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A room away from the wol.., p.19

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 19

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  When I closed my eyes at night, I could feel myself sinking. The bed turned softer, too yielding, and I drifted lower, until I hit hard ground. Sometimes I woke to the smell of smoke, the crackle of kindling, and I bolted upward, thinking we needed to evacuate, but it was only the faint scent of my memories. That campfire was from another life, almost a different body. Once, I woke with a leaf in my hair, small and summer green, as if from a dream. It must have blown in from off the street somewhere, that’s all.

  If I could, I would have told my mother about Monet. “Have you ever met a girl like that?” I would have asked. Practically a new color of hair every day. Sewn up with secrets, but whole other worlds flashing in her eyes. And then there were her stories. Sometimes she said she was from a one- stoplight town out West where the sky was so enormous you might believe nothing was left on the planet but it. Other times she said she grew up breathing coal mines, or at the craggy edge of the ocean, or that she learned to drive in a city where the streets were carved from cow paths and confused all manner of cars. Some days she was one person, and other days, from a different angle, she was someone else. My mother, an actress, a chameleon, might have been able to figure her out. She would have told me if I could trust her, if she was or had ever been a true friend.

  Toward the end of the month, we gathered for the photograph. Ms. Ballantine told us to meet in the parlor, gold-bottomed and decorated in more sneeze-inducing gold, the mythic Catherine lording over us all. In the minutes before, there was a flurry of commotion at the bathroom mirrors, freshening lipstick and checking nose shine. I felt a part of things in a way that made my heart fizz up, my cheeks go pink against the usual purple. Harper helped with my concealer. Ana Sofía attempted to help with my hair.

  Downstairs, everyone crowded before the fireplace to find a spot. This was where the pictures of the Catherine House girls were always taken. Sit in the middle, they said to me. Let Bina have a chair, they said. Someone told Monet to move to the back because she was tall, and she took the spot behind me, directly beneath the portrait of Catherine, having to stand on her own two legs. Her hair that day was maroon. The others, my housemates, pressed in around me in rows below and above, crammed in close, eyes forward to lock with the lens.

  Ms. Ballantine stood before us with an old camera so heavy she kept it supported with a strap around her thin neck. “Five, four, three . . .” she began.

  I couldn’t keep still. Something was gnawing at me, shadowy-soft.

  “Smile, Bina,” someone hissed beside me—Linda, the tenant with the dark spatter of freckles. She’d been staying here forever, she’d told me, so long she’d forgotten what for. Muriel had been here for quite a while, too—she acted like she didn’t know what year it was beyond the gate. This was a boardinghouse, meant to be temporary, but something about appearing in the photograph with these girls was permanent in a way that made me uneasy, as if once snapped it would feel like living inside that cage of cats on the street.

  Time to smile. I let my mouth open, though my head was pounding and my ears had that hum. Maybe thirty-one days here was enough, though I’d hoped to stay the whole summer. I’d done it. I’d proven I could leave home and be on my own. Wasn’t that enough?

  I couldn’t know what Monet’s face was showing in the picture, because she was behind me, but I know what my face did when the shutter opened and we were captured.

  I showed my teeth and played pretend.

  ━━━━━

  I was coming down the stairs the next day when I spotted them there at the door.

  Two police officers, both men, suited up and small-eyed, pistols bragging from their holsters. They were speaking with Ms. Ballantine. It was an opportunity, a twist of fate I could keep twisting. I considered letting them see me, letting them know I was underage and probably flagged in a database of runaways, so they could sound the alarm and call home. But something wouldn’t let me. I backed up and kept to the top of the landing, concealed by the shadows. I edged an ear and an eye out, attempting to listen and see.

  Ms. Ballantine’s narrow body blocked their way. Her arm stretched across the doorway, her yellow hair catching the light and throwing it in their faces. She may have been slight, but she wasn’t budging an inch. Even if I’d wanted them to find me, she wouldn’t have let them.

  I couldn’t hear what they said—if they asked for me by name, what they knew—but I could imagine. A couple of girls were near the decorative vase, eavesdropping in better range. One of them—June (long, lonely face; never spoke of home)—turned toward the staircase. She pointed up at me and gave a slight nod. Yes. You.

  Message received.

  From where I stood, from what I could decipher, the officers wanted to enter, but Ms. Ballantine kept them outside, in the punishing heat. I may have been the careless girl who called the city’s attention to the garden, which called their attention to me, but I was one of hers and still had her loyalty, even if I wasn’t sure I wanted it. Besides, the officers were men, and Ms. Ballantine had a healthy distrust of men, uniformed or otherwise. They’d never be allowed up to my room to spy the stolen art I now had hanging, openly, frameless, on the otherwise blank wall, thanks to Monet.

  Still, I strained to hear. I realized my father must have sent them after me. He wanted me apprehended, cuffed and charged, jailed and spending my nights on a cold metal bunk. I’d have to tell my mother all about this during my one phone call. Assuming she’d answer.

  In my mind, I’d already spent a decade behind bars and was able to bench 140 pounds when I heard Ms. Ballantine answering them extra-loudly, as if to carry the words up through the foyer and along the staircase to where I lurked.

  There was no tenant here by the name of Sabina Tremper, Ms. Ballantine said. She’d never heard of such a girl. And if they could not provide a search warrant, they should see themselves down the stairs.

  The two cops left soon after, in defeat. The chandelier glass high over the room tinkled, as if with antiauthoritarian glee.

  Once the door was closed, I came safely down and watched them through the windows. I saw them exit the iron gate from my perch behind the heavy velvet curtains, deep-breathing in the mildew, wondering if they’d turn around.

  If they did and happened to see me, would I stay put so they could have an unobstructed view of my face? Would I tell them my name? What would I do?

  Ms. Ballantine was suddenly behind me, an ice-cold hand on my shoulder. Her jewelry had such deliberate weight. “There’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “Getting the proper search warrant for this house—if they do—will take days. And when they come back, I’ll tell them the same thing I told them today.” She smirked.

  I believed it. To any parent or friend or the NYPD, she would lie and deflect to keep us here, safe. Maybe my father did bang on the front gate and yell for my mother to come out eighteen years ago. Maybe Ms. Ballantine told him there was no tenant here by the name of Dawn Tremper, even if she was there, hiding behind these same curtains that probably hadn’t been washed since that day.

  June eyed me, as did the girl with her, as did another girl from the chaise.

  I watched Ms. Ballantine take the stairs up, finished with our discarded visitors, to her room on the second floor. I followed and soon was in a hallway separate from the tenants’ quarters, where the walls turned more decorative, wallpapered and not so dingy, with colorful glass wall sconces instead of overhead fixtures, nice moldings, smooth and clean. If other staff members were housed here, I never saw any. Ms. Ballantine’s room was at the end of the hallway, and the door was open. A cavernous space stretched toward a bank of windows. She had four, all to herself. Brocade curtains, deep mauve, hung to the floor, and a four-poster bed, high up on oiled oak legs, marked the center of the room. Bright, abundant light cast in from the garden. But most noticeable was the way the temperature dropped as I drifted in the open doorway. She had air-cond
itioning.

  “Miss Tremper,” she said.

  Not a question, and not a command to leave. The cool air was so refreshing that I stood in its reach, letting it touch me.

  “Didn’t you hear me tell you all is well, and it’s very likely they won’t return?”

  Part of me wanted to apologize. For the police visit, for the desecration of the grave, even though it wasn’t a grave, for being trouble, as I so often was. But something was bothering me. Something was clicking inside my head.

  “I usually don’t allow the tenants in here,” she said. “We’ve had issues with thievery.”

  Someone who liked a small, significant object to hold in her hand, to worry it smooth in her palm, to hold it fisted under her pillow, to stow it away in the hollow behind her radiator, would know from a quick casing of the room where the best collectibles would be found. In this particular room, the vanity. A gold satin jewelry box on top.

  “Yes,” Ms. Ballantine said. “That was our Catherine’s.” She self-consciously stroked the bracelets on her bony wrists, her rings. She saw my eyes drift to a rocking chair by the window, to its blue satin cushion. The only blue in the room. “And, yes, that as well. In fact, all of this was. The furniture, the tapestries, some of the items in the chest and in the closet . . . I’ve kept it intact, as she would have wanted. She appreciates it, I know. It helps make all of this easier.”

  She was living in a dead person’s room. How old was Ms. Ballantine? How long had she been caretaker of this house? A chill crept up my arms and swirled around me.

  “What did you come here to ask?” she said.

  I swallowed. “I was thinking about my lease . . .”

  Her face went oddly blank.

  “I only paid through the thirty-first,” I reminded her, though if she didn’t remember when my lease was up, maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it. “That’s Sunday,” I added. I wanted to punch myself, but it was done.

  “Yes,” she echoed. “Sunday.”

  “The thing is, I don’t have enough for next month.” Truth: I had a handful of dollars above zero, plus some change. I had no extra beyond that, nothing saved. Besides, if someone had called to hire me for a job, they couldn’t have reached me once my cell phone got shut off. “And so I think it’s time . . . I guess . . . for me to go home.”

  How difficult it was for me to say that, but once it was in the air, spoken aloud in this grand room, I turned clearer and more conscious. Ready.

  Only, Ms. Ballantine wasn’t responding. She was watching me intently, taking her time.

  I started to add something, but she stopped me.

  “Miss Tremper, I need to tell you: This conversation is completely unnecessary. And a little troublesome.” She turned to a corner of her room, there where the rocking chair stood. She gave a quick nod to the chair, as if someone in it had offered a suggestion. “Miss Tremper, the dates on the rental agreements are a formality. You weren’t clear on this?”

  I shook my head.

  “This keeps happening,” she said. “I’m not sure why the confusion.”

  None of it made sense. How did she expect me to get the money for another month? Was she saying I could stay for free? She had to be. Days ago, I might have been relieved. I wasn’t anymore.

  “Now, if that’s all . . .” she said, waving me toward the door.

  I could have left then. I almost did, was turning for the door and everything, when the chill cycloned around me. The question came right out from nowhere.

  “Do you remember my mom’s accident?”

  Her neck cracked. It made a brittle sound. “I was waiting for you to ask. I thought it would be long before today.”

  “Oh. I guess I didn’t know if you’d tell me.”

  Her face darkened. “If you’re here to confront me about why we didn’t go to the hospital, why we left her out there . . . if that’s why you’re here, I want you to know we felt bad about it, but there was nothing we could do. Not for her. Not anymore.”

  “Nothing you could do?”

  “It was after curfew,” she said. “And it was a far fall.” She paused. “Such a tragedy she broke her leg.”

  So that was it? How my mother’s story in the city ended? I wanted to sit down with this news. The daring, delicious magic of her time in the city was fizzling.

  “She didn’t come back after,” Ms. Ballantine said. “What we heard, and I believe it’s genuine, is that when she was at the hospital she discovered she was having you.”

  The math added up—if she’d left my father and spent two exhilarating months here in this house, they could have been the months she was pregnant. Which meant I was here, once before, when she was.

  “I expected you to ask,” Ms. Ballantine said. “In fact, I brought it up from storage for you.” She went to the closet and returned with a cardboard box, taped on top. Marked on the outside was the name Dawn Tremper, the dates she was here, the year.

  I must have made a sound as I took it in my arms. I was trying so hard not to.

  “Your mother’s things. Her papers, her souvenirs. She had a collection of photos of herself, glossies, the same picture, dozens of them.”

  “Her headshots. For when she went on auditions.”

  She sniffed. “Your mother paid on time. She met curfew. There were so few infractions, until that night. Our problem was the screaming.”

  “The what?”

  “For her audition. That was the one role she did get, as I remember. Dozens of auditions, and one role.”

  The movie was a slasher film, a black-and-white short. In it, my mother said she screamed so much she lost her voice. This box contained that experience and more. The sound of her. Her plans. Her budding dreams. Yet the box wasn’t heavy at all. So much hope, sitting in storage all those years, and it hardly weighed a thing.

  There was a creak of floorboards in the hallway, and we both turned at the same time to see who’d come, but it was no one and nothing. Empty doorway, empty hall.

  When I swiveled back, Ms. Ballantine’s face had changed. There was a different light in her eyes. “Is she here?” she breathed. “Is she in the room with us right now?” Her voice was high and hopeful, like a little girl’s.

  I turned again, but no one was there.

  Ms. Ballantine stepped nearer to me. There was plush carpet under her black heels, nothing threadbare, not in this room.

  “I’ve never seen her outside of that picture,” she confessed. “Not in all these years. But I sense her. I feel her near me. Sometimes I think I hear her voice”—she tapped her temple—“in here.”

  She was ramrod straight, alerted to any movement at the doorway, but all it showed was the hallway floor and the hallway wall. Both were brightly lit, not a shadow.

  “Is she angry?” Her eyes blinking fast. A hitch of fear in her voice.

  “I . . .”

  “She reached out to you,” Ms. Ballantine said. “She woke when you arrived. It’s you. As it was your mother before you. Please, what do you see?” She’d believe anything I told her.

  As I contemplated the endless cruelties I might inflict with the power she’d granted me, I happened to glance to the other wall.

  Shadows aren’t solid or built of hard lines, but in this one a texture of skin could be made out. Ridged with fur, as if she’d been growing mold for more than a hundred years.

  A sick, cold feeling pulled from inside my own body, telling me we had a connection—that thing in the rocking chair and me.

  I started backing away, careful to keep her in my sight.

  We shared something. I didn’t want to know what, couldn’t let myself see what. Except she smelled like my last night in the woods had smelled, like fresh, sour-wet dirt when my face was mashed into it and I didn’t think I had the strength to get up. She fell a long way, and they say she never
landed, but I can imagine what she might have found at the bottom if she had. I knew what it tasted like. The grit on my tongue.

  Ms. Ballantine had been right about us not being alone in the room, but her sense of direction was off. She was standing in the doorway, far across the room, to be close to what she thought was Catherine. All the while, the rocking chair by the window rocked back and forth, back and forth, silently moving. The shadow in it swallowed the garden light.

  There was a thing people used to say to me, at home: You look so much like your mother. Catherine didn’t say it out loud—she couldn’t without a mouth, could she? But she was thinking it again. She did whenever she saw me. Her thought wormed its way into my ear.

  “I have to go,” I told Ms. Ballantine, rushing for the door. “I have to get this box upstairs.” I took off, pushing past the cold spot in the room. It was only an ordinary vent in the wall, blasting out cooled air for the living, and I was still able to feel it.

  ━━━━━

  I was on the stairs. I had my mother’s box, still sealed, at my feet and the group portrait containing my mother close up to my nose. I’d wiped the dusty glass as clean as I could with the hem of my shirt, but it still wasn’t clear enough or close enough to see her true expression in the frame.

  I registered Monet behind me but didn’t turn to greet her.

  “Where have you been?” she said, at my back.

  “Right here,” I said. “Around.”

  She hovered. I was so aware of her proximity, her bare arms, her long legs, the way she slipped off her shoe and crunched her naked purple-painted toes to the floorboards, the way her lungs took in air as she breathed. Somehow, knowing she was there calmed and centered me after what I’d witnessed in the rocking chair. Even my mother behind glass hadn’t done that.

 
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