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A room away from the wol.., p.21

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 21


A Room Away From the Wolves

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  “But—” I started.

  She turned and cut me short. “Curfew is a lie,” she said.

  I remembered the legend about Catherine. How the air had her. How the night took her. But how the hard ground never came. The pavement never met her. The night never let her body go, as if it wanted her entirely for itself. That was the story Monet had told me my first morning in the house.

  I shook my head.

  “I’ll make it,” she said. “Come.” It sounded like a promise. She leaned over to see what was down there, but I couldn’t meet her. There wasn’t a railing; there was only a narrow ledge. The air was too boundless and uncontained where she wanted to go.

  She shielded her eyes with her hand and looked down. She still had it on. Surely she hadn’t taken it off since she found where I’d kept it hidden.

  The opal there on her finger. The low light of the rooftop liked its deep darkness, but now I could see the colors swirling inside. Red and gold, blue and green, all tumbled around inside the black stone, moving faster than I’d ever seen before. The opal had come alive. The black was warm and flushed. It showed the universe above and around us, the galaxy of uncountable, unreachable stars. It wanted her to do it; it was telling her it was time.

  She was smiling, but so sadly. Was that pity on her face? The dark was hiding so much of her expression.

  “What’s the first thing you remember about this city?” she said. “Quick. Don’t think too hard. From the day you got here.”

  I wanted to say her, bumping into her in the fork of a double-named road. But I picked something else and pretended it was what came to me first. “The train,” I said. “Going through the tunnels.”

  “Grand Central?” she said. “I remember that, too.”

  It wasn’t what I expected. I’d always imagined her coming here from far away—arriving on a plane that swooped down from the sky, pulling up to the house in a speeding taxi or, better, a glossy black SUV, bare legs sliding out from the back seat. There could have been mystical ways to arrive, too, foggy in origin, lacking in explanation, simply appearing like a dot of color in the night sky. But she’d arrived on a commuter train. Same as me.

  “I hope I get to see you again, Sabina Tremper from nowhere interesting,” she said, softening the blow. “If you make it, if you wake up and you get yourself out, that’s where you’ll find me. Just after midnight by the clock. I’ll be looking for you.”

  “What are you saying?” I started, but it was too late. I’d gotten scared, and she’d seen what I was made of. I’d ruined one more thing.

  She backed up.

  “Wait, what day?” I said. “Midnight when? Tomorrow? Next week?”

  She didn’t answer so mundane a question. She circled, only once.

  “Wait,” I said. “What if you don’t make it?”

  I sensed her right behind me, her breath on the back of my neck for a tense second, her muscles coiled, ready. Then she ran to gain momentum, and all I can say is there wasn’t a way to stop her. It was almost like she flew.

  It was midnight and the light in the air was blue and it was already happening, and I wasn’t a part of it. My hesitation had cost me. I’d held back too long.

  I probably could have told the story a hundred different ways, depending on who was listening, but the truth was this:

  She dangled in the beautiful black for a moment, and I swore her eyes were wide open, and I swore that this was a moment that lasted long enough for me to remember it always, to feel it in my own body, to know it in my bones. The part of the story I didn’t tell any of the other girls, and wouldn’t ever, happened when she lifted her hand.

  My mother once did the very same thing, but her arm was raised for the sun, to try to flag down passing cars. Monet’s arm was curled, her hand in a fist, and I swore it was aimed at me. A pop of light came, blazing and burning a perfect circle in my retinas. I was dizzied and stumbled back, shielding my eyes, and I heard it drop somewhere close to me, somewhere so close, with a ping.

  When I opened my eyes again, there was no girl in the sky anymore. There was no burst of brightness. She’d been a ball of legs and light and amazing stories and perfect secrets, but she wasn’t there anymore. She had disappeared from view.

  The wind carried the smell of burning wood. A siren wailed somewhere across the city for someone else. I pulled myself to my feet. And I made myself start walking. And I did what I knew she wanted, because there wasn’t anything more I could do. I went to the edge, and I looked down to search for her in the street.


  It was only in the hours after, once I was sure she was gone, that I went looking. I searched and searched to see what had dropped from the night, what I suspected she’d thrown to me, but there was nothing on the sticky tarred surface of the rooftop, nothing I could find in the darkness. I had to climb back down the ladder by myself. I had to sit alone in my hot room and wonder if it would forever be this stifling. I was facing the fact that I had missed my chance. I might not ever see Monet, might not ever see my mother again.

  The night was empty, and I’d ruined it for myself. I’d ruined everything. When I saw that she’d successfully cleared the gate, when I saw her stand up, illuminated in the glow of the streetlamps, where I couldn’t reach, when I saw her grab her suitcase and drive off in that taxi, I knew it would take such a long time to get over this.

  I’d never met a better liar, or a girl I admired more.

  I hoped that she might turn the taxicab around and come back for us, help get the rest of us out, ram that gate and knock it over and set us all loose into the streets, where any terrible thing could happen but it would be our choice, our risk, our running feet. I hoped for it all night, but it never came.

  Looking at the Sky

  Monet Mathis made it over the gate easily. I figured she knew this night was coming and always knew she’d make it. Maybe even since the first day I met her and she met me, she knew.

  By Monday morning, she was still gone, but I was unsure if any of it had even happened. All I knew for sure was that I was awake—and she wasn’t in the house anymore. She wasn’t in the room beneath my room, but out there, somewhere, without me. I could have gone with her, but I’d been afraid.

  As soon as the gate was open, I went out into the street to search for the opal ring. I’d been sure for a single moment in all the confusion that she’d tried to toss it to me, but I’d combed the rooftop for anything remotely shiny, anything at all, and all I found were some bottle caps, foil gum wrappers, and one marble, a weathered cat’s-eye that had probably been up there near a hundred years.

  Still in my pajamas, I checked outside in front of the house. The streets had been cleaned and the trash picked up. I noted a shattered crack in the sidewalk that hadn’t been there before. Nothing else marked what had happened only hours ago in the night, what I’d witnessed from up on the rooftop, and what strangers and passersby had witnessed from down in the street. The rules of the world bent to fit Catherine House for one striking moment, and then the world righted itself, and people tried to make sense of what it was on ground. Even I had done that. I was still doing it now.

  Not too far away was the crossing where I first saw Monet, at Waverly and Waverly, one street that became two, or two streets that became one—maps didn’t explain it. It was where I’d stumbled into her, which could have been simple coincidence. Sidewalks filled with too many people on any given day, and you’re bound to run into someone you’ll see again later. That’s all.

  I returned to my room and locked myself in.

  As the sun continued to rise, I remained where I was. There was barely any air in my small room, but I didn’t go out on the fire escape to try to catch a breeze. I sat on the edge of my narrow bed facing my exposed brick wall. Between the bed and the slim desk was that microscopic floor space, identical to the space between her be
d and her desk, enough to lie down lengthwise, skull skimming the wall and toes pointing at the door, where I’d spent some hours listening to her. A cloud of dust rose up as I dropped down to my familiar cool spot on the creaking floorboards. My ear to the modest patch of space between bed and desk, I took in the stillness below, the airlessness, the emptiness she left behind. She really wasn’t there. I closed my eyes. I let my limbs go slack, my weight sink. If she decided to come back, this was where she’d find me.

  Morning turned to afternoon; I didn’t know when. I only knew the floor had turned hot and I didn’t understand anything and I was alone.

  When the door to the room beneath mine banged open—easily, she hadn’t left it locked—I was startled into sitting up. Some girls had gone in to ransack her room, and they were banging around down there, rummaging through her stuff. The noise carried up through the floorboards.

  One of my legs was asleep, all pins and needles from having been on the floor so long. My head felt the same. But I leaned hard on the banister and made it down one flight and to the doorway of Room 10 in time to find a few of them left: Gretchen was at the closet, checking the top shelf. Ana Sofía and Linda were searching Monet’s desk drawer and under her bed.

  They’d been in the room not much more than a minute, but the damage was done. Her bed was stripped, sheets balled up at the bottom. Her dresser drawers were gaping, her hangers scattered across the mattress and floor. But they were too late, and they must have realized. Monet had packed what she wanted already. What was left behind were only the things she didn’t care about anymore.

  Colorful heads of hair were piled on the mattress. Monet had emptied out her room when no one was paying attention, but she’d left her wigs behind. Every last one.

  Linda grabbed a few (the lavender one, a blond one, the peppery-blue) and left.

  Gretchen closed the closet. “Most everything’s gone,” she said to me. “When did she get it all out? I didn’t see her do any of this. Did you?”

  I shook my head.

  Ana Sofía slipped out, and then it was Gretchen and me, the two of us, alone. She towered over me. I could see the taut tendons in her throat.

  “Did she tell you where she was going?”


  Gretchen dropped down on the bed with a thump and hunched her shoulders. Her usual defiant commitment to wearing black—thick black rims around the eyes; black from head to toe—would have been terrifying to her family before people knew what a goth was. She’d scared the twins, she’d said. But now she seemed like a shadow. A sad bra strap hung down her arm, washed-out pink, the worst color of all.

  “But how?” she said in a tiny voice. “How’d she get out?” For the first time, it occurred to me that even Gretchen might have wanted to leave or stay the night somewhere else at one time or another. I didn’t want to ask how long she’d been living here. I didn’t want to know how old the twins were now.

  “I don’t know yet,” I said. I sat at the edge of the bare mattress. How could one girl leap over and stay out, and another get thrown back in? Would any of us ever have a chance like that again?

  “I never trusted her,” Gretchen said, her voice hard again. “I never thought she was really one of us.” She stood to her full height, almost knocking me over. Then she kicked at the desk chair until it toppled against the wall.

  In the commotion, the gold-bound book she always carried and kept close fell out of the long folds of her skirt. It skittered and landed, faceup and wedged open, on the floor between us. I got to it first, so she had to watch as I lifted it up and found a random page. We met eyes. I flipped through some more, scanning the pages at the beginning, the pages at the back. They were blank, every one. Gretchen removed the book from my hands. She lowered her head so her bangs hid her eyes, and left the room.

  Now I reached out to close the door and seal myself in, to take a moment in private. I righted the chair and sat down. If Monet had left something important here, I didn’t want anyone else to find it.

  The girls who lived in this house didn’t really have Monet’s back, not like I did. There was a point at which you threw your lot in with someone. There was a point when you were all in, and there was no scrambling out of it when you got scared, or found morals, or wanted to save your own skin.

  I would tell Monet all of this, if only I could get to her.

  As I sat trying to make sense of what had happened, I heard a sound outside the window. There was the flash of a tail on the windowsill and a meow. A gray cat stepped into the frame and assessed me. When I reached out to gather it in my arms, it snarled and batted me with a jagged, white-furred claw.

  “Hey,” I said, “Vinny, come here.” He hissed and wouldn’t get any closer—I may have been in her window, but he knew I wasn’t her. “Did she forget to feed you?” I asked, though it occurred to me that maybe the food bowl had been left up on the roof with the crumbs of kibble for me to take over. But it didn’t matter—the cat was too fast for me, for anyone. With one leap, he was down on a lower level of fire escape, and then on the fence and then into the narrow alley.

  I was crawling back in when I spotted it. She’d tied a polka-dot scarf to the ladder, one I had a passing memory of seeing tied around her artificial hair. Cupped inside the scarf was a folded postcard, muted colors peeking out.

  Water lilies.

  “Funny,” I said.

  No one was there to agree.

  Monet’s message on the blank side was difficult to decipher in her horrendous handwriting, and it took some squinting and a fair amount of interpretation to make it come to life:

  If you don’t have it back already, check the body.

  She didn’t have to sign her name. I knew.

  The card was crushed in my hand. I knew immediately that she meant the opal, and I knew from those spare sloppily scrawled words that she’d always meant to give it back to me. By the body, she meant Catherine de Barra’s empty grave.

  All of that as impeccably clear as if she had her mouth to my ear.

  But another part came more slowly. The why.

  When I’d peered down on her from the edge of the rooftop, down and down after she defied physics and proved she had another life still to live, she’d been looking up right at me. It was as if she’d expected something, as if she were waiting. As if she were waiting for me.

  I’d never named what I felt for her, because something this amorphous, something this tangled, couldn’t find itself a name. Maybe it was only that I wished I could be like her—so reckless, and at the same time, so sure.

  I had to sit down, fast. The heat was all up in my head. My mouth was so dry, and the tiny room was steaming, with not just my confusion but the first-day-of-August heat. My shirt was damp against my neck. I was having trouble breathing.

  This had been my mother’s room for a short time. Before I came to be, the girl who would become my mother slept inside these four walls, dreaming her dreams. I was beginning to understand I was one of them.

  I rushed out and dove for the bathroom off the fourth-floor common area—it was closer than mine upstairs. I had to climb over a scattering of shoes. A chunky purple heel caught in the bathroom door before I closed it and secured it with the dead bolt.

  One of Monet’s floormates was banging on the door. “This isn’t even your bathroom!” she shouted. “C’mon, you know you’re not supposed to be in there.”

  “I just need some water,” I shouted back.

  She pounded on the door, but I didn’t open it. I let the faucet run and leaned over the sink, letting it cool my arms up to my elbows.

  My mother used to tell me how she’d get into character before an audition, before her big role in that small movie. She’d close herself into a bathroom with a mirror—the smaller the room, the better. She’d lock the door. She’d stare into the glass. And she’d tell herself who she w
as. If she had to scream it, she’d scream. She’d look into her own face, and she’d do so much as shout it at herself until she believed. Eventually, no matter how long it took, she would emerge from the bathroom as that character, that person, an invention that real.

  “But what if the mirror didn’t work?” I’d asked her. “What if you didn’t believe?”

  “Then I’d never be able to come out, would I?” she’d said.

  The mirror showed my face, and what it showed me was something I hadn’t wanted to see for thirty-one days. It seemed like someone had punched me hours before, the bruises and scrapes fresh and searing.

  The girl in the common area continued banging, rattling the door in its frame, but with the dead bolt in place, there was no way to open it. Soon it sounded like she was joined by a second girl. They both needed the bathroom. I opened the door, and they almost tumbled in on top of me.

  “It’s all yours,” I said. Then I went for the stairs.


  Outside, I made it to the gate that led to the garden. The chains had been loosened. Someone had been inside since the excavation. The green ivy poking through the bars in the tall fence bristled with energy, as if someone—something—were still in there.

  I fumbled with the key and swept the yellow police tape aside, letting it drift away in the wind. The gate opened outward, showing the lush green inside. When I closed it, the whole city went quiet.

  I pushed through, all the way to the back, where the dirt was freshly packed near the headstone, and a slab of granite had been placed overtop, as if to make whatever was down there stay down. The offerings—the coins and stones and pieces of glass, the souvenirs and tchotchkes, the carvings and weathered creations—had been returned to where they’d lived all these years, before the city disturbed the ground here. In the shaggy grass, the cherry-tomato plants were trampled, red fruits smashed, nothing edible remaining.

  I orbited the grave, empty but for our pretending, walking around and around, trying to figure out what Monet had meant by her note. Did she nestle it safely under some leaves? Did she dig into the dirt beneath the monument and shove it in as deep as it would go, and should I have brought a shovel?

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