The shadow struck, morphing into a large, black figure before it dissipated into two people. One of them was alive, while the other collapsed onto the marble tiles below them. A crimson pool formed at their head, surrounding the body—which had landed face-first—like a halo.
Raia stifled a gasp, pressing her fist to her mouth as she peeked through the blinds of her window and into her neighbour’s bedroom. Her heart pounded against her chest as the cowardly part of her mind demanded that she return to bed and slip away into a realm of nothingness before someone caught her.
She shouldn’t have been awake at this hour. Her parents would kill her for being up late on a school night, if the criminal in Mr. Sei’s bedroom didn’t get to her first. But someone was hurting Mr. Sei—or at least, that’s who she assumed the body belonged to—and it was up to her to save her neighbour.
Splintered wood poked the palms of her hands as she gripped the window sill, weighing her choices. In Baltimore, reporting a crime was nothing less than having a death wish. From a young age, she’d learn to look away and pretend as if she didn’t hear the gunshots or the cries that echoed in the darkest parts of the night. Her parents expected her to know this. They had engraved it into her head since she was a baby and had her repeat it every day since last year, when she was finally allowed to walk to school on her own, especially because of the neighbourhood she lived in.
Yet, this time, the victim was Mr. Sei. Sweet, old Mr. Sei who baked her cookies during the holidays and gave her presents on Christmas, even though her family didn’t celebrate the day. Last year, he had gifted her a bicycle. This year, she speculated that it would be a camera. However, now there would be no present if he ceased to exist.
Before she could carry on with her dilemma, the intruder in Mr. Sei’s house turned toward the window, glancing right at her. She should have pulled away. But terror seized her, tethering her in place. The intruder’s face was covered by a black ski mask, only their eyes visible. Broad, slouched shoulders were wrapped in a black turtleneck, and they wore pants with bottoms that dragged across the floor. Sterile lights glared down at them as the blood slithered across the floor, wrapping around their black combat boots.
They lifted a finger to their lips, like shushing her. Then they drew the curtains, blocking her view. At last, Raia pulled back, with the blinds falling back into place with a soft grunt. She panted, as if having run a marathon, pressing her back upright against the wall of her bedroom.
They would come for her now. They had seen her.
Mr. Sei’s back lights flickered on. Raia curled her fingers into tight fists, digging her nails into her skin. She waited, hearing a loud thump as if something—someone—was being dragged across the backyard steps. Raia’s mind protested, but she willed her body to turn, making out the figures digging through the dirt.
This time, she didn’t wait to be caught. She ran toward her bed. Raia stumbled, a sting ringing through her hips when she bumped into her nightstand. She cursed, staggering onto her bed as tears sprung to her eyes.
She wanted to report Mr. Sei’s murder, yet she was afraid and sensible, unlike Ayla Bey, who had reported a gang bang last year. The teenager had been a hero for a whole week before someone broke into her house and killed her entire family.
Raia didn’t want to die. She wanted to live. She wanted her parents and brother to be all okay. So, she forced herself to remain in bed, even when the dead whispered against her window. Even when it felt like Mr. Sei, himself, towered over her, his soul desperately begging for help, for justice.
Terror washed over her like waves crashing onto the shore. Parts of her whimpered and begged, demanding to report the crime. Yet, she didn’t get up. It was after all a matter of choosing between the dead and alive, and the decision had been made.
Raia’s feet dragged across the floor, her eyelids drooping with every step she took toward the kitchen island. She slumped down in her seat, stifling a yawn.
“Everything okay?” Mother asked, placing a bowl of cereal in front of her.
She nodded, lowering her gaze. Her thoughts tangled themselves into a delicate web, spiralling on and on, without any expectations to stop. They wouldn’t end. And no matter how many times she convinced herself that she was benefiting her family by staying quiet, some part of Raia knew she had to report what she’d seen.
Raia squeezed her eyes tightly, fighting the headache that threatened to take over, focusing her attention on the words she was hearing. Her father had turned on the TV in the living room, letting the news play in the background as he yelled at Mikael to hurry up or he’d be late to school. The news anchor droned on about a robbery in Stoneleigh.
Sometimes she was angry with her parents for living in Baltimore, whatever their reasons were. And if they had moved to Baltimore, why live in a bad neighbourhood like Cherry Hill? Until last night, she hadn’t truly given thought to everything bad about the place she lived in. She didn’t have to think about it when she had good people surrounding her. Yet, now the bad had slipped in through one of the cracks, slowly enveloping her.
Mr. Sei was one of the only kind people she knew in this area. Now he was gone. And there was nothing about him on the news, even though he deserved to be acknowledged for all the good he’d done in the neighbourhood. It was better than reporting mundane robberies.
But as the news continued to play, she finally opened her eyes, glancing at the black screen. The description of the robber rang multiple bells in her head, reminding her of Mr. Sei’s murderer. The robber had been dressed in a ski mask, had slouched shoulders and carried a duffle bag. These similarities couldn’t have been a coincidence.
Could it be that the robber was the murderer?
If that was the case, then she needed to find a way to connect them both and for that to happen, she needed to visit the crime scene.
Cold air bit at her skin once she stepped outside, pricking her skin like tiny needles. The world was eerily quiet, every so often disrupted by the wind that cut through the leaves and collided against the houses on the street. No one had noticed Mr. Sei’s lack of presence on his porch. Every morning he would wave at them, wishing them the best at school. This morning, no one but emptiness greeted them.
She swallowed a hard lump at the sight of his house. The backyard perhaps harboured his dead body that would soon decay, burrowed with insects and ashen skin full of gaping holes. A stone bed rested on both sides of the concrete pathway, lined with withering flowers and roses, leading to the porch steps. The front yard was held in the safety of a black picket fence, embracing the narrow and long building. A “For Sale” sign marked the front lawn.
Apparently, Mr. Sei was in debt and was selling his house because he could no longer pay for it. And yet, he never failed to give Raia and Mikael presents for Christmas.
Mikael barely noticed, continuing on as he drowned on about how one of his friends wanted to pull the fire alarm at school. They were almost at the end of the street when Raia heard the familiar voice.
“Have fun at school!” someone shouted.
Her head snapped in the direction of the source, eyes widening as she made out Mr. Sei’s slouched figure, like a distant dot miles away.
Her heart lurched at the sight of him. The world slowed, every noise, and dust particles faded into the background. He hadn’t changed at all, even though it felt like it had been years since she’d last seen him.
She ran. She ran until she was steps away from him. Mr. Sei’s bald head glinted under the sun’s gaze, matching his bright smile.
“Mr. Sei,” Raia whispered. Then she beamed, and repeated louder, “Mr. Sei, you’re alright.”
Mr. Sei pulled out a cigarette but didn’t light it as he placed it between his chapped lips. He chuckled, leaning his weight against the balcony. “Why would I not be?”
Raia frowned. Though he had Mr. Sei’s chocolate brown eyes and potbelly—which Mikael used to say was filled with children—this couldn’t be her neighbour. Mr. Sei didn’t smoke in front of Raia. Neither was he ever late when bidding her farewell. Could it be that an evil twin murdered Mr. Sei and took his place?
Raia took a step back from the murderer.
He pulled the cigarette out of his lips, a small smile playing on his lips. “Everything okay, Raia? You look a little shocked.”
She shook her head. When Raia turned, she almost bumped into Mikael, who stood behind her, waving at their neighbour. She grabbed his hand, sprinting down the street and toward the bus stop.
Mikael loosened her grip on his wrist, staring at her with furrowed brows. “What’s wrong?”
Raia pressed a hand to her pounding heart, recalling the sight of Mr. Sei. This wasn’t possible. No, not at all. “The man’s not Mr. Sei. He died last night.”
“Raia,” Mikael started, shaking his head, “don’t be silly. Mr. Sei’s alive.”
“Mikael, I’m not joking. Come with me. I need to go investigate the robbery in Stoneleigh. I think the intruder came here and killed Mr. Sei. Now he’s taken his place. It makes no sense I understand, but maybe this is his twin.”
He ran a hand through his hair, black curls falling onto his forehead. “We’re going to skip school?”
“Well, yes but-”
Mikael grinned. “I’m in. Let’s go investigate.”
The houses on Stoneleigh sat on steep hills with white stones and roads clean of litter. Green and yellow leaves stretched across the branches, kissed by late fall. When people walked by, they smiled and sometimes offered a wave, unlike Cherry Hill, where everyone sought security in the comfort of their broken homes.
The house Raia was in search of sat beneath an unbroken cloud, silent and dark as if marked by death. She and Mikael hurried up the front porch. Raiya knocked on the door, then stepped back.
The door opened soon after, a short and slightly obese woman with curly brown hair and soft features, greeting them at the door. “Hello, how may I help you?”
Raia cleared her throat, her hands fisted by her side as she said, “We’re doing this journalism project for school and heard about the robbery that happened here. Do you mind if we ask you a couple of questions?”
She regarded them for a long, quiet moment. “What do you want to know?”
Dryness clawed at Raia’s throat. She swallowed before continuing. “Would you be able to tell us anything about the intruder? What they looked like? Anything they said or did?”
“Well, dunno. He wore a mask. Slouched shoulders and oh, he carried a duffle bag which had a yellow stripe on it. The asshole had a gun but didn’t shoot. Said he needed the money and left.”
A frown pulled at Raia’s lips. Had the murderer simply want to rob Mr. Sei’s house as well? Or was there something else Raia didn’t understand?
She peeked through her blinds and into Mr. Sei’s bedroom—the lights were turned on—searching for blood. But if there had been blood on the tiles the night before, it had been scraped clean, removing any evidence of the heinous crime.
Raia waited for Mr. Sei and her family members to fall asleep before she sneaked out of her house with a flashlight as her guide, and into Mr. Sei’s backyard which was separated by a small picket fence. She climbed over it; her fall cushioned by the plants. Raia approached the area she’d seen him last night, when he’d been attempting to hide the evidence of his crime.
She crouched, dropping the flashlight by her side. With a twig, Raia dug through the dirt, as fast as a dog searching for a bone. The grass itched at her legs, as a breeze ran its talon along Raia’s figure.
Her fingers tingled, nervous and fearful all the same, feeling as if a thousand feathers brushed against her, softly tickling her skin. She pulled her dirt covered hands back, grabbing her flashlight when Raia touched fabric. A yellow stripe ran across the top, enclosing around the tightly knotted drawstring.
She sucked in a sharp breath, pulling at the string until the bag opened, revealing the contents inside. White notes with unfamiliar faces stared back at her, and jewelry glinted under the flashlight. Raia had found the dead body.
Mr. Sei kneeled in his backyard, large gloves over his hands as he shovelled through the dirt, planting seeds. A stray cat crawled toward him, watching him carefully, as if it viewed him as a threat. He smiled, whispering something to the cat then scratched its head before his gaze met Raia’s, who stood in his backyard.
The odd man pressed a finger to his lips, as if they had just shared a secret, binding them together. Hadn’t the murderer in Mr. Sei’s bedroom done the same?
Raia’s hands dug in the pockets of her jeans as she approached him.
“I know what you’ve done, Mr. Sei,” Raia whispered, hovering over him like a cloud blocking out the sun rays. His place smelt strange, no longer carrying the smell of roses and fresh summer days. Instead it was contaminated by lies and deceit and the smell of something evil. It smelt rotten, like dead bodies—like how Mr. Sei’s dead body would smell if it was buried around here.
The smile on his face widened, appearing as if someone had used their fingers to stretch his lips. “And what have I done?”
“Something bad. You’re not nice Mr. Sei. You’re someone else.”
For a moment he stared straight ahead, refusing to meet her gaze. Something about his appearance looked pained. Disturbed, even. His lips parted then closed, and whatever thought that had crossed his mind, never formed into words. Finally, he turned to her. His eyes crinkled as he softly smiled, hurt passing over his features, along with something else. Something Raia could not decipher. “Nice people can do bad things.”
“You’re not nice.”
He touched his face, the action leaving a patch of dirt on his cheek, like a teardrop. “I did what I needed to to survive. Now the question is, what are you going to do about it, Raia?”
His words echoed in her mind all the way down the street and to the bus stop. Even when she got on the bus and drove to another neighbourhood, she could still hear him. When she stopped at a phone booth, his voice rang in her ears, speaking softly as he said, “Nice people can do bad things.”