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I could never sleep at Catherine’s house, and it made no sense. Everything about her bedroom was engineered to combat insomnia—from the cool French linen sheets to the plush king-size mattress to the blackout curtains—but none of it worked on me. I could never relax there, never quite felt at home somehow. Maybe I missed the nocturnal rustling of people in the alley that ran the length of my own apartment on the edge of downtown, the creaks and sighs of the century-old building, the coppery streetlights that shone straight through my cheap mini blinds. Not even Catherine’s soft, even breath beside me was enough to lull me into unconsciousness when I stayed over—she was really miles away, cocooned in a satin eye mask and the chemical white noise of Ambien, and I was alone with the starless ceiling, my thoughts, and the kind of silence that only existed in ritzy neighborhoods and, I assumed, death.
The three o’clock hour was usually when I gave up and went home; we’d known each other long enough for that not to mean anything, and maybe it was even better that way, neither of us exactly being morning people. I kind of liked the streets of Bexley in the middle of the night. The giant houses all dark and silent, the traffic lights flashing yellow. But some nights, like tonight, I just lay there and tried to wait it out. Trading the warm bed for the mid-January temperatures outside was hardly appealing.
But then my phone rang.
The tuneless vibration from the floor startled me. Catherine gave a soft sigh and shifted on her pillow but didn’t wake up. I swung my legs out from under the covers, cringing at the chill as I grabbed my jeans and felt for the pocket. I found the phone just as the buzzing stopped and I saw my brother’s name lit up on the screen.
It wasn’t the first time he’d ever called me in the middle of the night.
The last time had been the night my father died.
I went into the guest bedroom and called Andrew back. He answered halfway through the first ring. “Roxane,” he said, his voice tense. “Are you busy?”
“It’s the middle of the night,” I said, “so no.” Through the window, I could see that the street was already blanched white with falling snow.
“Well, I didn’t know.”
I sat down on the futon next to Catherine’s open suitcase, half-full of clothes for her impending trip to Rhode Island. “What’s up?”
Andrew cleared his throat. “Something really weird just happened. Maybe bad-weird. I’m not sure.”
I leaned forward, elbows on my knees. “What, Andrew?”
“This girl I know—woman—Roxane, shit, I’m getting another call. Can you just come over here? Please?”
“Andrew,” I said again, but he’d already hung up.
* * *
A few years ago, Andrew bought an apartment on the eastern side of Italian Village, where it was still mostly vacant lots and fixer-upper doubles. Now it was dotted with high-end residential buildings for young professionals who wanted their luxury bath fittings with a side of street crime, or at least uncertainty. My brother could probably sell his place now for twice what he’d paid for it back then, maybe more, but he liked it there. Not least because said young professionals needed to buy weed from somebody, and it might as well be from him. I punched his code into the keypad by the door and went in. It was Thursday morning or Wednesday night, depending on your mood. The lobby was empty and quiet and the elevator doors stood open as if they’d been waiting for me. I rode to the second floor and barely had a chance to knock before Andrew yanked his door open, like he’d been waiting for me too.
I said, “You can’t just call like that and not say what’s going on—”
But I stopped talking when I got a look at him. At the long, puffy scratch on his jaw and the side of his neck, ragged and pink.
I started over. “Are you okay?”
He nodded, but he didn’t say anything—just fumbled with a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. That was how I knew he really wasn’t okay. Andrew never smoked in the apartment, only on the balcony. A holdover from growing up with my father’s rules: no cigarettes indoors. I studied him. His usual dapper bad-boy aesthetic was not in evidence. His hair, dark like mine and collar-length, was matted and greasy and he wore a faded black T-shirt with sweatpants, all of which told me he’d been asleep somewhat recently. My eyes flicked toward the closed bedroom door, but he shook his head.
“No one else is here.”
“What about the girl you were talking about?”
“It’s not like that. I was sleeping, okay? She rang the buzzer and I let her in.”
“Who is she?”
“Addison, I think her name is.”
“When I worked at the Sheraton, she was on the banquet staff for a hot second. I didn’t know her that well. But she’d, you know, been here. Once before.”
“How old is this girl?”
“Twenty-five, I guess.”
“Look, that’s not the point. The point is, she came here and rang the buzzer, and she sounded upset. So I let her in. She got up here and she was a wreck. Crying, shaking, no coat. She wanted to use my phone. I asked her what was wrong, but she didn’t want to tell me. I even asked her if she needed a doctor, she was shaking so much. But she said no, no ambulance, no police. She just used my phone to make a call, just one call, but whoever it was didn’t answer. She left this whispered message. I couldn’t really understand what she was saying. So I gave her a sweatshirt and I was fixing her a drink, and it seemed like she was calming down, like maybe she would tell me what was going on. But then something spooked her and she got up and started to run out.”
“Was she injured at all?” I asked, thinking maybe a car accident on the slippery streets.
“Under the influence?”
“No. I don’t know. I mean, you can’t always tell.”
“What spooked her?”
He dragged hard on his cigarette and tapped a grey column of ash into the sink. “Not sure.”
“Okay, and the scratch?”
“I grabbed her arm. Which, I know. I shouldn’t have.”
“When she tried to leave?”
Andrew’s face was lined with worry. “Yeah. I just—obviously something was wrong. And it’s the middle of the night, plus the weather? It was a reflex. Like, to stop her from leaving, because she shouldn’t be wandering around the city like that. So I grabbed her arm. She screamed and we—she—she was shouting for me to let go, so I did.”
“And she just left?”
He dropped his cigarette into the sink, the ember sizzling against the wet basin. “I followed her into the hall,” he said, “and she jumped into the elevator. By the time I ran down the steps, she was gone.” He laughed humorlessly. “I tried looking at the footprints in the snow, like to see where she went. But you know there are drunk assholes wandering around at all hours down here. So that was useless. But something wasn’t right. I don’t know what, but something was not right.”
Copyright © 2019 by Kristen Lepionka