Sharp crack and I’m awake.
Whiskey-colored sunlight spills across my fingertips. There’s a white wall and a crumpled blue bed sheet in front of me. A boot is pressing my face into the hardwood floor.
After a few moments, I realize that’s just the hangover.
My blood weeps for nicotine. I need water and a cigarette. I need to go back to sleep and pretend this never happened. I need to reevaluate my decision-making process.
Somewhere in the room there’s a hiss and a crackle. Through a veil of static a bored voice says, “10-36 Code 2, 10th and C.” Automobile accident three blocks east, no injuries or wash-down required.
Good. I’m in my apartment.
My cell phone shakes somewhere close. The vibrations rattle the floor and shoot nails into my skull. I work myself into a sitting position, dry-heaving twice. Moving hurts. The phone is behind the nightstand. Probably buzzed itself across the surface, waking me up when it hit the floor. There are three voicemails waiting for me.
I need fresh air. After making sure I’m wearing pants, I crawl through the window and on to the fire escape. The bitter air clears me up a little. I’m no longer confused about being in my own apartment, which is a good start.
It’s probably around four in the afternoon, from where the sun is and the look of the crowds on First Avenue. It’s cold, and I want to go back inside for a hoodie, but the hangover wants me to not move ever again.
There’s a half-empty bottle of water cradled in the rusted slats of the fire escape. I’m pretty sure it’s mine, so I crack it open and swallow as I sit there and watch the city breathe in and out, comb through my memory for a clue about what happened last night.
It started in my office. For the past few weeks some degenerate has been running up behind women, groping them, and bolting. Always after last call, always women walking by themselves, always around or near Tompkins Square Park.
I organized a buddy system, so anyone who had to walk home alone could call a number and get an escort. There was also a decoy in place to draw him out. A pretty girl would walk around the park from 4 to 5 a.m., with a big angry bastard lingering in the shadows. The perp is a low-level coward. One beating would shut him down.
But more than a week had gone by and nada. No sign. I was frustrated I couldn’t catch the guy, and I did what I always do when I am frustrated: Unspin some Jameson.
My memory gets fuzzy around the bottle’s halfway mark. Everything after that is jagged. Bar tops distorted through the bottoms of empty glasses. Bodies in a crowd smothering me. White subway tile. Then my bedroom floor.
At least I made it home.
I bring my hand up to rub the sleep off my face and find the words you promised written on my palm. It’s my handwriting, but nothing else about it is familiar.
The phone vibrates again. I type my PIN, set it to speaker, and rest my head against the cold brick.
“Hey. It’s Chell.”
Chell. The harsh crack of her name makes it sound like a swear word.
May as well be.
“I’m still really pissed at you, but I need your help. I think someone is following me. There’s this guy who’s been… look, I’m scared. I’m at Fourth and B. Can you come meet me? I know that after what happened, we should talk. I’m going to walk toward your place. If you’re home or you’re close, I’ll be walking up First. Can you come meet me? Please?”
There’s a second message. Silence and a click.
The third message is from Bombay. “Dude, turn on your TV or call me back or something. It’s Chell, man. Chell’s dead.”
The story plays in a loop on NY1. A helicopter looks down at a junkyard in the Jamaica section of Queens. People are standing on a brown expanse of dirt broken by tires and scrap metal. The helicopter is too high for the camera to make out any details besides the color of their clothing. An army of police cruisers dot the street, along with a single silent ambulance.
That scene shrinks into a little box that plays next to a sullen anchor, who says Chell was found mummified in packing tape. In a deep baritone that’s subdued to signify grief, the anchor says there were positive signs of sexual assault, with no suspects at this time.
He calls her by her real name.
The coffeemaker beeps to let me know it’s finished. I don’t remember making coffee. I pour some into a mug, then put the mug in the freezer to cool. I close the door and lean forward, my palms resting against the smooth white plastic.
I can’t think. I need a cigarette. I can’t think without smoke in my lungs.
There’s no pack next to the sink. If I had cigarettes, that’s where they would be. The ashtray on the windowsill only has a few stray butts smoked to the filter. I could run to the bodega, but I can’t open a door to a world where Chell being dead could be true.
My phone is quiet, but the message is spinning around my head like a bad song I can’t shake.
How can I smoke two packs a day and there’s nothing in this apartment for me to light on fire?
There are no cigarettes in the freezer or under the sink or in the medicine cabinet. There isn’t a stray pack under the pile of clothes in the corner of my bedroom or behind the couch. I toss my sock drawer because I never really know what I’m capable of when I’m drinking.
And no, nothing except a small elastic hair tie. Threaded around it is a single red hair, long enough it would have fallen from the top of Chell’s head down to her shoulder.
My fingernails cut into my palm, and I can’t breathe. I wrap my arms around my sides, hold in the thing that’s trying to split open my skin.
Chell is dead.
It was August sometime, so hot you could smell the blacktop.
We were trying to find you a new pair of sunglasses. You had this thing about the glasses you wore. They had to match your hair, which was a shade of red somewhere between a fire truck and the blaze it was rushing to put out.
There are two places to find something like that. Canal Street or St. Mark’s. We settled on the latter because it was closer. We were on that wild stretch between Second and Third that’s jammed with street vendors and Asian tourists and karaoke bars and kids who hadn’t heard Sid Vicious died.
I sought pools of shadow while you weaved between the racks, wearing dark-colored plaid shorts and a black tank top. Your skin so white it was like the sun never touched you. You modeled sunglasses, plucking them off the racks with your long, thin fingers. Every few pairs you would turn to me and contort your face. I would shrug, like my opinion on these things mattered.
You settled on a pair of cat-eye glasses with thick plastic frames. There were little glass diamonds in the upper corners where the arms met the lenses. You tapped them and smiled.
I didn’t like them because I didn’t like not being able to see your eyes, but I wasn’t about to say that. Before I could say anything else, you pulled a fedora off another rack and put it on my head, then pushed it down until it pressed on the tops of my ears.
You said, I want to buy this for you.
I’m not a hat guy.
You’re not an anything guy. You should accessorize more.
You handed me a mirror and the hat didn’t look too bad. The guy told you it would be twenty dollars and you talked him down to fifteen. After you paid, you turned to me and smiled.
Happy birthday, you said.
I don’t celebrate my birthday. Living long enough to take another trip around the sun doesn’t strike me as much of an accomplishment. If someone hears about my birthday and offers to buy me a drink, I’m not going to turn it down. That’s about it. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t even told you when my birthday is.
We spent the rest of the day wandering around the city. There was nothing remarkable about it, but every detail is piling on me, so much and so hard I can barely stand.
We stopped at an ice cream truck for soft serve. I got a vanilla cone; you got chocolate with sprinkles. We ate them in Union Square Park while we watched a drum circle, then went to The Strand for air conditioning and discount books. When the sun dipped below the buildings, we headed to the bars, going from one to another, staying only as long as we could score free drinks. When we were too wasted to deal with the crowds, we went to my roof, where we ate tangerines and threw the rinds over the lip of the building. We laid on our backs and counted the twelve stars strong enough to shine through the light pollution that blots out the night sky. We fell asleep on a gentle slope of the roof and woke the next day, dehydrated and sunburned.
Even now I can hear the slap of your neon green flip-flops on the sidewalk, smell your perfume of lavender and cigarettes. I remember the way you would cock out one hip when you were standing still and how your laugh was the sharpest thing about you.
But in this moment, I can’t even remember the last time I saw you.
My coffee is cold, but I drink it anyway. I sit on the couch and wait for NY1 to offer some new bit of information. Instead, the reporters ping-pong between the weather, teacher contracts, and a political sex scandal. The anchor checks back in with the junkyard in Queens every twenty minutes or so, like he doesn’t want anyone to forget how sad he is.
The coverage won’t end anytime soon. Chell was pretty, white, and dressed provocatively enough so reporters could rend their clothing and slut-shame her in the same story. Primetime, front page stuff. Had she been black and murdered in Harlem, she would maybe get a mention in the weekend roundup.
The anchorman calls her by her real name again. I would never have known her real name if I hadn’t seen her driver’s license sticking out of her wallet. It didn’t change anything. She was always Chell to me. I was always Ashley to her, because I made the mistake of telling her everyone always called me Ash.
The news report cuts to a commercial.
There’s so much to process it’s hard to focus on one thing. Still, I feel something scratching at the back of my head. I go back outside and find my phone, the plastic casing cold from being out on the fire escape. I listen to Chell’s voicemail a few more times before I figure out what’s bothering me.
She said: there’s this guy who’s been.
Past tense and historical.
Which means she recognized him.
Which means I can find him.
Which is good, because he and I need to have a frank discussion about the circumstances of her death.
My phone buzzes in my hand, and I nearly jump. My mom. I ignore the call and text Bombay: Where can I find people?
He comes back almost instantly: Where else?
I strip down and climb into the shower. The water is scalding. I stand underneath until it’s lukewarm. That and a handful of ibuprofen begin to make a dent in my hangover. I consider wiping the condensation off the mirror, to see how I look, but I know how I look: I need a shave, and a haircut, and a few more hours of sleep. All those things will take too much effort. Anyway, it’s not like I’ve got someone I need to impress.
As I’m getting dressed there’s a knock on the door. I zip my jeans and wait. Someone on the other side says, “Mister McKenna, this is the police.” The voice is thin but commanding.
I crouch down and then remember they can’t see me, so I dress quickly. I dress even quicker when I hear the doorknob jiggle. They might be with the landlord, but I changed the locks after I moved in. He has yet to discover this.
Talking to the cops is not what I need to be doing right now. I have no idea where I was last night. I know I would never hurt Chell, but the cops don’t know that. And if they’ve done their research on me, it’s not going to be a fun conversation.
There’s mumbling on the other side of the door. My cell phone buzzes in my hand with a number I don’t recognize. I ignore the call and turn off the phone, shove it into my pocket.
The November air is cold and tight so I pull on the gray pea coat with the thick collar. I find the fedora Chell bought for my birthday on top of my fridge and knock it against my leg to clean off the dust. I tie my umbrella onto a belt loop in my jeans and take one last look at the door.
“Mister McKenna, if you’re home, it’s very important that we speak to you.”
The street is clear. I climb out onto the fire escape, lower the window, and make my way for the roof.
The dimming blue sky is streaked with clouds lit orange by the retreating sun. It’s open and clean. I lean back, let it fill my vision. Breathe deep.
Then I cross down to the end of the block, to the last building on the row, check to make sure the stairwell is unlocked and the alarm isn’t connected, and head down to the street. When I get to the sidewalk and know the cops aren’t wise to my exit strategy, I pull out my iPod, stick the buds in my ears, and crank Iggy Pop.
“Search and Destroy.”
For a signed copy, contact The Mysterious Bookshop.