Eddie entered the apartment building’s lobby as the rosy hues of dawn broke the horizon. Though tired, it pleased him he pocketed a good chunk of change in tips from the dance club the night before. Bartending always served him well. He paused at the foot of the lobby stairs as Clarissa locked her apartment door. She lived across from him. Wearing black dress slacks and a white polo shirt on her angular frame with her black curls in a tight bun, he guessed she worked in the food service industry like him.
“Good morning,” he said.
She jumped, dropping her keys. As she picked them up, she seemed unwilling to acknowledge his presence. Her wood brown eyes constantly scanned the lobby, but always returned to the stairs. The first five steps led to a low landing before turning to another flight of stairs. On the landing, leaning against the windowsill, stood a cloaked demon wearing a hood. The hood concealed most of his scaly gray iguana-like face but didn’t hide his small spiraled horn growing from the center of his forehead. He watched Clarissa passively with his narrow lemon-yellow eyes. Eddie looked at the landing but saw nothing.
“Is something the matter?” he asked.
“You’re making her late for work,” the demon said.
Clarissa shook her head and hurried out the door. Eddie frowned as he watched her go. He studied the landing again, wondering what she saw, before he entered his apartment. Sighing, he shrugged off his honey colored jacket and hung it up on the coat rack by the door. The cream silk shirt underneath showed off his dark skin. His grayed hair kept in tiny elegant box braids swept down to his waist. As he sat in the black leather recliner to pull off his work shoes, he wondered what had Clarissa so upset all the time. He set the shoes by the foot of the coat rack and realized that this morning she seemed more tense than usual. He wished he could help her, but without any information to go on there wasn’t anything he could do. Besides, it wasn’t like she asked him for help. He just hoped she wasn’t in any kind of trouble.
He knelt at a small table and considered the photo of his younger sister. He lit a stick of sandalwood incense and thought about the news of the car accident that took his sister’s life three years ago. He promised their mother he would look after her and when his sister made it to college he believed they finally reached the finish line. All he had left now was the daily grind of work which was an endless stream of one party after the next. It was a scene that thrilled him in his younger days and earned him fast, easy money but he had hoped his sister would avoid it. Eddie expected higher ambitions from her, but she involved herself in the crowd anyway and her recklessness got her killed. Pensively, he traced his finger along the lid of his sister’s ceramic crematory urn. The marbled beige glaze gleamed softly in the light as his eyes followed the painted butterflies down the side. After their mother died his sister decided upon all of this, and he honored it all, except placing her urn in the memorial with their parents. Standing up to answer the tea kettle’s whistle, he started his bedtime routine.
He shut off the water and set out a ceramic teapot on the kitchen table as the demon observed from the other side. Scooping loose green tea into the ceramic pot, he visually measured out four teaspoons. Eddie then poured the hot water over the leaves and put the teapot’s lid on. He set the table for one as the tea steeped. After fixing himself eggs and toast, he sat down at the table and poured the tea. Eddie didn’t notice the demon as he finished his breakfast. He thought about Clarissa again and how her day was going. Staring at his cup, he wondered if she liked tea.
“She doesn’t,” the demon said, “but she has a strong taste for wine.”
Eddie got up and cleared the table. Using a soapy cloth he washed it down, then rinsed it with a different wet cloth before drying it with a towel. He washed the dishes, wiped the counters, and scrubbed the stove top. The dishes got dried and put away before he swept the floor. Gathering up the towels he used, he carried them to the hamper for laundry day.
Hoping the shower would clear his head, he took his time. Clarissa’s haunted eyes wouldn’t leave his mind. In fact those eyes were just as haunted now as they were back then. Some days were better than others and then there were days like this morning. The most relaxed he’d seen her was the other day when she went out with the new girl. Maybe she needed more of that. Maybe he could ask her out. The problem was in his line of work he’d learned that people were like Clarissa for a reason. No one was born wounded in the soul. It was always someone or something. Shit got wrecked and they’re stuck with the check.
After washing and conditioning his braids, he shut the water off to towel off. He put on his orange plaid pajamas and wrapped his braids. Brushing his teeth he cursed himself for even considering dating Clarissa. His gray hair made him look old for his age. That alone probably made him out as a creepy old man. Doesn’t help that she’s got something going on that makes her not people around. Every attempt of his to break the ice with her so far has failed. He didn’t even have a chance to score the friend zone much less a date. Frustrated he left the bathroom, set his alarm clock on the dresser, and crawled into bed.
“What the hell am I thinking?” he asked, staring at the ceiling.
“That Clarissa is the one,” the demon said, leaning against Eddie’s handcrafted wooden dresser.
Unfazed by Eddie’s lack of reaction, the demon watched him fall asleep.
Late afternoon arrived earlier than Eddie wanted by way of the alarm clock. Rolling out of bed, he crossed the room to shut the alarm clock off. He made the bed with a crisp hospital fold and fluffed the pillows. Brushing his teeth, he realized that Clarissa should be coming home soon. Maybe he should tone down the way he dressed. Given her no-nonsense appearance, his club attire might be a bit off-putting to her. Eddie wasn’t sure he owned anything in black. The best he owned was something in dark amber or rich browns. He unwrapped his braids, shook them out gently, then swept a few of them back with a plain clip to keep them in line for work. Settling with a vest and silk shirt combo with an amber color scheme, he got dressed. Hoping it wasn’t too flashy for Clarissa, he knew it would likely bite into his tips. It sucked but he had to take the chance. Grabbing his brown overcoat, he left his apartment to wait for her in the lobby.
The demon waited for them both, back up on the landing as before. This time he hunched down in a squat with his arms resting on his knees in the corner. Eddie didn’t see him as he sat down on the bottom step. A few minutes later Clarissa staggered through the lobby door, carrying a paper bag, and froze as she looked up. She stared past Eddie to the landing again with wide eyes. Looking over his shoulder, he saw nothing but he knew she did. Slowly he stood up and eased over to her.
“Hey,” he said, “are you okay?”
Frustrated, she turned her head to him and readjusted the weight of the bag. “No, I’m tired that’s all.”
Eddie saw the bag held two bottles of a very cheap wine. “Rough night?”
“You could say that.” She tried to avoid glancing back at the landing.
“What’s over there?” he asked.
Her tanned skin paled. “I don’t know,” she said. “Nothing.”
She brushed past him and escaped into her apartment. Eddie remembered how his grandmother got like that years ago. She saw things too and kept talking about Nusquamton. When his sister died, he went looking for it. Took him two years, but he found this place. So Clarissa saw things and the old man Darryl talked to an invisible friend with the same name as the landlord no one had ever met in person. No one had ever lived upstairs as far as he knew. The doors leading to the hallway on the second landing were locked. It made him wonder if the newest tenant had anything weird going on with her too. Hell for that matter he could have something weird going on and not know about it.
“You try too hard to play the hero,” the demon said.
“Shit,” Eddie said, throwing his coat on, “I’m going to be late for work.”
On his way home the following morning, Eddie decided to pick up a fine bottle of wine for Clarissa. He had the night off and if he remembered her work patterns correctly the next day should be her day off. So he had the wine boxed and picked up a small white card. In it he wrote a short note inviting her to his place for dinner. Whatever she’s got going on right now, she could use the break. If she declined the dinner, then at least she’d have the wine. He understood all too well that need and he wasn’t one to judge. Coming home a little later that he usually did, the only one in the lobby was the demon perched in his typical spot on the landing.
Nervous, Eddie went to Clarissa’s door and knocked. He waited, but no one answered. Unsure of himself, he sat on the steps and waited for about ten minutes to see if she was running late this morning. When she didn’t show up, he awkwardly placed the box in front of her door and went into his own apartment. She always came home at the same time every morning. Kneeling down at his sister’s shrine, he prayed for Clarissa’s safety. Then he worried through his bedtime routine. As he crawled into bed, he wished he had changed the note to let him know she got home safe instead of it saying come over for dinner.
He woke to the sound of pounding on his door. Trying to get out of the bed quickly, he hit the floor nearly face first. This was too early for him. The pounding on the door was relentless. Whomever it was meant business. Hurrying through the bedroom door, he came around the corner and crashed into his sister’s shrine. He panicked as the urn toppled over. Failing to catch it, the ceramic broke onto the floor. The ashes spilled out.
“Shit,” he said as the pounding on the door continued.
There was nothing he could do about that now so he crossed the room to the door and swung it wide open.
Clarissa stood there with his note in one hand and the bottle of wine in the other. “What the fuck is this?” she said, “Come to my place for dinner?”
“It’s just an invitation,” he said.
“It sounds like a fucking order,” she said. “First I have to deal with Earle somehow finding me right after he gets out of prison and having to call the police and now I get home to find this stupid shit.”
“It was just an invitation,” Eddie said, “you didn’t have to come and the wine was for you to chill with. I swear.”
Whomever Earle was, he sounded bad and dangerous. At least she was safe, but he screwed up. He should have waited to learn more about her before sending the invite.
“You swear? You fucking swear. You assholes are all the same,” she said, shaking her head.
Tears welled up in her eyes and she turned her head away from him. That’s when she saw the broken urn on his living room floor.
“My sister,” he said. “I knocked it over getting to the door.”
“Oh fuck,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I got this.”
Clarissa came in and scanned his apartment to find his handheld vacuum. She set the wine bottle and note down on his kitchen table and grabbed a towel to place next to them.
“Shut the door,” she said.
Eddie shut the door as she grabbed the vacuum. She removed and emptied the dirt chamber. Taking it to the sink, she washed it out and dried it off with the towel. Then she wiped the vacuum clean with the towel too. Putting the vacuum back together, she walked over to the broken urn. Gingerly she picked up the pieces of ceramic and placed them to the side. With the vacuum, she collected the ashes. Eddie cringed as she did this but it was efficient.
Handing him the vacuum she said, “Hold this I will be right back.”
She left the apartment for a few minutes and came back with a small wooden locking box. It appeared to be handmade and the key for it rested on the top. On the front side of the box, just below the lock there was a frame for a photo. From the look of it, she was about to cry again.
“I can’t,” Eddie said. “That box is too big for the ashes.”
“It’s my fault the urn broke,” she said, the tears falling, “and you’ll need something for the broken urn too. So take the box. Please.”
“Who made the box?” asked Eddie.
“My son,” she said, clutching it to her, “in cub scouts.”
Torment clouded her eyes now. Earle found her from prison. She accused him of giving her orders. Clarissa wasn’t angry. She was afraid. Eddie didn’t dare ask what happened to her son.
“If you’re sure about the box, then okay,” Eddie said, “but you really should keep it.”
Clarissa looked up at him and shook her head. She set the box on the kitchen table. Returning to him, she traded the key for the vacuum.
“I’m sure,” she said. “Cody… my son… he would have wanted your sister to have a place to sleep.”
With great care, she poured the ashes into the box. Using a sheet of paper, she scraped the dust out into the box the best she could too.
“It’s okay,” Eddie said. “My sister will understand. Thank you.”
Collecting the pieces of the urn, she arranged them all into the box so they’d fit. Clarissa closed the box and locked it. She handed him the key.
“Safe and sound for now,” she said. “I believe if you take it to a funeral home you can get it properly sealed up inside. All you need now is to put a photo in there.”
All Eddie owned was the small photo of his sister which would fill half the frame. He slipped it out of its frame on the shrine and slid it into the frame on the box.
“You know,” he said, “there’s room for another photo here. It would make me really happy to have a photo of your son here to keep my sister company.”
She smiled a little as she wiped at her tears. “Okay I’ll go get one.”
While he waited for her to return, Eddie cleared the small table he was using as a shrine and moved it to the lobby. He placed it under the lobby stairs. The box got placed in the center and he added a vase of flowers along with the incense burner. In the small table drawer he made sure there were tea lights, incense, and matches. Finally he slid a floor pillow under the table.
“What are you doing?” Clarissa said, holding a photo to her chest.
“I’m setting up the shrine out here so you can visit it whenever you need to,” he said. “There’s a floor pillow under the table so you can sit or kneel comfortably here when you visit.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yes I do,” he said. “Your son spoke to you through that box which means he’s here. I won’t keep him from you. My sister and your son belong right there.”
Clarissa broke down into hard, loud sobs as she knelt on the floor. Her whole body shook as she cried. Darryl opened his door, stepped out, but remained quiet. Donna came out, saw Clarissa, ran over to her. Eddie felt uncomfortable with an audience. All he could do was kneel down with Clarissa and just wait.
“He shot my baby. Right in front of me,” she said. “I did nothing. I didn’t stop it. I didn’t save my Cody.”
“Earle did that? The guy from prison today?” Eddie asked.
“Yes, his father did that,” she said, “when I filed for divorce.”
“I’m sorry about the mall,” Donna said. “I didn’t know.”
“Is that photo there of your son?” Darryl asked.
Clarissa wiped her tears and tried to smile. “It’s his last school photo. Second grade.”
“He looks just like you with such serious eyes,” Donna said.
“He was a sweet, kind little boy.” Clarissa smiled at the photo, lost in the memory of her child.
With wobbly legs she got up and walked the rest of the way to the little shrine to slide the photo next to his sister’s photo. They all stood quietly together for a moment in silent prayer.
“I’m truly sorry for your loss, both of you,” Darryl said before returning to his apartment.
“You both have such beautiful families,” Donna said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you,” Clarissa said.
“I appreciate it,” Eddie said.
Donna walked back into her apartment and shut the door quietly behind her.
Eddie turned to Clarissa, who was staring at the photos. “It’s hard to let go, isn’t it?”
She nodded as the tears started to flow again. He slid out the pillow for her.
“Take all the time you need,” he said. “The shrine isn’t going anywhere and neither am I.”
Kneeling beside the pillow, he pulled the drawer open and took out a stick of incense and lit it. Clarissa knelt in prayer as Eddie meditated. They remained this way until the incensed burned out. Clarissa watched him meticulously clean up the shrine.
“I guess I need to bring out a small trash can out here too,” he said.
“I can do that if you’d like,” she said as she slid the pillow under the table.
“Are you’re sure?”
“Yes, I don’t mind.”
“Okay,” he said. “Mind if I walk to you to your door?”
“I don’t mind.”
He walked her to her door, not sure just how close or not close to keep himself.
“Well here’s my door,” she said. “Right across from yours.”
Eddie chuckled and looked at his feet. He realized now he probably seemed like a lost puppy to her, but there was something he wanted to clear up with her.
“Hey look, about the wine and the note,” Eddie said, “I really did only mean that as an invitation. You come home everyday tired and strung out. I just thought that you could use a break. I’m here for you if you need anything. Just holler, okay?”
Rubbing her arms, she nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Thanks, I will let you know. I promise.”
Eddie nodded and watched her go in. As she shut the door, he walked back to his apartment. His living room had an empty spot in it now, but the hole in his heart was a little smaller. He shut the door behind himself and realized this entire time he had been running around in his pajamas.
“Real smooth Eddie,” he said. “Real smooth.”
He looked over to the kitchen table and saw that Clarissa left the bottle of wine there. If he was lucky, she’d come back for it but for now he was going back to bed.
Meanwhile, back in the lobby the demon sat on the landing in the lobby. He stretched with satisfaction and relaxed against the wall.
“Well done hero,” he said, “and not to worry, for no one finds Nusquamton unless I say so.”