As always, first Monday of the month we start things off with a flash fiction piece inspired by a photo. I hope you enjoy this entry and please visit the other writers. Mine is titled The Fourth Neighbor
The men in the apartment parking lot wouldn’t seem odd if it weren’t for the fact they were white, middle aged, and whispering under their breathes before erupting in laughter, holding up brightly colored dashikis and kufis. Lower level tenants, college students and Ghana nationals, had abandoned their belongings and those assigned to help clear the apartments found the African garb entertaining as it would seem. The man with the salt and pepper goatee slipped off his ball cap exposing his greasy dark hair before sliding the brown, red, yellow, and green patterned dashiki shirt over his slim arms. He laughed uncontrollably at himself with a slight lisp, exposing cheap false teeth. I walked around the building to the back entrance, the one that could be seen from the busy cross road and showed almost no sign of damage. From this angle there were no soot stains breathing up from broken windows, no glass, wood, or debris littering the grass, no water damage seeping from the base of the walls.
I hadn’t been to the apartment until few days after I got the call. Hours away visiting family, I wasn’t in a hurry to return fearing it all had been lost. The building housed four apartments, two on the lower level and two on the upper. The lower level Ghanaians were well off young men who’s family had sent them to the U.S. for a better education. I expected they were here for the status of being educated in American more than the education itself as they were both simply going into business finance at a small local university on foreign student scholarship. The fire was started by the neighbor next door to them. A woman who looked far older than her years, divorced multiple times, dark frizzy hair with an ever present strike of white roots down the middle of her scalp. Fran was her name. Cheap beer in hand, cigarette in the other, skinny legs poking out of stoned washed denim shorts. She was friendly with everyone and became the building mother, always looking out for each of us as her “kids” until the day she fell asleep in her recliner watching a cable TV movie with a burning cigarette. She hasn’t been seen from since but I was told by Kofi, one of the Ghanaians, she had not been injured and alerted the neighbors quickly once she realized she would not be able to get the fire under control herself. Myself and the other upstairs neighbor were not home but, the three of them were able to get any some of their possessions out quickly. Lock boxes of important documents, family photos, and laptops. Plus Fran’s cat which was technically against rental agreement though, it was her cherished companion and no one was going to complain about Kiki, the overweight orange tabby.
The fire rose up from the old recliner to the ceiling and into the apartment above. My apartment. The floor had gone out and everything was a total loss as I had feared. If I had been in my bedroom at the time, I may have made through the living room before the floor had given way to escape but there was a small chance I might not have. The officials would not let us enter the apartments the first few days, everything was saturated with water and dark puddles drained slowly into the parking lot drains carrying soot covered fragments. Once the damaged had been fully accessed, we were allowed to enter. Well, we did enter, I’m not sure if we were actually allowed but no one stopped me or the others who foot prints showed recent traffic in and out of the building. The first time I walked in I was disgusted and simply left. There was nothing to see, nothing to save. I was too angry to ask a friend for help or a place to sleep. Instead, I booked a hotel room on the other side of town, called into work, and shut out the world for a few days to let the shock sink in. Today, I was ready to look again at the loss. Accept starting over.
While the cleaning crew was entertaining themselves out in the parking lot, I entered Fran’s apartment first. Some of the furniture had been removed but it was hard to make it out all of the black. Walls weeped melted paint and decor. Nothing had sharp edges. The TV, the DVD player, plastic frames, and vases, all had turned to a liquid state, viscous, running until hardened again by cold water and cool air. The other apartment was mostly untouched but had a strong smell of smoke and burned plastic. The boys took only what they needed even if there were a few items that might have had a chance to be saved, they must have felt they weren’t worth the hassle. Climbing the stairs it was easy to see where the smoke had risen, leaving it’s marks against the walls, scaring the building. My apartment door was off the hinges and yellow tape had been put up to warn others not to enter with the floor unstable. As if the gaping hole was not warning enough. I was able to peek in but saw nothing. My couch, coffee table, and small TV had all fallen through to the apartment below and have since been removed in the clearing process. Every wall was black and only the light of day shone through the broken window making the burns visible. I’d never know what happened to my kitchen or bedroom. I’d never those rooms and the belongings in them again. And for a moment I felt irrationally upset about the small things. I was going to miss old coffee maker my grandmother had given me and the bedroom oscillating fan with green blades I found at a garage sale several years ago.
Her door was closed behind me. The fourth tenant. My neighbor on the second floor. She had only moved in a month ago but the first thing she had done was set a plant outside of her door with a welcome mat and a small floral wreath to hang around her door peep hole. All of which was now damaged and barely recognizable. I only ever saw her in passing and yet had the chance to formally introduce myself. It wasn’t for lack of trying. A few times I rounded up the courage to knock on her door there was no answer. Other days I would hear her passing through the hallway she would be on her cell phone, one time in an argument, another time sounding as if she was discussing business of some type. Now I was sure she wasn’t there but, I knocked anyway. Without waiting for an answer, I opened her door and noticed it had been damaged permanently. Most like the fire department checking to make sure everyone was out of the building and accounted for.
Startled she stands from floor and the box in front of her. She turns around to face me, a vase in her hand and news paper in the other.
“Oh, I didn’t know.” My stomach leaps to my throat in embarrassment “I was just looking at the damage of the apartments. I lived across the hall. We never met. I didn’t, I didn’t mean to barge in. I’m so sorry.”
“I’ve seen you before. You drive the little red car.”
She set the vase down and moved the newspaper to her other hand before reaching out to take mine. Her hair was pulled up to a bun and there was a smear of soot on her right cheek, “Nice to meet you. I’m Karen.”
“Honestly?” She takes my hand but does only holds it then brings down her eyebrows to form a perfect straight line.
“Short for Princeton. I didn’t pick it.”
She gives a quick shake and lets go of my hand which falls limply to my side. Unsure what to do.
“I see. Well, how bad is your place?”
I move a few steps to the side and point to the yellow tape behind me. “It’s all gone. I can’t enter to see my bedroom which had a few things in it but, I suppose for the most part, I’m starting over from scratch. I don’t anticipate anything had survived even if I could get in to take a look.”
“Oh.” Karen takes the newspaper in her hand and throws it into the box behind her before wiping her hands on her jeans. “How about this, what do you say to lunch? I’ve been sorting all morning and I know it won’t make up for much but, what do you say to a sandwich? It’s the very least I can do.”
“I, uh…” Turning back to where my apartment door was once, I consider the offer. “That’s an awfully quick invitation after you caught me walking into your apartment uninvited to snoop at fire damage.”
She smiled at me and I returned the smile to her. “Point is very valid. However, I been meaning to introduce myself to you but it seems we’re always on an different schedule. Plus, I may have attempted to sneak into your apartment for the same reason you walked into mine. I can’t really hold that against you. Please, come with me. Just a sandwich.”
“Alright.” A small laugh escaped my mouth when she clapped her hands together in victory. “If it’s just a sandwich, why are you so excited? Am I getting myself into something I should be aware of?”
“Well.” Karen bounces her head slightly from shoulder to shoulder. “I can’t promise anything more exciting than a fire but we’ll just have to see.” Out of her pocket she pulls a set of car keys and motions me to follow, rushing past me down the stairs, smiling.