsides and thick tangles of trees. And the ravine.

  I stretch my arms out in front of me, aiming for stray branches, slapping them away, as if that might help me navigate the darkness. The road is right here. I’ll be home in no time—or I would be, if only my ankle weren’t screaming every time I took a step. If only I could see better, through the swollen pinhole of one of my eyes. If only my head wasn’t sending thunder strikes all through my skull, trying to crack me open.

  I might be walking in circles. At some point, I stop, but when I look ahead, there’s only darkness. It’s like the ground falls off and the whole rest of the world is down there, where I can’t see but could be a part of it, if only I take the first step in.

  ━━━━━

  I came awake at the bottom of the closet stairs, a hammer pounding inside my head. It was so hot, too hot, so I pushed back into my room. The small space was in disarray, the bed tipped over so the extra door could open, the dresser drawers knocked onto the floor and bursting with spills, a picture of my mother splayed out on the floor. I set the mattress back and got in the bed, but, now, here was the window. The fire escape I couldn’t climb. The view I never did see for myself. All the things I’d never done and wanted to do.

  I took hold of the windowsill, bracing myself, gulping air, and slithered out. I did it before I could change my mind. If anyone had been watching from down below on the sidewalk, or from one of the town houses across the way, if anyone had seen me slide out on my stomach, trying to keep a foot heel-locked onto the window frame, trying not to look down, accidentally looking down, then the vertigo, then my head spinning, then having to close my eyes and lie there with my arms slack and prickling, if anyone had seen this, they would have laughed. Monet would have collided into a wall with laughter. She would have shaken with it, but not as I was shaking out on the fire escape from having the ground so far away and, up above, all that endless night sky.

  Then again it was as my mother said it would be, to feel the city out there above and around me, in all pulsing frequencies and on all sides. It was everything.

  The warm breeze in my hair, the sweat on my skin cooling. Monet was still up there, and I was down here, and I told myself I’d stay out for a touch longer. At some point I forgot to be afraid, because I closed my eyes to sleep.

  I must have remained on the fire escape, only the upper half of my body, until dawn. If she ever climbed back down the ladder to spend the night inside, in her bed the way ordinary people did, I didn’t feel her pass by.

  When I jolted awake, it was light out, and the view made me catch myself for a fall that wasn’t happening. I was protected, held in place by the sturdy black cage. The hand gripping it was still wearing the opal—I’d been sloppy, and I went out of the house with it, slept in it, and wore it in open air, where it could have slipped off and dropped five stories and gotten picked up by some lucky stranger in the street.

  But was it lucky?

  With my eyes closed and my ears plugged, I could play pretend. I could tell myself everyone was happy, as I was. I could ignore Gretchen’s confusing desperation and Lacey’s attempt to leave. I could forget Anjali’s note. And I made every effort to, for days. Even Monet on the roof, acting like she wanted to tell me something, I never made it up there to hear her out, to see. It was cold of me to ignore them all, so maybe the person I was lying to the most was myself.

  And yet, I did feel lucky. To be in this city. In this house. In this room, away from everything that had fallen to pieces at home. It was a fantasy come true, a wishful thought dug up from piles of brick and concrete and set to lights. If that wasn’t luck, what should I call it?

  Part four

  Excavations

  A day later, Monet pulled me aside, away from the others. She said she knew a little French place nearby where we could have lunch and talk. “I promise it’s on steady ground,” she said, and I wasn’t sure if she was joking, or getting in a dig at me. It wasn’t too far down the block, in a storefront below street level, where we were seated at a wobbly table by a window. “This is on me,” she said. With a tiny burst of shame, but also a sense of delight because it was the two of us, I said okay.

  We were the only customers in the small restaurant. The waiter poured tap water, and then Monet got something fizzy and lemony, and asked for a second one for me. From the menu, she ordered up a feast. The food was the kind a child might choose: fries, which were called frites, and pastries and dessert. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t that hungry.

  I’d gone with every intention of asking her questions. I wanted to know what information she had on my mother. I wanted to ask more about Catherine. But with her in front of me, so much else fell away, as if there were no room on the screen but for her face. Her hair today was rainbow-tinted. I was beginning to wonder if she had something against the natural hair that grew out of her head, because she kept trying to disguise it, which in a way was disguising herself. Deftly, with obvious skill, she turned the conversation to center on me.

  It became apparent that she expected to learn everything about me, as much as could be contained in one lunch conversation. She started with my father, bored of that in an instant, then asked about my mother. Did I share things with my mother? Did I have the kind of relationship that girls long for, where we wore each other’s clothes and drank each other’s iced coffees, where we shared secrets, me with her but especially her with me? Monet liked knowing I did have that, once, but she also seemed alarmed to know I’d barely spoken to my mother since I moved to Catherine House, that when I got her on the phone, she hung up on me.

  “And she never told you why she went home,” she said, as if to be rock-solid on that. “Or how,” she added.

  “What she told me was a lie,” I said.

  “And she doesn’t know you’re here, right now, staying in this house.” It wasn’t a question. She was sure of that, and I couldn’t remember if it was something I’d mentioned.

  “I was going to tell her, but she hasn’t called me back.”

  Monet sucked in a sip of her fizzy lemon water, swirling the bubbles around in her mouth with concentration. I found myself softening, relaxing in the chair. When was the last time I could trust someone? I couldn’t remember. I’d told things to girls I thought were my friends, who’d turned around and told someone else. I’d told things that then got distorted, taunted into other shapes, twisted, erased. I’d told lies that became truths, and when I’d told the truth, everyone said I was lying. But that was back home. Here, I could be new.

  The more we sat together in that empty, dim-lit restaurant, the more I talked. Not about the party. Not about that, not yet. But about everything else.

  “Mostly what I remember is the next morning and hitchhiking here,” I heard myself say, felt it starting to spill. How my mother was the one who taught me how to flag down a ride, the two of us on the side of the road, thumbs out, waiting for a car to stop, when I was just a kid. About that time I confronted my mother in the basement of the new house when she was doing laundry and accused her of being miserable and cowardly and pathetic, because she stayed married to him without even a glance at the road—and it only occurred to me as I shaped the story that the bad guy wasn’t my mother full of excuses who’d forgotten how to hitch rides and dream big dreams. It was me; I was the one who’d decided she should leave. As I discovered this, I said so to Monet. I said a lot of things.

  The sheen in Monet’s cheeks brightened as she consumed my words and the food on our table. She devoured from the plates indiscriminately. She mixed frites with bites of pear tart, and chocolate croissants with cheese and onion soup. She licked crumbs off porcelain. She slurped. As she ate, I kept talking. It was as if I’d been hypnotized.
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  I told her I used to hate my father, though I’d barely known him, and how uncomplicated it used to be, when I could hate a man I might not have recognized on a street corner. I told her I’d wanted to wreck my mother’s marriage with a sledgehammer, if only she hadn’t seemed so content to hold on.

  I told her about my first crush on a boy, in the first grade, how he jumped off the diving board at the pool with the wings of his pockets out. The splash he made.

  I told her about my first crush on a girl, last year, in the tenth grade, when she stood at the front of English class and read song lyrics instead of a poem. The words she said.

  I told her how the first time I stole something, a glow-in-the-dark keychain from the hardware store, I gripped it so hard it almost cut my palm open. All the pleasure it gave.

  I told her my mistakes. That I didn’t mean to mess with Daniella’s boyfriend, but it was only the once and before I knew it, they were back together. That I didn’t mean to crash my mother’s car, and that I’d only been drinking a little. That when I had the bottle of hydrocodone in my hands, I knew what it was. I’d done my research. And it was true I was thinking of what it would be like to disappear, and how to do it gently. But then I thought of other ways one might go about disappearing—physical places that exist in the world, with street signs and subway stops and rooms for rent. There were places where a girl could go, and disappear another way, and keep on living.

  So many of the things that had been said about me around town, in school, were lies. But when there’s one speck of truth in the lie, no matter how tiny, it can make all of it seem real. It wasn’t true what my stepsisters told my mother to get me kicked out of the house, but she believed what she thought she knew.

  That was what I told Monet.

  Throughout my storytelling, she stuffed her face. With each new chapter, it seemed she needed more and more to chew. I didn’t think she’d ever get her fill.

  By the time I was finished and took a breath, there were too many empty plates to count, nothing but empty plates, and I was so tired. I leaned up against the window and went silent.

 
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