In the Neighborhood

📅 Published on August 4, 2021

“In the Neighborhood”

Written by Pamela Cottam
Edited by N.M. Brown
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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Aggie circled the address and folded up the paper. It had taken almost seven years for the Pittsburgh Observer to return listing real estate in their Saturday edition. Luckily with the recession having decreased enough to beckon a mini housing boom back to the Pittsburgh area, the paper reintroduced its housing section. Aggie knew not all landlords – especially older ones – advertised online. She thought this to be especially true to those who lived in older sections of Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and Oakland near so many of Pittsburgh’s universities. The houses were big, bedrooms large, and many owners advertised rooms to let on telephone posts and college bulletin boards. Some are listed only in the paper.

Sidling over to the other side of a metal bench painted dark green and chipping, she tapped the number. A Port Authority Transit bus roared by as an ambulance bleated its way along Forbes Avenue. She held the phone close to one ear and covered the other with her hand.

“Hi. Hello? I am calling about the advertisement for a room, an apartment in your house?” She turned back toward the bustling street, the bus now down the hill and the ambulance siren a distant refrain.

“Yes?” An older man’s voice.

“I would like to arrange a time to see it? I hope it is still available. I’m pretty desperate – I have to give up my lease up in the next two weeks. Your price is good, and your location is right near a bus stop for my school. Your house is on…”

“Seville Alley – near Wightman? My entrance is on Wightman, but come in through the back from the alley – I rarely use the front cause I’ve got nosey neighbors! Anyway, all the houses are red brick, but you have my address, and I have a green wooden door.”

Aggie asked for details about rent, utilities and where to get groceries. She told him her situation and her need to move fast.

“What time will you visit?” He had a gruff, low voice like her grandfather’s minus the Pittsburgh accent. She pictured him in khakis and flannel shirt, on a fireplace recliner watching golf, a welcoming, grandfatherly twinkle in his eyes. A dog barked in the background. Nice.

“Tomorrow evening, around 6:30. Will that work?”

“How about 7- the other tenants will have settled in by then.” He cleared his throat.

“Thank you. Oh, by the way, my name is Aggie Krieg.”

“Nice to meet you, Aggie. I’m Bill. See you tomorrow.”

She closed her cell, feeling relieved, less anxious. If this worked out, she’d have enough time to pack her few belongings and move in by the time the fall semester started. In her junior year at Pitt, she had expected to room with her friend, Diane, in the two-bedroom cramped apartment they shared on Craig street near Pitt. Diane had mentioned that she and Todd (short for Thaddeus) thought about getting their own place.

But with summer near an end and no discussion or visits to check out new homes. Todd’s monosyllabic vocabulary and nightly beer ponging with friends in there -Aggie and Diane’s – crowded living room finally smacked Diane into seeing the lumbering idiot that Todd was. Instead, the happy couple dropped the news that they’d signed a lease for a Shadyside apartment like a slaughtered pig before Aggie’s feet, just as Todd retrieved the oft used and dented red solo cups from atop the refrigerator to set up for beer pong. No, sorry this happened so fast, or sorry, we fucked you over with only a week to find a roommate, or we know you can’t afford it on your own, but maybe someone else is desperate, too, and needs to find a place fast.

She didn’t have time to be mad at Diane. Someday she’d give her friend an earful for being so insensitive. Todd, she couldn’t believe otherwise, would be long gone.

Aggie got off the Penndot bus on Murray Avenue, near the Giant Eagle supermarket. She looked in the window of the Kosher deli, walked past Sichuan Gourmet and Pamela’s Diner, and crossed Forbes Avenue. Squirrel Hill on Thursday night was bustling with cars, bicyclists and pedestrians. When she crossed Forbes Avenue, shops and banks disappeared, and in their place, tall, stately homes snuggled together like roosting birds. She turned left onto Aylesboro and walked past old, three-and four-story brick homes framed in fencing and kept private with stained glass windows and draping foliage. She reached Wightman, and sure enough – six houses down, Seville Alley bisected the block, exposing the backsides of those very houses she’d passed.

Aggie checked her phone. If she got the apartment and needed to stop at the supermarket before going home after classes, she’d have an eight to ten-minute walk to Bill’s. Perfect.

The cobblestones rippled in waves as they streamed up the alley to the cross street. Rusted iron grills and wooden fencing separated houses and makeshift storage areas. Nestled along the bulging roots of elm were small, blue bags piled like a pyramid, a testimony to the humming flies and the pervasive smell of dog poop that overlay the soft rot of compost and grass clippings along the curb. Up ahead, she saw a green wooden door under a porch. The lawn was cut, long-dead flowers drooped from plastic pots. Grillwork over the windows gave Aggie a sense of safety already. Bill was no fool. He knew thieves could break a window.

Aggie knocked on the door. She waited, a good feeling inside her.

She knocked again. The house was huge, and the only light she could see was in a second-floor window.

Using her cell phone, she called Bill. It rang three times then stopped. No message, no forwarding ability. When she’d talked to Bill the day before, he’d answered right away.

Aggie tried again. Same thing. She paused, looking around. A car screeched somewhere in the distance. The air sat still, suspended in the alley as a dog barked inside the house.

She cut around the narrow strip of lawn between Bill’s house and his neighbor’s, stepping over low-lying shrubs and gnomes whose eyes twinkled at the sky with puffed cheeks and malicious grins. She climbed the stone steps and crossed over to the door. Softly she knocked on the front door, worried a noisy neighbor or resting tenant might hear. Maybe Bill had trouble hearing and just didn’t know it. He sounded old enough. She thought back to her grandfather, who’d finally gotten a hearing aid after Aggie’s parents spent days pantomiming their words in frantic gesticulations. Bill had written in the ad that one of his tenants had left, meaning there were others. Maybe someone else would be awake and hear her.

A light flicked on from inside, lighting the outside. Thank God. She heard movement, a thud and hurried thumps. The door opened, and a furry golden retriever pushed its way to the front, where it rubbed its snout against the glass before going up on its hind legs and pawing the door.

“Welcome, young lady. You must be Aggie. And this…” he pulled on the dog’s collar and ordered her to sit, “is Mollydog. My Mollydog, aren’t you?”

The dog panted by his owner’s leg and sat still. Aggie took in the spaciousness of the house and Bill’s jolly face. He resembled someone she’d seen on TV, but she couldn’t place the name. A zip-up maroon cardigan lay overworn khakis and a collared shirt. Tiny plods of plucked thread littered the sweater along with dog hair. His grin stretched across a receding jawline, and he stared at her behind dark-rimmed reading glasses. When he beckoned her into the living room, she saw a hearing aid plugging his left ear. ‘It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood’ popped into her head.

They talked for an hour about college, his life, and Mollydog.

“I wish I could show you the room you’ll have. Jonathan won’t move out until next week, and the other occupants aren’t here for you to meet. It’s an eclectic group of people, you see, with different jobs and schedules, but you will like them all.” Bill jutted forward from the couch, where Mollydog had curled beside him, her head now resting her head on her paws. “You’re not allergic to cats, are you?” Eyes wide, his earnest face mimicked the severe tone of his question.

“No. We – my roommate and I – have a cat in our place. But it’s hers – Jazzie, we call him. She will take him with her when she moves. So, I’ll be catless soon, but I like them. Why?”

Bill smiled and sighed appreciatively. “Dana, on the third floor across from you, No. 8, has two cats: Mungo and Gerrie – she likes musicals. They are house cats, get along with Mollydog, but I had a guy who couldn’t live with cats. Allergic. I had to use an epi-pen once. I just wanted to warn you.”

Aggie just knew she belonged here.

Bill slapped his thighs and stood up. “Time to show you a room – not yours, but just like the one you’ll have. At least you’ll know what to expect.”

Aggie rose from the couch and followed Bill past a music room with a piano and cello that glistened under a giant chandelier. His navy blue sneakers made no sound on the polished hardwood floors as they reached a long, carpeted stairway. Her heart fluttered. She didn’t know Bill, didn’t know the house. For god’s sake, she hadn’t even asked him his last name. Aggie hesitated. On an end table to the right of the stairs, a twelve by fifteen framed photograph of Bill and his wife showed a beaming Bill and Allison on their marriage day. In her talk with Bill, she learned Allison had been the love of his life. She’d died painfully and cruelly months before. Per Bill, she’d been cremated. The big old house just screamed for people and voices other than those within his memory, so Bill had begun to rent out the spacious rooms and renovate others into mini apartments.

The stairs ended in a shadowed landing. Mollydog leaped ahead of her onto the stairs and barked. Bill turned on a hallway light.

“After you, my dear.” He placed a fatherly pat on her arm as she took the first step.

Moving day came fast, and Aggie’s meager belongings fit nicely into a few boxes and bags piled into Diane’s car. Saturday in Squirrel Hill bustled with pedestrians – Orthodox Jews going to temple, Chinese students walking in groups, runners and dog walkers vying for space along the sidewalks, cars honking as traffic stopped for someone trying to parallel park on Murray. Diane drove her lime-green Kia through the mess and pulled into the sun-spotted alley behind Bill’s house.

“Hey, wouldn’t it have been easier to park in front and go in that way?” Diane clutched a brown cardboard UPS box filled with books as she and Aggie went up the back steps.

“Probably. But he says the neighbors are nosy, and one lady is always asking questions about his tenants, and he thinks what his boarders do for a living and their schedules are no one’s business. He said coming in from the alley mutes the gossip.”

Bill had left a note on the door: Make yourself at home. The key is in the foyer under your welcoming flowers. Please be quiet – others might be sleeping. I will be back later today. Bill.

Yellow, red and white flowers stood at attention, tied with twine. Aggie picked them up and sniffed them. Diane grunted under the weight of her box.

A green welcome mat stretched along the kitchen floor. Aggie and Diane walked across the wide plank floor, polished and glistening in an immaculate kitchen twice the size of their former living room. Past the pantry, they entered the first-floor foyer. A dining room, music room and library occupied the other side of the foyer. On their side, the kitchen adjoined the living room, offering a separate sitting area enclosed by long windows for intimate conversation. Sunlight beamed through the long windows.

“This place is gorgeous! Wow, you lucked out, Ag.” Diane whispered as she looked around at the polished wooden beams and scrolled molding. “Sure keeps it clean for a landlord.”

“I know.” No Todd, no stale smell of beer on his person whenever he stayed over or dented solo cups that had fallen off the table and rolled in the dust. Wisps of hair fell from Aggie’s ponytail as she carefully, quietly lugged her box up the stairs, taking care not to startle any late sleepers. She stopped halfway up to the second landing to catch her breath.

“Bill reminds me of someone on TV. But it’s Mollydog you have to see – she is sooo sweet. I can’t wait to ask Bill if he’ll let me take her for a walk.” All this whispered to Diane as Aggie glanced outside at the alley. A malodorous ripple of dog poop and garbage breezed through the open screen. She winced and continued past the second floor to the third.

A steeple-shaped ceiling ran the length of the third floor, divided into three apartments on each side.

“This is beautiful. Which apartment is yours?” Diane’s soft, drawn voice forced a slow swirl of dust motes in the air.

“Here’s my key; there’s my apartment!” Aggie beamed before placing the skeleton key into door No. 7.

Aggie organized her belongings in a little over an hour. An ornately brocaded couch sat in one corner of her living room, a Persian rug and armchairs in front and a low coffee table in between. A colossal window stared down from the kitchen onto the rooftop of a neighbor’s house. In the bathroom, a clawfoot tub grasped old blue tiles with a wrap-around shower curtain. Except for a closet-sized windowless bedroom, Aggie savored the beauty of her apartment in the classy old neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. Not to mention finding a kindly, grandfatherly owner with a great dog. Diane bid her goodbye (kiss kiss), gave her a house-warming cactus from the Dollar Store and rushed back to rouse Todd from a beer-induced hangover.

Aggie walked to the Giant Eagle and picked up instant mac’n cheese and lunch items, enough that she could carry back to Bill’s without struggle. Maybe when she got back, some of the tenants would be up and about. She stopped at Bruegger’s Bagels and an Asian store selling incense to promote good karma. Clouds swirled around a blue sky in a friendly wind that scuttled leaves and seeds along the sidewalks. Aggie thought of silver linings and had to agree; Diane and Todd’s rotten timing had been a blessing for her.

It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood….

She entered the house and smelled coffee. In the kitchen, leftover scrambled eggs sat pouting and cold in a cast-iron skillet, a Mr. Coffee on and half full. Something smelled like baked goods right from the oven. Aggie hurried to the stairs and peeked into the living room, half expecting to see one of the tenants. Music, something jazzy, drifted down from upstairs.

A banana bread wrapped in cellophane with a ribbon and note sat on the floor outside her apartment. Aggie placed her bags on the floor and opened the letter. Welcome, neighbor! Leave for vacation today, but I will catch up with you as soon as I return. You’ll love the house and Bill. See you soon. Dana

Aggie’s eyes teared up. She turned the key and hipped it open, moving fast to her kitchen table, where she let go of her bags before going back for the banana bread. Outside her kitchen window, dried leaves cluttered the gutters and pigeons clustered in a group near the chimney. Their coos muted through the glass, their feathers shiny then dull as clouds played in the sunlight. Aggie looked for a latch to open the window, but the panels were caulked shut. She made a mental note to ask Bill if she could remove the hardened paste and open the window for fresh air. Aggie figured the only trespasser might be a pigeon come to roost or steal leftover crumbs with no fire escape to climb up to the third floor.

Aggie walked downstairs and followed the smell of coffee to the kitchen.

Bill stood at the sink, washing dishes and humming. Mollydog lay at his feet, her blond face snuggled between furry paws.

“Excuse the mess in here. I spent some time with Eric upstairs, number 6. I doubt you two have met. He left for Frisco for the next two weeks, so you won’t meet him for a while. Security consultant, always on the move.” Bill turned and grinned, soapy hands holding a soapy dish. “Be careful, pretty lady. The ladies say he’s a real Casanova! Loves jazz.” He winked and held up an empty mug. “Coffee?”

“Yes, please.” Aggie bent down to ruffle the dog’s ears. “I haven’t met the other tenants, but Dana left me a greeting and some bread. So nice of her. She said she’s going on vacation?”

“Well, sort of. Her mom is sick, and she is going to help her out, somewhere near the Poconos.” Bill poured Aggie’s coffee and scooted a blue enamel canister of sugar along the counter. He offered Half and Half to her.

“I guess I’ll meet her when she gets back. Whose feeding her cats?”

Aggie stirred her coffee. Sunlight streamed through the kitchen window, reflecting off a toaster gleaming like new and a crowded key ring hanging above it on a hook. Blue jays squawked outside, and a mourning dove cooed from somewhere nearby.

“Cats?” Bill handed her a napkin. He was wearing the same cardigan and khakis he’d worn when she interviewed with him. He smiled over his coffee, big sparkling eyes behind his glasses.

“Yes. When we first met, you mentioned if I was allergic to cats because the lady on the third floor with me has cats.” Aggie inwardly smiled. Bill might not only be hard of hearing, but he might also be confusing stories in his old age. Or he was maybe forgetting.

“Yes. Oh, yes, Aggie.” He shook his head and chuckled, finally connecting the dots. “Glad you reminded me.” The gesture was akin to the confusion her own grandfather experienced, and Bill’s response reinforced a warm familiarity as if she were a little girl and back home.

Bill grabbed a rag and wiped away sugar grains and toast crumbs.

“I’ll be meeting friends out tonight. No problem with me coming home late, I hope?”

“No problem. Just be quiet, come in through the alley, of course, and lock the door behind you.” He grinned and patted her shoulder.

“Oh, hey Bill, is it possible for me to open my window? I noticed it’s sealed with caulk or something like that. Either way, I can’t open it.” She finished her coffee, and Bill reached for her mug.

He cocked his head and looked at her. That wide grin returned. “Of course. Do you mind if I get to it later in the week when you’re in classes?” His chin disappeared, and he stared at Aggie.

Funny little man. “Of course,” Aggie said.

She met friends at Mineo’s Pizza for dinner before going down to Shadyside, where she drank three IPA’s with a tinge of peach flavoring and two shots of Bourbon at Cappy’s Café, Beer at Diane and Todd’s place, and caught a late bus to Squirrel Hill. Each time the Penndot bus swirled around a corner, booze gurgled inside her threatening to gurgle right up and out. Street lights diffused, fuzzy. A warm drizzle soaked the streets, and pedestrians clustered along the sidewalks, hoods and umbrellas up. She held tight to the door rail as she got off the bus, trying hard to walk straight and be aware. Bodies moved toward her, past her, around her, and she hoped she didn’t smell of alcohol. Crossing Forbes, neon lights and eateries disappeared, and she entered the dark stretches of Murray Avenue. A gentle mist was floating ghostlike from the hot pavement, shrouding the scant glow of streetlights. Try as she might, she walked a crooked line back to Bill’s place.

In through the alley door, she tiptoed on the kitchen floor. A light burned in the music room. If Bill or a tenant were up late, they’d see her drunk. Step by uneasy step, she crept through the foyer to the stairway and up to the second floor. She took out her key and wobbled down the corridor before registering the numbers: she and Dana were 7 and 8, on the third floor. A saxophone played low from Room 6. She felt slog-headed, woozy as she backtracked and climbed the stairs. A wall sconce lent a soft, warm glow along the corridor. Outside her door, she rummaged through her purse and found her keys. She placed the key in her door when a thud sounded across the hall, then a sound of breaking glass and pinging along the floor. She jumped and felt her heart thump. She paused, looked around her and then stepped to Dana’s door. She placed her ear next to the wood. Quiet.

Aggie rubbed her eyes and cursed her wraithlike, floating thoughts. She darted back to her apartment. Holding on to the counter with one hand, she poured a large plastic glass of water and drank. If Dana was in the Poconos, what caused the crash in her apartment? Maybe she should wake Bill, but she didn’t know where he slept. She looked at her phone, almost two am. No, she wouldn’t call him this late or let him see her glassy-eyed and drunk on her first night at his place. She considered asking the music player on the second floor for help, but he or she might tell Bill he’d just rented to a drunken college student.

Aggie struggled to think clearly. Dana’s apartment was too high in the house, just like hers, for a burglar to be crashing in. Maybe a picture fell, or a window or light broke. Shit, what if one of the cats caused the crash, or the crash caused injury or death to one of the cats?!? Her mind reeled. Maybe instead of waking the whole damn household, she should check things out for herself, a neighborly gesture to pay back Dana for the banana bread.

Only, she needed a key.

Aggie drank more water before heading downstairs. The saxophone still played from Room 6 on the second floor. She glanced down the corridor. Drizzle fell like silent teardrops on a window at its furthest reach. Damn, if she weren’t so wasted, she’d go to saxophone man’s apartment and ask for help. Eric, that was his name. Mr. Casanova.

She continued to the first-floor foyer, where she skirted the dining room and peeked into the music room. The piano’s silhouette sat dark, a low thrumming of rain the only sound coming from the room. Mollydog barked from somewhere below her as Aggie rushed to the kitchen. A dull, yellow light above the kitchen sink came on when she hit the light switch. The keyring was still hanging above the toaster, and Aggie hoped they were Bill’s copies to the apartments. She lifted the ring and fisted them in her hand to prevent jingling. A rectangular cork board with tin pockets numbered 1-8 for mail hung on the side of the refrigerator, unnoticed by her that morning. She looked at her pocket, and it was empty. She took three steps out of the kitchen and came to a dead stop. A deep fluttering bloomed inside her chest as she slowly walked back to the refrigerator. Of eight mail pockets, hers was the only one with a name.

She paused and tried to get a grip on thoughts moving too fast through her head. Another soft bark came from downstairs. No way she wanted Bill to find her sneaking around with his set of keys, drunk in the middle of the night. She rushed back to the foyer and up the stairs.

Outside Dana’s apartment, she slowly breathed and tried one key, then another. The third lock slid in easily and turned with a click. There was no sound from Mollydog. She nudged the door open, a wedge of light falling on the apartment floor. Across the far side of the room, two tall straight-backed chairs stood like guards at either end of a long, brocaded couch. A small table and lamp sat to her left. Unease settled over her like fine dust. Opening the door wider, she stepped inside, the bare wood floor groaning under her weight. She turned on the light.

“Here, kitty, kitty,” she whispered. The living room and dining room lay in quiet repose, empty and uncluttered. Dust bunnies dotted the floor in place of rugs or carpet, and a fug born of stale air and old heating squeezed the room. Aggie crossed to the couch and peeked under it. Her footprints unsettled the fine pallor coating the floor.

In the kitchen, she turned on the light. “Hey, kitties. Where are you?” The kitchen sink sparkled, and the counter was bereft of appliances, dishes, soap or rags. Bare floorboards showed no cat dishes, water bowls or garbage can. The kitchen table and chairs sat upright, and the cupboards closed. Aggie figured that Dana must have confined the cats elsewhere. She headed to the living room, where a closed door suggested a bathroom or bedroom.

Aggie heard the hum of rain and felt a subtle current of air when she opened the door. A long window clung to a hinge like a desperate climber. A pane had broken and lay scattered on the floor, but no rain was coming in. She feared a hurt cat and anxiously peered under the bed and behind a wide, upholstered rocking recliner. A small opening between the louvered doors of Dana’s closet gave Aggie hope the cats had settled inside. She pushed open the closet, looking right and left. No cats, no… Her insides were coiled. Nothing. No shoes, clothes, boxes. Empty.

A warm wind scuttled leaves along the roof in the quieting drizzle outside the room. Inside, that same wind shuffled dust bunnies across the floor and into corners. A tingling prescience made her straighten her back and look into Dana’s bathroom. She opened the medicine cabinet, pulled the shower curtain back, opened the vanity doors—pristine cleanliness and devoid of toiletries, towels, personal items of any sort.

How could one explain the note from Dana and the banana bread outside her door? Bill had talked about Dana’s cats. Aggie inhaled deeply, deliberately, trying to clear her head. she beat a determined walk to the hallway out the bedroom and across Dana’s living room floor. Something was amiss. Maybe Dana left without telling Bill she was gone for good. Maybe Dana cleaned the apartment to get her deposit back before telling Bill she wasn’t returning from the Poconos. Maybe Bill had the cats with him, wherever he slept with Mollydog. Perhaps she was confused about which apartment Dana lived in.


Maybe there was no Dana.

In her own apartment, Aggie lifted the makeshift vase she’d made out of a plastic glass to hold Bill’s welcoming flowers. Coreopsis, baby’s breath and cosmos radiated from a bunch of ferns. Bill’s welcoming note lay under the vase. Aggie took out the handwritten note and reread it under the light of the sink. Bill’s writing would have made Sister Bea, the nun who taught cursive at Aggie’s Catholic elementary school, glow with pleasure at his gentle, almost feminine script. Aggie imagined the red ‘A’ at the top, Bill’s paper pinned to the bulletin board for everyone to see.

Aggie lay it face up on the counter.

The remaining banana bread sat wrapped in its cellophane near her sink. She bent down to her recycling can and fingered its contents, looking for Dana’s note. The word insidious scrabbled like crabs across her thoughts. She scrounged through the boxes she’d lugged in earlier that day when she and Diane had unloaded her belongings. Aggie’s mouth felt dry, acidic and she paused to drink more water. The water cleared her mouth but gurgled in her stomach. She searched the garbage can before rifling through her raincoat pockets and jeans. The note was gone.

She thumbed through her purse and found it, wadded into a ball with a piece of chewed Bazooka bubble gum she’d dumped when her first bourbon arrived. She’d shown the note to Teddy when he’d shocked her by mumbling if she liked living in ‘Mr. Rogers neighborhood,’ which garnered laughs from all around. Now, under the kitchen light, Aggie pried the sticky gum away from Dana’s note and stretched out the crinkled, spit-stained paper. She placed it next to Bill’s welcoming letter. She hadn’t noticed, but why would Bill risk her making the connection?

Maybe he was crazy, or maybe he was a sick man confused by dementia. A tender shoot of compassion wrested its way up and into her being. His wife gone, lonely for months, needing people around him. He had tenants, so obviously, what? She’d heard footsteps and music on the other floor; Bill said Eric was a Casanova and was going away for two weeks. People worked different hours, and hell, she’d only lived there one day. It was entirely possible that she’d just missed the others with the comings and goings of a busy Saturday. Maybe she’d wait until the morning and tell Bill about Dana’s broken window and empty apartment. And ask about Mungo and Gerrie.

Aggie’s imagination ran haywire; she wanted to wring Diane’s neck and stuff a fucking ping pong ball down Todd’s throat for putting her in this situation.

She still had Bill’s keys. She had to return them to the hook downstairs before morning. She also had to clear her head. Too many what-ifs and maybe’s swirling like a cyclone in her alcohol-addled brain.

Aggie took a shower, where the hot water eased her mind and relaxed her body.

She thought of calling Diane; fuck Todd, who’d likely snore through the call anyway.

Out of the shower and still tipsy, she put on her PJs, robe and Minnetonka moccasins.

Leaves clumped on the eaves outside her window, but the rain had stopped. A sliver of moonlight limned the clouds. She drank one more glass of water and felt bloated. Something echoed in her mind. An ‘aha’ moment caught her as she stood looking out her kitchen window. The saxophone coming from the end of the second floor. Eric, the Casanova, went to Frisco as Bill had mentioned- Number 6. But his music was playing.

Bile rose in her throat, and she had a second where she leaned her head over the sink and expected to puke. Her mind imagined all sorts of scenarios from Friday Fright Night films in her youth. She breathed deeply, berating herself for such stupid thoughts.

Keys in her robe pocket, she walked out her room and into the corridor. Tiptoeing down the steps, she brought forth mettle encouraged by her need to know and nourished by the disbelief of her inebriated thoughts—one step, two steps, now on the landing to the second floor. Music played from one of the rooms at the end. Aggie crept down the corridor. She placed her ear to room 5, then stepped across to room 6. A horn, exhaling long, low notes with other instruments.

Aggie knocked. The music curled and repeated, and then low, throaty sounds from a woman took the stage. Aggie rapped fast and gently on the door, felt the pain in her knuckles. Irritation moldered within her. Fucking someone had to be home, playing this music, unless Eric had forgotten to turn it off. She fingered the keys and placed one in the lock. If someone burst open the door demanding to know what she was doing, she’d tell them about Dana’s apartment and plead her need for help. If no one was home, well, she needed to know. She’d never questioned Bill’s story; she’d been too stupid to even ask for his last name.

Maybe she should talk to those nosey neighbors Bill warned her of.

The fifth key clicked as her bladder’s balloon felt ready to burst. She so wanted to cry, to scream, to have someone with her.

Opening the door provided little light in the room. Looming like a giant was an armoire in the middle of the back wall, its steepled point almost touching the ceiling. A recliner rested next to a coffee table, with a radio turned on. Aggie moved across the bare floor and turned on a wall lamp. It was like her innards dropped an inch.

She checked out the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom. Just like in Dana’s room: empty closets and bare cupboards – a fitting place for old Mother Hubbard. Not even a roll of toilet paper after she’d scrunched her legs and just made it to Eric’s toilet in time to pee.

There was no Eric, no Casanova wooing women to his bed.

Dust bunnies stuck like friends to her Minnetonka’s.

The muscles in her arms, her legs felt like weights. A stark reality, clarity after a dream, hit her like a punch to the gut. She walked out of the room and tiptoed to the next room, number 5. She found its key and turned the lock. She turned on a light with each room down to number 1, looked for signs of a tenant, but found none. Bill lied to her or suffered delusions. He’d lied in the advertisement, filled his house with non-existent people, and created stories about their lives.

She was alone in the house with Bill.

Aggie locked the last room. She heard a thumping sound and whimpering rising from below. Aggie ran up to her apartment floor and quickly, quietly locked the door. Seconds later, Mollydog patted along the floor outside her door, groaning and sniffing the bottom. More thump-thumping, this time in Aggie’s chest. She switched off the light above her kitchen sink and waited as the dog’s shadows scurried to and fro under the door.

“Hey, my girl, what’s wrong?” Bill spoke low outside Aggie’s door. “What’s gotcha going, huh?” Mollydog gave a plaintive cry and quieted. “Come on, girl. Let’s get you outside.” The dog thumped away.

Aggie wanted to whimper, but the back of her throat wouldn’t budge. If Bill were taking the dog outside to pee, he’d probably take her to the alley from the kitchen. Aggie threw on her jeans, t-shirt and jacket. She grabbed her backpack and stuffed underwear, toiletries, and necessary items – purse and phone, into compartments. She’d call an uber outside and sleep with Diane and Todd for the night.

Aggie watched the clock. It was close to 4 am, and she hadn’t heard a sound since Bill had taken Mollydog downstairs and out to pee – over an hour ago. No longer a sot, she felt clearer-headed. Her stomach rumbled and threatened to empty, but she’d drunk so much water she couldn’t handle another drop. She reached for the banana bread but couldn’t bring herself to eat it. After hoisting on her overloaded backpack, she grabbed her tote and opened the apartment door. Heart pounding loud in her ears and sweat pooling under her arms, she braced herself at the top of the stairs and waited. Not a vibration of wind against the windows, the patter of Mollydog, or the shuffling of Bill’s feet. Each step a nightmare, she tiptoed down to the second-floor landing and paused, panic as sharp as the beating of her heart.

A low voice sounded from the living room, where a dim light shone.

“Mollydog’s been good, you know. She gets along well with the tenants and especially likes our new girl, Aggie. She’s a nice young lady. And, do you know what? Dana made her banana bread for her arrival. Now there’s someone who I want to keep. A keeper, you’d call her.” Bill chuckled.

Aggie couldn’t move. She wrestled with continuing to the kitchen, screaming, and finding out who Bill was speaking to. Who was he talking to, now, so early in the morning? Maybe she was wrong; maybe there was someone else, another apartment in the basement she didn’t know about. Her backpack lay heavy on her shoulders. She needed to leave now. Right away.

“I’ll do some gardening today. Take Mollydog for a walk later. I wish you were here, as always. I know, I know, life goes on. That’s what they all say. Sometimes, though, it seems to stop.” Bill chuckled. “Anyway, love of my life, I’ll get you settled soon in your room, in a pretty, permanent place.”

She had to know.

Aggie crept to the living room, too afraid to look in, too confused not to. Bill rested in an armchair, legs folded, hands folded in his lap. He wore his zipped maroon cardigan and khaki trousers. His grin stretched wide along with his receding jowl as he stared intently at a see-through freezer bag filled with gray and white-flecked dirt or powder that sat atop a folded Giant Eagle paper bag.

Aggie later wondered if her heavy drinking caused the synapses in her brain to disconnect. Seconds or minutes – she didn’t know how long she stood taking every wrong turn until click! The connection jolted her. Mrs. Bill? And what was Bill…. Adrenaline squeezed her muscles. She flew out of the foyer and toward the kitchen, where a sleeping Mollydog lay by the pantry. Aggie saw nothing as she rushed. Mollydog wailed, her haunch trampled by Aggie’s foot. The dog rose, a silhouette in the ambient light and pushed against Aggie. Aggie threw Bill’s keys on the counter as she legged the hound out of her way. Mollydog barked twice.

“Mollygirl, what’s wrong? You’ll wake the tenants!” Bill’s whisper grew louder as he neared the kitchen.

Aggie pushed out the door and slammed it. Past the pyramid of blue dog poop bags and the gentle smell of rot, Aggie ran across the cobblestone, out the alley and away from Bill.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Pamela Cottam
Edited by N.M. Brown
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Pamela Cottam

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