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A room away from the wol.., p.7

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 7

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  Lacey didn’t acknowledge this or welcome me. She turned to Anjali. “That means there’s someone in every room.”

  They met eyes for a long moment.

  “Are there not enough seats at the dining room table or something?” I said, breaking the silence.

  Anjali laughed, an uncomfortable too-loud snort. Lacey said only, “Or something.”

  Anjali leaned closer to Lacey and lowered her voice. “Ms. B was asking about Monet. Was she out again last night?”

  Lacey confirmed this. “Pretty sure.” Her plant quivered in her arms, even though her face was perfectly still.

  “Where is she going?” Anjali whispered, a note of judgment in her voice. “I don’t get it, she’s such a—” She stopped talking because Lacey was eyeing me, as if to keep her in check. I was thinking of all the ways people had talked about me, at home, must have still been talking, lighting up phones, eviscerating me, setting me to ruins, saying this, saying that, and all the more after last night. It made me not want to ask, made me not want to know. A girl should be allowed a fresh take when you meet her for the first time, shouldn’t she? She shouldn’t have to step into a room with her shoulders already burdened by old mistakes and the names she was called before. If that was the case, no one would want me here.

  Anjali leaned back and set her voice to a normal volume. “Anyway, see you later. What are you wearing, that white dress?”

  Lacey said she was. She’d made sure it wasn’t with the stuff her family took. She headed off down the stairs.

  I would have asked more questions maybe, but I was so struck by the room. My room. My very own. I peered into the doorway at a plain, tightly bound bed that took up most of the space. Anjali and I both squeezed into the room, so small I could spread my arms and press a hand on each wall. Three walls were white. The fourth was red brick, coarse against my fingers. Everything in the room was clean, as if no one had lived here before, though Lacey had, as recently as that morning.

  I wanted to close the door right then, I wanted to be alone between the tight four walls, unbearably hot because there wasn’t an air conditioner or a fan, but Anjali lifted the window for some air and then perched on the end of the small bed.

  “You’ll need those,” she said, pointing at the dropped keys on the floor.

  I retrieved them and took a closer look. There was a room key and a second, smaller key, together on one ring, and that was all. Anjali explained that there was no key for the front door. Past curfew it would be secured, and no banging or begging on the intercom would allow us in. We never needed a key for it in daytime.

  “What’s this one for then?” I asked. It wasn’t big enough for a full-size door, and it was murky gold and grimy, as if a hundred sets of hands had gotten their grease all over it.

  “The little baby key gets you into the private garden. It’s for our house only. No one else is allowed in.”

  This was my own set of keys, proof I lived somewhere, on my own—and it was a whole house, gated and tall, with its own garden. I closed my fist, and the keys were warm, and weightier than expected.

  “Yeah, so if you need anything, let me know,” Anjali said. “I’m across the way, the door that doesn’t have all the shoes piled up in front of it.”

  “Not the shoe monster,” I said. “Got it.”

  “The party’s at eight. You’re going, right? Of course you’re going. You have to go. We can’t have it without you.”

  “What am I supposed to do, just meet everyone?”

  “Yeah,” she said. Her eyes flickered. “Everyone. Be sure to dress up. She likes it that way.”

  Ms. Ballantine did seem overly formal. I was standing, and Anjali was still sitting, and she wouldn’t leave. Maybe she was trying to be my friend. I’d forgotten what that was like.

  I cleared my throat, trying to make it obvious that I wanted the room to myself, when I noticed it, on the wall behind her: a random extra door carved into the wall, blocked by my bed, painted the same white as the wall.

  “What’s that?” I said.

  “Huh?” she said, and turned.

  The door was short—it came up to my neck, and I was only five feet tall. Even the knob was painted white, as if to blend in with the wall. In order to open the door, we would have had to move the entire bed, an impossible task with two people crowding the space on the floor.

  “Hey! My room doesn’t have one of those!” Anjali said. Before I knew it, she’d reached out to take the knob.

  Something came over me. I lunged, grabbing her hands, grabbing them hard, holding her back by the wrists.

  I had a frantic, furious need to do it. On the other side of that door was nothing I could let her or anyone see—I felt that in my bones. It was mine and mine only. This was my room and not hers, and that was my door.

  I couldn’t say why I kept her there, trapped, all so she wouldn’t touch a doorknob, but there was nothing else I could have done. Her wrists were so thin, the veins and arteries and bloodwork palpable under her skin, and I was holding so tight. My nails dug in. I could have snapped her wrists like twigs, and it was something I thought about: how strong and capable you can feel one moment, how small and powerless the next.

  I didn’t know how long I held on, but when I finally came to, Anjali was backed up against the dresser, shielding her wrists. Red marks peeked out from where she tried to cover them.

  “What’s wrong with you?” she said.

  “I don’t know. I’m so sorry.” And I was, but there was a tiny fizz of energy in the depths of my chest, and it bristled. Burned. If this was an episode like the one I’d had downstairs in Ms. Ballantine’s office, I wasn’t sure what to make of myself. But I couldn’t let her know that. “Are you okay? I’m really, seriously so sorry.”

  “The door can’t even open,” she said. “The bed’s like right in front of it.”

  “I know.”

  She inched away from the dresser, careful to avoid touching me. The last thing she said to me before she left the room was, “I hope you like it here.”

  Faintly, in the back of my ears, I heard a hum.

  Now I was alone. I told myself it didn’t matter if my neighbors hated me—that was nothing new. I told myself it didn’t matter if they all talked about me before the party even started. This room was mine, and I needed to unpack and stake my claim. All that mattered was the fact that I was here, in this house, having this chance to be someone far away from who I was at heart. I might grow a new heart here. I might change into an entirely new person.

  I zipped open the suitcase to see what my mother had packed inside. There were tightly rolled coils of shirts and jeans and socks and pajamas, her signature style of arranging her dresser drawers. There were toiletries in zipped pouches. My prescriptions. My vitamins. My toothbrush. My phone adapter.

  She’d thought of everything . . . except something formal that I could pull off as a cocktail dress, because why would she think I’d need that?

  I was about to close the suitcase when the note slipped out. She’d carefully folded it around my hairbrush and written it small, in her rounded block letters that were so much like mine I should make a conscious effort to change my handwriting.

  Bean: This is temporary. Give the girls some time to cool down. It’s their house and you know I always try to respect that. I’m not choosing them over you. I’m giving you

  I didn’t read the rest.

  At the head of the bed was the window. I shoved it open as wide as it would go. Immediately off the window ledge was the fire escape, a black iron cage that gave me a miniature balcony, if I wanted to use it. Down below were the streets of the city, filled with millions of strangers who I hadn’t disappointed yet. I craned my head out the window, and I breathed in the air.

  I reached out my arm—I didn’t like heights and didn’t want to risk the rest of me—an
d I opened my hand, and I let the note from my mother go.

  The moment passed, and in the quiet of a summer city afternoon, reality set in. My mother didn’t know where I was. This was a first in our relationship, unknown territory. If anyone could understand wanting to be in this city, wanting to claw through the sidewalk to set roots here, anyone on this Earth, it would have been her.

  Yet she was no longer the same girl who’d dangled her legs off that fire escape, and she wasn’t the same woman who’d grabbed everything she owned and flagged down strangers in their cars to rescue herself and her daughter. She wasn’t brave, and she wasn’t trying to be somebody, not anymore. This was worse than when she converted and bent in the pew to pretend to pray. I barely recognized her lately, and we had almost the same face.

  Didn’t she remember running? Didn’t she remember all the things she said to me pre–Blue Mountain Road, pre-sisters, pre-grace, pre-Christmas, pre-settling, pre–giving in? Back then, the window we’d had to escape was so small, and it had closed tight. But not for me. I made it. I made it out, to New York City.

  Here was a vow, and this one was for myself:

  Like Lacey, I would find a way to stay.

  The Wolves

  I must have lain in bed for an hour, considering texting my mother and not going through with it, not even reaching for my phone to check again if she’d tried to contact me. My head pulsed, a faint knob of pain in the back from the night before, though I couldn’t remember if a foot or something else had hit it. A beer bottle maybe. Green glass. I pressed the spot, trying to massage it, but that didn’t help. My eyes closed, and I let them stay that way. I was curled up on my side, lying diagonally on the bed so I could catch the slight breeze from the window. I felt it rustle my hair the way a hand would. My mother used to do that to my hair when I was a little girl. In the background, five stories below, I heard the blare of a siren, cars honking in the street, some random weirdo shouting, maybe at nobody. City noises, gloriously alien in my ears—the way I’d always imagined them.

  Lying there, stretched out on my bed, listening to what was outside and the growing sounds inside in the common area as my new housemates came back to their rooms and started to get dressed for the party, I noticed a smell. So faint at first, a tickle in my throat. Then a rising wave, much stronger. A distinct, sweet, cloying stink.

  That wasn’t cigarette smoke. I breathed it in, and it calmed me. Definitely weed. I started sniffing, seeking out its origin. It seemed to be coming from the floor, seeping up through the cracks between the floorboards, from the room directly below mine.

  I pressed my body to the floor, not minding the smell so much, not minding at all. I heard humming. The girl below me. She started by humming a melody, but I couldn’t catch the song. I tried to make the sound clearer by suctioning one ear to the floorboards and plugging the other, straining to catch it.

  The vow made it clear that there was to be no smoking. Smoking weed would surely get the girl kicked out—if any­one told.

  I kept my ear to the ground, and the smell teased my nostrils. I sneezed. Right up against the floorboards.

  She stopped the song midnote.

  I held very still, sensing movement beneath me, some rustling, a scraping sound, then a careful silence. It felt as if someone had an ear pressed opposite mine, to the ceiling. How could anyone have climbed up there—on the dresser, with the desk chair balanced on top? I had no idea, except I sensed the proximity. A sensation of warmth spread from the floorboard through the pressed side of my face until it was so hot I had to pull my cheek away.

  Whoever my downstairs neighbor was, she was flouting the rules. She was doing what she wanted and only what she wanted, and I wondered what kind of life that might be like to walk around in, how dazzling were those shoes.

  That was when I heard it.

  It sounded distinctly like knuckles knocking on wood, and it was coming from the small white-painted door behind my mattress.

  I crawled close and put my ear to it. I was sure I’d heard three sharp raps against the wood, coming from the other side, but now there was silence.

  I leaned forward and put my eye to the keyhole. Only darkness. I listened, concentrating with all my might, and . . . nothing.

  When I was backing my eye away from the keyhole, assuming I had imagined it all, I heard a sound that could only be human coming from the other side, in the dark pocket inside the wall.

  A sneeze. Someone was in there.

  I jumped up and grabbed the whole top mattress and flipped it sideways. Same with the box spring, which had a frilly skirt that flopped over my head like a white sheet as if I were playing ghost. I dove for the knob and turned it. The door creaked outward, and I didn’t have the space to open it the whole way, but I had room enough to see if anyone was standing there.

  There was no one and nothing. Only shadows.

  The sound must have been the house settling. The air ducts breathing. A hollow trick from inside the walls.

  But wait. What had this door revealed? A closet? An unnecessary and very, very dark closet? I tried to wedge it open wider, but the box spring was in the way, so I pushed myself through, into the darkness.

  ━━━━━

  It was dark behind that short white door until I found the string dangling above me. I pulled it and, click, a lightbulb blazed to life, allowing me to see the walls—plain red brick—and the width of the area, which was narrow, only space enough for maybe two people to stand shoulder to shoulder, as long as their shoulders touched. Then I noticed the stairs.

  This was a stairwell, not a storage closet.

  I gazed up into the black, where the steps got erased. If I’d discovered a hidden staircase at home, and the stairs led into complete and total darkness, and there was nothing that forced me inside, I would do the sensible thing and hustle out of there, close the door, seal it shut, never open it again. Yet only the first day of my new life, and already I felt a different sensibility taking up residence in me, this unfamiliar electricity, this growing, humming charge.

  The stairs lifted only as far as the ceiling of my room, and then stopped in a blind corner. I’d have to go up there to see.

  One step at a time, the string connected to the bare lightbulb ticking as it swung, the wooden stairs cool beneath my bare feet, I reached the crook at the top, where they turned. The landing was narrow, and the next flight twisted again. It had to lead to an attic. I didn’t know why I kept going, why it mattered so much that I made sure.

  I kept my hands on the wall, one on either side, both sides brick. It was like climbing the inside of a chimney.

  At the top of the second flight, I expected to find a door—otherwise why a hidden set of stairs at all?—and there was a doorframe, the tall outline of it clearly visible in the wall. A doorframe, but where a door should have been was a bricked-up section of wall, blocking off any way of getting to the other side. The bricks were sloppy, as if they’d been hastily stacked, with fear and with force. Mortar sealed every crack.

  I pressed my ear against a cool patch of wall, but bricks were solid, dense—they didn’t carry sound.

  I pressed my hands to the bricks, seeking a hollow in the mortar somewhere, a crevice or breakaway where I might be able to peer in. Down on my knees, I found a hole, black and gaping, and I lifted my eye to it. Inside was more black, soft and somehow inviting.

  I slipped my finger inside to see if it was indeed a hole, and my finger went in all the way to the knuckle—the hole was deeper than I could reach.

  I snatched my hand back.

  When I put my eye to it one more time, I swore there was movement, a shifting of the shadows, from darker to darkest. Then it came into focus. I saw a girl in that darkness, but far away, farther than possible, as if I were peering through a telescope trained on a distant spot. Her back was to me as she walked down a dense, wooded road. Som
e­thing tugged at me, something familiar, and I was tumbling forward.

  ━━━━━

  Time behind my eyelids has ricocheted backward, to the night before.

  I am walking down the road, around the bend from the willow—the old highway that has no streetlights or real shoulder. I’m on foot, because I don’t have a driver’s license anymore, or a car to borrow. My mother told me not to go, but here I am, seeking it out—the party.

  The air smells so clean. I’m wearing the same clothes, gripping the same small flashlight from a keychain without any keys. I’m vibrating with purpose. The anger is fresh, not yet sour and puckered. I picture two figures on a target in the distance, and that steers me on.

  In summer, parties here are always outdoors, the night sky open to shouting, the ground of dirt and moss gone damp with spills of cheap liquor and beer. That means there are no visible walls or edges, no door to keep someone out.

  I know where to find the party, concealed in the woods and away from the road so prying adults won’t be alerted and shut it down. When I stand on the outskirts, watching the group gathered too close to the campfire, I feel the pull at my ankle, as if something from deep down in the soil wants to hold me back. But it’s only the snarl of a tree root, and I tug my foot free and head into the noise, nearer to the flames.

  I don’t belong, though it’s dark enough that I’m able to blend in, fish out a beer from the cooler, take a perch on a rock at a distance from the fire. I’m searching for them. Light flickers over faces, creating sinister eyebrows and beaked noses, mouths shadow-shaped into leering sneers. The bottle in my hand is as green as the tree canopy in daylight. I’m holding it to my lips, tipping it back. Next I know, the bottle is empty and I’m getting another. The plan is wobbling. Or I am. I came to confront the sisters, but I’ve lost the bottle and I’m too far from the cooler to grab one more. I hear my name. Some guy from school is calling. I hear a group of girls at the fire, talking loud, though not at me, never at me, and beneath that, the far-off howl of some kind of animal. I think of being mauled by a wolf and living in its skin all through winter, which would mean I’d never make it out of here, not ever.

 
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