THE LAMIA IN THE PENTHOUSE
Gregory wailed from the next room. She flinched and dropped the shirt on the bed. "OK, OK, kiddo, hang on." She picked it up with two fingers and returned it to the laundry hamper.
She smiled for Gregory, or he would know. She choked the anger down as she cradled him and sat in the rocking chair. He had these fussy fits now sometimes. Not hungry, not wet. "He just knows you'll fall for it," John had said once. She hadn't spoken to him for the rest of the night. She rocked until Gregory's eyes closed. Then she allowed her face to crumple upon itself.
The day they'd arrived: She had been standing on the landing feeling useless, Gregory in his carrier pouch drooling on her shoulder, watching young men built like porn stars effortlessly tossing around sofas and dressers. She heard a door open and close above her, but didn't register it until the movers weren't moving.
She couldn't tell the actual color of the woman's skin. It sucked up the dim light in the stairwell, absorbed it. Eyes unreadable behind sunglasses, mouth neutral. Dress and shoes that probably cost as much as everything in Leigh's closet combined. Down the stairs with absolute grace; no, not grace. Ownership. Everything here is mine, even if they don't know it yet. Certainly she could have had any of the movers. The woman paused just long enough to look at Leigh, at an odd angle, not focusing on her face. Then she passed and the movers unpaused.
"Don't trust her," hissed a voice a foot below Leigh's head. She turned. The old woman from the second floor. The one with the last name—S-something—she hadn't been able to pronounce. Greek maybe? Leigh hadn't seen her come up.
"She doesn't blink," the little gnarled woman said. Scurried back downstairs, no reply requested. Leigh stared.
That had been nearly a year ago. It was the only time she'd ever seen Ms. Waldemar. Remembering the smell came later. Swamp and forest floor.
She owned the building, Bethany said, one day as they sat with mugs of indifferent coffee, watching Ben and Gregory try to self-propel on the carpet. But she didn't manage it; didn't seem to care much about any of the other residents. "Just lives up there and lets out the space separating her from the ground. Might as well make money on it, I guess," Bethany had said.
That was when she could still talk to Bethany. When Bethany would still come out of her apartment.
Gregory had fallen asleep. She stood up gently, trying not to jostle him. All the while wanting to throw lamps, rip clothing, take a hatchet to the furniture. Tiptoed out of the room, teeth clenched.
Should she call? One call would be all it would take. "Working late." Was there a reason to let him know she knew? Should she just take Gregory and leave?
She remembered the night the police had been in. Bethany—crying didn't describe it. Screaming. The whole building heard it. And something else she remembered. Had that been the night of the police? No, it had to have been later. Bethany shouting she couldn't live here any more, or something like that. And then, very clearly: "It's because of her! You won't go because of her!"
That's not going to be me, Leigh thought.
Gregory grumbled as she picked him up, but he wasn't really awake. "We're going to go for a little walk." He was getting too heavy for this, but she made it up the stairs to the top without gasping much.
Ms. Waldemar was not wearing sunglasses. She said absolutely nothing.
"Is he in here?"
The tall dark woman stared down at Leigh for a full minute. She didn't blink, but that didn't prove anything. Anyone can go without blinking for a minute. "You had better come in," she said.
Leigh followed her. The penthouse wasn't furnished as lavishly as she'd expected. Not only that, it was a mess. Piles of things—books, papers, clothing, random objects—covered every available surface. It wasn't exactly dirty, just very cluttered.
"I'm sterile," Ms. Waldemar said. She seemed to think it was an explanation.
"You thought that would make any difference?"
"Not really. Sit down. I'll make some coffee." The woman was constructed of non sequiturs. But she'd already disappeared.
Leigh didn't want to sit. She had the sensation of having wandered out of her depth. The peat-dead-leaves smell was everywhere. The piles of books and crap made the room feel more claustrophobic than it should have been. And Gregory was making the short coughs that said he was about to wake up and scream like nobody's business. She turned and somehow backed into a table. A pile of things on it half-collapsed, settling, some falling to the floor. She stooped to clean up the landslide, eyes at the level of the tabletop, where they found it. Freshly exposed. A knit cap. Blue and green concentric circles. Not big enough for an adult, or even for a child.
Bethany had been proud of it; it had been her first knitting project. LOST. LAST SEEN WEARING.
It hadn't been her, that day on the landing. That's why the angle had been odd. The woman had been staring at Gregory.
She ran for the door, didn't stop running until she was back in her apartment, and even then she didn't slow down, Gregory still squalling where she'd all-but-dropped him on the floor.
Later, she didn't remember throwing things into the suitcase. She didn't remember grabbing her purse. She didn't remember getting down the stairs somehow, Gregory in one arm, dragging the suitcase with another.
But she did remember looking out the back window of the taxi. As if something might be chasing her.
Copyright © 2014 by Douglas Todd. All rights reserved.
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