My body practically melts with relief. I was afraid it wouldn’t be until the end of the month or, worse, after my three months were up. I’m so relieved that it takes an extra moment for the strangeness of the arrangement to sink in.
“Just like that?” I say.
Leslie cocks her head. “You make it sound like that’s a bad thing.”
“I was expecting a check, I guess. Something to make it more official and less . . .”
A word Chloe used last night comes to mind. Shady.
“It’s easier this way,” Leslie says. “If you’re uncomfortable with the arrangement or having second thoughts, you can back out now. I won’t be offended.”
“No,” I say. Backing out is not an option. “The arrangement is fine.”
“Excellent. I’ll let you get settled in, then.” Leslie holds up a key ring. Attached to it are two keys, one big, one small. “The big one is to the apartment. The small one opens the storage unit in the basement.”
Instead of dropping it into my hand like the mail key, she places the key ring in my palm before gently curling my fingers around it. Then with a smile and a wink, she returns to the waiting elevator and is lowered out of view.
Alone now, I turn to 12A and take a deep, steadying breath.
This—right now—is my life.
On the top floor of the Bartholomew.
Even more astounding is that I’m getting paid to be here. One thousand dollars every week. Money I can use to erase debt and save for a future that’s suddenly far brighter than it was a day ago. A future that’s just on the other side of that door.
I unlock it and step inside.
I name the gargoyle outside the window George.
It comes to me as I haul the last of my boxes into the bedroom. Standing at the top of the winding staircase, I look out the window, once again drawn to that sumptuous view of the park. Late-morning sunlight pours through, silhouetting the curve of stone wings just beyond the glass.
“Hi, George,” I say to the gargoyle. I’m not sure why I choose the name. It just seems to fit. “Looks like we’re roommates.”
The rest of the day is spent making this deceased stranger’s apartment feel like my home. I transfer my underwhelming wardrobe to the overwhelming closet, large enough to hold ten times the amount of clothes, and arrange my meager beauty products on the bathroom counter.
In the bedroom, I personalize the nightstand with a framed photo of Jane and my parents. The picture, taken by fifteen-year-old me, shows them standing in front of Bushkill Falls in the Poconos.
Two years later, Jane was gone.
Two years after that, so were my parents.
Not a day goes by when I don’t miss them, but today that feeling is especially acute.
Joining the photo on the nightstand is my battered copy of Heart of a Dreamer. The same one I’ve carried with me for years. The very copy Jane read to me.
“I’m totally a Ginny,” Jane said during that first read, referring to the book’s main character. “Hopeful, tempestuous—”
“What does that mean?” I had asked.
“That I feel too much.”
That definitely summed up Ginny, who experienced everything with a combination of joy and ecstasy. A trip to the Met. An afternoon in Central Park. Tasting real New York pizza. And the reader is swept right along with her, experiencing her lows—being dumped by bad boy Wyatt—and her highs—that kiss atop the Empire State Building with good boy Bradley. It’s why Heart of a Dreamer has become a touchstone for generations of girls on the cusp of adolescence. It’s the life many dream of but few get to experience.
Because Jane first read it to me, she and Ginny have become almost interchangeable in my mind. Every time I read the book, which is often, I imagine it’s my sister and not some fictional creation arriving at the Bartholomew, making new discoveries, finding true love.
That’s the real reason I love the book so much. It’s the happy ending Jane deserved. Not the grim one she in all likelihood received.
Meanwhile, I’m the one who ended up at the Bartholomew. I stare at Heart of a Dreamer’s cover, once again not quite believing I’m now inside the same building pictured there. I even spot the window of the very room I’m in. And right next to it is George. Perched on the corner of the building, paws together, wings spread wide.
I touch the image of the gargoyle and feel a pang of affection. Only it’s more than that. It’s a sense of ownership. For the next three months, George is mine. It’s my window he sits outside, and thus he belongs to me.
In a truly just world, he would have belonged to Jane.
With the book in its rightful place, I sit beside George at the bedroom window with my phone and laptop. First, I text Chloe, cancelling the plan for her to visit the apartment tonight. My hope is that a text message and not a phone call will keep her from asking questions and once again expressing disapproval about my current living situation.
No such luck.
Chloe’s reply comes literally three seconds after I send the text.
Why can’t I come over?
I start to type that I’m not feeling well but think better of it. Knowing Chloe, she’ll be at the door in an hour with a gallon of chicken soup and a bottle of Robitussin.