Martha scrubs the windows with a mixture of hot water and ammonia. She wonders when Benjy painted them black. It is night, but still, the effect is palpable. Outside there’s a half-moon and streetlights casting their orange glow. Little gets through. Martha dips the sponge into the steaming bucket at her feet. She is not wearing gloves. The phone rings and she remembers she needs to call and cancel service. When the machine picks up there is silence and then a long beep. Whoever is on the other line waits a moment and then hangs up.
Martha works until her hands are shriveled and pink. They remind her of the pet hamster she had as a child. When it gave birth to a litter, she was so excited she picked one up to show her parents. That night the mother hamster ate the baby Martha had contaminated with her scent. When Benjy found out, he filled the bathroom sink and drowned the other babies one by one. Martha remembers him sitting on the edge of the tub. She remembers crying when she saw the hairless babies floating in the sink like severed thumbs. Benjy was calmer than she’d ever seen him. She remembers what he said as he brushed past her. I saved them. When Martha finally recovered herself, she flushed the babies and told her parents the mother had eaten them all.
Martha kneels and dips her arm up to the elbow in the hot water and ammonia. Tears fill her eyes. The pain creeps toward her shoulder. When she thinks she might pass out, she stands, shuts off the light, and leaves.
On the drive home Martha thinks about the last time Benjy called, a month ago. His apartment is in Homestead, only a mile and a half from the house she shares with two roommates, but at the time she had no idea. She hadn’t seen or heard from him in over a year. No one had. It was late, and she’d fumbled with the cell. When no one spoke on the other end, she knew it was him. Where are you, she whispered. For the longest time there was nothing. I’m hiding, he finally said, and hung up.
The next day Martha returns to the apartment. As she’s turning the lock she sees a pair of eyes watching her from behind a cracked door down the hall.
Inside, she walks past the bathroom she refuses to enter. It is the one room she will not go into. In the bedroom, she sorts through Benjy’s CDs and then his books. She lifts one off the floor and flips through its pages. Desperate scrawls in the margins, whole chapters blacked out in permanent marker. When the cops arrived, the walls were covered in writing. The landlord painted over it before Martha could see and she’s grateful for that, but she knows whatever he wrote is still there, just hidden. He did the same thing when they were kids growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, locked in his room for two and a half days, arguing loudly with himself. Martha remembers wishing he would let her in so she could take care of him. When their father finally kicked down the door, the walls were covered, diagrams and drawings and the same word written over and over.
Martha folds his clothes and stacks them into plastic trash bags, his jeans and T-shirts, his sweaters and hoodies, all of them threadbare and dark. She is tying the bags shut when she hears the knock. She walks down the hall, opens the door, and sees the eyes again, only now they belong to a body. A pale girl with wispy blonde hair and a tattoo of a rosary on her breastplate.
Are you the sister, she asks. Martha doesn’t say anything, just stands there, staring through this girl who must have seen Benjy a thousand times since the last time she did. She digs her fingernails into the flesh of her palms. I called last night, the girl says.
Why would you do that?
I don’t know. And now she is crying, her bottom lip quivering like there’s a charge running through it. He talked about you sometimes. I’ve never met anyone so scared.
Inside, Martha and the girl sit on the carpet and stare at the walls. They look sweaty and slick from the new paint job, as though they were oozing. They are eggshell-white, a blank canvas for future tenants to hang their posters and pictures on. The girl is picking at the nap of the carpet, her nails bitten to the quick. Martha wants to ask this girl some questions, but knows the answers won’t matter. Instead she tells her about the summer Benjy dreamed of being a smokejumper, how he walked around in a bicycle helmet, his parachute a backpack stuffed with an old bedsheet. He always made me be the pilot. Martha remembers how much she hated the game, Benjy rolling from the couch as though from the open door of an airplane. She remembers how even though she was older and knew better, she couldn’t help but imagine her brother falling through a sea of smoke, disappearing finally, into the flames.