A grimy world surrounds Leila Ulric. Gangs roam the streets, her dead-end job has no end, and her apartment isn’t much larger than a walk-in closet. Her life looks to be turning around when a death leads her to a new apartment with a new roommate. The improvement in possessions, however, doesn’t lead to the satisfaction she hoped. A walk in the fresh night air leads her to stumble on a mystery that refuses to be solved, and a young man who holds truths she never realized existed.
I’d always heard a guy could change your life, but for me a guy changed my whole outlook on life. He also changed me, but that’s getting a little ahead of my story.
My story starts that day when I moved up in the world. Literally. The announcement came with a knock on my apartment door.
My living quarters were, to be kind, small. There was a combination living room-dining room, and the kitchen was hardly more than the fridge and stove with two cupboards. My bedroom barely fit the bed, and the closet was the width of a skinny hamper and twice as tall. All other necessities, like a washer and dryer, and even a bathroom, were located down the hall in the communal area.
Outside the few, grimy windows was the world in which I lived. Dingy apartment buildings stretched into the distance and were finally finished when the residential sectors collided with the commercial district.
Those hulking, lifeless office buildings penetrated the sky with their artificial eyes hewn from countless particles of melted sand. The inhabitants of those buildings scurried to and fro along the gray sidewalks on their way to a boring existence.
Beyond those towering behemoths, guardians of boredom, was the river. The serpentine water flowed through the city like the old Biblical evil. It promised a way out of this dingy place, but when it came to the ocean at the mouth some ten miles away there was nothing but an endless border of water. I was trapped.
The knock on the door was the first sign that my caged existence was about to come to an end. I navigated past my couch and peeked through the peephole. My apartment manager stood outside in the dingy hall. I unlocked the knob and slid the chain off its hook, and opened the door. I leaned against the doorway and folded my arms over my chest.
“I paid the rent last week,” I reminded him.
The apartment manager, Mr. Meyer, was a portly man on the seedy side of fifty. He was generally unshaven and his clothes were stained with the constant plumbing issues that plagued the ancient apartment building.
He frowned and waved off my comment. “I’m not here for that. Old Mort passed away,” he told me.
I raised an eyebrow. “He was pretty old,” I commented.
“Yeah, and a good paying customer like you. That’s why I wanted to offer his room to you,” Meyer explained.
Now that got my attention. The deceased Mort had held one of the apartments on the upper floors. Those apartments were coveted for their larger rooms, personal bathrooms, and even a washer and dryer. Mort’s place even had an extra bedroom.
“How much is it?” I asked him.
“Two thousand dollars a month.”
I winced. That was almost my entire monthly salary. Net. “How long do I have to think about it?”
“Mort’s family will be by here later today to pick up his things.” I hadn’t even known Mort had family. Nobody ever came to visit him. “So you can give me an answer by Friday, but no later. You’re not the only one who wants that place, ya know, and I can’t afford leave it empty for long.” I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. He could afford to leave it empty until the Rapture, but the miser would never admit it.
“I’ll give you an answer by then,” I promised.
He smiled and nodded his head. “Good. I’ll talk to you then.” He walked off, no doubt to make the same offer to every consistent-paying client in the lower floors.
I shut the door and leaned my back against the entrance. “Two thousand. . .” I murmured.
I’d need to get a roommate to fill that empty bedroom, but I could live with one person if it meant not having to share a bathroom with twenty others. A smile slipped across my lips. I knew just the person.
I snatched my keys from the table beside the door, but paused in front of the mirror close to the door. The reflection of a young woman with long black hair tied behind her stared back at me. My long bangs were swept to one side. I was dressed in casual dark jeans and a white t-shirt, my favorite ensemble. My dark eyes frowned back at me. The world had left me jaded.
I shook myself from my reflection and hurried out. The dingy hallway had various layers of wallpaper, and all of them peeled from the walls. The floorboards creaked beneath my feet and here and there were telltale signs of the rats that infested the communal kitchen. Halfway down the hall and to my left were the battered old stairs. The steps once had a fine carpet in their center, but that was worn through to the cheap wood. In case of a fire, that tinder-match assortment of wood would be the first escape route. In such a situation I doubted whether I could make it to the third floor.
Another of the inhabitants shuffled from their room. It was a man nearly as old as Mort, and possibly in worse health. His skeletal frame rattled with a hollow cough, but he managed to give me a wide, toothy smile.
“Good morning, Miss Leila,” he greeted me. Only he greeted me by affixing ‘miss’ to my first name.
“Hey, Ben. How’s it going to day?” I asked him.
He nodded his head like a bobble doll. “Very well, Miss Leila, very well, but I don’t like this new dog at night. It howls too loud.”
I skirted past him and shrugged. “I’m sure the dog catcher will deal with it. Good morning.”
“Good morning, Miss Leila,” he repeated.
I reached the last door on my hall and knocked. There was a pause while I heard someone navigate their way through the limited space of the apartment. The door opened to reveal a tall man with shocking red short hair. His hair was cut short and straight. He wore a plain white shirt with brown slacks, and his feet were bare. The man flashed me a white, crooked smile and leaned against the door frame.
“Good morning, beautiful,” he greeted me.
I looked past him and into the apartment. The place was a mess with chip bags strewn about the area. The coffee table was buried beneath coke cans and old newspapers. A rolled up newspaper was clutched in his hand. I thought about changing my mind, but the chance at my own bathroom, even one shared with a slob, was too tempting.
“Meyer told me Mort passed away,” I revealed.
Red folded his arms across his chest and laughed. “So he offered you the place, too, huh?”
“Yeah, and I wondered if you wanted to go in with me on the bill,” I told him.
He grin broadened. “Sounds like a good plan. We could make a couple of bucks by renting out the spare bedroom.”
“Then you’d have to sleep on the couch, and I don’t have that great of a couch,” I warned him.
He sighed and shrugged. “You can’t blame a guy for trying.”
“Actually, I can.” My eyes traveled down to the paper in his hand. I frowned and nodded at the paper. “What are you doing with that?”
He held up the paper between us. “What? Don’t want me to be a paying customer to your employer?”
“I just work in the mail room. Whatever’s printed on those pages has nothing to do with me,” I defended myself.
“To be honest I didn’t entirely buy it for your benefit,” he admitted.
Red opened the paper so the top headline faced me. In black, tall letters was the headline ‘Massive Fire Damages Legenda Labs.’ Beneath the headline was a picture of one of the facilities across the river in the industrial district. Flames engulfed all three floors, and there was a large hole in the ground floor. I glanced over the lead paragraph.
Authorities are investigating one of the leading research laboratories in the city after a gas leak destroyed part of the main facility. Witnesses reported hearing a large blast and saw flames shoot two hundred feet into the air. Twelve facility personnel are reported to have died in the blast. Their bodies have yet to be retrieved as the head researcher, Dr. Gail Scitus, blames city negligence for the accident.
“So do you think they’re telling the truth? About the gas leak, I mean,” he wondered.
I shrugged and handed back the paper. “I don’t know. I don’t believe anything until I see it for myself.”
“I heard some people saw something escape from there,” he commented.
“Probably some rabid minks,” I guessed.
“The thing was supposed to be huge. Like a bear,” he persisted.
“Then they should catch it pretty soon. Anyway, are you in on the apartment?” I asked him.
He tucked the paper under his arm and grinned. “I wouldn’t miss the chance for the world.”
“Good.” I turned away from him and back down the hall. “I’ll go tell Meyer and buy some stuff for the apartment. You get ready to move tomorrow.”
He stood at attention and saluted me. “Yes, ma’am!”
I rolled my eyes. What had I asked for?