Prologue

Romi

 

“Sit there and don’t move.” The female cop sounds gruff, and her eyes are hard when she motions toward a bench where two men are sitting handcuffed with their hands on their backs. I’m cuffed too, but at least with my hands in front of me. Trembling, I obey.

“Officer?” I plead. “Please. What am I accused of?”

“Just sit tight. And I’m watching you.” The cop glares at me, and I know I’m seconds away from being cuffed like the guys. The fact that I’m not may be because I’m five foot two and scrawny. I probably look to her as if she can restrain me with one hand while she eats her lunch with the other.

I cling to the faux leather bag in my lap, as it holds all my worldly possessions. The cop has already searched it but found nothing she was interested in. She looked mildly surprised at the worn notebook where I jot down notes every day in super-tiny handwriting. That way it lasts me a long time. I keep sharpening the pencil when I write for that purpose. Pencils are cheap, and sometimes I prioritize, using the money I make singing in the subway to buy them instead of food.

“I’ve seen you around,” one of the young men beside me says, not unkindly. “You’re that singer.”

I’m not sure whether to feel flattered or freaked out. Who knows why he’s here in cuffs? If the cops let him go—and me—what if he comes looking for me?

“Mmm,” I say noncommittally.

“You’ve got a good voice. Why’re you here?”

“No clue.” I turn to him and see nothing but friendliness in his eyes. Blue eyes nearly void of pupils show he’s on something, but he looks more dazed than someone who’s about to go postal. “You?”

“Possession.” He nods to his back pocket as if whatever he’s on is still there, but of course it’s not. The cops must’ve searched him. “Same ol’, same ol’.”

I have never fallen into the trap of doing drugs. With too many other problems, it seemed illogical to add to the mess that is my life. Living as a runaway from age sixteen creates enough hurdles.

“I’m Sam,” the guy says.

“Romi.” I nearly extend my hand to say hello but remember our handcuffs and merely do an awkward little wave with my fingertips.

“Come on, now.” The cop is back. “Time to take you through booking.”

Booking? My heart stops long enough to make me dizzy. “But, Officer, please tell me why. I have no idea how I broke the law. What did I do?” I walk obediently next to her, not wanting to do anything to make things worse, but so afraid that I’m shaking.

“All right, since you ask politely, unlike most I bring in.” Tall and with her brown hair in a tight bun, she stops and looks down at me. “Your wallet containing your expired ID was found at the scene of a B&E on the Upper East Side. A lot was stolen. You were identified by a police officer working in the subway, who recognized you from the photo.”

My wallet? My wallet that was stolen more than a month ago. And what the hell was a B&E? Breaking and entering? “But…my wallet was stolen. I had eight dollars and forty cents in it.”

“Convenient,” the cop says, shaking her head.

I realize nobody is going to believe me. I haven’t done anything illegal, at least nothing like that, but I’m among the lowest of the low in this city, so who’s going to take my words seriously?

The cop uncuffs one of my hands, and it looks like she means to attach the open cuff to a ring on the desk. I don’t know if it’s my slight frame or something else that makes her underestimate me, but she takes her eyes off me long enough for me to see my chance. A group of cops is heading our way, pushing four large young men along, and these guys aren’t cooperating. My cop is knocked aside but jumps into the fray to assist her colleagues by slamming one of the men into the wall. I see my brief window of opportunity the moment the thudding sound of bodies clashing against each other and into walls, and voices yelling out commands, attract all interest in the room.

I push my worn jacket off and fold it over my arm and hand to hide the dangling cuffs. I snatch an even worse-looking baseball cap from the head of a young boy that sits cuffed on a chair in front of my cop’s desk and put it on. It reeks of unwashed hair. The kid shouts something in protest, but all the noise drowns out his words.

Before I make my way out of there, the last thing I see is the cops drawing their Tasers against the men—and the thumbs-up from Sam where he grins lazily at me from the bench before mouthing, “Run!”

 

Chapter One

Romi

 

The basement looks just like I remember. Nobody has moved anything since Aunt Clara resided in the old farmhouse. She used the cellar to store preserves, old magazines, and a multitude of boxes containing things she was certain she would find a use for some day. Looking at the very same boxes now, I realize she never did. Good thing she didn’t change the secret spot for the spare key to the basement door either. Anyone could have found it, as hiding it above the doorframe is hardly original.

I haven’t been upstairs yet. From peeking through the windows, I could tell all the furniture is covered with sheets, which means someone has bothered to take care of the place. I’m not sure when Aunt Clara died. I only found out about it when browsing the local East Quay newspaper online at the library a year ago. That suggests the house has been empty for approximately that long, unless she was hospitalized for a long time. The obituary didn’t specify.

Six years ago, I ran away from my aunt’s indifference and went looking for a place to belong. I never did find what I was searching for, and it’s ironic that I’m back where I used to thoroughly hate my life.

I debate whether to risk going upstairs to explore but can’t come up with a reason. If the house has been uninhabited since Aunt Clara died, I won’t find any food upstairs. Whoever maintains the house must have cleared out the upstairs pantry and fridge. Down here, though, I see row after row of preserves. I look at the large chest freezer in the far corner. Could I be so lucky? I walk over, and just as I start to open it, I stop in mid-motion. The general power is off and probably has been since my aunt passed away. Whatever is in this freezer, if anything, is long expired. If I open it, I’ll just create a worse stink than the dust and dried-up sewage pipes put together.

I leave the old freezer alone and move over to the wooden shelves holding the preserves. Jam, applesauce, fruit, pickles, berries—all neatly stacked. I read the labels with some difficulty, as Aunt Clara’s old-fashioned handwriting apparently became trembly and barely decipherable during her last year. Still, she kept making the most of the fruits and vegetables in the garden. The dates indicate that her last batch won’t kill me. I know how careful she was, how meticulous about hygiene.

I pull out two jars of applesauce and one of pickles. I have some bread that I bought at a local baker in Westport, the village before East Quay. I walked to Aunt Clara’s farmhouse from there, not wanting to stumble across anyone in East Quay who might recognize me from my high school years. Granted, I only stayed long enough to finish the fall semester of my sophomore year, but I must remember to be careful. I do look very different nowadays compared to when I was clothed by my aunt and my hair styled in a long ponytail. My short, shaggy hair and lack of style when it comes to clothes might be enough of a disguise.

Now I place the jars on a small wooden table next to a wall of metal shelving. Here, Aunt Clara’s treasures are packed in neat boxes and labeled accordingly. I sometimes had to do that part, and Aunt Clara would huff and shake her head if I misspelled something or didn’t apply myself when it came to proper penmanship.

I grab one of the shelves’ consoles and tug gently. Nothing happens. I stand back and examine the floor. I do have the right shelf, and the faint scratch marks on the concrete floor prove it. I tug harder on the shelf, but still nothing. A memory, very faint, pokes at me, and I stand back, trying to figure out why the shelf won’t budge. I gaze up, squinting at the top shelf. Then I remember how, when I was little, I used to have to climb to reach the lever on it. Not that much taller now, I step on the first shelf and feel among the thick layer of dust for the narrow metal rod. I find it, but it’s damn near impossible to move. Will I have to find something to grease it with?

Just then it shifts and swings sideways, in over the top shelf. I jump down and pull at the shelf section again. This time it swings toward me as if I’d opened it yesterday. I grab my jars and step through the narrow opening. I let the shelf remain open, as I don’t know if the lever on this side will work just as well.

The narrow room is fully equipped, just like Aunt Clara’s husband planned it in the sixties. The floor is set deeper into the ground, so I have to go down four steps before I reach it. In here it’s not made of concrete, but hardwood. I spot the familiar twin bed to the right. A sealed plastic bag holds bedding and blankets, and a thick plastic sheet covers the foam mattress. Aunt Clara showed me early on how to take the mattress out once every three months and air it after smacking it with a rug beater. I was always afraid of that thing because Aunt Clara had made clear once and for all, when I came to live with her at age four, that she could use it for doing much more than beating rugs. I understood quite well that I had to be a very good girl in this house, or Aunt Clara might use the rug beater on me.

On the right side of the room, a small door leads into a fully functional shower and toilet. I open the door and peer inside. It’s dark and smells horrible, but not like a dead rodent or anything that foul. I flush the toilet, and at first, I think it’s broken, as no water runs into the bowl. But then the top part starts to fill, and the next time I press the handle, discolored water enters the bowl and levels out. I pee, glad to see four rolls of toilet paper on the shelf next to where I sit. I flush again, and this time the discoloration is less pronounced, or so I guess, since the light coming down the stairs from the basement lets me see very little.

The room has no windows, of course, only air vents with huge filters, which Aunt Clara showed me how to clean in the shower. Remembering the shower, I let the water run there, and it’s all cold, of course. The furnace isn’t operational, but the idea of having my own shower, even a cold one, makes me smile. I can get water because of the solar panels Aunt Clara had installed. She was very pleased about how well they worked, not only to supply her beloved husband’s nuclear-bomb shelter with electricity, but the entire house.

I flip the switch for the light, feeling silly for not remembering about the solar panels before. A ceiling light flickers and then lights up the secret room. I go over to the bed and click on the table lamp on the nightstand. Then I turn toward the kitchen area, albeit calling it a kitchen is taking it too far. It’s a kitchenette cabinet that holds a small freezer / fridge combo, a cooktop, a microwave, and storage for plates, utensils, cups, and glassware. The cabinet doors are well sealed, and it’s still clean inside.

Everything in the secret room must have been untouched for quite some time, unless Aunt Clara had the energy to keep it up until she died, and still it looks as pristine as when I saw it last. The only thing new to me is the microwave. I check under the bed. Oh, yes. There’s the generator that can be run using petrol or, if need be, hooked up to an exercise bike that sits at the foot of the bed. Its exhaust tube is connected to the ventilation shaft. That was her husband Julian’s original idea, and of course Aunt Clara maintained it religiously.

I open the fridge hesitantly, afraid to find some stinky mess in there, but it’s empty and clean. Of course. I place the jars inside and switch it on. Once I open them, they will need to stay refrigerated.

Making the bed is both therapeutic and practical. I’m surprised at the scent of lavender emanating from the plastic bag containing the sheets and blankets, until I remember how fanatic Aunt Clara was when it came to placing the dried plants in drawers and cabinets. I can’t remember when I last felt such nice bedding against my skin. Probably six years ago, in this house. The places I’ve slept since then have offered everything from coarse fabrics in shelters, to cardboard boxes under overpasses. No, that’s not true. There was that time when someone tried to mug an old lady in the subway, in the car where I was singing, and the guy knocked me over when he tried to escape. I hit the back of my head on an armrest that had been robbed of its padding and spent two nights in the hospital after they stitched me up. Those sheets were nice, but nowhere near as soft as these.

I realize I’ve put it off long enough. I must get my act together and walk upstairs. If nothing else, I could visit my old room, if it’s still intact, and carry down some of my stuff. Nervous as hell now, I remind myself to breathe before I climb the few steps to the basement and then face the stairs leading up to the main floor. It’s a large house.

The ground floor consists of a large hallway, a spacious country kitchen, two rooms for entertainment, and my late uncle’s study, which Aunt Clara referred to as the library after he passed away. I was never allowed in there unaccompanied since my aunt was sure I would mess things up—and God forbid I would want to take a book to my room to read. I honestly didn’t care since I was the local library’s best customer back then. Perhaps I can get a new library card… I realize what I’m doing and backpedal that thought. I have no ID. Not even my expired one. No chance in hell I can get a library card.

Sad and frustrated, I slowly make my way up the stairs to the ground floor. Curtains I don’t recognize are drawn close inside the windows, giving the rooms an eerie, misty ambiance. Getting closer, I see bed sheets flipped over the curtain rods. Behind them, my aunt’s drapes are still there, ever flowery and very pink. This meant she left this house, either when going into hospital or after dying at home, during the spring or summer. Had it been during the fall or winter, the drapes left behind would have been navy, green, or maroon velvet.

Walking through the hallway, I feel like I’m moving through a ghost house. The sheets covering furniture and windows make everything look alien and eerie. Dust floats in the air, probably because I’m the first in a long time to stir it up.

I take the stairs up to the next floor, steeling myself against what I may find when I open the door to the room that used to be mine. Holding my breath, I walk toward it, my steps slowing as I see it’s already wide open. Of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be? I used to keep it closed all the time, whether I was in there or not.

I stop on the threshold and peer into the room where I lived from age four until I turned sixteen. Everything is covered in sheets, but it’s also so familiar. Each outline under the dusty covers shows me that my furniture, and perhaps also my belongings, are there. An unexpected sound makes me jump, but then I realize it’s my own breathing. Why has Aunt Clara kept this up? Did she hope I’d return? The idea makes my throat ache, as if many years’ worth of tears have gathered there to choke me.

I cross the room to the shelf at the far end. Carefully trying not to disturb the dust, I lift the sheet that covers my old bookshelf. When I see my old books, bought with my own money that I earned from babysitting, lawn mowing, and such, I whimper again. This time the sound leaving my throat is half joyful and half full of…remorse?

I run my right index finger along the spines while I push the sheet out farther with my left hand. Picking out five titles I’m dying to reread, I tuck them into my jacket pocket, as I’m still wearing the thrift-shop bargain I scored two months ago. Two dollars gave me a gray jacket with a faux fur-lined hood and, best of all, with two huge pockets and four small ones.

I poke my head into each of the other three bedrooms, and they too look the same as before, though covered up.

Back on the ground floor, I hesitate again. I might never have been allowed in my uncle’s study, but I’ve seen it from the doorway enough times to know about the walls and walls of books. What kind did he and my aunt read? I’m curious enough to approach the double doors, which, unlike the others in the house, are closed. This gives me pause, but then I decide it’s pure coincidence. The sliding doors, old and made of massive oak, are a bit difficult to move but eventually slide open. I take one step inside the study—and just stare.

On the impressive desk, also made of oak, sits a computer screen. My aunt was against all such things, never even had a cell phone or, God forbid, a TV. Yet here’s what looks like a state-of-the-art machine with a screen that must be at least twenty-six inches wide and a midi tower. The keyboard and the mouse are both cordless.

When I raise my eyes and look around me, goose bumps erupt on my arms. No sheets anywhere. The bookshelves, holding almost more books than they can take, are free of dust. Looking down at the floors I can see they’re clean as well, except where my now-dusty soles have left prints. Afraid now, I crouch and wipe the dust off as I back out of the room. Now I notice the rest of the hardwood floors. They too have footprints, but not just mine. Other shoes have created patterns all over them. How recent are they, and why are they here? And is the computer theirs?

I make sure to close the doors after examining the dust-free floor in the study. Hurrying down the stairs and uncertain why I’m in a hurry, I try to think logically. Perhaps the house was let out to someone? Or sold? The fact that only one room has been cleaned and outfitted mystifies me.

When I’m back in the basement I draw a deep sigh of relief. I put the books on the table in the bunker and head up to fetch a few more jars of fruit and pickles. I arrange the remaining jars so it’s not obvious that someone’s been stealing food.

Testing the lever from inside the movable shelf, I decide I can rely on it to open when I need to leave the room. If it fails permanently, this space will become my tomb. Nobody would ever find me down here, at least not until it was too late. This is still my best option. If the cops get ahold of me, they’ll charge me with breaking and entering, and, I’m pretty sure, for my successful escape.

I close the hidden shelf door from the inside of the bunker. After looking at it for five seconds and praying it won’t get stuck, I open it again. It works much better now than it did the first time I tried from the other side.

Relieved, I start to laugh and return to my jars, still giggling. I open one containing pickles, pulling one out with a fork I find in a drawer. Digging my teeth into it, in a second, I’m transported back to life with my aunt. The pickle tastes great and I wolf it down relentlessly. The second pickle is more for savoring the taste. It takes me back, for the umpteenth time today, and I can hear Aunt Clara’s voice, watch her eyes harden whenever she laid eyes on me, and feel reduced to nobody in particular in an instant.

I don’t let those memories stop me. The pickle still tastes great.

 

Chapter Two

Gail

 

If my hand didn’t hurt so bad, I’d slam it against the steering wheel. I check the damn GPS, but it doesn’t make sense. The female voice my former assistant programmed for me, some famous actress with a tone that grates on my nerves, has sounded increasingly annoyed with me the last half hour. I know that’s all in my head, but, honestly, the way she says, “In three hundred yards, take a right” has a silent “for the love of God” at the end.

I’ve been to the house twice but never driven there myself. My sense of direction is not the best, never has been, and I rely solely on the well-modulated, stuck-up voice coming from my GPS. Now she tells me to do a legal U-turn—and I clench my jaws. Of course, it’s a legal U-turn—we’re out in the sticks, for God’s sake.

I know I’m on the right track when I see the two oaks flanking an unassuming, old farmhouse. Light gray, with meticulously well-kept shingles, a black roof, and fruit trees and berry bushes surrounding it, it sits on a slight hill overlooking the fields around it. A neighboring farmer leases the fields for grazing or crops. The previous owner, a widow without children, had made that arrangement more than twenty years ago, according to the will. As she had no heirs, the woman, Mrs. Delaney, left it all to the local cancer association, which in turn listed it with all its inventory.

I turn into the gravel driveway and park the car close to the front door. I have a few suitcases, and as I can use only my good left hand, I need to be near the entryway. I glare at the orthosis around my right hand. The hand that used to run the bow across the strings of my Draskóczy violin is now utterly useless. One car crash, four surgeries, and here I am, withdrawing from the world I knew and loved…for this.

I step out of the car and just stand still for a moment. The air is fresh, almost crisp. Not even Central Park in Manhattan smells like this. I inhale and place this quality on the plus side of my mental pros and cons list. Deciding to explore before I carry anything inside, I fish out the keys from the pocket of my crepe-wool Burberry coat. After I climb the two steps onto the porch, I push open the screen door and unlock the wooden one. Inside I can smell the dust, as if it’s hanging in midair. I clear my throat and stride toward the double sliding door where I know my former assistant has had a tech professional install a computer and someone else in to clean the room. I certainly didn’t intend to dust off all those books. The study is as I remember. Masculine, a bit old-fashioned, but cozy with the open fireplace in the inner corner.

I take off the coat and fold it over a worn leather armchair that faces the fireplace. I hope the electricity has been turned on as planned. Pressing the button on the computer tower, I see it start to boot, and within fifteen seconds I’m not just up and running, but also online. Good. Cable and internet access will make life a little easier, hopefully.

Curious about what I may not have noticed during my previous two visits, I walk through the rooms on the ground floor. I want to tear down the sheets that cover everything, but not while dressed in my trouser suit. And I have a cleaning crew coming tomorrow, which means I only have to get the master bedroom decent enough to sleep in. According to the Realtor, there’s a fully stocked cleaning cabinet somewhere. I hope for a good vacuum cleaner.

Upstairs, I locate the master bedroom and realize it’s bigger than I remember, with a new memory-foam, king-size bed; a large, Narnia-looking wardrobe; and a rustic vanity with a large oval mirror. Neither of the latter fits my taste, but I must admit that they fit in this room. The Realtor agreed to switch all the mattresses in the house, which proved to me that selling this countryside gem wasn’t entirely easy.

I walk into the bathroom and turn on the faucets and flush the toilet twice. The smell isn’t as bad as when I was here last, so perhaps the Realtor or the seller has showed up to deal with the plumbing.

Farthest down the hallways I find a small bedroom that has entirely skipped my mind. I enter and curiously lift the sheets covering the furniture, then stare as I come across what looks like a young girl’s desk. I see schoolbooks, pens, writing pads, small knickknacks, and stickers. I forget about my fancy suit and tug at the sheet covering a narrow bookshelf. I think I recognize it as a Billy shelf from Ikea. It’s filled with all kinds of books, most of them cheap paperbacks, but also other books the former inhabitant of this room must have bought used, judging from how old they are. The genres vary from young adult to romances and thrillers. I find some science fiction and fantasy as well, but most of the books seem to be coming-of-age stories.

Who lived here with the old woman? Where is she? I’m quite sure it’s a girl’s room, but of course, I shouldn’t be prejudiced about pink and purple, the stickers, and the knickknacks. I’m sure boys can appreciate them too. For now, I’m going to refer to this enigmatic room as the girl’s room. Apprehensively, I open a drawer in the desk and find a small stack of notebooks. Not about to pry further, I push it closed. Whoever wrote in those books and adorned the unremarkable white desk with stickers of horses, music notes, and famous people shouldn’t have their privacy invaded, even though I am the legal owner of all the inventory.

The other rooms are as I remember, and I make my way down the stairs. I’m glad I parked so close. Now I can haul my bags in and change into much more appropriate attire. I have two bags of groceries to hold me over the first week. I carry my bags in, one at a time, and when I return for the cooler that holds my frozen goods, I stop as I reach the car. Someone’s watching the house, or me, from the road leading to the driveway. I squint as the late fall sun is half in my eyes. It looks like a young man, no, a young woman. I attempt to ignore her and try to hoist the cooler out of the back seat.

Clearly, I’ve forgotten how heavy it is, and I drop the damn thing half an inch from my toes. Muttering under my breath, I see I’ve forgotten the cable that attaches the cooler to an outlet in my car. I unplug it and manage to hit the orthosis against the door opening when I back out.

“Hi there. Can I help you with that?” The female, hesitant voice makes me jerk back. I can see this woman is quite young and dressed in clean, but unmatched, worn clothes.

“Who are you?” I ask in my no-nonsense, terse tone.

“Um. I’m Romi. I saw you struggle with the luggage and thought I might be able to help you.” She smiles hesitantly, showing off even teeth.

“Why?” I place my good hand on my hip, a pose that puts the fear of God into even the most demonic conductors. I’ve worked with all the greats and refuse to let any of them intimidate me.

“Just trying to be a good, you know, neighbor?” Romi shifts where she stands, but she’s not even close to being intimidated, merely helpful and direct. On any other day, I might have admired that trait, but today it merely annoys me.

“You live near here?” I look around even though I’ve been told the closest house isn’t within sight.

“Yes.” Romi averts her eyes and looks down at the offending cooler. “Wow. That’s a mother of a cooler you’ve got there…um, I didn’t catch your name?”

God. I really don’t want to be forced to constantly turn away odd people wanting to welcome me to the area and socialize. “Gail.” No surname needed as she didn’t give hers.

“I don’t mind helping. It’s not like I’m asking you to pay me,” Romi says. “Just being neighborly.”

I study the girl for a few moments. Her alto voice with a New England accent also holds some New York City tone. How old is she? Twenty? That’s what her physical appearance suggests, but her eyes indicate an older soul. “Very well. Thank you. I appreciate it.” I know I still sound like a barely harnessed bitch, but that’s as gentle as I get these days.

“No problem. You’re injured.” Romi nods at my hand and then hoists the cooler after wrapping the cord up first. She carries it across the porch and then stops at the half-open door. “Kitchen, I assume?”

“Yes. To the left.”

“Oh.” Romi flinches but then nods and disappears into the house. I take the last bag out of the car and make a face at the contents. My pain medication and ointments for the fucking hand. I hate being dependent on those things. What’s more, I hate my hand. It’s not recognizable as mine anymore.

“There. I put it on two kitchen chairs for you. Easier to empty it that way.” Romi comes to a stop after she’s descended the few steps.

“Thank you.” I try to sound, if not friendly, at least polite. It was considerate of her to go the extra mile like that.

“No problem,” Romi says again and kicks the dirt. “I’ll be on my way. Welcome to the neighborhood, such as it is.”

“Well.” I merely nod. Her words make me wonder for a few moments what she could possibly mean, but then I push the question away. As I walk through my front door, I turn to close it, reluctantly curious to see which way Romi’s house is located. I blink, frowning. The view from the front of my house is at least a hundred yards in three directions, and Romi is already out of sight.