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A room away from the wol.., p.6

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 6

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  Ms. Ballantine paused at a rule toward the end. It said that no males were allowed above the first floor, and she wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it. No men or boys, none. No boyfriends, or boys who were just friends. No brothers or other relations, real or so-called. No dads or uncles. That staircase and everything above was a no-male zone at all times. She paused, even after I’d initialed the no-boy box, waiting to see what I’d say.

  The rule was so completely ancient. It was binary and boring and lifted from another time. Then again, I didn’t want anyone in my room, no matter their gender. And if I asked someone in at this point, who would come?

  “Okay,” I said.

  “Usually, here is where I get some back talk.”

  My mother must have felt safe in knowing that the person she’d escaped from was not allowed upstairs. Yet I was escaping something else. I saw a ring of girls’ faces hovering over me, forest-fire flicker, the coming kick. Then I lost the image. It didn’t matter—they couldn’t have known I was here.

  “No argument from me,” I said.

  The last item on the vow was bolded and underlined, so I couldn’t miss it. Before she read it aloud, Ms. Ballantine took a moment to reveal what had caught my curiosity before. This boardinghouse was founded after Catherine lost her life tragically due to the incident that took her from the world too soon, not long after her father’s death. That was how she’d described it, incident, a word with a skin of mystery around it. Catherine had gifted her home to other young women in her will, young women in trouble, young women who needed a safe place to shelter from the cruel, coarse world beyond the gate. So long as she was alive—Ms. Ballantine thumped her bony chest—she would make sure Catherine’s wishes were followed. Catherine would have wanted her house to be a refuge in this dangerous, dirty city. And a refuge is a fortress. And a fortress is kept secured by secrets.

  The last item of the vow was this:

  29. I will not speak to reporters, authors, historians, or anyone else, excluding female blood relations in the first and second degree (mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters), about the goings-on inside the house, nor of the founder, though deceased, while in residence or afterward, effective up to 99 years.

  The specificity of the ninety-nine years was off-putting, as by the time all those years passed, anyone who signed this vow would be dead.

  But it was something else that caught in my throat. Excluding female blood relations, such as mothers and daughters. So a daughter could be told? Meaning my mother had signed this vow—she couldn’t have rented Room 10 without signing—and must have known she was allowed to talk about the house’s founder.

  Yet she’d never told me about Catherine de Barra. Not once.

  “Another problem?” Ms. Ballantine said. My pen was poised above the paper, but I hadn’t moved. She may have thought I was having another episode.

  “No problem,” I said. I checked the last box.

  Ms. Ballantine had me sign at the bottom of the sheet. “Thank you,” she said, pressing my vow to her chest as if relieved. It seemed to carry more weight than all the cash I’d paid her. Though it was odd she was so worried about filling the last room—couldn’t she have advertised it online and gotten a tenant in a snap?

  “We were so happy when you called,” Ms. Ballantine added. “It’s rare when we have a legacy—and Dawn Tremper’s daughter? I can’t express what a surprise this was.”

  So she did remember my mother. A pain pulsed in my center.

  “What’s so surprising?” I asked. “I’ve known about this place my whole life.”

  “Of course you have. We didn’t expect that Miss Tremper would”—she took a long moment to search for the word—“want her daughter here, after the way she left us.”

  I could almost see my father at the gate, ruining everything. If not for him (and me), my mother might have stayed a whole year, or longer.

  Ms. Ballantine went to the wall and retrieved a ring of keys from the highest hook. “Shall we?” she said.

  We returned to the foyer, which she pronounced foy-yay. Halfway up the first flight of stairs was a girl scrambling to the next floor, but Ms. Ballantine’s shrill call made her stop.

  “Miss Chaudhary, you have a moment, yes?”

  The girl turned, and though it seemed as if she’d been in a rush, trying to sneak to the next landing before being spotted, she was all polite smiles when face-to-face. “Sure, Ms. B, what’s up? Oh, hi.” This part was directed down at me.

  “This is Miss Tremper,” Ms. Ballantine answered for me. I was to be called the same thing my mother had been called, almost two decades ago. “Room Fourteen. Why don’t you show her up?”

  “So it’s true,” the girl said. “We did get a new tenant.” She was looking right at me. Had we met before? She was taller than me and noticeably thinner, a detail I reacted to subconsciously by sucking in my stomach. She was also exceptionally pretty, all cheekbones and light in her eyes, a puff of dark hair to her shoulders, brown skin, a warm smile.

  “Room Fourteen,” Ms. Ballantine repeated. The keys were still in her jeweled hand. She wouldn’t let me have them. “There won’t be an empty bed in the house tonight.”

  A shadow passed over the girl’s face. “Sure, no problem.” Then, to me, “I’m Anjali. I’m on the fifth floor, same as you.” She bounded down the stairs for the keys (Ms. Ballantine gave them up).

  “Nice to meet you,” I said. I told her she could call me Bina.

  “Miss Chaudhary, a moment first?”

  Anjali leaned in.

  “Did you happen to see Miss Mathis today?”

  There were some low words I didn’t catch, though I strained to, and then Anjali said, “I haven’t seen Monet anywhere, all day.” She was a bit colder as she said this, as if Monet weren’t someone she particularly liked.

  Ms. Ballantine glanced anxiously at the front door. “We need everyone here.”

  “I’m sure she’ll be back tonight,” Anjali said.

  Ms. Ballantine said yes, surely she was right, and then she headed off, leaving me alone with Anjali at the bottom of the stairs.

  Anjali’s face was gray for a long moment. Then it cleared. “Want me to help with that?” she asked.

  I gathered my suitcase and lifted it onto the step above me. “I’m good.”

  “Okay, if you’re sure. There’s no elevator, you know.” She started up and then stopped, because I wasn’t following. She’d caught me with my eyes on the photograph over the fireplace, trying to figure out why it had bothered me so much before. It was ordinary now. Subdued and barely even angry.

  I didn’t go any closer.

  “Hey,” she said. “I wouldn’t stand there so long if I were you.” She started bounding up the stairs, moving so fast I had to tear my eyes away to catch up.

  ━━━━━

  We tromped up the multitude of steep stairs that twisted in a hard turn and had more twists the higher they climbed. I trailed Anjali, dragging the suitcase behind me.

  Over her shoulder she asked, “So what brought you here? I ran away and couldn’t ever go back—New Jersey, not so far, but it’s not like I ever see anybody from home, so I’m safe here. You?” She said this so openly, stating it so plain, it stunned me.

  “Upstate,” I said. “And I’m just visiting. I’m here for the month.”

  She looked at me strangely, as if she didn’t believe I would possibly want to leave so soon. I kept climbing the steps behind her and didn’t offer more.

  “So is that a black eye or what?” She slapped her hands over her mouth. “I can’t believe I asked that, I’m so sorry. It’s, like, sometimes I don’t think before I say stuff . . .”

  “It’s fine.” A lie came to me on a wing, so simple. All the traveling must have tired me out. I was having trouble with the details. “I was attacked. T
hey jumped out of nowhere and . . . you know.” Hold on. That lie was too close to the truth.

  It was only the night before, but the whole way it had happened felt hazy and soft, the way things get when I’m drinking. Every so often, a precise image popped up. I could see a green sneaker with white laces in the air before my eyes, and then the sneaker blurred into an incoming missile, green and white, muddy and fast, connecting square with my face. That was only the beginning. I was cold again, like before. I saw tree branches, too many, cracking in a cascade as I slammed through. A part of the woods that was too dark, too thick, too remote from the road. Something going on with my ear, or inside it, this weird hum. My ankle giving out. Dry sandpaper covering my tongue. Pain in my ankle, and I sat down.

  That was happening in real life. I was sitting on the stairs, and Anjali had stopped to survey me from a few steps above. Dust swirled in the air around the both of us.

  “Are the stairs too much?” she asked.

  “I need a second, that’s all,” I said.

  “So you were mugged? That’s what happened?”

  Yes, that sounded better. “They took all my money and this piece of jewelry of my mother’s. It was a black opal, very rare. I tried to fight, but . . .” Why had I mentioned the opal? Couldn’t I have lied about at least that? I stood up, alarmed. My ankle still hurt, faintly, and there was this strange whistling sound way back in my ears, a small windstorm caught in my head. I should have told her a roaring burn-down-the-forest lie instead of anything even connected to the truth.

  “That sucks. Wait, what did they take again? An opal, you said?” She mentioned this pointedly, as if wanting me to say it again from my own mouth.

  The black opal was no invention. It was the soft, dark, shining stone that my mother used to wear on her finger with the door closed, the one that barely even fit my thumb. She said she got it in the city, years and years ago, but she never said how she could afford such a thing, or from where. She wore it every once in a while, when we were alone, and kept it in the back of her top dresser drawer, wrapped in a plain blue cotton scarf that she once used to hold back her hair when she was cleaning the house. She’d joke around and call it her “schmatte,” which, in Yiddish, means rag. It was so ordinary, so unappealing, that no one would expect it was guarding something so priceless. So grand.

  Then one day she said she couldn’t wear the opal anymore, it was too dangerous. Keeping it in the back of the dresser wrapped in the old rag wasn’t enough. She had to move it. I last saw it the night we buried it, and I caught it only through the shield of the clear plastic baggie, which fogged up its shine. My mother placed it in the hole she had dug. She dropped the earth back in the hole between the rows of tomatoes and smoothed the surface, and we arranged some ragged weeds and leaves overtop to disguise it. He didn’t help with the gardening. He’d never find it. My mother said we’d come back for it when we needed it, and this way we would always know where it was. The earth was warm and moist down in the depths of the hole. I felt it with my own hands.

  “It was just something of my mom’s,” I told Anjali.

  No robbers stole the opal from me. It was two and a half hours north of the city, where we left it. Buried deep in the ground.

  A flicker crossed her face. “Never mind. So did they catch them?”

  “Who?”

  “The losers who mugged you and beat you up.”

  “It was dark. I mean, it could have been anybody.”

  “Too bad,” she said politely, as if she’d lost interest.

  I’d lost the ability to make anything I was telling sound good.

  We continued climbing the stairs in silence, and as we did the pictures that lined the walls stole my attention. Tarnished frames showcased posed black-and-white portraits of young women, girls all grouped together in tight-packed rows (kneeling on the floor, seated in chairs, standing), as if these were class photos. I recognized the room they were in by the furniture, which was shrouded in thick, mottled skin. Downstairs in the parlor, the velvet had been warm gold, but in the photographs it was dismal gray. In every image, from one to the next, she sat stiffly in her frame, on the wall above the girls. The gathering had the appearance of a solemn sorority, with Catherine de Barra herself as patron saint and reluctant queen.

  The first photographs were labeled with months and years from the 1920s, and the decades inched forward as we climbed.

  Then there it was, the one particular photograph I was holding my breath to find. The dates matched.

  I spotted my mother at once, top row, perfect center, closest to the fireplace mantel and the frame. My mother was dark-lipped, hair bobbed and curling toward her chin. The image was in black and white, so I didn’t know what color her hair was that day. Catherine, hovering in the frame above her, was almost smiling. Almost. The picture was too small to make it out for sure.

  I tried to look not at her and only at my mother, the one who mattered. There she was, immortalized with a knowing gaze, a sense of consciousness, as if I could lean my ear in close and she might speak. She was so unconditionally herself back then, and I wondered what that felt like. She was only nineteen there, two years older than I was now.

  “Hey, c’mon already,” Anjali called. She was far above me—I hadn’t heard her climb.

  I came around the bend to the topmost landing, where the stairs stopped.

  “Okay, so this is it.” She showed off a wide, windowless space filled with towering piles of shoes. “This mess!” she said, kicking at a stray fuzzy slipper. “I keep telling them and telling them. It’s even worse on the fourth floor. Anyway, this is our common room, so you’ll have to learn to live with it.”

  I walked the cleared pathway, trying to get my bearings. It was dark. It was hot. Floating flecks of dust gravitated to my mouth, and I had to spit some out.

  The common room contained a few armchairs, an ironing board, a standing rack for drying clothes that was completely taken over by a war zone of underwire bras, and an open doorway leading to a shared bathroom. The bathroom was the only thing giving off much light, and when Anjali switched on an antique lamp, I had to blink at the sudden brightness. I sneezed.

  “I know,” she said. “If you have a dust allergy, you’re cooked. At least in our rooms, we can open the windows.” There were four numbered doors on the walls of this center room, 11 to 14. The room my mother had, Room 10, was on the floor below this one.

  Anjali was gazing at the door to Room 14.

  She paused, without putting the key in the lock. She hovered outside the door, didn’t even touch it. “I guess this is your room now,” she said.

  She didn’t have to say it: This was Lacey’s room. Or had been and wasn’t anymore.

  Anjali slipped the key into the lock. But before she had the chance to turn it, the door opened by itself from the inside.

  Anjali shrieked and grabbed me. I grabbed her back. The key ring flung itself onto the ground, clattering at our feet. Someone was in the open doorway.

  I retreated and knocked over the bra tree until there was Anjali laughing and saying, “Oh, you scared us, Lacey. I didn’t know you’d still be in there. Didn’t you have to switch rooms?”

  “Yeah, I’m on the second floor now. I forgot my plant,” the girl said. She was holding a sagging little fern in a plastic pot.

  The girl was . . . Lacey? In the flesh?

  Flashbangs of random thoughts went through me. She was a ghost. She was a figment of my imagination. She was a hallucination. But it really was Lacey—looking a lot like her mother, and perfectly alive even though her family had been mourning her downstairs. Her hair was braided and pulled back off her neck. She had intense eyes that skirted away from meeting mine. There was a sadness on her face that caught hold of me and reminded me of her father’s grip on my arm, so urgent.

  “What”—I could barely find the words—“hap
pened to you?”

  Anjali patted my shoulder as if trying to comfort me. “Nothing happened. Her parents tried to get her to come home before it was time,” she said. “That’s all.”

  “I guess I wasn’t ready,” Lacey said softly. She said it as if it had been out of her hands, some unspoken destiny she couldn’t fight and wouldn’t have dared to try.

  Anjali said it differently. “Sometimes Ms. B helps us figure it out, and if she has to deal with our families or whatever, she deals with them.” There was a serene expression on her face, as if her own family had been dealt with.

  “I saw your mom,” I told Lacey, “and your dad, and your sisters.”

  She nodded and pruned off a shriveled brown leaf from the plant she carried.

  “Did they tell you she died or something?” Anjali asked.

  “Missing,” I said.

  “I guess they didn’t check too closely,” Lacey said. “That was just old junk.”

  “Stuff some girls didn’t want,” Anjali echoed.

  “Random sweaters and things girls from before left behind . . .”

  “That got stained or shrunk in the wash.”

  “I think there was an old set of curtains in there.”

  Anjali nodded to confirm.

  “They saw what they needed to see,” Lacey said.

  Anjali laughed. “You look like you saw a tarantula or something.” She pinched Lacey and let me witness the pinch. “See? She’s fine. She’s right here.”

  “Who are you, anyway?” Lacey said to me. “Are you new?”

  “You didn’t hear?” Anjali answered for me. “This is Bina. She like literally just got here.” She motioned to my crooked suitcase. “I guess she has your room now.”

 
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