After that, it’s up to the bedroom, with me climbing the spiral steps as fast as my battered body will allow. On the nightstand is one final copy of Heart of a Dreamer. My real copy, first read to me by Jane as we lay on her bed.
I scoop it up and carry it back downstairs.
By the time I’ve reached the foyer, the apartment has filled with smoke. Already the fires have grown out of control. A glance down the hall reveals flames crawling across the floor of the study. In the sitting room, tongues of fire lick at the underside of the coffee table while smoke rises from its surface. A light crackling sound in the dining room tells me the table there is meeting a similar fate.
Satisfied, I open the door and leave 12A for the last time.
I keep the apartment door open as I move down the hallway, letting smoke billow out behind me. At the elevator, I press the down button. While waiting for it to arrive, I go to the nearby trash chute. I then flick the lighter and hold it just below the final copy of Heart of a Dreamer.
My hand resists bringing the flame any closer.
This isn’t just some random copy of the book.
It’s my copy.
But I also understand that she’d want me to do it. This isn’t the Bartholomew of her dreams. It’s a shadow version of that fantasy realm. Something dark and rotten to its core. If Jane knew the truth about the Bartholomew, I’m sure she’d despise it as much as I do.
Without another moment’s hesitation, I place the book against the lighter’s white-hot flame. As fire leaps across its cover, I drop the book down the trash chute, where it hits the dumpster below with a soft sizzle.
The fire alarm in the rest of the building goes off just as the elevator reaches the twelfth floor. I step into it, ignoring the shrieking alarm, the flashing emergency lights, the smoke rolling out of 12A in sinuous waves.
I simply descend, staring at the elevator floor, where blood drips from beneath my hospital gown. My stitches have come loose. Warm liquid oozes from one of the wounds, and a blossom of red appears in the front of the gown.
On my way down, I see that the residents have already started to evacuate. They move down the stairs in rushed packs. Rats scurrying from the sinking ship. Between the sixth and seventh floors, Marianne Duncan sits on the landing, jostled by others coming down the staircase. Tears stream down her face.
“Rufus?” she all but screams. “Come back, baby!”
Our eyes lock for a moment, hers yellowed from jaundice, mine aflame with vengeance. I give her the finger as the elevator sinks to the next floor.
None of the retreating residents try to stop my descent. All it would take is a press of the elevator button on a lower floor. But they see the look on my face and the blood-stained knife in my hand and instinctively stay away.
I’m the kind of girl you don’t want to fuck with.
As the elevator comes to a stop in the lobby, I spot a small, dark shape streaking down the steps. Rufus, also making his escape. I yank open the grate and step out of the elevator, lowering my aching body just enough to scoop him up. He shivers in my arms and lets out a few sharp yaps that I hope are loud enough for Marianne to hear several floors above us.
Together, we approach the door. Charlie is there, helping the Bartholomew’s population of old and infirm get outside. He sees me and freezes, shocked, his arms dropping to his sides. This time, he doesn’t try to stop me. He knows it’s all over.
“I hope your daughter gets the care she needs,” I tell him as I pass. “Do the right thing now, and maybe one day she’ll forgive you.”
I continue on, limping out of the Bartholomew as police and fire trucks start to arrive. It’s a firefighter who spots me first, although it’s hard not to. I’m a bleeding girl in a hospital gown with bare feet, a frightened dog, a cracked family photo, and a blood-slicked knife.
Immediately, I’m swarmed by cops, who pry the knife from my hand.
I refuse to give them Rufus or the picture of my family.
I’m allowed to keep hold of them as I’m wrapped in a blanket and guided first to a waiting patrol car and then, when it arrives, to an ambulance. Soon I’m on a stretcher, being carried to the ambulance’s open back doors.
“Is anyone else inside hurt?” a cop asks me.
I give a weak nod. “A man on the twelfth floor—12B.”
I’m then loaded feetfirst into the ambulance with two EMTs. Through the open rear door, I get a tilted view of the Bartholomew itself. I look to the northern corner where George sits, stoic as ever, even as flames start to leap in the window just behind his wings. I’m about to give him a whispered goodbye when I notice movement on the other side of the roof.
A dark figure emerges from the smoke, stumbling toward the roof’s edge.
Even though he’s so high up and the heat of the fire causes the air around him to shimmer, I can tell it’s Nick. He has a towel pressed to his stomach. When a smoke-filled breeze kicks up, the towel flutters, flashing bits of red.
Two more people join him on the roof. Cops. Although their guns are drawn, they show no signs of using them. Nick has no place to run.
Still, he continues to stagger along the roof. The smoke pouring from 12A has gotten thicker, darker. It blows across him in malevolent strands, bringing him in and out of my vision.
When the smoke clears, I see that he’s reached the edge of the roof. Even though he must be aware of the cops following his path, he ignores them. Instead, he looks outward, surveying the park and the city beyond it.