PART ONE: NEW YORK The Present
Of all the places that Sophie had visited in her thirteen years on this world, the hot pavements of New York during a heat wave were perhaps her least favorite. As she trudged up along Park Avenue, the glare off the sidewalks slammed into her. Sweat oozed from every pore. The trickle down between her mushrooming breasts irritated her. When she peeled her white uniform school shirt away from the skin, a nearby doorman hissed. She wheeled to glare at him. He held up his hands and backed away. But she hated his smug little grim. She stamped her foot at him, and twisted her face into a grimace. The pain from the stomp made her snarl even fiercer.
“Oooh, now I’m scared.” He laughed.
She wheeled away, rage flashing through her, causing painful contractions in her thighs. Her legs seemed to ache all the time now. Just that morning, Ophie had said it was probably growing pains. After all she had grown three inches in the last few months. Well, Sophie had shouted back, why did they have to make growing up so painful? She had immediately felt guilty when Ophie flinched.
She knew Ophie meant well. She had to admit she even loved Ophie a little bit. But it confused Sophie that she also had this strange desire to hurt her. Which meant she was bad. And she hated that she was bad because that meant she was like her mother. And the last thing in the world she wanted to be was like her mother. And yet, and this was what so muddled her thinking, she yeaned more than anything to feel close to her dead mother. Even though her mother had hated her. That she remembered. Sometimes, her yearning to be close to her mother was so intense that she would curl up in her closet on top of dirty clothes, trying to evoke the numbed out bliss she used to feel back in the days when they still had the Talcott House and all her Mother’s old silk lingerie in which she would often nest.
No, Ophie could never be her mother, even if she did end up marrying her Dad. But they had a complicated bond nevertheless. Sophie had saved Ophie’s life the night Henrietta had set the Talcott House on fire. Then Ophie had saved Sophie’s life when she was trapped underwater. Ophie said that saving each other’s lives meant they were bound to each other forever. No matter what happened. That thought both delighted and horrified Sophie. And, she had to admit, she and Ophie had shared an incredible adventure in Morocco. In fact, in hindsight, that shared adventure was the most alive she had ever felt. If only she could have another adventure. Just like that one. Except maybe this time without Ophie tagging along.
It wasn’t that Sophie didn’t like Ophie. It was just that everything Ophie did irritated her. She hated the way she called her Dad Honey. He was anything but honey. He was a big hunk of a guy, all brawny meat and potatoes, but definitely no honey. No matter how hard she tried to get his approval, he was always barking at her these days. But most of all she was annoyed with Ophie for the way she fussed over them all, despite the fact that ever since her Dad had taken up with Ophie, they ate better food and actually had structure in their lives. She even acknowledged that a part of her was tremendously relieved that Ophie had taken over the burden of her three younger sisters. But she missed the responsibility of worrying about them. Funnily enough, it had absorbed her. Now she had nowhere to escape from her own dark thoughts. She was always going to pick the brooding villain when she assigned herself a game character in computer games. She was never going to be a princess like her sister Caroline, or a jock like her sister Maggie, or a clingy whiner like her sister Abby. She was a loner and she liked it that way. Or at least she told herself that. As she plodded along the pavement, slamming her worn-at-the-heel Frye boots as hard as she could down onto the pavement, she welcomed the shock of the pain that jolted up into her body.
Pain made her feel alive. Her mouth turned down into a self-deprecating frown. She almost laughed. If anyone drew her right now she would be a frowning tumbleweed slouching along the Upper East Side streets, walking home alone from school. Of all the things she hated, the worst was the way the sultry humidity in the city made her hair frizz, forcing her to yank it up into a bush at the back of her head. Ophie was always telling her to let it air dry into “golden tendrils” as she called them, but Sophie was averse to doing what she was told. She sighed. She had to admit Ophie never actually told her what to do, only proffered suggestions. But that petulant voice in her head often made her do the contrary of whatever Ophie suggested. So, every morning, when Sophie brushed the slept in waves out of her long blond hair it flew up around her in an of out of control frizz, as if she were a cartoon character who had poked her index finger into an electric socket. To add insult to injury she had, in the last few months, sprouted hair in all sorts of inconvenient places. Her armpits were rank with smelly hair; and even her crotch had recently germinated a forest of springy wiry golden curls. She was awful. She hated herself. Being thirteen was literally smelly pits.
She turned the corner onto 72nd street, starting the long trudge over to the East River where her father Stuart had a penthouse apartment overlooking the water. She ignored the crosstown buses. She knew they were filled with chattering groups of girls from her private girl’s school called Chatterly and their rival school Brigham. She had started high school at Chatterley after they returned from Morocco. She never had anything to add to the inane conversations the other girls had. When one girl timidly tried to sit next to her at lunch, she had turned and growled, “Yes, my Dad’s Stuart Winslow, what of it?”
The girl had looked startled, “How did you know I was going to ask that?” She looked down and blinked furiously as if she might cry.
Omigod, Sophie thought, here I go again, always hurting people even when I don’t want to. Sophie’s lips tightened into a straight line, “Sorry. Cuz everyone always does. That’s why. And yes he owns hotels all over the world.”
“Oh,” the girl looked abashed. She was too skinny and her uniform belt was scrunched so tight around her waist that she looked like a wasp. “By the way, my name is Connie? But is it true? What they say?”
Sophie scowled, “What do they say.”
“That he’s a player? All the big girls go all aflutter when he comes to pick you up. I hear them talking? One of them?” She gasped for air, “You know Tamarind Baker? She’s always flipping her hair around? Like this!”
She curled her long hair around her index finger then flipped the hair out and up meanwhile tossing her pointy little chin high.
Despite herself, Sophie grunted with amusement.
The girl smiled, “She says she could have him if she wanted. She even snaps her fingers like she’s calling a dog?” She turned toward Sophie and her eyes were very round. “Could she?” She breathed.
“Could she what?” Sophie tried to sound brusque but suddenly she felt very tired and she just wanted to go curl up in her dead mother’s silk underwear.
“Have your father?”
“What?” Disgust curled inside her at the thought of Tamarind Baker, a long tall blond mean blank looking beauty of a seventeen year old with polished talons and Fendi bags even coming close to her father.
“Tamarind says all men can be had with bj’s? Can they really? Do you know how to give a bj? Tamarind says she practices on pickles? I think that’s soooo gross?”
“Omigod,” Sophie stood and pushed her tray away so hard that, much to her dismay, it slid across the table and crashed to the floor, making such a racket that, for a moment, all chatter in the lunchroom stopped and all eyes focused on Sophie. She could feel the flare of heat up along her high cheekbones. Avoiding any eye contact, she yanked on her backpack and strode out of the room, running up three flights of the steep stairs to her first afternoon class. Fifteen minutes early, she slumped down to the floor and put her head between her knees, wishing she was back up in the Atlas Mountains, high up in a pass, having an adventure, anywhere but here, in a dreary all girls high school corridor.
Since that day, she had avoided everyone, never taking the bus, arriving in the morning just before the bells to classes, then rushing out the door as soon as the last bell rang.
Now as she neared Lexington Avenue she felt a cloud of almost fetid damp air swirling up to her out of the subway entrance. No, she thought, no, I won’t. I’ll just get into trouble again. But her heart beat faster as the entrance drew nearer, her pulse pounded in her head and groin, washing guilty pleasure through her at the thought of once more getting home late, once more breaking the rules. As she bounded down into the subway system, her head seemed to expand, her spirits to bloom.
She jumped onto a downtown local, then switched to the Express at 42nd street, standing up, holding onto a pole, letting the lurch of the subway sooth her. She opened her eyes wide but kept them unfocused, allowing the flickering lights of the local stations to sweep past her vision like throngs of shooting stars. The rhythm of the chittering wheels thrummed through her body as if they knew the staccato beat of her soul.
When they had first come back to New York from Morocco, Ophie had bought her a monthly Metro card pass, which she was supposed to use for buses. Instead, almost every day now, she had started exploring the subway systems of New York City. She had ridden the uptown train all the way to the hinterlands of the Bronx. She had taken the Queens express train under the East River. That train had then vaulted her up into the skies on elevated tracks out over the marshes where she could look down on the skeleton of the old World’s Fair from the 1960’s, and where she could watch the banking flights wing in and out of La Guardia and dream about where she might travel once she was old enough to be out on her own.
Long explorations of the flung out tentacles of the subway system were her favorites, but when she didn’t have much time, she had studied the map and figured how to execute a tight circle, riding the local down to Grand Central, crossing over to the shuttle then racing back across and uptown on the line to Queens, then, at Bloomingdales, switching back to the uptown local. Her best time for that circuit was forty minutes. But today she was going to grasp more time and go all the way to Coney Island. She knew that would make her late coming home. A shameful throb shot through her at the thought of once more being the target of censure.
When the train rocketed up out of the darkness and up onto the arch of the bridge that spanned the river, the struts of the bridge fluttered past, their shadows dancing across her retina, and the glow of the late afternoon sun struck gold all along the swirling waters, she felt the release of tension as a palpable jolt of pleasure. She sighed and sank into a seat, her face pasted against the window as block after endless block of Brooklyn flashed past.
When the train came to the end of the line, she got off and walked down across the boardwalks to the beach where she loped along until she had nothing left inside to propel herself forward. Then, slowly, slowly, she turned and headed back to the train and, half asleep now, she nodded low over her backpack, held in her lap, her hands cupped around it as if she were pregnant. She snapped awake as the train lurched to a stop at 42nd street. Still drowsy, she staggered across the platform toward the local, stumbling over a homeless woman who was crouched down low against a metal post, her cardboard sign and a mangy dog at her feet. The woman snarled and as Sophie pitched forward into the subway car, she turned to nod an apology. And then her heart stopped.
The woman was smiling at her, smiling in the way a lion does when it stalks a baby gazelle, knowing it will be an easy kill. It was the teeth that Sophie recognized. They were long and yellow. The face was unrecognizable, a stretched tight mask of red scar tissue; with no eyebrows or eyelids, the eyes wide and staring, and where there should have been a nose there were only large black holes. Sophie’s vision blurred. She seemed to fall into those large black holes, as if their gravitational pull were sucking at her, pulling her down into a vast and unfathomable pool of evil.
The subway doors snapped shut. The train jolted to a start. And Sophie’s heart started up again into to a wild gallop. For those long and yellow teeth could only belong to one person in this whole wild world.
She had returned.
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