We wove among the people, somehow not touching a single one. The trees were green, but a few still blossomed. It was spring, almost summer. A strong wind shook a few of the steadfast flowers off the branches and into our path. We ignored them.
Noah led me into Central Park, which teemed with human life. Brightly colored picnic blankets burst across the lawn, with the pale, outstretched forms of people wriggling over them like worms in fruit. We crossed the reservoir, the gleaming sun reflecting off its surface, which was dotted with boats, and then Noah reached into his bag. He pulled out the little cloth doll, my grandmother’s. The one we’d burned. He offered it to me.
I took it.
“I’m sorry,” he said, as my fingers closed around it. And then he slit my throat.
I woke up gasping. And wet. Hot water splashed around me. My clothes were on and soaked, and the water was tinged a dark, deep pink. My fingers grasped the cool cast-iron lip of the antique tub, and I felt hands tighten around my wrist.
“You’re all right,” Stella said, kneeling by the bathtub. She was also clothed, and also soaked. I had no idea what she or I was doing there.
I whipped around, or tried to. “What’s—what’s happening?”
“You were—” She measured her words. “A mess.” She looked down at my shirt, the one we’d gotten from the tourist shop. That much I remembered. “The blood—it seemed to be upsetting you, but you couldn’t—you couldn’t get to the shower.”
“What are you talking about?”
Her hair was curling from the steam and the heat, and her skin was pale. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
I closed my eyes. “We checked in. I remember that. We came up here to the room—and I found my sketchbook in Noah’s bag.”
Whatever happened next had slipped out of my mental grasp; the harder I thought about it, the hazier it became.
Stella inhaled slowly. “One second you were fine. Then you just—went limp.”
“I passed out?”
Stella shook her head. “No. Not at first. Your eyes were open but staring at nothing. And you kept trying to take off your clothes.”
That, more than anything else she’d said, scared me.
“I tried to talk to you. You were aware, that’s the thing. Your eyes followed me when I spoke. When Jamie spoke. It was like, like you were listening but you didn’t respond. We coaxed you in here, and I thought maybe, if I could get the blood off, you’d come back. So we put you into the bathtub, but then you passed out.”
“That’s . . .” I didn’t even know what to say, except, “Fucked up.”
“It’s okay,” Stella said, squeezing my hand.
No, it wasn’t. I looked down at myself. I was a mess, outside and in. “Thank you,” I said to Stella. “For everything.”
Her brows drew together. “Thank you. I know I freaked out in the truck after . . . after. But I heard what he was thinking. He would’ve murdered us. If you hadn’t . . . ”
Killed him. Butchered him.
“I wouldn’t be here right now.”
I wanted to tell her she didn’t have to thank me, but the words tangled on my tongue.
“Can I—can I have a second?” I asked hoarsely. “I can’t stand these clothes anymore.”
She braced herself against the tub and quickly stood. “Of course. Do you want me to stay outside? If you need me?”
If I needed her. If I needed her to help me bathe. We barely knew each other, but without her help, who knows how long I would’ve been out?
“I think I’m all right. But thank you. Really.” I heard the door close behind her.
I stared blankly at the beadboard wall, huddled in the bathtub. The water had started to cool. I pulled the plug with my toe and drained it, stripped off my clothes and took a real bath. Without help.
When I was done, I looked up at myself in the mirror shakily, wondering who would be staring back. But it was just me. My eyes looked wide and round in my pale face, and my collarbones were sharper than I’d remembered them. The heat and steam brought some color to my cheeks and lips, and I looked better than I had at Horizons, but still. I didn’t really look like myself. I didn’t really feel like myself. It hit me then that this was the first time I’d really been alone since Horizons.
Wrapped in a white towel, I stepped out of the tiled bathroom and into my room, the old wooden floorboards creaking under my feet. Noah’s bag, still open, sat on the lace-covered four-poster bed. My sketchbook was next to it. Closed.
I approached his bag cautiously, staring at it like it might lash out and bite. I sat down on the bed and ran my fingers over the black nylon fabric. I needed to look inside. There might be something that could help us figure out where Noah was, why he wasn’t with us, whether he was really—
I closed my eyes and bit my lip to stop myself from thinking it. I didn’t open my eyes; I just let my hands wander over his things, feeling his clothes, his laptop . . .
He would’ve taken that with him if he could have, wouldn’t he? Which meant he couldn’t have, which meant maybe he—
Stop it. Stop it. I let go of the laptop, but my fingers caught on something else as I withdrew them. It was his T-shirt, the white one with the holes in it. I filled my hands with the fabric and brought it up to my face.
I caught the barest, faintest scent of him, soap and sandalwood and smoke, and in that moment I felt not loss but need. Noah had been there for me when I’d had no one else. He’d believed me when no one else had. He could not be gone, I thought, but my throat began to hurt and my chest began to tighten, and I curled up in bed, knees to chest, head to knees, waiting for tears that never came, and sleep that did.
MR. GRIMSBY WAS FORCED TO HIRE a tattered, worn carriage driven by two old mules and an old man to match, after teams of horses refused to bear us. He huffed as he climbed in and extended his hand to help me up. When I took it, he shivered.
Neither of us spoke as the carriage wound through the streets. I bit my lip to keep it from trembling, and the smell of rot invaded my nostrils until we were far from the docks, when it was replaced by the sting of smoke. I coughed several times.
“It’s the coal fires,” Mr. Grimsby said. “Takes a bit of getting used to.”
I peered out the window and watched my new world unfold before me, the slow pace of the mules allowing me to take everything in. Every person we passed was white, their skin the color of fish bellies. The men dressed in tight coats and pants, while the women were swallowed by voluminous fabrics in every color. That must have been how they kept warm. I held my arms across my chest.