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August 12, 2009
DEATH HAS A flavor of its own.
I know; I had smelt it before.
I smelt it now.
Coming from inside my apartment.
I hesitantly teetered on the threshold clutching two large grocery bags, a forest printed handbag and a wad of junk mail, wondering if my sense of smell was mistaken. I leaned into the void next to the partly opened door, felt the groceries lean in with me, felt my ponytail brush my cheek. All appeared quiet except for my heart’s rapid knock and the faint clatter of keys still swinging from the front door.
I took another whiff. Still there. I shot up straight and swore. What did that mean exactly? That a dead body was in my home?
I almost laughed; the thought was seriously ridiculous. What would a dead body be doing in the modest home of a pair of hardworking twenty-somethings on a late Tuesday afternoon? This time I did laugh but I couldn’t ignore the edginess in it.
So why the smell? Several explanations crossed my mind, unemptied garbage, a blocked drain, a keeled over rodent. Add to it a small apartment with poor ventilation and… bingo! Relief spread through me. I liked those alternatives; they were probable, rational. I scolded myself for imagining the worst.
Somewhere my memory tuned in and I heard my Eighth grade English teacher, Sister Iglesias, champion my thinking. “Claudia Cabriati,” she said, “you have a febrile imagination that’ll either make you loads of money or get you into loads of trouble.” I recalled taking her comment as a compliment, until I looked up the word febrile. It meant delirious. I didn’t think her analysis of me was very godly.
Back to the present.
The present saw me sadly still hugging the doorjamb, still reluctant to take that step forward. The ridiculous now bordered on the downright insane.
Honestly, Claudia, Simon’s been away for just a week and you’re already freaking out like some trapped butcherbird in your classroom. Do something before there are witnesses to your craziness.
The horrifying thought of an ogling, gaping audience spurred me onward. I hooked my head around the door unsure what I expected to see. The place was in near darkness. But to switch on the light meant going inside. Again, that didn’t particularly press my happy buttons. I blinked repeatedly, waited for my pupils to adjust to the dark, felt my overstretched neck crick under the pressure. When shapes began to take form, all I could see was the shadowed foyer wall and the taunting light switch centered several feet in.
I groaned, and silently cursed the architect of these units. Still balancing at the threshold, I bit my lip and counted the footsteps to the light switch. Maybe five… six max.
Perhaps, I should just go in. I mean what’s the worst that can happen? A dozen pictures of worst drowned my sorry head and riveted me back to the spot.
Perhaps if I just gave the door an extra nudge, I could see more. But see what exactly? I ignored the question and instead lifted my right foot, pressed the wedged heel of my shoe against the peeling timber and shoved hard.
The sluggish creak of unoiled hinges wailed. An unexpected but very distinct thud caused the door to recoil. I gasped and immediately stepped off the doorsill. Worse still, the smell was back, stronger now. And it didn’t resemble any garbage, blocked drains or dead mice.
The first knots strangled my stomach, my breathing slid to an almost standstill and I felt cold shivers burn my skin.
And all I could hear was silence, sharp crackling white noise. Overridden by the subliminal echo of two words.
I obeyed, quickly back stepping until one heel smacked into the skirting board of the corridor wall. There I leaned back, used the wall to regain some stability of my own. All the while, I kept my eyes pinned to the door. It was still swinging, slower now. Eventually it creaked to a full standstill. All was quiet.
Was I merely overreacting? It certainly wouldn’t have been the first time.
It’s what fear did to me.
Muddied my head, dulled my rationality and confused me so that I didn’t know what to believe. And I hated that.
I carefully bent to one side and dumped my load. Plastic bags whooshed, cans clattered, folded paper splattered as they all came to rest in one muddled, mounded heap.
The muscles in my arms felt instant release, but as I straightened, I realized the true burden of weight hadn’t left me. It dragged down my shoulders, hunched my back and dropped my chin to my chest.
I scanned my surroundings. Large black and white carpet squares, some with exposed threads, checkered the sparsely lit hallway. To my immediate right, two neighboring doors faced each other. A quick glance at my watch told me neither occupant would be home. To my left, stood a bronze elevator door guarded by a plastic green palm in a black ceramic pot.
All of a sudden, I felt as small and alone as the palm.
What to do?
Perhaps phone someone. Like the police? And say what? I think I smell dead people? I imagined their conversations over coffee and donuts and winced.
Maybe a trusted friend? And have them loyally travel through Sydney’s peak hour to attend to my febrile imagination? I shook my head.
Always trust your instincts, Carino.
I immediately recognized my Papa’s voice, echoing his favorite mantra thick with his rich, Italian accent. Many times, I engaged in this mental banter with him. It often provided me with much-needed comfort, the occasional practical answers, even affirmations to some of my more zany ideas.
I’m trying to, Papa, but I don’t think my instincts are playing fair today.
I had an idea. I dropped to one knee and started ferreting through the grocery bags. Shoving aside several fresh ingredients for my world-renowned lasagne, I finally found what I was looking for. A packet of lollies, pink musk sticks to be exact. And they had to be pink; any other color was an insult to their authenticity.
I ripped, I grabbed and I chewed quite furiously. Like the drug they were, well for me anyway, every glorious mouthful reduced my rising anxieties, loosened the tightened knots in my stomach and cleared my head, if only slightly. I sucked in the bliss. And like any true addict, wolfed down three more sticks before returning the rolled up packet to one of the bags. Feeling a little calmer, I again concentrated on what to do. And soon decided to wait for someone to come.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long. The rumbling grind of the elevator slamming to a stop shattered the quiet. I immediately fluffed up my fringe, hitched up the straps of my lime green dress and my shoulders along with them. I smoothed out any wrinkles but found them more stubborn.
The bronze doors opened with a rickety swoosh. I prayed for someone friendly to step through them. He did. Shamus from the apartment four doors away, wearing clothes as loud and as busy as Central Railway Station at rush hour. A vivid red and green paisley shirt, sloppy, neon purple pants and a yellow speckled beret hooked over one bent eyebrow made me semi-grin.
And I sensed the first sweet tang of hope.
With his thumbs fixed in alternate pockets, Shamus crossed the checkerboard. “Hey, pretty lady, whatcha doing out here?”
His melodic Irish accent instantly warmed me.
“Am I glad to see you,” I said. “I need your help.” I nodded towards the unmoving door.
Shamus studied it, studied me, and then repeated the process. “Think you’ve been broken into,” he said, adjusting his beret further back. “Think someone’s in there?”
“I don’t know. Just doesn’t feel right.” I didn’t want to scare the poor man with any crazy, dead body thoughts. Not yet, anyway. “And the light switch is….”
“Too far inside, like my own place. I’ll go check it out.”
I grabbed Shamus’ arm. “Don’t go in though.”
Shamus looked at me with a quizzical expression. I guess he had every right to. As if reading my mind, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out his mobile. The cover was psychedelic, bright enough to emit its own lighting. With a few presses, Shamus shone a brighter one directly into my eyes. I blinked.
He threw me a cheeky wink, swung on his zebra-striped boots and casually wandered to the door. He tapped it open with his free hand, propelled his phone inward with the other. The golden glow from his phone haloed him and leaked into the corridor where I was uneasily waiting. Then it disappeared along with Shamus.
And for the first time, I remembered the lock.
Something alien churned my insides.
A few seconds passed and Shamus returned. I noticed wrinkles creasing the corner of his eyes. “Shit, Claudia,” he said in a disturbingly offbeat tone, “what happened?”
Snapshots ravaged my head. Snapshots of scattered cushions, smashed furnishings, my well-loved book collection tossed about… a possible dead body or two.
My knees buckled. I skidded down the wall and landed with a blunt thud. I heard the unmistakable pounding of running feet, felt strong hands grip my shoulders.
“I was just kidding.” Shamus’ very apologetic voice.
Kidding? He was just kidding? One doesn’t kid with someone like me. Even the good Sister Iglesias would attest to that.
He helped me to my feet, my legs still shaky and balancing on four-inch heels. “Thought I’d just mess with you. No idea you were that worried.”
Of course, he wouldn’t. He didn’t know me; at least not that well.
He didn’t know my past.
What about the smell, I wanted to ask? But my voice was still stuck deep in my throat. I managed a small nod instead.
Several furrows creased Shamus’ normally smooth brow as I wobbled free of his grip. “What’s really going on here?” he said.
I heaved a heavy sigh. How do I answer that with a few simple words? How do I explain the irrational need to leave my loving family, the beautiful township I grew up in, in the hope that by doing so, by moving interstate my absurd anxieties may actually disappear?
I recalled Papa’s saddened voice. Sydney, Carino. So far from the people who love you.
I know, I said, but you can always visit.
And he did, quite often, sometimes with Mama, sometimes not.
Sometimes just to surprise me.
“Trust me, Shamus. There’s something not right,” I repeated in a brittle voice. “And… I think there’s someone dead in there.” I gritted my teeth to the point they hurt, screwed my face tight and waited for the expected belly laughs to roll out.
I tweaked open one eyelid. A pair of wide non-humorous eyes stared back. In fact, a decent dose of shock and disbelief seemed to darken them. He cast a swift glance towards the apartment then back at me. “You’re shitting me.”
I shook my head.
“H… how do you know?”
How do I know?
I moved in, smelled the aromatic scent of Shamus’ cologne, a pleasant change to the previous invasion of my nostrils, heard his shallow breaths. “Because,” I whispered, “it leaves its distinctive stench on everything it touches. Particularly in one’s memories. And I remember.”
Shamus blinked repeatedly. His mouth dropped open. And the sudden paling of his skin made him appear unwell. He glanced at the door again, began furiously rubbing his hand across his mouth. Beads of sweat bubbled above his top lip. “When’s Simon due home?”
I thought of my Simon working away at another journalistic assignment. Only a week earlier, I had convinced him that I’d be fine while he was gone, that he needed to stop worrying about me.
Yet here I was.
“Not until the weekend.” That was a disturbing five more days away.
Shamus took a moment. “Okay. Stay here, I’ll be back.”
“Like the Terminator?” I laughed nervously.
He stared at me.
I possibly was. Crazy with fear.
Always the fear.
Without another word, Shamus strode down the corridor and disappeared around the bend.
I was alone again.
Me and the palm.