How Do You Always End Up Like This

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Her name is Veranda. She works too hard and hears voices.

A slamming door woke her up.  The ear that nestled against the pillow felt the vibrations the way ears do when they are underwater in the tub.  Was that Minna leaving for work?  Her eyelids snapped up like window blinds.  What time was it?  Didn’t matter.  She overslept.  Veranda sat up quick and listened.  It was still pitch dark.  It might have been part of the dream she was having.  She had been sitting in a waiting room, alone, waiting endlessly.  Other clients came in through the grey-green door and walked past her.  Still others went the opposite way.  No one took any notice of her.  Hearing nothing further, she drifted back into sleep swaying and nodding.  As soon as her eyes closed, two giant identical books appeared.  They sat side by side atop a grey filing cabinet and leaned into a cheap metal bookend that bent backwards.  Her eyes opened to see street light beaming through a little window.  What window was that?  What space was this?  What was beyond?  All good questions.  No answers.  Too tired.  She leaned back slowly, walking on her elbows, feeling for a soft surface to rest on.

 

Veranda reached out for something to cover herself with.  Her fingers touched on tablecloths, hemmed napkins, cotton hand towels.  Dirty didn’t matter.  She pulled them in like she was drawing in warm beach sand to bury herself while the surf crashed and the seagulls shrieked.  Her feet bent straight out until they were nearly in line with her legs, straining to the point of distress in her calves.  STOP IT!  She scolded them.  Somebody was watching her.  She sat up again and crossed her aching legs.  There was a man leaning against the partially opened door.  His torso was at a forty five degree angle and his left arm extended straight out on the opposite angle.  His hand clasped the door knob tightly, supporting his weight.  If she tilted her head sideways, he would appear to be hanging down from a trapdoor in the ceiling.  He stared at her for long seconds and still more seconds.  There was light on his face.  It was her boss Mr. Raoul who pronounced his name “raow” not “rah-ool”.  Veranda remembered that she was wearing her pajamas and pulled the blankets up to cover herself.

 

“What are you doing?” he gasped at her through globular jowls.  Veranda expected a reaction like that.  She’d seen it many times before but never directed at her.  “There’s customers on the way.  Come on!”

 

Her armpits warmed quickly with sweat.  In her journal she would write of moisture as hot as melting wax.

 

“Uh...I need to change.”

 

“No time!”  Mr. Raoul growled back at her.

 

He leaned back from the doorway, his trailing hand slamming the door shut.

 

Veranda sat rigidly still in the suddenly quiet room.  The edges of the comforter were still bunched up in her fists, tucked under her chin.  A tiny laugh escaped.  She could see well enough that she was in her own bed in her own bedroom.  She made note of the time on the ticking alarm clock sitting next to her on the night table but forgot what it was the second she turned away.  Just a dream, she assured herself.  She flopped back down, free to return to sleep.

 

Except Veranda couldn’t fall asleep.  The longer she lay awake the more the tick-tocking of the alarm clock sounded like a robotic chant: “yes-no-yes-no-yes-no”.  She had conjured up an image of her boss entering her bedroom.  It gave her the shivers.  What would have caused her to invite that vision into her head?  If Mr. Raoul really was prowling around out there, Minna - her roommate - would be up in a flash and on him with the fireplace poker that she kept beside her bed.  It was absurd to think about but it would be funny to see her chasing him around.  Funny enough to want to laugh out loud again.  That was something that needed writing down.  Maybe she should do it now.  Her heart was still racing.

 

There was a loud “thump” out in the living room.  A cat thump?.  Gabby?  She heard a double click then a swish as her bedroom door swung open against the carpeted floor.  She didn’t have any carpet.  That was the room in her dad's house.  She tilted her head up and looked along the length of her body towards the far end of the room.  The overhead light snapped on.  There was Mr. Raoul a second time.  Now he was standing in her room, her cream coloured room back at her dad’s house.  The ceiling light gleamed off his high forehead.  He took a step towards the foot of her bed.  She sat up defensively and shimmied her butt back against her pillows.

 

“Verenna!  I told you to get up!I'm being obvious here!” 

 

“Uh-h-h-h.  My apron!”

 

“Here.”

 

He flung an apron at her.  She had to catch it.  She saw the restaurant’s name in it’s distinctive style stencilled on the front.  “The Grand Duke.”  When she looked up he was gone and the light was off.   The door was closed once more.  The apron felt real in her fingers.  The draw strings, the neck strap.  She rubbed the cloth between her thumb and fingers like she would a ten or a twenty.   So, not a dream then.

 

Oh Randi.  How do you always end up like this?

 

When she swung herself out of her bed, her bare feet landed on hardwood.

 

The living room, the room she and Minna referred to as their living room but was more of a spare room, was middle-of-the-night dark.  There was a sparse glow from a distant streetlight spilling in through the window.  Veranda scanned the floor for a fallen object or two but couldn’t make out any detail. 

 

“Gabby?” she whispered into the darkness.  What came back was a loud clattering from the kitchen.  She turned and saw Mr. Raoul bent over the open oven door reaching in for something.  The oven light shone bright against his scalp like an interrogation light.

 

Veranda automatically flipped the apron over her head and tied it around the back of her waist.  She tip-toed quickly over to the edge of the kitchen.  Her roommate Minna was still asleep in her own room and she wanted it to stay that way.  She didn’t know how she was going to explain this...whatever this was...to her.

 

“Could you please be quiet?” Veranda half-whispered, half-hissed.  “Someone is still sleeping.”

 

Mr. Raoul had his back to her.  He was preparing a massive breakfast feast.  The only light on in the kitchen was the small stove top light.  “The peelight” as Minna called it.  It was left on all night at Minna’s insistence because she was the one who usually had to get up.  Veranda could make out that he was wearing a fine white shirt and a dark tie like he was dressed for a party.  His sleeves were rolled up.  It reminded her of her dad, specifically a time long ago when he was having his half of the family over for Christmas dinner.  He did all the cooking in his shirt and tie and no one else had offered to help.  It crushed him that his own people would take advantage of him like that.  Her heart broke for her dad that day.

 

 “Daddy?”  The question escaped before she could reign her memory in.

 

Mr. Raoul stood up and looked her way.  He held a tray of recently risen muffins as large as grapefruits.  He dropped the tray on the stove top and threw off his oven mitts like a hockey player challenging for a fight.   He picked up a used mixing bowl and tossed it angrily into the cluttered sink with a clank and a splash.  He was in a hurry and seemed quite miffed.  Clearly, he needed his cooks but for now it was just the two of them.  Since the noise he was making didn’t concern him, she tried a different tact. 

 

“What are you making?” she asked, hiding one bare foot behind the other.

 

“Never you mind!  Just make sure you are ready when customers get here!”

 

“Okay?” 

 

“Why are there so many dirty dishes in the drawers and cupboards? Look at this!”

 

He opened a cupboard to show her a stack of plates with dried food caked around the rims.

 

“That’s my roommate.  She’s not great at cleaning up after herself.”

 

“I want to speak with her.”

 

“No, please.  Don’t.  I’ll clean them.  It drives me nuts too.  Just please don’t wake her up.  She’ll freak and she’ll ask me to leave.  I’m only subletting.”

 

Veranda glanced back nervously at Minna’s bedroom door.  She had what passed for the master suite.  It was the larger of the two bedrooms but it had a sloped ceiling that she bashed her head against most mornings.

 

“Have you got your order pad ready?  The customers will be here any minute.”

 

“Isn’t it back at the restaurant?”

 

“There.”

 

She looked to where he was pointing.  There was a new countertop with a new drawer underneath it.  It wasn’t there before but it’s placement was brilliant.  She still had to root around through dirty forks and knives before retrieving her pad and pencil.  Only then did it occur to her that their narrow kitchen which also served as a mudroom for the fire escape door had been expanded into a much larger, more modern kitchen.  There were two fridges and an island and a shiny gas stove.

 

“I like what you’ve done to our kitchen.”  Veranda gushed.  If anyone could spot a kitchen possibility, it was Mr. Raoul.

 

“I had to move a couple of the walls.  You’ve got a small kitchen.  I don’t know how you get anything done.” 

 

“That’s why I bring a lot of food home.  Food that I pay for.”

 

“Why aren’t you out there?”

 

“Oh, I need to grab the cat first and put her in my room.  She doesn’t like strangers.”

 

“I’ve taken care of that.  He’s outside.”

 

“Outside?  She’s not supposed to go outside.”

 

“Well, he wanted out and you weren’t around.”

 

“But, I had no idea…”

 

“And just for your information, it’s a ‘He’ not a ‘She’”

 

“Minna’s going to freak!”

 

“You’ll figure something out.  I definitely didn't cook him.”

 

“What?”

 

“Just go.  I’m being obvious!”

 

Raoul turned his back on her and began a new course.  Veranda watched him work as she tucked her order pad and pencil in the kangaroo pouch of her apron.

 

“Well, just for your information, Gabby is a ‘She’!  But okay.”  Veranda thought the words but wasn’t sure she said them out loud.

 

The living room was still dark and quiet but Veranda’s eyes had adjusted.   She could tell that everything was as she and Minna had left it the night before.  There were the bunched up socks on the floor next to the mismatched slippers.  And there was Minna’s sweater that she wore constantly because she could never get warm enough.  Even though Mr. Raoul had transformed the tiny kitchen to suit his oversized needs, the living room - to Veranda’s disappointment -  had been left untouched.  Which is to say, not ready for “the customers” who were supposedly on their way over.  What was Mr. Raoul doing and what did he expect of her?  There was only the futon - hers (which is what won her the bid for the spare apartment), the armchair - found by the side of the road, the coffee table - Minna’s, and the vintage stool step - bought at a garage sale and set next to the front door to collect loose change, keys and mail on it’s various platforms.

 

Something half-bumped - half-scratched against the window pane.  Veranda was horrified to see Gabby, legs outstretched as if drawn by a cartoonist, clinging to the glass, her thick fur ruffling and a look of panic in her eyes.  Behind her, bits of paper and fallen leaves blew around in the harsh wind.  She silently meowed, silent only because Veranda couldn’t hear through the glass.  Before she could contemplate a rescue, the front door banged open and a line of young men all dressed in dark business suits filed in.  They swarmed past Veranda and began filling the tiny living room.  As far as the dim light would allow, she could swear that they were all copies from one mold.  They had short, corporate-cut, blond hair.  They were all the same height, white skinned, and staring into what Veranda assumed were identical cell phones.  They acknowledged Veranda only in the way they avoided knocking into her but otherwise paid her no attention.

 

Her door was always locked at night.  Double locked.  From the inside.  How could they just let themselves in like that?  Did Mr. Raoul unlock the door?  More men spilled in through the wide-open doorway like government men breaking in under cover of darkness.  Veranda turned as the last of them pushed their way in.  They went straight for the sparse furniture and climbed onto it without breaking stride.  Gabby was crying out in silent appeal.  The men were oblivious as they swiped and typed.  Even without uttering a word, they managed to create a level of noise that would have Minna awake and investigating not to mention the crashing and bashing coming from the kitchen.  Veranda would welcome her alliance.  It was surprising that she was still asleep.

 

This was quickly getting out of hand.  There were gentlemen sitting on the futon, on the backrest and the armrests.  When that was full, they stuffed themselves onto the armchair in a similar fashion.  No one bothered to remove their shiny black shoes.  They sat on the coffee table, on the radiator, on the bay window ledge, and lastly sprawled out on the floor.  All heads down looking into their glowing phones.  They were like after-school teenage boys hanging out in a basement rec room.  Gabby had given up on them.  She struggled to stay attached to the glass.

 

“Veranna!”  Mr. Raoul yelled from the kitchen.

 

Veranda quickly closed the front door.  She didn’t want their neighbour, Crazy Mick, flying in here shouting and complaining.  She and Minna were not allowed this many visitors in their apartment.  That was the strictest rule laid down by a very strict landlord.  Even Minna, who was so good at squeezing out perks and privileges, couldn’t wiggle past it.  Whatever Mr. Raoul had started, this is where it fell apart.

 

She pulled out her pad and pencil and in doing so remembered that she was still in her pajamas.  And without make-up nor gel for her spiky hair.  None of the men gave her a look though.

 

“Hi!  Uh, hello?  W-w-w-welcome to, uh…” This was most definitely not The Grand Duke.  “Mr. Raoul thanks you for...for being his guest...on this special occasion…”  Which was...what?   “I’ll take your orders now.” 

 

“Coffee!  Coffee!  Coffee!” they all spoke at once.

 

“Right.”  They didn’t specify how they wanted it and if the pattern of their behaviour held, they probably all wanted it the same way.  She wrote down “Black”.  She didn’t recall seeing a proper coffee maker in the new kitchen.  If Mr. Raoul hadn’t brought one with him, they were going to have to wait a long time for her little single serve machine process every order.  And if Mr. Raoul didn’t bring any good ground coffee either, they were bound to be unhappy with her discount house brand.

 

“How long is it going to be?” one of the gentlemen asked without looking up.

 

“Good question.  I’ll be as fast as I can.  We’re a little short staffed this morning.”

 

“You got any other chairs in this place?” asked another of the gentlemen.

 

“Yeah, something better to sit on?” asked a third.

 

“Well, um…I’ll have to check…”

 

“You do that, sister.” said the first gentleman, finally looking up at her, the glow from his phone lighting up his face.  The reflection in his eyes made them appear as miniature cell phone screens.

 

Veranda glanced at her bedroom door.  She’d run and lock herself in there if it wasn’t for Gabby trapped outside on the window glass.  How did she manage to stick her claws to glass?

 

“How many more of you are there?”

 

No one volunteered an answer.

 

“Just so you know, there are people sleeping in here.”

 

“Who?” one of the blond men asked.  He seemed very excited all of a sudden.

 

“My roommate, for one.”  Veranda said hoping that it would impress upon them to tone it down.

 

“Where?”

 

“In there.”  She pointed and was surprised at herself for how willing she was to give up Minna’s location.   “She’s got a fireplace poker under her bed.”

 

“A poker?” The blond man seemed amused.

 

“Did you say ‘a poker’?” another blond man asked.

 

“Hey, she’s got a poker!” a third man chimed in.

 

“Yeah…” the first man said.

 

“Who’s going to get the poke?” the third man said.

 

“I’ll bet it’s him.” the second man said, indicating the third man.  “He’s up for a good poke.”

 

“Uh, guys?” Veranda tried to reign in the buzzy chatter.

 

“We’ve given our orders.  Hop to it!” the original gentleman declared.

 

“Come on!” a chorus of voices followed up “Go get it!  Go!” 

 

Their cell phones rose up in unison and aimed at her.

 

“Get it!  Get it!  Get it!”

 

Oh Randi.  How do you always manage to get into situations like this? 

 

Veranda took one last look at Gabby who was still hanging on but seemed resigned to certain death.  She sighed and retreated to the kitchen

 

Mr. Raoul saw her approach and held out his hand to receive her order slip.

 

“I haven’t got any orders.”

 

“None?”

 

“Other than coffee.”

 

“Have they got menus?”

 

“Uh, no.  I don’t know where they are.” 

 

“I haven’t got them.  That’s your job!”

 

“And there’s no place to sit.  Plus, my cat is about to die thanks to you.  This is a really bad idea.”

 

“You’re going to have to figure something out.  I’m busy here.  Can’t you see?.”

 

“But, Mr. Raoul…”

 

“Get back out there!  You’re in my way.”

 

Asshole!” Veranda screamed but the word that came out instead was “Okay.”

 

The gentlemen had discovered Gabby by now and were enthralled.  They were spun around to face her and those that could reach were tapping on the glass in front of her face.  Gabby was just a silhouette now.  In fact, she looked like she had dried up and was just a dark husk stuck to the glass by some sort of decomposing chemical process, like a caterpillar or a june bug.

 

“Stop that!”  Veranda hissed at them.

 

“Hey, whoa.  Have you got what we asked for?” asked the first gentleman, who spun around to confront her.  Whether he was referring to the coffee or the chairs didn’t matter.  Veranda had neither.

 

“It’s coming.  Just a little longer.”

 

Veranda had never noticed before how human the cat’s eyes were.  Except Gabby’s eyes weren’t alive anymore.  They were glazed over, moving.  Her body detached from the glass and fell away, floating downward as light as an onion skin.

 

 “I’ll be right back.” Veranda said as she headed for the front door.  She was on the verge of tears.  She knew was going to leave the apartment and not come back but she didn’t know where she should go.  First, she would go around to the back of the building and collect whatever remained of Gabby.  Then she would call the police.  But before any of that she would need some shoes.  Where did she leave them?  The slippers would do.  Except the gentlemen were stepping all over them. 

 

“Oh Randi.  You’ve done it again, haven’t you.” a gentle voice called out of the darkness.  Veranda froze at the sound of the voice.  She saw the shape of someone sitting on the old stool step next to the front door.  There was a bundle of towels and blankets in their lap with what looked like a live baby in the middle.

 

“Daddy?”

 

There was no answer.  The baby fussed and the man bounced it on his lap, shushing it.

 

“Oh.  Can I get you anything?”  Veranda wiped away the wetness on her cheeks then pulled out her order pad and pencil.

 

“Don’t worry about me.”

 

“Your baby.  I’m afraid we don’t have any high chairs.”

 

“That’s okay.  I’m fine like this.”

 

“Boy or a girl?”

 

“What do you think?”

 

Veranda was taken aback by the question.  She thought for a moment.

 

“Is that me?”

 

“That’s a pretty good guess.”

 

“Can I see?”

 

“You may not!”

 

“Oh.”

 

“What you can do is go find these guys some chairs.  Have you looked in the hallway closet?”

 

“There’s no closet in the hallway.”

 

“What are you talking about?  You haven’t even looked!  Honestly Randi!  Where is your head?”

 

“But daddy.  I’ve done everything I can.”

 

“And look at the trouble your in!”

 

“Verenna!” Mr. Raoul called from the kitchen.

 

“I’m just going out to get some more chairs!”  Veranda shouted back at him.   She hoped to show him and the others how angry she was.  Maybe in some small way her father as well although he was hard to convince.  Maybe they would back off.  Maybe Minna would finally wake up and help her clear everyone from the apartment.   Mr. Raoul was leaning on a counter, arms crossed tightly, waiting for something in the oven.  He uncrossed and recrossed his arms several times and each time he did so his whole body seemed to bounce away from the counter as if it were electrified.

 

She turned back to the man with the baby.  She wanted his approval but it wasn’t clear that he was still there.  There was a jacket bunched up on the stool but, in the darkness, it seemed empty.

 

Still in bare feet, Veranda opened the front door.  She spun around and backed out into the hallway.  She let the door close on it’s own but held her hands out to catch it before it could make a loud heavy click.  A noise like that might not have Crazy Mick breathing down her neck but it would wake him up and he’d be listening.  Surprisingly, all the noise generated by Mr. Raoul and the young gentlemen didn’t carry out into the hallway.

 

When she turned to face the hallway, she fell back against the door, dizzy with awe and surprise.  There was a change in the hall more drastic than the kitchen.  What should have been a drab hallway of about ten yards in length with faded maroon carpet and cracked walls was now a grand staircase leading straight down to a blindingly bright lobby.  Crazy Mick’s door used to be at the end of the old hallway but was now halfway up the wall over the staircase.  He would need a carefully balanced ladder, and a tall one at that, to access his apartment.  Did he know anything about this yet?  Was this her fault somehow?

 

In the lobby at the bottom of the staircase was an unlatched glass door that flapped open and closed in the wind.  The hydraulic closer must have broken off.  Each time the door slammed closed, it bellowsed up a gust of icy cold air that Veranda felt in her bare feet and ankles.  At the top of the staircase was a landing lit with an ornate chandelier that swung in small windblown arcs like a heavy boat anchor.  It cast an animated honeycomb of soft golden patterns on the glossy wood floor.  Leading up from the landing was another staircase staggered off to the right.  Veranda looked up for a ceiling that seemed unsure of where it was supposed to end.  This was a two story walk-up, she and Minna and Crazy Mick occupying the two top floor apartments.  Where was this new set of stairs leading up to?

 

Veranda moved forward slowly and cautiously.  Maybe there were newer and better apartments up there.  She still felt unbalanced by the magnificent transformation.  It wasn’t until she reached out to steady herself that she remembered why she was out here.  Her right hand touched upon her own jacket still hung on it’s hook where she left it the night before.  Next to it hung Minna’s jacket.  Below the jackets was a short bench under which was tucked shoes and boots and the odd sock turned inside out and long forgotten.  Above the jackets was a shelf that housed hats and mitts and a collection of cheap sunglasses.  Surprisingly, they all seemed still present and untouched in spite of the hallway’s dramatic reinvention.  If there was a closet out here, it must be behind the coat rack hidden by the jackets.

 

Veranda spread the two jackets apart and there was indeed a doorknob and the outline of a door, a thick dark gap in the wall running up and down.  She turned the doorknob.  It was stiff and stuck but gave way with a splitting crack as it peeled away from the doorframe.  Whatever was beyond the door was hidden in blackness.  It puffed out a breath of dusty air that hit Veranda full in the face.  She backed away, letting the jackets fall back together obscuring the doorway.  She fought to contain a bout of coughing.  Her chest heaved and her throat bloated with suppressed bubbles of air but she was able to bring her lungs under control.

 

She stood for a moment wondering how she was going to come up with enough nerve to complete this task.   She parted the jackets again and took a stumbling step over the bench, remembering to duck her head under the shelf.  She reached out to steady herself against the doorframe and pulled the other leg over.  She sat on the bench, knees facing into the closet.  There was no new paint smell or new varnish smell.  There was only the smell of oldness, of ancient storage, of neglect.  It was like the smell of the crawlspace in the basement behind her dad’s shop bench.  Belongings tightly packed and locked away, too valuable to be thrown away but so useless they were better off ignored and forgotten about.  She took a deep breath and pulled herself up and inward.




 

Once inside the closet, Veranda had to cough again.  She tried holding it in a second time but her energy was tapped out.  She managed to facilitate a wheezing grunt but her lungs had the final say and the levee was soon breached.  Once the fit had passed, she felt a squeezing pressure against her eardrums.  This space she was in was not an empty space.  There was something in here with her.  A lot of something.  Sound had nowhere to go except back at its point of origin.  The light from the hall was cut off by the two jackets standing sentry duty outside.  She felt around in the dark, outwards, upwards, searching for a wall or a ceiling or something to grab hold of and give her a sense of bearings.  A long fuzzy tail swiped at her cheek.  She cried out and chopped at the air with the backs of her hands.  The tail came back again, swishing around her face, her mouth, her nose, defending its territory, undeterred by the violence of her counterattack.  Her fingers entangled on a taut piece of string hanging down from the ceiling.  A pull string.  That meant a light fixture and, hopefully, a working light bulb.  She twisted the string around her finger like dental floss and gave a quick pull.  A small chain was activated and with a click-clink, the room was flooded with light.

 

The two thick books and the filing cabinet and the warping bookend flashed into existence like a freeze frame in a movie.  Veranda’s finger automatically pulled back down on the string, vanishing the sight, leaving a negative imprint on the backs of her eyelids.  After a brief pause in which curiosity got the better of her, Veranda pulled the string a third time, bringing a comforting warm light back into the room.  The filing cabinet was gone and the bright wash of fresh illumination erased the impression from her eyes.  Before her stood an uneven stack of old water stained banana boxes with antique photo frames stood up on top up and facing her.  Behind the splotched glass, various black and white portraits of time-lost women gazed out, expressionless.  She’d seen them before.  They belonged to her mother’s family. 

 

Veranda was standing in an old powder room.  The walls were of oily wooden boards.  The ceiling was surprisingly tall where she stood but it descended quickly to the far end, shaped by the staircase above it.  Nearly every foot of floor space was filled with torn newspaper.  In the tallest corner was an old faded white toilet.  It’s seat was down and on it were piled stacks and stacks of yellowing magazines.  Beside her was an old two tap sink filled with old postcards and letters and disintegrating maps.  The mirror above it was dusty and tightly wrapped in cobwebs.  A wooden pole had been mounted horizontally across the underside of one of the stair risers and on it hung a row of old plain dresses and frocks, some covered in plastic, some left to the whims of time.  Underneath the hanging dresses and frocks was a giant claw foot soaker tub.  Something bulky and motionless lay motionless lengthwise inside of it. 

 

Veranda stumbled further into the mysterious closet.  Her head was filled with an exhilarating thought.  What if this closet could be cleaned out and turned into a working bathroom again?  The walls were covered in filth older than her dad but they could be covered over somehow.  All of this junk could be easily hauled away.  If no one else knows about this, she could keep it all to herself.  No more conflict with Minna over time spent in their one little bathroom.  No more arguments, no more negotiations, no more humiliating episodes of pleading and begging.  Most of all, no more stepping around Gabby’s stinky litter box that shared the bathroom with them.  Minna will be relieved.  Minna will be jealous.  No one must know about this place.  Especially not Minna.

 

She giggled to herself until she spotted what was in the bathtub: a tangled pile of folding chairs.  She remembered why she was there and set herself back in work mode.  She leaned over the tub to haul the chairs out.  In all there were only three chairs but they were of different sizes and shapes making them difficult to rangle.  She managed to extract them and line them up by the door.  It was going to be a job getting them out through the doorway with the bench and the shelf and coats in the way.  She reached out an arm and unhooked the coats.  She tossed them to the ground then slid herself out until she sat crossways on the bench.  The chairs were then pulled out one at a time, slowly and methodically.  She pushed herself to be as silent as possible.  Once the three chairs were laid out on the hallway floor, she rose back up into the closet to extinguish the light and shut the door tight.

 

She pulled the string and was back in darkness.  To her confusion, she couldn’t find the door.  It should have still been open.  The coats were removed so there should have been light pouring in and guiding her way.  In sudden blindness, she stumbled and bumped around the closet, striking her hip on the sink and stubbing her toe on the toilet.  Her hands found a wall.  She guided herself around to where she thought the door should have been but overshot and returned to where she thought she started.  Her heart was speeding up.

 

Her pajama bottoms caught on something.  They pulled away from her rear end.  She tried twisting and reaching around but the pajamas only pulled more taut until she was off balance.  She threw herself in the opposite direction and heard a loud tearing.  Her legs were now bare.  She bent over and tried to find the torn pajamas.  As she backed up, she was tripped by the bench and found herself sitting back down looking back into the closet.

 

Oh, Randi!

 

She sat and thought for a moment before springing into action.  Instead of reaching for the door, she spun around and stood up.  She retrieved the coats from the ground and rehung them on the hooks, obscuring the doorway.  Maybe that was enough to hide the closet.  With luck, even from Minna.  She picked up the three chairs and lined them up in front of her.  Thank goodness she wore underwear to bed otherwise she’d be naked from the waist down except for her apron.  If she held the chairs close to her body they would cover up her bare legs.  There wasn’t a remedy yet for her backside.  Wrapping a jacket around her would draw more attention not less.  Using a combination of a wide grip and a balancing foot, she was able to bump-step the chairs back into the apartment.

 

In her absence, one of the gentlemen had found the lightswitch and turned it on.  Veranda would have preferred the darkness.  No one came to her assistance as she shimmied herself and the folding chairs back into the apartment.  She stood before the gentlemen, the stack of chairs guarding her bare legs from view.  They gentlemen stared at her but only as if she were a mere curiosity. She expected all the cell phones to rise up in unison and start filming her but they remained lowered in their laps.  She shook the chairs impatiently.  Had they forgotten it was they who requested them?  Sitting amongst the gentlemen on the futon was Crazy Mick.  He must have snuck into her apartment when she was in the secret closet.  He had a permanently sunburned face and an equally permanent smirk formed around a viscous overbite.  The gentlemen around him seemed to think he was a big hit and they matched his smirk with equal arrogance.  It figured that he and they would be a good fit.

 

Since no one was coming forward, she had to unfold the chairs herself and lay them out in front of her.  Three of the gentlemen approached and took the chairs, passing them among themselves.  There seemed to be more than three chairs.  About a half dozen gentlemen sat in a semi circle facing back towards the futon.  Crazy Mick had taken on the role of leader and they were his running dogs.  He had a cackling laugh and an argumentative nature which earned him the name although he had yet to know of it.  There were no “Thank You’s”.  No “Good Work”.  No acknowledgement of any kind.  Once the chairs had all been claimed, Veranda reached for her pad and pencil.  None of the men seem interested in coffee or food anymore.  If she were to get their attention they would turn and see that she was now without pants.  Even though she still felt compelled to say something, the words would not come out.

 

“What happened there?” said a woman’s voice from behind her.

 

Veranda looked over her shoulder.  There was a cloud of cigarette smoke hanging in the air and when it cleared, she saw her Grandma Sue sitting in the spot where the man with the baby had been.  Grandma Sue sat alone, leaning back against the wall, smoking and drinking coffee from a take-out cup.  She had been dead for about four years.

 

“Come over here.”  Grandma Sue said, bending the pointer finger on the hand that held the coffee cup in rapid movements.

 

Veranda stepped quickly towards her.  Yes, it really was Grandma Sue.  She smiled as she was filled with relief.  A friendly face.  Grandma Sue was in the ground before Veranda took the apartment.  Now was, unfortunately, not the greatest time to show her around.

 

“Stand over there, child, so they can’t see your bum.”  Grandma Sue indicated the space between the armchair and the wall.  Veranda wedged herself into it and ducked down.  She felt embarrassed to be in such a state of undress in front of her beloved Grandma Sue, whom she hadn’t seen since she was in high school.

 

“I tore my pants off on a nail.”  she said.

 

“Oh, you tore a lot more than that, child.” Grandma Sue chuckled and then took a deep drag of her cigarette.

 

Veranda looked down at herself and saw that she was somehow completely naked.  Not even her apron appeared to be with her anymore.

 

“Oh, no!”

 

“You poor thing.  Don’t be afraid.  They can’t see you.” Grandma Sue assured her.

 

Veranda heard the gentlemen talking on the other side of the chair.  She grabbed hold of the chairback to steady her balance.  Her fingers wrapped around smooth stone.  There was grass all around her.  A bird chirped in a nearby tree.  She looked down again and confirmed that she was still naked.  The narrow headstone in front of her didn’t offer enough concealment.  She looked back at Grandma Sue, fearful, pleading for guidance.

 

Sitting further away now, in her favourite easy chair, the one that had been put to the curb for the garbage men when no one else in the family had claimed it, she slurped up small mouthfuls of coffee after long blows across the top of the cup.  The pack of cigarettes she held in the other hand was identical to the packs her dad left for her in front of her gravestone.  The ones that were always gone the next visit, either removed by the staff or stolen by other visitors.

 

“No need to be ashamed, child.  Let’s see what we can do for you”

 

Veranda spun the quarter of a turn that it took to face Grandma Sue.  She sunk lower in her crouch, her butt almost touching the lawn.  She wrapped her arms around her chest lover-tight.  Her face flushed and she felt the hot wax running again.

 

“I’m sorry, Grandma Sue.”

 

“Oh, Don’t worry about that.  I just want to set eyes on you again.”

 

“I’m in so much trouble. I lost my apron.  My boss takes it out of my paycheck and they cost a lot.” 

 

“I wouldn’t worry about that now, child.  We’ve only got so much time, don’t we.”

 

“Why do these things always happen to me?”  She wanted to sob.

 

“That’s okay. That’s okay.  You’re just like your dad.  Trying to please everyone.”

 

“But I never do.”

 

“Did you know it was me who named you?” 

 

Veranda knew that already but said nothing.  She sniffled and kept listening. 

 

“It’s where they conceived you.”

 

Veranda knew that also.  This wasn’t her idea of “catching up”.

 

“You used to call me Vera.” Veranda offered.

 

“I always liked the name Vera but your mom didn’t.”

 

“Please can we not talk about my mom?  Sorry Grandma Sue.” Veranda cleared her suddenly scratchy throat. 

 

 “That’s okay.  I got my Vera back didn’t I.”

 

“I go by Randi now.”

 

“Oh, but Vera is such a classic name.”

 

“I should be getting back to work.  Somehow.”

 

“How old are you now?”

 

“Twenty two.”

 

“Twenty two, eh?  Oh my child.”

 

“How do I get back?”

 

“Vera, dear.  Can you do one last thing for your Gramma Sue?  It’ll be the last thing.”

 

“Okay.  Why the last thing?”

 

“Go into your bathroom and count to your age.”

 

“Twenty two?”

 

“That will do.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because it’s time to wake up.”

 

“Aren’t I awake now” 

 

“Are you?”

 

“How am I going to do that like this?”

 

“Just stand up.”

 

Veranda refused to move.

 

“Oh, go on, child.  Don’t be afraid.  Be obvious.”

 

“Ha ha, nice one Grandma Sue.”

 

Veranda held on to the headstone and rocked back and forth on the balls of her bare feet.

 

“Here goes…”

 

She shot straight up.  She was back in her apartment.  The headstone was the armchair again.  The bathroom door seemed so far away and there were so many gentlemen in the way.

 

“Oh, but…”

 

She turned towards Grandma Sue but she wasn’t there.  Oh, that’s right, thought Veranda.  She’s dead.  Veranda looked down at herself.  Yes, she was still naked.  Very, very obviously so.

 

All sound had ceased and, as she expected, all eyes turned to face her.   Even Crazy Mick had fallen silent.  He was now sitting perched on top of the futon backrest and was in the middle of a tall tale when he cut himself off.  She should have panicked but with everything equally at a standstill she felt strangely in command.

 

“Okay.” she murmured.

 

Veranda stepped out from around the chair and took a slow, cautious step forward like she was stepping off the edge of a dock.  She closed her eyes.  The hot wax under her arms froze up.

 

The gentlemen in the folding chairs stood up and backed away, pushing against the chairs with their legs.  Veranda passed amongst them silently, like a ghost that they could sense but not see.  She opened her eyes and saw the bathroom door getting closer.  Mr. Raoul stood at the edge of the kitchen looking into the living room.  “Veranna!” he called.  It was hard to tell whether he meant to sound exasperated or worried.

 

Veranda pushed the bathroom door open, spun and shut it with both hands.  She pressed the lock button then grabbed up a bath towel.  After wrapping herself in it, she checked the door lock one more time and backed away.  There were shadows of scurrying feet showing in the gap at the bottom of the door.  She expected the gentlemen to start knocking and pounding but the shadows receded as if swatted away.  Silence.  What were they up to?  Her next move would be a rush to her room for a new set of clothes.  If only Grandma Sue really were out there.

 

Oh Randi.  How do you always end up in situations like this?

 

She grabbed a hairbrush, not checking to see whose it was.  Her arm paused in mid-air like she was holding a microphone.  In the vanity mirror was the sixteen year old version of herself, the one with the thick brown hair that ran down past her shoulders.  She wore the tye-dye shirt, picked out by her dad on one of his business trips.  She never would have bought it for herself but she wore it anyway, on her first day as an ice cream server, because he had thought of her when he picked it.  Did she ever tell him how many compliments she received because of it?  Veranda raised the brush to the top of her head.  The girl in the mirror did the same.  The expression on both faces that of wonder and amazement.  Veranda knew that hair and remembered not liking it but seeing it again now after all these years saw that it was quite pretty, quite beautiful.  She began brushing slowly and counting, as Grandma Sue had urged her to do, “twenty-two one, twenty-two two, twenty-two three…”.  The longer she counted, the more she brushed, the faster her short hair grew out.

 

She found it pleasurable to feel the tickly tug of long hair caught in the bristles of a brush again.  She heard the crackling of static about her scalp, a sound she hadn’t heard in a long time.  She lost count several times and had to start over until she forgot about counting and rejoiced in her new appearance.  She smiled at the girl.  The girl smiled back.  They stared at each other, taking their measures.  Veranda saw that the bathroom behind the young girl was the bathroom of her youth, the one she shared with her younger sister, her older brother and her dad.  She spotted the giant flower stickers that she was allowed to put on the tiled wall.  The young girl looked quizzically beyond Veranda.  Veranda kept brushing as she casually turned around.  Then she stopped brushing.

 

Veranda was standing in the secret closet bathroom again.  Now it was clean.  And bright.  It had been given a thorough scouring since she was last in it.  The stacks of banana boxes were gone.  The debris on the floor had been swept up and the random piles of paper had been removed.  The hanging clothes had vanished along with the closet rod.  The old toilet and the old sink were sparkling clean.  From what she could see, the old claw foot tub was spotless and empty and waiting.  The bare bulb in the ceiling had been covered by a decorative glass sconce and even the pull string looked new.

 

The vanity mirror was wiped clean of cobwebs.  The sixteen year old girl was still in there.  She appeared to sniff the air just as Veranda discovered a pleasant scent about the room.  A smile grew on her face.  Yes, this is mine, she thought, taking all the credit.  She didn’t do any of the work but she had imagined it all and someone had fixed it up according to her wishes.  “I’m good, aren’t I.” she crowed at the girl in the mirror.

She wandered away from the mirror towards the magnificent bathtub.  She turned and sat on the edge crossing her legs and resumed brushing her fabulous long hair.  She took in the beauty of the room, her eyes darting impatiently from one component to the next.  It was all hers now and she could take as long as she wanted to explore it all.  How long could she get away with being in here?

 

There were fluffy white towels hanging from a decorative rack next to the tub.  They were the kind of towels and it was the kind of rack that you would find in all the best hotels.  Only better.  What had she done to earn all this luxury?  She was still wearing her old towel.  It was as good a time as any to run a bath and start fresh.  She reached back and put a hand on the hot water faucet.  She stopped.  What if the noise of filling a tub attracted attention?  Whose ears would pick that up?  She sat leaned over the tub, still as a statue.

 

Loud, thumping music shook the room.  Veranda felt the vibration of the tub under her thighs.  She let go of the faucet and steadied herself with both hands as she sat back up.  A window somewhere in the windowless room started to buzz.  There was an idling car outside, down below, with obnoxious music booming out of the stereo.  Veranda looked up and was surprised that she had not spotted the window before.  It was right there in the middle of the wall and it looked suspiciously like the window in her apartment bathroom.  They left it partially open because of the litter box smell.  This window was partially open as well.

 

A car door opened, releasing a new wave of hysterically loud music.  The door slammed shut and the car spun around, tires squealing.  It rocketed away into the distance and in its former place was a familiar cackling of laughter.  Crazy Mick!  He was down there somewhere.  Attempting to get back in.  Veranda’s instinct was to jump up and shut the window but realized an act like that would also draw attention. 

 

When she looked down from the window, the grey filing cabinet with the heavy large books on top was back in the room.  It sat about six feet away from her.   She was in her usual chair in her therapist’s office, her back to the window.  The therapist’s chair was empty.  She was running late.  Again.  Veranda must have drifted off while waiting and had started to dream.  She remembered being naked in front of her dead grandmother.  That was a good place to begin today’s session.  A beam of sunlight was pinned on the two books.   Veranda stood up and went for a closer look.

 

These books, these mysterious books, always held her attention whenever she answered a question posed by her therapist.  No matter how hard she tried, no matter that she was conscious of what she was doing, Veranda could not look her therapist in the eye.   She supposed that meant something.  Her therapist probably had a note or two about it.  Neither couldn’t help it.   Veranda decided that it was time she found out what was in these books.  What harm could come of it?  Maybe there was something useful in them that could help her.

 

The books were about six inches thick.  Who could possibly write such a book, let alone two of them?  And who would read these books?  Along the page edge were small coloured indents, indicating sections, the idea being to put your thumb in the indent and let the previous pages fall away when you opened the book.

She pulled one of the books away from the other and slid it along the top of the filing cabinet towards her.  She could tell it was going to be heavy and braced herself to receive the weight.  She pushed her belly against the filing cabinet and pulled the book down into her chest.  It was as if someone had passed her a cinder block.  She staggered under the sudden drop and had to step backwards to maintain her balance.  She snapped forward and had to strain every muscle in her arms to keep the book from landing on her feet.  In that position she couldn’t move anymore but her momentum was pushing her over, her centre of gravity still up in her body, her hips.  She was tipping back but she didn’t dare let go.  This might hurt in a lot of places when she landed but she was powerless to reverse her motion.

 

Oh Randi, how do you always… 

 

KLONK!

 

Something whacked the back of Veranda’s head, driving it forward, her chin forced down into her chest, her neck bending to its limits.  She could hear and feel the air pockets in her vertebrate popping and crackling.  Her eyes opened and she discovered that she was folded up like a taco shell in the bottom of a bathtub.  Her legs were pointed nearly straight up into the air.  The loose hems of her pajamas had drooped down her calves.  She drew her legs down and pushed against the bottom of the tub with her hands until her back slid up the far porcelain side.

 

Now, sitting cross legged in the bottom of the tub, she reached around and felt the back of her head.  It was hard to tell if there was a lump.  The skull naturally protruded in the spot that it hurt the most.  Her bum was wet and cold and she smelled urine.

 

“Oh, Randi!” she said to herself, disgusted.

 

She bounced on one cheek and then the other as she felt around down there for more wetness.  Nothing.  She stood up and felt small puddles of water under her feet.  Water from last night’s shower.  The bathroom mirror revealed a confused young woman with a brush of short silvery hair dressed in oversized flannel pajamas.   She felt as if she had been force-marched all night.

 

Balancing a hand on the back wall of the shower, she lifted a leg up and out of the tub. Her foot came down in the middle of Gabby’s litter box.  It felt like stepping into wet sand.  Another puff of urine smell touched her nostrils.  She sat on the edge of the tub and wiped her foot on the thrift store throw rug that doubled as a bath mat.  Minna will notice the mess in the morning but will blame it on Gabby.

 

She had a memory of an old, neglected powder room.  A dark windowless affair tucked away into the far corner of a house as if it brought shame.  Did such a place really exist?  She knew exactly how she’d fix it up if given the chance but for now her wet pajama bottoms clung to her skin and needed changing.  She stood up again and, avoiding her reflection in the mirror, pulled at the soggy material.  The small window was forever open because of the litter box.  An all-night bus passed by somewhere below.

 

All was quiet in the rest of the apartment except for the faint ticking of Veranda’s alarm clock that sounded through her open bedroom door.  The puddle of socks and the pair of mismatched slippers lay untouched from the night before at the foot of the couch and the sweater was flopped over the armrest like a shedded skin.  Gabby lay splayed out on the couch.  She slept so deeply that her spirit seemed to have gone out of her.  Veranda would stare at her flanks for as long as it took to notice it rising and lowering in a reassuring pattern.  When Veranda stepped out of the bathroom, Gabby awoke and stretched out a foreleg as if reaching out to touch the ghost that only she could see.

 

Something about Gabby didn’t sit well with Veranda.  She tried picking her up but the cat hissed and jumped down.  Veranda watched Gabby disappear into the kitchen.  The peelight gave it a hospital room glow.  Veranda crossed the living room to her bedroom but stopped when she saw the dish of coins sitting atop the stool step by the front door.  She looked closer.  The dish she recognized.  It was stolen from a diner on College Street that converted into a trendy coffee shop.  She’d never really paid attention to the amount of coins in it before.  There were a lot.  She touched the top coins then fished around the deeper coins as if she were dialling an old rotary phone.  They chinked together like a pile of nuts and bolts.

 

There was a deep, wall-shaking “thunk!” in Minna’s bedroom and seconds later, the door cracked open.  Minna stepped out wearing her full length nightgown and holding her fireplace poke like a club.

 

“Randi!  You okay?” Minna rubbed her forehead with her free hand.

 

“Is this your money or did someone else leave it here?”

 

“It’s both our money.  It’s ours.” 

 

“Gabby’s a ‘She’ right?”

 

“Yeah.  What’s going on?”

 

Veranda tried opening the front door but it was chained.  She fumbled with the chain, forgetting how to unlatch it.

 

“Where are you going at 1:30 in the morning?  In your pajamas.”

 

“Have you ever noticed a closet in the hallway?”

 

“Are you sleepwalking?”

 

“No!.  Maybe..yes.  No!  Yes.  No...”

 

“Go back to bed, hun.  You’ve got the breakfast shift.  Remember?”

 

Veranda continues to fumble with the chain.

 

“Randi!”

 

“Okay, okay.”  Veranda drops her hands away from the chain lock.

 

“I’m going back to bed.  Please don’t make any more noise.”

 

Instead of returning to her room, Minna made for the washroom.

 

“Minna!” Veranda called out.

 

“What?”

 

“I need you to clean your dishes.  All your dishes.”

 

“What?  Now?”

 

“I’m being obvious here.”

 

“I’ll do them tonight.  Okay?  Just go back to bed”

 

Veranda’s eyes drifted down to study the fireplace poker swinging in Minna’s hand as she walked away.  It had been left behind by the previous tenant but the apartment didn't have a fireplace.   It looked too heavy and impractical for a weapon but it also looked persuasive.  She wondered if Minna had ever swung it at anyone before or even practiced swinging it.  She almost practiced it on her. Minna leaned it against the wall before she went into the bathroom and closed the door.  It slid down the wall and clattered to the floor.  The hooked end snapped off.

 

Again, Veranda backed out of the apartment.  Gabby was in the doorway at her feet suddenly, meowing, trying to escape.  Veranda did some hissing of her own and pushed her back with her left foot.

 

“Get back cat!.” 

 

Gabby reluctantly reversed course and Veranda was able to guide the door gently back into its latch.

 

She turned to face the hallway.  With another sharp intake of breath and another slump back against the door, she beheld a dark figure up ahead of her.  It was a tall skinny man standing about twenty feet away.  The man was not facing her though.  He was turned to the side, his attention fixed on the neighbouring apartment door.  With relief, she came to realize that it was only Crazy Mick.  Still, she stood motionless and quiet as if cornered by a black bear.  Her hands drew up behind her and double gripped the doorknob.  She needn't have worried though.  Crazy Mick hadn’t noticed her.  His hand was holding the key that was fully set in the lock but his entire body appeared to have seized up.  She thought he was looking down at the handle as he let himself into his apartment but in actuality he was asleep, his head bent forward, his forehead resting against the door.  His breathy intakes started low and grew quickly and loudly until they exploded past his pinched windpipe.  His long and slow exhales were silent.  The ground beneath his feet was firmly back in place, dull and dirty carpet running between dull and dirty walls.

 

There was a single fluorescent fixture overhead that never shut off.  The two long tubes inside had been failing for a while, one of them flickering.  The dimpled lens was yellow and chipped with ragged holes from all the times it had fallen to the floor.  In the rare instances where it was wedged back in place, the landlord being indifferent to this sort of thing, it filled with the bodies of dead flies and wasps.  There was grit beneath Veranda’s toes and heels, sand from outdoors that had never been swept or vacuumed up.  To her immediate right was the coat rack on which hung several jackets, a mix of hers and Minna’s.   She kept one hand on the doorknob and reached out with the other to swish aside the various jackets, looking for her secret door.  Finding her method lacking,  she let go of the doorknob and bent closer to the jackets.  Using both hands now she pushed them side and studied the underneath wall intensely.  No door knob, no door frame.  She felt around, tracing her fingers along the wood paneling.  Crazy Mick moaned, a quick loud utterance that sounded like he had just been given bad news over the phone.  Veranda stopped what she was doing.  There was a coldness against the bare skin of her lower back.  It crept up her spine.  Her pajama top had fallen away from her pajama bottoms.  She stood up slowly, adjusted herself and stepped carefully back to her door without looking back

 

She put one hand on the door ready to push it inward and one hand on the doorknob ready to twist it open.  She wanted this action done in one quick motion.  She looked down and kept one foot at the ready for when Gabby, who was surely waiting on the other side, tried to bolt.   She squeezed the doorknob and turned but it held fast.

 

Oh, Randi…

 

“Please don’t say it!” Veranda whispered.

 

She released her grip and waited for a second before trying the procedure again.  This time she squeezed harder and put more force into the twist.  The doorknob seemed to push back with equal force.  There was a twinge in her wrist.

 

She could hear Gabby meowing on the other side.  Maybe that would draw Minna’s attention.  She didn’t want to knock or call out.  Using her fingernails, she tapped lightly on the door and tried whispering Minna’s name but nothing came out.  There was an enormous, drawn out sigh behind her.  A sigh that could have signalled the passing of a soul from the body.  Then silence.

 

She turned her head and twisted her shoulders.  Crazy Mick was looking at her through the slits of his eyelids.  There was a momentary shine to them as he adjusted his head.   His lips were partially open and curled as if frozen in mid-word like in a rushed snapshot.  The smell of freshly smoked weed hit her nostrils.  His eyes closed again.  His hand still held the key that was still in the lock.  He nestled his cheek against the dark wood of the door like the bosom of his own mother.

 

THE END





 


Submitted: April 15, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Horto. All rights reserved.

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