Isabelle did not want to go to the new school. First of all, she had never stepped foot in the state where it was located, and it wasn’t high on her list of places to visit in the immediate future. She hadn’t heard many exciting things about the state. Mostly, that they made cars and more cars (despite the fact that not many people were buying them). During recent years, the city had become something of an urban ghost town, largely populated with abandoned warehouses and charred A-frame houses that had never fully burned to the ground. There were several empty churches where people no longer sang or prayed.
Not far beyond the hopeless city were the suburbs. The school was located in one of the wealthiest suburbs, where the auto executives lived in their mansions with long driveways and automated gates. The school’s 319-acre grounds were surrounded by a red-bricked wall, and the two entrances were manned by guards most of the time. Why would anyone want to go to school in such a place?
Her mother, Janice, argued that the campus was nothing but beautiful. It sat beside a large lake, where a small family of swans lived. There was a Japanese garden with miniature wooden bridges and oversize goldfish floating in its reed-rimmed ponds. In the late spring, a hill of daffodils emerged, their brilliant buttercup color painting the gentle slope. And the buildings—they were poetic, too. The entire compound was designed by a pair of Finnish architects. Brothers. As a result, these weren’t your standard, institutional buildings. Every doorknob was different. Intricate tapestries hung from the large walls. There was even a weaving studio filled with wooden looms, each one made up of a balanced system of rising and sinking shafts, where the students made rugs and other utilitarian textiles.
Despite all of this, Isabelle was not happy. Her oversized trunk was stuffed with her blouses, shirts, pants, shorts, and underwear. Nametags with her name were ironed on to every article of clothing. Janice appeared to be obsessed with making sure that Isabelle didn’t lose anything at the new school. As she drove her old, yellow Ford station wagon north on Interstate 75, across state lines, Janice tried to make small talk. About the weather. About the courses that Isabelle had registered for. About her new roommate. Daniel Neuberger. Such a strange name for a girl.
Isabelle only nodded and stared out at the industrial landscape that had replaced the open fields and barn silos that she knew. The uneven steps of factory stacks perforated the dull horizon. Lazy loops of razor wire intersected the top edges of chain-link fences that surrounded the parking lots filled with factory workers’ cars. There were signs. NO TRESPASSING. KEEP OUT. NO TOXIC MATERIALS BEYOND THIS POINT. Isabelle considered all of the things that she would miss at her old school. Her longtime friend, Cindy, from down the street. The football games in the fall, when they would sit up in the bleachers drinking Southern Comfort from Burger King cups. The boy whom she had set her sights on as her future boyfriend. He played varsity soccer and lived in the nice part of town, where the houses had driveways made of black asphalt and turquoise-blue pools with large curving slides that stayed slick and wet.
Isabelle didn’t stop to consider that new friends, football games, and potential future boyfriends might exist at the new school. No, she didn’t think about that at all, because it was much easier to be angry with her mother. She had been angry with Janice for most of her life—and she figured that this most recent turn of events provided at least another decade of anger and resentment for all of the mistakes that her mother had made up to this point, and for the ones that she would continue to propagate in the future.
After Janice said goodbye, Isabelle sat in the empty dorm room. Tears formed in the back of her throat. She had no idea what to do. The most logical step might have been to unpack, but this action suggested she was acquiescing to the current situation. And she wasn’t sure if she was ready to do this quite yet.
There was a knock on the door.
It creaked open. There stood a young man with a head of dark curly hair and thin shoulders. He was tall and wore a pair of tortoise-shell, horn-rimmed glasses. He wore a hooded sweatshirt, its sleeves frayed, with the school’s name emblazoned across the chest in capital letters. He carried two large canvas duffel bags. Monogrammed initials—DAN—were stitched into the side of each bag. Isabelle knew that the school was coed, but was certain that she read somewhere in the brochure that the boys and girls slept in separate dorms. She remembered a picture of two girls sitting on neatly-made beds with their textbooks spread out like fans of playing cards in front of them.
“You have the wrong room—”
The boy dropped both bags onto the dull green carpet, took out a piece of paper from the back pocket of his jeans, and then glanced up at the worn bronze numbers that were nailed into the center of the door.
“Nope,” he said. “This is right. My name is Daniel Neuberger.”
Isabelle felt something drop to the floor of her stomach.
“I knew about you,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t know why they didn’t tell you about me.”
“Talk to Mr. Huntington,” he said, grabbing the handles of his bags and depositing them in front of one of the closets. “He should have told you already.”
In the headmaster’s office, Isabelle learned the specifics about the arrangement. In exchange for her tuition and the expenses of room and board during the next three years, she would become pregnant—with Daniel as the father—and give birth to a healthy baby. This act was only required of her once. The baby would be given up for adoption (on the black market, so that a generous fee could be fetched). Given the fact, Mr. Huntington explained, that Isabelle and Daniel had scored in the highest percentile of the entrance exam, it was very likely that a subset of their genes would produce an offspring of equally high intelligence. Did she know how desperate people were for a smart, healthy baby these days? They were willing to do just about anything.
Isabelle’s cheeks burned. Her breaths grew shorter. She had only gotten her period for the first time eleven months ago. She didn’t even tell her mother about it. During the first incident, she stuffed clutches of tissues into the cotton crotch of her underwear, hoping that the brownish-red discharge wouldn’t trickle onto her khaki pants. The second time, she mustered up the courage to make a trip to the drugstore on her bike, buy a box of maxi pads, and hide them in the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink. It was during the fourth month that Janice discovered the bloody tissues in the bottom of the trash can.
“Isabelle, there are other students who have agreed to the same arrangement,” Mr. Huntington said. “You’re not the only one.”
“It’s against the law.”
“How else are you going to cover your tuition for three years?” Mr. Huntington said, twirling his gold-plated pen between his fingers. “Working in the bookstore for five hours a week only covers so much.”
“You can’t be serious—”
“I’m quite serious,” said Mr. Huntington, standing up from his desk.
He wore a pinstriped suit, a yellow button-down, and a navy bowtie specked with bright fuchsia dots. He was rotund, his belly hanging slightly over the beltline of his pressed slacks, and wore a full mustache, which he frequently touched.
“I want to call my mother.”
Mr. Huntington slid over the rotary phone with a row of translucent buttons representing all of his different lines. None of them glowed.
“Be my guest,” he said. “She’s already agreed to this. She signed the contract.”
Isabelle lifted the receiver. Her fingers trembled as she dialed her mother’s work number. The receptionist with the nasal voice picked up.
“Dentist’s office,” she said. “May I help you?”
“I want to speak to Janice Gray,” Isabelle said, staring at the headmaster’s wall with his many framed diplomas and awards of distinction. “It’s her daughter. It’s an emergency.”
Melodic elevator music took over the line. Mr. Huntington stepped outside of his office and spoke to his secretary.
“Izzy,” Janice said, picking up. “I’m in the middle of a cleaning. Did something happen?”
“They want me to share a room with a boy,” Isabelle said. “They want me to get pregnant.”
“Oh, darling,” Janice said with a stutter. “I’m sorry.”
“Come and get me.”
“What about your education? What about your future?”
“Mom, I’m a virgin—”
As Isabelle stood there, the immaculate office tilted and then swayed. Like she was suddenly lost in a funhouse of shifting floors and bending walls. Nothing about the office or the phone conversation felt real. Isabelle gripped the polished edge of the headmaster’s desk in order to steady her balance, taking in an extra breath. The room fell away—the diplomas and awards, the athletic fields that spread out like a gigantic sea outside the bay window, the tower that sat at one corner of the quad. Instead, black specks started to invade her field of vision. Her head felt dizzy.
“Oh, Izzy,” Janice said and then paused. “I just want what’s best for you.”
Isabelle coiled the phone cord around her index finger. The tip of it started to turn a light shade of blue. At some point during her conversation, Mr. Huntington had entered his office again. He held a legal pad in his hands and jotted down some notes.
“In the long run, it could be good for you,” she said. “Think of it as practice. A dress rehearsal.”
“I don’t know if I even want to have kids.”
“Don’t be crazy,” Janice said. “Everyone wants to be a mother.”
Isabelle could hear the metallic din of the dentist’s drill in the background. She untangled her finger from the cord.
“Think of it this way: at least you’re not going to that shit public high school,” Janice said. “Do you want to end up like me? Working as a dental hygienist in the middle of nowhere?”
“Goodbye,” Isabelle said, knowing there was nothing else to say.
“Am I right?” Mr. Huntington said.
Isabelle turned around and marched down the long corridor that led to the dorms. The hallway was crowded with other students coming and going from their classes. The air buzzed with the collision of their voices. Somewhere a boy whooped and hollered. Isabelle walked past the teeming dining hall and up the stairs that led to her area of the dormitory. Her limbs vibrated. Her head pounded. She did her best to focus on the rhythm of her feet as they hit the carpet. It felt like the only thing that she could do.
When Isabelle returned, Daniel had set up his side of the room. Several posters of rock stars—KISS, Jim Morrison, and The Boss—hung from the walls. Next to his bed was a strangely shaped lamp; gurgles of liquid red floated up and down like jellyfish.
“Did ya talk to Mr. Huntington?”
“It could be a good deal,” he said. “I mean, three years of free tuition and board.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“At least it’s temporary,” he said. “It will only last for nine months.”
“I hope you don’t mind that I set up my half of the room,” Daniel said. “I didn’t touch any of your stuff.”
Isabelle glanced at her trunk that still sat at the foot of her bed. Her stuffed animals and pillows from her bed at home were in a pile on the bare mattress. Suddenly she felt like crying. The tears sat on the edges of her lower eyelids. A sadness filled her up, from her feet to the crown of her head. She wanted to believe that there was something else out there—something beyond her hometown that sat in the middle of the whispering cornfields, one traffic light and one dusty diner, something beyond the manicured grounds of this private school not far from the industrial ghost town. There had to be another place. There had to be another way.
Isabelle started to unpack her sweaters and blouses. She noticed that Daniel had hung up all of his shirts on one side of the closet. His initials were stitched on many of the cuffs. Three pairs of polished penny loafers sat on the floor of the closet.
“I didn’t get to ask you before,” he said, sitting down on his bed. A blue plaid comforter now covered it. “Where are you from?”
“A small town in another state,” she said. “You’ve never heard of it.”
“I guess that’s why you’re here.”
“What do you mean?”
“The schools probably suck.”
Isabelle thought about the concrete monolithic building that sat on the outskirts of her town. It was four stories tall with a long bank of windows on its southern face. She imagined her friends congregating in the parking lot around their Camaros and Jeeps and Trans Ams and the football players and the stoners and the theater kids. Her friends would be arguing about who was the dealer with the best pot, about which liquor stores would accept a fake ID. They would be talking about the new guy who was working at the Burger King drive-through.
“Are you new, too?” she asked.
“Yeah, I begged my parents to come.”
“Sure,” he said. “My parents are crazy.”
“What kind of crazy?”
“Sometimes I think they might kill each other.”
“I’ve read about that.”
During the early years, her father’s many comings-and-goings from the racetrack and other women were punctuated by countless fights—slamming doors, broken glasses, and Janice’s drunken tears. Afterward, her mother could barely stand up, and Isabelle would wrap her arm around Janice’s waist and guide her into her bedroom. Then, she’d unplug the phone to make sure that her mother wouldn’t start making calls. (To her estranged sister, ex-boyfriends, the 1-800 fortune-teller.) When Isabelle was nine, her dad stopped returning, and no explanations were provided on his whereabouts. He just disappeared. The photos of him with Janice and Isabelle on the side tables in the living room and the highboy in her mother’s bedroom disappeared, too. Isabelle felt a little more at ease with this new development; it meant fewer broken things around the house. This only lasted so long. . .until Janice met the accountant, the life insurance salesman, and then the dentist.
“Want to go to the dining hall?”
“No, thanks,” said Isabelle, the neat pile of folded shirts on her bed becoming a blur. “I’m not hungry.”
Daniel walked out of their room, closing the door behind him. She lifted one of her packed Tretorns and threw it against the door. Tears rolled down her face, now blotchy with anger.
Shirley Miller was the first to show. She was in Isabelle’s Algebra II class and always sat in the front row and raised her hand when Mr. Hazen asked a question. Shirley was also one of the fastest typists in typing class—and Mrs. Bowman always smiled brightly in her direction when her typewriter dinged to indicate that Shirley had completed yet another round at fifty words per minute.
Laura Kinney, who played varsity field hockey, volleyball, and basketball, was next. She preferred dead languages to living ones. Her parents owned a convenience store in a small town on the western edge of the state and regularly sent Laura lottery tickets in the mail. On the day that Laura found out that she was pregnant, she won fifty dollars.
The third girl, Heather McIvoy, was from the middle of the state where cars were also made. Her parents had been laid off from their jobs on the assembly line when the factory shut down. Heather, too, was smart and enrolled in all AP courses. Word around school was that she had already been accepted as a pre-med student at an Ivy League college on the East Coast.
No one talked about who the fathers were, but Isabelle could tell by which boys received hard slaps on their backs in the hall between periods. These boys walked around with a little more air in their chests and a little more bounce in their step.
Amid all of the morning sickness and fatigue on her hall, Isabelle did her best to focus on her studies. In English, they were reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In history, they were studying the ancient, ash-covered city of Pompeii. In physics, the atomic properties of electricity and nuclear energy. She tried to pretend that she wasn’t one of them, that her mother hadn’t consented to the arrangement. Instead, Isabelle imagined that she was born to a pair of regular parents with regular jobs and a regular house and a regular dog. A mother and father who liked each other and rarely fought. They had fulfilling careers and made good money, so there was no need to worry about tuition. They referred to each other as Honey and Baby. They ate dinner at the same time every night. Their favorite television show was The Love Boat.
As soon as Isabelle returned to her dorm room and saw Daniel studying at his small desk with its overhead fluorescent light, this fantasy was dashed. He positioned his clear protractor, carefully measuring the sharp angles of a trapezoid, before looking up and giving her a wink. A field of inflamed acne had taken over his high forehead.
“Hey, stranger,” Daniel said, his eyes seemingly fastened to her almost-flat chest under her paisley blouse.
Isabelle’s stomach lurched and turned as she fled to one of the barren cubbies in the school’s noiseless library. There, she wrote a postcard to her aunt who lived in a city on the faraway coast and sent her annual birthday cards and Christmas money. Isabelle knew that her aunt led an interesting life. She was a published poet. She taught public school. She liked to surf. She had no children. She liked to eat breakfast for dinner. Isabelle wrote that she was a new student at a new school in a new state that she didn’t like. She wasn’t making any new friends. Then she asked about the weather and if the migration of gray whales had begun. Isabelle mailed it and prayed for a response.
Soon, rumors started to circulate that Shirley and the other girls were going to be shipped off to a special home for pregnant teenage girls. The teachers would make sure to send the girls packets of homework so they didn’t fall behind in their studies. After the births, the girls would return to school. Instead of living in Isabelle’s wing of the dorm, they would be transferred to the all-female wing, where nothing was required of them except to study, get good grades, and be admitted to the very best colleges in the country.
The steady march of procreation continued. One by one, the girls’ flat bellies started to swell underneath their monogrammed sweaters. Isabelle was starting to get worried if she didn’t get pregnant soon Mr. Huntington would call her into his office. The idea of returning home to her mother and the dentist and all that went with it was too depressing.
One night before Daniel was about to turn off his light, he sat up a little straighter and looked over at Isabelle.
She didn’t stir.
“Are you awake?”
Isabelle didn’t respond.
“I just wasn’t sure if you were awake or not.”
Isabelle heard Daniel peel back his sheets and then thump across the floor. He stood next to her bed. She figured if she kept her back to him long enough that he would leave her alone, but her strategy clearly wasn’t working. She heard Daniel shift from foot to foot, and then felt a tap on her shoulder.
“Well, I just figured—”
She could hear him breathing.
“I mean,” he tried again. “With Shirley and the others—”
Isabelle turned around and looked at Daniel. For some reason, he looked small standing there, his face obscured by the darkness.
“I have an exam second period tomorrow.” (This was a lie.)
“Can we cuddle?” he said, sheepishly.
“OK, fine,” she said, allowing Daniel to crawl into her bed.
He pressed his kneecaps into the backs of her knees, and Isabelle could feel his breath against her neck. He reached over the small ridge of her bony hip and placed his sweaty hand underneath the worn fabric of her old nightshirt. His fingers then traveled to the elastic waist of her underwear, and he rested his palm against the small, soft rise of her behind.
“You promised,” she whispered.
“You’re so soft.”
Isabelle didn’t say anything more, and Daniel didn’t pull his hand away. His breathing became deeper. She pulled her comforter up to her chin and tried to fall asleep, but had a hard time closing her eyes with Daniel’s hand resting on her butt. He had a spicy, licorice smell and snored a wispy snore, like a weak breeze whistling through the thin seam of an almost-closed window.
Each night, Daniel continued his new ritual of crawling into her bed. And each night he touched her in a different spot, as if he was trying to find the spot that would spring everything open, that would get him what he wanted. Each time, Isabelle continued to thwart his efforts by saying that she was too exhausted, that she had an exam the next day. She knew that this excuse would only work so many times.
Finally one morning, Daniel stood at the door of their room as she was getting ready to leave. He had his hands on his hips, and he looked at her with a stern eye. Isabelle slipped a sweater over her head and fixed her collar.
“What’s your problem?” he asked.
“I don’t have a problem.”
“You know what I mean.”
Isabelle slung the strap of her backpack over her shoulder.
“I’m late for class,” she said, taking several steps toward him.
Daniel continued to block the door.
“Get out of my way,” she said, with more force.
Finally, Daniel stepped aside.
“I’m going to tell Mr. Huntington about you.”
“Be my guest,” she said, doing her best to sound casual. “See if I care.”
That afternoon, Isabelle was called into Mr. Huntington’s office. When she stepped inside, the large leather back of his chair was facing her. He talked on the phone. Isabelle stood there silently as she considered the possibility of sneaking out the door as quietly as she arrived, but Mr. Huntington swiveled around and motioned for her to sit down in an empty chair in front of his desk. He rubbed his index finger along his moustache as he a-hemmed and a-hummed and listened to the person talk on the end of the line.
“Right, Mrs. Miller,” he said. “I’m very happy to hear that Shirley is better. Did she get our flowers? A-huh. Right. Goodbye.”
Mr. Huntington hung up.
“Shirley OK?” Isabelle asked.
“Just a scare,” he said, wiping his brow with a handkerchief that he removed from the pocket of his blazer. “The doctors said she’s going to be fine.”
Isabelle folded her hands in her lap. Her palms grew moist.
“I think you know why you’ve been called here.”
“No, sir,” she lied. “Not exactly.”
“Daniel Neuberger stopped by my office this morning and issued a formal complaint.”
Isabelle bit into her lower lip. Sitting there, in the headmaster’s office, she could feel Daniel’s breath against her neck and his hand resting on her hip. A tiny pool of bile emerged in the back of her throat. The inside of her ear itched.
“I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to have this conversation with you,” he said. “Why can’t you be like the other girls? Why can’t you follow the rules?”
Isabelle reached for a stray pencil that sat on Mr. Huntington’s desk and pressed one of her fingernails into its side.
“We’re giving you until the end of the semester,” he said. “Nothing happens by mid-December, I’m afraid that we’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“Remember, this is all a part of the arrangement, Isabelle,” he said, firmly. “I’m not introducing anything new here.”
“But it’s only been one semester,” she said. “Not everyone gets pregnant right away.”
“I don’t think that’s the problem that we’re facing here,” he said. “I’m going to recommend that you meet with our counselor, Linda Gregory. She might be able to help.”
Isabelle snapped the pencil in two. Slivers of blond wood spilled onto her lap. Mr. Huntington reached across his large desk and gave her a slip of paper. Linda Gregory’s name and office number were written on it.
“I’ve already told Ms. Gregory about you,” he said. “She is expecting you.”
“I hope that I’ve made myself clear.”
“You’re a good student,” he said, rubbing his moustache again. “You can go places.”
Isabelle glanced down at her fingers. Broken pencil shards were scattered across her plaid skirt.
“You may be dismissed.”
Isabelle walked into the hallway. Throngs of students passed through the corridor. Locker doors slammed. High-pitched laughter rang in the warm air. Daniel Neuberger emerged out of one of the classrooms. He was talking to the blond girl with the long legs and the long braids who lived down the hall. Isabelle caught his eye, and he smiled at her before he returned his attention to the other girl. He had just said something funny, and the girl threw her head back and laughed. Her braids skipped on her shoulders.
That afternoon, Isabelle visited Ms. Gregory’s office. There was a poster of a calico kitty hanging on to the end of a frayed rope. The caption read: HANG IN THERE, BABY!
Isabelle knocked and opened the door slowly. A woman with sandy brown hair pulled into a loose bun sat behind a wooden desk. She wore a soft pink blouse and navy blue skirt. Subtle swipes of blush accented both of her cheeks. She smiled a broad, warm smile as though they had met on several previous occasions. For a moment, her entire body exhaled. Finally, maybe, an adult that she could trust.
“Hello, Isabelle,” Ms. Gregory said, closing a manila folder. “I’m so glad you’re here. Sit down.”
Isabelle sat down in the chair next to the desk.
“Mr. Huntington told me about you,” she said. “Is there anything that you would like to talk about?”
Isabelle sat there silently. Though Ms. Gregory seemed nice, she could already tell that she was like the others. She wasn’t going to offer her any helpful guidance.
“Mr. Huntington mentioned to me that you’re having problems adapting to our school. It must be hard being new.”
“I like my classes.”
“I imagine it must be more demanding, given that you attended a public school before coming here.”
“How do you know that?”
“Mr. Huntington shared your records with me.”
“What else did he tell you?”
“Mostly the information that would be pertinent for our meeting.”
“Well, I don’t like my roommate. I wouldn’t mind switching to someone else.”
“I’m afraid that’s not an option.”
“Do you know what they want me to do?”
“Is there something that you’re afraid of?” Ms. Gregory asked, leaning forward in her chair. “You know, you can tell me. That’s why I’m here.”
“I’m only fifteen years old.”
“Other girls are doing it—and they’re thriving.”
“But look what happened to Shirley Miller.”
“She’s experiencing some minor complications,” said Ms. Gregory. “She’ll be returning next semester.”
“I’m not going to be another Shirley Miller.”
“Here’s what I’m thinking: let’s schedule our next visit, so we can figure out the root of all this. What do you say? Same time next week? I have an opening.”
“I have a class at this time next week,” Isabelle said, sharply.
“Well, when you can make it?” said Ms. Gregory, crinkling up her beige eyebrows.
“I have to double-check my schedule,” Isabelle said.
Without waiting for Ms. Gregory’s response, she got up from the chair and ran out the door, down the long corridor crowded with students. When she checked her designated slot among the long wall of mailboxes, she was relieved to find a postcard from her aunt. MY DEAR NIECE! SO LOVELY TO HEAR FROM YOU! COME & VISIT ME! Without hesitation, Isabelle wrote a second postcard. She mailed the postcard hoping that it would arrive before she would.
That night, Isabelle opened the window near her bed. It was a half-hour after curfew, ten o’clock. The old window’s hinges released a rusty whine. Daniel groaned before he turned over onto his other side. For a second she was certain that he was going to wake up, but fortunately he continued to snore—and she climbed out the window with a small bag of her belongings. The night air felt crisp against her skin. The wet ground yielded underneath her feet. An almost-full moon sat high in the sky, illuminating the expansive grounds like ripples of silvery water.
Isabelle looked back at her room. From the outside, it was just one of the many windows of the dormitory, with its green copper borders. It looked beautiful. It looked peaceful. A place where people would want to live. But Isabelle knew that there wasn’t a spot for her among them. She continued across the damp stretch of grass and made her way to the school’s back entrance. Isabelle knew that this was the best route—the security guard was only on duty during the day, and Telegraph Road was only a half-mile away. She was certain that she would be able to hitch a ride there to the bus station, where she planned to buy a one-way ticket to the city where her aunt lived.
Isabelle ran as fast as she could. Her legs felt strong underneath her. She turned down the graveled road lined with oak trees with thick trunks and clattering leaves. She lifted her legs higher. The moonlight shone bright. She ran through the back entrance and kept running until she came upon the almost-empty lanes of Telegraph Road. With a little hesitation, Isabelle stuck out her thumb. Within twenty minutes, an old lady in a Chevrolet with a plastic crucifix hanging from her rearview mirror picked her up. Isabelle slid into the front seat. The interior reeked of cinnamon and gardenias. A box of tissues sat on the carpeted hump underneath the glowing radio console. A preacher’s voice rose and fell from the tinny speakers.
“What’s a girl like you doing out so late?”
“Can you drop me off at the bus station?”
“Where are you going?”
“Does your mother know where you are?” she asked. “How old are you?”
“There’s the bus station. See it? On the right.”
“Be safe, young lady,” the woman said. “There are lots of dangerous people out there.” She pulled up in front of the station.
“Thanks for the ride.”
The next bus headed west left within a half-hour. Isabelle carefully unfurled her many dollars from her vinyl chain purse, saved from doing chores around the house over the past three years, onto the counter. The suspicious station clerk counted the bills twice before issuing her a ticket. Isabelle found a window near the middle of the bus. Other people filed on before the driver closed the door with a hiss and pulled out of the station. Isabelle leaned her head against the window and closed her eyes. She didn’t realize how exhausted she was. How the demands of the new school had made her feel so tired.
An hour into the trip, the driver announced that they would be stopping in the hopeless city because of a mechanical problem with the engine of the bus. A few people let out groans and muffled expletives.
“Watch your step,” said the driver. “If I was yous, I wouldn’t go so far.”
Isabelle nodded as she slipped on her backpack. She stepped into the cavernous depot. A spattering of homeless people slept on the benches. An older man shuffled across the grimy floor. Isabelle walked outside. There was no one around. A series of curve-necked streetlamps illuminated the empty streets. SORRY, CLOSED FOR BUSINESS, BANKRUPTCY, and FORECLOSURE signs hung from storefronts.
Up ahead, she spotted a diner. Its neon sign and interior lights were turned off. It looked like a darkened fish tank, with its broad and empty windows, amid the forest of tall, vacant buildings. Behind her, Isabelle heard a metal garage can clatter loudly against the ground, and then another. She started to run. Adrenaline rushed through her veins. She was certain that some stranger’s hand would reach out and grab her at any second.
Isabelle continued to run. She should have listened to her mother, Mr. Huntington, Ms. Gregory, the old lady. Everyone. Maybe she was better off at the school, following the rules and getting a good education. How did she expect to succeed in life? A dog growled behind Isabelle. Her heart leapt into her throat.
Ahead, there was a parting in between the tall buildings. The moon still burned bright. There, next to a concrete cloverleaf of the nearby highway, she saw a large warehouse that sat next to a church. Several of its windows were tilted open and lit up. As she got closer, Isabelle heard voices—a group of women singing. On the side of the building, there was a sign that read THE LARGEST USED BOOKSTORE IN THE HOPELESS CITY. OPEN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS. Isabelle felt a lightness rise up in her. She pulled open the heavy door. The air smelled like old books and pencil shavings. The singing became clearer, the women’s voices harmonizing into something ethereal and untouchable. Trouble in my way. I’ve got to cry sometimes. Their sweet song lifted up to the sky. Can I get a witness? Say it for me one more time. Isabelle walked up the short flight of stairs and stood in the doorway of the bookstore. There, several women stood among the towers of used books. They looked like they were sisters with the same glinting chestnut eyes. One of them, rotund like a powder keg, lifted her eyes from the books and stared at Isabelle. She stopped singing.
“What do we have here?”
“Are you open?”
“We’re always open, sweetheart,” she said, wiping her hands off on her skirt. “Come on in.”
Isabelle tentatively stepped inside. The entire place was filled with books, books, and more books. The bookcases were made of cinder blocks and two-by-fours, with every inch of shelving filled with the books. Isabelle had never seen so many books in one place before.
“There’s more upstairs,” said the woman, returning her attention to the broken spines. “Browse. See if we have what you’re looking for.”
As Isabelle made her way up the stairs, she heard the women begin to sing again. Trouble in my way. Their velvety voices wrapped around her. She continued higher and higher until she reached the top floor. There, a large window overlooked the city. The view was vast and magical: Isabelle could see the depot and the diner, and then the somnolent suburbs beyond the darkened urban grid. The women’s voices drifted up to the top floor. Can I get a witness?
Tears rolled down Isabelle’s cheeks. Somewhere out there, Daniel Neuberger was still sleeping in their dorm room. Her mother was probably smoking a cigarette and drinking a gin and tonic in a hotel bar, chatting up the dentist or a used car salesman. She was brushing the tip of her pump along the new boyfriend’s pant leg. Her father was driving along an empty highway toward the other coast, dreaming of winning racehorses and his next glass of whiskey. There, high on the top floor of the bookstore, Isabelle could see her parents caught in the endless loop of their same old stories. She thought of her distant aunt penning a new poem about adventures of love and surfing at middle age. She sang along with the women’s rich voices as she stared out over the city. Say it for me one more time.