Roshani Chokshi writes fantasy with an Asian twist. Her work has been published in Strange Horizons, Shimmer, The Feminist Wire and Book Smugglers. Her debut novel, THE STAR TOUCHED QUEEN is an Indian Young-Adult fantasy and will be published by MacMillan/St. Martin's Griffin in May 2016.
“Who is it?” she yelled.
“Mr. Drakos,” said her landlord in his thick Greek accent, “I have been needing to talk to you.”
Nirali kneaded the heels of her palms against her eyes. It was too early for a lecture on utilities.
“Just a moment.”
She flattened her shirt and ran her tongue along her teeth before unchaining the door. Before her stood Mr. Drakos in his familiar cardigan, cap and clipboard. But today he seemed far from his normal scowling self. His nose, a hooked bulge that teemed with broken capillaries, looked ruddier than usual and a down of chafed skin netted his eyelids as though he’d rubbed at them one time too many.
“I hope I have not interrupted you,” he said thickly. “I, wait, what is on your hands?”
Nirali glanced down at the mehndi roping her arms like a trellis, “My sister got married,” she said, “It’s a traditional…thing.”
“Oh,” he said, staring at the concentric circles on her palm, “Have I interrupted you at your work?”
If fielding well-meaning relatives is a job, then yes, thought Nirali.
“No, I actually just got back from a trip.”
Other people would’ve sensed this as a polite dispatch, but such subtleties were lost on Mr. Drakos. He rocked on his heels, thrumming his fat arms.
“I do not wish to encroach on your time, I just need to ask a couple questions.”
Nirali arched an eyebrow, “Who?”
“Your neighbor? Above your floor?”
Sometimes Nirali forgot there was a floor above her. Her own sphere of space hovered inches above her flesh, intangible and inviolable. Everything outside those inches was white noise.
“Oh, right. What about her?”
“Did she talk to you about family? People she knew?”
Nirali shook her head. As far as she knew, Mrs. Williams was a poltergeist. Occasionally, Nirali heard her shuffling against the floor, adjusting her chairs and dropping spare change. But beyond that, she had only glimpsed her in the awnings of dusk or at the margins of an intoxicated homecoming.
“I see,” said Mr. Drakos, clutching the clipboard tighter, “It is my regret to inform you that she has died.”
Something cold and leaden hit Nirali’s gut, “What?”
Mr. Drakos nodded, “Died. In Room 147. I come to get rent check, but nothing. I call police department and they find her.”
For a moment, Nirali was tempted to invite him inside her apartment. But she hesitated. Acquaintances did not cross thresholds in Harlem. The threshold to an apartment was a longitude of self. It demanded obeisance through conversation. And people did not converse in this squat Harlem building.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Nirali, “But I’m not sure what you want me to do.”
Part of that was true. She was sorry. But she could do something. She could comb through the documents with him, rifle through her belongings. But it felt taboo. What if Mrs. Williams was like her? Entering her hollow apartment would be like robbing a grave. Her whole life may have been tucked into the corners of that apartment — from its soured milk to its wax fruit, everything could’ve been its own memorial. Who was she to flout that hallowed space?
Mr. Drakos consulted his clipboard, “I am trying to find someone who knows a relation. For her possessions and burial.”
“Sorry…I can’t help you.”
Nodding, Mr. Drakos rubbed his jaw, “In Volos, we were better to our dead,” he muttered before glancing at Nirali. “O.K., that is all I had to ask.”
“What will happen to her body?”
Mr. Drakos stared and shrugged. Wordlessly, Nirali shut the door.