It was the bright yellow tape that finally convinced me my sister was dead. When the police had called me, I’d cried for her, but afterward a slender thread of suspicion had snaked into my brain and coiled itself around my thoughts. Claudia was deceitful, like every junkie has to be, but she also had a temper and hated to be ignored. I’d kept my distance from her since September; maybe being the butt of the world’s worst practical joke was the price I would pay for four months of silence. That suspicion didn’t deter me from getting on the first flight I could out of Barcelona, but it kept my heart beating at a relatively steady pace until I’d arrived in New York. Part of me believed that I would come home and find my sister waiting for me with her dark eyes and twisted smile, pleased with herself for tricking me back into her orbit.
Instead, I’d raced up the stairs of the Lower East Side tenement and found her door crisscrossed with yellow crime-scene tape. My hands shook as I peeled it off the right side of the door frame, leaving tendrils dangling like wilted vines. This was further than Claudia had ever gone for a joke. My old keys still turned the two locks. Then I took a deep breath, pushed the door open, and stepped inside.
The smell wasn’t anything like death. Instead, something sweetly floral made my nose twitch. The apartment had always been shortchanged on natural light, but there was enough to make out ghostly silhouettes of furniture. I brushed my hand against the wall and the overhead light flickered on. The living room was painted a robin’s egg blue, just as I’d left it when I’d hastily moved out a year ago. One wall was lined with my rickety old bookcases; across from them was the small sofa I’d found on the street and reupholstered, back in the days before bedbugs had made New Yorkers leery of sidewalk finds. There was a walnut night table I’d found at a thrift shop, with a new television and DVD player on it. At the far end of the room, under the window, was an Art Deco desk I’d regretted leaving behind. There was an empty space in the center, with a bright pink rectangle in it. It wasn’t until I was right in front of it that I realized it was an iPod. I wondered where my sister had come up with the money, and how she’d held back from pawning the gadgets when she was nauseated with the craving for a fix.
“Claudia?” I called out, my voice cracking on the last syllable. My voice was too loud in this empty room.
The floor was bare wood, cracked and splintered and crying out for refinishing. If the police had searched the apartment or taken any fingerprints, there weren’t any traces I could see. It looks like your sister drowned in her bathtub at home, the police detective had told me on the phone. Her tone was warm, as if she were sure that the cold body was a suicide or an accident. I’d heard that same soothing score from the police when my mother died. They wouldn’t bother with fingerprints in a case like that. I wondered if they’d straightened the place out, because Claudia thrived on chaos. Even when she came out of rehab, bursting with good intentions and energetic as a puppy, she left dirty plates and glasses around and deposited her worn clothing on the floor. There was a pile of magazines next to the sofa, Elle and Vogue and Travel & Leisure; Claudia often laughed at me for writing articles for them. Next to the TV was a stack of DVDs; Sex and the City was on top. Had she hidden them from me before? There was something darkly humorous about the fact she’d never kept her drug use a secret from me, but that her unspeakable shame was an indulgence in pop culture.
I set my purse on the sofa and turned to the bookcase. On it sat a framed snapshot of six-year-old Claudia and eight-year-old me hugging in front of a Christmas tree. I had an identical picture in my purse, ripped from a frame in my Barcelona apartment, an ocean away. One shelf above held a photo of our parents on their wedding day. Next to that was the painted porcelain rabbit that had been our father’s last Christmas gift to Claudia. The pictures of my sister with her goth posse of art-school dropouts were gone. On the top shelf was a red card with a heart wrapped in a bow on the front. I picked it up.
Claudia, what will I do without you over the holidays? Only nine days until I see you again. I’ll be counting the minutes. M
I set it back on the shelf, remembering a couple of Claudia’s boyfriends who’d expressed their devotion through tattoos. Did the use of a single initial indicate a certain playfulness or a desire to hide his identity? I wondered if M knew about Claudia yet. I didn’t want to track him down just to break his heart, but there wasn’t much else I could do for my sister now.
Wandering through the short hallway, past the galley kitchen, I stopped in front of the bathroom door. It was closed, and the cold metal of the knob made my hand freeze. I didn’t want to see the room where my sister had died. Nothing would get me to open that door. Letting go, I backed slowly into the bedroom. Here was a hint of the familiar shambles, at least. There were no overflowing ashtrays or used cotton balls, but an open suitcase on the bed was stuffed with clothing that was piled too high for the bag ever to close. A black dress flopped drunkenly over a chair, a pair of black pumps in the gutter beneath. The label on the dress caught my eye. Prada. Claudia, shopping at Prada? Not likely. Shoplifting at Prada was a possibility.
The clothes on the bed bore similar labels. Feeling slightly emboldened, I reached for the closet door. Inside, stacked like bricks in a crumbling wall, sat dozens of shoeboxes. Manolo Blahnik. Christian Louboutin. Jimmy Choo. How did anyone, even Claudia, steal that many shoes? I peeked inside a box and found a pair of black patent stilettos. The smooth red leather sole was virgin. Size nine? My sister and I were the same height, five foot six, and we wore a size seven shoe. She had stolen enough clothes from me over the years that I knew we were the same size, though when Claudia’s heroin addiction spiraled out of control, as it always did before each stint in rehab, she vanished into the skeletal range. Had my sister been involved in some scam to fence designer shoes? I pulled down a couple of hangers from the densely packed clothing rack. Gucci. Michael Kors. More Prada. Everything would have fit Claudia, assuming she wasn’t subsisting just on junk and tar.
I almost missed the brown cardboard box on the floor. The handwriting on it was flowing and feminine, and I wondered who was sending parcels to my little sister. I tore into the box before I realized it was from me. Before Christmas, I’d phoned in an order for an expensive, impossible-to-find perfume called Tabac Blond that my sister loved. The store had couriered over the box and Claudia had abandoned it in the closet, unopened. An odd sense of rejection made a lump in my throat and I shut the closet door.
As I sat on the edge of the bed, it felt as if the year since the apartment had been mine had multiplied into ten. I’d left it behind with almost everything I owned when I’d moved to Spain. Why had I been in such a rush? My own personal life was a shambles, but … My eyes fell on a silver bracelet and I made a strangled sound. It looked almost innocent, sitting atop the scarred wood of the old dresser. I stood and grabbed it, then rolled it around in my hands. It was an inch-wide bangle with an interlacing Irish scrollwork pattern on its surface. The inscription read For Lily, With Love Always, Dad.
For a moment I thought I’d burst into tears. It wasn’t awful enough that Claudia was dead; now I was reminded how much I hated her sometimes. The bracelet was the last Christmas present I ever had from my father. He’d even let me open it on Christmas Eve. We’ll have to wrap it up tight again, he’d said, imagine the hell your mother will give me otherwise. Then he’d died that night and I’d treasured and guarded his gift. I’d worn it to sleep as a teenager, afraid my mother would sell it for brandy or gin. Eighteen months ago, when I’d allowed a very sick Claudia to move in with me, it went missing. My sister had hepatitis then, and her normally pale skin was flushed yellow with jaundice. You don’t think I took it, do you? she’d said, the picture of frail innocence. Deep down, I’d always known she had. Even when she wasn’t shooting heroin she needed cash to buy her more-than-state-allotted doses of methadone, which provided its own high. But I’d never suspected she would steal it just to take it away from me. Dropping onto the bed, I took deep breaths and tried to pull myself together. I hadn’t thought I could be sadder or angrier or more miserable than I was when I found out my sister was dead, but I was wrong.
Excerpted from The Damage Done by Hilary Davidson.
Copyright © 2010 by Hilary Davidson.
Published in October 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.