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A room away from the wol.., p.18

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 18


A Room Away From the Wolves

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  Monet’s eyes were shining, her cheeks filled with life.

  When I didn’t say anything more, her face shifted, turning more serious. “Now I’ll tell you a story,” she said. She leaned forward, closer to me, and put her hands on the table.

  “Your mother jumped off the roof. That was the accident eighteen years ago she never told you about. She was trying to escape, and no one thought she could. She made Catherine angry, because she stole something that wasn’t hers, and she left with it, and took it with her, and, really, no one has seen it since.” She said this last bit so pointedly.

  I shook my head. “Why would my mother . . . jump?” Unspoken was the question: Did she know, at that point, she was pregnant with me?

  This story wasn’t like Monet’s other stories. There were no wild embellishments, no curving rivers or helicopters dipping low from the sky. The story of Catherine House was supposed to end with my mother on the fire escape and my father at the gate. She walked down the stairs to meet him; she didn’t fly through the sky. It was a sad story, but it was what I knew, what I’d heard all my life. She gave up on her dreams and went down to meet him at the gate. Didn’t she?

  Monet switched gears. “So what about that thing I saw you wearing? That thing I heard you say was your mom’s . . . Where’d you ever come across that?”

  The opal. Yes. She’d been well aware during lunch that it wasn’t on my hand.

  “When did I tell you it was my mom’s?” Had I? Did I? I was sure I hadn’t. And yet she knew so many things. So much. She’d even known where to find me when I first arrived in the city, before I landed at the house. She’d been waiting at the intersection of Waverly and Waverly, situated as it was between the subway and our block, knowing I’d pause in confusion when I was walking by.

  I covered my bare hand, and then, to be safe, I put both hands under the table.

  “Maybe it was one of the girls who told me,” she answered, and I recognized it sharply as a lie. “Gretchen, maybe. Anjali? Does it matter?”

  “Someone gave it to my mom a really long time ago. And she gave it to me.” Another partial truth with a soft bit of deception attached, my specialty.

  “Really,” she said.

  I held myself still. It was what my mother had told me, but I wasn’t sure what to believe in anymore.

  Monet signaled to the waiter for more water and asked for the check. But it was as she did this, as she lowered her arm, that I noticed the change in her face. A strange settling that erased the shine in her warm brown eyes, that flattened her expression.

  “I’ll be right back,” she said. “Finish off that tart if you want.”

  She slipped into the back of the restaurant, headed for the bathrooms. I gazed out the window, waiting, until I realized I’d been waiting for a while.

  I stood. The bill was on our table, on a small silver platter, unpaid. There were no customers at the other tables. Was this restaurant even open anymore? I went to the back hallway, passing an empty bar and the doorway of an empty kitchen, and poked into the bathrooms. There were two, unisex, as small as broom closets, gray with faucet leaks, deserted. When I returned to the main room, no one was there, not even our waiter.

  Monet had taken her bag with her to the bathroom—I’d idly noticed it slung over her shoulder—and she’d ordered so much I didn’t have enough money to pay.

  I stood beside the table for a moment, trying to steady my panic. A streak of feet passed by the window, sunken below the street so I couldn’t see above the knees. I took my own bag, pushed my chair in, and rushed out to join them.


  On my walk back to the house, I noticed that the blue van was gone. Someone had moved it away, maybe for good, and it filled me with relief. I continued quickly past the spot, still headed for the house, but somehow I’d taken the long way around and was coming from the opposite end of the street, across from where I usually walked. Here, the cat lady from across the street was outside again, but this time she was sunning herself from inside an iron cage.

  I did a double take. I hadn’t yet gotten used to the proper way to act around all the odd activity on the streets of New York, which was to lower your eyes, shut your heart, step away. I edged closer.

  It wasn’t exactly a cage. Her ground-floor apartment had security bars over a box of a yard, set on concrete, right outside a door that peeked into a slovenly kitchen. It was just large enough for a lawn chair and her cats. She had many cats. Cats climbing the bars, climbing on her, dozing in the wedge of sunlight that reached into the cage, poking out from between her ankles. The cage kept the cats from running off into the street, where they’d be flattened by traffic, but the sun could still come in. And she could still people-watch and keep an eye on her neighbors. I remembered seeing her outside the garden the morning I thought I saw Lacey.

  A flyer pasted on the outside of the cage caught my attention.


  Big with gray stripes.

  White belly and white mittens.

  Likes to climb. Always hungry.

  The woman stood from her chair and shuffled over to the wall of the cage that faced the street. “You seen my Vinny? This ring any bells? Gray stripes? Big?”

  “I haven’t seen a cat,” I said.

  Her eyes were clouded with distrust. “You live around here? You sure you haven’t seen him?”

  “I haven’t. I live over there—”

  I stopped, and a bolt of worry shot through me.

  My arm was out and pointing at the building across the street. The garden gate beside it was open, and a large truck was parked outside, back gaping. A group of men blocked it from view. Parked in front of the truck was a police cruiser, and standing in obvious dismay beside it was Ms. Ballantine.

  “What’s going on over there?” I asked, and when I turned to the woman in the cage, she grinned. Her teeth gleamed with pearly, artificial light. Dentures.

  “They’ve gone and done it,” she said. “You live there? You know about that?”

  She swept her arm to indicate what was going on across the street, what was making Ms. Ballantine grab the bars of the garden gate with her fists, what was causing the commotion inside the garden, what was making the windows of the house pool with darkness, even though it wasn’t night yet. I didn’t know, but remembering what had been buried in there—who had been buried—I could guess.

  “They can’t have a body in there,” the woman said. “I heard some of them talking. There’s zoning laws.” She seemed delighted about this. She could have opened the door and spoken to me face-to-face without bars between, but she didn’t. “You’re in the house with all the girls? That’s where you are?”

  “It’s a boardinghouse,” I said distractedly. “I rent a room there.” My eyes were intent on the garden. It seemed—and I couldn’t be sure—that they’d lugged some digging equipment inside. Were there really laws that would make them have to suddenly dig a body out of a grave? And what would that do to Catherine? A shudder overtook me. “I’m sorry, but really, I haven’t seen any cats around here.” I said that as if the conversation was closed, but still I hovered and made no move to cross the street. I couldn’t go yet. I’d done this.

  “I’ve lived in this apartment seventy years,” the woman said, raising her voice so I couldn’t ignore her. “Seven-oh. I was a girl. It was my parents’ apartment before me.”

  “That’s nice,” I said, unsure why she was telling me. Ms. Ballantine, speaking with a police officer, noticed me from across the narrow street. She shaded her eyes in my direction. She lifted her arm. Time turned slow, and I felt sure she was about to extend her arm and point, point right at me, and then the officer would turn and he would see me.

  But instead Ms. Ballantine shifted and blocked his view of me.

  The old woman noticed none of this.

“You think I don’t remember,” she was saying.

  I took a few steps away. I was thankful for the cage now, for the barrier.

  “I know you,” she said. “I told you about my Vinny already. Why’re you pretending like I didn’t tell you? You said you would look for him after your acting class. I remember now. You said you would look for my cat, but you didn’t.”

  “I never said that.”

  With great effort, the old woman stood and came as close to the bars as she could manage. She had her hand on her chest, where she wore a gold cross necklace.

  She touched it to her fingers, as if to reassure herself. What kind of monster did she think I was, because I denied talking to her about her missing cat? I couldn’t help it—I laughed.

  “I knew it was you,” she said. “You don’t forget a laugh like that.”

  Ms. Ballantine had drifted away now, and it appeared the police officer was leaving. I waited for the car to pull away before I crossed the street.

  “You give him back!” the old woman called, and I froze in the middle of the street, where I could get run over. I slowly turned around.

  “My cat,” she called. “I know you’ve got him. You bring him here to me.”

  I kept walking.

  She continued calling after me, but her voice faded.

  I was near the garden now. I was prodded forward by the quiet in there, by the green. When I pushed open the gate, it creaked like an animal crying. And when I followed the path to the grave, I saw that the plants were mashed down, crushed by numerous feet. The path led me right to the monument, the headstone, but beneath it was a gaping hole in the dirt. A hole where a coffin would be buried.

  “What are you doing in here?” a man said.

  I bent down and picked up something that had fallen off the headstone—a miniature Eiffel Tower.

  “What’s she doing? She can’t be in here.”

  They led me out, but not before I gleaned what I could: There’d been a complaint about the garden that belonged to Catherine House. This land near a home was not approved for a gravesite.

  All of this would have mattered and possibly caused an incident, and great trouble, if they’d opened up the grave of Catherine de Barra and lifted her century-old skeleton out in its box. If they’d disturbed her for reasons of zoning and taken her away from this house. I could imagine a thunderous darkening over the block. Tree branches whipping in the furious wind. The cat lady across the street maybe needing her cross of protection then, for whatever curses and wishes of destruction might be on the way.

  I could imagine all of that, but there was no need.

  Because there was no body buried inside that grave. We all had been told that Catherine de Barra’s remains were here, marked by that stone. All girls in the house were told this. But if her remains had ever been there, they were somewhere else now. Gone.


  When I entered the house, it was to a hush. The others now knew. Some girls had been watching from the windows, and Ms. Ballantine was making an announcement to a group gathered in the parlor. We would clean traces of intruders from the garden later, she explained. We would fill the hole with dirt. We would place the offered items back on the headstone. All this, even if there was no body. We would go on as we were, because this was our home and would always be, and Catherine deserved this from us.

  Always? The weight of that word hung low. The others whispered, faces close together, furious. No one opened the circle and offered me a space to listen. Some even edged away from me, making sure I couldn’t overhear.

  I was about to slip upstairs to see if I could find Monet when Gretchen stepped into the outer room and marched over to me. “All this is because of you,” she said. “You called the cops on us.” She gripped my wrist as she spoke, and she was stronger than I was. This was what it felt like, to be the one held down.

  I started to say I was sorry, to try to explain, but she wasn’t finished.

  “You and your mother.” She spit out that last word: mother. “It’s because of the two of you. She was the one who was supposed to free Catherine, she was the last tenant, in the last room, she came at the right time, we were all waiting, and then she left and never came back. She’s why none of us can leave now.”

  Gretchen had just told me more than anyone else would. But she was also accusing and insulting my mother. Another girl had come up now, freckles like puncture wounds, eyes twitching. She stared at me, and I wished she would stop. She wore a washed-out dress with old-fashioned buttons climbing up to her throat.

  Gretchen let go of my arm but wasn’t finished. “I told her she was thinking only of herself, but she didn’t listen. She never listened. Just like you don’t listen.”

  She was talking about my mother.

  “What do you even mean?” I said. “You never met my mom.”

  Gretchen snickered, then shook her head. “Linda,” she said, to the girl buttoned to her throat. “Can you believe this girl? What’s the point of her?”

  All of it was nonsense. The mist may as well have escaped the picture and engulfed everyone in the room. I felt the same sense of impossibility and confusion as if it already had.

  Yet all the while, a screw inside me was turning. A tight, boxed-up part of me was coming loose, a crack of light seeping in. What was this place, and how had I been fooled?

  I imagined them ganging up on me on the gold carpet. All of the tenants coming at me, the drop to the floor, the names spit down, the inevitable kicks from all their shoes. Ms. Ballantine in the circle and the stab of her heels.

  I started up the stairs again, and Gretchen called after me.

  “The police were after you, but Ms. B protected you! She wouldn’t even let them up to see your room!”

  I kept going.

  “Something about an art gallery!” Gretchen called. “What did you do? What did you steal?”

  I hurried up the stairs, fast, six flights, three landings, and made a swift turn onto the fourth floor, my fist pounding on the door to Room 10. No one answered, and the knob was stiff, surely locked, but when I jiggled it hard enough, the door just pushed in.

  I entered Monet’s room. There was no one inside, and the window was pushed all the way up, without a screen, obscenely open, so anyone looking could see everything.

  In all the years I’d pictured the room my mother had lived in, and hoped I would one day stand inside, I didn’t think about how oppressively hot it would be. How very small it might be. How dingy. How sad. How the fire escape marred the view.

  How the floorboards creaked, how the bed was so tiny, how there wasn’t room for anything worth having at all. I had the exact replica of this room, one floor up, but my mother’s stories had made hers seem so different, so special.

  Monet wasn’t in the room or on the fire escape.

  This time, I did the climb myself, as she would have. I could have barely told us apart, except she had longer legs. I was feeling outside myself, reckless, the way I felt when I’d been drinking, as if I had nothing to lose, apart from the fact that I kept losing, over and over again, and in whole new ways.

  My own window was wide open, also pushed up as high as it would go, which wasn’t how I’d left it. Usually, when I went out, I kept my window open a crack.

  I slipped in off the fire escape onto my bed.

  My door—the one that led out into the common room, the ordinary door—was swinging. I was positive I’d locked it before I left, because I always locked my door, so the only way in would have been through the window.

  I sensed something had been taken, but I forced myself to be hopeful. I closed my door, locked it, moved the dresser to hide the view, crouched down, and checked behind the radiator. My hand was back there, reaching, worming around. I could feel pointy objects and soft ones, carved items and souvenirs made of shell and gla
ss and stone, all pieces of my collection. There was a moment when I couldn’t find the sock I’d had to use instead of my mother’s blue schmatte, when it seemed that the space contained only air, but then, before I could panic, my fingers found the opal wedged in deep where I’d kept it, still secure.

  I pulled out my arm in relief and dropped flat on my back, on the hardwood floor.

  The rest of my room had her prints all over it. I knew she’d gone searching again, that she’d sifted through the contents of my drawers and my closet and every surface, and yet she hadn’t found it. My hiding spot was too good.

  But, still, something wasn’t right. My head pounded as if a ferocious thing had taken up residence deep inside my bad ear.

  My eyes lifted, slowly, to the opposite wall—it wasn’t bare the way it had been before.

  The painting of my mother was there now. Monet had removed it from where it had been sandwiched between my mattress and box spring, and she’d hung it openly, so I would have to see it, on a leftover nail.

  Fire Escapes

  We didn’t speak of what happened in the French restaurant. Not that night, and not in the days that followed. I was almost embarrassed about all I’d told Monet, how bare I’d stripped myself, all the clumsy, honest bits I’d revealed. It made me wish I had a dark garage to hide in until the shame passed.

  I’d taken to sleeping near the window so I could leave a part of myself dangling out on the fire escape. A forearm. A hunk of hair. My bad ankle, attached to my foot. It was slightly cooler there, where the breeze began, and I was getting used to the height. I could imagine myself as someone else, until I happened to pass a mirror and see who I was. Purple eye and lip, the pair of them apparently a part of me now. Sweat-frizzed hair. Eyes gray today, or green, or maybe blue, depending on the shirt I had on. Partly my mother’s face, but mostly mine.

  My life in the city wasn’t turning into what I’d hoped. The bookstore on the corner denied me a job stocking shelves and ringing up customers, and my cell phone stopped connecting, the account suspended into dead air. In my mind, where I could keep avoiding truth, I denied the inevitable end to my stay in Catherine House. Money was running out. The thirty-first was coming swift and soon.

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