She gives me an expectant look. Hopeful and needy all at once. And lonely. As lonely as I’ve felt the past two weeks. Other than Chloe, all my friends seem to have vanished. I don’t know if this is my fault or theirs. Maybe I pushed them away without realizing it. Or maybe it’s just a natural by-product of my downward spiral. That loss inevitably begets loss. First Jane, then my parents, then my job and Andrew. With each loss, more and more friends drifted away. Maybe Ingrid is the person who’ll reverse that tide.
“Sure,” I say. “I’m in.”
Ingrid claps excitedly. “Then it’s settled. We’ll meet at noon in the lobby. Give me your phone.”
I pull it from my pocket and hand it to her. Ingrid enters her phone number into my list of contacts, spelling her name in all caps. I do the same with her phone, typing my name in appropriately meek lowercase letters.
“I will be texting if you try to ditch me,” she warns. “Now let’s seal the deal with a selfie.”
She holds up my phone and squeezes against me. Our faces fill the screen, Ingrid grinning madly and me looking slightly dazed by the encounter. Still, I smile, because for the first time in a long while, things don’t seem so bad. I have a temporary place to live and money on the way and a new friend.
“Perfect,” Ingrid says.
She taps the phone, and with a click, our pact is complete.
I spend my first night at the Bartholomew joyfully confounded over how I ended up here. The evening progresses in a sequence of impromptu steps—a happy dance being made up on the fly.
First, I climb the corkscrew steps to the bedroom, take off my shoes, and revel in the plush softness of the carpet. Walking on it feels like a foot massage.
I then fill the claw-foot tub in the master bathroom, pour in some pricey lavender-scented bubble bath I discover beneath the sink, and soak until my skin is rosy and my fingertips are pruned.
After the bath, I microwave a frozen pizza and plop it, sticky and steaming, onto a china plate so beautiful and delicate that merely touching it makes me nervous. I find a box of matches in the kitchen junk drawer and light the candles in the dining room. I eat sitting alone at one end of the absurd gangplank of a table as the flickering candlelight reflects off the windows.
When dinner is over, I open one of the bottles of wine Chloe gave me and plant myself at the sitting room window, drinking as night descends over Manhattan. In Central Park, the lamps along the paths pop into brightness, casting a ghostly halogen glow over the joggers, tourists, and couples that scurry by. I peer through the brass telescope by the window, spying on one such couple as they walk hand in hand. When they part, it’s with reluctance, their fingers extended, reaching out for one final bit of contact.
I empty the glass of wine.
I refill it.
I try to pretend I’m not as lonely as I feel.
Time passes. Hours. When my third glass of wine has been emptied, I retreat to the kitchen and linger there, rinsing the wineglass and wiping down the already-clean countertops. I mull a fourth glass of wine but decide it’s not a good idea. I don’t want to get stumblingly drunk for the second time in two weeks, even though the occasions couldn’t be more different. The first time—when Chloe took me out for those ill-advised margaritas—was a sad drunk, with me weeping between sips. But now I’m oddly happy, content, and, for what feels like the first time in forever, hopeful.
Without thinking, I grab the matches off the counter, swiping one against the box until a flame flares at its tip. I then hold my left hand several inches above the flame, feeling its warmth on my open palm. Something I used to do quite often but haven’t tried in ages. There wasn’t a need.
Now that old urge has returned, and I slowly lower my hand toward the flame. As I do, I think of my parents and Jane and Andrew and fire chewing the edges of photographs before working its way to the center.
The warmth on my palm soon gives way to heat, which is quickly usurped by pain.
But I don’t move my hand. Not yet.
I need it to hurt a little more.
I stop only when my hand twitches against the pain. Self-preservation kicking in. I blow out the match, the flame gone in an instant, a few swirling fingers of smoke the only sign it was ever lit at all.
I light another, intent on repeating the process, when a strange noise rises from the dumbwaiter shaft. Although it’s muffled slightly by the closed cupboard door, I can tell the sound isn’t the dumbwaiter itself. There’s no slow turn of the pulleys, no almost imperceptible creak.
This noise is different.
Louder. Sharper. Clearly human.
It sounds, I realize, like a scream rising up the dumbwaiter shaft from the apartment below.
I stand frozen in the kitchen, my head cocked, listening intently for a second scream as the lit match burns its way toward my pinched thumb and forefinger. When it reaches them—a hot flash of pain—I yelp, drop the match, watch the flame wink out on the kitchen floor.
The burn spurs me into action. Sucking on my fingertip to dull the pain, I go from the kitchen to the hallway to the foyer. Soon I’m out of 12A, moving down the twelfth-floor hall on my way to the stairs.
The scream—or at least what I thought was a scream—replays in my head as I descend to the eleventh floor. Hearing it again in my memory tells me checking on Ingrid is the right thing to do. She could be hurt. She could be in danger. Or she could be none of those things, and I’m simply overreacting. It’s happened before. All my experiences past the age of seventeen have taught me to be a worrier.