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A room away from the wol.., p.4

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 4


A Room Away From the Wolves

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  I also wanted this girl to know where I was headed, to be going there, too. It was wishful thinking, but when I gazed down the block again, I knew. I knew the way my mother had known the perfect day we should leave my father, the way I now knew I shouldn’t have gone to that party, the way I knew, marrow-deep, that I was meant to be right here.

  Catherine House was down that way, and she’d been well aware all along. I crossed the narrow street, and then I heard her call out.

  “Wait.” She paused. “You have to tell me . . . Who did that to your face?”

  My hand went up reflexively to touch it, the tender spots, the scratches. The memory of the night before seemed so far away, a world apart from this one, dense and dark and surrounded by the brittle branches of trees.

  “Nobody,” I said.

  “Nobody smashed your face in?”

  “Maybe I did it to myself.”

  Her eyes lit up at this answer, and not the way people crane their necks out windows to catch the mangled bits of a car crash so they can have something awful to talk about. Her eyes lit up with recognition, understanding.

  “You’re holding your cards close,” she said. “Smart. Keep doing that. It’s over there, by the way. Down that block and to the left on the next block. You’ll find it. I’m sure you will.”

  I set the suitcase on its wheels, though it wobbled, and headed off.

  “Good luck, and don’t get hit by a bus,” she called after me.

  I sensed her gaze as I dragged the unsteady bag behind me, a prickling awareness on my bare shoulders. When I glanced back, just to be sure, she was still watching, staring until I turned away again.

  Soon, sooner than I wanted to admit, I reached the block. Catherine House, same as my mother had described in all her stories, made of red bricks and rising five floors into the bright afternoon light. I felt it in my fingers, I felt it in the soles of my feet. Stars prickled awake and gathered, with a slight burning sensation, in the middle of my chest. This was certainty. This was the culminating click of self-determination and fate.

  A black wrought-iron gate separated the building from the sidewalk, the glossy fence poles tall and ending in savagely pointed spikes. A plaque on the gate said simply: catherine house—a refuge. Behind the gate was a short walkway that led to a steep set of wide steps. It seemed very far away, though in fact it was close. At the top of the steps was a giant front door, sleek and windowless. Curtains, dark and completely opaque, covered the first floor of tall windows. The only thing that gave a hint of movement was the small stained-glass window beside the door, but I couldn’t make out anything more than that.

  I tried the latch on the gate. Locked. There was a buzzer and a small intercom nested in the gate—no name to claim it. I pressed the button and stepped back. Silence. I checked the windows again, and again tried the latch. That was when the giant door at the top of the stoop burst open.

  A woman emerged, followed by two girls who were younger versions of her. A mother and her daughters. The girls looked stricken, the younger one sniffling back tears, but the woman appeared irritated, her face pinched. They carried crates and a box jammed full of clothing down the steep stairs and pushed through the gate, ignoring me. They went to an SUV parked at the curb and dropped the boxes near the back, to pile them inside. The gate was open, but I wasn’t sure if I should walk in. It was only when the mother returned that she met my eyes and held them steady for a single moment that pierced me through. Something had happened. Something had happened inside this house.

  “Do you live here?” she said to me.

  I wanted to tell her I was about to, but I hadn’t signed any papers yet, or paid any money yet, and I didn’t have a room yet or, well, a key, but she didn’t need me to say it. She’d noticed the suitcase.

  “You’re moving in,” she said, her voice grim. “Don’t. If I were your mother, I’d tell you to go home. Right now.”

  The urgency in her expression alarmed me, and I stepped back, the iron bars pressing cold against my spine.

  “I should’ve dragged Lacey out of here before—” She cut herself short. Her daughters at the car had turned to listen, as if aching for information.

  “Who?” I said faintly. “What happened?”

  She didn’t explain. I was useless. She pushed through the gate and climbed the stairs. No one had answered the buzzer, so before the gate swung closed and locked again I slipped in and followed, dragging the suitcase up behind me.

  The other girls—Lacey’s sisters, I assumed; I’d by now pieced together a whole family—had finished with the boxes and came running up the stairs, their cheeks tear-streaked, their long legs flying with grisly determination. They beat me easily, and once I made it to the top, the stoop was empty.

  The front door was wide-open, and I slipped inside.



  The door smacked closed behind me. The sense of being watched tickled at my shoulders, but I couldn’t find the source. The woman and the girls were nowhere to be found in the low light.

  It took a solid moment for my eyes to adjust. Once they did, my first view of the interior of Catherine House was this grand entry room grayed by shadows. A dimness filled the space, unsettling after the white-hot daylight outside. A crystal chandelier high on the ceiling danced shards of light all over the walls. A sweeping staircase curved upward, disappearing into the darkness of the upper floors. That must have been where the mother and sisters went. A decorative vase so large I could have fit myself inside stood sentry at the door. It probably cost more than a car. I had a sudden flash-fantasy of wielding a baseball bat and smashing the vase, destroying something worth more than I was. I’d done it before. A fizz of anger went through me and was gone as fast as it had come, leaving me alone on the gold-woven antique carpet. I would be different here.

  I felt a strange familiarity as I stood on that golden rug—because I remembered it. The rug was what my mother had described—like walking on a tiger’s head, though almost two decades had passed since she’d planted her feet on it. The rug was here, covering the floor, as it had been then.

  To my left was a closed door, and across the way a darkened hallway, and there was a large open parlor to my right, with a grand piano and velvet furniture, also in gold. Perched all over the shelves were delicate figurines as well as pear­lescent seashells and other tchotchkes, as if this were a forgotten museum. It wasn’t as if time had stopped—otherwise the air wouldn’t be so thick with pooled heat, the carpet threadbare in spots—it was as if no one wanted to admit that time had marched on outside this house, decade after decade.

  “Don’t touch,” a voice said.

  I’d drifted near a display table and had been letting my hand wander along the surface, fingering an ornamental box made of painted china and, beside it, a decorative elephant tusk I’d assumed was manufactured. I pulled my hand away, but I could still feel it: The tusk wasn’t fake. It wasn’t cold and long-dead, like a fossil. It was slick but warm, like living skin.

  I whipped around to discover a girl curled up in a gold velvet armchair before the dark fireplace. There’d been a moment when my hand had almost snatched and kept one of the items, and if she hadn’t spoken up I might have tucked it away in my bag already.

  The arms and back of the chair were tall, a semicircle surrounding her. She had a book spread in front of her face, blocking my view. I noticed that the cover had no visible title, not on the front and not on the spine. The surface was soft, made of gold fabric a shade darker than the furniture.

  “We’re not supposed to touch the souvenirs,” she said from behind the book.

  “I didn’t know, sorry. Hey, do you know who I’m supposed to talk to about the room?”

  At this, she lowered the book, careful to conceal its contents. She had a pale face and a set of long, low-hanging bangs that made a seve
re slash over her eyes, swallowing her eyebrows. When she unfurled herself from the chair, she was much bigger than she’d first appeared. She rose to her full height, imposing and enviably strong. My head barely reached her neck.

  “Who are you?” She dropped the book on the chair in a muffled thump, letting loose a cloud of dust.

  I noticed she was keeping careful track of my hands, as if she were on to me. There were so many tiny, innocuous things in this room—so many. I couldn’t imagine they would notice one missing.

  “I’m Sabina,” I said, awkwardly offering her one of my hands. It was empty. “But you can call me Bina. Everyone does.”

  She didn’t take my hand. “And you like that?”

  I blinked. “Are you who I talked to on the phone?”

  “I’m Gretchen,” she said. “And no. I live here. I don’t answer the phone.” She stared openly at all my deficiencies, and I expected her to ask about the black eye and the scratches on my face, which might have made me look desperate or sinister. All she said was, “You’re here for the last room, aren’t you?”

  “I guess so?” I’d called only a day ago, before I snuck out to the party, but maybe the news had traveled to the other tenants. I wondered where the rest of them were, and if they would welcome me in, become my lifelong friends, if soon we’d be dangling our legs off the fire escape together. Hers would dangle so far.

  “How’d you find us?” she asked. “How’d you hear about the room?”

  “Craigslist,” I said, not even sure why I said it.

  But this made her laugh. “Good one.” Her mouth softened. “I can see why you came.” She tapped a black fingernail to the corner of her eye. “Not a moment too soon, am I right?”

  I wasn’t sure what she was insinuating.

  “There’s a girl on the third floor who got thrown down a set of stairs,” she said flatly, maybe to show I didn’t have it so bad.

  “What about you?”

  “Oh, no one’s ever touched me,” she said. I believed it. “It’s just they kept putting me away. My mom has the twins now, you know, and I guess I was scaring the children. They kept putting me away, and now I’m here.”

  That only gave me more questions. I started to ask, but she shook her head.

  “Let’s stop,” she said. “Not with him here.”

  She pointed into the front room, and there, as if she’d conjured him, was a man sitting on a bench, head in his hands. I about jumped. All along there’d been someone hidden in the curve of the rising staircase, and I hadn’t realized.

  “Should I talk to him about the room?” I asked.

  “God, no. He shouldn’t even be inside. We told him Lacey’s not here.”

  There was that name again—Lacey. I was putting the pieces of some kind of tragedy together, imagining the bleakest things, the very worst. First a distraught mother and sisters, and now this man, clearly distressed and looking for his daughter.

  “The rest of them are upstairs, getting her things,” Gretchen said. “They wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

  I was watching him, waiting for him to lift his head, yet also afraid he might and then I’d have to find something suitable to say.

  “Don’t be a vulture,” Gretchen said.

  I leaned in. She smelled musty, like the pages of the ancient book. “What happened to Lacey, anyway? Did she . . . die or something?”

  Gretchen’s expression held a beat too long, not a twitch or a muscle moving. “I told you to stop it,” she said. She plucked her book from the golden chair and left the room, avoiding the man on the bench and climbing the stairs to the rooms above.

  She’d left me alone with him, but what could I say? I didn’t know his daughter. I didn’t know what happened, if it was something terrible that occurred, maybe even inside this house.

  Someone should be down to help me with my room any minute, I decided. I made a halfhearted circle around the parlor and then planted myself in the gold velvet chair Gretchen had abandoned. All I had to entertain myself with were the souvenirs that filled the surfaces of the room. There were some close by, arranged on a yellowing circle of crocheted lace. I grabbed for the closest item, small and eerily pale, like a mushroom.

  My hands were cupped around the miniature ceramic bell, curious to know what sound it might make, when a prickling came at the back of my neck, cold though the room was stuffy. I had the immediate urge to put down the bell.

  I craned around. Above the fireplace was a single black-and-white photograph in a gilt frame. A dark-haired young woman in a high-necked black dress sat in a high-backed chair, her hands folded and perched above her knees. It was the kind of pose someone would have made in order to sit for an oil painting centuries ago. Something about it wasn’t entirely convincing.

  She had a long face, a meager mouth. At first her expression seemed dull, and slightly sad. Then I checked again. I must have caught the image from another angle, because her waxy gray face had shifted. Now the set of her small mouth was locked. Her eyes formed two daggers. They were intensely black, without any warm flecks or pupils, and they met mine through the glass right as the voice came from the other room.

  “Were you here this week?” the man called. “Do you know anything about where she could have gone?”

  I flinched. I glanced once more at the picture before turning around. The young woman’s mouth had relaxed, and her eyes were downcast. I thought I must have imagined the expression before.

  “I just got here,” I told the man. He was standing now in the center of the outer room, under the chandelier.

  “Did she seem out of the ordinary to you? Did it seem like she would take off, no phone call, no email?”

  “I just got here,” I repeated, edging closer. “I don’t know her.” But now I was starting to collect questions.

  “Of course,” he said, as if he might not believe me. He turned to the tall stairs. “They told me to stay down here. Men aren’t allowed upstairs.”

  I kind of nodded. “Are you her dad?”

  “I am. My wife’s up there. With the girls, Lacey’s sisters. Getting all her things.”

  “I know, I heard.” Curiosity drove me forward. The prickling was at the back of my neck again, the tickle of a dagger point pressing me on.

  “They said she’s not coming back here. They said she’s gone.”

  I came closer. “What do you mean, gone?”

  He didn’t answer that. Instead he said, “This seemed to be a safe place.”

  A safe place. My mother had told me she felt safe in Catherine House. She felt protected. Once she opened that gate and left, the real world crushed in.

  Bad stories my mother had told me of the city came at me then. Dark street corners, vacant subway platforms, sketchy men. My mother used to wander the streets at night before curfew, boots to her knees, wind in her hair, getting to know all the surrounding neighborhoods, open to whatever might happen. One time a gang of guys followed her all through Tompkins Square Park and she hid out in a twenty-four-hour bodega until they got bored and left. Another time a distressed woman almost pushed her in front of the 6 train. You could have gotten murdered, I used to say to her when she told me her stories, but I didn’t say it with worry or judgment. I said it with awe.

  But she was safe, she assured me. She had this house to go back to—and her stories always ended here, secured behind the gate, which was kept locked until morning. That was why the house called to me so, how high she’d built its castle walls in my head.

  “We don’t know what happened,” Lacey’s father said. “Being here was supposed to help.”

  He looked so broken. He was acting—and this was mystifying to me, from my own experience at having a father—as if the idea of not having his daughter in his life destroyed him.

  I had one clear memory of my father from my early childhood. He was
talking with another adult, and I was grabbing ahold of his pants leg to get his attention. He peered down on me from a great height, and I lifted my arms to him, thinking he was about to bridge the distance and pick me up. Maybe I thought he’d hold me aloft on his shoulders, the way I’d seen fathers do with small daughters, because I was small and I was his daughter. I could imagine the intoxicating feeling of being high in the air balanced on his two stout and sturdy shoulders. How I wanted him to lift me. How my arms reached. But my father stayed where he was, in the distant stratosphere of the room, his head near the ceiling fan, and mine far below, by his knees, too low for him to hear me call for him. He kept talking to whoever it was he was talking to, his beard hiding his mouth. I dropped my arms. He didn’t lower his distant head.

  “She was doing so well,” Lacey’s father said. He had a tight grip on my arm as he spoke. “I don’t understand what happened.”

  I had no possible idea. He was holding me harder than he should have, pressing his fingers in until he must have felt the solid stop of bone.

  “I don’t know, either.” I wrenched my arm away and glanced up at the stairs. The bend at the top wobbled with shadows. Wasn’t someone expecting me? Wouldn’t anyone who worked here come out and welcome me and help me get settled into a room?

  “She was fine,” he said once more. His teeth were showing.

  I put something between us—a display table with three bulky wooden legs.

  “Maybe she wasn’t,” I found myself saying.

  “What did you say?”

  “Only . . . I guess . . . maybe she wasn’t. Doing fine. And maybe no one could see it.”

  His head tilted.

  I’d said a bad thing—I knew it as soon as the words were out of my mouth. It was the start of a story, but his reaction made me stuff it back in. Maybe I should have apologized, but there was a remote observer inside me that wanted to see what he’d say back to me, what he’d do. He was her father. When everything went so wrong at home, after I’d crashed my mother’s car and lied about it, after I’d skipped school for near a week and concealed it, once my mother reached the end of her rope—those were the words she’d used, about what I’d done to her, words that made me cringe—I’d brought up my father. Maybe I should go live with him, I’d said. Live with that man? she’d said. You? Hell no. When I said I could call the gallery—I’d looked it up online, there was a number and an address in the city, the whole storefront could be seen in a blurred snap on Google Maps—she said I shouldn’t do that. He took all the money he got when his father died and opened that place. He never gave us a cent. Or called. Or sent a card. Does that sound like someone who wanted me?

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