"Wasn't she beautiful?"
Grant could smell it as soon as he opened the door. The waft of artificial lemon. A prickle of bleach. Gone were the familiar scents of blackening banana peels, dishes moldy in the sink, warring stubs of incense heavy with vanilla or jasmine or sandalwood. No coffee mugs, half empty, lined her bookcases. No stacks of paper as high as his calves. No brimming trash bags, or hand-washed clothes draped on chair backs, in various stages of drying. Except for a scuff of red clay by the welcome mat, the floor looked clean enough to lick.
That was the first thing he noticed, the eerie hygiene. The second—after he threw open doors and peered under the bed—was that Eliot was not here, and by the looks of it, she hadn’t been for days. Dust had started to tint the blinds. The microwave and stove lights flashed zeros. A hint of pink inside the toilet bowl. Whoever cleaned the apartment had been thorough, but even unprompted, a place tended to resume its ways.
There had to be some clue to her whereabouts, a forgotten receipt or confirmation number, so Grant started looking. Sitting at her desk, he opened drawers and fingered the paper clips and tracks of staples. A stack of brochures for yoga centers in Serenbe and Blue Ridge. He found empty envelopes and Post-it notes, and, somehow, a box of floppy discs. He smiled at their labels. Lit/Bio essays, one said. P.G. movies. Damn, he thought, that girl never threw anything away.
The bottom drawer revealed a file cabinet, each of the suspended folders labeled by utility: “Power,” “Cable/Internet,” “Car Insurance.” Grant wondered how she had so many bill stubs from just three months here, so he pulled out the one labeled “Water” and leafed through the pages she’d thrown in. He found print-outs of the Water Department’s website, GoogleMaps directions to some place in East Lake. Halfway through the stack he found the most recent bill, due the day before. El had scribbled a date across it: “paid 9/28.” Just in the last three months alone, she’d had to go downtown twice to turn her water back on, her checks having bounced. How could she afford to pay this one early?
He sorted through the other files with increasing speed. Car insurance: “paid 9/28.” Gas, the same. Cable and renter’s insurance. Even the rent for Frank’s apartment, which Grant had thought came straight from his Social Security check. But here was a letter from Sunset Villas confirming receipt of six month’s rent—paid in advance. The date on the letter? October 2, 2017. Grant had no idea how or where Eliot would get that kind of money…or why.
If the apartment hadn’t been so quiet, so muted without the hum and bustle of Eliot, he might not have heard it. A tinny sound. A melody, like muffled hand bells. Grant threw back the cushions, the basket of woven blankets. Dizzy, he closed his eyes to hear it better. The bedroom, he realized. Around the dresser. He pulled open the drawers, dumped the folded socks and concert t-shirts on the bed, but the dinging continued, as if it were coming from the walls. He nudged out the dresser as the sound disappeared. In its place, a white charger cord snaked from an outlet, leading to the gap underneath the dresser’s two-inch legs. He lowered to the carpet. With a tug, an iPhone slid out and, after it, two spirals of a notebook. Grant reached for it, already knowing what it must be.
A black spiral notebook, like the kind SCAD students used for sketching, only smaller, purse-sized. Eliot’s notebook, the one he’d seen her write in dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. She bought them in bulk, he knew, so he tried not to panic as he picked it up. It could be an old one, all its pages covered in Chicago. But as he opened the front cover, a gulp rose in his throat. Atlanta, it said on the first page, September - _______ 2017. A majority of empty pages confirmed it. This was the notebook he’d seen just 10 days before. The one she never left home without.
He thumbed through the pages, Eliot’s bulbous letters in all directions. Phone numbers and names he didn’t recognize. Untethered words and phrases, sentences without beginnings or ends. A drawing of some sort, edges stained with coffee rings or smudged ink. He stared at the pages as if they were those old 3-D posters, as if willing a shape to spring into view.
Then he turned his thoughts to the phone. Eliot often forgot it. He’d seen her empty her messenger bag on restaurant tables and car hoods, only to later rediscover her phone in the refrigerator or on the lip of her bathtub. So it wasn’t the presence of her phone that sent pulses of static up his neck and down his arms. It was the realization that, without it, Eliot could not call for help.
He pressed the phone’s home button, and the screen lit up, announcing 42 missed calls. A good number of those were his own, Grant knew, and the nurse from Frank’s apartment. But there had to be others. He tapped to get the password screen, where he tried her birthdate, the year she graduated from high school, but then he stopped. He had no idea how many wrong passwords he could try before the phone wiped itself clean, and he didn’t want to find out.
He stood in her squat bedroom, trying to decide what to do next. He scanned the walls and furniture for anything out of place. There was her framed poster from a Picasso exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. The chipped tile coasters. The floral tray that held her rings and necklaces. On the wide bedside table, a few paperback books—a biography of Olivia Newton-John, a guide to day trips from Atlanta, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. A framed picture of Eliot and Frank the day he moved her into college. Another of the two of them in Times Square. In each, El’s edges blurred as if in motion. Frank’s hand on her shoulder like an anchor to keep her from blowing away.
Behind these frames leaned the gauzy Polaroid she used to tuck under her pillow and prop on dashboards. A blonde woman in a white robe draping open at her thighs, her face flushed almost as red as the fist-sized splotch of a birthmark across her cheek. She’s laughing at the toddler in her lap, the kind of laugh you could almost hear, even now, twenty five years after she left a note taped to her steering wheel and stepped off the edge of Brasstown Bald.
“Wasn’t she beautiful?” Eliot had asked him the first time she slipped the picture from the inside pocket of her pea coat. “Don’t I look just like her?”
Grant didn’t remember what he said that first time, or the countless times she’d asked since, but he didn’t see much resemblance, except maybe the broad shoulders, the throaty laugh. The filmy gray eyes of someone who knew how to guard her secrets. The woman made him angry, to be honest, protective of that little girl she’d left behind. He hoped abandoning your life without warning wasn’t an inheritable trait.
On a shelf by her closet, he noticed that old picture of them standing in front of Grady the day he was discharged. He still had the crutches, and that itchy brace, but enough patches of El’s hair had grown back that you couldn’t see her scar. They were smiling in the picture, but Grant remembered how nervous he’d been to leave that day, how much he dreaded the quiet of his own bedroom and the woozy clamor of his high school halls.
“Just breathe whenever it gets too much,” Eliot had told him on the elevator down, while his parents hurried to get the car. “Just breathe and say your words. Out loud, remember?”
“Say them with me now, just for practice.”
His voice still warbled back then. Hers somehow already had the hint of a smoker’s rasp. Together, they repeated his mantra: “I am steady. I am real. I am unshaken.”
“That’s us,” Eliot added, as the elevator settled and wrenched open its doors. “The unshakables.”
In the worst moments of his life since, he’d thought of that elevator ride. When he got fired or screamed at. When cops pulled him over on unlit roads. The weeks and months after Kendra left him. Those nights he slept in his car. The loudest noises, the shakiest ground, he remembered it. Their voices, melding, became his theme song for keeping on. Standing there, he hummed it now.
Just then, her phone rang. He almost dropped it, he was so startled. The screen lit with its announcement: J mobile.
He thought about that cryptic message on Twitter. He couldn’t let the call go by, so he swiped at the screen until the ringing stopped and, tentatively, brought the phone to his ear.
“Hello,” he said.
He never expected what he heard next.