I remember my mom telling us that she smelled something weird permeating through the closet walls. I told her it was probably something we cooked earlier that day. She seemed very unsettled and thought something was wrong. Another day or two went by. She called me and my brother over and asked us to smell the closet.
“I don’t smell anything,” I said, looking up at my mom.
I was around 13 at that time. I didn’t know what “smell” I was looking for. I honestly couldn’t smell the smell my mom said she was smelling.
“Wait,” my brother said. “That smells weird. It smells like our uncle’s store.” Our uncle owned a fish market out by Washington Heights.
My mom’s face went white. She rushed over to the phone and called the super.
“Can you come up here? Something’s not right.”
We lived on the fifth floor of an eight-storey apartment in The Bronx. The elevator smelled occasionally of stale urine and our Croatian neighbors across the hall kept mostly to themselves. Although one time, their eldest “stole” a wreath from our door because “he thought he could.”
The super — a short-haired Hispanic Rob Schneider look-alike — knocked on our apartment door.
“Something’s wrong next door,” my mom said.
He nodded and knocked on our neighbor’s door.
The sound a fist makes on a solid wood door reinforced with steel is unforgettable.
“Hello?” he shouted. He put his head near the door. He reeled back in surprise.
I could feel eyes watching us from their peepholes from across the hall.
“I’m going to try the fire escape,” he said.
We followed the super walk through our hallway, into our living room, and watched him climb out the window.
He peered into the window and as he was about to knock on the window, he froze. The color drained from his face and he said: “We have to call the police.”
I remember my mom calling my dad.
Everything else that night is fuzzy, even to this day.
I can only remember things in certain blocks.
Everything up to this pointed happened around 6pm. It was a Sunday. I had school the next day. I got 2-3 hours of sleep. I remember complaining to my teacher that I was tired. She gave me a smile. “I know what happened. It was on the news,” she said. I remember news crews trying to come upstairs to talk to us — my dad gave the only interview that I know of and he didn’t show his face.
I remember on that night, I served as an interpreter — the police locked down the building to “interview” all of the Korean people that lived there. I remember my mom asking the Korean detective, “Do you really suspect us of doing this?”
I remember when two officers took me to the second floor. I can’t ever forget the smell. Emergency clean-up crews and police officers stood around 5B — the apartment next door and I remember one of them saying, “Phew, it reeks in there. You never get used to it.” The smell of death. The smell of death smelled oddly like decomposing fish.
I thought it was weird that I hadn’t seen my friend in a long time. About two or three weeks, to be clear. I remember knocking on that door. That door, colored a sickly green, with that faux gold-colored peephole in the middle. I remember a man opening the door. It was the boyfriend — his mother was divorced and was living with this man. He had a ponytail and wore hats to cover his receding hairline. He wore wifebeaters and smoked cigarettes. For some reason, I can’t seem to describe his mother. All I can remember is walking into their apartment to grab a video game while he was over at my apartment. She was in the shower. She said, “Hiro? Is that you? Can you grab me a towel?” I quickly grabbed the video game and ran out. Her son, Hiro, went to Catholic school — he was a hardcore gamer. He loved video games. He was like a big brother to me. He wore glasses and played basketball. The last thing I remember about him is of us playing RollerCoaster Tycoon and him washing his feet in our bathtub because I told him his feet smelled.
It was the boyfriend that murdered Hiro and his mother. The police officers stated that the murder weapon was a golf club. They had been killed while sleeping. A manhunt ensued. My mom would tell whoever would listen that she felt scared in her own home. Our apartment felt cold. Fear had replaced the serenity that we were used to. “Aren’t you scared of ghosts?” my mom would repeatedly ask. “I’m not scared,” I’d say. “I don’t believe in ghosts.” (I believe in ghosts.)
I’m not quite sure when my mom received news, but I remember her telling us that the man had committed suicide in New Jersey. “The guilt probably got to him,” she said. My mom and the hairstylist down the street gossiped about the man and why he did it. I knew she felt relieved that this man was no longer around, no longer placing fear in her mind, no longer fearful of this man breaking into the apartment in the middle of night to kill our family. The boyfriend had committed suicide with a single bullet to the head in a warehouse in New Jersey. He was supposedly in an elevator. I, however, to this day, have never seen a single newspaper clipping of this report.
News crews came knocking again. My brother and I were ambushed by a crew of Chinese journalists at the front steps. We answered their questions as quickly as possible and ran into our apartment. “We can’t stay here anymore,” I remember my mom saying. My dad, a superstitious man, agreed to it. I remember someone had placed salt in front of their door. “What does this mean?” I asked my dad. “It’s to ward off bad spirits,” he said. “Ghosts can’t enter if there’s salt by the front door.”
The property manager didn’t want us to leave. “I love you guys, you guys are wonderful,” he said to my parents. “I’ll lower the rent for you.” My parents refused. He even made sure the the apartment was cleaned out and had someone that used to live on the sixth floor move down into the apartment that Hiro and his mother used to live in. “You see?” Everything’s okay,” he said, but he knew — we all knew — it wasn’t.
We ended up moving upstate in late 2002. We moved out of our two bedroom pre-war apartment in the Bronx into a duplex built by French immigrants in the 1880s. I remember in eighth grade, on a class walk up to the high school, I told a girl that I moved because my friend and his mother was murdered by her boyfriend. She didn’t believe me. “That never happened to you,” she said. “Stop lying.”
I wish I was.