I AM RELEASED INTO SOCIETY
‘Come in, Anya, have a seat. We find ourselves in the midst of a situation,’ Evelyn Cobrawick greeted me, parting her painted red lips to reveal a cheerful sliver of yellow tooth. Was this meant to be a grin? I certainly hoped not. My fellow inmates at Liberty Children’s Facility were of the universal opinion that Mrs Cobrawick was at her most dangerous when smiling.
It was the night before my release, and I had been summoned to the headmistress’s chambers. Through careful adherence to rules – all but one, all but once – I had managed to avoid the woman for the entire summer. ‘A situ—’ I began.
Mrs Cobrawick interrupted me. ‘Do you know what I like best about my job? It’s the girls. Watching them grow up and make better lives for themselves. Knowing that I had some small part in these rehabilitations. I truly feel as if I have thousands of daughters. It almost makes up for the fact that the former Mr Cobrawick and I were not blessed with any children of our own.’
I was not sure how to respond to this information. ‘You said there was a situation?’
‘Be patient, Anya. I’m getting there. I . . . You see, I feel very bad about the way we met. I think you may have gotten the wrong impression about me. The measures I took last fall may have seemed harsh to you at the time, but they were only to help you adjust to life at Liberty. And I think you’ll agree that my conduct was exactly right, because look what a splendid summer you’ve had here! You’ve been submissive, compliant, a model resident in every sense. One would hardly guess that you came from such a criminal background.’
This was meant as a compliment so I thanked her. I snuck a glance out of Mrs Cobrawick’s window. The night was clear, and I could just make out the tip of Manhattan. Only eighteen hours before I would be home.
‘You are most welcome. I feel optimistic that your time here will serve you well in your future endeavours. Which brings us, of course, to our situation.’
I turned to look at Mrs Cobrawick. I very much wished that she would stop referring to it as ‘our situation’.
‘In August, you had a visitor,’ she began. ‘A young man.’
I lied, telling her that I wasn’t sure whom she meant.
‘The Delacroix boy,’ she said.
‘Yes. He was my boyfriend last year, but that’s done now.’
‘The guard on duty that day claimed that you kissed him.’ She paused to look me in the eyes. ‘Twice.’
‘I shouldn’t have done that. He had been injured, as you probably read in my file, and I suppose I was overcome to see him well again. I apologize, Mrs Cobrawick.’
‘Yes, you did break the rules,’ Mrs Cobrawick replied. ‘But your infraction is understandable, I think, and human really, and can be overlooked. It probably surprises you to hear an old gorgon like me say that, but I am not without feelings, Anya.
‘Before you came to Liberty in June, acting District Attorney Charles Delacroix gave me very specific instructions regarding your treatment here. Would you like me to tell you what they were?’
I wasn’t sure, but I nodded anyway.
‘There were only three. The first was that I was to avoid any unnecessary personal interaction with Anya Balanchine. I don’t think you can disagree that I followed that one to the letter.’
That explained why my stay had passed in such relative peace. If I ever saw Charles Delacroix again (and I hoped I’d have no reason to), I’d be certain to thank him.
‘The second was that Anya Balanchine was not to be sent to the Cellar under any circumstance.’
‘And the third?’ I asked.
‘The third was that I was to contact him immediately if his son came to visit you. Such an event, he said, could possibly necessitate a revision to both the quality and length of Anya Balanchine’s stay at Liberty.’
I felt myself shudder at the word length. I was well aware of the promise I had made Charles Delacroix regarding his son.
‘So, when the guard came to me with the news that the Delacroix boy had been to see Anya Balanchine, do you know what I decided to do?’
She – horrors! – smiled at me.
‘I decided to do nothing. “Evie,” I said to myself, “at the end of the year, you’re leaving Liberty and you don’t have to do everything they say any more—”’
I interrupted the conversation she was having with herself to ask, ‘You’re leaving?’
‘Yes, it seems I’ve been forced into early retirement, Anya. They’re making a huge mistake. Not anyone can run this kingdom of mine.’ She waved her hand by way of changing the subject. ‘But as I was telling you before . . . “Evie,” I said, “you don’t owe that awful Charles Delacroix a thing. Anya Balanchine is a good girl, albeit one from a very bad family, and she can’t help who does or doesn’t visit her.”’
I offered cautious thanks.
‘You’re very welcome,’ she replied. ‘Perhaps some day you’ll be able to return the favour.’
I shivered. ‘What is it you want, Mrs Cobrawick?’
She laughed, then took my hand in hers and squeezed it so hard one of my knuckles cracked. ‘Only . . . I suppose I’d like to be able to call you my friend.’
Daddy always said that there was no commodity more precious or potentially volatile than friendship. I looked into her dark, red-rimmed eyes. ‘Mrs Cobrawick, I can honestly say that I won’t ever forget this act of friendship.’
She released my hand. ‘Incidentally, Charles Delacroix is an incredible fool. If my experiences working with troubled girls have taught me anything, it’s that no good ever comes from keeping young lovers apart. The more he pulls, the more the two of you will pull back. It’s a Chinese finger trap, and the finger trap always triumphs.’
Here, Mrs Cobrawick was wrong. Win had visited me that one time. I had kissed him, then told him that he should never come again. To my great annoyance, he’d actually obeyed me. A little over a month had passed since that encounter, and I hadn’t heard from or seen Win since.
‘As you’re leaving us tomorrow, this will also serve as our exit interview,’ Mrs Cobrawick said. She opened up my file on her slate. ‘Let’s see, you were brought here on . . .’ She scanned the file. ‘Weapons-possession charges?’
Mrs Cobrawick put on the reading glasses she wore on a brass chain around her neck. ‘Really? That’s it? I seem to remember you shooting someone.’
‘In self-defence, yes.’
‘Well, no matter. I am an educator, not a judge. Are you sorry for your crimes?’
The answer to that was complicated. I did not regret the crime I had been charged with – having my father’s gun. I did not regret my actual crime either – shooting Jacks after he shot Win. And I did not regret the deal I had made with Charles Delacroix that had ensured both my siblings’ safety. I regretted nothing. Of course, I could sense that saying this would have been frowned upon. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I’m very sorry.’
‘Good. Then, as of tomorrow’ – Mrs Cobrawick consulted her calendar – ‘the seventeenth day of September in the year 2083, the city of New York considers Anya Balanchine to be successfully rehabilitated. Best of luck to you, Anya. May the temptations of the world not lead you to recidivism.’
It was lights-out by the time I got back to the dormitory. As I reached the bunk bed I had shared with Mouse these past eighty-nine days, she lit a match and gestured that I should come sit by her in the bottom bunk. She held out her notepad. I need to ask you something before you go, she had written on one of her precious pages. (She was only allotted twenty-five per day.)
They’re letting me out early.
I told her that was great news, but she shook her head. She handed me another note.
After Thanksgiving or even sooner. Good behaviour, or maybe I use too much paper. Point is, I’d rather be here. My crime makes it so I can’t ever go home. When I get out, I’ll need a job.
‘I wish I could help, but—’
She put her hand over my mouth and handed me yet another pre-written note. Apparently, my responses were just that predictable.
DON’T SAY NO! You can. You’re very powerful. I’ve thought a lot about this, Anya. I want to be a chocolate dealer.
I laughed because I couldn’t imagine that she was in earnest. The girl was five feet tall in socks and completely mute! I turned to look at her, and her expression told me that she hadn’t been kidding. At that moment, the match burned out and she lit another one.
‘Mouse,’ I whispered. ‘I’m not involved in Balanchine Chocolate that way, and even if I was, I don’t know why you’d want that kind of a job.’
I’m seventeen. Mute. Criminal. I have no people, no $, no real education.
I could see her point. I nodded, and she passed me one last note.
You are the only friend I’ve made here. I know I’m small, weak, & mousy, but I am not a coward and I can do hard things. If you let me work with you, I will be loyal to you for life. I would die for you, Anya.
I told her that I didn’t want anyone to die for me and I blew out the match.
I climbed out of Mouse’s bunk and went up to my own, where I quickly fell asleep.
In the morning when she wrote and I said goodbye, she didn’t mention that she had asked me to help her become a chocolate dealer. The last thing she wrote before the guards came for me was See you around, A. My real name is Kate, by the way.
‘Kate,’ I said. ‘It’s nice to meet you.’
At eleven a.m., I was taken to change out of the Liberty jumpsuit and back into my street clothes. Despite the fact that I had been booted from the school, I had worn my Trinity uniform the day I had surrendered myself. I was so used to wearing the thing. Even three months later, as I was pulling the skirt over my hips, I could feel my body wanting to go back to school, and specifically to Trinity, where classes had started without me the previous week.
After I’d changed, I was brought to the discharge room. A lifetime ago, I had met Charles Delacroix in this same room, but today, Simon Green and Mr Kipling, my lawyers, waited for me instead.
‘Do I look like a person who has done hard time?’ I asked them.
Mr Kipling considered me before he answered. ‘No,’ he said finally. ‘Though you do look very fit.’
I stepped out into the muggy mid-September air and tried not to feel the loss of that summer too much. There would be other summers. There would be other boys, too.
I breathed in, trying to get all that good exterior air into my lungs. I could smell hay, and in the distance, something rotten, sulphurous, maybe even burning. ‘Freedom smells different than I remember,’ I commented to my lawyers.
‘No, Anya, that’s just the Hudson River. It’s on fire again,’ Mr Kipling said with a yawn.
‘What is it this time?’ I asked.
‘The usual,’ Mr Kipling replied. ‘Something to do with low water levels and chemical contamination.’
‘Fear not, Anya,’ Simon Green added. ‘The city’s nearly as run-down as you left it.’
When we arrived back at my apartment, the elevator wasn’t working, so I told Mr Kipling and Simon Green that they needn’t see me to the door. Our apartment was on the penthouse level – the thirteenth floor, which the building elevator superstitiously referred to as the fourteenth floor. Thirteenth or fourteenth, it was a long trek up, and Mr Kipling’s heart was still weak. My heart, however, was in terrific shape as I’d spent the summer doing Liberty’s strenuous athletic drills three, sometimes four times a day. I was lean and strong and I was able to race up the stairs. (Aside: Is it too much to add that, while my heart the muscle was in terrific shape, my heart the heart had certainly been better? Oh, probably, but there it is. Don’t judge me too harshly.)
Having left my keys (and other valuables) at home, I was forced to ring the doorbell.
Imogen, who I had left in charge of my sister, answered it. ‘Anya, we didn’t hear you come up!’ She poked her head into the foyer. ‘Where are Misters Kipling and Green?’
I reported the condition of the elevator.
‘Oh dear. That must have just happened. Maybe it’ll fix itself?’ she said brightly.
What, in my life, had ever fixed itself?
Imogen told me that Scarlet was waiting for me in the living room.
‘And Natty?’ I asked. She should have been home from genius camp four weeks ago.
‘Natty’s . . .’ Imogen hesitated.
‘Is something wrong with Natty?’ I could feel the thrum of my heart.
‘No. She’s fine. She’s spending the night at a friend’s.’ Imogen shook her head. ‘A project for school she needs to work on.’
I tried very hard not to let my hurt feelings show. ‘Is she angry with me?’
Imogen pursed her lips. ‘Yes, a bit, I imagine. She was upset when she found out you’d lied about going to Liberty.’ Imogen shook her head. ‘You know teenagers.’
‘But Natty’s not—’ I had been about to say that Natty wasn’t a teenager, but then I remembered that she was. She had turned thirteen in July. Yet another thing I had missed thanks to my incarceration.
A familiar voice came from down the hallway. ‘Is that the world-famous Anya Balanchine I hear?’ Scarlet ran up and threw her arms around me. ‘Anya, where did your boobs go?’
I pulled away from her. ‘Must have been that really nourishing Liberty food.’
‘When I saw you at Liberty, you were always in the navy jumpsuit, but in your old Trinity uniform, it’s more obvious to me that you look…’
‘Awful,’ I filled in.
‘No!’ Imogen and Scarlet said in unison.
‘It’s not like the last time you went to Liberty,’ Scarlet continued. ‘You don’t look sick. You just look . . .’ Scarlet’s eyes drifted to the ceiling. I remembered from my first year of Forensic Science that when a witness looked up that way, it meant that she was in the process of inventing. My very best friend was about to lie. ‘You look changed,’ she said gently. Scarlet took me by the arm. ‘Let’s go into the living room. I have to catch you up on everything that’s been happening. Also, I hope you don’t mind, but Gable’s here. He really wanted to see you and he is my boyfriend, Anya.’
I did kind of mind, but Scarlet was my best friend, so what could I do?
We went into the living room, where Gable stood by the window. He was leaning on crutches, and there was no wheelchair in sight. In other respects, he was also much improved. His complexion was beyond pale, nearly white, but there was no obvious scarring where the skin grafts had been.
Black leather gloves covered his hands so I couldn’t see what had become of his mangled fingers.
‘Arsley, you’re walking again!’ I congratulated him.
Scarlet applauded. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it great? I’m so proud of him!’
With some difficulty, Gable manoeuvred himself towards me. ‘Yes, isn’t it wonderful? After months of physical therapy and countless painful surgeries, I can now accomplish what most two-year-olds manage much better. Aren’t I a miracle of modern medicine?’
Scarlet kissed him on the cheek. ‘Don’t go into that dark place, Gable. Stay in the light with Anya and me!’
Gable laughed at Scarlet’s joke, and then he kissed her, and then she whispered something in his ear, and he smiled, and she helped him over to the love seat, where they both sat down. OMG, as Nana would have said, Scarlet and Gable might actually be in love! For a moment, I almost felt jealous of them. I didn’t want to be with Gable again – certainly not! After everything Scarlet had done for my family, I could not begrudge her a boyfriend. The plain truth was, I missed being in a couple.
I curled into the familiar burgundy chair.
‘Seriously, Gable,’ I said. ‘You look amazingly good.’
‘You look awful,’ Gable replied.
‘Gable,’ Scarlet admonished him.
‘What? She looks like a little boy or a long-distance runner. Didn’t they feed you anything in there?’ Gable continued. ‘And your hair is scary.’
My hair was indeed tangled and frizzy. There hadn’t been conditioner or gel or even a proper hairbrush at Liberty. As soon as Gable and Scarlet left, I would begin addressing the situation.
‘How’s Trinity?’ I asked by way of changing the subject. Gable was repeating his senior year because of how much of the previous one he’d missed.
‘Boring now that you’re not there,’ Gable said with a shrug. ‘No one’s been shot or poisoned for months.’
One of Gable’s qualities was his sense of humour.
‘Gable Arsley,’ Scarlet said with a furrowed brow, ‘you are being awful and you are making me regret having brought you today.’
‘Apologies, Anya, if I caused offence.’
I told him that he hadn’t, that I was pretty hard to offend these days.
Scarlet stood up. ‘We should go. Imogen made us promise that we wouldn’t stay long.’ She gave Gable her hand and he rose somewhat awkwardly to his feet. That was when I remembered the elevator. Gable had trouble walking across the room. He was never going to be able to make it down thirteen flights on crutches.
Upon consulting with Imogen, who then consulted with the building superintendent, it was determined that the elevator wouldn’t be repaired until the next morning. Gable would have to spend the night, a scheme that did not thrill me. If Gable was staying, Scarlet’s parents wouldn’t allow her to, and the last time Gable Arsley had almost spent the night in this apartment, it had not gone well.
I decided that Gable should sleep on the couch. I didn’t want him in Leo’s old room.
After these arrangements were made, I was finally able to slip away to my bedroom. I had been meaning to clean myself up, but instead I fell asleep on my bed. When I awoke, it was two in the morning and the apartment was silent. I slipped out of my room and went down the hall to the shower.
I didn’t care how much water cost these days. I figured I was owed three or four showers. Of course, I lavished extra attention on my hair. Oh, conditioner – an ugly word for such a beautiful thing!
After my shower, I detangled my hair and gave it some proper product and when I looked in the mirror, I thought I looked almost normal again. I wrapped my flowered bath towel around myself and went back to my bedroom.
The light was on. I wondered if I had forgotten to turn it off.
When I opened the door, Gable was sitting in the chair by my bed. He was dressed in a pair of Leo’s pyjamas that Imogen must have lent him, and his crutches were propped by the dresser.
‘Arsley,’ I said, checking that my bath towel was secured under my arms. ‘You shouldn’t be in here.’
‘Oh, Anya, don’t be so paranoid,’ Gable said. ‘I heard you were awake, and I was awake, too, so I thought I’d keep you company.’
‘I don’t want company after I get out of the shower, Arsley.’
‘I . . . I won’t try to do anything to you, Anya, I swear. Just don’t make me get up yet. My leg swells at night. Let me sit here a bit. I promise I’ll keep my eyes closed while you change.’
‘I’ve been in prison, Arsley, and if you try anything, so help me . . .’ I opened my closet door so that I could discreetly put on my pyjamas from behind it, and then I sat cross-legged on my bed. ‘So,’ I said.
‘I was thinking of the last time we were alone together in this room,’ Gable said. ‘I know you think I behaved badly and I’m sorry for that. I did want to sleep with you that night, but I would never have forced you.’
I shook my head. ‘Is this you apologizing?’
‘Yes, I guess it is. I’m almost glad the elevator broke, because otherwise I would never have gotten you by yourself and I’ve wanted to say that to you for such a long time. It’s sweltering in here by the way.’ Gable took off his leather gloves and I could see that he had three silver fingertips in place of his amputations. He looked like a robot.
‘Arsley, your fingers!’
Gable laughed at me. ‘You’re supposed to pretend not to notice them.’
‘But they’re kind of amazing.’
He waved them. ‘Would you like to touch them, Anya?’
I kind of did, but I didn’t think it was a good idea for me to touch any parts of Gable, even his bionic ones.
‘Come on, Anya. Shake my hand. Friends can shake hands, can’t they?’
We were not friends.
‘Don’t be boring, Anya,’ Gable replied. ‘Do you know what school you’re going to yet?’
‘Wherever will have me, I suppose.’
‘It’s stupid them not letting you come back,’ Gable said. ‘You saved Win Delacroix’s life.’
It had not escaped my notice that Scarlet had stealthily avoided the subject of Win the entire afternoon. I did not want to hear news of Win from Gable Arsley of all people. Still, I would take what I could get. ‘Is Win’ – I tried to make my voice casual – ‘back at Trinity this year?’
Gable rolled his eyes. ‘Oh, I can see exactly how much you don’t care about him. You’ve always been the world’s worst liar, Anya. Aren’t you talking to him any more?’
‘We aren’t allowed.’
‘That wouldn’t stop me.’ Gable ran his metal fingers through his hair. ‘He doesn’t eat lunch with Scarlet and me this year, which is fine. I always found him annoyingly earnest. How you could go for him after me, I’ll never understand.’
I wanted to ask more, but I didn’t want to have to ask, if you know what I mean. Luckily, Gable was delighted to volunteer information. ‘Listen, Scarlet said we shouldn’t tell you this yet, but you’ll find out soon enough anyway. Win’s with Alison Wheeler.’
I inhaled and tried not to feel anything. ‘I know who she is.’ Win had taken her to the Fall Formal last year. He’d said he was just friends with her, but that didn’t seem likely now. No wonder I hadn’t seen him in so long.
‘What do you mean “I know who she is”?’ Gable demanded. ‘Of course you know who she is. We’ve been going to school with her for years.’
I had been trying to avoid saying something more revealing about the matter. ‘How did it happen?’ I asked.
‘Boy meets girl. She was helping out on his dad’s campaign, I guess. Something like that. She’s not bad-looking, though. I’d do her.’
I narrowed my eyes at him. ‘You mean if you weren’t with Scarlet.’
‘That is presumed, Anya.’
‘You should go now,’ I told him.
‘Why? So you can cry into your pillow over Win? Come here. I’ll let you cry on my shoulder.’
‘Go,’ I told him.
‘Help me up, would you?’
I offered him my hand, and as he was getting to his feet, he whispered in my ear, ‘You’re prettier than Alison Wheeler, and Win Delacroix is an idiot.’
Gable was loathsome, but even a loathsome person can make a girl feel better sometimes. ‘Thank you,’ I said.
I’d finally bounced him from my room when he turned. ‘Say, do you have any chocolate around?’
‘I can’t believe you’re even asking me that!’
‘What? I haven’t had any in months,’ Gable replied. ‘Besides, it wasn’t chocolate that made me sick. It was Fretoxin. You should know better than anyone that there’s nothing wrong with chocolate.’
I told him it was too late for me to know anything for certain. ‘Do you want my help out to the living room or can you manage it yourself?’
‘It’s more fun if you come,’ Gable said.
‘Not for me.’ I closed my bedroom door, turned off my light and got into bed. Even though it was stuffy in my room, I pulled the covers over my head.
I could imagine a pretty little scenario in which Win was with Alison Wheeler just to distract his father from the fact that he was seeing me. The only problem with that theory was the fact that Win was not seeing me. As I have already mentioned, he hadn’t seen or contacted me in over a month. The logical thing to conclude was that Win really was seeing Alison Wheeler.
Maybe it was for the best, though? If I were still with Win, I would put Natty and Leo in danger. It was easier this way, right? Charles Delacroix’s and my plan had been a success. That moment in August had been an anomaly. Maybe it had really been goodbye.
So, good. Everyone had moved on. No one had gotten hurt. (Much.) I had served my time. I was a free woman. And Win, obviously, was a free man.
I wished Nana were here. She would have told me to embrace my freedom. Or maybe she would have told me to have a bar of chocolate.
In the morning, I was woken by the sound of laughter. I pulled on my bathrobe and went out to the living room. I expected that Scarlet had arrived early to escort her boyfriend home, and I was thankful to her. I was more than eager to be rid of my houseguest.
Gable was seated on the couch. He was gesturing with his silver-tipped hand as he said, ‘Wait, wait, you’re laughing before I’m even at the good part.’
I looked over at the burgundy chair. A woman sat there, but it wasn’t Scarlet.
‘Annie!’ Natty stood up and threw her arms around me. In shoes, she was slightly taller than me and this was disturbing. ‘I told myself I was going to give you the cold shoulder, Annie, but I can’t. Why did you lie to me about going to Liberty?’
‘I just wanted you to have a good time at genius camp,’ I told her.
‘I’m not a little kid any more. I can handle things, you know,’ Natty informed me.
‘Yeah,’ Gable added. ‘She’s definitely not a little kid.’
I told Gable to shut up. ‘She’s only thirteen. And you have a girlfriend.’ And yet Gable was right. The change in my sister was undeniable. I held her at arm’s length so that I could look at her. Over the summer, Natty had grown, maybe four inches, and her skirt was too short. The legs that used to be spider legs had a definite curve to them. She had breasts and hips and a pimple on her chin. She was only thirteen but she looked about twice that. I didn’t like the way Gable was looking at her. I debated whether to hit him over the head with a lamp.
At that moment, Scarlet arrived. ‘Your hair looks much improved,’ she said as she kissed me on the cheek. ‘Good morning, Natty darling! Doesn’t she look so grown up, Anya?’
‘Indeed,’ I said.
‘It’s a good thing, too, now that she’s skipped into tenth,’ Scarlet continued.
‘Wait, what’s this?’ I asked.
‘I told Imogen I wanted to tell you myself,’ Natty explained to me.
Scarlet nodded. ‘Come, Gable. The elevator is working again. We should go before you’re stuck here another night.’
Scarlet turned to me. ‘I hope he behaved himself.’
‘Don’t lie, Anya!’ Gable said.
I told Scarlet that Gable had behaved exactly as I’d come to expect, a remark Scarlet chose to take at face value.
Scarlet helped her appalling boyfriend to his feet and finally they were gone.
I turned to my sister. ‘You skipped two grades?’
Natty worried the pimple on her chin with her pinkie. ‘Miss Bellevoir and the people at genius camp thought it was a good idea, and, well . . .’ Her voice turned cool. ‘You weren’t around to discuss it.’
My baby sister, a sophomore at Holy Trinity?
I sat down on the couch, which still reeked of Gable’s cologne. After a bit, Natty sat down next to me. ‘I missed you,’ she said.
‘Did you have nightmares this summer?’ I asked.
‘Only one or two or three or four, but when they’d start, I’d pretend I was you. Brave like you. And I’d say, “Now, Natty, you are just having a dream. Go back to sleep.” And it worked!’ Natty put her arms around me. ‘I honestly hated you when I found out you’d gone to Liberty. I was so mad, Annie. Why did you do it?’
I explained to her in the simplest terms possible the deal I had made with Charles Delacroix to protect her and Leo. She wanted to know if ending my relationship with Win had been part of that deal. Yes, I told her, it had been.
‘Poor Annie. That was the hard part, I bet,’ Natty said.
I smiled. ‘Well, I’d wager that Liberty isn’t as fun as genius camp. It doesn’t help that everyone keeps telling me how horrible I look.’
Natty studied my face. She held my cheeks in her hands, hands with disarmingly long fingers. ‘You look strong, Annie. That’s all. But then you’ve always been strong.’
She was a good girl, my sister. ‘Arsley said that Win has a girlfriend?’
‘He does,’ Natty admitted. ‘But I don’t know, Win’s so different. He seems angry all the time. I tried to talk to him the first day of school. I wanted to know if he’d heard from you, and he kind of blew me off.’
I reminded her that she’d promised to hate Win Delacroix for the rest of her life.
‘That was before I knew you’d lied about Liberty,’ Natty said. ‘Anyway, his leg seems to have healed. He’s still got a cane, but he’s not like Gable or anything.’
‘Natty,’ I said, ‘tell me honestly. You weren’t flirting with Gable this morning, were you?’
‘That is gross, Anya,’ Natty said. ‘We’re in the same math class. He was telling me a story about the teacher. I was laughing to be polite.’
‘Thank God,’ I said. I didn’t think I could handle Natty flirting with Gable Arsley. Later, after I had been home a while longer, Natty and I would need to have a serious discussion about boys.
Natty stood and offered me her hand. ‘Come,’ she said. ‘We need to go to Saturday market. We’re out of just about everything. And Imogen says thirteen is still too young to go by myself.’
‘She’s right,’ I said.
‘You went at thirteen, didn’t you?’ Natty insisted.
‘I was almost fourteen. And that was only because no one could take me.’
Natty and I rode the bus down to the market at Union Square. You could purchase or trade for just about anything there. Toilet paper or T-shirts. Turnips or Tolstoy. Things that start with T and every other letter of the alphabet. As usual, it was a madhouse. Tables and tents everywhere. Every possible space was filled with a human being, and all those human beings wanted and they wanted now. Or actually, a week ago. Occasionally, someone died in a stampede. Nana once told me that when she was young, there had been grocery stores where you could buy anything you wanted, whenever you wanted. Now, all we had were irregularly stocked bodegas. Your best bet really was the Saturday market.
That day, our list included: laundry detergent, hair conditioner, dried pasta, a thermos, fruit (if we could find it), a new (longer) wool kilt for Natty, and a paper book for Imogen (it was her thirty-second birthday the following week).
I handed Natty a pile of cash and ration coupons. Then I assigned her the book and the kilt. The price was usually the price on those items, so you didn’t have to be an experienced marketer. I would take care of everything else. I had come armed with several bars of Balanchine Special Dark, which I had been surprised to find while taking stock of our mostly barren pantry. Though I had lost my taste for chocolate, it could still be useful when negotiating.
As I made my way through the crowd to where the household chemicals stand usually was, I passed a group of college students who were demonstrating. (Political activity was common at the markets.) A malnourished-looking girl with greasy brown hair and a long flowered skirt jammed a pamphlet into my hand. ‘Take one, sister,’ she said. I looked down at the pamphlet. On the front cover was a picture of what I thought was a cacao pod and the words Legalize Cacao Now! ‘All the stuff they tell you about chocolate is a lie,’ she continued. ‘It’s no more addictive than water.’
‘Trust me, I know,’ I said as I slipped the pamphlet into my bag. ‘Where’d you guys get the paper for the pamphlets?’
‘The paper shortage is a lie, friend,’ a man with a beard replied. ‘They’re just trying to control us. Always plenty of paper for good old American dollar bills, ain’t there?’
These were the kind of people who thought everything was a lie. Best to be on my way before one of these pro-chocolate folks noticed who I was.
I lucked out and was able to get everything but the fruit and the pasta at the first chemicals stand I visited. I found a pasta vendor a couple of rows down, and he gave me a good deal on penne after I threw in a meat ration coupon and a bar of chocolate. I traded a woman selling flowers two chocolate bars for a bouquet of roses – it was extravagant but I longed for something sweet-smelling and colourful after the summer I had had. The only thing left was the fruit. I’d just about given up on getting anything except the canned stuff when I spotted a sign that read:
Oranges Grown Right Here in Manhattan
I walked up to the stand. Oranges were my absolute favourite, and they weren’t the kind of thing they served at Liberty.
Win’s mother noticed me before I noticed her. ‘Anya Balanchine,’ she said breathlessly. ‘Yes, I thought it was you. It’s Jane Delacroix.’
I took a step back. ‘I should go,’ I said. If her husband was around, there could be a scene.
‘Anya, wait! Charlie isn’t here. He’s campaigning in one of the boroughs. I didn’t want all my summer oranges to go to waste, so I’m here. My husband would rather I wasn’t, but I argued that it was fine. I’m a farmer not a politician’s wife. Besides, real people do market. We’re trying to look like real people, don’t you know?’ Jane Delacroix’s pretty face was more lined than the last time I had seen her.
‘Oh,’ I said.
‘Please,’ she said, ‘take one. Win once told me you liked them. He’ll be back any moment, by the way. He’s gone to trade for more sacks. People have their own bags, of course, but the oranges need to breathe. You can’t toss them in anything. Stay,’ she ordered.
Win was here? I scanned the crowd: countless faces, but none of them was his.
She held out the fruit, and as I went to take it, she clasped my hand in hers. ‘How are you?’
I considered the question. ‘Happy to be free, I guess.’
Jane Delacroix nodded. ‘Yes, freedom is a very good thing.’ Win’s mother had tears in her eyes. ‘Take two oranges, please. Take a whole sack,’ she said. She let go of my hand and started filling her last red mesh bag with oranges.
I told her I was blocking her line. Which I was. There was no time for emotional exchanges at the market, and Jane Delacroix had a valuable commodity.
She thrust the bag of oranges at me. ‘I will never forget that you saved my son’s life.’ She grabbed my face and kissed me on both my cheeks. ‘I’m sorry for everything. I know you are a good girl.’
Over her shoulder, I saw Win enter through the back of the fruit stand. He was carrying mesh sacks in a variety of colours.
I took a deep breath, reminding myself that Win had a girlfriend and that I was not she.
‘I should go,’ I said. ‘I have to meet my sister!’ I pushed my way through the crowd, away from Win.
I found Natty at the paper books stand, which was called 451 Books. Unlike the chemicals, pasta or citrus stands, it was empty, except for Natty. She held up two books to me. ‘What do you think, Annie? Which would Imogen prefer? Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, or Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy? One’s about, like, a lawsuit, I think, and the other’s a love story maybe? I’m not sure.’
‘The one about the lawsuit,’ I said. My heart was beating like mad. I put my hand on my chest as if that could stop it.
‘Bleak House it is,’ Natty said, moving away to pay for the book.
‘Wait, let’s get both. One from each of us. You’ll give her the love story. I’ll do the lawsuit.’
Natty nodded. ‘Yes, she is good to us, isn’t she?’
I took a deep breath, making sure that I had all my parcels. Detergent, check. Conditioner, check. Pasta, check. Flowers, check. Thermos, check. Oranges . . . Blast! I’d somehow left the oranges in Win’s mother’s booth. No way I was going back for them either.
We left the books booth, and despite the fact that she was way too old for it, I took Natty’s hand. ‘Were you able to get any fresh fruit?’ she asked.
I told her that I hadn’t been. I must have looked truly wretched when I said this because Natty felt the need to comfort me. ‘It’s fine. We still have canned pineapple,’ Natty said. ‘Maybe even some frozen raspberries.’
We were almost out of Union Square when I felt a hand on my shoulder. ‘You left these,’ he said. I turned, but I already knew who it was. Of course it was Win. ‘My mother insisted I find you . . .’
What was wrong with Win’s mother?
‘Hello, Natty,’ Win continued.
‘Hello, Win,’ she said coolly. ‘You don’t wear hats any more. I liked you better with hats.’
I took the sack of oranges and said nothing.
‘I almost didn’t catch up with you two. I’m not as fast as I used to be, I guess,’ Win said.
‘How is your leg?’ I asked.
Win smiled. ‘Still hurts like heck. How was the rest of your summer?’
I smiled, too. ‘Awful.’ I shook my head to steel myself against him. ‘I heard you’re seeing Alison Wheeler.’
‘Yes, Anya, I am,’ Win replied after a pause. ‘Word moves quickly.’
And hearts even more so. ‘I once told you that you’d get over me faster than you thought, and I was right.’
‘Anya . . .’ he said.
I knew I sounded bitter, and what was the point of that? The truth was, any wrong he might be doing me now, I probably deserved. It was an accomplishment really – to have turned someone as devoted as Win so quickly.
I told him I was happy for him. I didn’t mean it, but I was trying to pretend like I was a grown-up. (Didn’t grown-ups tell lies like that?) He looked as if he might have wanted to explain about Alison, but I didn’t really want to know. Usually, I wanted to know everything about everything, but in this case, I was fine being left in a forgiving patch of darkness. Win had made things easy for me, hadn’t he? Instead, I leaned in to hug him for what I imagined would be the last time. ‘Take care of yourself,’ I said. ‘I probably won’t be seeing you around.’
‘No,’ he agreed. ‘Probably not.’
I guess I was sentimental back then. I had one bar of Balanchine Special Dark left and I gave it to him. I made him promise that he wouldn’t show his dad. He took the bar without a word or a wisecrack about it being poisoned. I was grateful for that. He just slipped the bar into his pocket and then he disappeared into the crowd. He did have a limp, and it occurred to me that I was glad to have left him with something other than that limp. He probably counted himself luckier than Gable Arsley.
Natty and I got on the bus with our parcels. ‘Why Alison Wheeler?’ Natty asked after we’d been on the bus a couple of minutes. ‘He loves you.’
‘I broke up with him, Natty.’
‘And I got him shot.’
‘And maybe he’s tired of me. Of our family. Of how difficult it all is. Sometimes I get tired of me, too.’
‘Not Win. No,’ Natty said in a soft but resolute voice. ‘It doesn’t make sense.’
I sighed. Natty might have looked twenty-five, but her heart was still so very twelve (thirteen!) and this was comforting to me. ‘I can’t think about him any more. I have to find a school to go to. I have to see Cousin Mickey. I have to call Yuji Ono. But from now on, we’re going to the market at Columbus Circle,’ I said. ‘I don’t care if we do have to cross the park!’
As we entered the apartment, the phone was ringing. I heard Imogen answer it. ‘Yes, I think Anya’s just come in. Hold on a moment.’
I went into the kitchen to unpack my bags, and Imogen held out the phone to me. ‘It’s Win,’ Imogen said with a dopey grin on her face.
‘See,’ Natty said with an annoyingly knowing look in her eyes.
Imogen put her arm around Natty. ‘Come, dear one,’ she whispered. ‘Let’s give your sister some privacy.’
I took a deep breath. As I crossed the kitchen to the telephone, it felt like the blood in my veins had begun to warm. I took the phone. ‘Win,’ I said.
‘Welcome back, Anya.’ The voice was familiar, but it definitely wasn’t Win’s.
My hands turned to ice. ‘Who is this?’
‘It’s your cousin,’ he said after a pause. ‘It’s Jacks. Jakov Pirozhki.’
As if I knew another Jacks. ‘Why are you pretending to be Win?’ I demanded.
‘Because you wouldn’t talk to me otherwise. And we do need to talk,’ Jacks said.
I told him we had nothing to talk about. ‘I’m hanging up now.’
‘If you were going to hang up, you would have just done it.’
He was right, but I said nothing. My silence must have made him nervous because when he next spoke, his manner was more contrite. ‘Listen, Annie, listen. I don’t have much time. I only get one phone call a week, and they ain’t free, you know.’
‘How is prison life, cousin?’
‘It’s unspeakable in here,’ Jacks replied after a pause.
‘I hope it’s hell.’
‘Please, Annie. Come see me at Rikers. I have things I want to tell you that I can’t say over the phone. You never know who’s listening.’
‘Why would I ever do that? You poisoned one of my boyfriends and shot the other when you were trying to shoot my brother. I was expelled from school and sent to Liberty because of you.’
‘Don’t be naïve,’ he said. ‘Those things were in motion long before me. I don’t have the syvasi. Please. In your heart, you can’t honestly believe that I . . . Things are not what they appear . . . I’ve already said too much. You must come see me.’ He lowered his voice. ‘I believe that you and your sister are in terrible danger.’
For a second, I felt fear in my heart, but then it passed. Who cared what Jacks said? He would have said or done anything to get what he wanted. Wasn’t this the exact technique he had used to manipulate Leo? Telling him that Natty and I were in danger as a way of controlling him? ‘It seems to me, Jacks, that the person who has put my family in the greatest danger has been you. And you, dear cousin, are in prison for the next twenty-five years. Personally, I’ve never felt safer in my entire life. Please don’t call here again,’ I said. As I hung up the phone, I thought I might have heard him say something about my father, but I couldn’t make it out. He really would have said anything.
In the living room, Imogen and Natty waited for me. ‘What did Win say?’ Natty asked with happy, dancing eyes.
I looked at Natty. I couldn’t protect her from this. ‘It wasn’t Win. It was Jacks.’
Imogen stood up from the couch. ‘Anya, I apologize. He did say he was Win, and I guess I don’t know Win’s voice well enough to tell the difference.’
I assured her that it wasn’t her fault.
Natty shook her head. ‘That was incredibly mean of him. What did he want anyway?’
I couldn’t exactly repeat what Jacks had said about the two of us being in terrible danger. I sat down next to Natty and put my arms around her. I would do anything to keep her safe and I wondered how I could even have allowed myself the indulgence of lamenting Win. Natty was the love of my life, not him. At that moment, the love of my life extricated herself from my embrace – was she getting too old for such things? – then she asked me a second time what our ne’er-do-well cousin had wanted.
Here, I told a pretty lie: ‘To welcome me home.’
Excerpted from Because it is My Blood by Gabrielle Zevin. Copyright © 2012 by Gabrielle Zevin.
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