Chapter One

Emma on the Edge

Emma Ward stood naked at her window looking down at Saint Ann’s Avenue. Could she do it? Was she as desperate as you’d have to be?

She ran her hand along the windowsill, along a hundred years of unstripped and painted-over paint, a pallid beige in the daytime, now flat gray in the moonlight. Could she lift her legs up onto that sill, to feel the bumpy layers under her bare feet, perhaps the last sensation she would feel in her miserable life?

She turned to the room.

“Don’t worry. I’ll do it,” she said to Herself, but Herself wasn’t there at the moment.

She turned to her left to see her own self in the tarnished uneven silvering of the full-length, fruit-and-shell-framed dressing mirror. She could see her own sad silhouette against the nearly dead light of a moon on the wane. Her eyes had grown accustomed enough to the dark an hour before. She had been standing there that long…or longer. She couldn’t be sure. All she knew for certain was—except for the pathetic failing moon—this was the darkest part of early morning; the sun would be up soon, and then the world would suddenly be brighter.

For now it was plenty dark enough. No one could see her before she could see them, either from the street or the house. Emma’s rooms were on the top floor of the house — the third floor of the European-style floor plan that Miss Grande showed parents of prospective students, fourth floor to any regular old American. Miss Grande insisted on Miss for herself, Emma thought, to maintain some strange connection with the past, but allowed the more modern Ms. for the teachers and for the students, for her young ladies.

Emma had her top floor bedroom, the alcove with the window where she was now standing, and a small, what must have been a sewing room in days gone by. She had free and open use of it, of course, but the school used it for storage and Emma never used it for anything. It was a place to hide the crazy aunt, or a place for something crazy to hide.

But Miss Grande had told her on hiring about the “luxury of a two-room suite” and she was to feel lucky. Lucky she was sure, to be just above the main student bedroom floor, and hearing the incessant cries of those poor naïve girls:

“Call Ms. Ward. She’ll know what to do!”

“Ms. Ward, please come! There’s a spider!”

“Ms. Ward! Come quick! Jennifer threw up!”

But except for a few early birds the girls hadn’t arrived for the school year yet. They’d start arriving in force in a week, at the end of August. So Miss Grande would have plenty of time to clean up after Miss Emma.

She kept her robe near, draped across the side table by the bed in the other room. It wasn’t far, just an arm’s length away. When she’d laid it she had shifted aside the few objects she cared to keep there: the ancient electric alarm clock with its plastic setter, which somehow still worked after maybe 15 years; the book she was currently reading at the rate of a half-page a night, in between distracted mind-racings and eventual, fitful dozings; and the picture, turned face down. His picture. It hadn’t been knocked over by a careless toss of the robe. Emma had already turned it face-down, but couldn’t yet bring herself to throw Scott’s picture away, or even hide it in a drawer.

She must have known that there was a possibility she couldn’t do it, couldn’t get herself up on that sill. Why else would she leave the dressing gown so handy? She would grab it and swing her arms in and wrap it around her, of course, if the headmistress wandered up the steps, or if any of the girls stirred, perhaps wakened by a heavy menses and a dash for the shared bathroom.

Menses! Why not period like any normal person? Dressing gown? Why not robe, just plain old robe? Why did she put on such airs?

She suspected that the girls must have cruel names for her. She’d never heard any of them, but she knew they must. Teenage girls always did; and that she didn’t know at least one of the names, in itself, was a sad state of affairs. She hadn’t even the wherewithal to enlist a spy among them like other teachers would.

She turned to the doorway that led to her bedroom. No. No stirrings or footsteps there.

Nor anything else less natural.

So, robe it was and she could slip it on and instantly transform certain scandal into complete innocence. How that could be accomplished so easily. One flimsy layer of cotton and you have complete normality when the door opens instead of a naked, unstable teacher standing at the window. Or, one foot up, then another and then…you have naked teacher splattered on the walkway. How thin the thresholds.

She looked out at the deserted stretch of Saint Ann’s. She could see the street lights through the trees, and the water tank disguised as a quaint cupola on the roof of the Evelina Lopez de Antonetty public school, P.S. 277, around the block.

She looked down then at the potential splatter spot, the ancient slate path from the back of the house to the Arbor. It looked hard even from four floors up.

Now here she was imagining that the thing was done, and trying to talk herself out of it at the same time. Typically, torn two ways at once, she couldn’t take a life like this much longer. It was either end it or go mad. It was getting to the point that she didn’t know if she had the right to occupy this  skin or if she was merely a squatter, an intruder.

Or did this body really belong to that other Herself. She was at the end of wondering. She was about to commit the last act of ownership before the real proprietor came to claim it.

Would the fall kill her for sure? Four floors up? It should. She’d just need the courage to put her feet up on the over-painted sill and the will to launch herself out beyond the little roof of the portico below. No. Porch. It’s a porch.

It would take more than a mere leaning-out and letting gravity have its way with you. Having been a diver and swimmer in school herself she had no doubt she could manage the distance if she cared to.

Nothing was easy, was it?

Schools. She considered that she had spent her entire life in schools. And there was no prospect of ever getting to do anything else now, now that spinsterhood at a girl’s boarding school had locked in. Had Scott been her last chance? Was this kind of life — her kind of life — even possible in the 21st century? Should she have become a nun? They would have been glad to have her, and at least then she’d be married to Jesus.

Was she part of some vestigial left-over life-style, like an appendix, an organ of bourgeois civilization bridged to the present century from the 19th?

This was overwrought, she knew, like much of the writing she’d attempted in the past. She wrote well enough to know it, but not well enough not to have written it, and other drivel like it.

And the thought of writing was enough to move her to try one foot up on the sill. There. That was easy enough. She took it back down and reached a hand for her robe.

She turned to the left toward the mirror once more. She saw herself there.

Then she turned to the doorway to the storeroom.

And she saw Herself there too.

Emma turned away, then felt something on her back, pushing.


Read Chapter Two

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