As I left the wharf district, the air became staler and heavier. The breeze that blew in from the ocean got lost in the twisting streets and rusting buildings. Smells hung in the air longer in the narrow, stagnant streets of the Rubigo District. Gasoline, garbage, and questionable street food made up the body odor of what many called the armpit of the city.
I began to relax as I drew closer to home. My surroundings were dilapidated, but familiar. I passed the parking lot where I learned to roller skate, the playground my sister used to love. When did she get too big for playgrounds? How did I miss her growing up?
I passed the diner where my best friend and I used to study for tests. When had we stopped meeting there? I struggled to remember. Had it been after mom got sick, when I stopped have money for milkshakes? Yes, that must have been it. I remembered the last time we’d spread our notes and textbooks across the sticky counter, remembered the panic when I’d opened my wallet to find it empty. They’d offered to pay for me, and I refused. We had such a fight over it. Had I ever apologized properly for my pride, or did they forgive me as they always did?
Lost in thought, I barely noticed as I passed the building that the gangs burned down, and the window shattered by a bullet. I passed graffiti murals in neon paint that was bright even in the darkness, and breathed in the fragrance of potted flowers coaxed into bloom on stoops and balconies.
I passed the ghosts of my childhood, passed through memories of another life, and arrived home with the echoes of another life trailing behind me like cloak, disguising what I’d become to those who knew me best. I hoped it would be enough.
Home was a gritty, vibrant place for my family and me. Home was a thousand stories in the cracks of the sidewalk, the slurred songs of drunks stumbling on the sidewalk outside. Home was in the neon signs that shown through our windows and served as our night-light, and in ivy that scrawled like cursive script up the concrete walls.
Home was apartment 7B in a five-story apartment complex sandwiched between a twenty-four hour Laundromat and a payday loan shark. The dingy hallway was carpeted in linty green and brown checks. The faint buzz of the fluorescent lights in the stairwell drowned out my labored breathing as I slowly climbed the 3 flights to my family’s apartment, the banister groaning under my leaning weight.
I fumbled in my pocket for my keys, dropping the bag of medication in the process. The bottles of pills inside rattled loudly, too loudly. I muttered a curse under my breath and quickly stooped to pick them up, but a pair of wizened, twiggy hands beat me to it.
“Careful, Dearie,” The old woman in front of me murmured, handing the bag of pills back to me. I jerked backwards.
“Where did you come from?” I hissed in shock, glancing around the small landing. There were two other doors in addition to my own, but all of them were closed and bolted. The way the hinges in this building creaked, I was sure I’d have heard if one of them had opened.
The old woman smiled, but her lined eyes were full of sadness. “I’ve come a long way, my dear. A long, long, way.”
I frowned at her in confusion, taking a step back to look at her better. She was very short but not hunched, with frothy white hair curling out from her head in every direction. A plum colored shawl embroidered with branching gold thread was draped around her bony shoulders like a blanket. Her eyes were the green tinged brown of rotting wood returning to earth.
She cocked her head to the side like a bird and stared back at me, waiting to see what I would do.
“Wha- what do you want,” I stuttered nervously.
“I’m just doing the neighborly thing,” She replied, her voice at once very young and very old. It was then that I realized that I had seen her before. She lived in the apartment across the hall, appearing very rarely to check her mail or collect groceries delivered to her doorstep. This was the first time I’d spoken to her.
“It’s when neighbors abandon neighbors that everything begins to fall apart, don’t you think?” the old woman continued.
“Um, I guess,” I muttered a bit distractedly, desperately trying to think of an excuse for being out this late at night.
“Don’t worry about me,” the old woman assured me, seeming to read my mind, “My lips are sealed. But if you ever need help, you know where I live, yes?”
“R-right,” I stammered, unsure. “Thank you.”
“Anytime,” the old woman said, turning toward the door of her apartment. Just before she vanished inside, she turned back. “Take care of those broken ribs now, Maisie.”
It took a moment for what she had said to register.
“What did you say?” I blurted out, forgetting for a moment to keep my voice down.
The old woman paused with her door almost closed. She peered out at me through the barest sliver of open space, her watery eyes pinpricks of reflected light. The apartment beyond her was pitch dark.
“I only meant to remind you to give your wounds time to heal. After all, you’ve a hard battle ahead of you.”
“You know about the mayor?” I asked, dropping all pretense of innocence.
“I know about the mayor.” The old woman confirmed, “But that wasn’t the fight I meant.”
With that, she shut the door with a bang. I heard the lock click shut a moment later.
I stood on the landing for a moment, clutching my keys in one hand and my medicine in the other, trying to figure out what on earth had just happened.
Exhaustion and confusion warred in my mind. Eventually, exhaustion won out, and I retreated into the safety of my apartment, my bed at the forefront of my mind.