(noun) | rho-po–gra-pher
Etymology/Definition: Surface etymology is rhopos- + -graphy + -er, together meaning “someone who studies/depicts everyday (esp. ephemeral) items.” From ροπός (ropós, “trivial objects, small wares, trifles”) + γράφω (gráphō, “I write”).
I hadn’t seen my sister’s face since the Netflix Original exposé released a few years back. I’d lied to my wife and friends and said I didn’t watch it. For my own sanity, I said, but her features were slipping then as now and I worried that without it I’d forget too much. All it did was corrupt my memory of her—a memory of high angles and dramatic lighting, all stunned and manufactured admission. Mom and I theorized once that she was hiding out in Tokyo, or maybe Shanghai, or São Paulo. Something like that. She’d retired young with millions, after all, despite her disgrace. So then, when I received a letter signed Abigail Adelweis with a return address in rural Tennessee, I about fell out of my chair. Jet-setting soccer star turned Great Smoky Mountains recluse? Some kind of extradition loophole I was unaware of? The letter clarified none of this. It was brief and handwritten, signed with what looked like an old, waterlogged BIC pen. Bureaucrat blue, the lines cutting in and out. Dear Orin, to Bringing it all together, Abigail. She apologised for not contacting me sooner. Did not reference the incident. Asked me if I’d like to visit, if I’d bring anything I could find from Mom’s house. She repeated the word anything. Like she would’ve taken trash.
With a trunk containing exactly two suitcases—one mine, another stuffed with random attic objects from Mom’s—I sped down the autumn-leafed country highway towards a wistful tourist town off the eastern, glitzy shadow of Gatlinburg. The trees, gold-brown and flannel-red, crowned around the asphalt for miles, leaves billowing in the downhill gusts. When they finally broke, I emerged into Magarac Valley, the wide-openness hitting sudden, saturated, and colorful: the brush the same as the trees and impressionist mountainsides, towering over me and this little pocket of grassland like the edges of a bowl. This interior expanse was cordoned off with rakish lines of black, wispy trees; the cabins, and trailheads, and a surprising number of cemeteries stuck to the edge as if afraid of being caught out in the open. It was early evening. The astringent scent of wet earth and smoke became steadily more pungent.
I stopped in at the Visitors’ Center, a collection of too-nice Appalachian relics—a stark white schoolhouse, peeling barn, waterwheels, hunker fences. A few families lingered in their puffy coats and took pictures, barely noticing me. I asked the attendant inside if she knew where Abigail Adelweis lived.
She said, “Oh, Abigail, Abigail. Hmm. Yes,” and flipped over a flyer for the Baptist church down the street (that had just completed renovations, it said) and scrawled out a map to the prop, its line diverging from what little I knew of the major roads.
“Say, you her boyfriend or something? Hope you’re not a bill collector,” she said, not handing it over yet.
“I’m her brother.”
“Strange, she never mentioned family.”
I drove five minutes to the southeast corner of the town, stopping by a half-crumbled brick wall to check my position against the map. Far off in the distance, a helicopter chopped sunset beams up against the cloudy horizon. I turned onto the unmarked dirt road that the map indicated, doing my best to drive slowly in the grooves, night descending, my brights on and doing little against the twisting path. Bugs swarmed. The sky was the color of wet coffee grounds by the time I arrived in another opening: smaller, two acres max. A peeling mansion braced against the far treeline with no lights in the windows, a smaller cabin up front. I parked the car but left it running, headlights casting the cabin in a medical glow. There was a small garden to the side. Cabbage, cauliflower, and collards all smattered like toys in a sandbox.
I lingered by the car, unsure. Was I supposed to knock? Call out? I started towards the cabin.
“Hey!” she yelled, rustling through the brush behind the car. I twisted with my hand up to shield my eyes, the headlights obscuring her until she walked all the way up to me. “Why did you—oh, fuck it. It’s good to see you.”
She pulled me into a hug that smelled like her and didn’t. A familial kind of smell, years of changes all mixed in with the Magarac ambience. Her hair was longer, scragglier, her pointy cheekbones dulled by sun-dried red dirt. Tennessee ochre. I was so used to her the way she was many years ago as I was growing up. Ponytailed. Put together. Crisp. The exposé makers didn’t have to work hard to make her threatening, way back then.
“I bet you’re hungry,” she said.
“Should I pull up closer to the main house?”
“What? Oh no, it’s—I live here.” She gestured over her shoulder to the cabin that looked like the bolthole of a 21st century Unabomber. “The big house is under construction.”
There was no sign of construction from the outside.
The cabin had that musty, cool sense of comfort so easily conveyed by wood paneling and shelves full of tchotchkes. Little white tags hung from each. We pulled in the suitcases, leaving the one full of mom’s attic loot by the door and taking the other to the guest room. She finished cooking the casserole in the oven, boiled water for pine needle tea, chit-chatted (though without saying much). A stack of The Magarac Herald reclined by the door.
“Still a vegetarian?” I asked, over dinner. The food was surprisingly good.
“Unless I hunt it myself, yeah.”
“You? Shooting deer? With a gun?”
“What?” She leaned over her plate. “Is that so ridiculous?”
“Yes, in fact. It is. I saw you cry over stepping on a snail once.”
“Snails don’t have a population problem. And they taste like snot with a sea salt garnish.”
Snot? We laughed together for the first time since we were small.
After dinner, we lingered a little while, nursing our drinks. We probed a bit, coming near to a real conversation, but I was too nervous and she didn’t seem inclined and the hiss of the radiator filled the silence—well enough, anyways. There was no TV to cover the bugs and other night creatures speaking their muffled peace.
“It’s getting late, you’re probably exhausted,” she said.
It was 9:30.
And we’d hardly said anything, but what was there to say? I’d filled my social battery just in the awkward spaces between quips. Maybe in the morning, I thought, and so I said goodnight. After brushing with my travel toothbrush in the dark, I climbed under the scratchy wool comforter. Moonlight glowed faintly through the window. At some point, I drifted off and the darkness of the cabin superimposed itself over the darkness of a Marriott hotel room in my dreams. In it, I was Abigail—but I wasn’t, I was also looking down at her. It was the room at Nationals, where it all went down. She’d claimed she was sleeping. Maybe she was. It was so hard to believe that she could kill her, Eloise, her teammate, and then sleep in the same room as the body all night. Like an orphaned fawn cuddling its mother’s corpse on the side of another lonely, autumn-leafed highway. Eloise’s cause of death was ruled an overdose. Abigail made no public comment about it, nothing private either, save for one off-hand comment during the last holiday dinner she’d ever attended with us. In the corridor she’d asked me, “Do you really believe it was on purpose?” She was probably too drunk then to remember asking that, five years ago it must’ve been. The sound of rustling leaves filled the periphery, and then, all at once, I realized I was awake again. The rustling, present. In the living room.
I slunk out of bed, stepping on the sides of my feet, feeling like I felt sneaking out as a little kid with Abigail so many years before. I approached the cracked door with my blanket cape and the only light in the whole cabin was a soft candle’s glow from beyond the threshold.
Abigail hunched cross-legged with the candle behind her, the suitcase open like an altar in front, and all of its contents spread out and glowing in the soft light. She had her back to me. She picked up a succession of objects with great care, inspected them, and then attached a white tag to the bottom. The way she cradled each like a holy artifact made me feel strange about how I’d collected them, tossing boxes and dust-covered curios together without thought.
“I can see you, Orin,” she said.
She tilted her chin up slightly, leveling her eyes with a scratched, Civil War-era mirror perched on the far wall. Her visage there was dark and silhouetted, her eyes a pair of tiny orbs flickering. I laughed to cut the tension.
“Thought I was losing my hearing for a moment,” I said. “Felt like I was silent.”
She paused, looked towards the door. “Go to bed, Orin.”
For a few uncomfortable moments neither of us said anything.
“What?” she asked.
I went back to the guest room, but I knew I wasn’t sleeping tonight. I hadn’t expected her to come out and say let’s talk about this. She’s probably talked about this more than enough for one lifetime, but then why invite me? For faded photographs of a family she’s chosen to ignore for the better part of a decade?
I heard the suitcase zip shut an hour or so after. Then a door latching. Open. Closed. I snuck back to the living room, taking a few steps into the center before realising her bedroom door was open, and the house was entirely empty. I checked my phone for the time.
Without thinking, just like when the letter arrived, I knew I had to follow her. I slipped on my boots and coat and cracked the front door open, emerging into the night. A single light burned in an upstairs room in the mansion. Trees billowed with a wave-like shimmering, casting leaves as little, black tears in the firmament. I kept low to the earth, hiding in the chest-high scrub, inching towards the light. The more tall grass I pushed aside, the more the risk set in. I hadn’t seen her in years, or known her in likely longer than that. This was my chance, but what if I pushed too hard and lost her forever? I neared the mansion. The ornate french doors, old but sturdy, were slightly open—a carpet of leaves atop the landing, twin tracks just the size of suitcase wheels in them. I entered on the sides of my feet.
Moonlight illuminated the foyer through tall, half-blinded windows. Still, I had to take out my phone’s flashlight. There were archways on three sides of the room, a few scattered boxes overflowing with ephemera, and a carved, stone obelisk in the center. Its engraving resembled a child’s drawing of two stick figures holding hands. As I neared, I saw a newspaper laying on top. The headline read:
NATIONAL SOCCER SHOCK OF THE CENTURY
I’d seen this article before, and then, as now, it made me imagine Abigail waking up that morning after their post-Nationals bender. What should’ve been a victory celebration, for Abigail and Eloise. I pictured her coach going next door to check on them and finding Abigail missing and Eloise cold to the touch with a mouth full of bile and a bloody nose. I tried to empathize with Abigail who, located at the breakfast buffet, claimed to have no idea her teammate was dead. Maybe she was in shock. Maybe she was afraid they’d test her for coke, too, and her career would be over. What was Abigail accomplishing by displaying her greatest sins like this?
This didn’t feel like a house, nor did it look like it was under construction from the inside. This was more like a half-finished piece of performance art. Or a twisted catharsis. For a moment the disconnect between this and my mental image of Abigail made me forget where I was, what I was doing. Then a creak came from upstairs—I picked a direction and went, testing the boards before each step.
The first room I entered was interspersed with pillars of plastic cases. Those near the entrance were filled with petrified fruit, bark, fungi, and excrement. Tufts of fur. Dead-dry insects the shape and shade of used tissue paper. Moving towards the exit, the contents changed. First to collections of bone, everything from gristle-black to white, and then—finally—fossils. Unlabelled. Unnamed. More sounds echoed from upstairs, growing with my confusion.
I passed through several rooms, laid out in a maze of walls, some of which she must’ve added herself. There was one whose floor looked like a cracked, old tennis court. There, pieces of the Berlin Wall stood in glass next to labelled chunks of Magarac’s old Baptist church. Another room was plastered floor to ceiling in advertisements from all ages, each with their brand names sharpied out. Another still had chalkboards for walls, complete with erasers and buckets. I wandered on.
The maze ended in a room claustrophobically small, the first I found with just one door. All its surfaces were encased in glazed tile that reflected my flashlight in a million crescent moons. In the center was a polaroid camera on a pedestal, with matches sitting next to it. A metal placard hung off the side. It said:
COMMIT THE ASH TO MEMORY
The heat in my body slowly seeped into the space. I heard how quiet it was again, saw the match’s silhouette and, with it, again the fact that all of this was arranged by Abigail. It all had meaning and purpose to her—maybe I needed to figure out what that was. Maybe she would’ve showed me all this, eventually. Maybe the ASH was her previous life or maybe it was our relationship, decayed to withering coals. Unsalvageable. Maybe she’s changed or maybe she only wanted me here to bring her that suitcase, so she could enshrine her old life and then never have to fucking interact with it again. As if it was our fault—maybe we’re just too tangled in it for her. This wasn’t the Abigail I knew as a child, but then again, I never knew that Abigail as a killer. Was she hiding something? Something worth killing for, again? I half expected to stumble upon Eloise’s petrified corpse somewhere in this house. “Go to bed, Orin,” Abigail had said. With such force. My wife had a face of abject fear and nausea when I’d told where I was going, just two days ago. I tried to ease the tension with a joke, saying that “If anyone’s allowed to kill me, it’s probably my sister.” She didn’t find it funny. I didn’t really, either, but what else was there to do?
Abigail’s steps drummed the sound of a quick descent from a stairway somewhere in the house. I froze. There was a click, followed by the diffused, dusty glow of a second flashlight from behind me in the maze. I shut my light off and moved, quickly, looking over my shoulder, holding to the shadows, taking a hard left through a hallway out to the back doors. I gingerly turned the latch and stepped through, but then the light licked the edge of my ears again, and so, with a surge of adrenaline, I threw the door shut with a crash and bolted into the yard. I crouched down and scurried into the undergrowth, stopping myself just in time to realize there was a swimming pool in my way. The barest hint of a hydrogen sulfide smell floated up from the waters; the lilies, and hyacinths, and duckweed growing where, perhaps years back, there was nothing but chlorine. Abigail opened the back door and peered out with her flashlight. I stayed as still as the frogs croaking around me. She turned, and disappeared back into the house. Her furrowed brow unreadable. Hide and seek was a little more grim these days.
The clamor of the bugs was increasing, the sky gaining a suggestion of visible blue in the east. Sunrise, not that far off. Abigail had probably gone back to the cabin to sleep, I hoped, and in either case, I’d already gone this far. I stood up and went back inside the mansion, my bones heavy with a lack of sleep.The museum looked more brittle—familiar—lit in the dusty, pre-dawn sun. I found and went up the grand staircase, noticing the influence of our parents for the first time in the color of the walls; the spacing of furniture, objects; even the types of moulding on the doorways. Abigail had crafted this place. It wasn’t home, but a tiny ember of home smoldered somewhere around here. Almost every room upstairs was empty or locked, except for one. The flickering of a screen pulsed against the doorframe like an antiseptic campfire. I crossed the periphery.
The room was dark save for a TV against the back wall, playing a black and white movie. A man in a suit, silent, talked without subtitles. A sense of déjà vu surged into me from every object in the room—all the things I’d brought from the attic were arrayed near the door. A weathered Catan game box, with most of the pieces missing. Grandma’s rolling pin. Broken. Baby shoes with vomit stains and half-melted dolls and kindergarten cursive practice sheets—then a transition, further in. Like walking across the room was walking forward in time. There were soccer balls with frayed hexagons, each labelled Adelweis #66. And baggies with white powder and rolled-up bills and pills under glass. And ancient envelopes hanging from strings. And a picture of Eloise. One her headshot, another from the National’s hotel room. After. With spit and blood dribbled around permanently open eyes and skin the color of tissue paper, again; and of course the movie playing on the TV was the exposé. I pressed to the far end of the room, allowing the cocktail of uncomfortable feelings to grow. A framed copy of a check to Eloise’s family. A suicide note. A print of Rembrandt’s The Sacrifice of Isaac—Abigail was standing in the doorway with her childhood security blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
“There were two baggies, Orin. Two doses,” she said, her voice all warbled and husky and familiar. A scene from the exposé dramatized this. With shadows and implication, it’d proclaimed how she laced Eloise’s dose—which was already a heroic one, considering.
“It was an accident. I—It was—you don’t understand,” she said, trailing off. The way that her eyes were pits of thousand yard emptiness in the few shots the press got of Abigail, after. The way she hadn’t talked to any of us about this. The way that, secretly, me and mom and the rest of the family harbored a deep-seated fear that we’d never really known her. That she’d killed. That she’d killed and then refused to confess, even to us, even after all this time. That maybe we’d lived years with a monster in the second room from the left, upstairs. Then the suicide note to my side, on the wall. Me, realizing that I’d assumed it had come after Eloise’s passing. The big sleep, wrong girl.
I leveled my tired eyes with hers, searching through them and attempting to realign every thought I’d had about her in the last half of a decade. She looked ten years old again. “You mixed them up,” I said.
Sam Nash is a young writer of fiction and poetry, whose writing often broaches topics such as gender identity, existentialism, and environmentalism. They have recently graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a BA in English/Creative Writing, and a minor in Psychology. Their work appears or is forthcoming in Short Vine, The Buzz, and Z Publishing’s Ohio’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction.