Charlie heard Mike’s mother inhale loudly as he closed the flaps on the cardboard box. He lowered that box onto the floor, began opening the one that had been underneath, his mind focused on finding the one item that had brought him to his dead friend’s home that afternoon.
“Excuse me.” Charlie stopped, looked up at Mike’s mother, and instantly recognized she was entering one of those bad moments she had talked about earlier.
“You can — stay here as long as you’d like.” She blinked quickly, shook her head. “Take — take anything you want, we’ve already moved out everything we wanted to keep.” She inhaled deeply, threw her head back, looked up at the ceiling with eyes that looked like they had stopped searching for hope.
“I’m sorry.” Charlie’s words were equally reflective and sincere. “I didn’t want to upset you.”
Mike’s mother shook her head, looked at him with a sad, wet smile. “Oh no, don’t be sorry. It’s nothing you did. It’s — ” she laughed, tears exploding from her eyes as if released by the sound — “your smell. No, smell’s not the right word — ” her eyes blinked furiously — “scent, I guess. People have a distinct scent, and when we were sitting downstairs I recognized yours. From the days you’d come over.” She folded her arms across her chest, looked down. “So I was thinking about scents, when we came up here, and that’s — ”
“I know.” Charlie reached forward, put a hand on her shoulder. He hadn’t noticed it before, but her words had made him recognize that the remnant of Mike’s scent lingered in this room.
A quick nod, and Mike’s mother left the room, rubbing her pained face, leaving Charlie alone in the bedroom of his dead friend, a half-dozen or so cardboard boxes at his feet. He thought of leaving then, but realized that if he did he’d be back soon, perhaps the same day. His experiences of the past few days had compelled him to do exactly what Mike’s mother had just asked him to do — go through Mike’s possessions, take what he wanted. And he did want something, just one thing, a thing he thought would help explain what had been happening the past several days. He wasn’t sure it would be here, in one of these cardboard boxes. But he could not leave this house, this room, until he’d completed his search.