by Cindy Rosmus
“Oh, my God!” Juliette said. “It’s so hot.” Ten times she’d said that. “Where is this guy?”
Penny ignored her. Out on the stoop they sat waiting for Raoul, the super. Yeah, it was ninety degrees, and he was real late. But why bitch about it?
“Maybe he’s not coming.”
Penny watched a squirrel dart between parked cars. “He’s got to come,” she said. “He lives here, remember?”
“And he wants the apartment rented.”
Penny glared at her. Sister or not, Juliette was a real ditz sometimes. All sexed up in a low-cut top and those tight jeans she’d worn out to clubs back in the 80s. Jeans, but bitching about the heat. Platinum hair and makeup just so, only to be soaked with sweat now.
Penny herself had on cotton shorts and a tiny tee. The most “grownup” gear she could find in the kids’ section.
“I’m thirty,” she’d told the shocked saleslady.
That shocked everybody. This four-foot-seven, perfectly proportioned, muscular “little girl” was really a woman. A totally fit one who lifted weights and could take care of herself. All her life, she’d been tough. Their late mom tried to baby her, but their late dad wouldn’t allow it. “Kiss no ass!” he’d told Penny. “And take shit from nobody.”
Like Rick, the asshole Juliette was married to. Penny had had a bad feeling about him from Day One.
“You call this a salad?” he complained to Juliette. “Where’s the fuckin’ lettuce?”
Baby romaine didn’t count. He wanted tasteless iceberg with plastic tomatoes and shitty bottled dressing. Or he’d chuck it out the window.
“He would,” Juliette—wide-eyed, and trembling—had told Penny. Sad that a forty-year-old relied on her “midget” baby sister for protection.
“Lay off,” Penny told Rick more than once. “Don’t fuck with my sister.”
“Aw shut up,” he said, cracking a fresh beer. “Mighty Mouse.”
But he knew she could kick ass.
“He ever hit you?” Penny demanded. Juliette shook her head, but Penny knew she was lying. It was that sixth sense she had about things. She was sure Rick had kicked Juliette’s ass good.
Why else would they be waiting, in ninety degree-heat, to see an apartment for Juliette? Just Juliette.
Sometimes . . . Penny hadn’t told anybody, not even her dad . . . if she concentrated hard enough, she could make herself really small . . . live in a dollhouse . . . slip through keyholes, look inside people’s souls, see bad things that had happened. Real bad things . . .
A gift, she guessed it was.
Yeah, some gift.
She looked around. A nice building, it seemed: salmon-colored brick, and tan stucco. Lawn could use mowing, but lately it was just too hot.
Ten minutes later, the super was still MIA. Juliette started pacing.
“Where’d you tell Asshole you were going?”
Juliette didn’t answer. Crossing the street was this . . . chick. Grinning like a fool. So bombed at 4 p.m. she walked with her arms out to keep her balance.
Oh, jeez, Penny thought. From ten feet away she smelled booze, and it reminded her of Rick. She had no patience for drunks.
The chick was headed for them.
“Think she lives here?” Juliette asked Penny.
Frowning now, the chick fumbled for her keys. The purse and her wild hair were the same shade of Chinese red. Her makeup was smeared, like she’d been out drinking all day. Penny cringed.
The chick tripped, almost fell on the stairs. “Hi-iiiiiii!”
“Hi,” Juliette said reluctantly.
“Oh, my God!” the chick told Penny. “You’re so cute!” Penny groaned. “What grade are you in?”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Giggling, she covered her mouth. She peered closer at Penny. “Are you a dwarf?”
Fists clenched, Penny jumped up. “Do I look like a dwarf?”
“Do you live here?” Juliette asked the chick. “I’m waiting to see Apartment—” Penny’s glare shut her up.
“Oh-hhh!” The chick stood up straight. “You’re the one.” She tried to sound sober. “Yes, Raoul told me you called.”
“I’m Juliette. And this is . . .”
“Joy.” The chick smirked. How she sized up Juliette’s blondness and curves annoyed Penny. “Raoul and I are . . . Well, how can I say it?”
“Is that him?” Penny said.
Across the street, a curly-haired Latino guy swaggered, keys jingling. The cut-off shorts, wifebeater, and zillion gold chains assured them his shit did not stink.
“Hi, hon,” Joy said when Raoul got closer, but he was eyeing Juliette like a steak dinner.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “Had to make a stop.”
Joy’s glare said that meant a chick. Penny smiled.
“If you’d left me the keys, I could’ve showed the rooms,” Joy said sweetly, “to this lady and her little girl.”
“I’m not a little girl,” Penny said.
“Me neither.” Joy snuggled up to Raoul.
“Stop that!” He nearly smacked her off him. “It’s too hot, Mami.” But he wasn’t even sweating. “How much did you drink today?”
“Too much,” Penny said. “Go lay down,” she told Joy. “Sleep it off!”
“You’re so cute,” Joy said. “Wanna play Barbies?”
“I’ll Barbie you . . .”
As Penny lunged, Juliette and Raoul trapped her between them. His smile said he liked that.
“Aw, c’mon, ladies,” he said. “Be friends. You’re gonna be neighbors.” He stroked Juliette’s shoulder. “Good neighbors.”
“Not me,” Penny said. And she was glad. She had a bad feeling about this place.
“It’s a beautiful apartment,” Raoul said, in that singsong voice you use with kids. “I just painted it. A real pretty color.”
“If you like tangerine,” Joy said.
“I like peach,” Juliette said, smiling as Raoul squeezed her shoulder. Against her will, Penny followed them inside.
In the foyer, Joy said, “Peach? Who said ‘peach?’ How ‘bout blood orange?”
“First floor rear,” Raoul said. “The quietest rooms here.”
“Tell them why,” Joy said.
The look he gave her chilled Penny. “Go home!” He pointed to A-10.
Joy didn’t move. “Tell them,” she said, without smiling. “Or I will.”
Penny looked hard at her. Obviously Joy had something on Raoul. And whatever it was scared the shit out of Joy herself.
Raoul, too, Penny realized. ‘Cos now he was sweating.
“Somebody died in there,” he muttered.
Juliette squeezed Penny’s hand.
“That’s all,” he said.
Smiling, Joy walked unsteadily to her door. “Nice meeting you!” she yelled to Juliette. “You, too, Thumbelina!”
“Fuck you!” Penny said.
Once Joy was inside, Raoul relaxed. “Don’t mind her,” he told Juliette, jingling his keys. “Esa loca,” he said. “A real wackjob.”
“Who died? And . . . how?” Penny asked.
He didn’t answer. “Thinks I’m her old man,” he told Juliette. “Won’t leave me the fuck alone.”
“Died . . . how?”
As they approached A-5, a swarm of butterflies circled Penny’s stomach. Some old widower, she tried telling herself. Died alone. Found days later.
Deep down, she knew better.
As Raoul unlocked the door, she feared that whatever horror had taken place here was still here. Would never go away. Even if they torched the place.
Jules, she thought, don’t move here.
Like she’d read Penny’s mind, Juliette smiled before following Raoul inside the apartment.
Stay with Rick.
That Raoul was as bad as Rick had got past Juliette. His cocky charm seemed enough, though Penny thought he was a skinny punk and his dark curls looked like a wig. How he trashed Joy would’ve alerted anybody but Juliette.
“Look at this paint job!” Raoul said proudly as he walked them through.
The whole apartment, even the hallway and ceilings, was painted this hideous bright orange.
Perfect for hiding blood.
You could almost smell it, beneath the fresh paint and Pine Sol. Mostly in the bedroom. Cheap blue and white tiles had been laid down in a hurry. From their dad, Penny had learned to spot a shit job.
“Where did it happen?” Penny asked Raoul. “What room?”
Raoul’s hand was on Juliette’s back, near her ass. “The bathroom,” he said over his shoulder.
Liar, thought Penny. It happened right here.
The afternoon sun gave the place an eerie glow. There was something in the air—besides the apartment smells—a weird energy, like right before a storm.
As Raoul squeezed Juliette, his hand looked like a talon. Penny would’ve smacked it off, but Juliette seemed in a trance. She hadn’t spoken since they’d come in the building.
Penny edged closer to them. When she reached that spot, she jumped back. It was that cold, and slimy.
“Jules,” she said. The word backed up like bile down her throat. She felt herself shrinking.
A fly on the wall, she could’ve been.
Again, it was happening: a spiky-haired chick slashing his throat, blood soaking her jammies. Slippers, too. She tracked blood all through the apartment. And all over the guy. The last super, before Raoul—poor slob—sprawled out like a big roach.
Al . . . Al-onzo had been his name. And the chick’s . . .
No matter what her name was. She’d killed herself, but wasn’t dead. She was everywhere. She smelled rotten. She lived on in . . .
Raoul’s kiss was nasty, but Juliette loved it. Penny could tell. Penny was splashed with something foul. Fly puke, she thought, like Raoul would devour them both alive. He looked less than human, but only she noticed. Juliette was lost in his hairy arms, that loathsome kiss.
Penny rushed at them, forcing them apart. “¡Ay!” Raoul said, as he struck the wall and fell. Beside him, the a/c went on by itself. Like a sleepwalker shocked awake, Juliette teetered, but kept her balance.
“Bitch,” Raoul said, smiling horribly. He got up, slowly.
Penny froze. “Run!” she told Juliette, who also seemed frozen.
“What’s going on?” Juliette screamed.
Footsteps said help was coming. Help, or . . .
In the bedroom, Joy stopped dead. “You . . . fuck!” she told Raoul. “Yeah, I’m a wackjob, all right!”
This was a different Joy. This one was batshit: hair like barbed wire; starved, dead eyes, twitchy mouth.
This Joy had a knife.
A carpet knife, and it was already bloody. She inched forward toward the room’s icy spot.
“Jul—” The word was sucked down Penny’s throat. Heart racing, she made herself creep past Joy.
But Joy’s eyes were on Raoul. His were wild as he nearly climbed backwards up the wall. “¡Ayúdame, Dios mio!” he whispered.
Yes, pray! Penny thought. She was praying, herself, as she grabbed Juliette’s arm, began pulling her out of the room.
When Joy reached the icy spot, Raoul screamed.
High-pitched screams that got higher each time, like his voice was being tied up. Then this horrible gurgling, as Penny and Juliette raced through the other ugly orange rooms and out into the hallway.
Doors had opened, and tenants stood there, terrified. “Aw, fuck!” one biker-looking guy said. “Not that shit again!”
“Call the cops!” said one tenant.
“Why don’t you?” said another.
Outside, Juliette almost fell, Penny dragged her so hard off the stoop. They rushed to the corner but the light changed before they could cross the street.
“Oh shit!” sobbed Juliette.
Always the drama queen, Penny thought. But for once she didn’t blame her.
As a bus thundered past, she said, “Jules? You okay?”
Still sobbing, Juliette looked behind them at the building. “Let’s find a bar,” she finally said. “Please, I need just one drink.”
“One?” Penny said. “We need to get shitfaced.”
Cindy Rosmus is a Jersey girl who works in New York City. Her work can be found in places like Hardboiled, A Twist of Noir, Out of the Gutter, Flash Fiction Offensive, MediaVirus, Mysterical-E, The New Flesh, and Black Petals. She is the editor and art director of the ezine Yellow Mama.