There's no response when I knock at the door; I'm at the back of the townhouse and there's only a small space between the blind and the window edge in the door through which I can see a shoe and the kitchen floor. I'm on my dinner break from work and I can't wait any longer. I flip over all the seashells lined along her sidewalk, but the key Nancy showed me for emergency use is no longer there. I stand on the far lip of her basement steps and lean over and raise the living room window the cop opened yesterday. It won't stay up, so I have to reach in and grasp the inner sill with my left hand while holding the window up with my right before leaping across the basement stairwell and pulling myself awkwardly through and up into the dank darkness. I put one foot on her sofa and have to steady myself once my arms are in so that I can leave one foot between the window and sill so it doesn't slam shut. Paint flecks shower down from the rotting wood between the panes, and when I get over the vinyl couch just inside the window I dust myself off.
This is it, I think, stopping to scent the air. Lots of cat. Lots of dust. Nothing else. There's a powerstrip on the floor, its switch glowing orange, and in the front room there's a lamp burning a low red bulb. "Nance!" I yell, and then regret it because yelling only makes the silence that much heavier. "Ok," I say, aloud. "Upstairs first, or downstairs?"
I move left and into the kitchen. Typical kitchen stuff--cat food cans on the counter, several notes Nancy left herself: Deepak Chopra book notices, an advert for a six-week bipolar study (a clue?), a stack of library books from the Towson branch of BCPL due in November on the stovetop. The kitty litter box is clean and filled with fresh litter, but there are no food or water dishes nearby (another clue?). I look at the basement door, I move to it, I look down into the darkness. There's the sound of what must be a dehumidifier, but I'm reluctant to go down there with no light, and the switch by the door clicks with no result. "Upstairs it is!"
The front room is somber because Nancy has put a large bureau with an ornate antique mirror in front of the only window. Some light seeps in around the edges, but not nearly enough. There's a new smell in here, kind of like that old-age home smell. There are carpets rolled up to my right and I lift them and then feel morbid for checking them. Nothing looks amiss. On a stereo speaker by the front door are three piles of mail from the fall. One pile of unopened BGE bills, one pile of unopened water bills, one pile of unopened solicitations. So someone since the fall has at least gotten her mail and gone through it--perhaps Nancy herself? To my left are the stairs carpeted in thick blue shag. I know from previous visits that none of the electricity works upstairs, and grasping the railing I pause because I can just barely make out something like a claw reaching down in the darkness, but of course that's simply the disabled wiring from what used to be a hall fixture. I think of steps in movies: the staircase in The Shining, the staircase in The Haunting, the staircase in The Exorcist, and I take them three at a time.
Three doors closed, one with a chair in front of it. The fourth is open, and there's a bit of light coming through there because it's the bathroom and there's a dim skylight. I can see the entire bathroom and the shower curtain is open. Nobody. I reach for the knob immediately to my right, then pause, and knock at the door. Nothing. I open the door to see your standard disused guest room, filled with the lonely detritus of a lonely life. Boxes, papers, magazines, clothes, a closet spilling shapeless junk into the gloom. I close the door and move to the next. A twin mattress on the floor, presumably where she sleeps. A large water stain on the ceiling and some plaster down in the far corner. No sign of life, no sign of not-life. Nothing. I close the door and turn to the final one; I have to reach around the oddly positioned lounge chair to get the knob, and when I push it open there's resistance low and behind the door.
Oh fucking Christ, don't let it be what I think it might be, I think, and yet I keep pushing anyway because I've come this far, and yet if it is somebody lying behind the door, and if she has been there for quite some time, what will be the state of her after I slide her across the floor by opening this? Of course it can't be her because how would she have possibly positioned the chair in front of the outside of the door after dying behind it? Unless someone did something to her...
The room smells and is very dark. I can see nothing for a few seconds and then realize there's nothing much to the room excepting significant water damage. What I've been pushing the door against is simply the ceiling collapsed onto the floor. The smell is moist wood. I close the door and take a moment to gather my wits. The basement is next, after all, and...