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A room away from the wol.., p.8

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 8

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  But listen—some guy is calling my name.

  “Who’s there?”

  My body goes looking. Away from the fire, from the cooler of beer and the people not welcoming me in.

  Something’s not right. I’ve been lured into a dark clearing, but no boy is here.

  What happens next is swift. The alcohol may confuse things, and maybe words were exchanged, maybe there were warnings and threats, but the first thing I understand is a low kick from a green sneaker with clean white laces that seem to glow in the dark like teeth. Then other kinds, all kinds of shoes in all colors, multiple feet.

  I hear myself cry out and stand to take it, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. The girls have grown countless arms in the dark. The trees themselves have joined in. I can’t fight them off, can’t keep them away. Among the girls are two I’ve grown up with since I moved into their house when I was nine. My older stepsister—a year older, a head taller—is wiry and strong, with solid radar in the night. My other stepsister uses fingernails. Their friends are along for the ride. A sparse stand of birch trees sways above and behind them. The attack lasts a few minutes. It lasts all night. The world goes dark for a second, but I blink and come to.

  Go home. We don’t want you here, someone says from above me. Someone else pours warm beer over me and then drops the bottle, not caring where it lands. Beer has leaked into my ear and pooled in my head, making my thoughts float.

  When I next lift my eyes, the girls hold sticks aloft, grabbed from the ground and torn from trees, to show what’s in store if I don’t leave. My arms are up, and I’m scrambling away. As soon as there’s room enough to bolt, I run.

  I feel them behind me, giving chase. Fuzzy patches of movement in the darkness, gray. Howls carrying through the air, coming after me.

  By the time I reach the break in the woods and see a glimpse of paved road, I haven’t heard anyone behind me for a while.

  I wait, bracing myself. I’m wielding my own stick now. I’m waving it in the air, not sure where to aim.

  Nobody’s there.

  Nobody’s even close. The trees swish in response, but I’m alone now. Sounds of the party filter through the brush—oblivious and going on without me, as it should have all along. It’s far away in the distance, separate from me.

  I can’t catch my breath, and every part of my body feels hot, the pain rushing through me from one place to the next, swallowing me in waves. I can’t see clearly through my eyes. One is a pinhole of low light, not usable at all. The other side is blurry. My ankle gives out, and I sit down within view of the road.

  “I’m right here,” I yell into the woods, as if someone might still be coming for me. “Where’d you go? I’m right here.”

  ━━━━━

  Wake up. Those two words again at my ear like the lightest touch of a hand. I bolted up with a sting, as if someone had pulled my hair.

  I’d forgotten where I was so completely that it took many blinks of my eyes before I recognized the four solid walls around me (three white, one exposed brick), the window, the desk and chair, the mirror, the dresser, the suitcase my mother packed for me, the closed and locked door.

  The door behind my bed was sealed shut, the mattress and box spring in front of it as before. I was not on a set of stairs in the dark. I was on my back, in my tiny room. My eyes were cloudy, as if my ability to see were brand-new.

  I waited for my heartbeat to return to normal. I waited for my thoughts to clear. I breathed.

  As I was lying there coming to realize I couldn’t possibly go downstairs tonight and I would have to skip the party—it wasn’t like I had a single thing to wear—I heard a voice coming from the window over my bed.

  The voice of a girl.

  “I heard you moved in. I have something for you.” Followed by a whisper of movement.

  “Hello?” I said, but she didn’t answer, she didn’t say who she was.

  When I rolled over, I found the dress dangling off the windowsill, half hanging onto the fire escape, half draped on my pillow. It shifted in a gust of wind, shimmering slightly. A black dress with iridescent accents of deep blue. Cocktail-style—I was sure of it, though I’d never before thought about what that might mean. The note folded up around one of the straps didn’t have my name, but in an awkward burst of bad handwriting it said this:

  Black and blue. Made me think of you. Borrow this and see you at the party?

  —Monet

  Part Three

  The Welcome Party

  That evening I tried to forget what came before and only think about what might come now, tonight. I dropped the black-and-blue dress over my head and let it fall down my body. It was cool to the touch, its outside slick with shine, the inside velvet-soft. The zipper rippled against my hip, a faint scritch-scratch on skin.

  There was a mirror on the wall of my room, perched high enough for a face. If I were taller, it would have shown my neck and shoulders, but at my height, it sliced off my chin. The reflection showed a sweaty nest of frizzed-out hair, a purple eye, a scabbed lip, two tomato-flushed cheeks. When I stood on the desk chair to get a view of the dress, the mirror lost my head and stopped at my knees. I became a body only. I could have been anyone, even Monet, my mysterious downstairs neighbor the others were whispering about, the one so generous with the contents of her closet.

  The dress slithered around my legs, pooling over my feet. I stepped off the chair. The dress may have been too long, made for a tall person, but if I kept track of the hem when I was walking and didn’t trip, maybe I’d blend in downstairs.

  In minutes my hair was up, my face cleaned and re- covered with makeup, and I headed down. As I descended, I could hear the chatter coming from below. It lifted through the stairwell, a scatter of conversation and laughter. Every girl in the house must have been there.

  I paused on the second-floor landing, hidden by the angle of the wall. The last time I’d crashed a party was a nightmare, a mistake. I pictured all the tenants of Catherine House turning on me, their frenzied faces forming a circle around me. When I ran, their arms waving sticks through the corridors, chasing me down all the stairs and out the front door, shoving me through the gate onto the street, howling like they were no longer human. Even the air smelled like it was happening again, sour with beer and sweat, warm and earthy, like a mouthful of dirt.

  I couldn’t escape. I’d brought it here with me. If I closed my eyes, I would see it, as if it had never stopped and the night didn’t end.

  I turned to go back. All I wanted was to close myself behind the door of my little room.

  I took a step up, but something caught my attention.

  The Catherine House girls in the closest posed portrait, center in a series from the 1920s, seemed familiar for a moment. Only, I hadn’t studied the portraits from this decade. I’d started paying more attention only as I climbed and as they became more recent and might be a group containing my mother.

  Now, certain faces stood out. A couple of them were ones I swore I’d seen before. One of them had dark, distinct freckles, as if someone had taken ink to her face. I leaned in for a better look.

  At the same time, a girl rushed up the stairs around the corner and almost slammed into me. Dark-clothed, dark-haired, pale-faced beneath the swift slash of her bangs. I knew who she was. Gretchen, the very first girl I’d met here.

  She cast an indignant snarl at me. Her chest was heaving, and clasped to it, again, was the gold-bound book. “You’re late,” she snapped. “You almost made me climb all the way up there to get you.”

  “Why were you coming to get me?”

  “Anjali didn’t want to. Ms. B made me volunteer. What’s taking you so long, anyway? It’s almost nine.” Then she noticed the dress I had on, its shoulder strap slipping fast, and her expression sharpened.

  “I was getting dressed,” I said. In truth,
I’d slept away most of the afternoon and into the evening. I hadn’t eaten—I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had solid food. Then there was the door in the wall. The stairs. The bricked-up passage—to where, and what? Sliding on the dress had distracted me from everything, and Gretchen had distracted me from the portraits on the stairwell wall.

  “C’mon already,” Gretchen said. She had my arm and was pulling me down the stairs. “This party wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t for you. You’re the guest of honor.”

  “I am?” I said, uneasy. She’d muttered those last words out of the corner of her mouth, as if she didn’t want to say them.

  “Don’t pretend you don’t like it.”

  “Why are you bringing a book to a party?” I asked. She was even more antisocial than me if she planned to sit in a corner and read.

  “I’ve read it eleven times already. I practically know every word.” She said this defensively, as if well aware I wouldn’t get it, and as soon as we hit the bottom of the stairs, she let go of my arm and headed for the chaise lounge. To anyone who would listen she announced, “I found her. She didn’t jump out a window or anything. She just takes forever to get dressed.”

  No one really responded.

  There was a chatter of voices, faint music coming from somewhere I didn’t see. I entered the parlor and felt a sinking sensation under my toes as I stepped onto the carpet. The gathering was quieter than I expected, but still intimidating, with a room full of a dozen or so young women. They all showed an awareness that I’d entered, and a few girls smiled at me, though they went back to their conversations. No one approached. Ms. Ballantine didn’t swoop in. I stood in a pool of my awkwardness, soaking in it. Minutes passed. I didn’t understand how I was the guest of honor for anything.

  Scanning the room, I found Anjali. She was smiling and talking with her hands, deep in conversation with a few other girls, so graceful in a pale-yellow dress that dipped down her back. There was a faint discoloration visible on her wrists—the red marks I’d made had darkened—and I only hoped no one noticed. I found Lacey, wearing off-white with a high neck and no sleeves, the toned muscles in her arms showing, but she didn’t meet my eyes. Even she was smiling, but I was too far away to see any expression beyond that on her face.

  I would have gone over to compliment their dresses, I would have joined the conversation, I would have, but I stayed put.

  The entire front parlor was furnished in that collection of gold-velvet claw-footed pieces from another century, same as in the photos on the stairwell and matching the chair I’d sat in when I arrived. A faint scent rose from the furniture, from its golden, lumpy skin. Fabric freshener, cloying with gardenias, and beneath that, mildew. The gold-velvet couch, low and deep like a boat, fit four girls, and four girls exactly. They nodded at me but did not get up. I found a space by the wall and fiddled with the dress straps that kept falling from my shoulders. The shadow there was cooler, out of the way. There was no central air in the room, and a trickle of sweat ran down my back. A ceiling fan whipped in vicious circles, raining down gusts of warm wind.

  Ms. Ballantine saw me and offered a tight smile, but she didn’t make a move to cross the room. If this party was meant to welcome me into the house, wouldn’t Ms. Ballantine have clinked a glass and called out my name? Or something? She only kept an eye on me. A number of the girls did, subtly, sideways. I adjusted my shoulder strap again.

  Around a grand piano, lid up and keys quiet, a few more girls gathered, whispering, their backs to where I stood. Then the knot of girls opened—whispers ceasing—and a head lifted from the rest.

  I knew that girl.

  How she’d fooled me.

  She had known I was trying to find this house, and she could have easily pointed me in its direction from the start, but instead she played games. She lived here, at Catherine House, all along. Now the girl from Waverly and Waverly was dressed for the party, with lips dark and eyes black-lashed, daggered at the edges. The shirt she wore was black, the neckline low, with pants instead of a skirt. All of that made sense. But her hair . . .

  It had been short when we spoke on the sidewalk, I was sure of it. Now it was lavender-tinged, shoulder-coasting, noticeably transformed. Was it her?

  She didn’t acknowledge me at first. What she did was play with a piece of hair by her ear, pulling it back so the shiny lavender locks revealed underneath, tucked away, that her hair was shorter and dark as before. She tugged it free, let me notice, then tucked it back in. Something inside me swiveled and swerved. Something shook loose.

  It was the same girl. Only now she was wearing a wig, and for some reason she wanted me to know it. No one had to tell me her name was Monet.

  She made a show of looking me up and down, taking in my dress, so I had to acknowledge, had to let her know I knew.

  Thank you, I mouthed. For the dress. I didn’t have a way to ask how she could have possibly known I’d needed one. Did Ms. Ballantine tell her? Did she guess?

  She shrugged, as if to say it was nothing.

  All this happened from across the large room, amid chatter, glasses clinking. Girls and furniture and the body of the piano stood between us, but it felt like she was huddled up next to me at the wall, my mouth to her ear.

  I tore my eyes away and edged, from my spot against the wall, closer to one of the short display tables. Each dark, oiled wood table was hip-high. Displayed on lace doilies were so many random objects. Souvenirs. Artifacts. I let my fingers dance over a vanity set made of silver, showing a silver-plated brush, mirror, and two fan-shaped barrettes, and a small silver comb. The comb had the tiniest teeth, sharper than expected. I was poking one into my index finger when I was interrupted.

  A blond girl pushed her face into my view. The first thing I noticed after her overwhitened smile was her bright hair, which seemed to be everywhere. She was holding a small glass plate of sweating grapes and cubed cheese, and pushing it in my face. Apparently the food was meant for me.

  “Take it before I drop it,” she said. “Monet said I should give this to you as an apology for this afternoon, but for what? What did she do?”

  I balanced the plate in my hand but didn’t try anything. The grapes were dripping with condensation; a puddle pooled under them. I couldn’t bear to put one in my mouth.

  I remembered what Monet had said to me on the street, only hours before: that I held my cards close, and that I should keep doing it.

  “I can’t say,” I said. “It’s something between her and me.” I liked the way that sounded, coming out of my mouth, about her. A blooming secret I’d created this moment.

  The blond girl blinked a few times. I’d rattled her.

  “I’m Bina, by the way,” I said. “I moved in today.”

  “Yeah, like we don’t know. I’m Harper, third floor.”

  “Fifth,” I said, wondering if it meant something in the house, the floor your pocket-size room was on, if that would determine a thing out of my control.

  “Yeah, we know,” Harper said.

  So they knew my name and my room, but they didn’t know anything else about me. My makeup was fresh, though the heat made me worry I’d sweat it off. I could say anything at all happened to me: accident by car or skateboard, mugging like I’d told Anjali, even a simple clumsiness, like I’d walked into a door.

  But Harper didn’t mention it. Maybe she was being polite.

  “How long have you been staying here?” I asked her.

  “A while,” she said vaguely. She averted her eyes to a gold tasseled cushion on the couch.

  I wanted to ask what brought her here—had she gotten in trouble, and what kind? Was she hiding from something, and if so what, or who? But she didn’t seem particularly bothered and told me without prompting.

  “It was my stepdad,” she said, gazing almost blankly back at me. “He tried to murder me, so I tried to murder
him. It was a whole thing.”

  “What?” I said, startled.

  She popped a grape into her mouth, chewed, swallowed, popped another. “You were wondering why I came to Catherine House, right? Sob story, blah-blah-blah, he-said-she-said and all that. Who knows what happened anymore? It was such a long time ago.”

  She seemed about my age, but she was acting like this was something that had happened years ago.

  “But I’m safe here. We all are.” She paused, and a flare of awareness shot through her eyes. “Even you.”

  Now I was the one to wonder what she knew about me. This room must have been clogged with secrets, but I could focus only on my own.

  Ms. Ballantine drifted by, and Harper’s face went studiously blank again, flat as an unmarked board. “Love the dress,” Harper said loudly. “So shiny. Where’d you get it?”

  My body did the betraying. Before a conscious thought entered my mind, my head was turned toward the piano, to seek her out. She was talking to one of the other girls, her back to us, the line of her long neck making me so curious. The wig seemed like another game she was playing, maybe even for my benefit. What were her secrets? What was her story?

  “Hello,” Harper said. “Your dress? Where’d you get it?”

  “I bought it,” I said. “At a store?”

  “Right,” Harper said. “I’ve heard of those things. Stores.” It was plain who the dress belonged to, I realized, it was recognized and known, and she had been testing me. I’d failed without even trying.

  I’d noticed Lacey crossing the room near us. “Hey,” I called to her. “Wait.”

  She kept going on her way to the finger foods, but I reached out to touch her arm. It was so cool.

  “I’m in Room Fourteen,” I said, once she stopped moving.

 
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