Authors: Lucy Foley
I lean forward onto the handlebars of the Peloton bike, standing up in the saddle for the incline. There's sweat running into
my eyes, stinging. My lungs feel like they're full of acid, not air, my heart hammering so hard it feels like I might be about
to have a heart attack. I pedal harder. I want to push beyond anything I've done before. Tiny stars dance at the edges of
my vision. The apartment around me seems to shift and blur. For a moment I think I'm going to pass out. Maybe I doânext thing
I know I'm slumped forward over the handlebars and the mechanism is whirring down. I'm hit by a sudden rush of nausea. I force
it down, take huge gulps of air.
I got into spinning in San Francisco. And bulletproof coffee, keto, Bikramâpretty much any other fad the rest of the tech
world was into, in case it provided any extra edge, any additional source of inspiration. Normally I'd sit here and do a class,
or listen to a Ted Talk. This morning wasn't like that. I wanted to lose myself in pure exertion, push through to a place
where thought was silenced. I woke just after five
, but I knew I wasn't going to sleep, especially during that fight in the courtyard, the latestâand worstâof many. Getting
on the bike seemed like the only thing that made sense.
I climb down from the saddle, a little unsteadily. The bike is one of the few items in this room besides my iMac and my books. Nothing up on the walls. No rugs on the floor. Partly because I like the whole minimal aesthetic. Partly because I still feel like I haven't really moved in, because I like the idea that I could up and leave at any moment.
I pull the headphones out of my ears. It sounds like things have quieted down out there in the courtyard. I walk over to the
window, the muscles in my calves twitching.
I can't see anything at first. Then my eye snags on a movement and I see there's a girl down there, opening the door to the
building. There's something familiar about her, about the way she moves. Difficult to put my finger on, but my mind gropes
around as if for a forgotten word.
Now I see the lights come on in the apartment on the third floor. I watch her move into my line of sight. And I know that
she has to be something to do with him. With my old mate andâas of very recentlyâneighbor, Benjamin Daniels. He told me about
a younger sister, once. Half sister. Something of a tearaway. Bit of a problem case. From his old life, however much he'd
tried to sever himself from all that. What he definitely didn't tell me was that she was coming here. But then it wouldn't
be the first time he's kept something from me, would it?
The girl appears briefly at the windows, looking out. Then she turns and moves awayâtoward the bedroom, I think. I watch her
until she's out of sight.
My throat hurts and there's an oily sweat on my forehead. I stare up at the high ceiling above me and try and work out where
I am. Now I remember: getting here last nightÂ .Â .Â . that scene in the courtyard a couple of hours ago. It was still dark out
so I got back into bed afterward. I didn't think I'd be able to sleep but I must have drifted off. I don't feel rested though.
My whole body aches like I've been fighting someone. I think I
fighting someone, in my dream. The kind you're relieved to wake up from. It comes back to me in fragments. I was trying to
get into a locked room but my hands were clumsy, all fingers and thumbs. SomeoneâBen?âwas shouting at me not to open the door,
do not open the door
but I knew I had to, knew I didn't have any other choice. And then finally the door was opening and all at once I knew he
was rightâoh why hadn't I listened to him? Because what greeted me on the other sideâ
I sit up in bed. I check my phone. Eight
No messages. A new day and still no sign of my brother. I call his number: straight to voicemail. I listen to the voicenote
he left me again, with that final instruction: “Just ring the buzzer. I'll be up waiting for youâ”
And this time I notice something strange. How his voice seems to cut off mid-sentence, like something has distracted him.
After this there's a faint murmur of sound in the backgroundâwords, maybeâbut I can't make anything out.
The uneasy feeling grows.
I walk out into the main living space. The room looks even more like something from a museum in the light of day: you can see the dust motes hanging suspended in the air. And I've just spotted something I didn't see last night. There's a largish, lighter patch on the floorboards just a few feet before the front door. I walk toward it, crouch down. As I do the smellâthe strange smell I noticed last nightâcatches me right at the back of the throat. A singe-the-nostrils chemical tang. Bleach. But that's not all. Something's caught here in the gap between the floorboards, glinting in the cold light. I try to wiggle it out with my fingers, but it's stuck fast. I go and get a couple of forks from the drawer in the kitchen, use them together to pry it loose. Eventually, I work it free. A long gilt chain unspools first, then a pendant: an image of a male saint in a cloak, holding a crook.
Ben's St. Christopher. I reach up and feel the identical texture of the chain around my neck, the heavy weight of the pendant.
I've never seen him without it. Just like me, I suspect he never takes it off, because it came from Mum. Because it's one
of the few things we have from her. Maybe it's guilt, but I suspect Ben's almost more sentimental about stuff like that than
But here it is. And the chain is broken.
I sit here trying not to panic. Trying to imagine the rational explanation that I'm sure must be behind all this. Should I
call the police? Is that what a normal person would do? Because it's several things now. Ben not being here when he said he
would and not answering his phone. The cat's blood-tinged fur. The bleach stain. The broken necklace. But more than any of
this it's the way it allÂ .Â .Â . feels. It feels wrong.
Always listen to your inner voice
, was Mum's thing.
Never ignore a feeling
. It didn't work out so well for her, of course. But she was right, in a way. It's how I knew I should barricade myself in
my bedroom at night when I fostered with the Andersons, even before another kid told me about Mr. Anderson and his preferences.
And way before that, before foster care even, it's how I knew I shouldn't go into that locked roomâeven though I did.
I don't want to call the police, though.
They might want to know things about you
a little voice says.
They might have questions you don't want to answer.
The police and I have never got on all that well. Let's just say I've had my share of run-ins. And even though he had it coming,
what I did to that arsehole is, I suppose, technically still a crime. Right now I don't want to put myself on their radar
unless I absolutely have to.
Besides, I don't really have enough to tell them, do I? A cat that might just have killed a mouse? A necklace that might just
have been innocently broken? A brother who might have just fucked off, yet again, to leave me to fend for myself?
No, it's not enough.
I put my head in my hands, try to think what to do next. At the same moment my stomach gives a long, loud groan. I realize I can't actually remember the last time I ate anything. Last night I'd sort of imagined I'd get here and Ben would fix me up some scrambled eggs or something, maybe we'd order a takeaway. Part of me feels too queasy and keyed up to eat. But perhaps I'll be able to think more clearly with some food in my belly.
I raid the fridge and cupboards but besides half a pack of butter and a stick of salami they're bare. One cupboard is different
from all the rest: it's some sort of cavity with what looks like a pulley system, but I can't work out what it's for at all.
In desperation I cut off some of the salami with a very sharp Japanese knife that I find in Ben's utensil pot, but it's hardly
a hearty breakfast.
I pocket the set of keys I found in Ben's jacket. I know the code now, I've got the keys: I can get back into this place.
The courtyard looks less spooky in the light of day. I pass the ruins of the statue of the naked woman, the head separated
from the rest, face up, eyes staring at the sky. One of the flowerbeds looks like it has recently been re-dug, which explains
that smell of freshly turned earth. There's a little fountain running, too. I look over at the tiny cabin in the corner and
see a dark gap between the closed slats of the shutters; perfect for spying on anything that's going on out here. I can imagine
her watching me through it: the old woman I saw last night, the one who seems to live there.
I take in the strangeness of my surroundings as I close the apartment's gates, the foreignness of it all. The crazily beautiful buildings around me, the cars with their unfamiliar numberplates. The streets also look different in daylightâand much busier when I get away from the hush of the apartment building's cul-de-sac. They smell different, too: moped fumes and cigarette
smoke and roasted coffee. It must have rained in the night as the cobbles are gleaming wet, slippery underfoot. Everyone seems to know exactly where they're going: I step into the street out of the way of one woman walking straight at me while talking on her phone and nearly collide with a couple of kids sharing an electric scooter. I've never felt so clueless, so like a fish out of water.
I wander past shop fronts with their grilles pulled down, wrought-iron gates leading onto courtyards and gardens full of dead
leaves, pharmacies with blinking neon green crossesâthere seems to be one on every street, do the French get sick more?âdoubling
back on myself and getting lost a couple of times. Finally, I find a bakery, the sign painted emerald green with gold letteringâ
âand a striped awning. Inside the walls and the floor are decorated with patterned tiles and it smells like burnt sugar and
melted butter. The place is packed: a long queue doubles back on itself. I wait, getting hungrier and hungrier, staring at
the counter which is filled with all sorts of things that look too perfect to be eaten: tiny tarts with glazed raspberries,
eclairs with violet icing, little chocolate cakes with a thousand very fine layers and a touch of what looks like actual gold
on top. People in front of me are putting in serious orders: three loaves of bread, six croissants, an apple tart. My mouth
waters. I feel the rustle of the notes I nicked from Ben's wallet in my pocket.
The woman in front of me has hair so perfect it doesn't look real: a black, shining bob, not a strand out of place. A silk
scarf tied around her neck, some kind of camel-colored coat and a black leather handbag over her arm. She looks rich. Not
flashy rich. The French equivalent of posh. You don't have hair that perfect unless you spend your days doing basically nothing.
I look down and see a skinny, silver-colored dog on a pale blue leather lead. It looks up at me with suspicious dark eyes.
The woman behind the counter hands her a pastel-colored box tied with a ribbon: “
VoilÃ , Madame Meunier
She turns and I see that she's wearing red lipstick, so perfectly applied it might be tattooed on. At a guess she's about
fiftyâbut a very well-preserved fifty. She's putting her card back into her wallet. As she does something flutters to the
groundâa piece of paper. A banknote?
I bend down to pick it up. Take a closer look. Not a banknote, which is a shame. Someone like her probably wouldn't miss the
odd ten euros. It's a handwritten note, scribbled in big block capitals. I read:
double la prochaine fois, salope
I look up. The woman is glaring at me, her hand outstretched. I think I know what she's asking but she did it so rudely, so
like a queen commanding a peasant, that I pretend not to understand.
She switches to English. “Give that to me.” And then finally, as an afterthought, “please.”
Taking my time about it, I hold out the note. She snatches it from my hand so roughly that I feel one of her long fingernails
scrape at my skin. Without a thank you, she marches out through the door.
behind the counter asks, ready to take my order.
“A croissant, please.” Everything else is probably going to be too expensive. My stomach rumbles as I watch her drop it into
the little paper bag. “Two, actually.”
On the walk back to the apartment through the cold gray morning streets I eat the first one in big ravenous bites and then the second slower, tasting the salt of the butter, enjoying the
crunch of the pastry and the softness inside. It's so good that I could cry and not much makes me cry.
Back at the apartment building I let myself in through the gate with the code I learned yesterday. As I cross the courtyard
I catch the scent of fresh cigarette smoke. I glance up, following the smell. There's a girl sitting there, up on the fourth-floor
balcony, cigarette in her hand. A pale face, choppy dark hair, dressed in head-to-toe black from her turtleneck to the Docs
on her feet. I can see from here that she's young, maybe nineteen, twenty. She catches sight of me looking back at her, I
can see it in the way her whole body freezes. That's the only way I can describe it.
You know something, I think, staring back. And I'm going to get you to tell me.
She's seen me. The woman who arrived last night, who I watched this morning walking around in his apartment. She's staring
straight at me. I can't move.
In my head the roar of static grows louder.
Finally she turns away. When I breathe out my chest burns.
I watched him arrive from here, too. It was August, nearly three months ago, the middle of the heatwave. Camille and I were
sitting on the balcony in the junky old deckchairs she'd bought from a
shop, drinking Aperol Spritzes even though I actually kind of hate Aperol Spritz. Camille often persuades me to do things
I wouldn't otherwise do.
Benjamin Daniels turned up in an Uber. Gray T-shirt, jeans. Dark hair, longish. He looked famous, somehow. Or maybe not famous
butÂ .Â .Â . special. You know? I can't explain it. But he had that thing about him that made you want to look at him.
to look at him.
I was wearing dark glasses and I watched him from the corner of my eye, so it didn't seem like I was looking his way. When he opened the boot of the car I saw the stains of sweat under his arms and, where his T-shirt had ridden up, I also saw how the line of his tan stopped beneath the waistband of his jeans,
where the paler skin started, an arrow of dark hair descending. The muscles in his arms flexed when he lifted the bags out of the trunk. Not like a jacked-up gym-goer. More elegant. Like a drummer: drummers always have good muscles. Even from here I could imagine how his sweat would smellânot bad, just like salt and skin.
He shouted to the driver: “Thanks, mate!” I recognized the English accent straightaway; there's this old TV show I'm obsessed
, about all these British teenagers screwing and screwing up, falling in love.
“Mmm,” said Camille, lifting up her sunglasses.
,” I said. “He's really old, Camille.”
She shrugged. “He's only thirty-something.”
, and that's old. That's likeÂ .Â .Â . fifteen years older than us.”
“Well, think of all that
.” She made a vee with her fingers and stuck her tongue out between them.
I laughed at that. “Beurkâyou're disgusting.”
She raised her eyebrows. “
Pas du tout.
And you'd know that if your darling papa ever let you near any guysâ”
“Ah, MimiÂ .Â .Â . I'm kidding! But you know one day he's going to have to realize you're not his little girl any longer.” She
grinned, sucked up Aperol through her straw. For a second I wanted to slap herÂ .Â .Â . I nearly did. I don't always have the
best impulse control.
“He's just a littleÂ .Â .Â . protective.” It was more than that, really. But I suppose I also never really wanted to do anything
to disappoint Papa, tarnish that image of me as his little princess.
I often wished I could be more like Camille, though. So chill about sex. For her it's just another thing she likes doing: like swimming or cycling or sunbathing. I'd never even had sex, let alone with two people at the same time (one of her specialties), or
tried girls as well as boys. You know what's funny? Papa actually approved of her moving in here with me, said living with another girl “might stop you from getting into too much trouble.”
Camille was in her smallest bikini, just three triangles of pale crocheted material that barely covered anything. Her feet
were pressed up against the ironwork of the balcony and her toenails were painted a chipped, Barbie-doll pink. Apart from
her month in the South with friends she'd sat out there pretty much every hot day, getting browner and browner, slathering
herself in La Roche-Posay. Her whole body looked like it had been dipped in gold, her hair lightened to the color of caramel.
I don't go brown; I just burn, so I sat tucked in the shade like a vampire with my Francoise Sagan novel, wearing a big man's
She leaned forward, still watching the guy getting his cases out of the car. “Oh my God, Mimi! He has a cat. How
. Can you see it? Look, in that carry basket.
She did it on purpose, so he would look up and see usâsee her. Which he did.
“Hey,” she called, standing up and waving so hard that her
bounced around in her bikini top like they were trying to escape. “
welcome! I'm Camille. And this is Merveille. Cute pussy!”
I was so embarrassed. She knew exactly what she was saying, it's the same slang in French:
. Also, I hate that my full name is Merveille. No one calls me that. I'm Mimi. My mum gave me that name because it means “wonder”
and she said that's what my arrival into her life was: this unexpected but wonderful thing. But it's also completely mortifying.
I sank down behind my book, but not so much that I couldn't still see him over the top of it.
The guy shielded his eyes. “Thanks!” he called. He put up a hand, waved back. As he did I saw again that strip of skin
between his T-shirt and jeans. “I'm Benâfriend of Nick's? I'm moving into the third floor.”
Camille turned to me. “Well,” she said, in an undertone. “I feel like this place has just got a
more exciting.” She grinned. “Maybe I should introduce myself to him properly. Offer to look after the pussy if he goes away.”
I wouldn't be surprised if she's fucking him in a week's time, I thought to myself. It would hardly be a surprise. The surprising
thing was how much I hated the thought of it.
Someone's knocking on the door to my apartment.
I creep down the hall, look through the peephole.
: it's her: the woman from Ben's apartment.
I swallowâor try to. It feels like my tongue is stuck in my throat.
It's hard to think with this roaring in my ears. I know I don't have to open the door. This is my apartment, my space. But
knock knock knock
is incessant, beating against my skull until I feel like something in me is going to explode.
I grit my teeth and open the door, take a step back. The shock of her face, close up: I see him in her features, straightaway.
But she's small and her eyes are darker and there's something, I don't know, hungry about her which maybe was in him too but
he hid it better. It's like with her all the angles are sharper. With him it was all smoothness. She's scruffy, too: jeans
and an old sweater with frayed cuffs, dark red hair scragged up on top of her head. That's not like him either. Even in a
gray T-shirt on a hot day he looked kind ofÂ .Â .Â . pulled-together, you know? Like everything fit him just right.
“Hi,' she says. She smiles but it's not a real smile. “I'm Jess. What's your name?”
“MâMimi.” My voice comes out as a rasp.
“My brotherâBenâlives on the third floor. But he'sÂ .Â .Â . well, he's kind of disappeared on me. Do you know him at all?”
For a crazy moment I think about pretending I don't speak English. But that's stupid.
I shake my head. “No. I didn't know himâdon't, I mean. My English, sorry, it's not so good.”
I can feel her looking past me, like she's trying to see her way into my apartment. I move sideways, try to block her view.
So instead she looks at me, like she's trying to see into
: and that's worse.
“This is your apartment?” she asks.
“Wow.” She widens her eyes. “Nice work if you can get it. And it's just you in here?”
“My flatmate Camille and me.”
She's trying to peer into the apartment again, looking over my shoulder. “I was wondering if you'd seen him lately, Ben?”
“No. He's been keeping his shutters closed. I meanâ” I realize, too late, that wasn't what she was asking.
She raises her eyebrows. “OK,” she says, “but do you remember the last time you saw him generally about the place? It would
be so helpful.” She smiles. Her smile is not like his at all. But then no one's is.
I realize she's not going to go unless I give her an answer. I clear my throat. “IâI don't know. Not for a whileâI suppose
maybe a week?”
Ce n'est pas vrai!
That's not true!
I turn to see Camille, in just a camisole and her
, wandering into the space behind me. “It was yesterday morning, remember Mimi? I saw you with him on the stairs.”
. I can feel my face growing hot. “Oh, yes. That's right.” I turn back to the woman in the doorway.
here yesterday?” she asks, frowning, looking from me to Camille and back. “You
“Uh-huh,” I say. “Yesterday. I must have forgotten.”
“Did he say if he was going anywhere?”
“No. It was only for a second.”
I picture his face, as I passed him on the stairs.
Hey Mimi. Something up?
That smile. No one's smile is like his.
“I can't help you,” I say. “Sorry.” I go to close the door.
“He said he'd ask me to feed his kitty if he ever went away,” Camille says and the almost flirtatious way she says “kitty”
reminds me of her “Cute pussy!” on the day he arrived. “But he didn't ask this time.”
“Really?” The woman seems interested in this. “So it sounds likeâ” Maybe she's realized I'm slowly closing the door on her
because she makes a movement like she's about to step forward into the apartment. And without even thinking I slam the door
in her face so hard I feel the wood give under my hands.
My arms are shaking. My whole body's shaking. I know Camille must be staring at me, wondering what's going on. But I don't
care what she thinks right now. I lean my head against the door. I can't breathe. And suddenly I feel like I'm choking. It
rushes up inside me, the sickness, and before I can stop it I'm vomiting, right onto the beautifully polished floorboards.