Where we lived . . .
I stood at the door of the apartment and stared at it. There was still a scrap of yellow crime scene tape stuck to the inside of the door jam. It clung to a shiny silver staple. I doubt that anyone passing on the street would have noticed it, but I couldn't seem to move for the longest time. It was a chilly day, especially for early May, and I pulled my sweater closer around my body as I watched that flickering yellow bit of plastic in the breeze.
At some point, I lost interest in that bit of plastic, put my key in the door, and unlocked it. I had been expecting the apartment to smell horribly, to be like a tomb, to reek of death and blood and all the things that I associated with a dead body, but it didn't. It smelled clean. There was a faint odor of Lysol and Clorox and a heavier overlaying scent of oranges. There was one of those little cone-shaped air fresheners sitting on the stand by the door. You know the ones I'm talking about, they're full of that Jello-like stuff that comes in bright colors. I knew that it wasn't mine and that someone else had put it there. The people who cleaned the apartment must have done it.
I hadn't really ever thought about the fact that there were people out there who's job it was to come into a place where there had been a dead body and clean up the leftover bits and pieces that the coroner or the police officers, or even the crime scene people didn't need. I wondered briefly how you got into that sort of profession and why on earth you would want to go into that profession anyway. One of these people, these strange creatures who were used to seeing scenes like the one I'd seen, had been here in this little apartment, and he or she had left me an air freshener.
I know that it seems really stupid, but I stood there staring blankly into the darkness of our little apartment and I started to cry. There were a lot of different reasons that I burst into tears. There was the simple concern that the apartment might not smell okay when people eventually came back into it. It was such a normal concern, and such a simple thought and there had been very few people concerned with the simple aspect of my life for a long time. I was grateful for it.
This was not the first time I cried over my sister. It was not the last time. In truth, it was not even a significant or unusual cry that I had standing in the hallway of our apartment. I pulled myself together and straightened, rubbing my face with the side of my hand. I peered into the balmy dimness of the apartment, noting that the kitchen door was lit up from the sunlight outside, drawing a neat, brilliant rectangle on the hallway floor. I was simply not ready to go into the kitchen. I didn't know if I ever would be, or if there was even anything in there that would be worth me venturing into that room ever again. I didn't want to see into it at all, so I closed my eyes and grit my teeth, walking blindly in a straight line for the living room.
I bumped against the back of the armchair that sat cattycornered near the archway into the room, and I opened my eyes. Everything looked exactly the same. There were patches of black stuff pretty much everywhere in the room where they'd searched for fingerprints. I knew that virtually all the fingerprints had been identified as people we knew, people who had simply visited and hadn't done anything at all to my sister. There was a fine layer of dust over everything, and it was particularly eerie because our Sarah's and my life here had been stopped suddenly. Someone had simply hit pause and everything in the room froze.
The blanket on the couch needed to be folded up. She must have been watching TV out in the living room and had gotten cold. She hadn't thought to fold the blanket up, instead she'd kicked it away from herself and left it laying half off the couch. There was a coaster sitting on the coffee table with a sticky mark on it where a cup had been sitting. The remotes were laying on the coffee table too, one was upside down beneath the other two. I'd never thought about it, but Sarah had a habit of holding all the remotes in her lap when she watched TV and then when she got up she would drop them in a handful. That's how they laid even now. Everything seemed the same in that room. I couldn't believe that she had died in the next room in such a horrible way and not a think in the living room had been touched.
I continued making my way through without turning on any lights. The bleary evening light let me see quite easily where I was going, and truthfully I wasn't ready to touch anything. I wanted to see the apartment as it had been, as if nothing had changed. I wanted to step back in time to a place, if only briefly, that Sarah would come bouncing through the door, humming along with her I-pod and dancing with her book-bag. I didn't believe for a second that she actually would appear but making believe made me feel better. It made me feel safer.
The bathroom and our two bedrooms came off the living room. I paused at Sarah's door and had every intention of going inside, but I found myself standing at the door, my hand on the doorknob and unable to push the door open. I let go of the knob reluctantly and stepped back half a step. I knew that her room would probably look pretty much the same, unless the police had done something to it during the investigation. That day, when I'd run through the house looking for her, I'd stopped in her room and hoped to find her inside, of course she wasn't.
Instead, I turned with a sense of purpose and went past the bathroom, directly into my bedroom without a second thought. It is a strange sensation when you come back to a place that used to be incredibly familiar after a long absence. I didn't expect to feel like an intruder in my own bedroom, but I did. Everything was exactly the way I'd left it a few weeks before. My perfume bottles were lined up across the front of the dresser, and the brightly colored lei I'd kept from our birthday party two years ago hung from the side of the mirror. There was a stack of DVD's laying in front of my little TV, the top box was not completely latched. It was Moulin Rouge. I'd been watching it while I studied before I went home for the weekend. My laundry basket was empty since I'd taken everything home to wash it, but I had left two bra's hanging from the knobs on the front of the dresser to dry, since I thought it was hard on them to go into the dryer.
My bed was made, but sloppily. I hadn't pulled the pillows out from under the pink flowered comforter. I'd just dragged it up to cover the bed. My book shelf had an empty water glass sitting on the top shelf in front of the books where I'd set it and absently forgot to take it out to the sink. It was most certainly my room, everything was exactly as it was supposed to be, but I felt uneasy. I dropped my purse and my keys on the bed and walked around it to get to the window. I pulled the blinds open and let the light come in.
I spent a long time in my room, straightening things up, putting random clothes back in drawers and wiping the dust off my computer and my bookshelves. I stripped down the bed, throwing all the blankets into a heap in front of the door. I actually managed to forget for a little while where I was and what had happened here. I got caught up in the simple rhythm of doing something that needed to be done. I was doing familiar work, folding t-shirts, tucking pillows into fresh sheets, pulling the comforter back up onto the bed. I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind that I'd come to pack things, to pull them apart and put them in boxes to take home, but I just wanted to see the room the way it was supposed to be.
It didn't take long. I wasn't really ever all that dirty, I had just left my room a bit disorganized. Once it was finished, I sat down on the edge of the bed and looked out the window. There were people walking by who didn't even notice me. I knew that the window had that reflective stuff on it, that protective sheeting that a lot of apartments on lower levels have. It still made me feel kind of like I was spying on their lives as they marched by, not even aware that was close to them.
My mom had given me and Sarah each a little pot of bamboo when we'd moved into our apartments. Mine was sitting in front of that mirror. The leaves were all leaning toward the light, so I absently reached out and turned it backwards so they'd have no choice but to straighten out. The edge of the leaves were a pale yellow, and I realized that the stones inside the pot were completely dry. I didn't really think about it, but I grabbed the glass off the shelf where I'd seen it sitting earlier and headed into the bathroom.
When I opened the door, the glass I was holding in my hand slipped through my fingers and shattered on the tiles. The bathroom was trashed. It was completely demolished in a way that looked as though someone had literally tried to tear the room to pieces. There were angry looking gouges in the wall, and everything that had hung on the walls was pulled down. The shower curtain had been ripped down from the curtain rod over the shower, and I realized that it must have been collected for evidence. There were other things they must have taken, and the same little grayish blotches everywhere where they'd dusted for prints. One of the knobs on the bathroom sink was completely ripped off and nowhere in sight. The rugs were gone as well as the towels and a few other things that used to be in the bathroom.
I hadn't realized that any part of what had happened to Sarah had started in the bathroom like that. I guess I'd been separating the kitchen from the rest of the house when I'd decided to come back into it. I was compartmentalizing the space, dividing it up into safe/untouched and tainted/dangerous. In that moment, the entire apartment became part of the kitchen and I felt sick to my stomach. I didn't really make a conscious decision to go to the kitchen, but almost without thinking about it, I turned and headed to the part of the apartment I'd been avoiding.
I think I half expected it to look exactly the same as it had, except with the body missing, of course. But the actual appearance of the room was astonishing. It looked as though nothing other than normal kitchen-related things had ever happened there. The cupboards were freshly painted and the floor was scrubbed to a bright shine. It would have made even my mother proud to see the sunlight bounce of the tiles. I shuddered at the missing furniture, knowing where it was instead of in the room. I stepped into the room. I'm not really sure if I expected to be sucked into the past, but it was a quiet and sun-filled place. The table had been left behind. I supposed that when they cleaned it they must have decided that it was still usable. There were gouges on the surface of it that I didn't remember. It would have to go.
I didn't stay very long in the kitchen. I only made myself stay long enough to prove that I wasn't afraid, and that was only about thirty seconds. There was a small shoebox sitting on the counter, the kind that you get at department stores when you buy kid's shoes. I didn't recognize it, so I went over and picked it up, turned and walked out of the room without looking backwards. There seemed to be a few things rattling around in the box, but I didn't open it and look inside until I'd returned to my bedroom. There was a folded sheet of paper scotch-taped to the top of the box. I pulled it off and read it quickly. "There were a few things we found when we were cleaning that we thought you might want to keep. We cleaned them for you, also."
Some of the things in the box were uninteresting to me. There was a magnet from the refrigerator that I'd bought at the campus store with our college's logo on it. There was also one of Sarah's pretty wooden chopsticks that she occasionally wore in her hair. There was a ring that I thought I'd lost down the sink, but must have actually fallen under something instead. The one thing out of all the items I found in the box that I was pleased to see was Sarah's necklace. She'd never gone anywhere without it and it hadn't been found on her body. Truthfully I hadn't seen her remove the necklace since she got it the previous summer.
It was a pretty necklace, a little odd for my taste, but Sarah had instantly fallen in love with it. It was relatively large, a little over an inch long. The bulk of it was a very large pearl-colored stone with an oily shine to it. It was kind of oblong, shaped vaguely like a tear or an egg with a gold cap on it similar to what you'd see on an a Christmas ornament. We'd been visiting one of our friends in Pittsburgh, and we'd spent the entire afternoon shopping at the menagerie of little boutiques that lined the street. We were waiting for the bus when Sarah noticed a small antique shop across the street. She convinced me to come with her to check it out.
Overall, I hadn't been impressed. There wasn't anything in there that interested me, but Sarah saw that funny necklace almost right away. The dealer wasn't really sure of the origin. She knew that it was Victorian and that the braided style chain was made of 18 karat gold, and it had come in with the necklace charm itself. It was the only one like it she'd ever seen, and the stone wasn't anything particularly valuable. It was fifty dollars. The woman could have told Sarah that it was cursed and anyone who touched it died within the week and it wouldn't have mattered. She had to have it. I tried to talk her out of it, pointing out that it was ugly and she'd never wear it. She'd put it around her neck before we even left the store, and it had remained there until the last time I ever saw her.
I touched it reverently, covering it with my hand and coiling my fingers around it. It felt unusually warm to the touch, probably from the box sitting in the sunlight for so long. I knew that I should have called the police and turned the necklace over to them, since it was something that Sarah never would have willingly taken off. It could have been evidence. But the person who'd left the note had mentioned that they'd cleaned it. There wouldn't be any sort of evidence left on it, I rationalized, and without a second thought, I dropped the chain over my head and tucked the bauble inside my shirt.
I spent most of that day cleaning my own room. As soon as I'd finished making it look pretty, I went out to the car and dragged in all my boxes and bags and got to work. It's a simple process to take a room apart. I hadn't really thought about how I would go about transporting everything home, but I realized quickly that I would probably need to get a U-haul truck to take everything home. I called my parents. They were so worried about me by myself that they were barely listening to what I was saying. I asked them to get a truck and drive up to the campus so that I could load everything in it. I didn't really trust myself to try and drive something that big home. After several minutes of extremely focused effort on my part, I got them to agree and to promise that they would be up in two days, and no sooner.
It didn't take me as long as I thought it would for me to pack everything I owned up. It was just a matter of putting things in the right boxes and hoping that I was labeling everything right. I had been missing a lot of my clothes, and I was glad to see them again. I wondered if I'd actually be able to wear them. It seems so stupid to even think, but part of me didn't really want to touch my things. After all, they'd been there when Sarah was murdered, just sitting there, not doing anything, not that they could have, of course.
By the time that I looked at a clock, I realized I'd been cleaning for hours and it was after midnight. I climbed into my bed, which I'd intentionally left made up and tried to go to sleep. Not surprisingly, it just didn't happen. I stared at the lights on the ceiling as cars passed by the windows. I tossed. I turned. I started to hear noises that weren't there. It took me about an hour to give up on sleep. My room was pretty much barren, and it was kind of like laying in a prison cell. Well, a prison cell whose walls were lined with cardboard boxes.
When I finally gave up on sleep, I found myself sitting on the floor outside Sarah's room trying to gather up the courage to actually go inside and start cleaning in there. I knew that there was no way I could tackle the kitchen next. It wasn't even remotely possible. The entire area still pulsed with what had happened there, and I couldn't even think about the room without thinking that Sarah was still in there, nothing left but that horrible mass that I'd found. I opened the door very slowly. I started by just unlatching the door and letting it sit there, not open wide enough to see inside, but loose enough that all I had to do was push on it to see it come open entirely.
I sat cross-legged on the floor for a long time in front of the door, trying to decide if I really had what it took to go in there. I told myself that if they had done anything to Sarah's room like they'd done to the bathroom that I simply might not want to go in there. I warned myself that the sight inside that room might be as horrifying as the bathroom. After all, I didn't know how much of what had happened to Sarah had taken place in her room. It was her room. It was the place that most belonged to her out of the entire house. If someone were going to hurt her, it would logically have started in the bedroom where she spent most of her time. I stretched my legs out in front of me and pushed on the door. It creaked and swung open softly.
I was shocked. The room was perfect. In a way, I think that if the room had been trashed it would have been less of a shock than the way that it was left. It looked as if Sarah might walk in at any moment. I climbed to my feet slowly and unsteadily staring into the room as if something would jump out and attack me at any moment. There wasn't much light in there, just the soft glow from the night light she had plugged in beneath her desk. I hesitantly reached out and turned the overhead on. It was just the way she'd left it. Why on earth they would have destroyed the bathroom but left her room alone was beyond me.
It was beyond all logic. I felt that I should leave. The room was a memory of a time that didn't exist anymore, a scrap of peace in a world of chaos. I wanted to go somewhere, anywhere but there, but instead, I wandered across the room and climbed into my sister's bed, surprised to find that her pillow still smelled like her. I had no intention of staying there, but I felt safe, and for a little while, I felt like I had a little piece of her back.