The first time, Bela says, almost absently, “I’ll call you” and Sarah smiles. She doesn’t think Bela will, and Bela pauses with one stocking half-on and watches the cynicism uncurl crookedly across the sweetness of Sarah’s mouth, flicker through her water-clear eyes.
Hm, Bela thinks, because she’d known Sarah was clever and she’d learned Sarah wasn’t half-bad in bed, either, but she didn’t have time to play at fairytales. But Sarah, for all her sunny gentleness, isn’t looking at her like she believes true love is waiting to ride up on a white horse and fling roses at her feet. Sarah is looking at her like she knows the taste of lies and the subtler bitterness of evasion, the sour burst of disappointment. And—what the hell, after all.
She calls, after all, a few days later when she’s out in California, sundrenched and salt-dusted and being charming socialite Helen West for a rich man who doesn’t need the antique silver-framed mirror that never made it to auction from his aunt’s estate.
(The mirror shows ghosts. It makes Bela’s fingertips itch acquisitively every time she’s in the same room as it, hanging there useless and wasted—she can’t just go back to New York, even while she smiles and flirts and dances away from any kind of promises and feels so lonely she could scream.)
“Who?” Sarah asks, and it’s—almost disappointing, and then Sarah’s voice warms and brightens as she says “I wasn’t expecting—”
And her surprise would be unflattering, but if she hadn’t been surprised Bela wouldn’t have called at all.
Bela comes back from California, from Paris, from British Columbia, from the Caribbean. She comes back tanned, red-haired, paler again. She brings postcards but never stories.
Sarah keeps the postcards in a box. She writes letters she doesn’t send to unfamiliar faces with names she doesn’t know living in hotels she’s never seen.
Bela calls from Texas, her voice syrup-smooth, slower as if she’s lived down south for years, to ask Sarah if they can meet in Manhattan at the end of the week. Sarah thinks of the paperwork she has to go over, of a widow in Dutchess County looking for someone to help her sell her late husband’s family’s things, of research on posy rings—
Well, they have libraries in the city, God knows. Maybe she can meet Mrs. Greene on Friday instead of Saturday, get the records checked before that, run out to a library before Bela’s plane gets in—“All right,” she says.
They go from Manhattan to Queens, Bela’s manicured fingers curled sure and confident around the grubby scuffed metal of the subway pole. Sarah hooks an elbow gingerly around it and wonders how someone as polished and elegant as Bela has always been can look so natural here as they rattle and roar in these crowded filthy tunnels—the subways have never been Sarah’s favorite part of the city.
She isn’t sure where they’re headed until Bela pulls keys out of her purse and says, “I have a cat.”
Bela doesn’t believe in having things to leave behind.
She has shelf after shelf of antiques and artifacts, of magical tools and art objects, but none of them are hers. She has Lucy, but cats are proud and stubborn and own their humans rather than the other way around.
She has, unexpectedly, Sarah.
There’s a librarian at the British Museum with lovely laughing eyes Bela barely even wants to flirt with; there’s a security guard in Montreal with brilliant legs and a lethal smile who asks Bela out for drinks, and they both go home alone. Or, well. Bela goes off to break into the mansion of one of the richest private collectors in Canada, but close enough.
Sarah calls and says, “Lucy misses you,” and her voice is smooth and cool but Bela can hear through her now like she saw through her after the first time they had sex.
“Tell Lucy I’ll be home on Tuesday,” Bela says—after all, it doesn’t do to let a cat think it isn’t the center of your life.
She doesn’t tell Sarah about Marguerite, the woman whose son she’s been pretending to contact, because Sarah doesn’t want to know; she tells Sarah about the way the town is all built on a hill, with Marguerite’s tottery wedding-cake mansion near the very top, and City Hall and stores and smaller houses and the library unwinding down the hill like Christmas lights, and then at the bottom shabby little homes and ugly new apartments. She tells Sarah about the general store—the general store—and the harvest festival that’s all anyone but Marguerite will talk about.
“We have one, too,” Sarah laughs. “Well, sort of—it’s a fair, and it’s in September—that’s harvest time, right? You should come.” And then she stops, dead air, and Bela says “All right” before she’s even thought about it.
Sarah makes her do that kind of thing: makes her care even when she’s running out of time to care in, closing her hands around the flood of time.
Sarah falls asleep with her cell phone under her pillow every night. Bela goes to Rome, to Israel, criss-crossing the Mediterranean. She goes to Portugal, to France, to Mexico, and Sarah sticks pins onto a map: Our Lady of Fatima, of Lourdes, of Guadalupe.
When she comes back her face is drawn sharper every time; the nights she stays with Sarah are broken by nightmares.
It’s late February and Bela asks Sarah if her lease allows pets—just one cat, small and housetrained, because she can’t…—and Sarah says yes and feels sick because Bela loves Lucy with a fierceness that would startle almost everyone who knows her (society lady, thief, professional (fake) medium, con artist) and she knows Bela would never give her up if she had a choice.
She doesn’t know what’s going to happen, when Bela’s going to leave and never come back.
It’s March and Bela brings Lucy with her when she visits. Sarah can’t breathe but she won’t let herself cry, just kisses Bela until they’re both dizzy and there’s the faint ferric tang of blood curled between their mouths because neither of them wants to let go.
Bela doesn’t say anything, Bela who could sell sand in a desert and charm her way out of something that would baffle Houdini. She just touches Sarah—her fingers achingly light on Sarah’s skin, not holding on at all—as Sarah crumples the linen and silk of Bela’s suit, cups Bela’s breasts through the lace of her bra and then stops, hugs Bela until Bela shifts against her leg and says, breathless, impatient, “Sarah,” like it means please, and Sarah closes her eyes against Bela’s throat and works one hand into the narrow space between them, slides her fingers down into Bela’s pants and strokes until Bela shudders against her.
For a few seconds Bela’s face is open and lovely, peaceful, and then it tightens again.
He took the gun. He took the gun, Bela thinks, dizzy, disbelieving. Everything else she’s done, all her research, all her travels, all the exotic things she found, and this one utterly mad bargain is what worked in the end.
Samuel Colt’s gun for my soul, she’d said, and. And she’s alive.
It’s dark outside, well after midnight—she’d waited a few hours, not to be sure but because she must have somehow fallen asleep while she was keeping her vigil and she was waiting to be awakened by howls or screaming pain.
She’s shaking like a fever victim, drunk on oxygen. She has a car but she can’t drive like this and she can’t—her apartment is sublet for the rest of the month, she has no jobs lined up, no savings left since she had no reason not to pour them all into her search, no—
She misdials three times before she gets Sarah. It’s the middle of the night but Sarah answers right away, voice shaky-sick and twanging with tension as she says, “What happened?”
“It’s me,” Bela says.
The sound Sarah makes might be a sob, something shattered and wondering. “Are you okay?”
It’s a wildly inadequate word—there are clawmarks on the floor, tearing through the carpet and the linoleum, but she’s alive. Not even bleeding. She’s hot and cold, rocked by tremors like earthquakes, but her soul and her heart and all her bits are still sealed inside her body.
“I’m—I’m all right.” That’s still not enough. “It’s all right.”
“Thank God,” Sarah whispers.
Bela feels her lungs fill, blooming with air. A breath. Another. “I can be in New Paltz by afternoon, if you’ll be there.”
“Where else would I be?” Sarah asks, simple and steady, and the bottom’s still dropped out of Bela’s world, gravity flipped, poles reversed, but—she has someplace to go.
Somewhere to start from.