Read Invitation to a Bonfire Online

Authors: Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire (17 page)

The momentum from my bath carried me all the way to Lev and Vera's house before I started to get nervous. By now he'd be in London, or huddled on the back of a transport truck as it trundled through Alsace; I'd calculated carefully to make sure I seemed casual when I finally showed up. It needed to look like I was just in the neighborhood, unaware of Lev's precise date and time of departure. A friendly girl, perhaps a bit dim. Red nails, red dress. Behind the door, Vera was going about her day, scratching out a note to Lev's editor or planning a week of supper menus. I pictured her doing something mundane with just—a little ripple in the air, some machination still unseen.

The pills were tucked away in my purse, not to use, but more as a talisman. They helped me keep heart, you see. I couldn't wear anything Lev had given me, lest Vera recognize a familiar bracelet or pin; I didn't entirely trust Lev to be original in his gift-giving.
Vera
, I thought. Little girl, black hair, long nose. I reached into my mind and rearranged the Pioneer scarf around her neck to its proper dashing angle. There was something so comfortingly familiar about her, something so like going home. I had to remind myself that we hadn't been friendly back in Moscow. She hadn't even known my name.

After a couple of minutes I decided that my skulking behind a tree at the corner was becoming conspicuous, and gathered myself up to walk to the door and knock. A shuffle and bustle somewhere unseen, and then the door swung open to reveal a stocky girl wearing vivid green earrings.

“Yeah?” she said.

“Oh.” I took a tiny step backwards, which I hoped looked casual. “Who are you?”

“Excuse me? You knocked. Who are
you?
” On second inspection, the girl was older than I'd thought—at least my age—and her clothes were
rather slapdash, considering her jewelry. She saw me looking at the earrings and reached a protective hand up to touch one. “Mrs. was letting me try them on.”

“Oh, I see. Mrs.? You mean Vera? Is she home?”

“Why would you come if you thought she wasn't?”

“I didn't. I mean, I didn't think. Didn't, um, know.”

“Ok.” The girl twisted her mouth up untrustingly, but couldn't find any further reason to object. She disappeared into the house, leaving the door cracked open, and when I was sure she was gone I pushed it wider with my toe. Everything was as I remembered it. There was Lev's suit jacket folded over the banister. Somewhere inside there were stacks of his shirts, and buffed shoes lined up in neat rows. The scent of him drifted out towards me, and I parted my lips to let it in, poking my head just past the door frame to get a closer look.

Just then, Vera turned the corner. She saw me and stopped short, raising an eyebrow—not quite enough to look angry, but enough to let me know I was not especially welcome. There was a moment of silent comparison between us, though perhaps this was only in my head. Vera, a few years older than me and a century more powerful, somehow. I can only imagine how wanting she found me, but, well, she was supposed to. That was the plan. Glancing over her shoulder at the girl, who was in the process of removing the green earrings, she nodded that she was alright. Then she stood in the doorway, blocking it.

“You must be the girl Lev is trying to foist on me. Took you long enough to show up.”

“Vera.” I couldn't help myself. “You're Vera Petrovna.” She was slim and sharp and so light-skinned she appeared to be glowing. As if her bones were tubes of neon.

“Pardon me?”

I held out a hand, conscious of a thumbprint marring one of my newly painted nails. It hadn't been part of the plan to tell Vera that we knew one another or get her thinking about connections. But I remembered her so clearly, and it seemed impossible she wouldn't know me too. “Zoya
Ivanovna Andropova. We've met. You were Vera Volkova, back in Moscow?”

She stared at me, and then—took my hand. Looking less like she planned to shake it and more like she wanted to make a close canine inspection. Indeed I thought she might lick my fingers to see where I'd been.

“Zoya.
V'ui otkuda?

“Like I said, Moscow.”

She frowned. “I don't think so.”

“Well, we spent most summers in Lipetsk, but I was born in the city.”

“I mean you don't know me. We've never met.” Her voice was softer than I thought it would be. Fewer hard edges than her face implied.

“Well,” I said, “as you like.” There would be time to pursue our shared history later. (Though, as you know, dear reader, Vera never gave an inch.) For now, the future was more important. “May I come in?”

Vera leaned closer, and when she did I could smell the talcum she'd applied after her bath. And—apples. And something both sweet and sour, like yogurt. She put her face near enough to mine that I saw her lips part from her teeth when she spoke, which she did very quietly.

“Little bee. Buzzing around my nest. I've seen you hovering, you know, on the streets and at that silly school. What are you looking for?”

“Excuse me?” My voice, too, came out in a whisper. The best thing to do, I knew, was to feign ignorance and stick to my story: a silly girl, just looking for a friend. But it made me nervous to think she'd spotted me, when I'd been so careful.

“You want to come inside? Why couldn't you find your way before? On your own.”

“I don't know what you're talking about.”

Vera stepped back and straightened up. Her voice dropped and became casual, almost loud.

“Zoya Andropova. You must have a cup of tea with me. But not today, I'm afraid. As you must be aware, my husband left on a trip recently, and I've been overtired. Can you come back? Say, Tuesday?”

“Alright,” I agreed. Wary, now. “What time?”

“Two o'clock, precisely. The right time for tea. I'll have something to eat, too. Do you like
pastila
?”

This was, in fact, my favorite dessert—a gel
é
e of fruit and sugar reduced over days of heat and pressed into a delicate square—which Lev sometimes bought for me at a European bakery in New York. My mother had made her own version when we worked in Lipetsk, to give me something to look forward to during those interminable summers. I nodded, mute, and Vera smiled.

“Wonderful. We will see each other then. Now, I'm afraid you must buzz along, little bee.”

Behind her the short girl, who I decided must be the maid, giggled, but Vera made no sign she'd heard. Instead she watched me walk away—I could feel her eyes on my back, her attention swarming over me, urging me on until I turned the corner and moved out of sight. At which point I broke into a run, not caring if they heard the sound of my heels clicking against the concrete.

50.

Back at the very beginning, I would sometimes—not so often, but occasionally—see Margaret tucked up in her bed under mountains of quilting and electric roastery and consider crawling in beside her to avoid walking out into the cold and snow. It will sound mad to you, reader, I know, and even I, in my delirium of exhaustion and homesick ennui, realized that to cross this threshold would mean a sweet death at the very best. To hunker under all that heat, where surely there was sweat between Margaret's shoulder blades, a waft of salty bread yeasting out from underneath her arms. She would kick once or twice in her slumber and I'd curl up in the shadow of her back to evaporate, evaporate, evaporate. Melting, husking, fading to a vapor, which would, when she threw back the sheets, simply disperse into the air.
Fine
, I thought.
Fine
.

“What are you doing?” she asked once, turning to see me standing beside her, all kitted up in my green coat.

“Nothing. Just checking”—I grasped at straws—“whether you needed another blanket.”

She, gruff. Half-sleeping. Her hair all chestnut disarray. “I'm fine.”

“If you're sure.”

“Mmmhmm.” She turned away from me and lay her glowing cheek back on the pillow. Gone before I closed the door behind me. She never needed to study much to make her grades. She got up in the morning at half past eight unless she had an early class, and ate a slow breakfast in the caf, sometimes flipping through the newspaper that her father had subscribed her to against her will. She liked the science column, the society column, the reviews of books and plays. I read her a passage, once, from Lev's first book,
Knife, Knave
, thinking we might share the pleasure of his words, his turn and flick of felicitous phrasing. She wrinkled her nose.

“God, too much,” she said. “Can't he just say anything plain?”

She was the sweetest when she was sleeping, air coming through her lips all a-flutter. A different person from the girl who stood in the lunch line as shiny as brass, laughing with her friends and maybe waving to me from across the room with the understanding I'd never try to join her. In her sleep she softened, unthreaded. She was susceptible to whispers, and would sometimes talk to me from deep within a dream. I never told this to her waking self, because she wouldn't have understood. She knew only the back of my head as I walked into the hall, the quiet lifting of my hand from the other side of a long corridor. And never mind. Never mind all that. A fever of the past, long since broken. Mystifying Margaret, gone entirely her own way.

51.

A few blocks from Vera's house my toes began to pinch and I slowed down to a walk. My feet were sweaty, and I felt every sickening slide they made against the leather of my shoes. The few people I passed on the street shot worried glances my direction, and it was hard to blame them. I needed someplace peaceful, someplace cool to clear my head. What
had just happened? The glinting emeralds, Vera's chalky scent. Her accusation. I supposed it wasn't a loss. She had agreed to see me again, after all.

Downtown, I found the bookstore closed, which was disappointing. I didn't want to eat a hamburger (in fact I never quite got my head around this as a form of food), didn't want to sit through a movie and let my thoughts get overwhelmed. I mooned around outside the hardware store counting the loose screws in the window display, and letting the June sun beat down on my head. A pigeon hopped along the sidewalk, cooing, and I had the urge to kick it. But I couldn't. And wasn't that the point? Not much of a murderer, me, for all the bloodred dresses in the world.

A bell chimed from a nearby doorway.
Of course
, I thought. Marie's caf
é
. In the years since I'd been a regular there, the shop had stayed open and practically unchanged. The flaking paint on the door frame had been replaced by a pristine coat of blue, but otherwise, nothing. Through the window you could see the same old tablecloths, littered with coffee stains and frayed at the trim. I walked in and was greeted by three familiar paintings hung in dusty frames with yellowing price placards perched hopefully beside them. The work of a local artist, whom I'd never known to come by and check on her wares. In the air, butter and spice.

“Hello?” I said at the counter, to no one. Marie popped up from the floor, her face covered in flour and loose bits of scone.

“Whoops, had a little mishap. Just a tick.”

She ducked back down and then hustled into the kitchen, arms full of something. I heard the back door open and momentarily wondered if she was running away—there was the dim memory of Marie as a refugee, perhaps escaping a brute husband or leaving a baby on some doorstep, all wrapped up in a blanket—but then came the slam of a lid on a trash can.

“Alright, inspector,” she declared upon reentering. “Nothing to worry about here.”

“Oh no, I'm not—”

She waved her hand. “Bad joke. Sorry. What's your pleasure?”

“I think—” I looked at her and welled with hope, waiting to see some flicker of recognition. “A coffee? Do you still do free refills?”

“Up to two.” She frowned. “We never did more than that.”

“Oh,” I said. “Alright.”

I took my cup to the window seat and sipped, though the pot had obviously been sitting on the warmer for hours.

“Want anything else?” Marie called. I was the only customer in the store. “Food? Baked goods? Scattered crumbs?”

“No, thanks.” I rested my chin on my fist, elbow on the table, and watched her sweep cookies off the display plates only to replace them with fresh, identical versions. Her hair had streaks of grey now. New dangly earrings, a touch more eyebrow pencil. Her fingers, moving with quick assessment over her wares, had developed a permanent curl, bulging out at one or two of the joints. She seemed happy enough, though. I wished I'd brought a book, some small reminder. Marie had been—how to describe it? A balm. When I had little else to make me feel safe.

At last I got up the nerve to flag her down, lifting my hand as if I had decided on a bite to eat, after all. When she came over I asked, “Do you remember a girl, who used to study here?”

“You'd have to be a bit more specific, honey. There's a school nearby. And the junior college.”

“Right, sure, but someone in particular? Came here a lot?”

There it was: just a faint shine across her vision, an unmistakable fond gleam. “Well, I guess there was a girl. Few years ago now. Long time, really.”

“Yes,” I said. “You gave her biscotti.”

“Mmm. She liked almond. Sure, I remember. But why?”

Wasn't it obvious? “She's me. I'm her.”

“Oh, honey, no. I told you, a lot of girls come in here.”

“No, I—” I wasn't sure what to say. “Really, I used to sit here all the time, for hours.”

“Moved away, though?”

“Well, not quite.” I flushed. “I just got busy.”

Marie looked doubtful. “Listen, the girl I'm thinking of—” She tilted her head to the side, giving me a thorough once-over. “Maybe there's something similar in the hair. But it wasn't you. Much younger.”

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