There was the pain, first and last, that booming drumbeat of agony in her head—the kind of pain that made her want to curl up and die. It was woefully familiar. She recognized that pounding, that rhythm: her heartbeat, as slow and regular as a muffled bass drum from the worst band in the world, playing their worst song over and over. Vodka-based pain, she’d once called it—a dismal, throbbing ache.
She tried to squint her eyes tighter against the glare—the white glare, like a dentist’s lamp—and that made the pain worse. She was curled up in fetal position, coated in slime that she recognized as her own sweat, overheated beneath some kind of impossibly smooth fabric like the metallic surface of an oven mitt, her hair tangled hopelessly around her face, her ears and head ringing with that endless drumbeat.
Hangover, she thought hopelessly. I’ve got a hangover—a really bad one. It’s my birthday and I’ve got the worst hangover in the world.
Mary fixated on those two facts, holding on to them like floating planks after a shipwreck in a heavy storm, for the simple reason that, beyond those rudimentary ideas, she was stumped. Her name was Mary and she was seventeen—just seventeen, today—and her head was suffering the kind of rhythmic, merciless killing blows ordinarily reserved for tennis balls or nailheads. But that was it. Whatever was supposed to be occurring to her, it just wasn’t coming.
Happy birthday, she told herself weakly.
Squinting made her head hurt more, but opening her eyes fully was out of the question—it was as bright as the surface of the sun out there. She twisted around in her envelope of sweat and smooth fabric and tangled black hair that smelled of sweat and Neutrogena and tried to figure out what time it was, where she was, and how she had gotten there.
In bed, I’m in bed, she concluded. Ten points for that one. The problem was that she didn’t know which bed. There were several obvious candidates. Her own bed, that creaky, narrow, loved-and-hated wooden-framed contraption she’d slept in since she was five, which still had pink and orange paint on its headboard from when her father helped her decorate her bedroom? The bed none of her friends had ever seen, because she’d never invited them to brave the Upper West Side and visit her, because she was embarrassed by her family’s tiny, run-down apartment?
But it wasn’t her bed, because the mattress was just too good—too wide and smooth and firm. Her own bed was bearable, edging into comfortable, but it was nothing like where she was now. I’m not at home.
Patrick’s bed? That was the next possibility: that wide, deep, soft, platform bed that always had perfectly steam-laundered sheets with the highest thread count available, not that Patrick ever made the bed. He didn’t have to, with the cleaning girls and the concierge and the entire staff of Trick’s five-star hotel waiting on him hand and foot all the time, pretending to ignore the tequila bottles and thumbed-open plastic bags they cleared out of the way as he bounded off to school and they began the hopeless task of cleaning his suite.
Mary wrinkled her nose and decided she wasn’t there. No booze smell, she noticed groggily. No Hugo Boss cologne, no Dunhill cigarettes. None of the expensive continental aromas of the young, wealthy gentleman who’s been affecting high-class vices since before he started shaving. The bedclothes—their smooth, unearthly, sweat-drenched surfaces like some kind of NASA space-program fabric against her naked skin—felt expensive enough to be Patrick’s, but again, no young-dangerous-man-of-the-world smells.
So I’m at Amy’s, Mary thought, through the ongoing drumbeat in her head. That was reassuring, somehow: it made her feel safe. I’m in a beautiful Upper East Side town house, she thought hopefully, on Amy’s big quilt-covered chaise longue, the one she’s always begging me to sleep in so I don’t have to go home in the middle of the night.
There just was no way. Mary began to open her eyes, facing a solid horizontal bar of pure diamond brilliance, a blade of white light that nearly made her throw up with renewed pain and queasiness. I could be anywhere, she told herself as her headache seemed, incredibly, to get worse, that drumbeat increasing like the sound of a tribal ritual, like a group of cannibals who were all through playing around and were about to start their main course of Brunette Girl. I’m not at home; I’m not at Patrick’s; I’m not at Amy’s.
It occurred to her in that moment that she was naked—she’d noticed it before but blocked it out—and, for the first time since that drumbeat from hell had awakened her, she began to feel uneasy, even a little bit afraid. Mary’s heart began racing; then she heard the cannibals’ drums get faster and louder as adrenaline flooded her bloodstream like an electrical current and she began to feel frightened in earnest.
I have to open my eyes, Mary thought. I have to open my eyes now.
Taking a deep, trembling breath, she got her eyes open and winced in stinging pain at the unbelievable brightness, blinking repeatedly to shed the blind spots. Her vision blurred with caked sleep and smeared mascara and then the details of her surroundings began to penetrate through the white blur.
She was in a room as big as a gymnasium. There was another bed only a few feet from hers—a big queen-size bed with a cherrywood frame. The room was filled with beds: steel-framed modernist beds; beds with suede headboards and beds with white faux leopardskin headboards; beds with gleaming, ornate brass frames. Beyond the rows of beds were faceted-glass side tables and Asian-influenced end pieces with gold trim and wide black leather couches and oak desks, room-size groups of expensive-looking furniture, all arranged into ensembles like a series of bad soap-opera sets.
Mary turned her head, squinting against blinding sunlight. Her bed was inches from a window that ran all the way from floor to ceiling and wall to wall, its brightness interrupted by regular shadows that she suddenly realized were words—huge, backward white letters imprinted across the glass like a movie title seen in a mirror:
She sat up in bed and her body went rigid. She was frozen, mortified, staring out at the vast, morning sky beyond the enormous letters, trying to convince herself that she was dreaming—but she knew she was awake. This was actually happening—she was sitting bare-naked on a display bed in the second-floor window of Crate and Barrel, the biggest furniture and housewares store in SoHo.
Outside the glass, down below, she could see motionless morning traffic up and down Houston Street, the lines of honking cabs and SUVs and delivery vans stretching out in both directions. A hundred eyes were staring at her—a thick crowd of Manhattan gawkers had formed on the sidewalk, right below the window, craning their necks as they stared at the naked girl.
Bike messengers with dirty satchels and baggy rolled-up jeans gazed slack-jawed at her like they’d just found free Internet porn. A gang of preppy businessmen clutched their morning Starbucks and grinned like naughty schoolboys. A frizzy-haired woman in a faux Chanel jacket and white sneakers scowled with disgust. A few joggers gazed halfheartedly as they ran in place, and a group of fanny-packed Euro tourists stared in amazement, thrusting out their camera phones like handguns and relentlessly firing off shot after shot of her nude body.
Dreaming—this is a dream, Mary told herself helplessly, fumbling with the comforter and trying to pull it around her. I’ve got to be dreaming—this has to be a nightmare. That kind of thing happened all the time, didn’t it? You thought you’d woken up, but you were actually still dreaming, so when—
There was blood on the bed.
Four razor-thin streaks of drying blood snaked down the mattress. Mary reached awkwardly behind her back and winced from the sudden painful sting. Riding her fingertips along her broken skin, she could trace the tender, rough scratches from her smooth shoulder blades all the way down to her waist.
Oh my God—oh my God.
Mary was paralyzed with shock. She felt tears welling up in her eyes and chills emanating from the back of her neck, crawling across every inch of her skin. Her head felt like a delicate ice sculpture, a fragile, melting, crystalline jewel about to crack and shatter. Her ears were humming and her throat was dry. She didn’t know what time it was—she didn’t know how long she’d been lying beneath the comforter, on this bed in a row of beds lined up rank and file like headstones in a graveyard. Before she could completely panic, she lunged to pull the comforter around herself, its metallic fabric hissing against the mattress, and spun away from the window, ducking her head and trying to get herself out of sight.
Her bare feet slapped against the vast floor—cold, hard, grooved linoleum that had been textured to look and feel like wood. Through the glass, she could hear the muffled catcalls and shouts and murmurs of the crowd outside, the random passersby who had chosen the right Friday morning to walk down Houston Street and cast their eyes upward at the naked teenage girl in the display window.
Mary felt desperately sick. Her back itched painfully— a reminder of the unexplained scratches that had left bloody trails. DNA, she thought randomly. I’m leaving my DNA all over Crate and Barrel for the cops to find; they’re going to hunt me down and make me pay for what I did to the bed display.
And I’m naked, she thought helplessly. I’m naked. What do I do?
In one convulsive movement, Mary staggered to her feet, trying to pull the comforter after her. It didn’t quite work. The comforter got caught on the bed and slid heavily to the floor. The crowd outside cheered. This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening, she thought dazedly.
Bending down to tug at the comforter (and trying as hard as she could not to think about the view she was giving her audience), Mary pulled it off the floor, again, and tried fruitlessly to get its billowing white folds around herself. A loud bang, very close by, made her jump. Frantically staring around, she saw white-painted pipes and recessed sprinklers against the wide ceiling . . . and nothing else. No explanation of what had made that noise.
The light from the big plate-glass windows was becoming brighter. Mary heard her own rasping, hoarse breath as she finally pulled the comforter free, wrapped it around her shoulders, and began walking—shuffling, really—across the wide, empty showroom, toward the steel-framed, backlit exit sign over a doorway against the far wall.
Is the store open? Mary wasn’t sure. The entire floor seemed empty, but there was no way to tell what time it was. People could be walking in any moment.
Mary’s feet squeaked and thumped against the textured fake-wood floor. The comforter dragged behind her, hissing its way around the display beds as she got to the edge of the showroom, beneath the glowing, ruby-red exit sign, where a wide, dark metal door faced her, with no handle except a big red steel bar labeled emergency exit and warning alarm will sound.
“Come on,” Mary heard herself murmuring, pleading. “Come on, come on—”
There had to be another way out, didn’t there? If an alarm sounded, she would have to deal with store security, or even worse, the actual cops, the NYPD, New York’s Finest, with their slow, patient questions and their cordial dislike of private-school kids’ amusing problems. And it would all take so long and it might even get in the news- paper, for God’s sake . . . and she still didn’t have any clothes. She pictured herself in a holding cell (or whatever you called them) like on television, still wrapped in this billowing comforter made of oven mitt, sweaty hair tan- gled over her face as she tried to answer the leering cops’ questions. . . . No.
Staring at the metal sign, the word emergency swimming in her watery vision, she almost blacked out again. Her head spun and her body collapsed sideways against the wall, her bare shoulder scratching the rough paint as she shuddered. She was going to be sick. . . . Her head was still pounding and her vision was darkening . . . and then the wave passed and she pushed against the wall and stood up again.
What the hell—? How much did I have to drink, anyway? She couldn’t remember ever feeling so weak and dizzy— except once: her first hangover, the very first one after she and her little sister drank the leftover wine from one of their parents’ cocktail parties, back when they had two parents and the young girls would sneak into the living room and approach the coffee table covered in half-empty glasses and sodden paper napkins, and dare each other to drink the sweet-smelling Chablis. She had ended up curled in bed with her mom cleaning vomit from the bathroom floor as her father’s rough hands stroked her hot face and he told her that everything would be all right, that the pain would go away.
Bang. Clang. Bang. That same dull metallic noise, from close by now. Somebody’s here—
“Hello?” Mary called out.
She had turned a corner, past the edge of the store’s display panels and was headed toward a doorway she hadn’t seen; a metal doorframe with a paper calendar Scotch-taped to its inner surface. In the small room beyond the door, Mary could see nothing but a dented plastic Diet Coke bottle on the linoleum floor and a grimy time clock bolted to the white cinder-block wall. She could hear salsa music, dimly, from somewhere inside.
“Hello? Anybody here?”
The flawless white comforter snaked behind her like a snail’s trail as Mary moved forward through the doorway. She nearly jumped when she saw a middle-aged woman in a coverall—a dowdy-looking polyester dress that you’d have to call beige (it didn’t really qualify as taupe)—slumped behind a plastic table, reading a Spanish-language newspaper and peering at her. The woman didn’t move; she and Mary had locked eyes. An acrid smell of bleach permeated the room.
Great, Mary thought dismally. A language barrier, just to make this more fun. “Can you help me? I can’t—I lost my clothes. I don’t have my clothes.”
“Look.” Mary stepped forward, stumbling on the edge of the comforter, reaching for the cleaning lady’s arm. “I need clothes; I need something to wear and I’ve got”—the woman flinched as Mary plucked at the rough fabric of her sleeve—“I’ve got no money; I need to get home.”
The woman squinted at Mary. Her eyes were like black flint. She didn’t move. Mary could feel rivulets of sweat sliding down her body beneath the comforter, down the curves of her back, across the raw edges of the fresh scratches along her spine. Come on! she wanted to shout. Are you blind? I need help! Mary was trembling with cold now, the dirty linoleum pressed against her bare feet like a sheet of ice. Come on, lady—I’ll come back here later and pay you what I owe; I’ll make Patrick buy you a Prada outfit, I’ll do anything. . . .
The woman rose to her feet, without any change in her expression. She leaned close, so that the veined cracks and wrinkles in her face were visible, around the ragged edge of her brown lipstick; Mary could barely smell some kind of geriatric floral scent.
“Wrong,” the woman said with a thick Spanish accent.
“What? What do you—”
“Something wrong,” the woman went on, nodding firmly. Mary’s forehead was coated in cold, clammy sweat as she stared into the cleaning lady’s black eyes. The woman was pointing at her with a bent arthritic finger. “Something wrong with you. You go to church.”
“Look.” Mary was in no mood for whatever Sunday-school lecture the cleaning woman wanted to give her. “You don’t understand. It’s not my fault I’m—”
Mary stopped talking because she’d noticed something incredible, the first recognizable thing she’d seen since waking up. Just past the woman’s shoulder, on a bare wooden shelf, was an electrifying, familiar sight.
“You go to church, you say prayers,” the woman repeated, turning away toward a green storage locker. “I help you—I give you money. I no have much, but I give you—”
“My phone.” Mary pointed at the small, gleaming black and maroon BlackBerry she’d spotted, nearly dropping the comforter again. “That’s my phone, ma’am. If I could just—”
The cleaning woman seemed to have some kind of special need to move as slowly as humanly possible. She was painstakingly pulling out a coverall identical to the one she was wearing. She slammed the locker shut—Mary winced at the loud bang—laboriously turned to follow Mary’s slim arm and saw the phone. The BlackBerry’s green light flashed right then—the phone was on.
“Is yours? I find it,” the cleaning woman explained, picking up the BlackBerry delicately, like it was a piece of Steuben glass. “On the floor, I find it when I—”
“Yes, that’s mine,” Mary said, stumbling as she reached for it. “Thank you, thank you—”
I dropped it on the way in, she thought. Whenever that was—whatever I was doing here.
Whomever I was with.
But she still couldn’t remember a thing.
Once the phone was in her hand she felt better. Flipping it open, she saw no messages, no texts, no missed calls—and a nearly dead battery. One bar, flickering.
“Such a pretty young girl; you no need to be in such trouble. You go to confession,” the cleaning lady told her. She was handing over a beautiful new twenty-dollar bill that nearly made Mary salivate because she needed it so badly. The comforter was slipping to the floor as she took the money—and the cleaning woman took her hand and squeezed it. “You confess your sins, you feel better.”
“Right.” Confess my sins? She would have settled for remembering her sins.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from 7 Souls by Barnabas Miller and Jordan Orlando. Copyright © 2010 by Barnabas Miller. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.