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A room away from the wol.., p.9

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 9

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  “I know,” she said. “I saw you upstairs, remember?”

  “Did you ever,” I started. Harper was listening intently, watching my mouth. I leaned closer to Lacey for a crumb of privacy. “What’s up with that door?” I finally asked, unsure how to put it all to words, what I’d felt when I reached the top of those stairs, my hands against brick, my eye to the dark and impassable crevice. Had it even happened at all?

  “What door?” She spoke far louder than my liking.

  “The door in the wall. The one behind the bed?”

  Not that many hours had passed, but the sadness in Lacey’s eyes had faded—though a shadow was still there, something unspeakable. Harper had a similar shifting shadow in her eyes. Gretchen had one. Even Anjali did. Did all the girls carry an unspoken heavy thing they wouldn’t let out, even when they were smiling?

  “Oh that,” Lacey said. “That’s just a storage closet. I found an old vacuum cleaner in there and a bunch of hangers.” She said this with a straight face. She didn’t seem like a liar. And yet.

  “You know what, Bina?” Harper said, cutting in. “We were all wondering how you found out about Catherine House anyways. Like, it’s not advertised. You have to really go poking around, or know someone who knows. But you showed up out of nowhere. What’s that about?”

  “I do. Know someone who knows. My mom. She stayed here a long time ago, like eighteen years ago. She had Room Ten. I wanted that room, same as hers, but Ms. Ballantine said—”

  Nerves got me talking, but I cut myself off, because they both seemed so surprised. I’d been warned to hold things close, and here I was talking about my mother.

  “Eighteen years?” Harper said. “That’s so . . . specific.”

  I shrugged. That was how long it had been.

  Harper shot a look at Lacey. “Eighteen years,” she repeated, with emphasis.

  “Interesting,” Lacey said. That small admission made her pay true attention to me for the first time. She noticed my black eye blotted down to lavender, my broken lip painted over in an attempt to hide the cut, the cuticles I bit to shreds on my fingers, the chipped nail polish from weeks ago, the sandals that didn’t match my dress with the hem too long that I’d stepped on again. She noticed.

  Did it bother them that my mother had been a tenant? Other girls were peeking over. The girl with the dotting of freckles all across her face—Ms. Ballantine had called her Miss Tedesco—was watching me openly. For a moment, I thought she was the same girl from the 1920s photograph on the stairwell. But she wasn’t. She was the girl who asked about ice. That’s who she was.

  Monet was the only one in the room not in the least concerned with what I was doing. She was standing before the fireplace, gazing up at the framed photograph of Catherine de Barra, the house’s grim namesake.

  All those eyes on me created a desperate need to scratch at my hip bone. The fancy silver antique comb I’d swiped from the display table and slipped in through the side zipper of my dress was tickling my skin, its teeth nipping where it was tucked into my underwear, right at the waistband. One of the teeth was especially digging in. And now it was all I could feel, it was all I could think about, and I had to do it. It couldn’t wait. I had to.

  With slow movements, trying to be casual, I gave in and scratched. Harper and Lacey didn’t seem to notice, and the girl with the freckles didn’t seem to notice, but across the room someone had turned, someone had stopped studying the portrait on the wall, someone saw me scratch, and this someone smirked.

  To cause a distraction, I reached out to the closest item on the closest display table as if to admire it. I didn’t care what my hand found. It happened to be a paper fan, purple- flowered, delicately painted, the surface oily and slick.

  As soon as my hand was on it, Gretchen was beside me. She snatched the fan from my fingers and set it back on its bed, made from a yellowing lace doily. “I know it’s a hundred degrees in here, but I told you not to play with them,” she said. “All of these were Catherine’s. These were gifts from her boyfriends, and souvenirs from her dad, when he traveled the globe. They were here when she died, they’re here still, and we’re not supposed to mess with them.” She stood guard between me and the table.

  “Sorry,” I said. “I forgot.” The itch had stopped. The comb in my waistband was tingly against my skin now, a delicious sensation.

  Gretchen smoothed the doily and was about to step away when I asked her: “How do you know all that? Who told you?”

  “Catherine,” she said. I immediately thought of Ms. Ballantine and the phone call.

  But Gretchen didn’t mean anything weird. She lifted the book—she had it even now, concealed behind her back. Its gold cover was satiny, sewn together. Many corners of its pages had been turned down.

  “Catherine wrote down every gift anyone ever gave her,” she said.

  “Really?” I said. “In that book?”

  She nodded, fever spots spreading on her cheeks.

  “Catherine de Barra did,” I repeated, sensing the photograph looming behind me. “That was hers? Where’d you get it? Can I see?”

  “Not on your life,” Gretchen said. “This is her private diary. But if you’re wondering where that fan came from, imperial Japan. Her dad brought it back after he was away for four months. He came home with it in December of 1917.” She closed her eyes as if rummaging around her memory for the exact date, as if I cared to hear it. “The thirteenth. A Thursday. She thought he’d left her to die in this house all alone. She would wait at that window, watching the gate, to see if he showed.” She pointed into the foyer, at the stained-glass sliver of a window beside the front door, just narrow enough for a girl to stand, her eyes peeking through a shard of blue glass, or a shard of green, of gold, of warm red, depending on how tall she was.

  “What do you know about how she died?” The question was out before I knew I was about to ask it.

  “Catherine?” Harper said, butting in, her mouth twitching.

  “Ms. Ballantine said something about an ‘incident.’”

  Gretchen shook her head. She knew, and she wasn’t telling.

  “We can talk about that, can’t we?” I asked. “Do you know what happened?”

  Harper’s eyes went wide. A girl on the couch bolted upright.

  “Don’t you know?” Harper said. She paused. “You know about the roof, right? Your mom . . . I mean, she must have told you.”

  Lacey nodded. “If her mom was really here eighteen years ago, she would know.”

  A crawling feeling. My head nodding. She told me. I did know. I was only checking, asking like that. Of course I knew.

  I looked to the portrait, I couldn’t help it. Monet had gotten much closer. She was tall, much taller than me, so when she reached the lip of the fireplace mantel, she was a whole head and shoulders above it and level with Catherine’s posed feet.

  Monet was close enough now to touch the glass with her finger. I wanted to ask her if the picture of Catherine had changed at all since she’d started watching it. If right then, before her very eyes, the mouth had shifted into a sinister smile. Just to see if I was alone in what I saw before, all alone.

  Monet didn’t appear to be the least bit surprised or frightened. I knew it then. She couldn’t see the picture moving at all. That was only for me.

  All along I’d been trying to avoid it, but now I had to see.

  Catherine had a stern set to her mouth, her lips tight and flat like a ruler. There was no smile. Maybe there never had been a smile. Her hands were still clasped on her lap, in a knot above her knees. I knew I should leave her be.

  Yet I found myself moving. My feet barely had to do the walking—I was pulled by a string. I was wheeled on a dolly. I was there before I knew it, at the mantel, pushing past Monet to take the space front and center, my neck lifting, my eyes gazing up. Catherine wasn’t scowling an
ymore. Her eyes were deep black pools, perfectly serene. Her mouth was loose and coming open, a hint of teeth showing. There was no mist or fog—it was all so clear. On her faint gray face was a new and undeniable grin, a hard beam of light that landed straight on me.

  My ears stopped taking in sound.

  I saw Catherine de Barra herself, there inside her frame facing the foyer, I saw a ripple come over the image, a faint blur as she shifted in her chair. She was closer to the front of the frame, closer to the glass. She’d adjusted the way she was sitting so I could see it better. See what was on her hand.

  There, protruding from her finger, was a dark object, glimmering so brilliantly that I almost thought I could reach through glass and time and remove it.

  In the photograph, she was wearing the black opal, the very one. That was how my mother had found it, eighteen years ago—it hadn’t come from the city outside; it had come from this house.

  Black opals are beautiful, but some myths say they can also be terrible, even cursed. They are as shiny and lovely as they are said to be angry and foul of mood. I’d read all about them, and I didn’t believe a thing about their bad hearts. People were ignorant, afraid. I’d touched one, held it, tried it on the once, and I knew it to be good. I’ve read that they are also as distinct as a handprint, no two the same. Before we buried it, my mother would remove it from the back of her dresser drawer, where it was camouflaged by her ugliest underwear. She would unwind it from the plain blue schmatte and let me watch as she slipped it on her ring finger, where a wedding band would go, and she would say she was alive today because of it, and let’s never forget that.

  I never did. I committed it to memory. I dreamed of it, sometimes, even after we moved away.

  And so, I would have known it anywhere. I lifted my finger to the glass, and Catherine de Barra’s finger, on the other side of the glass, reached out to touch mine. Her eyes sparked and seemed to contain a thousand different colors at once. The black of her irises was only a trick—inside was everything.

  A hand landed on my shoulder. I broke my stare at the portrait and turned, an insistent ringing in my ears.

  Ms. Ballantine had come up behind me. Her face had changed, softening, the apples of her cheeks glowing.

  Everyone was looking—more at Catherine than at me. I’d awoken something inside the picture, and now everyone in the room noticed. Maybe they saw the colors swirling in the blacks of her eyes and felt their hearts beating in a way that was urgent and right.

  “We were hoping, weren’t we, girls? We were all hoping,” Ms. Ballantine said. She squeezed my shoulder and would not let go. “Welcome.” A true smile broke open on her face, as if she’d been holding it in for such an excruciatingly long time, yellow teeth exposed and not even caring I could see them.

  I’d proven myself. I’d shown I was meant to be in this house, as my mother had been almost two decades ago. Ms. Ballantine saw me in a new light. Everyone did.

  “We have everyone we need now,” Ms. Ballantine announced to the others as they gathered closer, wrapping around me in a tight ring. “She’s the one we were waiting for. She’s here.”

  ━━━━━

  Time turned sticky. Time spilled slowly forward. Molasses. There was champagne, and there was wine, though most of us were underage. Ms. Ballantine looked the other way. There was loud laughter, dancing, spilling champagne and wine and crushed cubes from an endless supply of ice. I met the other girls, each one, even if there were too many names to remember and I couldn’t recall who I’d met already, and heard the reasons that brought them here to rent rooms. Some had run away, and others had been kicked out. Some were hiding from mistakes that felt too heavy to confront. No one could tell me exactly how many weeks they’d been here, how many months, only that it had been a long time. The faces and hair colors and moving mouths blended together after a while. Some of the girls seemed dressed for another time, as if this were a costume party and we didn’t all get the memo. Others wore tattered dresses, as if they owned only a single one. I noticed these things, but none of it mattered, really. They all wanted me here. No one was running me out of the house for crashing their celebration—no one.

  There was a moment when it seemed like more than fourteen of us had come to claim the remaining empty chairs and openings on the furniture, that when there was nowhere left to sit, young women pressed in around the piano, they lined the standing shelf where the cold drinks were served, they occupied any gap they could. I even thought I spotted a young version of my mother, at the back of the crowd, so short she was squeezed between two shoulders, but it was only the gold-framed mirror mounted on the wall, a quick flash of my own reflection. I appeared so giddy when I saw myself, so alive.

  Maybe I should have understood what was wanted of me—why everyone would welcome me in so enthusiastically, what kind of circle I was closing by being the last girl. It was assumed I knew, because my mother must have told me.

  I acted like I did know. I figured it would become clear to me sooner or later.

  When the candles were brought out, and the party moved out to the garden, I followed at the tail end of the crowd, not sure what was happening but swept away and willing to swallow my questions. Ms. Ballantine led the procession out the front door and down the stoop, through the tall iron gate and onto the sidewalk, and then through another gate beside the house, where it was dark and smelled, strangely, a lot like home. This was the private garden space, locked to our neighbors and tourists alike. Here, she said, we would pay our respects under open air.

  It seemed more choreographed than an impromptu visit could be, and when we had walked in a line through the gated space to form a circle in the darkness, I began to have an inkling.

  I was the only one who hadn’t known we’d end up here. My candle flickered. The faces of the girls shown in that flicker were solemn, full of concentration, but never confused, never uncertain.

  I got distracted keeping the flame out of my hair, which had come loose, so the flyaways were everywhere. It was too dark to see our city garden, how big it was, what was planted, if it had trees and how tall. I could smell the plants and sensed myself surrounded by their not-unpleasant muggy heat. There was soft, yielding dirt under my sandals instead of flat concrete. There were small spots of light from our candles, wobbling and fluttering in the night air like fireflies.

  Ms. Ballantine clapped her hands, and we quieted. The glow of her candle made the jewelry on her fingers shriek with light. “Now we are all here,” she said—and I sensed her nodding in my direction, though I could barely see the shadowed movement—“and now that she’s awake and listening, we will try to reach Catherine, to see what she wants of us, to see how we can help her, and if she’ll let those of us leave who want to go.”

  This set off some faint murmurs near me, a flurry of attention, girl to girl.

  Ms. Ballantine clapped again, and the girls stopped whispering, chastised. “First, the offerings.”

  I kept myself back as one by one the girls approached a dark space at the center of our ring. They seemed to be leaving items on a raised ledge of some kind, a tall stone, and, as they did, whispering a message, saying a thank-you. I couldn’t follow the words exactly. In the glow of the candles, I thought I caught a shiny coin, a souvenir yellow taxicab, a candy necklace, a bottle-opener keychain.

  Soon it was my turn, but no one had warned me or prepared me to take part.

  “What am I supposed to do?” I whispered to the girl next to me. It was Gretchen, who only shoved me forward, and then after her, Harper, who gave me a gentler nudge. Ms. Ballantine waved an arm to usher me to the center, and so I stood there, the others all around me. I found the monument and put my hand on it, touching the offerings.

  Leaning in close, I found what appeared to be a dark hole in the ground right beside the monument. I couldn’t sense or see a bottom. The light of my candle didn’t reach t
hat far.

  I had no pockets, no bag or purse. All I had was the comb I’d stolen from the parlor—and maybe it was sloppy of me to pull it out, maybe I would regret it in daylight, but it was all I had to give.

  “I’m sorry I took it,” I whispered to the dark, unknowable space at my feet, as if Catherine were listening and might understand.

  There was a hush, and then a few mutters I couldn’t make out, but no one called me on it. I stepped back into the ring of candlelight, where I’d been before, the comb no longer tickling my waistline. I felt empty.

  “Now let’s listen,” Ms. Ballantine said. She closed her eyes, and the fire danced on her eyelids. It danced over everyone’s eyelids but my own, because the whole time my eyes were open. Then across the way, I noticed another pair of eyes that did not close—Monet’s.

  The others listened. The tenants and Ms. Ballantine listened, and Monet and I fake-listened, but there was nothing to decipher, nothing to translate, nothing whatsoever to hear. Quiet blanketed the garden, as if a whole city weren’t on the other side of that gate.

  After a time, Ms. Ballantine sighed, which indicated the listening time was over. Her shadow in the night seemed deflated, thinner and more bent than before. Had she expected her ghost to talk out loud, in front of everybody? Perform for us?

  “I do apologize,” she said. Disappointment tinged her voice. Now her candle flame stayed away from me—as if avoiding even touching where I stood.

  Murmurs. Rumblings. A few hushed complaints. Then a hand—I wasn’t sure whose—squeezing my own as if I needed comfort.

  “Thank you,” Ms. Ballantine said to us all. “Thank you for trying. It’s been eighteen years exactly, to the month, and with Miss Tremper now here, I must have thought . . . But I was mistaken.” She stopped, fumbled, and was quieter when she next spoke. “She’ll show herself to us another time.”

  She blew out her candle. The girl with the freckles—at my elbow, I hadn’t noticed her before—did, too, with a hard hiss of breath.

 
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