Illustration by Jason Arias.

The adult reading room was almost empty, except for a couple of college students and that girl again, nodding out, her dirty backpack placed on top of the table—the biggest in the room, and empty except for her—as if daring us to ask her to move. Her forehead nearly touching the wood. When I passed the info desk, Alice caught my eye and then tilted her head toward the girl, pointedly. I lifted my shoulders, gave her a so what face. So what? The girl smelled like urine and soil, but only if you got close. She was quiet, and it had been weeks since we’d found any syringes in the bathroom trash, at least.

Back in my office, I sat down and slipped off my pumps, pressing my stockinged feet against the floor under my desk. My space is off a little landing between the library’s second and third floors. It is very small, just enough room for a desk and me; the single window lets in a kaleidoscope of green and blue light. On the higher levels, most of the smaller panes of glass are stained. From the outside, this building looks like a church, but it was built for trials. In the early twentieth century, it became a women-only courtroom, with a detention center in the back. The girl, and there have been many different versions of her over the years, belongs here as much as the books, I told Alice just the other day. She scares the kids, Alice said. She scares the moms, I corrected, and won, for a little while. I never give the girl any money, though seeing her always gets me thinking about how much I have. Of course she reminds me of Marlena. My office is full of money. Three-hundred-dollar leather bag hanging from the door hook. Cropped jeans, exact price forgotten, but definitely not less than one hundred and ten. Silver bracelet with inlaid row of turquoise, gift from Liam, probably half a grand. That morning I’d patted a seventy-dollar serum, a nose-stinging concentrate of green tea and rosehip, along my cheekbones. Growing up, we had just enough, and yet Mom had expensive taste, an innate sense of what made something beautiful and fine, probably fueled by the hours we spent dusting invaluable tchotchkes in the houses that she cleaned. We lived in fear of emergencies—an errant tree limb, one of Mom’s seasonal clients skipping their ski trip north, a rattle in the car’s engine, a toothache or slipped disc. We were just one big one away from Marlena and Sal, from the handful of other families that lived in the mobile homes and A-frames on our street.

The smell of my hours-old coffee made my stomach twist, and I nudged the mug to the edge of my desk. My computer pinged. I tapped my phone instead, illuminating Sal’s message. Twenty-five seconds long. Call me back, if you want, he’d said. I’ll be here until Sunday. He actually spelled out the ten digits of his phone number, even the one, like the person from the past that he was. No one left voicemails anymore—Mom or Liam, sometimes, as a novelty, or maybe the pharmacy with an automated reminder, but that was it. Sal had sent me an email, too, his spelling and grammar perfect, a smiley face beside his name.

Sal. Eight, maybe nine years old when I last saw him. His springy body appeared to be mostly limb, so that Marlena joked that if you threw him down a well he’d bounce right back. Marlena claimed to love him more than herself, but that didn’t always seem true—we’d go days and days without seeing him, or so I remember, days he must have spent shut up in that barn by himself, watching the adults filter in and out, mostly high, mostly drunk, mostly men, except for us two girls, who treated him like a toy. Once, when I was carrying Sal piggyback—this was in the fall, around when Marlena died—I smelled body odor, salty, like my brother’s. That was the first time he registered in my brain as a child who would grow up.

I met him one of our first nights in Silver Lake. The doorbell rang three times in a row, crazily, and I’d been both alarmed and excited—I was still on the lookout, then, for Dad. Jimmy hollered at me to get it and I pointed my middle finger in the direction of his voice, closing my book, The Stand, I think, because I was reading it when we moved. That novel colored my first impression of Silver Lake, all trees and crooked mailboxes and snowed-over road, without even any streetlights. When I opened the door a few inches, Sal blew in, a runty, child-sized draft, a flightless piece of wind. His pajama shirt was misbuttoned, so that one end hung down past the other; he wore no coat. A child of the Forty-Fifth Parallel, impervious to cold. He invited me over, babbling about his purple house, and I imagined that she’d sent him. Before he left, I knelt to his level and wrapped him in Jimmy’s checked scarf, knotting the edges at his collarbone, so that it hung down his back like a cape. Sal stood there patiently, giving off his kittenish smell, all fur and warm milk.

When he dialed my number, did he think of the scarf, our house chaotic with boxes, the teapot whistling in the kitchen? What did he see when he looked at me that day? When we still had the potential to be nothing to each other? I was just a girl, a girl in the same general shape as his sister, but not yet an extension of her. Or maybe, to him, I was only ever what I am now: an accessory of Marlena’s, just as he was to me. As soon as I finished the knot, he pushed out the door and darted through the snowdrifts that separated our yards. His house was dark, but he went inside. To what, I can still only really guess, despite how many hours I spent there.

I would call him back. Of course I would. It was less a decision than it was an acceptance. Alice knocked on my office door, two sharp raps that made my hungover ears ring. We had a staff meeting. I smiled and sat up straight in my chair, ignoring the hard throb in my head when I changed positions, and jammed my feet back into my shoes. Steady old Cat. I always come when called.

Julie Buntin

Julie Buntin is from northern Michigan. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, O: The Oprah Magazine, Slate, Electric Literature, and One Teen Story, among other publications. She teaches fiction at Marymount Manhattan College and is the director of writing programs at Catapult. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Marlena is her debut novel.

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