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Julia's Sister

One

She didn't look dead," Annabel said, bewildered and a little nauseated. Her mind had grabbed up an idea-stick and was off, running a one-thought relay race. "I just stood there looking at her for the longest time … just standing there … I couldn't move. I knew she was dead. There was this feeling about everything … this terrible sort of—silence. I couldn't believe it. It … I still don't believe it. All I could do was stand there, staring, knowing she was dead; knowing what she'd done, but not believing. She's my sister … was. I thought I knew her, knew what she looked like, who she was. But I don't … didn't. She was so still, so … faceless. Even sleeping, there's always something of the person there, you know? I kept thinking she'd open her eyes and say, 'It's a joke. I just wanted to see what you'd do.' But nothing happened. It was as if Julia had moved out and left her body behind. I've never thought about that, about the way we live inside ourselves … like tenants. We get a lease at birth … God, Julia! And this, this note. 'Sorry. It's all pointless, a senseless rip-off.' What's that? It doesn't even sound like her. She wrote it. I know she did. But what does it mean?"

He didn't look like a law officer, a detective, she thought. But then everything was out of whack; warped, distorted.

"I didn't know her very well," she said finally, her eyes vague.

"Oh?" The detective looked up at her.

"We think we know people but we don't. I don't know what she did every day of her life. I didn't know she could do this. Her standards, her limitations. I'm not sure I know those things about myself. I know I'm going to keep asking myself why. So many things I'd like to ask her now that she's not here to answer. Mostly, why? This"—she stared down at the paper—"this doesn't tell me why."

Harry Schoenman glanced at the woman sitting on the sofa across the way. He thought he knew what the note meant. He'd thought a lot about death, had been forced to think about it by his daily exposure to it. There was an inescapable senselessness to life. An accumulation of possessions, friends, memories. A journey through experiences, most of them painful, or—at best—inexplicably pleasurable; to arrive, finally, at one's destination as another casualty statistic.

"She was very social, very popular," Annabel said, trying to remember Julia. But she was distracted by this detective who seemed so well-spoken, so gentle. He would be gentle, perhaps, she thought, looking at his large hands; undergoing a spasm of self-disgust for responding to a good-looking man at so inappropriate a time.

"Would you like a glass of water?" he offered. She'd gone very pale; small pinpoints of perspiration were gathering on her forehead, over her upper lip.

"Please," she whispered, gazing down at her hands.

He walked across to the narrow pullman kitchen.

"Have they finished?" he asked his partner, Arch.

"Open and shut," Arch said. "We found the empty bottle in the basket in the john. Pharmacist says he made up the prescription two days ago. For thirty-six tablets. Safe to figure she took them all. Big waste, Duke. Pretty chick, lots of bread, judging by the pad. Closet full of good labels. Big waste."

Harry let the water run cold, then carried a glassful back to Annabel who was trembling now, the skin around her nostrils having taken on a pale green tinge.

"Drink this," he said, handing her the glass.

Her fingertips brushed his hand as she reached for the water and the immediacy of his reaction surprised him, causing him to turn away while she struggled to pull herself together.

There were about twenty photographs grouped on the wall. He aligned several, studying them. Pictures of the dead woman laughing out at the viewer. Shots of her with her arm around her sister. The sister looking awkward, uncertain.

He turned, taking in the full details of Annabel Abbott. Hard to guess her age. About thirty or so, he decided. Almost childishly small. No rings. At first look, a plain face. But perhaps not plain. A small, narrow-nostriled nose; an appealingly wide mouth. Boyish haircut but the hair was thick, clean brown. Unusual eyes, round, not quite brown, not quite hazel. A lovely long neck, he noticed, pleased. The backs of her hands looked smooth and young, dusted with freckles. She looked up at him, her wide-spaced eyes large and confused and, again, he felt the sudden heat of recognition and desire; had a flash vision of her lying naked, inviting, on the muted oriental carpet. He coughed, reaching into his pocket for his cigarettes.

Why? Her entire mind crept around three giant letters, W-H-Y? A senseless rip-off? Who was? What was? Life? Some man? Julia.

The detective was watching her, standing a few feet away. When she looked up, his lower half was presented directly to her. She saw the discreet bulge of genitals and let her eyes move upward, studying the flat rise of belly into chest, chest into shoulders, shoulders upward to neck, to head. He was wearing cologne. The faintly, starchy, perfumed smell of him was all at once overpowering. She wanted to stand very close to him, just lean against him and have him put his arms around her very lightly. She could almost feel the warmth of the skin under the shirt, could almost sense the comfort in being held. She wanted to say, "Hold me. I'm scared."

"I'm better now," she said. "I thought I was going to be sick but I'm all right now."

"Good." He was glad to see her color returning. But he couldn't stop picturing her naked on the carpet. Jesus! "Are there any other family members?"

"Only me. Julia and I were the only children. Our parents died years ago. They had us late. Change-of-life babies, they called us. We were twins, you know."

His head lifted. "Oh?"

"Not identical. Jule was the pretty one. I think they expected me to be the clever one, but that was Jule, too."

He examined her increasingly attractive face, wondering about the traces of envy in her voice. There was an aura about her, something suggesting a kind of quick-flaring, soon-passed temper. He could see her as someone who'd spring angrily, then, moments later, laugh at her own anger. Despite her claim to the contrary, he could not only see the intelligence in her eyes, he seemed able to feel it. He liked her, wanted her.

"Could we drop you somewhere?" he asked.

"I'm trying to think what to do," she said slowly. "Julia arranged the funerals … when our parents died. There seem to be so many things to do. I can't seem to think."

"There'll be an autopsy. A matter of course. We'll notify you when the body's released. Is there someone you'd like us to call, someone to help?"

"I have to think."

"We can recommend a mortician, if you like."

She shuddered, her eyes fixing on his. "No, no. I'll get it all done. She used to say she'd prefer being cremated. I wonder if she still thought that. I'll take her home. There … friends of hers … maybe some of the girls from Farmington. Oh God! Julia!"

"I've got your number," he said, discomfited. "I'll let you know when the body's released."

"Yes." She directed her eyes toward the window, then back again to his face. She ached to put herself into his arms and hide there. He looked as if he'd know how to comfort her, how to make her forget the terrible hurting in her stomach. Why, why, why? Jule, you had it all. Everything. A great career, loads of men, good looks. Everything. Why?

He stood up, feeling impossibly tall, towering over her. At the most, she was five-two. Her size created in him an illusion of enormous strength. He was quite sure he could lift her effortlessly.

Arch was waiting by the door, discreetly looking down the corridor at the cluster of curious tenants.

"Are you sure you're all right?" Harry asked, overtaken by a sudden surge of sympathy. Her face had taken on a lost look that threatened to unnerve him.

"I'm all right," she said, her eyes again on the windows. Look at the things you had here, Jule. Good paintings, a Persian rug. Silk on the walls. You had clothes and expensive perfume and silver shoes. For dancing. You had facials at Elizabeth Arden and men who danced attendance on you like possessed fools, craving only to touch you. You had style. Such style, Jule. You always looked and smelled so good, all put together like a glossy ad in some magazine. Always off somewhere, too busy to talk with me on the telephone or get together more than a couple of times a year for lunch. What were you doing, Jule? How did it all end up like this, with you lying in there dead, a stomach full of sleeping pills? Why?

The two patrolmen filed out. Arch was still by the door, waiting. Harry walked over to him. "I'll wait with her for a bit," he said in an undertone. "You go back and make out the report, will you? I won't be long."

***

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