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Pity was not an emotion I was used to experiencing when it came to the stalwart manager of the Morrisey apartment building.
Nancy Lewandowski was the definition of confidence and capability. She could settle a debate with a well-timed lift of a single eyebrow, and I’d seen grown men skitter away from her in fear whenever she used her no-nonsense voice.
But as she stood there, fingers gripping her podium, sympathy overwhelmed me. Even her reading glasses, which always seemed to balance perfectly on the tip of her nose, sat askew as she tried to regain control of the meeting.
“Everyone needs to calm down,” Nancy called, her voice trembling.
I squirmed in my seat, my sweaty legs sticking to the chair as my neighbors continued to lob complaints at her.
Normally, Nancy seemed to look forward to building meetings as if they were her own personal Christmas each month. Gathering everyone to chat about building matters while she stood behind her podium, checking items off her agenda, was her happy place.
This particular meeting was different. The residents were hot, scared, and tired. Hot because the July sun was streaming unrelentingly through the tall lobby windows. Scared because I’d recently uncovered secret passages hidden within the walls of our Seattle building. Not just any passages, either, but ones specifically created with the intention of sneaking into our apartments unseen. And tired because the meeting was dragging into its second sweaty hour, and the chairs, which we usually only had to endure for thirty minutes or so, began to feel like torture devices.
“I haven’t slept a wink since Meg found those passages.” Winnie Wisteria dramatically placed the back of her hand to her forehead like a silver-screen damsel.
I turned to my right, where my best friend, Ripley, usually sat. Even though she was a ghost, and I couldn’t talk to her around living people, her commentary and the faces we would make at each other made building meetings bearable. But instead of Ripley, Julian from the third floor sat there today.
Ever since the ghostly guy Ripley had fallen for had moved on last week, she’d barely left the apartment. Clark’s disappearance had affected her more than I’d ever experienced. And seeing how I was the reason she was stuck on this plane of existence, unable to move on like other ghosts, I wasn’t sure how to help her get out of this kind of depression.
Unaware of my inner struggle, and taking my turning toward him as commentary on Winnie’s dramatic statement, Julian said, “If she hadn’t slept in days, she would’ve gone mad by now.” Then he tilted his head to the side as if, on second thought, that might explain a lot about Winnie.
Nancy looked from Winnie to the rest of the residents. “I know. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to call this meeting. I’ve been dealing with the police and then lawyers…”
The first item on Nancy’s agenda that day had been to let us know that apartment 5E would be rented out to help Quentin pay for the myriad of fees he would incur as he went to trial.
“The point is,” Nancy continued, her tone sharpening as if she’d suddenly remembered who she was, that she could handle this, “we’re here to discuss what to do next.”
Winnie let out a dramatic sigh that included a fair bit of whimpering.
Paul, Winnie’s neighbor on the fourth floor, put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, Winnie. Quentin’s gone. We’re safe now.”
Julian shot out of his seat next to me, making me jump in surprise. “Safe? We might be safe from murderers, but anyone can get into our apartments. They could steal our stuff.”
“Who are you worried about?” Alyssa asked, turning in her seat to face Julian. “Because, right now, the only people with access to the passages are those of us in the building.” My fifth-floor neighbor cut her eyes across the man next to me, staring daggers.
Wendell Underwood cleared his throat and flicked two fingers into the air. “I’d like for it to be listed that I think the secret passages are awesome.”
The lobby went silent as everyone turned to the fourth-floor resident … the one with far too many snakes for any one person. A collective shiver slithered through the lobby.
“There’s no list, Wendell,” Nancy said through a tired exhale. Her attention swept over us. “I called this meeting, hoping we could all get on the same page about what to do about these passages. But based on the differing opinions I’ve had yelled at me over the last hour”—Nancy glowered disappointedly at the naysayers—“I’d say we’re not going to agree.”
A few residents opened their mouths and scowled as if they were going to protest, but Nancy flicked an index finger in the air as she continued.
“The fact is, you each own your apartment, and I cannot legally tell you what to do with your property.” She cut a glare at Wendell, who cowered under her scrutiny.
“So, people will be allowed to keep their passages open?” Danica McNairy shot to her feet, holding her pregnant belly.
Nancy patted the air. “Yes, but if your passage is locked from the inside, it shouldn’t matter to you.” She held Danica’s gaze until the woman reclaimed her seat.
“And I’m guessing this’ll come out of our own pockets?” Arturo scoffed. As one of our buildings’ self-proclaimed Conversationalists, Art constantly talked about how he was on a fixed income.
Nancy’s chin jutted forward. “Of course it will. Just like it would be if you decided you wanted to buy a new fridge or install a new door buzzer. And until I can find a new handyman, we’ll be on our own to deal with repairs.” At that statement, Nancy’s shoulders sank forward.
Whispers trailed around the room. No one wanted to talk about—or even think about—Quentin. It was too soon.
Nancy kneaded her fingers into her temple. “I will give everyone a few months off from paying building dues to ease the financial burden.” For once, positive sounds spilled from the crowd at that statement. Nancy looked down at the podium as she continued thinking and tapped her pen like a conductor with a baton. “Okay. How about this? Creepy as it was, Wendell’s comment about a list was actually kind of inspired.”
Wendell ducked his head and waved to the group as if he wasn’t completely sure it was a compliment, but he would take what he could get.
Nancy’s nostrils flared as she inhaled. “I’m going to start a list of who would like their passageway covered, and I will see if I can get a quote from a contractor. That way I’m doing most of the legwork for you. You just have to pay them. How does that sound? Better, huh?” Nancy pointed her pen at various residents, daring them to tell her it wasn’t helpful.
“That would help. Thank you, Nance,” Julian said.
Others followed his statement with their own cowed thank-yous directed at our building manager.
“I’m just going to start from floor two and move up.” Nancy held her pen at the ready as she called out to Cascade, who lived in apartment 2A.
By the time she’d gone through floors two and three, the ratio was sitting at about two to one in favor of having the passages closed off. The other side either didn’t care that they were there, said they would fix it themselves, or they just didn’t have the funds to do it at the moment and would get around to it later.
After recording Ronnie Arbury’s choice for apartment 4A, Nancy’s lips twisted into a question. “Hmmm. What should we do about Laurence?” Every eye turned to me in the seconds that followed. “Meg, do you want to ask him?”
My heartbeat spiked at Nancy’s request. Why? Because I’m in love with him and everyone knows? My worried thoughts bounced around inside my mind.
Sucking air in through my nose, I let the oxygen flow through me, calming my anxiety. In that much more rational state, I reasoned that the request wasn’t about my crush on Laurie. We were friends. The whole building knew that. That was why they’d asked me.
Nodding, I held up my phone and wiggled it in the air, accepting the job nonverbally since I didn’t trust my voice. I did a quick calculation to see what time it was in Japan.
It was something I’d been doing a lot over the past four days, ever since Laurie left for the island in the Pacific Ocean, almost five thousand miles away from me. Unlike every other time I’d added the sixteen hours to figure out the difference, I got a number that wasn’t in the middle of the night or too early.
Eight o’clock in the morning wasn’t an unreasonable time to text him. So, I typed out the message.
Hey! I hope you’re settling in okay over there. We’re having a Morrisey meeting, and Nance wants to know what you want to do about your passageway entrance. Most people are having a contractor secure theirs shut from the inside. A few are leaving theirs alone.
Knowing at least half of the residents would still be watching me even though Nancy had moved on to the other fourth-floor apartments, I schooled my expression so I wouldn’t look too eager as I waited for Laurie’s response. But nothing could’ve helped me hold back my excitement as three dots appeared at the bottom of the screen, showing me Laurie was responding.
Oh man, I miss it there so much. Japan is beautiful, but I’ve been working a ton since the second I landed. Um, yes to the closing of the passage. What are you going to do with yours?
Rolling my lips to hide my giddy smile, I glanced up and made eye contact with Nancy, waiting until she was done documenting Paul Kelly’s choice for apartment 4F.
“Laurie’s a yes and so am I,” I told her, knowing I’d be the next person she’d call since I lived in 5A.
Nancy wrote down our decisions with a satisfied nod. “You tell him hi for us,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
I gave her a thumbs-up, showing I would. My response recorded, I turned my attention back to replying to Laurie.
You kidding? I’m closing that thing off for good. I spent more time in those passages than I ever want to again. *shudder* Also, everyone says hello and that they can’t possibly live without you.
I don’t blame you for feeling that way. I also don’t blame them for missing me. After that came a winking emoji.
Grinning like a fool, I responded.
I can see that Japan has humbled you. Where’s the self-assured Laurie I know and love?
I worried my lip for a moment before sending the word love, knowing it was all too close to the truth. But if the past week had taught me anything, it was that I could be brave.
Oh, he’s here, hoping for a play-by-play of that meeting. Meg, you cannot leave me hanging.
I suppressed a giggle, more than willing to fill him in on the antics of our neighbors. Tilting the phone to my left, where there was an empty seat, and no one would be able to read my screen, I typed out a response.
Well, Julian’s convinced everyone’s going to use the passages to sneak in and steal his “stuff,” which makes me SO interested to see what kind of stuff he has that he thinks we would want.
Haha. That’s so Julian. My guess: it’s not anything cool. It’s gotta be something weird and embarrassing, and he doesn’t want us to see it.
Ah, like a collection of dolls.
Lol. Stuffed animals, maybe?
Picking up my head for a moment so I could relay what else was going on in the meeting, I typed out what I saw.
Now Winnie is complaining that there’s no way she can possibly wait for the contractor to close off her passage. She says she hasn’t slept since I found them, which Julian said has to be a lie.
I don’t think anything Winnie says is true.
I had to agree with the man. About to write out a response, I stopped when I saw the three dots appear again. Laurie was writing more.
The last few days have felt like an eternity. I’m missing Leo a ton, but do you know who I’m also missing?
I held my breath. Of course, he would miss his dog. I stared at the screen, waiting for him to answer the rhetorical question.
“Me!” In my surprise, I gasped the word out loud.
“Oh, good. Thank you, Meg,” Nancy said. “That’s very sweet of you. Just come see me once we’re all done here.”
My gaze snapped up from my phone to Nancy’s podium. Wait. Had I just accidentally volunteered for something? From the relief written on my fellow residents’ faces, it was something they were glad to get out of.
I miss you too. But, oh gosh. I wasn’t paying attention, and I think I just volunteered for something. Stay tuned.
Edge of my seat here, Dawson.
I tucked my phone in my pocket and picked my way to the podium as people began to fold and stack the meeting chairs. I stopped in front of Nancy. My body tensed as I waited to hear what I’d volunteered to do.
She clapped her hands together. “The piece of wood I’m talking about is in the back right corner in the mechanical room. There are a bunch stacked there, so just pick the one that has the fewest spiders and bring it up to Winnie’s floor. We’ll just wedge it in her closet until I can find a contractor.” Nancy held her big jangly ring of keys out toward me, specifically finding the one that would let me into the dusty, expansive room that housed our furnace, generator, hot water heater, and pretty much everything else that ran the building.
Blinking, I pushed past her comment about spiders and started toward the mechanical room. Keeping the key I needed pinched between two fingers, I fished my phone out of my pocket and hit the dictate button since I only had one hand free now.
And the answer is … Winnie refuses to wait, so I have to go find a piece of spider-infested wood to bring up and block her passage now.
I mean, Meg, she hasn’t slept in days. She needs this.
He followed up his text with a laughing emoji, just in case I hadn’t picked up on his sarcasm.
Well, good luck. Let me know how it goes.
Sad as I was about ending our conversation, I needed to concentrate on what I was doing. Laurie’s earlier comment about the last few days feeling like an eternity stuck with me. They really had, for more than one reason. Laurie wasn’t the only one who was working nonstop. I’d spent hours—an increasing number each day—working to undo the self-doubt and negative talk that had caused me to quit art in New York earlier that year. I’d painted something new every day since, and I felt my joy returning.
Actually, I’d been painting when my neighbors interrupted to tell me about the building meeting. Which meant the quicker I got this errand done for Nancy, the sooner I could get back to my artwork.
The hot, musty smell of the mechanical room hit me in the face as I entered. I skirted past the mailroom and headed for the back right corner. Ducking around pipes and taking care not to step in the few puddles of water accumulating from who-knows-which leaking part, I almost didn’t see the boards at first. They were gray with age instead of the orangey-tan of newly cut wood, and they blended in with the concrete walls.
Nancy was right; there were quite a few pieces of wood of different sizes. I slid the first one away from the group, propping it against the water heater tank. It was too small, though it definitely seemed spider-free, which I wasn’t sure was going to be a guarantee as I dug deeper into the stack.
The next few were still too small. The edges bit into my fingers as I dragged each piece away and put it to the side so I could access the next one. I threw my hair up into a bun to get it out of the way as sweat formed on my neck from all the work. The penultimate board looked to be the right size, but it also had the biggest spider I’d ever seen clutching to the side, and I didn’t want to take a chance. I pushed that forward, so I could slide the last board out from against the wall.
But as I moved the final piece of wood, a gust of air whooshed past me. It smelled even mustier than the rest of the place, if that was possible. Pulling it out all the way, I uncovered a threshold. It was brick, inlaid within the concrete wall.
Another room? That didn’t seem possible. I was standing up against the side of the building. But as I examined the southernmost wall, I noticed this section popped in about four feet more than the rest. I’d never thought about the discrepancy, or what might be housed there, since all the exterior walls of our building were straight.
I stepped through and used my phone’s flashlight to investigate. A pitch-black staircase opened before me, my light only reaching about halfway down.
“Another secret passageway?” I asked to no one with a groan.
That was the last thing we needed. We were still dealing with the fallout from the last secret I discovered in this building. I could just picture the pandemonium now. This would surely break Winnie.
I almost turned around, but my curiosity got the better of me. Maybe I could just check it out, make sure there was nothing I needed to tell Nancy about, and then put the boards back so no one knew about it.
Resolved, I stepped down onto the staircase, recognizing that my light shook along with my fingers as they gripped my phone.