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A room away from the wol.., p.20

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 20

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  Finally I tore my eyes away and turned. She was a redhead today.

  “You okay?” she said. I said I was. “You sure?” She grabbed my hand, but I didn’t know what she was really doing until she shook it, as if we were two gentlemen meeting during a stroll on an old-time cobblestone street. Her smile was so smooth. But there was nothing on my hand for her to take.

  “If you’re still looking for it, it’s not on me,” I said.

  “Whatever do you mean? Looking for what?”

  She knew what I meant, and I knew she knew, and yet we kept the words off our lips.

  “You’re keeping secrets,” she said. No judgment, simply an observation.

  “You told me to on the day we met,” I shot back.

  She nodded. “That I did.”

  It made me think how she’d been completely unapologetic about leaving me with the bill at the restaurant—in fact, she never brought it up. After our lunch alone together in the dark quiet of the low-ceilinged space, tucked away under the street, a dot of chocolate from a croissant melting at the corner of her mouth, after all the secrets I’d given her and not one in return, after all that, she wouldn’t be real with me.

  “I know you’ve been in my room,” I said. “Don’t deny it.”

  “When? How? I’m just coming upstairs now.”

  “The fire escape. You crawled in my window, you were looking for my hiding spot, but you didn’t find it . . .”

  Once I said this out loud—the slip of mentioning the hiding spot, acknowledging that in fact I did have one, and it was inside my room, still to be discovered—I shut myself up.

  Her eyes had come alive, and that should have concerned me, but something else caught my attention. As it did, a chill started creeping up from my ankles.

  A crease of concern in Monet’s forehead. Her voice so loud. “Are you really all right, Bina? Are you having one of those episodes again? You know you don’t look so hot, right? I think you need to sit down.”

  An episode. The last person who’d said that to me was Ms. Ballantine herself, my first afternoon in the dusty coffin of her office. And my head did hurt, but it was an ache I was getting used to, an uncomfortable hum in the background, always with me, more so when I slept.

  This wasn’t anything to do with that.

  It was my mother. My young mother captured in the frame of the group portrait. She’d changed, the same way the portrait downstairs liked to change. Now, from out of nowhere, she wore a fierce, urgent stare aimed out at the viewer—me. She stood in the topmost row, directly under the frame containing Catherine de Barra, packed in tight among the other girls, with her mouth gaping as if to say something important, her arms caught in a frantic wave.

  She was shouting something at the camera. Waving at me. Warning me.

  I swore she hadn’t been doing that before.

  I went up close to it. “Mom?” The image became blurrier the closer I got. I tore it off the wall, but her figure clouded, a textured series of dots up close, unidentifiable as anything other than a field of black and white and gray.

  Monet was peering around wildly. The stairwell twisted above and below us, with shadows leaking from the walls, but no one else was there to witness this. I dropped the frame on the floor—maybe it shattered, I don’t know—picked up the box instead, and tore off upstairs. I heard her calling after me and her footfalls on the stairs behind me, but I was inside my room with the dead bolt turned, sitting on the floor with my back against the door, before she could get through. I was always the one curious about her, wanting to follow and eavesdrop, to soak in, to understand.

  Now she was the one chasing after me.

  ━━━━━

  She went away after a while. She left me in peace. So I got up off the floor and told myself it was time.

  What my mother must have wanted was for me to open the box. I had the weight of everything she had to say in my arms, all the answers.

  Except at first I didn’t understand. Inside the ordinary brown box was another: a shoebox large enough for a pair of knee-high boots, though it contained no boots. There were no headshots, either. Instead, I found the very things I’d been admiring all my life, the items pinned on the bulletin board over my mother’s dresser at home. Somehow they were here.

  I spread them out all over the floor of my room. The photographs weren’t the kind she would have used for auditions. They were candid, soft-focus, a carnival of color. Her hair in different shades and lengths, her face forming different smiles, some sweet and small, some midlaugh, with a view of her tonsils. I’d seen these pictures already—but now I circled them in a new light, trying to understand. Her arms slung around the shoulders of girls who were so familiar, mugging with them on a fire escape, posing with a wriggling gray-striped cat in her arms.

  I held up the last photo, trying to get a closer view of the cat. White belly. White mittens. The cat was identical to the one on the old lady’s flyer.

  There was also her collection of ticket stubs from clubs, movies, plays. I knew every story. At the bottom of the box, a four-leaf clover preserved in a tiny plastic baggie. I remembered how she told me she found this lucky four-leaf clover in Central Park. She’d been so mystified at having come across one in her lifetime, spotted as if by magic in the giant expanse of green grass. Now it was magic, or something much worse, that transported it here.

  Every time I tried to invent a solid explanation in my head, that same creeping chill came over my body, a high-pitched notion from toes to fingers to ears to the top of the head telling me no.

  No.

  There was a rustling sound on the fire escape—not a mourning dove that had made a nest, not wind, but something more shadowy, and deliberate. But I couldn’t care about it. My emotions got the best of me, and I couldn’t stand to have all these impossible things in front of me anymore and to be forced to connect the dots. I shoved my dresser aside and went for the hole, squeezing as much of my body in the slim space behind the radiator to shove the old Dawn inside, where I couldn’t see what I’d been avoiding. She’d been trying to follow Catherine’s footsteps in escaping, and she had, she’d made it. She’d been brave all along, and for some reason she never wanted me here.

  When I tunneled my hand in, it felt like there might be another hand reaching from way back in her top dresser drawer off Blue Mountain Road, all the way down here, for me.

  ━━━━━

  It was dark, night already, when I made it out to the street. Ms. Ballantine’s office was locked, so I couldn’t use the landline in there, and I didn’t want to ask one of the others if I could borrow her phone.

  I didn’t expect it would be easy to find a pay phone. But a few turns away, there was one on a corner, an ancient, stickered, sticky contraption shielded from weather in a silver booth. I lifted the receiver and miraculously heard a dial tone. There was a slot to put actual coins in, and it said local calls were twenty-five cents, a quarter each, which was how much they were when my mother lived here.

  But my call wasn’t local. To be safe, I shoved all four of the quarters I had into the machine, punched in the digits, then let it ring.

  My mother never answered a call from an unfamiliar number on her cell phone, but I thought someone in the house might answer the line hooked up in the yellow kitchen. I was right. Daniella—the one least likely to hang up—was the one who said hello. I’d gotten lucky.

  “Let me talk to my mom,” I told her. “Give her the phone.”

  There was some scrambling on the other end as she realized—that I was calling from this fuzzy, unknown number, that it was me, really me. So much static.

  When she came back on the line, her voice was so serious, and it was still her, not my mother. “How are you calling?” she said. “I don’t understand.”

  “I’m on a pay phone.”

  “Oh my god,” s
he said. “Char, come here. She says she’s Bina. Calling from . . . I don’t even know where. She wants to talk to Mom.”

  “Don’t give Mom the phone, you freak.”

  “Hello?” I said.

  I heard Charlotte in the background. “If it’s really her, tell her to go away.”

  “I can’t just tell her that.”

  “Tell her to go away and stay away forever.”

  Daniella returned. She hesitated and said it in a mouse voice, but she said it. “Stay away,” she said, through a haze of static. “Forever.”

  She hung up. I had no more quarters, but the static kept hissing.

  I’d lost track of time. It was a weeknight, which meant an early curfew, and I should have been inside, in my room, not out here, aching, on the street. I should have—

  “Miss,” someone said. “Do you need help?”

  No one had ever taken much notice of me on the street before, not enough to offer to help me. This wasn’t what the city was supposed to be like. It wasn’t what my mother told me.

  I pushed past them—a woman in black, another two women in black; everyone wore black here like they hoped the night would make them disappear. Then it did for a moment. Then I was alone. I wasn’t myself. Dizzy by a lamppost. Needing to catch my balance. Sitting with my feet in a sewer grate on the curb. I couldn’t remember which way Catherine House was, which turns I’d taken, which corners, which crosswalks, how many stop signs, what I was doing, where I put my keys.

  “Hey, girl, can I call someone for you?” A manicured hand was holding a bejeweled phone right in my face. I wanted to grab the phone and run, outright snatch it like a thief and go flying, but I also needed to lie down on the sidewalk, because my ankle was aching, wouldn’t work anymore, my legs wouldn’t either, and all I could see was through a pinhole in my one good eye.

  A curtain of darkness drew itself closed around me, and then, with the sound of a train coming, it all went white like a blank wall in a bare room.

  ━━━━━

  I burst through, falling backward. Someone had me by the arms, holding my weight, and then let me go so I was crumpled on the small patch of concrete on the other side of the gate. This was the familiar front space of Catherine House, a city yard without any grass, and I was inside it somehow, the hulking iron gate shielding me from the street.

  Some of the others had gathered around me. Gretchen. Lacey. Anjali. More.

  Their voices filtered down.

  “She tried to stay out.”

  “She learned her lesson.”

  “Leave her alone.” It was Anjali, bending over me, eyes fierce. “You shouldn’t have done that,” she said to me.

  “Where am I?” I asked.

  “Home,” she said quietly. “Where you belong.”

  Now that I was safe inside the locked gate and whatever commotion I’d caused was over, the other girls lost interest and started up the stoop. There wasn’t really anywhere for me to go—up against the iron fence to hold the bars and feel the wind coursing through, or up the stairs with them, behind the sleek black door and behind the curtains, inside. I would, but not yet.

  In time I noticed I was alone out there but for one set of feet.

  Purple-painted toes.

  One foot nudged me, gently, not to hurt, and then the long legs bent and the face leaned in so close. Her hair was fire tonight, every shade of flame.

  “I’m leaving Sunday night,” she said. She paused. The city screamed all around us, and I wasn’t allowed back into it; I’d have to wait for morning. “Maybe you could come with me.”

  I tried to read her face. My eyesight was coming clear again, both eyes working now that I was behind the gate. “How?” I asked.

  She scratched her nose. As she did, I saw it. The opal set on the simple silver band. She wore it facing out so it made a dancing pattern all over her hand. It fit her so perfectly, but appearances didn’t matter. Intentions did. Purpose.

  The rustling on the fire escape had been her. I hadn’t been careful enough when I went for the hiding spot. I hadn’t been thinking, and as soon as I’d left the house she found it and made it hers. There was some small part of me, still kicking, still thinking the link to my mother mattered, that ached to grab her arm before she knew what was coming and wrestle it out of her hand. But I didn’t have the strength to confront her, and besides . . . it looked so right where it was. A person like me shouldn’t be allowed to have something like that. I’d ruin it.

  “Your mom knew the secret,” she said. “I don’t know how she found out. But I’m going to try. My lease is up Sunday. Isn’t yours?” Monday was the first of August, a month I never thought I’d be allowed to have in this house. Now I saw I couldn’t escape. My mother was trying to tell me that. The other girls had tried to tell me that. And Monet knew it all along.

  I reached up for her hand, but only so I could get on my feet and make it up the front stoop.

  Maybe it was the opal twinkling on her finger. Maybe it was actually believing something she’d told me for the first time.

  “Meet me on the roof right before midnight,” she said. “Sunday.”

  She started climbing the stoop before I could answer, yes or no, or did it have to be the roof, and why and how, and are you sure I can come with you? I didn’t ask her, but it wouldn’t have mattered. In the month I’d known her, Monet Mathis had shown me how much she loved avoiding the truth. If I wanted to trust her, I’d have to connect the dots and bridge the pieces myself.

  I followed her inside and closed the door.

  The Edge

  Sunday night, the last night of July, I braved the ladder at the topmost level of the fire escape and climbed up to the roof. I came empty-handed, alone, and not entirely sure what to make of all this. But I had to come.

  The rooftop was smaller than I expected, the bottom sticky and smudged, like flypaper at my feet. The air and everything around me was dim, a murky warmth that was golden in some places but mostly gray, and the view was of a sweep of lights, outlines of rooftops stretching into the distance, uncountable. Then there was the constant hum, coming from boxy structures housed on roofs and buildings nearby, from all around us, above and below. I didn’t go close enough to the edge to look down—I couldn’t—but I knew the street was on one side and the private garden on another. A crack of darkness showed the thin vertical space between buildings, and I kept my distance.

  Monet appeared from behind a chimney.

  “You’re here,” she said. She seemed surprised, which made me feel small. Then she leaped over and took me by the hand to show me her private area and her own personal vista of the city, and a thumping started in my chest. She’d asked me to leave with her. I almost, in that moment, believed she knew a way out and was about to show me.

  On the tar-covered expanse, Monet had set up a lawn chair, a crate on which to rest her feet, and a gold-velvet couch pillow borrowed from the parlor furniture downstairs. Scattered on a low wall were a toy-army pair of binoculars, old snack wrappers, and a few grimy green goblets from the dining room. She’d spent lots of time here. On the roof below the wall was a bowl with cat food in it: dry kibble.

  There wasn’t another chair for me, so we stood in her den and peered out. No other human beings could be seen on rooftops in any direction, and for a moment it seemed we had come to a forgotten part of New York and had the city all to ourselves.

  “Is this what you wanted to show me?” I finally asked. If we were planning our escape from up here, I wondered if it might involve a rescue from a helicopter, her long-lost spy of a mother at the controls, reaching our arms up into whipping wind. I wondered if it involved a story she had yet to tell me, one featuring a walk across a tightrope between buildings or scaling down the side of the garden wall with mountain gear, carefully creeping past Ms. Ballantine’s wide wall of windows. I was hopefu
l, and open to anything, but she didn’t offer a story yet.

  “Yeah,” was all she said. “Everyone’s always asking where I go at night. Where else could I go? You know what happens after curfew.”

  I did know—and I didn’t. There was a blank spot in my memory over how I got back that night. I was at the curb near the phone booth, and then I was on our side of the gate. Next I checked, the lock was secured, the chain intact, and all I knew was there was no way back through it.

  “But what about my first night? Where’d you go then?”

  “I tried to stay out,” she said. “But I couldn’t make it past the garden.”

  A warm feeling came over me: She’d let me in on something. She’d told me a true secret.

  “I just thought you should hear it from me before I go,” she said.

  Before I go. Hadn’t she just admitted it was impossible to leave Catherine House?

  She walked away from me and sat in her lawn chair. She had her seat aimed toward the dense blocks of Midtown, where the Empire State Building glowed white that night amid the other tall towers. A chimney top protruded behind her; she could tilt back in her chair and not fall, and the spires and less romantic things, like water tanks and bulbous knots of electrical wires from other surrounding rooftops, faded into the low light.

  She seemed to be waiting for something—but what? Was it me?

  Her eyes could have been any color in the night—it was too dim to tell. She had her ordinary hair showing, nothing different to disguise herself with tonight. My mother might have been on this very rooftop when she’d had her accident, and she never returned after. She never spoke of what happened, not even to me. That was when I knew. It was happening again.

  “It’s almost midnight,” she said. “That’s when I have to do it. Don’t look at me like that. I know I’ll make it.” She was crossing to the far edge of the building. It was where we saw the blue light we all told ourselves was Catherine de Barra. She stepped toward it with such determination. It made my knees feel loose, my stomach shake.

 
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