The door buzzer sounded like a bumblebee trapped inside the wall, jolting Maggie from the imaginary world of her story. She had been up early that Thursday morning, working to beat her book’s deadline. She rubbed her eyes, quickly saved her document, and rushed to the intercom.
“Hey, Maggie, it’s Jess, let me in.”
Jessica Pinter has been Maggie’s best friend since third grade. They know each other better than anyone else does, including their families. Maggie knows that Jess backed her car into the boss’s parked vehicle, leaving a big dent in the front quarter panel of Mr. Hall’s black Cadillac. She never reported it or told anyone, except Maggie. She told her how he ranted for a week about it and that he knew whoever did it had a white car because of the paint left on the crushed metal. Since the bumper of Jess’s car had black paint on it, she was afraid to drive it to work anymore, fearing she would be fired if he found out she did it and never told him. So she started driving her brother’s car, telling him hers was in the shop.
And Jess knows that Maggie faked being sick so that she would not have to spend her only week of summer vacation with her in-laws, in a secluded cabin in the woods. There would be nothing to do but play cards, watch squirrels climb trees and listen to his family gripe. They wanted Maggie to stop that ridiculous pie in the sky idea she had about making money writing while praising Cory’s every move. It would have been pure torture.
“Maggie, dear,” mother McGee would say in her usual hoity-toity voice. “You know as well as I do that the odds of making any money from your writing are unrealistic. Who do you think you are? Agatha Christie?”
Talk about a kick in the gut. Yes, pure hell.
Maggie stood in her open doorway as Jess walked up the steps, twisting her head to look at the architecture of the old hospital.
“I’m over here,” Maggie said, happy to see Jess.
Jess walked into Maggie’s apartment holding a fruit basket and a bottle of wine. “Wow, I can’t believe you’re living here. This place is about as creepy as they come.”
“Thanks for the nice housewarming, Jess,” Maggie said, closing the door.
“The view is spectacular,” Jess said, taking the basket and wine into the kitchen. “But I still don’t think it’s worth living here.”
“I know, I know,” Maggie said, uncorking the wine bottle. She then took her only two drinking glasses from the cupboard. “I haven’t had a chance to go down to the beach, yet. Do you want to go?”
“Absolutely,” she said, taking the wine bottle. “Have you met your neighbors yet?”
Maggie scrunched her nose. “Yeah, they’re a little on the odd side. I even have to babysit tomorrow night, and I don’t even know these people.”
“I would’ve refused,” Jess said. “I think that’s asking a lot of someone who just moved in.”
“The guy in apartment 20A is kind of cute, though,” Maggie said, walking toward the door. Then she stopped and brought her hands to her face as tears filled her eyes. A surge of mixed feelings came over her. The horror of seeing Cory with a bloody gunshot wound to the head at the dining room table, mingled with memories of his loving touch and soft kisses.
“Oh, Maggie, I’m so sorry,” Jess said, giving her a hug. “Go ahead and cry, it’s all right. When you’re ready to go back to the house, I’ll go with you.”
When the crying spell eased, Maggie pulled away from Jess to get a tissue from the bathroom. “I’m sorry, Jess.”
“No apology needed,” Jess said. “Let’s go enjoy the beach.”
They walked down the steps to the first floor and past Mr. Zimmerman’s office. They were about to go out the door leading toward the lake when the door to apartment 12C opened. An older woman with a green scarf tied around her head stopped in her tracks when she saw them, causing the thin wood tip cigar almost to fall from between her lips.
Based on how the wrinkled woman was dressed in a long Gypsy skirt, moccasins and beaded necklaces, along with the fact that the woman’s apartment was right below hers, she realized it had to be Ethel, the seer.
“You must be Ethel,” Maggie said, smiling; hoping her eyes did not appear too red from crying. “I’m Maggie and this is my friend, Jess. I just moved in, my apartment is right above you.”
The woman seemed nervous, or else she had Parkinson’s disease. Her hand quivered when she reached up to take the cigar from her mouth. “Yes, I’m Ethel. I’m surprised Mr. Zimmerman told you about me.”
“It wasn’t Mr. Zimmerman,” Maggie said, moving the wine glasses to one hand. “It was Debbie on the second floor.”
The old woman coughed, hacked, and coughed some more. “I’m sorry, I need a drink,” she said, closing the door.
Maggie and Jess looked at each other and then walked out the door onto the wraparound porch. They walked down the steps, into the tall uncut grass, and up to the ridge of the bluff.
“Gee, Maggie,” Jess said, stepping away from the weed covered cliff. “That’s a long way down there.”
Maggie did not venture any closer. “I wouldn’t want to live here if I had kids, they’d fall right off the edge.”
They followed the ridge until they came up to a worn wooden landing. The steps, moss covered and wet, followed the face of the clay bluff from small platform to small platform. Overgrown trees and shrubs obscured their view to the base of the stairway.
“Is it safe to go down these steps?” Jess asked, moving the rail back and forth. “This isn’t even sturdy.”
“Mr. Zimmerman didn’t say anything about it,” Maggie said, stepping gingerly onto the top step. “It feels okay.”
“I’m going to need this wine when we get down there,” Jess said, staying a few steps behind Maggie as they descended to the lake. “If we get there alive.”
Maggie carefully tested each old board before placing her full weight onto it. Sometimes there was a spring in the boards, sometimes a snap. “I’m going to ask Mr. Zimmerman if there’s a better way to get down there. This is freaking me out.”
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Jess said.
When they reached the first landing, Maggie looked down toward the sandy beach, up to where they had just come, and then at Jess. “You can come down here.”
“I’m not standing on that with you,” Jess said, shaking her head. “It might not support both of us.”
Maggie laughed. “Okay, let’s hurry up and get this over with.”
After what seemed like an unacceptably long time, they finally reached solid ground. Jess fell to her knees as if she had just stepped off an airplane that had crash-landed.
They took off their shoes and walked through the deep soft sand toward the lake. When they reached the water, the sand was wet and firm from the lapping waves. They could walk without taking two steps forward and one step back.
“This is nice,” Maggie said, looking out over the whitecaps that were racing in to cover her feet, only to be pulled back into the Great Lake’s vast body of water.
Jess looked back at the stairway. “Take your shoes with you; I want to find another way back up there.”
They walked down the secluded beach. If it were not for the gulls, they would be the only ones on the lakeshore. As they walked along, drinking wine, they would occasionally stop to pick up stones. Brown lightning stones with patterned white cracks and smoothed, colorful beach glass caught their attention. Some stones were flat, perfect for skipping over the water. While others found a home in their pockets.
When they came up to a large piece of driftwood, they sat down on it and looked back down the beach.
“That sanatorium is even eerier looking from this angle,” Jess said, refilling her glass. “It reminds me of those old scary movies where there’s a haunted castle on a cliff by the ocean, and there are thunder and lightning and huge waves crashing on boulders.”
“It’s not anything like that,” Maggie said, nudging Jess with her elbow in jest. “And it’s not a sanatorium anymore, it’s called Sandpiper Bluff.”
Maggie and Jess sat on the log for a while. They talked and laughed until their wine was nearly gone. The sun slowly dropped toward the horizon as the few distant clouds began to turn a peachy rose color.
“We’d better get back,” Maggie said, standing. She wobbled and then caught her balance.
Jess looked further down the beach for a way to get back to the top of the bluff. She sighed. “Oh, great. We’re going to have to go back up those steps because it’s still quite a ways before the cliff tapers down.”
They walked back to the dilapidated stairway, taking their time climbing to the top landing. When they reached the very top, they stood there looking at the building.
“It looks dark except for that Ethel’s place,” Jess said, holding the empty wine bottle.
“I don’t think I told you that Ethel is a fortuneteller, at least that’s what Debbie told me,” Maggie said.
“No kidding,” Jess said. She looked at Maggie and then back toward Maggie’s apartment windows. “I think . . .”
“You think what?” Maggie asked, looking at Jess’s wide-open eyes.
“I must be seeing things,” Jess said. She cleared her throat. “But I thought I saw someone walk past your window. I mean, it looked like someone was in your apartment. Did you lock the door?”
Maggie thought a moment. She reached into her pocket. Her fingers moved past the sandy stones she had collected and pulled out the brass skeleton key. The entrance key dangling from it, held in place by a twist tie she had taken from a loaf of bread. “I closed the door, but I didn’t test it to see if it locked automatically.”
“You’ve got to be kidding, Maggie,” Jess said. “The superintendent gave you a skeleton key? Let me see it.”
Maggie handed Jess the lever lock key.
“Do you know what a skeleton key is?” Jess asked as she examined it.
Maggie shrugged. “No, just some old antique key.”
“Skeleton keys are master keys,” Jess said, handing it back to Maggie. “You have a key that can open any lock in the place. This key is probably from when the building was first built or when it was converted to a psychiatric hospital. The charge nurse probably had a skeleton key to lock patients in their rooms, and to let patients out of their rooms.”
“Does that mean my key can open Debbie and Bruce’s doors?” Maggie asked, shoving it back into her pocket.
“Probably,” Jess said, looking back towards Maggie’s room.
“Why would Mr. Zimmerman give me a master key?”
Jess raised her eyebrows. “I hope he didn’t give one to Debbie and Bruce. If he did, maybe one of them is in your room.”
“Or,” Maggie said, walking back toward the porch. “Maybe your drunk and seeing things.”
Jess did not answer as they trudged through lawn that was as much weeds as it was grass. When they stepped onto the porch, she tried the door. It was locked. “Can you unlock this?”
Maggie used the entrance key to open the door. The remaining warm rays of sunlight flooded the interior of Sandpiper Bluff, filling the previously unseen plaster cracks, causing them to look like rust-colored veins.
They walked inside and up the stairway to Maggie’s apartment. Standing in front of the door, they listened. There were no sounds of anyone moving around on the other side of the door. Maggie turned the doorknob, the unlocked door opened.
“Must be I have to manually lock the door,” Maggie said, pushing it all the way open.
Jess followed Maggie into the apartment, closing the door behind her. The room felt damp and chilly. With a quiet slowness, they looked through the rooms for an intruder or anything missing. Everything was fine.
“Jess,” Maggie said, in a somewhat pleading voice. “Can you stay with me tonight? There’s a spare room.”
Jess did not say anything as she looked into the spare bedroom.
Maggie noticed Jess’s hesitation. There was no way she was staying there alone when Jess thought she saw someone inside the apartment. “You’ve been drinking. You know you’re not supposed to drink and drive. Besides, I’d feel awful and never forgive myself if I let you drive and something happened to you.” She walked into the kitchen where Jess had sat her purse on the table. “Are your car keys in your purse?”
Jess sighed. “Okay, you win. I’ll spend the night.”