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A room away from the wol.., p.23

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 23

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  My mother doesn’t know I’ve come back. That I’m here at this particular window near the ragged embankment of trees, to see how she’s faring in his house, with me gone.

  She’s alone tonight. He has a work dinner again—I spotted him heading for the driveway in his tie—and the girls left minutes ago, talking of a party at someone’s house, contained to a gated backyard. From what I hear, no one wants to party in the woods after a body’s been found, and they think it’s ruined summer. Still, there has to be some kind of party, with the same eternal argument over who would buy beer.

  The house hushes, as if a cloud moves to cover it. Inside, my mother has awakened and started moving about the rooms.

  I still think of this split-level ranch, painted moss green and showing the beginnings of a termite infestation, as his house, always will, no matter how many years she stays married to him and shares the bedroom. It never stopped being his house, from furniture to what hangs on the walls to cups in the cupboard. The only place ever truly hers was the room she rented, tiny and dusty with the narrow bed and the one window, that summer she lived in the city. That’s what I used to tell myself when I thought I knew what she wanted.

  I haven’t been able to go inside the house, and so I stay to the periphery, outside the walls, peering in where I can. Sometimes, some nights since I’ve come here to look in on her, I find my mother in the rocking chair he makes her keep in the hallway. She nursed me in it, the story goes. We found it at the end of the driveway, with the garbage bags on trash day, soon after the new family moved into our old house. My mother stopped the car, got out, and sat in it for a while, rocking over the gravel. It crunched. “This should be yours one day,” she said. In a fit of strength, she carried it over her head to the trunk, but it didn’t fit, so she wedged it into the back seat, with two of the legs pointing out the window. When she brought it back to the house, there wasn’t room in the bedroom she shared with him. There wasn’t room in the living room or the den, either—it didn’t match the furniture—and so here it lives, at the end of the corridor, near the tall window facing the back bend of trees. The seat cushion is blue.

  On this visit, the rocking chair is empty.

  So is what I can see of the kitchen.

  The plush sofa in the den has the remote on it and nothing else.

  I wait for many minutes to see her cross the floor of her bedroom and make her way to her dresser, which is just in view. She opens her top drawer and digs in the back, as she used to, deep in, but she doesn’t pull anything out. It’s not in there, if that’s what she’s searching for. I see her at her dresser as if she’s been keeping something precious in there, but it’s gone and not coming back, no matter how much she hopes to find it. I’ve let it go. The next thing to let go of is her.

  She takes her hands out of the dresser, empty.

  She gazes at the pictures pinned over her bureau. There are so many of me now. When she looks at them, I wonder what she believes and remembers, what stories she tells herself.

  Now she’s closing the drawer. She’s walking past the suitcase, the one she’d packed for me that night. She hasn’t moved it from the space beside her dresser in all this time. I imagine that inside it, my clothes are still rolled into compact balls, and there are at least ten sets of clean underwear. She made sure.

  She’s leaving the bedroom and heading down the hallway, coming closer.

  I want her to.

  Once she sits in the rocking chair and pulls the string for the light, I get that sweet, singing feeling I always do when she’s near and has come closer to the glass. She’s barefoot, and her hair is slightly longer. Her back is to me, and I can make out the whorl in the center of her ear.

  She lifts a book from where she stowed it on the side table, but she doesn’t part its pages. She rubs her bare arms as if she’s caught a chill, though it’s still summer. I noticed the month on the kitchen calendar. Some years she’d go with a Degas or an O’Keeffe or even a Dalí, but this time it’s the impressionists again. She shivers as if she’s cold, as if she’s forgotten it’s summer and that everything starts and ends in summer. Summer is the time for reinvention and release. Summer is when the electricity is most charged, the night has the most potential, the roads lead in every direction, and the skies are mostly clear.

  She’s in one of those moods again—the set of her face tells me. She has stopped tending the small garden patch beside the driveway. I think she’s stopped going to yoga. Sometimes she sits with a book in her lap, without lifting it to read, for hours at a time. Whenever the phone rings, she jolts and shoots a glance at it, then deflates before answering, as if she knows the person she wants to be calling won’t ever be on the line.

  I want to make her understand.

  I want to communicate with her, somehow, the way we used to.

  All she needs to do is glance over her shoulder. My breath might leave behind the hint of a face, and she’s my mother, so she’d recognize it. Who else would? I wish my knuckles could make a sound on the glass, that they could hit so hard it’d shatter. But maybe it’s better this way. I don’t want to scare her.

  It’s taken me enough visits, but the time is right. I may not be able to come back, after tonight.

  I am not sure where to leave it to keep it safe from the elements, and I don’t have anything to wrap it in. Insignificant things I once owned, like my old hoodie, are long gone.

  It’s as ugly as I remember. As terrible as it was the first time I saw it, in my father’s possession. But maybe when someone who’s hurt you has stolen something from you, and kept it from you and priced it for sale on his wall, you can’t rest until it’s returned to your hands. Even if you didn’t know it existed, wouldn’t you want control over it, if you knew? She might tear it apart with scissors, or douse it in gasoline and light it up in the pit in the backyard. She might bury it in garbage at the dump, or scratch the canvas clean away to bald white. Or she might not see herself in it at all.

  But I want her to know she can trust me, even now, to protect her heart.

  I know she tried to protect me.

  I leave it propped up against the glass. Just as I touch it—warm and cold at once—I feel the electricity where I used to feel my fingers, and I have to move back. I’m fighting the wind to stay even this close.

  She’s standing. Her eyes have gone wide. I swear it. This time she sees me. This time we have a dark moment together, across time and space, through glass.

  She’s reaching for the door. She’s breathing so fast. I’m not.

  But once she opens it, she doesn’t look into my eyes or anywhere near where I am. She doesn’t say hello or invite me in. She bends down and reaches out. Her hand is like my hand—same fingers, same fingernails—or at least it used to be.

  She finds it and lifts it into her arms. She knows what it is. How could she not? I’m just not sure if she knows who brought it here.

  She checks the backyard. She puts a hand over her eyes, searching.

  I know she wants to call out to me, but she doesn’t. She’s not yet ready to admit it out loud, to say my name.

  Behind the house are only trees, but she spends a long moment scanning the fringe, as if I could be out there somehow and might have climbed all the way to the top.

  She grasps the painting closer in her arms, and shuts the door to the night. She fiddles with the lightbulb, but it’s dead, so she heads to the kitchen. From there she heads to the living room. She never looks to be sure again, and she never lets it go.

  I could watch her from the window for the whole rest of the night if I wanted. I could wonder what’s running through her mind, what pieces are connected from rooftop to rooftop until they meet here, where she lives.

  I do wonder what she’s thinking now as much as I wonder what she was thinking then, standing on the topmost point of Catherine House, her toes curled at the edge
. Did she believe the stories about Catherine? Did she know the opal would help her get back home? Did she expect a whole other future to catch hold of her in the air, one that might hurt, talons on her back, carting her away? Or did she just fall, an accident, a mistake . . . one that led to today?

  I’ll always wonder.

  I hold steady in the glass for a long moment, longer than I should, seeing straight through to the inside rooms, because there’s no reflection. Then, when I’m ready, I let the wind tug me away.

  Passengers

  A streak of white light and the echo of a voice in my ear: Wake up.

  I’m awake. The late train rolls into the station, lights flickering, wheels cranking, passengers in the seats around me animated, alive. There’s no intercom announcement to tell us we’re here, only the passing underground platforms to show that the heart of Grand Central Terminal is within reach. The shadows in the tunnels are so clear now. When I press up against the glass, they ripple with attention. As the train rolls past, their heads lift, their forms drift closer, as if I’m burning the brightest of candles in this window, from this particular blue vinyl seat, and they need to acknowledge I’ve come.

  The train reaches the end of the track and pulls into the station. It might be the same platform from that summer afternoon thirty-two days ago or a thousand, I’ve lost count. People crowd the aisle and plunge toward the doors at either end of the car, aching to get out. There are fewer passengers at night, but they’re louder. Their anticipation leaks.

  A girl sitting near me is slower, and all alone. She has a small suitcase she needs to get down from the rack and a pink sleep crease on her face. Whoever she is, she steps on me while pulling the suitcase down, and doesn’t say sorry. Then she’s gone.

  On the platform, bodies surge past, a stampede that sets me reeling and keeps me back. I wait for them to leave, wait for the conductor to vacate the train; then I listen. The mouth of the tunnel is quiet and filled with folds of velvety black. Nothing is coming after me.

  I slip out into the main concourse, where tickets are sold and where hundreds of thousands of people cross within a single day. There, under a tall domed ceiling containing a dizzying mural of the constellations, there in the center of the grand room, is a circular information kiosk. And its pinnacle, its centermost point, is a tall four-faced clock, glossy brass and golden in the light. There can’t be any other.

  Just after midnight by the clock, she’d said. I’ll be looking for you.

  I’m early. Only ordinary people drift near the kiosk now. They ask questions, they plan trips. Their feet are on ground, and not one of them is the girl I’ve come to meet.

  The air is gold-tinged, shimmering with the smallest particles of dust. Soot and grime cling to the edges of the room. Still, the clock’s faces shine—legend says each face is made of pure opal—and they’re telling me I still have time. Once midnight is here and gone, I’ll know for sure if I’ve missed her, but until then I can’t keep still. I circle. I have no luggage and nothing to hold me down anymore, and I might be moving faster than I should, disturbing people gathered to wait for a coming train. Sometimes they stare after me, wondering. I’m a blur at the corner of their eyes. A moving shadow, gone when they blink.

  To get a better view, I rise to the platform where the two staircases meet. I see others like me on the concourse, slipping by, hoping when maybe they shouldn’t still hang on to hope, and we recognize one another well enough to keep to ourselves. I suspect that on any given day, Grand Central is teeming with us. We’re another kind of passenger.

  It’s the rest of the people I search, to see if she’s among them. I pause on faces and certain bodies as I pass. Sometimes they appear as familiar as a living memory, vivid with color and taste and surges of light, but only for a moment, and only because I’m making an effort. None of them are the girl I’m seeking. Once, I think I see a face I don’t want to see, walking forward with her meager mouth pinched, her daggered eyes on the downstairs gates. But if that’s her, free after near a hundred years in the house she is said to have died in, she’s not here for me. I tell myself it could be any other angry young woman traveling through this city. There must be so many.

  When I return my gaze to the center of the concourse, the clock shows it’s a minute past midnight. Then another, and one more.

  She’s not coming. I took too long, and she didn’t wait.

  Just then I feel a tug, and I look to a shining face of the clock one more time. The glass is milky and shifting in tone in the station light.

  Then I see her.

  It might be her. It could be.

  She’s a shadow near the kiosk, a slippery form out of the corner of the eye, same as me. We are the same, and maybe always have been.

  She has her back to me, and there’s a moment when I question myself, when her movements make her seem like someone else, and then in the next moment, it’s clearly her, it can’t be anyone else, just as I’m now someone new, with a clean slate and a second chance. Outside the house, neither of us wears a mask.

  How many nights has she come here? She said she’d be looking for me, but for how long?

  I’ve reached the bottom of the stairs. I’m crossing the floor now, getting closer. The details of her don’t matter. Hair color. Shoes on her feet. A dress that’s black or blue or something else entirely. Even with her back to me, I notice the cowlick sticking up in her hair, her long legs and the way she leans, and it’s infinitely what I remember.

  I’m at the clock now. She’s turned away from me, facing the information screen, as if she might reach out and finger a timetable, or cause some trouble and knock a stack of them over for fun to watch them spill.

  I hold back. Is she only at the information desk to make a plan to go somewhere else? Will she take the Hudson Line away from here, or another train away from here, or will she head out to the street to hail a taxi? Have I only caught her when she’s leaving, once again? I used to wonder what might happen, after. I never expected it to be a train station, littered with strangers, coiled with noise. So much had come before this moment: All the anticipation and questioning if she’d be here, and the darkness between, when the trees stood sentry over my body and the whistling rang through the vacant space between my ears. All the wondering before the flash of light took me over and put me back on the train.

  Before the woods that night, I didn’t know anything about her. Now she’s real.

  I tap her bare shoulder. Her skin is warm like smoke and cool like air, the exact temperature of the room. She doesn’t seem to feel me.

  I shift until I’m in her sight, if only she would stop busying herself with the train schedules and turn her head, just a little.

  “Monet?” My voice cracks from disuse, but it makes sound. I hear myself as if the noise bounces off the celestial ceiling straight down to where we are. Even if it’s only a whisper.

  Does she hear?

  She turns. A stack of timetables falls from the container in a rippling cascade. Neither of us moves to try to retrieve them. I make out her eyes from the shadows: deep brown with flecks of amber. Mine, I can’t say.

  After all this time, she’s right in front of me, and it’s a few minutes after midnight, as she’d promised. I don’t know how long it’s been since she dropped from the sky outside the gate and walked away without a scratch on her. But this is her, isn’t it? I’d know her anywhere.

  I only hope she knows it’s me.

  Acknowledgments

  This book went through a number of transformations as I tried to dig out its heart and uncover its true face. It wasn’t easy. I will never forget the insightful, lightbulb-blazing question my editor, Elise Howard, asked me when we met at a café on Bleecker Street to talk about one of the many foggy drafts of this book. Without her, I never would have found my way out of the fog. My agent, Michael Bourret, assured me, again and again,
that there was a light at the end of this tunnel of rewriting and revising and he never once let me forget it. Without his unwavering confidence in me and his wise guidance, I would never have made it this far in my career.

  Thank you to the whole Algonquin Young Readers team, my publishing home, especially: Sarah Alpert, Kristen Bianco, Jacquelynn Burke, Jodie Cohen, Caitlin Humphrey, Krestyna Lypen, Ashley Mason, Michael McKenzie, Craig Popelars, Caitlin Rubinstein, Travis Smith, Carla Weise, and Laura Williams. Thank you to Kieryn Ziegler, Lauren Abramo, the team at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, and Dana Spector at Paradigm Agency. Thank you for the sharp copyedits of Elizabeth Johnson and proofreading by Dan Janeck, and the gorgeous art and cover design by Sarah J. Coleman.

  Thank you to the Corporation of Yaddo, who may recognize the furniture. I’ll admit that the seeds of this story were found during a residency in West House. Significant pieces of this book were also written at the Writers Room in New York City, Think Coffee on Mercer Street, the Merchant Hotel in Salem, Massachusetts, and the Highlights Foundation.

  These people gave me moments of light when I needed it, and I hope I can do the same for them: Will Alexander, Elana K. Arnold, Bree Barton, Gerry Bello, Libba Bray, Phillip Brigham, Martha Brockenbrough, Amy Rose Capetta, Jess Capelle, Alison Cherry, Kara Lee Corthron, Marie Miranda Cruz, Echo Eggebrecht, Rebekah Faubion, Stephanie Feldstein, Melissa Fisher, Stephanie Garber, David Macinnis Gill, Alex Grizinski, Michelle Hodkin, Holly Hughes, Trevor Ingerson, Kelly Jensen, Varian Johnson, Jeanne Kay, Margot Knight, Uma Krishnaswami, Stephanie Kuehnert, Justine Larbalestier, Eileen Lawrence, Christine H. Lee, Jacqui Lipton, Samantha Mabry, Kekla Magoon, Cori McCarthy, Diana Mikhail, Phoebe North, Jilana Ordman, Micol Ostow, Emily X.R. Pan, Lilliam Rivera, Laura Ruby, Selah Saterstrom, Liz Garton Scanlon, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Cristin Stickles, Erin Swan, Mandy Sue, Courtney Summers, Linda Urban, Daiana Vargas, and Aaron Zimmerman and the Tuesday Night Workshop. Thanks to my VCFA advisees, my fellow VCFA faculty, the program staff at Djerassi and my beloved Djerassi writers, especially those of you still with me from the beginning.

 
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