At first I think she is a doll. Sitting there so still on the floor in her pink dress, chubby legs sticking out from her diaper, big black eyes unblinking, staring at something I can’t see. A ribbon hangs loose in her hair. Something that looks like chocolate is smeared around her mouth and one cheek.
The front door is only open wide enough to frame her small body in the dim light. I can’t see the rest of the room.
“Mrs. Martin?” The words echo in the silent apartment. At my voice, the baby turns her head toward me in what seems like slow motion. Even though the apartment door was ajar when I arrived, something stops me from pushing it open more. My hand hangs in the air, frozen. The rhythmic drip of a faucet is eerily loud. And something smells funny. Off. A smell I recognize but cannot place. A smell that increases my unease.
“Are you in there, Mrs. Martin? It’s Gabriella Giovanni from the Bay Herald. We spoke yesterday.”
As if my voice has flicked a switch, the child moves and talks, babbling. “Mamamama. Maaamamama.” She picks something up. Something floppy and pale and long. Something with short red fingernails. An arm.
A wave of panic rises in me as I figure out what I smell.
Blood. Urine. Feces. Death.
I nudge the door open. My hand flies to my mouth.
Blood oozes across the floor, seeping in puddles around bodies lying helter-skelter. Seemingly too many bodies to count. But I do. Clinically. Subconsciously. Five dead bodies. Because for sure they are all dead. No one could survive those gaping, slashing wounds.
I don’t turn my head. Only my eyes dart around the room, taking it all in. My legs turn into mush and I grab the doorknob to support myself, worried I’ll collapse onto the floor. The sound of the dripping faucet seems magnified and is suddenly, extraordinarily loud.
The girl chants, “Mamamamama.” She drops the arm and it makes a slapping sound as it hits the scratched wooden floor. I nudge the door wider with my knee. The arm belongs to a woman in a green dress lying facedown. The child tugs at the woman’s shiny black hair, as if trying to wake her or get her to lift her head. A sticky pool of dried blood ripples out from the woman’s torso.
Directly in front of me, another woman, older with white hair, is spread eagle on her back, her stomach slashed open, insides strewn on the floor beside her. One arm reaches toward the door. Across from her, an elderly man is slumped on the couch, a wide gash across his neck yawns open, revealing pink and red and something white. What looks to be a teenage boy’s body is propped up against the far wall, as if he were taking a break, resting, but the top of his head is matted with something awful looking. Bloody slash marks stripe the boy’s arms — defensive wounds. The clinical term jumps into my mind. There is also a blond woman slumped in the corner, eyes staring at nothing.
Drip. Drip. Drip. The noise from the faucet sounds distorted. Everything seems to be in slow motion.
I’ve lost track of time. My feet remain planted in the doorway, stuck, frozen. Fear crawls up my neck. How long have I been standing here? A tiny part of me is tempted to get out my notebook and take notes, but I push it aside. Get the baby.
She holds up a bottle and looks at me “Baba?”
The word releases me from the spell, making the drip of the faucet sound normal again. I carefully choose my footing, stepping over the body of the white-haired woman. Her eyes stare up at me as I pass.
Up close, what I thought was chocolate on the baby’s face is dried blood. Her tiny fingers are covered in it. She holds up her bottle to me again. “Baba?”
Good God, how long has she been here? But I know it can’t have been more than a day. I spoke to Mrs. Martin yesterday afternoon. At the time, I’d heard a baby in the background squealing with delight. Maria Martin apologized for the noise, and laughed, saying her ten-month-old was just learning how to use her vocal chords effectively.
Scooping the child up in my arms, I head to the bathroom. The shower curtain is open. Inside the tub is a large open window without a screen. Cold air hits my face from the ocean breeze streaming in.
Wetting a washcloth I find near the sink, I dab at the child’s face. She shakes her curls to get away, but I scrub until finally her cheeks are pink – not black with dried blood. One-by-one I work on her tiny fingers, even though she tries to pull them away, soaping them until the basin is full of pink suds swirling down the drain.
Once the water turns clear, I dry her face and hands and head back into the kitchen. Balancing the girl on my hip, I tug on the refrigerator door with a trembling hand. Vaguely, I realize I’m leaving my fingerprints all over a murder scene. I smell the milk before rinsing out her bottle and filling it.
Once it is full and the nipple screwed back on, the girl snatches it and gulps, her head tilted back, eyes on me. At the same time, her other hand reaches up to my hair, tugging on a strand until she has it wrapped and twirled around her chubby fingers.
With her balanced on my hip, I head for the bedroom, crowded with a bed, a crib, and a dresser. The girl watches me solemnly with big black eyes as I lay her on the bed and change her diaper. She lifts her legs to make my job easier. “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay,” I coo as I gently wipe away all the dried feces stuck to her legs. I strip off her bloody dress and maneuver her into a tiny pair of flowered footie pajamas lying near the crib.
All the while I’m blocking out what is in the living room. I’m pushing back the reporter voice in my head describing the scene. I ignore what else I should be doing. Something important. Once I get the baby changed, the smell reminds me.
But first I need to get out of here. I focus on the front door. With the child in my arms, I step across and around bodies, making my way through the carnage. Finally, after what seems like forever, I’m in the hall.
I close the door to the apartment behind me and slump to the floor. I bury my face in her curls for a moment before reaching into my bag.
My fingers are shaking as I punch in the numbers. 9-1-1.
It is all I can manage. I don’t even hold the phone up to my ear as it rings. A sign above me on the wall shows all the emergency exits in the building. I stare at it, wondering which one the killer took to escape. Beside me, a small box has the UPS logo on it. It is addressed to Maria Martin. The return address is Babies “R” Us.
The girl snuggles into my neck and chest slurping the rest of her bottle with loud sucking noises. She holds a strand of my hair, twisting it in her fingers and pressing her body close to mine. In the distance, from what seems like a place far-removed, I hear a small voice.
“911. . .911? What is your emergency? This is 911. . . State your emergency please.”
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