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A room away from the wol.., p.22

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 22

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  But when? I’d witnessed almost every movement she’d made between the rooftop and the taxi, apart from when she disappeared. There hadn’t been time to go to the garden and hide it, for me or for herself.

  It occurred to me that I only thought I knew her. Only thought I had ahold of what went tumbling through her mind, her outlandish plans, her best intentions. I didn’t know the girl, or anything substantial about her. I hardly even knew myself.

  That was when I spotted it.

  There on the top of the headstone, where I swore I’d checked already, a gleaming spot of all imaginable colors in a bed of bright black called to me. There it was, like an illusion.

  It had come loose from the setting—the silver band was separate, and bent, as if it had fallen a long way and gotten crushed in the process. But the opal was there, almost the way I remembered it. A crack now showed deep in its center, with a small chip apparent at the surface. Otherwise it was intact. And solid enough to take in my hand.

  I closed it up in my fist just to squeeze it, and then let it sit on my open palm and catch the light of the garden.

  The opal had the dark multicolored sheen I remembered, dancing with possibility. It wasn’t all black; that was the magic of it. It was blue, like a sapphire, and red, like a ruby. It was green, like an emerald. It was purple, like an amethyst. Orange, like fire. It was dangerous to be so many things at once.

  Maybe, before it was a piece of jewelry, it simply came up out of the ground like this, otherworldly and ominous, beautiful and brutal, but most of all mysterious, like a life unlived. I still didn’t know how my mother had gotten hold of it eighteen years ago. When I’d asked if a boyfriend had given it to her, and if that boyfriend had been my father, she had laughed and said, “Oh no, something this important would never come from a boyfriend. You could only get something like this for yourself.”

  She’d said it saved her life. Now, I considered, it might have had a hand in saving Monet’s.

  And Monet had made sure it found its way back to me.

  ━━━━━

  When I reentered the house, there was a heated gathering downstairs. My first reaction was to hang back, but then I saw what had their attention. It wasn’t me. No one said hello or seemed to notice I’d gone outside. No one asked if I’d been trying to find her. Monet’s name didn’t even come up.

  The mob of girls was in the parlor, all turned toward the fireplace, talking over one another, craning their necks and shoving, trying to push one another aside to see for themselves. Ms. Ballantine was among them, crowded up close to the front, able to touch the portrait with her bare hands, though she didn’t, as if she would mar it with fingerprints.

  I couldn’t see with them all in the way, but I could feel the way the air in the room had changed. It was thinner. My breath was shallower in my lungs.

  I coughed, and Anjali turned to me. She was at the back of the crowd, wringing her hands. She spoke in a muted voice. “I just want to go home,” she said.

  I pushed past Gretchen, tall enough to block most anyone behind her from seeing what was happening on the wall. Tears streaked down her face.

  Near her some other girls, Lacey and Ana Sofía and more, were shaking.

  Harper was at Ms. Ballantine’s shoulder, gripping the spindly bones of her arm. “Who did this?” Harper was saying. Ms. Ballantine didn’t even have her voice to chime in. Harper whipped around, facing us all, and the energy in her eyes was disturbed, the tendons in her neck grotesque. “Who. Did. This.”

  Once Harper moved, accusing everyone around her, she created an opening, and it was then that I could fully see. The black-and-white photograph was in place in its frame on the wall, but nothing was moving behind glass.

  The chair was empty.

  The photograph had always been centered around that chair—young Catherine de Barra posed in it, hands turned into a knot on her lap, face aimed at the camera and shellacked in a silver haze. She was always observing and keeping track. Her eyes—solid as midnight—followed us wherever we went in the room, until we were out of reach, outside the perimeter or up the stairs.

  Yet, now, no one was looking. No one was in the chair.

  That was the first thing. The second was the crack in the glass frame.

  I rushed for it. I pushed through. Harper jumped aside, and even Ms. Ballantine let me get close, her bony shoulder pressed into mine. I got as near as I could. I needed to be sure. I even had to feel it with my fingers, get my hands on it, so I’d know it all the way through. In truth I should have known already, as soon as I saw what happened to the opal.

  The crack in the glass was the same shape as what I’d seen worn deep into the center of the opal. And there, in the place where her face had been, the glass was chipped. The crack shot outward from there.

  Catherine de Barra was no longer posed inside her own photograph. She wasn’t in the picture, and she wasn’t a shifting shadow in any corners of the room. She wasn’t shrinking back behind the long drapes. She wasn’t stretched out on gold-velvet furniture, flickering in our eye line, then gone. She wasn’t assembling and disassembling in particles of dust. She, like Monet, had abandoned us to our own devices, turned her back on us all.

  “She’s gone, isn’t she?” Lacey asked.

  She was.

  Ms. Ballantine went for the closest piece of furniture—a footstool, gold and no longer grand—and dropped her weight onto it. Her head was in her hands, and I saw the white of her scalp and the gray roots growing out behind the faded yellow dye. Her fingers seemed so much bonier now, her skin almost translucent.

  She looked so old. If she’d been around when this place first became a boardinghouse, as I suspected, she would be far older than a century. Which was impossible, of course.

  “What are we going to do?” Harper said.

  I kept to the edge of the crowd now, studying them all and seeing how quickly it had fallen apart. Everything was crumbling, and Ms. Ballantine was a shadow of herself. Had Monet done all of this, even let Catherine loose? Or did I have something to do with it, since I was the one who’d found the opal in the first place? Did I ruin one more thing? Yet here I was, my feet planted on the gold carpet, threadbare in more spots than I’d wanted to see, holding fast.

  With heavy footsteps, the girls separated, some edging to other parts of the parlor, some drifting to the communal fridge to forage, some making their way upstairs, to their rooms. No one knew how living here would be different tomorrow, and none could put it to words. All we knew was that we were still here.

  I, too, ended up in my room. I tried to close off all thoughts of Monet. She wanted me to meet her at midnight, but I didn’t know how I’d get out—if I ever would. The cracks between the floorboards were soundless and smelled of dust and wood. The fire escape was empty and so quiet.

  There was something left unanswered. It had been there above my head all these weeks. I tipped my mattress over, stood it and the box spring up against the other wall. I shifted the dresser aside. The small door in the wall was never locked to me, and opened as easily as ever. The lightbulb clicked on. The stairs barely groaned under my feet, the brick casing I climbed through as narrow as before but holding me in place, making me feel safe.

  At the top, where the bricks were stacked and the exit to the rooftop sealed off, I pressed my cheek to the rough surface. Up at the top of the passage, it was all darkness, but on the other side of this wall, on the roof, I knew there had to be a door.

  ━━━━━

  The woods at home hold a certain scent that’s sharper and fresher than anything that grows in the city. Pine needles and tree bark, the running water of the brook that stretches through the forest, crisscrossed by highway and fallen trees. It seeps into your skin, especially if you’ve spent a whole night deep inside, where the tree covering is thick, the ground damp, and every turn or attempt to get o
ut a trick meant to keep you circling.

  I am back here again, in the woods the night of the party. I’ve never left.

  The dark drops forward at my feet, and I am at the edge, not sure if I should take a step. I’m right here, poised at this edge, at the moment that changes everything. The wind catches, and tangles through my hair. Pain buckles my knees, and I need something to hold on to, but there is no railing here. There are no lights here—no windows, no ledges to catch my feet, no strangers to crowd around me on the sidewalk and find my body.

  A sound from behind me—the crack of a branch, a howl of wind that to my mind sounds like it might be coming from an animal or, worse, a girl.

  With my last burst of energy, I start to run, and then it happens. When I fall, it feels like a mile between me and anything else. Maybe it is. I start kicking, but that only speeds things up.

  The sight of all the stars doesn’t make a difference. They streak past, and I can’t hold on.

  Then I’m at the bottom. My ears are ringing. I’m holding my phone, and the light in the forest is pale blue, an otherworldly glow. On its face is another face: my mother’s. She’s calling me. She’s calling me, she’s been calling me. I try to pick up, and I hear her shouting my name over and over into what sounds like a highway full of rushing wind.

  When the phone goes dark, it takes my sight with it, and I lie there, at the bottom of the ravine, with the blue light at the edge of my eye line gone and not coming back.

  A sound close to my ears rattles me. It’s heavy, and choking.

  It’s me. It’s the sound of my own breathing, slower and more ragged as the night goes on.

  ━━━━━

  Silence sifts into my ears and makes its way deep into my head. It rustles like leaves, and then it cracks.

  I’m still here.

  Light blares, and my eyes blink open, trying to adjust. I’m warm now, though not much of me can move.

  I see a pair of brown work boots squared before me. They crunch branches underneath as they edge closer, and that’s how I understand what that is. The cracking sound. Those are the dead arms of trees.

  The light now is far too bright, until it separates into many lights. The face is the only thing that blots out the sun.

  The boots stay put, but the face turns away. “I found her,” a deep voice shouts.

  The sound of others coming closer, feet crunching through brush. The sight of wild coils of weeds high up above, as if I’m far away from anything green. Whistles blow, piercing the air as if to communicate with one another, which causes my ears to ring. I’m unable to turn my head or close my eyes or open them or move any part of me or make any sound. I’m unable. Even if I try, I can’t do it. I’m a part of the dirt on the ground. A whistle is the last thing I hear.

  ━━━━━

  “I found her,” a panicked voice said. Light was casting down at me, circling me and shocking me, and I was putting my arms up to cover my face. Anjali was there, trying to get me to stand up and come out.

  I wasn’t at the top of the stairs anymore, but somehow down at the bottom. When I scrabbled out of Anjali’s grasp and craned around to even see the stairs, to see how dark they were around the bend, there were none. No stairs. The small white door in my wall was open, but to a closet. I was inside a low-ceilinged compartment in the wall that didn’t lead up, or out, or anywhere.

  “What were you doing?” Anjali asked.

  Lacey drifted in the doorway, acting concerned. “You were making noises.”

  “Weird crying, howling noises,” Anjali added.

  “We thought you had an animal in your room,” Lacey said.

  They watched me for a long time, both wary, though they helped me close the unnecessary door and set my bed to rights. They put the dresser back where it was, and picked up my desk chair, which had fallen.

  They seemed resigned to our lives here, resigned to another night inside, and when I said I didn’t want to join them for dinner, because I couldn’t afford the money they were all pooling for takeout, they let me be.

  ━━━━━

  I didn’t want to come out again until deep in the night.

  It was late enough and at the same time early enough that the other girls on my floor were still sleeping. I could have the shower to myself for as long as I wanted. When I cleared the fog from the bathroom mirror, opening a streak with my hand where my face could be made out, it was different. Something had changed. The mirror was mounted over the sink for a taller person, and so I had to strain to my highest height, on my toes, the very tips, in order to see my whole head.

  Steam from the shower was leaking out of the air-shaft window, unclouding the glass. My black eye was fading. The purple that had seemed to never go away was fainter. The scab on my lip was closing. And it was once I saw myself that I realized: The constant pulsing pain at the back of my head that I’d gotten used to over the course of the month wasn’t there. My bruises were healing. My head . . . it was almost clear.

  Back in my room, it came over me, the desire to start over, to try my hand at being a new kind of person. Carefully I crept down the stairs with a pillowcase full of the things I’d taken over the past four weeks. I’d cleaned out the hollow behind my radiator, whatever I could reach, so if I missed anything it was because it was rammed in too deep. I’d put my mother’s things aside and took the rest, all of it, every last piece. The last thing to go in was the portrait of my mother, lifted from the nail on my wall.

  Outside girls’ doors, I left the items from my collection, offerings, the way the people in Catherine de Barra’s life had left them for her. I returned the strand of silver beads. I returned the library card. I returned the lipstick, the pocket­knife, the ribbon. I returned every pen. I may have gotten some of the rooms wrong, but my best intentions were there.

  Two things were left. One was the stone.

  It was slick with sweat now, crushed into the deep center of my closed fist. I could feel the chip. The gouge went deep, a crack that seemed to want to split it in uneven halves, and I kept myself from digging in with a finger and breaking it entirely apart.

  I could have kept it, I could have sold it, I could have saved it for the moment I met someone worthy and given it away. But it didn’t belong to me. It didn’t belong even to my mother, and she’d kept it near her all these years.

  I needed to let it go. Maybe that was what made me climb out on the fire escape and hold it up to the night. When I opened my fist, it was shaking and unable to stay still, as if I were releasing a living thing.

  With force, I tossed it high, willing it above the roofline, across the garden, and beyond the fence.

  I followed it with my eyes, singular and bright like a shooting star. Then it broke apart, it shattered, and the pieces went in every direction. The sky went from gray to purple. It went from blue to green to pink to beyond all colors that had names, perfectly black and every color contained in the color black, and for just a moment the sky over Catherine House was opalescent, alive with the shards of the broken stone, magnified and multiplied, and the most beautiful and devastating thing I’d ever seen.

  Then it was done.

  I grabbed the railing to steady myself. My fingers were stained purple and blue and black and green.

  When I peered down, the tall iron gate that separated the house’s small front yard from the wild, uncontained city was swinging. It was always locked at this hour, from inside and outside, held fast with a chain. But now a faint breeze moved it back and forth, back and forth.

  I needed to be sure. I climbed back inside and went down all the stairs.

  In the foyer, I looked through the tall window beside the front door, the stained glass mashed up against my face. No one was out there.

  At this hour, the street beyond our gate was like an abandoned set from a movie—no one around and no ca
meras rolling. A ghost town.

  I unlocked the front door. The gate was still open. I could still see it swinging. Its chain had fallen to the pavement.

  I took the stairs down and stood in the opening for a single moment.

  Then I pushed it wider. And walked through.

  I didn’t latch the gate when I left. I let it swing so its creaking would call to the others, and then I pressed the buzzer nested in the gate. I jammed my finger in, and its electrified screech carried up the stairs. No one was awake to answer the door, but they’d hear the buzzer from their beds. The girls in the lower rooms would hear it more clearly, the sound puncturing their dreams, entering their small rooms and finding their ears on their sweat-drenched pillows. I wanted to go back and wake Anjali, and Lacey, and even Gretchen and the others, but they would hear it. They’d hear it ring and ring, and then they’d find the gate swinging.

  Even now, as I paused at the corner and let myself look back, I saw a light come on in one of the rooms. Lacey’s room. I saw another light, in another room two floors up. If I waited long enough, I was sure I’d see the front door open and one of the girls—I hoped Anjali—slip out in bare feet, curious.

  Me, I needed to start walking. I could have chosen any direction. Uptown or downtown, east side or west side, Bleecker Street or Sixth Avenue or all the ways Waverly went winding.

  I aimed myself at the heart of the city. My feet were on ground, and there were so many blocks to go, but for the first time ever I felt like I belonged here. My legs felt so long. I almost felt like I could reach up and touch the sky.

  part fiVe

  Sometime After

  Through Glass

  There is now one last thing to do, and it is not an easy thing.

  I am at the window, on the dark side of the glass, watching my mother inside my stepfather’s house. There’s a motion sensor over the back lawn, but it won’t find me. I’m safe. The neighbor’s dog, chained out front, can’t hear me. When the wind picks up, I almost float.

 
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