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The manager of the Morrisey apartment building gave the stack of papers she held two quick taps on the podium to straighten the edges. The sound of the paper hitting the surface cracked through the lobby like a whip, straightening the spines of my neighbors, who’d been slouching more and more as the meeting dragged on.
“Nancy didn’t have a podium before, did she?” my best friend, Ripley, whispered.
I shook my head. The podium was definitely new.
But after five years away, I was more surprised by how much hadn’t changed at the Morrisey than what had. I couldn’t believe Nancy had convinced everyone to keep up these monthly building meetings, for one.
“That’s it for our agenda items, everyone,” Nancy Lewandowski said, index finger traveling down her list one more time. “Oh, actually, we have one last announcement.”
The small reading glasses balanced on the tip of Nancy’s nose wobbled precariously as her gaze swept through the rows of people uncomfortably hunched in decades-old plastic folding chairs.
Nancy’s sharp eyes latched on to me. “Ah, there you are. I’d like to officially welcome Meg Dawson back to 5A.” She clapped, glaring around the room as if she would write down the names of anyone who didn’t give me a warm enough “welcome back.”
To be honest, she probably would. That was our Nance: fierce, loyal, slightly terrifying, but part of my chosen family. Despite my less-than-ideal reason for returning to the Morrisey, I was happy to be back around these people.
Enthusiastic applause rose from the crowd, and a few of my neighbors turned to wave or grin in my direction. Despite having known most of these people all my life, heat still crept up my neck at having to be the center of attention. I ducked my head and raised a hand to return their greetings while I secretly counted down the seconds until their concentration would move off me once more.
“We’re so happy to have our little Nutmeg back in the building.” Nancy squeezed her shoulders up almost to her ears in her excitement.
“It’s just Meg now, actually,” I muttered.
“Louder,” Ripley urged.
I shot my friend a glower that told her she should know better than to think I was going to voice a concern in a group setting.
Nance continued on. “We can’t wait to see the artistic masterpieces you create up there on the fifth floor, honey.” She fixed me with a maternal smile that would’ve normally erased any annoyance I’d felt at her use of my childhood nickname a moment ago.
But then she’d gone ahead and mentioned my art.
“Ruh-roh,” Ripley whispered in her best Scooby-Doo voice, making me wish I could jab my elbow into her side.
Mostly because she was right. Art was a sore subject for me right now, one I should’ve known I’d have to confront sooner rather than later. Nancy’s comment confirmed my suspicions that Aunt Penny had told the building’s occupants a very different story about why I was coming home than I had told her.
Her version had obviously been heavy on the “Meg just needs time to rediscover her love of painting” and light on the truth.
I didn’t begrudge my aunt for remaining hopeful. Her version was undoubtedly much more pleasant. But it didn’t change the fact that after graduating from Pratt, moving to Chicago to work in a prestigious gallery—where the only art I created was the pictures I drew on the to-go coffee cups I was constantly fetching for the “real” artists—and finally getting the chance of a lifetime to work in the New York gallery of my mentor, I’d realized I didn’t have what it took to be an artist.
Nancy, unaware of the existential crisis her words had provoked, continued on, saying, “Oh, and speaking of Nutmeg and Penny, I know many of you have already signed up for the Penny message group, but here’s your reminder to talk to me if you’d like to be added.”
My stiff shoulders settled a few millimeters as Nancy moved on from talking about me to discussing my Aunt Penny, fulfilling her lifelong dream of living in Scotland.
“Fair warning.” Nancy placed her elbows on the podium. “Penny’s pictures from the Highlands are enough to make you want to move to Scotland right along with her.” Nancy let out one of her signature nasal cackles. But even that didn’t so much as jiggle those precariously perched glasses of hers.
“How does she keep those things on there? Superglue?” Ripley wondered aloud.
I didn’t know. Sheer willpower? Threats? Either way, I left Ripley hanging, not able to give a response as things finally ended.
Nancy flattened the agenda notes onto the podium with the force of a gavel and said, “Well, that’s all I have for you today. Meeting adjourned.”
The lobby of the Morrisey filled with chatter as people stood, broke off into side conversations, and began stacking the foldable chairs on a cart. Quite a few came over to welcome me back, but most simply waved from across the lobby. They knew me well enough to understand I wasn’t particularly fond of—or good at—small talk.
“Whoa,” Ripley said next to me as I folded my chair. Well, it was less of a word and more of a gasp. “When did Laurence get so hot?” She pointed to the other side of the room.
I kept my gaze down. “Laurie’s always been hot,” I whispered, using his childhood nickname, which was arguably better than mine.
Ripley placed a hand over her heart. “Megs, you should go talk to him. Ask him out, finally. You’ve been in love with the guy since—”
“I was six,” I whispered, more to myself than her as I moved to the corner of the room so I’d be out of the way before turning around to look.
There he was. Laurence Turner. Laurie, to me.
The Rosenbloom sisters had cornered him, and despite the fact that the older women were probably making wildly inappropriate comments about how handsome he’d grown up to be, he listened to them with such focused attention, it was as if they were the only people he could see or hear. That was Laurie; he made people feel important. He made eye contact and nodded along with their stories, no matter how wild. The guy was a genuinely nice person.
He was also the reason I hadn’t dated anyone long-term during my time on the East Coast. I’d tried. A few guys even made me forget about Laurie for a while. But eventually, they would all do something thoughtless or say something crass, and I would think Laurie would never do that.
Everyone else paled in comparison to my childhood crush.
As one of the few other children who used to live at the Morrisey, Laurie had been my companion growing up. Befitting anyone who’d carried a torch for the same person for most of their formative years, I’d found Laurie ridiculously attractive during all stages of his life—even the gangly teenage years when he had oily skin and braces. But Ripley was right: he was certifiably hot now.
He had on jeans that didn’t look like they’d been picked up off a floor, and he wore leather shoes instead of sneakers. The sleeves of his gray T-shirt hugged arms that were much more muscular than they’d been the last time I’d seen him. The beginnings of a beard even shaded his jawline. He’d forgone his contacts in favor of black-rimmed glasses that made him look like a professor—the hot kind.
Ripley moved into my line of sight, blocking him from me. “Come on. You said yourself no one understands you like Laurie. He might be hot, but you’re a knockout too.” She gestured to me. “You’ve got that whole brilliant, shy, girl-next-door glamor going for you. Go over and ask him out, or at least say something sexy so he knows you’re back and ready to mingle.”
“Mingle?” I asked with a snort of laughter. I leaned back against the wall. “It’s kinda hard to be sexy around a person you hung out with because the two of you bonded over a shared love of the Ninja Turtles. We became friends because neither of us liked to wear anything but sweatpants. I vividly remember a conversation we had about how jeans were too itchy and stiff. How can I bounce back from that?”
“I’d forgotten about the sweatpants phase you two went through.” Ripley wrinkled her nose. “It doesn’t matter. You’re both gorgeous adults now, with no”—she paused, looking me up and down—“less weird hang-ups like that. Come on. Talk to him, at least.” Ripley backed up like she was trying to lure me closer to the man.
But as she moved away from me, she inadvertently placed herself in the pathway of Mrs. Feldner, a woman who had been approximately a hundred years old back when I was a child, so she had to be breaking records at that point. Mrs. Feldner shuffled along, bent in half like she was walking with an invisible cane.
I winced, not having a chance to warn Ripley before the old woman walked straight into her.
Well, not into, but through.
Let me explain. Ripley was dead. I was the only one who could see or hear her. I’d been able to see ghosts my whole life, though Ripley was the only one who followed me around. She and I were practically inseparable and always had been.
So, I alone saw my ghostly friend’s eyes widen with horror as Mrs. Feldner tottered through her spirit.
Ripley shivered and danced around like she might be able to physically shake off the encounter. “Oh, gross, gross, gross.”
Rip had described the feeling of having a living person pass through her spirit as the same as sticking your hand into a bowl of peeled grapes and cold spaghetti, only … with your whole body. It didn’t sound pleasant, so her reaction wasn’t a surprise.
Mrs. Feldner glanced back at me with a confused frown for a moment before she ambled on. She must’ve felt the oddly cold sensation that always followed coming in contact with a spirit. It was easy enough to explain away as a weird draft or a sudden shiver, so most people didn’t think too hard when they experienced it. But I knew the truth.
“Sorry, I couldn’t warn you,” I whispered to Ripley, making sure no one else was within earshot.
After twenty-four years, I’d learned my lesson enough times to know I had to be careful talking to Ripley, or any other ghosts, in public. Doing so was how I’d earned the nickname NutMeg from my oh-so-kind elementary school peers after all. And even though my well-meaning Morrisey family had tried to help me “take back my power” by turning it into a cute, endearing nickname, it was yet another reminder of those hard lessons learned.
“Okay, I changed my mind about you talking to Laurie. Let’s go back upstairs. The lobby’s too crowded.” Ripley shivered again.
My gaze returned to Laurie, still chatting with the Rosenbloom sisters. As much as I wanted to talk to him, I didn’t want the first time we spoke after all these years to be in a crowded lobby full of people who’d known us since we were babies.
I turned to Ripley, whispering, “Of course it’s too crowded. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.” Glancing toward the stairwell, I said, “I’ll meet you upstairs.”
Ripley winked and disappeared, instantly transporting herself up to our apartment on the fifth floor. Going our separate ways hadn’t always been so easy for the two of us. There had been a time when Ripley could barely leave my side.
When I was younger, she couldn’t get more than fifty feet away or she’d disappear and reappear right next to me. As I’d gotten older, her “tether” to me had gotten progressively longer. At twenty-four, Ripley could now be a couple of football fields away from me.
But that tether still brought her back if she went much farther than that.
We’d had bets about when, if ever, it would go away completely. Ripley had guessed my twentieth birthday would be the date since she’d died right before hers. That hadn’t been it. I’d been sure my twenty-first birthday was going to be the ticket, but here we were, a few years beyond that and still tethered together. It was anyone’s guess now.
Despite the many ghosts we’d consulted over the years, we’d yet to find a single soul who’d ever encountered a bond such as ours, let alone anyone who knew when or if it would sever. But it wasn’t all restrictions. The tether gave Ripley a unique set of rules compared to every other spirit. Where other ghosts were limited to showing up only in the places they’d set foot when they were alive, Ripley could go anywhere as long as it was with me. Which was why she’d been able to join me on the East Coast.
Even though having my best friend constantly by my side seemed like a gift now, I couldn’t help but think about the future. Someday I wanted to get married, start a family even, and it might not be as “cool” to have my ghost guardian next to me all the time. I knew Ripley longed for her freedom as well, though she’d never voice the desire.
Unable to transport myself in the blink of an eye like Ripley could, I was forced to walk if I wanted to reach the quiet serenity of my apartment, which I very much needed after that meeting. Weaving through the crowded lobby, I trained my eyes on the elevator for a split second, but there was already a line forming, and it wasn’t my preferred mode of transportation anyway.
The old thing dipped when you stepped foot inside it, then it either took so long to start moving that you began to worry something was wrong, or it lurched into movement too soon and threw you off-balance. It also made sounds unlike any other elevator I’d ever ridden inside. The inspector Nancy brought in more often than she needed to swore it passed his list of safety codes, but I remained dubious.
Veering to the left, I shoved my way through the heavy stairwell fire door. I paused for a moment to revel in the cool air of the stairwell. Well, it was a little musty, but at least I was alone.
“I won’t do it.” The whisper sliced through the air, ricocheting off the concrete walls from the stairwell above.
So … not alone after all.
“Come on. I’m desperate. What do I need to do, double your coin?” a man asked, the question slithering out. The way he accentuated the word “coin” made a shiver rush down my back.
“I don’t want your money,” the whisperer answered.
I took a step toward the railing, hoping to catch a glimpse of who was having this tense conversation. It sounded like they were one, maybe two floors above me. I craned my neck forward as I peered up into the M. C. Escher-esque view of the stairs continuing up to the apartments.
My shin collided with the metal railing. “Ouch!” I called out, flinching at the sudden racket I was creating.
“Shhh,” the slithery-sounding man said.
I backed away from the railing, locating the door that would return me to the lobby. This might be a good time to take the elevator, actually, I thought as my heartbeat pounded in my eardrums, and I rushed away from the mysterious fight I’d overheard.
In my haste to get out of the stairwell and into the safety of the lobby, I immediately backed into someone.
“Whoa,” the man said in surprise.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” I spun around, grabbing on to his arms to steady myself.
“Hey, Meg.” Laurie blinked down at me, a big grin pulling across his perfect lips.
My hands dropped to my side and my neck grew warm. Words piled up in my throat worse than rush hour traffic heading out of the city every afternoon. I coughed, hoping to release some of them.
“Laurie. Hi,” I managed to croak.
Well, I guess I wasn’t going to get time to prepare before seeing Laurie after all. We certainly weren’t going to have any privacy, either, I realized, as everyone standing in front of the elevator looked in our direction.
“It’s great to see you.” His brown eyes looked me up and down. It wasn’t in a creepy, leering way. It was an appreciative, I can’t believe you’re standing in front of me kind of look. To back that up, he said, “Look at us, huh? Both back at the Morrisey.”
I feigned a smile. Yep. Look at us. Though, I’d bet anything his reason for returning was less disappointing than mine.
Still slightly distracted by my encounter in the stairwell, I glanced behind me. But no one came through the door, creepy or otherwise, so I tried to let it go and focus on my friend. I did, however, gesture for Laurie to follow as I took a few steps to my right. I hoped it seemed like I was getting us out of the way of the stairwell door instead of moving to a place where we would have less of an audience.
When Laurie followed, I said, “So, you bought your parents’ place. That’s great.”
Thank you, Aunt Penny, for keeping me in the loop about building gossip.
He nodded. “I thought about buying something in Redmond, closer to work, but I mostly work remotely, so I don’t have to drive into the office too often. And prices are crazy.”
Right. Penny had also told me Laurie was some big tech guy now.
“Plus,” he said with a shrug, “it’s the Morrisey.”
I sighed happily. “And it hasn’t changed a bit.”
Doubts about moving my life back to the West Coast had been creeping around in the recesses of my mind over the past few weeks, like a dense Pacific Northwest fog. Beyond the obvious worries surrounding my career, I’d been apprehensive about whether my beloved Morrisey would feel the same after all these years. Had all my magical memories of the place been a product of the rose-colored glasses of childhood?
But standing here with Laurie, having been through my first building meeting, now that I was back, it all felt the same.
It wasn’t just the building that felt locked in time either; the people were also a constant. That was what happened when people owned apartments in the heart of one of the pricier cities in the country. And they weren’t letting go of those investments. Families often passed the apartment down, as was the case with Laurie and me. Most of the units had been paid off decades earlier, the only monthly payments needed being the housing fees due to Nancy and our electricity and utilities bills.
Basically, someone had to die for an apartment to open up at the Morrisey.
Nancy bustled into the hallway just then, looking past the dozen or so other residents milling about in conversation, her gaze settled on the two of us.
“Oh good. Kids, I need to see you for a moment.” She flapped her hands toward herself, beckoning us over.
Laurie looked at me and hunched his shoulders in a why not? gesture. So, we followed Nancy around the corner to the seating area, where we’d held the meeting. The big table had already been moved back into its regular place. All that was left was Nancy’s podium. She strutted over to it and snatched a clipboard from the top.
“I need your signatures to approve the purchase of our new firepit,” she explained, tapping a pen on the page to show where we needed to give permission to release the funds.
Right. The new firepit. It had been the first item of business on her meeting agenda to collect signatures from “the stragglers” since our annual Fourth of July bash on the roof was coming up “this Tuesday, people.”
Nancy handed the clipboard to me. “And don’t worry about the party,” she said. “We decided at last month’s meeting that you two don’t need to bring anything since you’re both in the process of moving in.”
“Oh, thanks.” I signed, then handed the clipboard over to Laurie, who followed suit.
When he held it toward Nancy, she held out her hands like stop signs. “Actually, I need one more signature, and I was wondering if you would go get that for me.” She didn’t even let us think about it before adding, “The only one left is Mr. Miller in 3B, so it makes sense that you would go, Laurence.”
Even though Nancy delivered the statement with total seriousness, I couldn’t help but flash a quick smirk at Laurie, whose body tensed at her comment.
“Sure,” I said, with as straight a face as I could muster. “Who better to get the signature than the only person who’s ever seen the reclusive Mr. Miller?”
The man was more than just antisocial. He’d moved in over a decade ago, and no one had so much as caught a glimpse of him the whole time. Well, except Laurie, when he was fifteen. Despite swearing he’d only seen the back of Mr. Miller’s head for a split second, the residents were convinced he’d seen more.
“Perfect. Thank you, kids.” Nancy pivoted on her heel and went over to move her podium out of the way. “Bring that back to my apartment when you’re done.”
Laurie shot me a withering look as he took off toward the stairs with the clipboard. “You shouldn’t encourage them,” he grumbled.
“I almost forgot about the infamous sighting,” I teased as I followed him. We weaved through the people still milling about in the lobby corridor.
“It must be nice to forget. They won’t let me.” He stopped in front of the stairwell door, glancing back at me.
Giddy as I’d felt teasing Laurie moments before, I froze in place as he opened the door and stepped inside the stairwell. The memory of the angry, whispered voices I’d heard just minutes before made the hair on my arms stand on end.
“What’s going on? Is there a mannequin in here or something?” Laurie asked, stopping with the door propped open when he noticed I hadn’t followed.
A wide smile spread across my face, erasing the unease.
“I can’t believe you remember my fear of mannequins.” I shook my head and entered the stairwell, letting the door close behind us. My eyes were probably sparkling up at him, giving away my true feelings. If Ripley had been there, she would’ve made fun of me and told me to get it together.
Laurie scoffed. “Of course I remember. And with the way you came rushing out of here a few minutes ago, I thought there was an entire department store’s worth.”
Chewing on my lip for a moment, I said, “No creepy mannequins, but I did stumble on a pretty heated argument, and I didn’t want to get involved.”
“Between?” Laurie furrowed his brows together.
“That’s the thing. I didn’t recognize either of the guys. I can’t pick out everyone’s voices like we used to be able to.” A memory flashed through my mind of us hiding behind the couches in the lobby and playing the game of who could identify the most residents passing by without looking. Mrs. Feldner was always the easiest because of her pungent perfume, but we’d had to rely on voices for the other residents.
Laurie pushed back his shoulders. “Well, there’s only one way to find out. Let’s see if they’re still here.” He strode forward, craning his neck to look up the stairs.
Following behind him like the lovesick puppy I was, we climbed up the two flights, searching for any evidence of the men I’d heard. But as we pushed through the door to the third floor, we were still alone.
We stepped into the hallway, six doors situated throughout the space. As was the case with each floor, an ornate Art Deco chandelier hung from the middle of the ceiling, illuminating the hallway. The walls were painted a basic white so we could easily touch them up whenever there was a scuff or stain. A worn area rug from the Turkish carpet store down the street ran the length of the old wood floors to help soak up some of the wet footprints on rainy Seattle days—and trip you when you weren’t paying close enough attention.
Stepping carefully over the patterned rug, we walked to the right, toward apartment 3B.
Laurie and I glanced at each other for a moment, prepping ourselves for the encounter. After Laurie’s infamous sighting of the back of Mr. Miller’s head all those years ago, we vowed to be ready to notice and describe him if we ever got the opportunity to set eyes on him again. In reality, it would probably be the same as every other time we’d come to get his signature on something: he’d grab the paper, sign it, and then slide it back under the door moments later.
Still, I readied myself as Laurie pressed the buzzer.
“Mr. Miller? It’s Laurence Turner from the fourth floor. Nancy sent me to get a signature from you for a building purchase.” Freeing the page from the clipboard since the metal at the top would prevent it from fitting, Laurie slid the paper under the door.
We watched, waiting for that exhilarating and unsettling moment when it would be snatched up by the reclusive man inside.
But that didn’t happen. Laurie and I frowned at one another.
“Maybe his buzzer’s broken,” I suggested, knowing the temperamental things liked going in and out of service.
Accepting my theory, Laurie knocked three times, his knuckles rapping loudly on the wood. The force of his knocks caused the latch to snick open, and the door swung inward a few inches.
I gasped. Laurie coughed out in surprise.
Exchanging wide-eyed looks, we stared at the open door. Throughout our entire childhood, we’d never seen this door anything but tightly shut and locked. Seeing it ajar even a few inches felt unnerving, like the building was moving beneath my feet.
Proving we still shared the strong connection we had when we were kids, Laurie asked, “Remember that earthquake when we were really little?”
“Yeah,” I breathed out the word, waiting for my balance to return. When it did, I called out his name, hoping he just hadn’t heard us the first time. “Mr. Miller?” The wobbly feeling concentrated to the pit of my stomach.
What if he was in trouble? I reached out my hand, curling my fingers into an uncertain fist before convincing myself to stretch them out again and push open the door.
Laurie and I inhaled sharply as we got our first look inside the apartment. It wasn’t as different as I was expecting. Like every other apartment in the building, the exterior window wall was brick and the oak floors were slightly warped from age. The apartment also featured the built-in wardrobes we all used as closets, and it shared an identical layout with the other one-bedroom units.
The tall curtains were drawn, only letting in a small amount of light through the gaps. That light, and what spilled in from the hallway, illuminated a desk with a computer on it sitting in the middle of the room. An office chair had been pushed back from the desk as if the owner had gotten up quickly. A single armchair was positioned in front of a television in the corner.
“It doesn’t look like he’s here,” I whispered.
“Maybe he’s in the bedroom or the bathroom,” Laurie said, his deep voice tense.
I took a step forward, ready to investigate, but something just beyond the kitchen came into view. A sick feeling rolled through my gut.
“Whatisthat?” I gagged out the sentence, the words all jumbled together as I pointed.
Laurie peered into the apartment. “Oh.” He stood up straighter, clearing his throat. “Just a creepy mannequin woman standing next to the kitchen. Totally normal.”
Ghosts? No problem. I could handle them all day. Mannequins? Nope. The things freaked me out, as Laurie had pointed out moments before. When I was little, Penny could barely get me in a department store, and had to cover my eyes any time we walked by a mannequin. Now that I was an adult, I could tolerate them in stores. That was their natural habitat after all. I still made a point not to linger in clothing departments, but it was manageable because I expected them to be there. If they were somewhere I wasn’t expecting, however, it was like a punch to the gut.
The weight of Laurie’s hand settled on my shoulder, pulling me out of my panicked state. I blinked, looking up into his brown eyes.
“You stay here.” He held my gaze to show me it was okay. “I’ll go check the rooms.”
“Thanks,” I squeaked out the word.
Laurie swallowed, his throat bobbing with the motion. “Right.” He stepped forward, passing over the threshold. Stopping at the kitchen counter to his right, Laurie placed the clipboard he held next to a stack of mail and flipped through the letters. “He recently got a mail delivery, but without opening any of these, I can’t tell what day they’re from.” He checked the front and back of each letter, then set them back down on the counter.
He peered into the bathroom. Finding it empty, Laurie called out for Mr. Miller as he walked toward the bedroom.
I leaned forward in anticipation, but stopped, making sure to keep the mannequin out of my line of sight. The fact that I could see Laurie as he inspected the apartment from where I stood, made me feel a little better. It felt less like I’d forced him to go in by himself and more like I was just supervising from the safety of the hallway. But I wouldn’t be able to see him once he went into the bedroom. I gulped.
Laurie stopped at the closed door and knocked. “Mr. Miller?”
We waited. Listened. Hoped.
Nothing. Laurie opened the door and disappeared inside the room for a few moments. I held my breath, my heart in my throat until he returned, shaking his head.
No Mr. Miller.
The apartment was empty.
“Did he ever exist?” The question was mostly air as I exhaled the quiet words when Laurie rejoined me at the door.
Laurie swung the door partially closed, then open again, messing with the dead bolt above the doorknob. “Huh. This dead bolt is extra. You don’t have one of these, do you?”
“Nope,” I told him. “Mine just locks on the knob.”
“Mine too.” Laurie examined the doorjamb. “I wonder if Quentin installed this for him.”
I didn’t know why my neighbor up on the fifth floor would’ve put a lock in for Mr. Miller. Quentin worked on cars, if I remembered correctly. But maybe things had changed since I’d been gone.
Picking up the paper full of building signatures, I handed it back to Laurie with shaking fingers. “Nancy?” I asked.
Laurie dipped his chin once. “She’ll know what to do. Oh, I forgot the clipboard.” He stopped, and I waited in the hallway as he went back to grab it off the kitchen counter.
Leaving the door open, we went to find Nancy. We jogged down the stairs as if we were trying to stay ahead of reality, bursting out from the stairwell into the lobby corridor. At that point, most of the residents had finally made their way back to their apartments, so there were fewer obstacles as we rushed over to the manager’s apartment. I poked at the buzzer while Laurie banged on the door.
It swung open, and Nancy stood before us, annoyance creasing her forehead. Her glasses still clung to the edge of her nose as her wild eyes took us in. “What is all this noise ab—”
Laurie waved the clipboard in the air. “We went to get Mr. Miller’s signature, but he’s not there.”
An air of impatience moved over Nancy as if we’d told her we couldn’t find the carton of milk she’d just placed in the refrigerator. She set a hand on her hip. “Now, kids.” It was her warning tone, telling us this was not the time for shenanigans.
“And his door was open,” I blurted, knowing that piece of information would get her attention.
Nancy’s face froze, her lips parted in shock. “What did you say?”
I motioned to Laurie. “Laurie knocked on the door because we thought his buzzer wasn’t working, and the door swung in. There’s no one inside.”
“You went in?” Nancy leaned forward. Any hint of scolding had disappeared from her tone, leaving behind only the basest sense of intrigue.
“We thought he might be hurt or in trouble, but he’s just not there,” Laurie explained.
“Well, you would know,” Nancy said seriously, scratching at her chin contemplatively.
Her comment earned an exasperated sigh from Laurie.
But before he could remind her that it had only been the back of Mr. Miller’s head that he’d seen all those years ago, Nancy snapped her fingers. “Let’s go check this out together.” She started off at a brisk march that even Long Legs Laurie had a tough time matching.
Nancy had been a baker for forty-six of her sixty-something years. She still woke up at four every morning and was in bed before nine. And even though it was sometimes hard to picture the no-nonsense building manager creating colorful, sweet confections, imagining her strutting through an industrial kitchen snapping other bakers into shape and calling out orders was never a stretch.
We’d heard Nance complain about her “no-good knees” enough when we were children that we didn’t even expect her to use the stairs. She poked at the elevator button and then tapped her toe as she waited. The elevator groaned to a stop in front of us, the doors creaking open.
Nancy winced. The elevator had always been her least favorite part of the Morrisey, and she was constantly trying to improve the ancient thing. It was a testament to the urgency she felt about the Mr. Miller situation that she didn’t stop to complain about or inspect the rickety mess. She simply snapped her fingers again, causing Laurie and me to hop into the elevator after her. The whole thing dipped a few inches as we did.
Just as the doors slid closed, Ripley appeared by my side. “Hey, what gives? I’ve been waiting in the apartment by myself for ages.” Her ghostly shoulders slumped forward. That was until she noticed Laurie. “Oh.” Her dark-red lips formed an O, and one of her perfectly plucked eyebrows hitched higher on her forehead. But then she saw Nancy, and the suggestive look turned into a scowl. “Oh.” It was the same word but flattened by disappointment.
Having twenty-four years of experience with my ghostly gift, I knew better than to answer her while I was around other people. Instead, I said, “I hope Mr. Miller’s okay.”
Ripley’s eyes went wide. “Wait. The guy who never leaves his apartment and who no one’s ever seen?”
I touched my ear, the nonverbal sign for yes that Ripley and I had come up with years ago, so I could answer questions even if I couldn’t speak. We’d tried using American Sign Language at first, but I’d caught enough confused stares from ASL proficient people, that we’d come up with our own signs.
“It’s so weird that the door was open,” I continued, my statements working to catch up Ripley while seeming like small talk to my living elevator companions.
“Oh, this I’ve gotta see.” She vanished from the elevator.
Nancy wrung her hands together. “Yes, Meg. We all know what happened. You’re making me anxious by repeating it. We’re almost there.”
When the elevator doors squeaked open a few moments later, Ripley stood in the hallway outside of apartment 3B. But when her eyes flashed over to meet mine, they held none of the sparkling excitement that should’ve accompanied getting a peek inside an apartment we’d always wondered about. Instead, they were clouded with concern.
At first, I thought she’d just noticed the mannequin in the corner. Then her expression darkened into the version I’d only ever seen her adopt when she talked about the night she died, about the fatal car crash she’d been part of, the one that had also taken the life of my mother. Worry made my chest feel tight.
“Megs, I think you should walk away from this,” Ripley said, rushing forward, holding out her hands.
But Laurie and Nancy were striding toward the open door. When I hesitated, Laurie looked back.
“You coming?” he asked, his lips lifting into a half smile that made me feel like I was floating on air.
I walked forward, shooting Ripley an apologetic grimace. I had to follow. That conviction lessened as Nancy reached the open doorway first. Her hand flew to her mouth, she staggered backward, and she gasped. Finally, the small reading glasses perched on the edge of her nose fell, clattering to the floor in the hallway.
“I thought you said he wasn’t here.” Nancy’s tone was harsh and accusatory.
Laurie rushed forward, then came to a sliding stop as he peered into the open apartment. “Oh, gross.” He bent over, placing his hands on his knees.
My legs felt weak at the sight. Laurie only ever reacted in that way when he saw blood. I stepped forward tentatively.
Sure enough, the door to apartment 3B was still wide open. And where, minutes before, there had been nothing, now a body lay in the entryway. The red stain on the man’s white shirt was unmistakably blood. A lot of it.