We love a good New York novel, which is part of why we were so keen to recommend A Room Away From the Wolves. Nova Ren Suma’s marvelous book, out this week from Algonquin, is the thrilling and moving story of a young woman’s escape to Gotham and the world she finds there. In this excerpt, exclusive to Flavorwire, our heroine Bina recalls her exodus:
The day I left for New York City, the summer heat was already clammy, the sky bright white. I stood on the side of the road with an old suitcase and a fresh black eye. I wasn’t speaking to my mother. Still, she was all I thought about as I lifted my thumb into the wind—the last things she said to me, the worst things she thought about me, what she’d do when she found me gone.
My mother was the one who taught me how to hitchhike. The curving shoulder in the rippling shade of the willow tree was our spot, the city our intended destination. She also taught me how to cover up a bruise, carefully and in layers, how to light a fire in the woods without a book of matches, and how to hold a grudge.
Just one day ago, she had asked me to leave, and I couldn’t understand what she thought she was teaching me. She hovered in the doorway to my room, not setting foot inside. She stood right there and said I needed to go away for a while, that she’d found me a place to stay. She had her old suitcase with the bad wheel ready for me, front flap gaping. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. I sat on my bed against the wall, a cascade of dirty laundry like a pelt of wet moss between us. She didn’t come any closer, as if she didn’t want to ruin her shoes.
“You have to understand, Bina. He thinks you girls need some time apart. They’re his daughters. This is his house. What do you want me to do?”
She was talking about her husband. His daughters were two girls—one in my grade, one a year older—who wanted me dead.
“Sabina,” she said, “I’m tired. Every time there’s a problem, it’s about you. Every time we hear something terrible, you’re the center of it. And I’m not even talking about what you did to my car. How do you think this makes me look with him?”
The moment had come, almost as if I were watching her draw a chalk line dividing us on the basement floor. She’d called me by my whole name, the name on my school ID and on my working papers, not Bina, which is what she tended to call me instead. She’d drawn the line. She was on the other side. She was with them.
“Think of this as a break,” she said. “Stay away from the girls for a while. Don’t go to that party tonight. Give them space. My friends will pick you up tomorrow morning, before your sisters even wake up. Did you hear what I said about the party?”
The suitcase was mine now, even though I didn’t understand why this was the last straw among all the things I may or may not have done. She wouldn’t believe me no matter what I said. It made me want to roll around in the clothes on the floor. To clear a place and feel the basement’s very bottom, the coolest spot in the house, against my bare cheek. Tile, and under it a pool of cement. Maybe I wouldn’t move for a month.
But I had a party to crash in the woods. I had my name to clear.
After she left the basement, the plan formed. It had twists and turns. It had legs. I pictured myself finding my stepsisters and their friends out in the trees where they always went to party, finding them . . . and then what? I imagined a rush of insults, brutal confrontations, choked-up truths. Them admitting it in front of everyone and driving through town in disgrace to go tell my mother. We are such liars. We are made of lies. We lied. I couldn’t wait for her to hear it from their mouths.
But it wouldn’t be enough. She needed to regret what she’d done. I pictured myself going home to pack. I saw my hands, slick and careful, gathering what cash I could. The girls’ purses and underwear drawers would provide the bulk of it, but I’d also confiscate what I could from her husband’s wallet, wedged in the back pocket of his work slacks and hung on the arm of the bedroom chair. They would finance my trip, even if they didn’t know it. My mother would be stunned, and I’d be heading down the road before she had the chance to send me somewhere else. Knowing when to leave was another thing she’d taught me, since she was so lousy at it.
My mother didn’t know a lot of things, as the years went by. She didn’t know that when I peered ahead at my future, I didn’t see anything sparkling, the way she used to when she was my age. I saw a dark tunnel, and at the end more darkness. My mother didn’t know that when the orange bottle full of pills popped open in my hands and spilled into my palms (the label said hydrocodone, three years expired, from when she broke her ankle on the driveway ice) I was only looking at them, seeing how they were shaped, how big they were, how many. I was thinking of what it would be like to disappear, that was all.
Most of all, she didn’t know that I’d never given up on our plan to move to the city. I’d held it close while I slept, I kept it fed, over all these years. I remembered the name of the house where she said she lived and the street it was on. It was a place where a girl could go when she was in trouble. I remembered she said the whole room she rented there was as small as her walk-in closet now, but it was hers. There was only one window in the room, but it was her window. Late at night, she would sit out on the fire escape and dangle her legs into the dusky air and watch the lights of the city do their dancing. She’d think how, from far away, if anyone were gazing in her direction at the patch of city she was in, she’d be a part of the dancing lights for someone else.
It came back later, waiting like a glowing gem dug up from deepest dirt and now sitting in open air, in the palm of my hand. The city.
This was the first thing that came to me when I dragged myself out of the trees after they ran me out of the party. When my knee gave out and it got to be too much to keep walking, I sank down on the asphalt, there on the dotted line. The dark behind my eyelids matched the dark on the road. I heard a rush in my ears. I pressed the heels of my hands into my eye sockets until I saw stars.
A van was rattling toward me, boxy and taller than an ordinary car.
I heard and felt it before I saw it—the growling hum, the rumbling under my body. I stood, my arms up, trying to catch the driver’s attention, but the van didn’t slow. It sped by so quickly it almost clipped me. So quickly I could have blinked and been back where I was, waiting for someone to drive by and save me.
When I opened my eyes again, the wooded road was empty. All that remained were the stars in my eyes, bright spots burned into my retinas, as if I’d looked where I wasn’t supposed to. A single, pointed thought remained in my head.
The city. It was only two and a half hours away.
I could see it from a distance, like in one of those postcards of the skyline at night taken from somewhere across the river. All shine and sparkle, dazzle and promise. I narrowed the focus in my mind on the skyline. It became smaller and smaller until it was just a window. A fire escape. A single light dancing.
My mother always said I had a vivid imagination.
I started limping along the shoulder of the road, leaning my weight every so often on a passing tree, but I stopped feeling the pain. It was almost like I was there already, swaying on new legs in the glittering night that used to know my mother, and now might know me.
Adapted from A Room Away from the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma. © 2018 by Nova Ren Suma. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Young Readers. All rights reserved.