“I am, let’s go,” Maggie said, walking toward the door.
They walked out of Ethel’s first-floor apartment and past Mr. Zimmerman’s office toward the staircase.
Maggie stopped on the first step and looked back at Ethel, who was still holding the thin cigar in her hand. “So, you’re saying that only you and Mr. Zimmerman live here?”
Ethel took a short drag on the thin brown cigar and then blew the white smoke toward the floor. “That’s right. No one has lived on the second floor since it was renovated into apartments several years ago. I’m surprised Mr. Zimmerman let you rent an apartment there. He must be desperate for rent money; the place does need a lot of repairs.”
Maggie put her hand on the handrail gummed with dirt from years of use. She looked at the rail and removed her hand. Every time she looked at the stairway, it seemed older than when she first arrived. “Is it possible people are squatting in those apartments?”
Ethel shook her head. “I would have seen them. There have been no signs of anyone else in the building for years.” Ethel let ashes fall to the floor. “Think about the names, Maggie. You said they called themselves Debbie, Bruce, and Susie. Those are the names from the past; even your name. The four of you are tied together, and the link needs to be broken.”
Maggie turned and began walking up the staircase. When she got to the top, Ethel stood beside her.
“I’ll check Debbie’s apartment first.” Maggie walked up to apartment 21B and knocked on the door. There was no answer, so she knocked again; still no answer.
Ethel looked at Maggie with raised eyebrows and a look of, I told you so.
“I’ll try Bruce’s.” Maggie walked to his door and knocked. Just as no one answered at Debbie’s, no one answered at Bruce’s. She reached into her pocket, took out her key ring, and held up the skeleton key for Ethel to see. “It should open their doors.”
Ethel choked and coughed. “Where’d you get that?”
“Mr. Zimmerman gave it to me. Does your apartment use one?”
“No, my apartment does not use one. I knew the developer stopped renovating when the workers refused to come back because they were afraid. I heard that their tools were being moved, they would see apparitions, and one worker even was pushed down the stairway by unseen hands. I guess the locks were one thing they never got to, but Mr. Zimmerman should have replaced them. Especially since there were renters up here for a couple years, but they quickly left, just like the workers.” Ethel looked toward the French doors as rain began to pelt the glass. “When I worked as a receptionist here, decades ago, I would see the nurses with those passkeys.”
“Mr. Zimmerman is a cheapskate because my bed is an old hospital bed.”
Ethel’s hand quivered as she put the cigar in her mouth, letting it hang from the corner of her wrinkled lips. “When you see no one is here, I’m helping you pack and you’re moving into my apartment until you find someplace else.”
That Saturday afternoon turned dark from the storm, making it seem as though it was the middle of the night. The rain smacking into the porch doors caused them to rattle as Maggie put the skeleton key into Bruce’s door and unlocked it. She turned the doorknob and opened it.
Flashes of lightning through the windows revealed an abandoned apartment. Not abandoned by Bruce, but by a renter who left without clearing the table or even bothering to take all of their belongings with them. The Formica table and the turquoise vinyl chairs were the same she had sat in when Bruce invited her to supper, except dust covered the seats. The table had the rose porcelain teapot and three teacups, one of which looked recently used. By her? Had she sleepwalked and dreamed she had tea with Bruce?
“See, Maggie, no one lives here,” Ethel said, standing at the door.
“It was so real. I’ve been in here because that’s the cup I drank from; it had chamomile tea and honey.”
Ethel saw the recently used cup.
“Maggie, I fear that you’ve stepped through a veil into the spirit world,” Ethel said, backing up. “Please close the door.”
Maggie pulled the door shut and walked to Debbie’s apartment. Her hands fumbled turning the key in the lock. She knew this apartment would be empty, too. She opened the door, and as a bright flash of lightning filled the room, she saw Debbie and Bruce standing side-by-side, looking at her. Thunder instantly cracked, causing the electricity to go out. But as the lightning flashed like strobe lights, she saw them raise their arms toward her, summoning her to enter.
Ethel pulled Maggie backward and closed the door. “Let’s get your things, now, and get out of here.”
Maggie was shocked and confused as Ethel took the key from Maggie’s hand, went to her apartment, and opened the door. “Do you have a flashlight?” She looked at Maggie whose brain was still digesting the events. She shook Maggie’s shoulders. “Maggie, snap out of it. We need light.”
Ethel’s touch brought Maggie back. She reached into her purse and took out her phone to use as a light, but it would not power on. “The batteries must be dead.”
“Get your computer and anything important that you can carry and let’s get out of here. You’re never coming back to this room.” Ethel stepped into the apartment while the air alternated between flashes of light and pitch-blackness. She walked forward, tripped, and fell. She moaned.
Maggie went up to her. “Are you all right?”
Ethel held her hip as Susie’s teddy bear sat solemnly on the floor looking at them. “I tripped on that damned bear and I hurt my hip.”
“Is it broken?”
Ethel wiggled her toes and then raised a knee. “I don’t think so, but I’m not going to be able to walk so well.”
“Stay there,” Maggie said, going to the kitchen. She put her laptop and camera into her backpack and then rushed about the apartment filling it to overflowing. She put her purse cross-body and then put the pack on her back before kicking the bear into a corner and kneeling down next to Ethel. “I’ll help you up.”
Ethel groaned in pain as she limped to the door with Maggie acting as a crutch. When they walked out of the apartment, the power flickered back on. “We’ll have to take the elevator because I can’t walk down the steps.”
Maggie did not want to go into that contraption, but she was not strong enough to carry Ethel. “What if the power goes out while we’re in there?”
“You’re right, let’s take the stairs.”
Then the elevator door opened, waiting for them to enter.
“I’m still not going in there,” Maggie said, helping Ethel to the stairs.
“Someone’s coming up the stairs,” Ethel said, looking toward the first-floor lobby.
“You see her?” Maggie was relieved that Ethel could see what she was seeing. Unfortunately, what Maggie was seeing was Susie walking one slow jittery step at a time toward them.
“We have to get to my apartment where it’s safe,” Ethel said as they stood there watching Susie get closer. “Can we walk past her?”
Another surge of adrenaline shot through Maggie’s body. “No, she has a knife.”