A party. A kitchen. A thinning crowd. Near the table, a boy meets a girl. They talk together and laugh. When the boy offers to walk the girl home, she hesitates.
There are dangerous people about, the boy insists.
Dangerous people? the girl asks. Where?
She grins and scans the room in mock fear. Then there’s something like a romantic moment. The boy holds the girl’s coat as she weaves her arms through. He closes it gently over her shoulders and then waits by the door as she wanders around the party one last time, searching for her friends.
Outside, it’s November. The boy slides his hands into his pockets and watches his breath escape his mouth and dissipate. The girl glances at the city’s skyline, cold, lit up in the dark. The campus is urban, spread out over a mile and a half, and both know it’ll take fifteen minutes to walk across. Staying at opposite edges of the sidewalk, the boy and girl do not touch. They are just eighteen, nineteen, still very young.
After a few blocks, the boy points to a dorm. My room’s right here, he says. Can we stop?
The girl frowns. She wants to be home, in bed. I thought there weren’t any expectations, she says.
I meant that, the boy answers. It’s cold. I just want to get my hat.
So you live in Wallace? the girl asks. How is it?
The showers are always breaking, the boy says.
They enter through the back stairwell, where it’s so dark the girl can barely see. Weak light drips through tiny windows at each landing. Trapezoids of gray lie like distorted carpets across marble tile. The girl is scared, but she doesn’t think of dying. Hers is only a fluttering of fear, a notion she can’t quite believe, a passing thing. Nothing indicates that in ten minutes she’ll be broken on one of these landings, struggling for breath in one of these smudges of light.
On the fourth floor, the boy and girl emerge to a dim hallway. Rows of doors line each side, some covered with nametags and photographs, others with dry-erase boards hanging crooked. A dirty, red carpet stretches the length of the floor.
Just a second, the boy says as he disappears into a room. And when he returns, he is slipping something into his pocket.
What’s that? the girl asks.
Nothing, the boy answers. Nothing.
Back at the other end of the hall, the door to the stairwell is heavy. It takes much of the girl’s weight to tug it open. She notices the boy doesn’t help, that he hovers a little behind, and when she peeks over her shoulder, she sees his face, clear in the light. He stares past her, his arm cocked strangely above his head. And this is when she realizes something’s wrong. This is when she becomes truly scared.
The first time the boy hits her, the girl’s hands fly to her cheek. She panics, sees dark, stumbles. The boy holds her by the coat and she dangles high above stairs that retreat to darkness below. The girl thinks she should be screaming and flailing, lifting her arms to fight. But for some reason she can’t. She simply waits for all this to end. For the boy to drop her so she can curl up on the cold floor, sleep.
The boy finally lets her go, and the girl bounces down, coming to rest on a landing, blubbering, trying to scream. The boy follows and crouches over her. His fourth blow shatters her forehead, his fifth deflates her nose. Strands of hair swim in the girl’s mouth. A clump of it, torn from her skull, lies on top of her throat. She tries to push it away with her tongue.
Then he is gone, leaving the girl in pieces. Her mouth is full of blood and skin and broken teeth. From her right eye, she sees a skittering of light. Faces appear and swoop down. They are so close she should be able to feel them. So close she should be able to hear what they’re trying to say. But the girl doesn’t know what ghosts are anymore. She doesn’t even know the word ghost.
The boy’s parents divorced when he was six. He was the first person in his family to get into college, and relatives insisted he’d be the most successful. But more important, girls insisted he wasn’t good looking. After the murder, friends described the boy as harmless. He kept to himself, they said. He could be friendly and affable, guarded, aloof.
At the party, the girl laughs at a few of the boy’s jokes. Maybe she brushes his arm with her fingers. Maybe, when she leaves to refill her drink, she asks if she can get him one, too.
Toward the end of the night, the boy helps the girl dig her coat out of the closet and put it on.
Do you still want me to walk you home? the boy asks.
Sure, the girl replies. I’ve heard there’re dangerous people about.
Dangerous people? the boy jokes. Where?
They step out into the cold together, and the boy reaches for the girl’s hand. She lets him take it. Thick glove in thick glove.
For the first block they stroll in silence.
When we get to your room, the boy asks, can I come in?
My roommate’ll be there, the girl responds.
I’d like to come in, the boy tells her. Then he says: I’ve never met anyone like you before. I’ve never felt a connection so quickly.
The words squeak out, false. Maybe a friend has told him these lines would work, or maybe he heard them in a movie or on television.
It’s freezing, the girl announces. Put your arm around me. Keep me warm. She leans into him, and for a while they huddle down the sidewalk against the wind.
You said you were a freshman? the girl asks. Do you like college?
I guess so.
You’re lying. I can tell you don’t like it. You certainly weren’t having any fun at that party.
The girl buries her face half in the collar of her jacket, half in the shoulder of his.
You’re a liar, she repeats, and he feels the vibrations of her words through the fabric.
Come to my room, the boy insists.
No, the girl replies. Not tonight.
They are near Wallace, and the boy attempts to guide the girl toward his dorm. He can already imagine the warmth of the dark stairwell. The dim hallway four floors up. The red carpet. His door. The bed.
I’ll go up with you, the girl concedes, but I won’t be going into your room.
The boy opens the thick, glass door and ushers her into the stairwell.
Tell me I’m beautiful, she says.
It’s so dark you can’t even see.
No, the boy says. I can’t.
The girl trips, and the boy catches her by the coat, holding her up.
Why did we go this way? she asks.
It’s faster. Otherwise we’d have to walk around to the front.
On the fourth floor, the girl insists on waiting in the hall. The boy closes the door to his dorm room and gropes for the desk lamp. In the other bed, his roommate turns over and groans. Silently, the boy surveys the shoes on the floor of his closet. He was always supposed to be here, he thinks. He was supposed to graduate from high school and go on to college. But he isn’t sure if he wants to be this boy. He isn’t sure if he wants something else. And he imagines himself in the hall, sliding his hand around the girl’s hip. Feeling what it might feel like to have her face close to his. But he knows she won’t let him, and then there’s his rage again. Rising up from a place he can’t quite identify.
Among the gathering of shadows in the closet, the boy finds a pair of shoes that always give him blisters. Inside the left one, he’s wedged a half-piece of brick. He shakes the shoe but the brick doesn’t budge, so he slips his fingers inside to yank it free. His face hot with anger and unsettling hate, he remembers the girl calling him a liar. But weighing the brick in his palm relaxes him. He wonders if she suspects what he’s hidden. If there is any way she has identified it.
When the boy slips the brick into his pocket, he has no intention of using it. He only wants to remember that he can if he wants to.
In the hall, the girl is waiting. The boy puts his hat on and follows her. Back in the stairwell, he tries to take her hand.
She pulls away. Come on, she says. I’m tired. Let’s go.
The boy touches the brick in his jacket pocket, running a thumb over the smooth sides first, then the rough edge where the other half has broken off.
It’s really really dark in here, the girl says, starting down.
The boy slows and the girl slows with him. He feels the rage again, and he is not quite sure what led him to a moment like this. He is not sure what will happen, or why.
Maybe the boy and girl knew each other. Maybe, after a few dates, a few kisses, and a picnic in the park, the boy summoned the courage to reach for the girl’s hand. Maybe they sat next to each other at the movies, their backs straight, their fingers woven together, their eyes stiff and on the screen.
At the party, people huddle near the refrigerator, around the table. They congregate in the doorways and hallways, clogging them. Shoulders and arms and legs. The boy and girl remain aware of each other. They lose the threads of their own conversations as they strain to hear what the other might be saying across the room. As they pass, they exchange furtive glances. The girl selects a bottle of vodka from the table and needles the boy’s arm with the tip of her elbow. She rests her fingers across his wrist for less than a second. Arching her mouth toward his ear, she blows on his neck. Later, the boy pretends to lose his balance and grabs the girl’s shoulder, pressing himself against her.
This playing and pretending excites them. Knowing what others don’t. It is nice or sexy or fun. Something like love, but not love, not yet.
If the boy and girl have met before and they share a history, or if they are playing a kind of game, their reasons for leaving together change. Their reasons for entering the dark. In the stairwell, the girl becomes dizzy as the boy tugs her from landing to landing. Her thoughts haze from alcohol, and she imagines the two of them together, in bed, her head on the boy’s chest. Light filters through the tiny windows. She can barely see her own feet. She knows she’s enjoyed touching the boy, catching his eye, but now she’s nervous. She takes his hand, but their secret has already become something else. Something deeper, more confusing. The girl pictures the boy pressing his thumbs into her soft skin. Closing his hands around her neck, bruising her.
The boy and girl are eighteen, nineteen, very young. By the time they reach the fourth-floor hallway, they are both out of breath. The boy’s keys jingle in his hand. He wants to be exactly what the girl expects, yet he doesn’t know what that is, and he doesn’t realize she doesn’t know that, either. On television, men are gentle and kiss gently. On television, men are rough and hard and fast.
The strip of dirty, red carpet stretches out. On either side, there are rows of closed doors, rooms behind those doors, people sleeping.
The boy’s room is near the end. When they finally get to it, the girl steps back. Without saying anything, she turns and starts to hurry in the other direction. The boy jogs to catch up.
Stop, he says. Please stop.
There are dangerous people about, she murmurs.
Dangerous people, he repeats, not quite sure what she means.
I’m going, she tells him.
The boy grabs her and pushes her against the wall. He thrusts his body against her in a show of passion.
The girl has dated a few boys before, gone to their rooms. She feels this boy through her clothes and through his, and she’s never felt so much like wanting to get away.
A scream builds, and she swallows it down. She tries to say no.
No, she says.
The boy’s cheek is next to hers, his face cold. He stops, slumping into her, resting his forehead on her shoulder. Both of them seem so far away from themselves, floating, stranded, alone.
Get off, the girl says quickly, quietly.
I’m sorry, he whispers, suddenly afraid others might hear. But at the movies last Friday, he says. At the movies.
The girl shakes her head and tugs at the door to the stairwell. She starts to cry.
No, she repeats again. No. It is all she can think to say.
The boy follows her into the dark, a hand in his jacket pocket. It is all he can think to do.
After the murder, the boy and girl hover at the very top of the stairwell. They watch another boy enter at the bottom and march up three flights. He almost passes the dying girl without seeing her, but when he steps on her wrist, he jumps, almost slipping on blood. Bending down, the boy feels his way around the girl’s body until he finds what remains of her face.
His hands are on me, the girl tells the boy. His fingers are searching the inside of my cheek. It tickles.
A second resident of the dorm appears and starts up, soon joining the first. The girl and boy watch the two shout at each other until the first one hurries off. Alone with the dying girl, the second boy drops to his knees, attempting to give the girl CPR.
I can feel that too, the girl giggles.
Don’t let him save you, the boy says. He can’t save you.
Quickly, the scene continues to unfold. Flashlights swing through the dark. Radios squawk. Lights from ambulances and police cars rotate through the windows, blurring faces already blurred.
The boy takes the girl’s hand.
There are dangerous people about, he says. They will arrest me. But is it possible I didn’t do it? Is it possible I’ve been framed?
No, the girl answers.
The boy shrugs. We can’t be completely sure, he says.
That shouldn’t make any sense, the girl snaps.
Below, paramedics gather around the body. They are so much like the wind that the boy and girl feel ripples and chills all the way up. Someone turns on a spotlight. A forensics detective hovers along the edges, snapping photographs.
To solve a murder is a difficult task, the boy informs the girl. A lot can go wrong. They have to uncover clues from the moment and then trace them back. They have to imagine the minutes before. Many clues can seem inconsequential at first. They can be missed.
Sounds like you’ve been watching a lot of TV, the girl tells him. I doubt they’ll miss anything here.
She realizes she’s forgotten the boy’s face, and she glances over. She should be angry with him, devastated, but she lets her hand hang in his. She realizes she has not yet learned the rules of being dead and might never learn them. And she wonders whether the boy holds her here, if he’s what’s keeping her from floating away.
The police’ll follow the evidence, she insists. They’ll find you asleep in your room.
Right, the boy replies. Evidence.
A woman in a dark blue jacket is leaning over the body, her knees tight on either side of the girl’s head to hold it still. She sucks blood from the girl’s mouth with a plastic device and jams a tube down the girl’s throat. A man runs his hands up the girl’s legs and under her shirt, scoping for other injuries. He applies an IV and begins to push at her chest, forcing the heel of his hand repeatedly between her breasts.
Blood, the man shouts, and someone squeezes it into her veins.
The girl experiences a shiver that paralyzes her whole body. The boy feels it through her hand and tightens his grip.
Does he feel a heartbeat? the boy asks.
It’s faint, she remarks. She begins to cough and choke and the boy strokes her hair until she’s breathing normally again.
What was I talking about? the boy asks.
You were saying that solving a murder is difficult.
Right, the boy continues. I mean, evidence equals truth, it has to. So the question is: What is evidence? What is true?
The body, the girl says. You can trust the body.
Your body is definitely there, the boy replies. It is definitely you, and dying, although you stubbornly refuse.
And the blood, the girl adds. My blood.
Yes, but we can’t trust that as much as we can trust the body.
Blood means something.
It means there was a body.
A body that’s been hurt, the girl growls. A body that’s been destroyed.
She calms. And there’s also DNA, she says.
Right, DNA, the boy acknowledges.
The trail, the girl adds. You’ve got to be able to trust that.
Somewhat, the boy says. Of course DNA can’t be faked. But a blood trail can.
Shouts rise from the landing below. A paramedic traces the dent in the girl’s skull with a latex finger. Under the glare of the spotlight, the blood is black and appears to be nothing more than a shadow. It has begun to wash over the edge. Worms of it wriggling down the stairs.
So, we can agree, the boy says. I was framed.
It seems like we’ve been agreeing on most things, the girl gripes. It seems like I have no choice.
Yeah, the boy says. I’m innocent. I didn’t do it.
I can remember you doing it, she snarls.
Memory is not evidence, the boy replies. Speculation is not evidence. We have a murder. A clear murder. It is real. It is also a fantasy.
At the scene, the girl’s body is strapped down and covered with a blanket. Six people slide the stretcher under her and lift. One of the paramedics holds her head to keep it from moving. They hurry down the stairs together, picking their way over the blood.
Have you died yet? the boy asks.
Quiet, the girl says.
Everything feels still, and she knows she will never see herself again. She’s overwhelmed by great affection and grief, like a mother facing the death of her only child.
You’re going to die soon, the boy tells her. If you haven’t already.
The girl takes his other hand and faces him.
We need to find the murderer, the boy says.
They will find him, she answers.
I’m scared, the boy says. They’re going to think I murdered you.
The girl stares into what she can see of his eyes. You have, she says.
Below, a male and female officer discover a trail of bloody footprints. They follow them into the dim light of the fourth-floor hallway.
This didn’t happen, the boy claims. I will always insist that this didn’t happen.
You can’t start looking for a way out, the girl tells him. It doesn’t work like that.
Maybe I did kill you, the boy moans.
You did, the girl says flatly. You’re as dead as me.
Below, the scene is showered in a new kind of cold. The landing is empty except for blood and bits of skin and bone and hair. Nobody has taken the floodlight away or turned it off. Outside, there’s the clamoring of a crowd, the engine of an ambulance motoring across the grass. At the top of the stairwell, the girl allows the boy to rest his head on her shoulder. She isn’t sure if he’s started to cry, if she even wants his dry tears to wet the strap of her blouse.