Followers - Megan Angelo
New York, New York
So she still believed in mail, this woman, whoever she was. The first thing Marlow saw when she walked into the building was a grid of metal boxes, each with its own window and cobwebbed keyhole.
Most of the boxes had only blank spaces where the names had once been. But the one for 6D still had a label, and the name on it was the same one Marlow had written down in eyeliner at the Archive. She could see, behind the small square of glass, the white slant of a waiting envelope.
Marlow slid a bobby pin out of her hair, ignoring the wave that sprang free and clung to the sweat on her neck. Ellis had taught her how to pick a lock on their third date. “Why do you know how to do this?” she’d asked, watching him bend the pin. Though she didn’t know him well yet, she was sure he had never needed to steal. They had grown up the same way.
“I like exploiting the flaws in things,” Ellis had answered. And Marlow, twenty-two and in a hopeful phase, had laughed and let the omen sail high over her head.
Now she jiggled the crimped bit of metal in the keyhole, listening for the seize as he had taught her. Finally, the little door popped open and the envelope jutted toward her. She slid it into her back pocket, shut the box, and walked toward the elevator.
The stoned superintendent stared at her as she waited. His desk was tall, pointedly designed for someone to stand behind, but the man sat, his bloodshot eyes at the lip of the walnut veneer. He must have seen her pick the lock, but he didn’t say a thing.
On the sixth floor, the doors were painted jade, the color the carpet looked like it had been before it turned trampled brown. Marlow found the door with the oily brass D and knocked. No answer. She tried the knob. It turned, and then she was inside, her feet falling on a gaudy doormat—black rubber, with hot-pink stripes. Marlow winced. Now that she was seeing colors clearly again, she could not get over how many of them she disliked. She saw, in a flash of memory, the roses stuffed into her mother’s bathroom, just before she ran. That had done it for pink, she supposed. She’d be avoiding it the rest of her life.
No one was home. The apartment smelled like air that had been sitting undisturbed. To Marlow’s left, as the front door swung shut behind her, was a narrow kitchen wrapped in cheap white cabinets. Three stools sat beneath the gray counter that divided the kitchen from the rest of the long, charmless room. The place dead-ended twenty feet or so out, in a naked window overlooking Eighth Avenue. The walls were dull handyman white, the color of a place between people.
The couch was the thing that made her feel like something was off. It was plump and lived-in-looking, the color of melted chocolate. But on the cushion closest to the window, a precise rectangle of fabric had been bleached beige by the sun. It was not the kind of thing, Marlow thought, with a tweak in her stomach, that anyone just let happen. Staring at it, she felt the way she would if she was sensing an intruder, though this was the opposite: an absence, just as sinister.
She wasn’t sure how long she lay shaking on the couch, trying to recover from the chase. After a minute, after an hour, she sat up and looked at the mail she’d stolen. The envelope was soft with age. The faded stamp on its front claimed it had been sent from Los Angeles. Marlow scratched at the yellowed seal, scraping it upward bit by bit. She could never remember how to open these things.
The paper inside was child’s stationery, embossed at the top with a chain of daisies. Above them, in all capitals, was a declaration that made the skin on the back of her neck prickle: FROM THE DESK OF MARLOW. She had never seen the paper before.
Each sheet—there were three—had the same crazy look. Filled back and front and end to end, margins forgone. Words compressed, begging to be heard out, at the edges where their writer had misjudged the space left.
She was reading for several seconds before she realized: she wasn’t. She couldn’t. The letter was in another tongue, one with its own strange alphabet—lilting loops, curving tails, linked letters