Why you’re here, you’ve got no clue.
“Someday,” Sari the landlady said, “You’ll be back. Begging for rooms. ‘Hey, Sar,’ you’ll say, ‘anything available? My old place, maybe?’”
You’d die first. Back then you had to get out fast.
Still, here you are, outside the old building. Waiting for . . . who? An hour ago, you were on a plane. A tiny, empty Bacardi bottle’s still in your pocket.
The old street’s changed. Punks in baggy jeans trudge by. Fancy new buses stop at the light, barking out route numbers for the blind.
You smell smoke, like leaves are burning. But it’s January. Before that plane took off, they de-iced the wings. Maybe a fire. But . . . where?
How sad the building looks. Like an old barfly, needing a drink.
And, speaking of which . . .
In the foyer stands Felice, half-cigarette in mouth, peering at you. In a stained pink robe and fuzzy-wuzzies.
Damn, she got old, you think, as she opens the door. Older. Chestnut hair more gray at the roots, skin like that leather jacket you stole at a garage sale. Even her hands, clutching her mail, look gnarled.
“Nicky?” she says, in disbelief.
“Sari around?” You can’t believe you’re saying this. “I want my old place back.”
She should look delighted. Back then, you were pals. Shared jugs of Carlo Rossi, cold cuts, and stale Wonder bread.
She flicks the cigarette onto the steps. “I think it’s for rent.”
Now you smell Tide, from the laundry room downstairs. Felice was always washing clothes. Once she got crabs from fucking all the guys at the bar. That was the last time you used the washer.
You smell Tide, with smoke underneath it.
“Gotta see the super,” she says.
“The super?” Back then, there was no super. Sari was too cheap. When it snowed, she paid some neighbor’s kid to shovel. If your toilet broke, or the heat ran out, you were fucked.
“Walt,” she says, “In 4-A.” She pulls her robe tighter around her. “He takes care of us.”
In the foyer, the smell is acrid. Like burned pizza. Back then, it meant one thing. “You pass out with the oven on?”
She smiles. “Ya think?”
In the hallway, you realize you forgot to check the mailboxes. See who still lives here, besides Felice. Maybe the Puerto Ricans who always fed you.
“Raoul and Nayda?” you say. “They still here?”
Felice doesn’t answer. If they were still here, you’d smell pernil. And not burned, either.
Was the hallway always this creepy? Like in those Japanese Grudge movies, where the dead fucking walk. The walls and stairs look waxy, runny. And the floor . . . If you dropped a quarter, you’d leave it.
“Yo!” yells a male voice from upstairs. “Ya comin’, or not?”
“Fuck off!” Felice says.
And these stairs. Were there always this many? Your legs ache from climbing them. First, sitting on that plane for hours. Now all these damn stairs.
On the third landing, somebody passes you, on his way down.
“Mist—” You have to look twice.
Same messy hair. Same plaid shirt, ripped at the elbow. Mister Bowman, the retired teacher, who always trudged by, like the world had fucked him over, twice. Who always got your mail for you, when you were away.
Mister Bowman, who was . . .
“Heard he was dead,” you whisper to Felice.
She smiles. “He’s real quiet.”
The way you drank, you mixed up lots of shit. You could’ve—you must’ve— been wrong about old Bowman.
“Finally!” You’re on the top floor.
Outside your old flat, 4-B, stands a guy . . . in white shorts! Sandy-haired, lean, and tanned, yet. Like he just left Miami. He checks you out good. “Sari said you’d be back,” he says, leering. Like he knows you.
“Maybe I’m not.”
They both smirk. It’s you who rushed back on a flight that should’ve been cancelled. With no luggage. Just that empty Bacardi shot.
But why? Your new place was palatial: high ceilings, hardwood floors. A fucking doorman. What brought you back?
“Maybe,” Walt the super said, “You’re homesick.”
With a sly smile, he unlocks your old door.
Suddenly, you’re terrified. As he holds it open for you, you back away, into the hallway.
At once, the other doors open. Silently, tenants walk out, past you: a bleary-eyed old guy, a husky young guy, a redhead with a mulatto toddler . . .
That smoke-stench is overwhelming, now. Your nose and throat feel raw.
In your old doorway, Walt beckons.
You expect the place to look like you left it: mismatched furniture, secondhand fridge, classic rock posters on dingy walls. But you’re wrong.
Everything is charred, shredded. From the couch and mattress, springs protrude like corpses’ guts. Rugs all soggy. Floors squishy. Some walls black from smoke, others just . . . gone. Only steel skeletons holding these rooms in place.
“Gotta cig?” Walt asks Felice, in the ruined kitchen.
You gasp. The right side of his body, face down to shin, is black, blistered. Wisps of sandy hair project, like a cowlick, from his skull.
Felice’s skin sizzles. “You should quit,” she says. As she shakes out a cig, her finger breaks off. “Things’ll kill you.”
They laugh, as you run out.
In the hallway, black smoke fills your lungs, keeps you from seeing the stairs. From all over the building comes insistent beeping: fire alarms that rang too late.
“Help!” You choke on the word.
As you sink down, you recall screams, the world rushing past you, that wild, spinning feeling as your plane plunged to the ground . . .
No, you think. It can’t be. It’s got to be a dream!
Slow, hollow footsteps, as something putrid trudges up the stairs.
Mr. Bowman, who’s been dead the longest.
Worms crawl through what’s left of his face. For the first time ever, he smiles.
And hands you your mailbox key.
Copyright: © 2011 Cindy Rosmus
Cindy Rosmus is a New York textbook editor by day, a hardboiled Jersey female by night. Her fiction has appeared in Black Petals, The Beat, The Cynic, Red Fez, Zygote in My Coffee, Hardboiled, NVF, MediaVirus, The Monsters Next Door, Out of the Gutter, Devil Blossoms, 13th Warrior Review, Mysterical-E, A Twist of Noir, and Beat to a Pulp. She has four collections of stories out: Angel of Manslaughter, Gutter Balls, Calpurnia’s Window, and No Place Like Home. She is the editor of the e-zine, Yellow Mama. She is also a thrill seeker, a Gemini, and a Christian.