Every Saturday, I take the bus across town to visit my cousin. We sort of grew up together, only Arnold grew up wrong. I figure he must've gotten messed up along the way, because now he never leaves his apartment. So I bring him groceries and collect the rent from his tenants. I take in his newspapers, mail out his bills. In my mind, it makes up for all the times I pushed him around when we were kids. And I guess he appreciates it somewhere in there, because he's never asked me to leave.
This Saturday, it's raining. I make a dash from the bus shelter to my cousin's apartment building, cradling the paper grocery bags in my arms like children. I eventually find the door to room 105. (He had the door painted to look like the rest of the wall. He was always strange, even when we were kids.)
I barge in like always, eager to set the heavy grocery bags down on the kitchen table. Arnold's sitting on that disgusting couch like he always is. (Honestly, the thing is probably infested.) I greet him with a friendly "Hey, Arn! How're you feeling today?" I'm pleasantly surprised when he replies, "Hi, Jan." His voice is raspy, like it's covered in dust from infrequent use.
He gets up off the couch. The joints in his legs crack sharply, not quite ready to support what little weight he has. His once thick, curly locks are falling out in clumps, while his weak, scraggly facial hair seems to grow in uneven patches. He stands up straight for the first time in the last eighteen visits, and I suddenly realize I'd forgotten just how tall he is. He stretches his arms wide, and loud cracks travels up his spine.
"You've gotta get outside." I tell him as he slumps back into the couch. But I often say things to that effect, and he usually doesn't answer. This time, though, he looks right at me and says, "I think it's better that I stay home." I don't say anything and just focus on putting the groceries in his fridge. After a moment, he speaks again.
"It's not safe out there, Janet. Do you know what they do to people?" Without looking up, I tell him no, I don't know what they do to people.
He goes silent, but it's different than his usual silence. I look over at him. He's taken off his glasses and he's cleaning them with the hem of his shirt. I go over and sit next to him on the couch. "Do you want to talk about it?" I ask cautiously. He doesn't nod or anything, but merely says, "Let me tell you how dangerous it is. God, I'm so glad I stayed home."
I can't remember the last time he spoke this much at once. Is he finally opening up to me? Maybe I can get him the help he needs. He reaches for the cardboard box where he keeps his newspapers until he gets tired of them and lets me throw them away. He pulls out some folded up little squares of newspaper and unfolds it with trembling fingers. I watch silently.
He places the newspaper clippings on his lap, but he doesn't even glance at them as he speaks. "Phoebe Terese was twenty-six last Wednesday."
"Oh?" I say, "She's our age. Did you know her?"
He bites his lip and gives me a long look. Then he adjusts his glasses and goes on, eyes focused on a spot in the wall.
"It was Miss Terese's birthday. It says she hadn't told anybody except for her boyfriend. I don't remember his first name. He was an asshole though, I'm sure of it, because she was one of those nice girls destined to up with assholes."
"She grew up in a sheltered home, you know? She never grew out of that sweet innocence. And she was ambitious as hell, I'm sure. I bet she thought that if she went out worked hard and did her best, she'd be rewarded in the end. But you and I know better, Jan. We know that isn't what happens. That's why it's better, sometimes, to just stay away from all that." I wonder if he's making this stuff up, or if he really knew this girl. Arnold was always a little weird, but he wasn't crazy. Maybe cabin fever finally got to him.
"Anyway, she went in to the office like it was any other day. She was a secretary, see, and she was a hard worker. She always was."
I repeat the name to myself. "Phoebe Terese, Phoebe Terese…" I'm sure I've heard it before. I look to my cousin.
"Who is she?" He ignores my question and goes on talking.
"So she went into work on her birthday, and she worked hard all day, of course, because she always works hard. And maybe her boss told her she was up for a promotion in no more than five years. And she just smiled and tried to look excited, because that's the sort of person she was, Jan."
I keep my mouth shut and just listen now as he finally reads from the first newspaper clipping. "Phoebe Terese, aged twenty-six, went missing this Wednesday evening…" I listen as he reads through the short piece, which simply describes Miss Terese and urges the reader to keep an eye out for her.
"Alright," I say. "So, did they find her?"
Arnold waves his hand. "I'm getting there." He picks up the next newspaper clipping, but doesn't read straight off it. Rather, he sort of glances at it as he speaks, like he's checking the facts.
"They found her yesterday. Or, they found pieces of her. Uh," his voice shakes. "They're still not sure who did it. She could have stayed home for her birthday. And if she had, she'd still be alive and going to work every day and being too goddamn ambitious and patient and nice."
I place a hand on his bony shoulder. "Phoebe Terese." I say finally. "I remember her." Arnold nods and pushes his glasses up his nose.
"Yeah, she went to our elementary school. Well, my elementary school, after you moved. She was in charge of the class pet, I think…" I pat his back gently.
"Come on, Arn, you hadn't seen her since we were kids. There's nothing you could have done."
"I know but…shit, if only I could've talked to her. Maybe I could've taught her how to be safe. I could've told her that all that ambition gets you nowhere, and it's really better to just go nowhere in the first place."
I get up off the couch and start making him lunch. Maybe he'll never leave, but at least he thinks he's safe.