Marcia's stomach quivers.
She clicks pause, pours three fingers of orange juice into a pint beer glass an ex lifted from a faux-British pub, pours sparkling rose into the juice, clicks rewind, clicks start, sips. She doesn't usually start a work day with wine, but she'll make an exception She can compensate later, with caffeine.
Streetlights give the video a neo-noir atmosphere, one that's supported by the rhythms of participants, viewers, and background passers-by. It looks fictional, surreal. With the audio off, it could almost be a film, the sound turned down while one answers a phone call or rings out for food. Muted murder. A bitter seed in Marcia contemplates soundtracks: vintage murder mystery, modern thriller, police procedural. She crushes the seed, but feels it anything but lifeless. It isn't the seed, but Marcia— any of the millions who have watched this— who is broken.
The dead girl is not yet dead when she swirls downward. Her warm, soft Asian face is smooth and still, not fearful, not angry, not startled. So Marcia assures herself, leaning closer. Two-and-a-half minutes from life to death. Or less than two. Or more. When did the girl stop knowing what was happening to her? Marcia wonders this every time she watches the recording. When did the violence become distant? Was there distance for the victim, too? Painless? Did every blow hurt—every bruise, every inch of broken flesh—right up to the end, or was there blessed numbness? Didn't a body choose oblivion over awareness of inescapable agony? Yes. Marcia tells herself she's sure of it. If nothing else, concussion would have made the brutality go away. There would have been unconsciousness. In the end, the beating would have seemed less than a dream.
The girl's face vanishes between her attackers' shoulders. News outlets say the dead girl was only five feet tall. Until she was encircled—when she was prancing about on her own—she looked taller. The magic of high heels: a purchased illusion bestowing length to legs. A young woman going out for a glamorous night, the girl would have spent precious minutes of that final night choosing shoes, discarding kitten heels in favor of stilettos, trying on spool heels, considering wedges. She'd neared five foot four with the stilettos she had finally chosen. Weighed a hundred pounds, maybe one-oh-two with her shimmering dress and tiny handbag, and the shoes. Lucky. Marcia has always ached to be that slender.
Even when the girl is hidden from direct view, you can tell exactly where she is, as each of the people— two men; four women—surrounding her steps back to catch her weight or leans forward to punch or push her away. Backs, sides, heads tilt and sway. Then, after the girl falls, striking her with hands becomes too challenging. Shoves, slaps and punches give way to kicks. Weight switches from one foot to the other as the other or the one swings back—heel arcing high—and then a toe streaks down and forward, vanishing into flesh and shadow. The movements are so coordinated, the attackers might be one being, a twelve-limbed Kali at a public dance.
Between legs and shadows, movement and stillness, are flash-glimpses of gold: the girl's short dress. Silver: her handbag, with its vintage gleam. Deeper gold: those shoes.
The beaters' shoulders curve over their victim. Their backs arch. They'd look like crows, if crows came in flashy colors. The women are dressed for summer, in bright shades and sequins. Fine fabric rises, falls and sways. Marcia smiles thinly. Glittering carrion-cravers. Bleached ravens dressed for a formal dinner. Marcia's smile cracks. The real people are more evil than the feathered fantasy.
The kicks grow harder, fewer. Slower and more purposeful. Fury, maybe outmatched by exhaustion. Exhaustion trumped by the relentless need to . . . What? How can they keep moving, much less driving blows into a stilled girl? Is it adrenaline? A pack mentality? A sense of power? Rage or outrage, over a misstep and a phone?
Marcia peers into the screen, but sees no answers.
2:17. Everything in Marcia promises that the girl must be gone by now. She can't be awake in there, aware of every incoming impact, feeling each break and bruise. She must have blacked out, the body being self-protective, the mind sheltering itself from point. Some experts said that people were fully aware, even when comatose. Could there be a point when death became a kindness? Somewhere after disbelief, past hope?
According to the news, the girl wasn't dead when the ambulance arrived. She was comatose. She lived for three days. Lived, on life support, until yesterday. Twenty-one hours and seven minutes ago.
Marcia has a vision of the girl—small and pretty, a streak of sky dyed in her dry-ice hair, the curve matching her cheek. 2:36. Alive.
Marcia makes it three steps from the table before she throws up. For the rest of her life, mimosas will taste like death.
"He could have intervened—done something." As the elevator door slides open, a voice slips out. It has that tinny quality that comes of being in a metal box.
Marcia boards the elevator, which is, as always, icy from air-conditioning. She squeezes between an upstairs neighbor, Johnnie Thompson, and his girlfriend. They've been together since Christmas, and summer's at its peak, but Marcia hasn't learned her name. Sometime in the past month, the girlfriend had her hair cropped from waist-length to pageboy. Marcia's breastbone twists in painful envy. That kind of cut might change a person's life. Make her brand-new.
"Or she," the girlfriend says. "Right?" She glances at Marcia in a quick search for female solidarity. "It could have been a woman, couldn't it?"
"What are we talking about?" Marcia asks. She is relieved to hear her voice perky and not strained. She steps into a corner, presses the cold walls against her sides.
Johnnie grunts. His girlfriend says, "That video that's everywhere—the one of the girl being beaten."
"Murdered." Johnnie says.
"Not during the taping," the girlfriend says. "That was assault. It became murder when she died." When she states facts, her voice loses everything but restrained emotion. She might be a detective or a lawyer. Maybe too pretty, though. Pretty enough to be on Law & Order or one of those reality law shows. A TV judge's assistant or something.
From the look Johnnie gives his girlfriend, she's already a star.
The elevator slows and stops. When the door opens, Mrs. Abernathy gets on. Marcia and the lovers make room for the grey-haired woman, her small Doberman, and her three whippets. A tuned-in tenant could mark the weekday by the color of Mrs. Abernathy's track suit. Today is Tuesday, and the older woman is in shoulder-to-ankle pink. Mrs. Abernathy must be in her seventies or eighties—a recurrent topic of conversation among her younger neighbors—and yet she goes out running with those hyperactive dogs, every single day. She could be the healthiest person in the building, and there are thirty-seven stories of competition.
The elevator doors judder almost-closed, open, almost-closed, open, closed. Nobody bothers complaining.
Johnnie scratches the beige whippet's ears. "Could have intervened. Standing there, taping it. That's everything that's wrong with the world."
"Not everything," the girlfriend says, as Mrs. Abernathy gasps, "Isn't it ghastly?"
The girlfriend nods. "Male or female, the idiot could have intervened."
"There were lots of people there, doing nothing." Johnnie's concession is brittle. The door opens. Johnnie says, "Hi," to Roger and Antonio. Roger's tie and Antonio's pocket square are complementary. Marcia is spending all of her attention on details: the dry cracks in one whippet's collar, the juncture of woods and florals in a tight space of perfumes, the warmth of Roger's shoulder against her skin.
Johnnie's words pour into the air. "And who kills somebody for stepping into a fucking selfie? Five idiots to kill one skinny little girl. Cowards. And those cretins who stood there and just watched it. Taped it." His jaw muscles jump with all of the words he isn't saying, the anger he can't wholly express.
Mrs. Abernathy says, "It's important to record awful things, and to bear witness, but that was unpardonable."
"Oh, that." Antonio's two syllables bear a world of judgement. Marcia wonders whether he's thinking of a history of gay-bashing.
"There were more watchers than there were people killing that poor girl," Mrs. Abernathy said. "They could have stopped it."
"Has to start with one," Johnnie says.
The memory of mimosas stirs where Marcia thought her heart sat. She coughs behind sealed lips, presses her knuckles to the dent beneath her nose.
"Fucking cowards," Antonio mutters. When Roger moves to wrap an arm around Antonio's shoulder, Marcia's shoulder chills. The elevator smells like primroses. A scent Dorothy Parker wore, because it was linked with mortuaries and death.
Marcia stabs a button on the panel: 7. Her nail polish is chipping. Pale flesh and faintly ribbed nail peek through rifts in slick amber. What would her mother call it? Unsightly. Ugly is closer. Marcia lifts her hand toward her face, taking a closer view of the damage.
"Imagine standing there, doing nothing." Mrs. Abernathy has taken point on the conversation.
"I can't." The girlfriend and Roger synchro-speak.
Marcia has no words. Not to speak; not to swallow. How do people find so much to say about the unspeakable? They make it seem easy, vivisecting other lives, different choices. Someone died. Where are the words for that?
Her hand drifts to her side. Every sound is too loud: the creak of the chains or ropes or whatever holds up the box they're all standing in. For a flash, she wishes it would fall. They would plummet into darkness and silence. No noise, no words, no bright visions, no relentless feet and fists.
"Imagine standing there, recording it, as if you were at a concert. Like it was entertainment." From the breadth of Roger's shoulder, Antonio's voice is shaking. Marcia can't guess whether that's from fear or rage. She, too, is trembling. Her hand lifts to touch Antonio, falls again.
"For some sick fucks, it is." Roger bites out the words. Johnnie gives him a brisk nod. Mrs. Abernathy's brow turns back and forth, as if she were regretting things too big for words. The Doberman stares at Marcia as if it knew more than humans. Marcia presses back against the wall. The railing hurts where it juts into her hip. The pain feels good, reassuring.
"Can't they trace whoever uploaded that video?" Mrs. Abernathy asks. "That person can identify the killers."
"I'm sure they're trying." The girlfriend, cool and smart behind her outrage.
"That person should be smacked," Roger snaps.
"Smacked?" Johnnie says, "That bastard—bitch, whatever—should be stoned half to death, healed—without pain-killers —drawn and quartered, resurrected, used as a punching bag in a Muay Thai gym, given to a street gang for beating practice, brought back to life, donated to an MMA training facility, and not a good one ..."
Out of violence, more violence. Marcia can't stretch her mind around it. Apparent horror at a crime, and then this . . . this relishing of raw brutality. Escalation and elevation, everything more and more amped up. Give Johnnie the world, and every witness to every crime will become a victim; every street corner, a stomping ground for retribution.
The elevator shivers, slows, and goes through its staticky opening of doors. Marcia shoulders between Johnnie's Ivory soap smell and his girlfriend's Bulgari Black. The aromatic disjunction is dizzying.
"Forgot something." Marcia whispers and escapes.
Brisk as winter, she walks to the stairwell and slips through the door. As her foot meets the first riser, her gut twists around itself. It's like eels roiling inside her. Electric ones. She presses her fists against spasming abs, bends over. Her glutes clench, keeping her from toppling. What's left inside her to lose? Pain sears through her, up from her pelvis to the center of her ribs. Her hairline breaks into an itch of sweat. Her face chills. Is she dying?
She half-lunges, half-stumbles to the communal bins that stink the hallway. Slaps the lid off the nearest one: green, recycling. Its plastic rim cuts into her hands, but she won't notice that until later. For now, she curls over, lets the huge pail take some of her weight, and spews bitter fluid from the emptiness inside.
She shoulders through the iced-glass office doors, her weight on her left heel, her right hand balancing a cardboard tray. Cappuccino topped with chocolate and cinnamon for Frank, her office buddy. Chamomile chai to start her day—neither her usual morning tipple nor the promised double-shot iced coffee, but maybe it will ease her stomach.
Her desk is a mess: brown envelopes, white envelopes, small parcels, and those hideous green notes from the mailroom that indicate larger parcels waiting to be picked up. A few gaudy envelopes that have to hold invitations to colleagues' parties, business gatherings, and outside events. Smack on the top, there's a rolled-up sheet of paper tied sealed with cellophane tape and a rubber-stamped fuchsia kiss. That will be a cartoon from Frank, something lampooning a coworker or neighborhood character.
Marcia can barely look at the pile, much less sort it out.
There are no whispered conversations, no sounds of coffee mugs clunking on desktops, no curses at stalled computers or tumbling paperwork. Marcia wanders to Frank's desk. A cup of office coffee (He must have been desperate to pour that.) is steaming quietly to itself. His chair is empty. So is the cubby next to it. The one beside that is also barren.
She touches Frank's mug. Jerks her fingers back, waves them in the air. Hot. As if the steam had not forewarned her.
Trailing her fingers along the horizontal flats of desktops and the hipbone arches of chairs, Marcia moves up the aisle. Something rustles, and a chill creeps up her sleeve. She jolts back, and then whips her head around to make sure she didn't almost bump into someone.
Her gaze tracks down her arm to her hand. Follows the subtle rustling. Tension travels down her shoulders, fades away. Winnie Henderson's desk now sports a fan: blue plastic, sitting in a corner. It turns, lifting the top few pages of a document, drifting a draft across them, setting them back down with a rippling hiss. At the far end of its range, it sends a breeze against the cubicle wall. The breeze rebounds, sending a cold breath into the aisle.
Winnie's entering menopause. Everybody in the office has heard about hormones and the benefits of yams and meditation and herbal teas. Now Winnie's fight against hot flashes means that anyone who has to talk with her will freeze.
People. They never think beyond themselves. Marcia almost smiles. Only almost. As she steps away from the sound-generating fan, she shivers. It has nothing to do with the breeze.
It's eerie, being in the office during daylight hours, with no one else around. If it were late night or early morning, then the silence would be normal, but this? This is . . . spooky. No other word fits. Marcia is in The Haunted Office. She's faintly tempted to look for hidden cameras, in case this is a prank. The office has cameras anyway. The managers watch everything. How could she distinguish the normal from the weird?
A susurration of voices stirs the air around a corner. Marcia follows its trail. Everybody is clustered—not the executives, but everybody else, young and old, fit and flabby, secretaries and mail room clerks and account executives—around one desk. Their heads are bent toward a computer screen. Frank is on the edge of the desk, one haunch gracefully canted onto a corner, his spine canted toward the view, his gaze steady, his mouth unusually still. Three interns huddle into each other, whispering and shivering, delight and horror equal in their eyes.
Marcia steps slowly, the tray of liquids bridging unstable hands. She doesn't need to see what they're watching. She doesn't.
She draws nearer—just an inch. There. She hears it, between the whispers, the hisses and someone's giggle: thump, thook, thud. Dull sounds, sharp. Sightless, she knows the motions: heel back and rising; toe forward and down; backs shifting subtly and swiftly from side to side; arms moving as counterweights . . .
By the time the cups hit the ground, Marcia is streaking to the nearest toilet. "Excuse me," she hears Frank say.
One of the secretaries murmurs, "Poor Marcia. She's always been a tender little thing. It must be a trial, being so sensitive."
Frank knocks on the bathroom door. It's only a gesture; he opens the door even as he raps. His glance reiterates every comment he's made—and he has made many—about the room's light, cleanliness, and decor. Every inch of Frank's world deserves decor. His dark brown tie exactly matches his skin. Even after a morning commute to work, his light linen suit is spotless. His nails are buffed to brilliance.
Marcia has none of this precision in her. She loves it in her friend. What would she do if someone kicked him to death? It could happen to anyone. There is no safety.
Frank tugs the legs of his trousers, loosening fabric, allowing his knees to dip without stretching cloth or ruining a crisp crease. He lets the fabric touch nothing, keeping it unsullied, a weave of unmarred innocence.
'What does he call that color?' The thought floats across Marcia's mind, trailing words: smoked linen, bisque, ivory . . . A pale Asian face flashes between Marcia and the tiles. Vanishes. Frank folds his lanky legs, interposing an impeccably clad, lean-muscled torso between Marcia and her thoughts. Memories. A flash of anger seizes her: at Frank, at her colleagues, at thousands of unknown strangers. How can they treat death as entertainment? Do all of her friends—does everyone—watch snuff films in their free time? Dog fights? What is wrong with people?
"Honey . . ." Frank's voice is as deep as history, as soft as hope. He brushes a sick-slicked strand of hair back from Marcia's face. She feels it stick to cleaner strands.
In her peripheral vision, Frank winces at his fingers. He stretches a long arm to the sink, tugs a paper towel from a stack that never made it into the feeder, dampens it with warm water. He wipes her cheek and her hair before cleaning his fingers, keeping the moist towel between them, cleaning her as tenderly as a mortician preparing an infant for a family viewing. She shivers again.
"Are you running a fever?" Frank sets the front of his wrist against Marcia's forehead.
She leans into his gentleness. His shirt is soft. It might be silk. She'd ruin it if she cried. She wishes she could cry. He'd forgive her.
A brown spill of hair falls between her forehead and Frank's buttons. She hates the color. The way it hangs, a length of shadow. Hates the cut. It is inelegant. Blunt. Dull. She hates its shadow darkness, the way it drapes itself between her and comfort. Her shaking fingers move it out of the way, skimming it to the side. Her forehead feels naked, its uncovered skin vulnerable in the air. She rests it against cool fabric, a warm friend. He has switched colognes. The new one is smokier, saltier, more like him. Marcia exhales, draws breath again. She misses Frank's old scent. The loss of familiarity stings her, somewhere deep inside. The tears won't come.
"I don't feel sick." Her words settle between folds of fabric.
Frank wraps his hands around her arms, sits her upright, supporting her weight. Beneath arched black brows, his steady eyes asses her. He's too intelligent. He can see right through her. Always could.
She tries not to shake.
"A self-care day, that's what you need," he says. "A spa day. Get your hair done. Take a walk in the park. Find a nice tree and read in the shade. Turn your phone off, and don't think about anything. Just stay north of the border."
Frank and Marcia had calculated "the border" long ago. North of it, they were unlikely to run into anyone from work. South of it, there were offices, restaurants, health clubs, any number of places for getting-caught encounters. Would a "North of the Border Day" help her? Could it be that simple?
She lets her head tip forward again. A single button presses against her hairline. She will be marked: a third eye hidden behind brown shadows. "Honestly," she says, "I do feel less than perfect."
When her boss gives her the day off —No worries; it won't count against her holidays or sick days; take it easy and stay offline—Frank half-lifts her into a taxi, gives the driver her address, and tells him to choose a route that will minimize jostles and bumps.
The driver nods once, curtly, and peels out. He drives as if he were playing an old-fashioned pinball game, trying to hit every bounce and bumper.
Bitterness coats Marcia's throat. Ice ripples down from scalp to toe, leaving her skin as bumpy as a plucked chicken's, as sensitive as a baby left in the snow. Her stomach rises, knotting itself: bow, lanyard, braid. Small pains rake her. She heaves, leans her forehead against the glass, swallows. Holds her breath. Presses her fists up into the hollow that joins her ribs. Bones—hand and torso—protest. Her stomach yields against her knuckles. There is nothing left to lose; she holds only emptiness.
"Wait!" she gasps. "Turn here. Go downtown." She'll go there. If she can see the club, set foot near the scene, then maybe she can put all of this behind her.
His U-turn is audible. He hits a curb, almost clips a lamppost. Her head bumps against the window—only lightly, but it is enough to raise another fog of acid in her throat.
She does not tip him.
There is a handbag, a clutch, wide open, filled with greeting cards. There are flowers, candles, and notes. All of those things make sense, but there is also a plump toy: a velvety, pale blue bear made for a baby boy. The stuffed animal is made less incongruous by the addition of a gold lamé waistcoat. Maybe some silly soul thought of it as an escort for the dead girl's innocence. Mardi Gras beads form inverted rainbows, looping from one item to the next. Purple, green, and gold, they are gaudy and bright in the afternoon sunlight. The scene looks tacky.
In the evening, the club lights glitter. Their sparkling magic transforms the gritty street into a wonderland. She can almost call it to mind. Almost . . . Maybe she'll come back. Maybe . . . A triple beat patters inside her throat—her heart, hitting an extra pulse.
No. No, she will not return. This visit will have to do.
Marcia wants to kneel, but it would shred her hose. Squatting is problematical. She is wearing a pencil skirt.
She scoops the fabric close, smooths it against her haunches, cool and clean and tight, a shroud of cotton. As she lowers her hips, her hands flutter like dying butterflies against her knees. She reaches out, skims a finger along the edge of a white tulip's petal. The flower, too, shivers.
Her keyring clunks as she draws it out of her purse. Charms dangle among the keys: Minnie Mouse, from a trip to Disney World; a tiny replica of a $1,000 chip, marker of a bachelorette party in Vegas; a Statue of Liberty, one of the crown's seven prongs blue with spilled ink; a ballet dancer, the remnant of a childhood music box, held by cord knotted between the bent leg and the straight; a piece of sushi, no larger than a child's fingernail, a plastic reminder to try new things . . . Mementoes and promises and memories.
The dancer. It has to be the dancer. Marcia sets the thick red thread between her teeth and saws it back and forth. It snaps, finally, leaving a shred caught between her lower incisors. The pressure is small but maddening, like an itchy patch that is almost healed.
The charm is tiny. Where should she put it, so it won't be hidden? Inside a flower? No. In the bag? It would get lost in there. Prizing a thumbtack from a "Miss You" card pinned to the slab of cardboard that serves as a memorial wall, Marcia sticks the miniature doll against the board. The trinket inverts and dangles, a combination of the hanged man from a cheap tarot deck, a petrified woman, and a nightmare. Splayed, unmoving and un-protesting, it stares at her with blue-dot eyes. She yanks it away from the wall, fumbles it, snatches her hand back, afraid of grabbing the pin. She feels the dancer fall.
It takes two minutes, maybe three, for her to dig the doll out from below the flowers. A passing woman hisses a comment: "What is she doing? Is she stealing something?" Marcia ignores her, ignores the tearing of stockings (expensive stockings, too) on asphalt, and scrabbles for the tiny dancer. She breaks a fingernail, finding it.
After wiping the ballerina clean with a tissue, she wedges it at the top of the teddy bear's left leg, where the leg and body join. It's the closest thing to a soft lap the ad hoc memorial can provide. "Be safe," she whispers, knowing it's too late.
Numb unto sepia-tinted blindness, she walks to a bus stop, takes slow, diesel-scented public transportation home. All the way, she feels the shape of a plastic dancer against her thumb.
Seen through Marcia's living room window, the sliver of sunset is beautiful. The sky is a study in violets, reds, and golds. City windows dim from Mardi Gras bead toward night. On a nearby ledge, a pigeon coos. It sounds as if the bird were purring. The sounds and sights of peace . . . They irritate her. She turns her back on them. Her hair swings into her face. The new turquoise streak also annoys her. It is too vivid, too unsubtle. A whiff of bleach sways from the strands.
She brushes her gaze clear of brown and teal, then dips a finger onto the computer's keyboard, presses a key, clicks play.
The video is worse, unedited. On the night it happened, Maria had posted only two minutes and thirty-six seconds, but the full recording is seven minutes and fifty-eight: almost eight bruising minutes of partying and curb-side death. Marcia's computer is only a few months old. On the unmarked screen, the video is as clear as hindsight.
All she'd wanted was perfection. She had dieted off five pounds in order to fit into dress. It was the lavender of mist and fog, dreams and springtime. Her earrings were real amethysts. Enameled bracelets jangled on her wrists. Her heels were high enough to slim her ankles, low enough to support a night of dancing.
She had planned that evening for weeks. It was going to be her one big, splashy night out for the season. She was ready to capture every star-dusted moment—and she had plenty of moments in mind. She planned to be flirted with, kissed, and damned well courted by every straight stunner of a man in the house. She was not going to be an invisible office worker. No, she was out be seen.
From the start, it gleamed like a memorable outing, a night to remember, something too big for a keyring or ordinary life. The street was beautiful, the lights were beautiful, and the people were going to be beautiful. Marcia wanted to keep it all. Before leaving the house, she cleaned her phone's lens to brilliance and deleted every image, video and app she didn't need. Whoever said you couldn't bring time home, she was out prove them wrong.
Her stomach coils, uncoils, braids slowly and settles within the framework of her ribs. She stares at the screen, into time terminally captured.
It had been a brilliant night, at the beginning. Everybody in the thick snake of a line was painted and polished and shiny, dressed to the "Let me in first. Pick me!" nines. One girl was spectacular, slim and glittering. Asian. Young: early twenties. Maybe a student at the nearby college.
A constellation come to earth, she moved freely, slipping in and out of clusters of friends and strangers, light and sudden as . . . not a bunch of stars. An atom, as if she were expressing energy for all of them. She might have been a professional dancer, the way she pirouetted just out of the mob and back into its edge again. Her hair was bleached fresh-snow white with one ice-blue streak. Her skin was the color of barely toasted brioche. Her eyeshadow caught the light of the street lamps, etching the curve of her brow against the night. Pale sun and winter blue, the makeup reflected the streak of hair-dye and the glittery gold lame of the 1960s vintage mini-dress. If that had cost a fortune, then it was worth it. If it had been a steal, then the girl was a master thief of shopping.
Clothing loved her. She was tiny—maybe ninety-eight pounds, not even a hundred—maybe four-foot-eleven, at a guess, if you took away her stilettos. It wasn't the height of heels, though, that made her legs look like forever. That illusion was due to muscle and grace.
As Marcia watches the video, the past consumes the present. She can almost feel uneven pavement beneath her feet, smell the scent of nearby perfume and passing diesel. The events of the night surround her, becoming now. Alive to the moment, she watches the dancer sway into the waiting crowd and out. Smiles gleam, some of them too brightly. Feet move to anticipated music. The queue shifts, a restless animal.
Nearer the corner, closer to the door, a cluster of friends—buzzed-drunk, not loud-drunk—laugh and sway. One stumbles away from the rest, or is gently pushed to where the others want her to stand. She turns, lifts a smartphone in a cerise glitter case, tries to hold it level and stable, and laughs at her failure. With a wave of an unsteady hand, she directs her friends to cluster closer together. They wrap arms around waists and shoulders, tilt heads, smile for the camera, smile for life and joy and music.
And the girl swoops between them, between photographed and photographer (or videotaped and videographer—Marcia was not the only one recording videos that night) and onward, lithe and free in her atom-dance. She twirls in an easy pirouette, arms out-flung, face tipped upward toward the sky. Her hair is a blizzard in a curling wind. The blue streak moves like hail slicing snow.
A few steps from her, a pink phone slaps into a purse, a voice calls out in anger.
The swirling girl does not hear it, has no reason to connect its fury with her grace.
On both sides, now, smiles dropping into frowns, laughter clumping into curses. Only when a woman— not the phone-owner, but one of the girls who had been posing—grabs her shoulder—only then does the dancer realize something is wrong. She opens her mouth (to apologize? to question? in expectation of shared delight?), and it falls open wider when a fist connects with her stomach. Closes when another strikes her jaw. And then a handbag—red, holding a hard-cased pink telephone—rises upward, gleams in the lamplight, and arcs down.
Marcia's phone caught it all.
She was not alone in this. Her jaw ticks as she reminds herself of this, the muscles on the left knotting and unknotting. She was not alone. Others had done it, too. She had seen them, with their phones held high or clutched before wide eyes. Some people had taken videos to the police; that much had made the news. Others had kept silence.
Marcia had placed her content carefully. Clever with computers, she had added distance and misdirection. No one would find her. Nobody would ever know which city she was in, much less who had uploaded that video.
Other digital witnesses had been caught and questioned, pelted with blame and resentment. Maria was safe. Untraceable. Uncatchable. Uncaught.
A chill takes her.
She closes her eyes. Her ears catch sounds of passing traffic, in the street and in the video. Her memory is as clear as the recording, although the digital is—must be—beginning to inform, reform her mind. How much did she witness in the instant, and what has become certain through reiteration? Marcia no longer knows. Eyes closed or open, she sees them: people, sparkling, alert, eager to be excited, impatient, trying not to show it, striving to seem cool, to look good enough, to be good enough. In each glance, assessment, admiration, envy, dismissal. Lust.
The queue stretches to the next street and bends out of sight. There must be hours of people trailing. Tinny in the video, the pounding of music from the club, each bass note audible even through the walls, asynchronous and relentless. The sounds of voices: passing in the hallway; lingering, in the footage. Laughter—daylight sober, in the building and the street; tipsy or hyper, through the computer's speakers.
In her mind, rising: "Poor Marcia . . . always tender . . . It must be a trial . . ."
Hands striking in anger. The sound is sharp and quick against skin, muffled where fabric intervenes.
How would you orchestrate that, if you were a composer? What instrument could ape that sound? The distinction between open-toed shoes against muscle and closed toes against bone. Percussion? Stone? Wood striking wood?
"Poor Marcia . . . tender . . trial . . ." The pauses, lengthening, inside and out. "Poor Marcia . . . Marcia . . . trial . . . Marcia, trial. Marcia. Trial."
Flesh against pavement. A flag of pale hair surrendering, dropping out of sight, body giving in to gravity. Shadows and light. Pendulums of feet. Relentless drumming.
Marcia blears at the screen. Sees stillness. The video is over. More than four million hits now. Nothing moving. Nothing sounding. Still, in her head, deeper than dreams or waking, that cryless fall. The dance nobody had come for.
She doesn't read the comments. She learned that lesson quickly. Some viewers are sick with violence. Some are obsessed with the dead girl's clothing. In endless conversations, they chat about where to shop to replicate her style, makeup and all. Most discuss the violence, often in dismaying detail. A few write as if they were crime scene investigators. They probably wish they were. More than a few decry the voyeurism in which they are participants. Of those, many berate Marcia, although they don't know who she is. Some (She would bet on it.) are police.
Distant sirens moan, the sound outside slightly preceding the tinnier one captured by Marcia's telephone. Onscreen, the beaters stop stomping. Their faces lift, turn, seek the source of the noise. In visible flickers of animal intelligence, they assess the distance between them and approaching retribution. An exchange of panicked glances—no remorse, no thought, but only instinct. Their eyes are wide and wild. As if they were a unit, a pack, they move. They're quick to vanish from the screen.
Marcia isn't slower, but her direction differs. Her phone swings over the pavement, the visible tolling of a silent bell, as she runs, joining half of the line in a mob near the club door. There, they will pretend to have seen nothing of the (owning it, even as they run from it) crime. The other half of the queue disperses. Home, to coffee shops, to the police (who will want to know why they left the scene), to whatever elsewhere give them distance enough for conversation and not obligation. A few stay, kneeling by the girl's motionless body. Someone calls the police. More than one someone. Too late. All too late. Someone tries to steal the girl's purse. A man grabs it back, drops it by her side.
These details unfolded later, when reality became commentary.
She turns off the computer. Turns off the phone (three calls and seventeen text messages from Frank; four calls from Marcia's mother). Swallows two aspirin, one sleeping pill, a glass of water. Sits in the chair, looking at nothing, watching the girl die—forward and backward, fall and rise, end and be remade—over and over. The rhythm of the beating is bitter in her throat.
Another night between then and now, and she cannot tell whether she is waking or dreaming. The dead girl is lucky. For her, this is over. For Marcia, it will never end.
For a moment, she hates herself, wishes herself also dead. What an awful thing to think. What an awful …
If her friends knew—all of them, watching that video—if they knew that she had recorded it, they would despise her. No more "tender" or "sensitive". She'd probably be fired. They'd find an excuse, a reason. She'd certainly be shunned.
But what else could she have done? She couldn't have stopped it. She was only one person. She had done everything she could. Everything she could. Everything.
She has been staring at the dark screen for so long, her eyes are tearing. She has forgotten how to blink. Her fingers grope for distraction, find her keyring. At the far edge of her awareness, her hand clutches the keys so tightly that they have no room to rattle, and turns the packet (keys, charms, memories) around and around. It is an old habit, born of fretfulness. She hasn't done it since adolescence, since her school days. Key. Charm. Her thumb traces Minnie Mouse's ear, moves along. Key. Ridged like a tooth, a dent sharp against her thumb: front door, bottom lock. La Liberté, ink stain blank to the fingers, unreadable. Around and around, a tumble of familiarity. Marcia's breath catches. Her lip slides between her teeth. They press together, hard. She knows that isn't why she's crying. For a moment, she pretends it is.
In the back of her mind, in the hollows of her bones: the smacks of fists on skin, shoes against bones, girl sprawled on pavement, shadow and glitter, life and violence.
She did everything anyone could do.
Her thumb moves. Keys roll. Threads twine around sensitive fingertips and slide away. Next. Next. Next. Shapes and shadows pound between her eyes, over her nose, where the bone is concave between bridge and brow. The pain feels like salt and pressure and ancient, rotted grief. Hard object. Soft thread—soft, but strong enough to cut off circulation. Nothing cold now. Everything warmed by her touch and her hot, moving blood. Next. Next. She is alive. Next. Gambling chip. Eiffel Tower, one stanchion broken off, lost to time and happenstance. Key. Yale. Deadbolt, sticky but functional. Charm. Charm. Key.
Her fingers are looking for the dancer, but the dancer isn't there.