The City of Mirrors Page 77

I could see the indecision in her face. My appeal was doing its work.

“Please,” I said. “It’s freezing out there.”

A moment passed; her face relaxed. “Just a few minutes, okay? I have to be up early.”

I held up three fingers. “Scout’s honor.”

She closed the door, undid the chain, and opened it again. Disappointingly, the skirt and filmy top had been replaced by a robe and a shapeless flannel nightgown. She stepped aside to let me enter.

“I’ll put on some coffee.”

The apartment had a dingy look: a small living area with high-set windows facing the street, a galley kitchen with dishes teetering in the sink, a narrow hallway that led, presumably, to the bedroom. The couch, which faced an old tube-style television, was heaped with laundry. There were few books in sight, nothing on the walls except a couple of cheap museum posters of water lilies and ballerinas.

“Sorry it’s such a mess,” she said, and waved at the sofa. “Just shove that stuff aside if you want.”

Nicole’s back was to me. She filled a pot at the tap and began to pour the water into a stained coffee machine. Something peculiar was happening to me. I can only describe it as a kind of astral projection. It was as if I were a character in a movie, observing myself from a distance. In this divided state, I watched myself approach her from behind. She was sifting ground beans into the machine. I was about to put my arms around her when she sensed my presence and spun toward me.

“What are you doing?”

My body was pressing her against the counter. I began to kiss her neck. “What do you think I’m doing?”

“Tim, stop. I mean it.”

I was burning from within. My senses were swarming. “God, you smell so good.” I was licking, tasting. I wanted to drink her.

“You’re scaring me. I need you to leave.”

“Say you’re her.” Where were these words coming from? Who was talking? Was it me? “Say it. Tell me how sorry you are.”

“Goddamnit, stop!”

With surprising strength, she shoved me away. I fell against the counter, barely staying on my feet. When I looked up, she was pulling a long knife from a drawer. She aimed it at me like a pistol.

“Get out.”

Darkness was spreading inside me. “How could you do it? How could you leave me standing there?”

“I’ll scream.”

“You bitch. You fucking bitch.”

I lurched toward her. What were my intentions? Who was she to me, this woman with the knife? Was she Liz? Was she even a person, or merely a mirror in which I beheld the image of my wretched self? To this day, I do not know; the moment seems the property of another man entirely. I do not say this to exonerate myself, which is impossible, only to describe events as accurately as I can. With one hand I reached to cover her mouth; with the other I grabbed her arm, jerking the knife downward. Our bodies collided in a soft crash, and then we were falling to the floor, my body on top of hers, the knife between us.

The knife. The knife.

As we hit the floor, I felt it. There was no mistaking the sensation, or the sound it made.

The events that followed are no less strange to my memory, benighted by horror. I was in a nightmare in which the great, unrecallable act had been committed. I rose from her body. A pool of blood, rich and dark, almost black, was spreading beneath it; more was on my shirt, a crimson splash. The blade had entered just below the girl’s sternum, driven deep into her thoracic cavity by my falling weight. She was looking at the ceiling; she let out a little gasp, no louder than a person would make who had suffered a mild surprise. Is my life over? Is that all? This stupid little thing and that’s the end? Bit by bit, her eyes lost focus; an unnatural stillness eased across her face.

I turned to the sink and vomited.

The decision to hide my tracks was not one I recall making. I did not have a plan; I merely enacted one. I did not yet think of myself as a killer; rather, I was a man who had been involved in a serious accident that would be misunderstood. I stripped to my undershirt; the girl’s blood had not seeped through. I cast my eyes around for the things I might have touched. The knife of course; that would have to be disposed of. The front door? Had I touched the knob, the frame? I had seen the shows on television, the ones with the good-looking detectives combing crime scenes for the minutest evidence. I knew their prowess to be wildly overstated for dramatic purposes, but they were my only reference. What invisible traces of me were, even now, touching down upon the surfaces of the woman’s apartment, awaiting collection and study, pointing to my guilt?

I rinsed my mouth and washed the knobs and sink with a sponge. The knife I cleaned as well, then wrapped it in my shirt and deposited it carefully in the pocket of my coat. I did not look at the body again; to do so would have been unbearable. I scrubbed the counters and turned to appraise the rest of the apartment. Something seemed different. What was I seeing?

I heard a sound, coming from down the hall.

What is the worst thing? The deaths of millions? A whole world lost? No: the worst thing is the sound I heard.

Details I had failed to notice emerged in my vision. The pile of laundry, full of tiny pink garments. The bright toys of plush and plastic strewn across the floor. The distinctive, fecal aroma masked by sweet powder. I remembered the woman I had seen coming from the building. The timing of her departure had been no accident.

The sound came again; I wanted to flee but could not. That I had to follow it was my penance; it was the stone I would carry for life. Slowly I moved down the hall, terror accompanying my every step. A pale, vigilant light shone through the partly open door. The odor grew stronger, coating my mouth with its taste. At the threshold I paused, petrified, yet knowing what was required of me.

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