Attracts firemen. Paramedics. Neighbors. The house is still standing but the ground floor is angry flames, stinging smoke. I am in Mrs. McAllister’s third-story bedroom, looking down at her body. Though I saw her just last night, alive and well, the authorities will say she has been dead for a long time. They are never going to believe me, not one word.
Only appear when there’s death or decay. Foul play? That’s why it is so hard to explain how they could have taken over my landlady’s body. I am still; they are writhing.
Failing to report a dead body is a crime.
I hear the heavy footsteps of rescuing men on the stairs. Before I can see their faces, I hide mine in my hands.
Explains, in part, why I have been living in this house. It is beguiling, as is the gleaming wood. There are acorns and leaves carved into the crown molding, ribbons and flowers. There is a fireplace in my bedroom. I have never lived in a house like this before. I never will again.
Undoes our landlady. This is why we tolerate her behavior. She cannot be left alone, not ever, and so the three of us agree that someone will remain in the house with Mrs. McAllister at all times. We coordinate our class schedules. We text relentlessly. We only screw up once, on a Saturday night when Kyla falls asleep at her girlfriend’s house and Liz is out to dinner with her parents.
I am at a friend’s birthday party. Mrs. McAllister calls me on the landline to tell me she is dying. I run all the way to the house in the freezing cold to find Kyla fumbling with her keys. She opens the door in what feels like slow motion and then we fly up those endless stairs. Mrs. McAllister is in her bed, motionless, as white as a sheet.
Make tea with lots of sugar, I say. Kyla disappears, then comes back upstairs, contrite, carrying the tea tray.
Mrs. McAllister forces Kyla to stay by her bedside the whole night.
I don’t sleep at all.
The next morning Kyla is furious. There is an explosive three-way fight. She moves out the following week.
And now nobody can find her, not even her girlfriend.
Doesn’t need to save money on rent. Rich girl Liz is here, she says, for the architecture. The history.
Liz, whose mother is an actress, knows all the things women do to stay young, all the skin treatments and surgeries. She knows how good Mrs. McAllister looks for her age. She also knows Mrs. McAllister never leaves the house, not even to go to a salon.
Liz, who will not, cannot, open her eyes.
Is running out. In-state tuition is not too bad, but the rent in this town is killing me. Ashamed, I never tell my parents how much I pay to live here. I know what they would say: come home. Then I get the opportunity at Mrs. McAllister’s house, half the cost of my old apartment. Free utilities. Plenty of hot water and a clawfoot tub to hold it. Guests allowed, but not overnight.
Afraid someone else will take the room before me, or that the offer will vanish, I move in the same day.
Has too much power, so we refuse to play along. No makeup. Sweatpants and T-shirts all the time. Glasses instead of contacts. We are serious students. We are women, not girls.
Yet we can’t stop staring at the ethereal Mrs. McAllister, who doesn’t belong in this world. She wears plain black dresses, is fond of powder and eyeliner. Liz, who knows about these things, says the eyeliner is tattooed. We never see Mrs. McAllister eat. She asks us to bring her black tea on the regular. We know somebody is eating bone broth because the cans keep disappearing. Sometimes Liz leaves Mrs. McAllister a pastry or a piece of fruit.
We have no idea what she does all day in her little room.
Most of the time she looks younger than us, but there are other times, especially if I’m alone with her, when she looks ancient. And then I feel responsible. Frightened.
Can’t possibly be someone who gets off easy, like Kyla.
She worries about climate change and social justice. She mourns the planet with each step she takes. She never liked living in Mrs. McAllister’s house, and now she does not have to answer any questions.
But where is she? What happened to her?
Soothes. Entertains. Distracts. Not, however, when it’s Liz sitting there, her hair in a long braid, playing the same song over and over. This is after Kyla leaves and it’s just the two of us. This is when I realize Liz has stopped going to class. Has stopped leaving the house.
Is too harsh a word. It’s okay to be friendless in college, unlike high school. I pass for a scholar. Ambitious, I study all night at the big oak table in the warm kitchen.
I am a social butterfly in comparison to Mrs. McAllister. I go to class. I go shopping. I talk to strangers every day, even boys.
One time I look up––it is well after midnight––and Mrs. McAllister is in the doorway, smiling as she stares at me. I almost jump out of my skin.
She looks good. Her skin is glowing. Her hair is jet black.
She says, You are so beautiful, so young.
She says, I am counting on you girls.
I know I look terrible, with my greasy hair and stained shirt. I haven’t slept for days. I sleep great that night, though, and when I open my eyes to the familiar brass light fixture above my bed, I have no idea it is my last day in the house.
Always open, right around the corner. My escape, my last moment of normal.
The sun goes down and I need real food. Protein. I tell Liz I am going out for a few minutes. Perfect, she says, from where she stands in the kitchen, preparing the tea tray. I’m almost ready for you to take over, she adds, without looking up.
I should have forced eye contact and made her talk to me.
Something tells me to hurry but I can’t help myself. I sit and eat a blood-dripping hamburger in the restaurant instead of getting it to go. I feel like a criminal for abandoning Liz. I look around me at the other customers, ordinary people who are eating their food and getting on with their lives. It has only been a few months, but it seems I have been tied to Mrs. McAllister forever. I want to fall asleep right there in the booth.
I walk home slowly at first, and then, the closer I get to the house, the faster my steps become. Something is wrong.
The fire has already started but I can’t see it yet. Is the sky unusually bright? What I do know, what I will never forget, is Liz. I can see her elegant shape through the stained-glass window in Mrs. McAllister’s bedroom.
I know what Liz is going to do.
She does not look at me. She does not speak. There isn’t even time for me to say her name.
Is me, not the body on the lawn. Gemstones of broken glass crunch against my soles. A ruby shard slices my palm.
Is me, not the body in the bed. I will forever run up those stairs, past the wall of heat, through the rising smoke, to find a grinning corpse so far gone I barely recognize it. Inexplicable. There is a world of questions waiting for me. Questions and accusations.
Is me, growing weaker with each breath.