There once was a body found in the apartment above. The girl had not known the body when life had still animated its limbs. An unmarked minivan parks outside her apartment and opens its hatchback, welcoming the body into its dark interior. She can see into the back of the van, it looks like any other. The blinds of her window are a nuisance, casting vertical lines in her view. It is a beige minivan, the kind that a carpool mom might drive to take her child and team to the soccer field for practice. If the girls’ own mother had been here, her mother would have gone outside to get a better view; she would not have bothered with the blinds. “Shame, shame,” she could imagine her mother would have said. “Such a good neighbor! A good friend too! I just… I just can’t believe that someone died upstairs!” She would have put her hand to her cheek and shaken her head in mock sorrow. Her mother has told the girl countless times that she had been the star of many plays in her youth.
The girl and her parents have never uttered a syllable to the person that had lived above them. Once or twice the sound of heels clacking on the kitchen floor above their heads could be heard. The girl had heard a muffled voice at times and always wondered if the person liked to speak to the walls. Certainly, the girl had never seen any guests go up.
The body must have been heavy because the two men in black grunt and clench their teeth as they carry her down the stone steps. The body slides into the minivan. A quilt blanket, one that looked exactly like the one the girl had had once, covered the body. It was white with patches of pastel blues and lavender. A big toe sticks out of the edge of the quilt. One of the men closes the trunk and rubs his hands together. Rough, calloused hands she imagines that he has. Sandpaper hands. The van starts and drives off, the dark tinted windows revealing nothing and reflecting everything. An odd choice of vehicle for wheeling away bodies of the decreased, she thought. Who had the person in the apartment above been?
The girl steps away from the window and lays down on her bed in her cool bedroom. It’s August, the height of the summer heat, but it isn’t as if she can tell. The apartment is a refrigerator. The clock above her vanity tick-tocks, tick-tocks, it is the only noise in this mausoleum of a place. She sees a tiny dark red dot in the corner of the ceiling. It grows larger and larger, spreading. Her eyes water as she resists the urge to close them. She can’t any longer. Blink. Her ceiling is once again the boring white, popcorn finished surface it has always been. The poster of the hottest teen sensation looms above her on the wall to the right. His dark, attractive eyes penetrating hers. Her fingers taste like nail polish remover, the chemical taste nasty in her mouth, her nails are already short stubs and can no longer provide a source of distraction. She thinks of her childhood quilt. At her first sleepover, she had taken her it with her. When she had watched scary movies her quilt had been her shield against the terrors on the screen. Now it covers a body. She flips onto her stomach. It’s getting dark outside, the last rays of sunlight reaching out from behind the trees. The little screen on her cell phone lights up as she opens it. 7 o’clock, where were her parents? Her hands feel cold, does the body feel cold? The latest edition of Seventeen magazine is on her bedside table. She reaches for it. All the pictures blur as she flips through the bright pages. She squints her eyes, trying to make out the tiny letters; the light coming in from her window is weak and fading. A photograph of a model’s “Perfect Summer Pedicure” brings back the thoughts she is trying to squander. The toe, she was sure, had not been as neatly trimmed and polished as the one in the magazine.
The body was of a woman, of that she is sure. A recluse, the only image of the woman that remains in the girl’s memory other than her toe, is from when she had stumbled across the road to the community mailbox. She remembers the woman’s silver hair, curly and disheveled as if she’d just gotten up even though it was mid-afternoon. The robe she’d worn slipped off her thin shoulder and dragged along behind her, her back hunched from the cold autumn breeze. The girl had looked at her from her bedroom window, curious to catch a glimpse of the person whose heavy footsteps she had heard coming down the stairs and feeling sad for this lost-looking woman. Suddenly, the woman stopped and straightened her back. The girl frowned, not sure of what caught the woman’s attention. The woman cocked her head to one side as if someone had called her name, but no, no one has called her name. Her name is unknown. Goose bumps rose on the girls’ arms and she felt exposed. She ducked beneath the window, worried that the woman somehow saw her or felt her staring. After a moment, the girl laughed at herself and stood back up in time to see the woman’s face pressed against the glass and the shock that ran through her body is painful and paralyzing. The gasp that was struggling in her throat was stuck and she was unable to utter a sound. The old woman is smiles a toothless smile and slaps her hand against the glass.
A knock on the door startles the girl; a pool of her saliva darkens the page of the magazine. She had dozed off; her mother is calling her for dinner. The bright fluorescent lights of the street lamps create vertical lines that slice her bedroom walls as they filter in. Spaghetti and meatballs, her favorite, her mother reminds her as she plops a heaping bowl in front of her when she gets to the kitchen table. The light from the hanging light fixture above the table seems harsher than before, throwing everything into sharp focus. The tomato sauce is as red as blood. Had the woman fallen and cracked open her head? The silverware shone too brightly. Had she harmed herself and succeeded? Stop it, she thinks
Her mother asks her, “Have you done anything today?” as she stuffs a meatball into her open mouth.
“I saw a body”, she thinks. She swallows a piece of greasy meatball. “No”, she replies instead. Her mother senses she doesn’t feel like chatting and starts gabbing with her father, who slurps the spaghetti noisily. The girl takes a sip of her cola.
Maybe the woman had been enjoying an afternoon cucumber sandwich and had choked. Maybe she had gaped like a fish out of water, her left hand gripping her neck and her right hand grabbing at the lacey tablecloth that was draped over the table, yellow from old age. Maybe her eyeballs had rolled to the back of her head as she fell to the floor, pulling down the tablecloth with her. The fine china had crashed to the floor, the beautiful tea set breaking into a million tiny pieces. Earl grey tea had spread across the linoleum kitchen flooring. The overweight cat had stared at her with its yellow-green eyes and then curled into a ball to sleep.
Stop. Her thoughts keep creeping back to the body, like a beautiful porcelain doll her mother had forbidden her to play with. The spaghetti was like a long, slippery worm in the girls’ mouth. What would it feel like to die? She excuses herself from the table. Her stomach aches, she tells her parents. Her mother peers at her over her eyeglasses.
“Hmm,” was all her mother comes up with.
The curtains and blinds of the girl’s window are still open and the girl feels that eyes that are invisible to her are watching, as if she were some sort of animal on display at the zoo. She doesn’t turn on the light, she doesn’t change into her pajamas; she sits down on her bed. Opposite the foot of her bed, on the shelf her father had built, is the porcelain doll. It stares back at her with its glassy eyes and perfect rosy lips. The smile on its cold face is taunting, as if it knows a secret that will never escape its lips. The girl lays down flat on her back; she can hear her heartbeat as if it were beating beside her ear instead of in her chest. She lets herself slip into sleep, her arms directly by her sides.
She remains stock still, still as a corpse all through the night. And in the night, in her dark dreams she is visited by the woman. Or rather, the girl visits the woman. They are in a room with no windows or door, no light other than a single light bulb that seemed suspended in the air itself. There is no end and no beginning to the room. A solitary moth floats in out of the shadows and lands on the bulb. Underneath the light bulb is a round table covered by the girls’ childhood quilt. A glistening white teapot with wispy vapor coming out of its spout and a plate of cucumber sandwiches are in the center of the table. Out of the darkness comes a hand with transparent skin laced with blue veins and liver spots. The hand gently sets a matching white teacup and saucer on the table, then recedes into the darkness.
The girl walks toward the table, her bare feet making sticky noises on the cold flooring. “Aren’t you dead?” the girl thinks. Again the hand appears and picks up the teacup and saucer. She could hear the woman gulp, the hot tea sliding down her throat. Clinking of porcelain against teeth, porcelain against porcelain penetrates the silence. The girl waits for the hand to appear again. She waits for seconds or maybe minutes, times stretching impossibly. Her eyes are heavy with sleep; her body sways as she remains standing, exhaustion sets in.
“Sometimes things are not as they appear,” a crisp, clear woman’s voice says.
Then a loud sound as the teacup and saucer shatter on the ground. The girls’ eyes snap open, but she cannot move. Goosebumps rise on her arms and legs as she remains flat on her back, arms at her sides. Too scared to sit up, she only moves her head slightly up off her pillow. The reflection of the light off of the dolls eyes catches her attention. The dolls face looks sinister, shadows covering part of its face in darkness. Miles away from where the girl lay in her bed is the woman, with her glazed eyes behind closed eyelids. If you didn’t know any better you’d think the woman is asleep. Or you may think that perhaps the girl, with her unblinking eyes is dead.