Two weeks after my birthday, my brother is murdered.
The people come and take his body away in a black bag. When they zip it up and hide his face, I feel like they erase him from existence. He’s already gone.
I stand on the front steps because I don’t know what else to do. I don’t feel like doing anything. One of the policemen tells me they’re looking into it. He has green eyes. I know better. My brother had brown eyes, so he will be forgotten. No one but me cares what happens to him.
A minute more and it starts to rain.
I swallow a laugh. In the movies, it rains when somebody dies. If only I were living in a movie—directed by God and playing the role of the heartbroken sibling, alone in the world. Only I’m not playing. I lost my parents and now I’ve lost Rory, too.
A police officer lays a hand on my shoulder. His face is kind but his eyes are green. He doesn’t care.
“Is there somewhere you can go?”
I am twenty-two years old. Still, I need some kind of guardian. The officer is asking if I have other family. If he read my file, he knows that the last of my family is being wheeled away as we speak.
“No,” I say, “there’s nowhere.”
The officer frowns. “We can put you up in a hotel for the night. Then tomorrow morning we can make arrangements. How is that?”
It sounds awful. I don’t want to leave my house. Rory and I built a life there together. Some of my best memories were created in that house. At the same time, it feels empty without him. So empty. And there’s still blood and broken glass everywhere.
“Sounds okay,” I lie.
“Perfect,” he says, “why don’t you come along with me?”
He keeps his hand on my shoulder and steers me in the direction of his cruiser. I turn over my shoulder to look at the gurney being wheeled into the ambulance. I don’t recognize it as part of my brother.
The officer opens the door and holds it for me. I slide into the seat. The vinyl is cool against my skin. I wish I weren’t wearing such a short dress.
“Did you want to get your belongings?” he asks
I haven’t thought about it. Earlier when I tried to go into my bedroom, the police told me not to touch anything. How am I supposed to pack my suitcase without touching things?
“I didn’t think I could.”
“I could go get some things for you. Do you know what you want?”
I want Rory back. “No.”
“Okay, do you want to wing it for a night and swing by here in the morning?”
I have no idea. I don’t want anything. There’s a hollow place inside me getting bigger every second. I shrug.
He nods, closes the door, and climbs into the driver’s seat.
I put on my seatbelt. Rory would have made me. He cracked down on seatbelts after our parents’ accident. I know he meant well. No one could ever love me as much as he had. Not even our parents had loved me that much.
The policeman doesn’t check to make sure I’m wearing my seatbelt. He revs the engine, and the interior falls silent. He doesn’t turn on the radio. Neither of us talks.
The Westbrook Motel isn’t far from where I live. We get there in less than ten minutes. I’m relieved. I want to get away from the policeman as soon as possible. I want to be alone.
The motel is cramped and a little disheveled. It’s not the cheapest option in town, but it might be the runner-up. I don’t care. The sooner I get inside and lock the door, the better.
The police officer waits to leave until I’m checked in. He asks me if I need anything. I need everything and nothing all at the same time.
“I’ll swing by to get you in the morning,” he says. “You’ll probably need to answer a couple more questions.”
After the interrogation I had earlier, I can’t imagine what questions are left to ask.
Did your brother have enemies?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. He was a good man.
Was there anything to be gained from his death?
He didn’t have life insurance and we’re pretty poor.
Do you have any idea who might have killed him?
If I did, I wouldn’t have answered questions. I would’ve tracked down the killer and gotten revenge.
Back in the present, I tell the officer, “Okay.”
He leaves me standing in front of the stairs. I climb up to the second floor. I pass one room with the curtains drawn—light filters out from a crack in the fabric. Every other room I pass is dark. The one beside mine is dark, too, but I hear voices. A man and a woman are talking.
I stick my card key into the lock. I can hear every word they’re saying.
“It would be easier with colored contacts,” the man says.
The light on the lock flashes red. I try again.
“Don’t say that here,” says the woman.
The light flashes green. I freeze with my hand on the handle of the door.
They’re talking about colored contacts. Those are illegal. They’re outlawed under the Ocular Codes. Everyone knows that. Why bring them up?
Curiosity gets the best of me. I hover outside.
“It’s not the safest course of action,” the man says. “I’d feel much better if we could wait a few days.”
“You know that’s impossible.”
“I know, I know. I just wish things were different.”
The man coughs. No one says anything for a minute. I think they’re finished with their conversation.
I twist the doorknob and slip inside my motel room. Right before the door closes, I hear their door open.
I freeze again. Someone left the room. I press my ear against the door and hear murmuring. I recognize the man’s voice.
“You want anything else besides ice?”
“No thanks,” the woman calls.
I pull back from the door. I know he can’t see me, but I feel safer anyway. I know I wasn’t supposed hear that conversation. I can’t get the words out of my head. They’re plotting something illegal. What can it be? Why do they need colored contacts?
I hear their door open again. It must be the woman. I lean against the door again but this time lean too hard. The door isn’t closed all the way.
I fall through the crack and against the woman. She isn’t much taller than me, but she’s strong enough to catch me before I hit the ground. Somehow I still hit my head on the railing. That’s the last thing I remember.
I come to in my motel room. At least, it looks like my motel room.
After a minute I notice the smell—stale cigarette smoke. I sit up and prop myself against the pillows. The woman from earlier sits in a chair at the end of the bed, smoking a cigarette and staring at me. Her dark hair falls over part of her face. The room isn’t well-lit, but I know that she’s beautiful. It comes off her in waves.
“How long have I been out?” I ask.
She takes a drag on her cigarette. “A couple of hours. You must have hit harder than I thought you
“A couple of hours?”
“Or you were exhausted.”
She looks at me as though expecting an answer. I want to give her one more than I’ve wanted anything in my entire life. I’m taken aback. What’s her appeal?
“Exhausted,” I say. “My brother just died.”
She lowers the cigarette. “I’m so sorry.”
Even though I barely know her, I can tell she means it. Her eyes radiate warmth and sympathy—and they’re brown like mine, which is a bonus. No matter how pretty she is, we’re on equal ground in society.
I relax a little. “Thank you.”
“Was it sudden?”
“He was murdered last night.” The words fall out of my mouth before I can stop them. When I see her eyes widen, I wish I could take it back. She doesn’t need to know my tragic backstory.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“Don’t apologize,” she says. “Never. Not for that.” She tamps out the cigarette in the ashtray in her lap. Smoke hangs around her face. She waves it away. “I had a brother who died a long time ago.
Sometimes it still hurts.”
“How long ago?” I ask.
“Decades,” she says.
I don’t push her for details. The idea that I’ll still be living with grief years down the road terrifies me. The ache is intense. I thought I’d never feel the way I felt when Rory and I lost our parents. Losing my brother is so much worse. It hasn’t even been a full day since I lost him. I can’t imagine how this woman feels.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Hebrew,” she says, “isn’t it?”
I nod. “I’m Jewish.”
“I’m Atalanta,” she says.
“What is that?”
She laughs, and it’s music. “That’s my name. Atalanta Silvestrov.” When I don’t comment, she smiles. “My first name is Greek. My last is Russian. It throws people off.”
“Where’s the man who was with you?” I ask. I hate myself for speaking. The only way I know that she’s with someone is because I eavesdropped.
Her smooth brow furrows. “Who?”
I’m not sure if she heard me correctly and is just giving me a second chance or if she honestly hasn’t heard me.
“What man are you talking about?” she asks again.
I try to come up with something that sounds halfway coherent. Then he comes out of the bathroom wearing only a towel.
“Give it up,” he says. “We’re going to have to tell her.”