Staring out of the small dormered window, he could just see the corner of the street. Leaves on the trees lining the sidewalk were moving past their prime of orange and red and turning brown as autumn made its way through Boston. The ones still clinging to the trees blocked part of his view. Absentmindedly he pulled his pocket watch out of his pants and checked the time although he instinctively knew it was still early. Purposely, he had chosen this spot to watch the street for a sign. He didn’t want to miss a thing.
Mrs. Casey was nearly three stories below waiting on the sidewalk next to her white BMW. He gazed down at the plump woman in her camel jacket and brown plaid scarf. She had just arrived and was on her mobile phone, trusty bag over her shoulder. As he watched from above, he wondered if he might keep her for a while. She had proven to be discreet and respectful in their dealings thus far – always keeping her eyes conveniently averted. That was a big plus in his book.
The sky had been bright blue and clear all morning but now the sunlight dimmed and small gusts of wind kicked up from time to time, stirring up the brittle leaves, scratching at the sidewalk and causing drifts against the wrought iron fence. He would go out and clean up the two small patches of grass in front of the building later, when it got dark. After all these years, he was comfortable working outside after nightfall.
A flicker of yellow caught his eye as a taxi turned from Columbus Avenue onto Dunhill – a small side street in Boston’s South End, lined with fashionable brownstones. He straightened his bent frame as best he could and intently watched the cab’s approach, completely absorbed in his surroundings and on high alert. Below, Mrs. Casey tucked her phone away and pulled her coat closed. Is it getting colder, he thought, touching the glass pane in front of him, the chill spreading through his fingertips.
The yellow checker taxi glided to a stop in front of the building and a young woman with ash blond hair stepped out but held the door and leaned back in. His heart clenched as if it had been submerged in cold water and he grasped the windowsill to steady himself. From his vantage point, he could see the cabbie handing her some bills. She closed the car door and turned to Mrs. Casey, shaking hands. He wished he could hear the conversation, but knew that it would be pleasantries and then the expected basics.
Both women squinted up toward the window and he faded back as quickly as possible. He was sure he was a moment too late, but what did it really matter? He snuck another quick look and relaxed, realizing Mrs. Casey was pointing out items on the ground level – most likely the security system or flower boxes. But as he continued to watch he finally saw it: the sign he had been waiting for.
Small gusts that had been making the crunchy, dry leaves rise and dance with their still colorful counterparts whipped up again a few buildings further along the street and came toward the women like a mounting wave. The leaves blew up waist high, swirling and twirling onto themselves until the force reached the women and spun around them in a leaf tornado. Mrs. Casey stepped back toward her BMW parked at the curb to get out of the maelstrom and the leaves continued, picking up energy and speed; surrounding the flaxen-haired woman, lifting and tossing her long hair like a Medusa at the center of the funnel. In reaction to the onslaught, the young woman covered her head with her arms and ran up the front walk toward the building to get out of its path. The wind disappeared and the leaves fell to the ground on the sidewalk as quickly as it had started. Overhead the sky was once again blue.
She’s here, he thought.
The leaves settled gently on the sidewalk. Sarah laughed, removing a few dry leaves that had snagged on her scarf and sweater.
“My goodness! It’s getting blustery!” Mrs. Casey exclaimed as she hurried across the brick sidewalk to the open gate that Sarah ran through, moments before. “Are you okay, dear?”
“I’m fine, really.” Sarah said almost to herself while smoothing her hair. “Just a little wind.”
“Well, dear, if it was any more wind it would have swept you away to Oz.” Sarah heard the deep Boston accent in the woman’s voice and felt immediately comfortable with the realtor. The cadence was almost like she was listening to her maternal grandmother, Rose. Growing up in Connecticut, her grandmother’s Boston accent was fodder for jokes, but she always associated the distinctive pronunciations with happy childhood memories. Sarah waited as Mrs. Casey reached into her oversized bag and easily pulled out a business card.
“Thank you, Mrs. Casey,” Sarah said as she examined the card. “I’m so glad you were able to meet me on short notice.” Sarah stood on the bottom step and waited as Mrs. Casey dug paperwork out of her briefcase. Glancing around the small front enclosure she wasn’t sure was big enough to qualify as a yard, she noticed the black wrought iron flower boxes mounted below the bay windows, full of deep russet, red, and burnt orange mums. Mrs. Casey finished pulling out the listing sheet and noticed where Sarah was looking.
“The flowers are lovely, aren’t they? You should see this place in the summer! I don’t know how he does it. No one ever sees him working in the garden but it’s always immaculate.” She leaned over and pointed to the side of the building indicating she actually meant around the corner. “Over there are the rose bushes. This is actually one of the few brownstones that has a little side yard since the alley cuts through there.”
Sarah looked at the old-world cobblestone alley. Mrs. Casey continued her garden tour, “Not big enough to do much with, but he keeps pink roses in the summer all along those wooden trellises.”
“It’s very nice. You can tell the property is well kept; it’s wonderful that he cares so much for the landscaping.”
“Everything is kept well. This was a grand house in her day.” Mrs. Casey stressed the last sentence as she looked lovingly up to the front door. The realtor continued with a tone of letting Sarah in on a fact already well known in certain social circles, “This is one of the prime rental properties in the South End, dear.”
Mrs. Casey started to climb the front steps slowly. Sarah wondered if it was her age that slowed her down but this seemed different, almost hesitant. As if on cue, the woman turned and looked down at Sarah, two steps below. She put one hand on the railing to steady herself before speaking.
“Before we go in, I must tell you something. We will be meeting with the owner in a few minutes. He’s very particular about his renters since he lives on the first floor.”
Sarah started to say she would make a good impression but the woman laid her gloved hand on her arm to quiet her.
“There’s more.” Mrs. Casey looked down at her feet in discomfort with what she was about to say. “He had an accident . . . of some sort. I am not sure exactly what happened but he is disfigured and very, very self-conscious.” Her eyes darted back to Sarah’s and locked. “Don’t act like you pity him. Don’t ask any questions about it. And, whatever you do, don’t look straight at him.”
“Is it that bad?”
“I really don’t know the extent of it. He tries to cover as much he can and I pretend like nothing is wrong. But it’s bad. I always keep myself busy and interested in looking at something else.”
“I will avoid looking at him. Promise.”
“I’ve lost some good tenants by them being too interested in him. He’s a proud man. He has done a lot of beautiful work; everything in this home has been lovingly maintained. The whole building possesses a charm you just don’t see anymore.”
Mrs. Casey searched Sarah’s face, making sure all this had settled in.
The front door was oversized, carved mahogany. Deep reddish brown and well cared for but obviously quite old with scrapes and nicks. Mrs. Casey used her pass key and stepped into the foyer, holding the door for Sarah. As Sarah stepped in, she admired the elegant entry hall and its white marble floor, veined in gray and pink. Straight ahead she could see a smaller hallway with a window and a door to the left. To her right, there was a door with wooden panels on each side. It looked like it was once a wide opening into a front parlor that had been closed up for an apartment. There was a brass 1B on the door. Next to the apartment was a marble stairway winding up and around the front foyer and further back, toward the back hallway, there was one more nondescript door with a brass plate.
A large round table in the middle of the hallway sat pristinely on a Persian rug with a large ornate chandelier hanging above. The chandelier was turned down low, which gave the otherwise sparse space golden warmth, and Sarah decided she wanted this apartment even if it was above the budget she set for herself.
As they climbed the stairs to the top floor, Sarah thought of what brought her to this city where she didn’t know a soul. Well, no one except her grandmother’s friend Henry who had offered her a job when she needed it most.
Sarah was in publishing and had started a promising career after college working as a research assistant in New York at the prestigious firm of Goodhart & Baker. It was an old family firm that had since been acquired, with no Goodharts or Bakers left roaming the hallowed hallways. Her main focus over the last few years had been working hard and getting ahead and that plan had worked just fine until Dylan came along.
Dylan with his charm, wit, and amazingly blue eyes. Dylan with his upper-class background, and impeccable education. Dylan with his interest, compliments, and romantic gestures. Dylan, with the perfect girlfriend that he neglected to mention.
She trudged up the beautiful staircase without noticing the graceful wrought iron balusters, lost in her thoughts about how badly she had misjudged their relationship.
Dylan had transferred into her department eight months before and instantly they struck up an easy friendship. Daily lunches; first in the cafeteria, then a few times a week out, became the norm. She would mention her favorite chocolates and they would be left on her desk. Coffee was delivered to her desk in the morning so she wouldn’t need to make an extra stop. Then, drinks after work started. One too many margaritas on a particularly hot spring night helped her cross that line from platonic co-worker to . . . hmmm she thought, what would she call it? Non-platonic co-workers? Lunchtime hook-up? Boyfriend?
After a few Saturday jogs in Central Park, a Saturday afternoon movie and one Sunday brunch later, she started to wonder why Friday and Saturday nights were off limits for their budding romance. He was at her apartment three or four nights per week but he always had a lot of weekend plans with the guys. And near the end of the summer he was spending a lot of time getting out of the city with his family who had rented a house in the Hamptons for the month of August. It was all explainable until that fateful Monday morning.
Dylan had silently appeared, with two coffees in his hand and a dimpled smile on his face. He was wearing his best light blue button-down shirt, khaki’s, and Oakley sunglasses perched just right on his wavy blond hair. He looked good and, unfortunately, he knew it. She remembered quite clearly standing up and taking the coffee, smiling in gratitude while pulling the small piece of plastic from the lid and asking him how his weekend was. Never expecting anything more dramatic than an off-handed comment about lousy traffic getting back to the city, she immediately felt she asked the wrong question. His perfect smile faltered for a second but he regained his composure quickly. A cold business-like look replaced the easygoing nature and the blue eyes that had reminded her of summer skies gave way to a hard icy blue she never noticed before.
The response had been simple, matter of fact, straight to the point and shredded her heart in one cold, rehearsed swipe.
“Sarah, I got engaged.” He then had the audacity to see if they could go to lunch together and “talk” about it which, in Dylan code was: let’s-grab-a-sandwich-and-eat-it-at-your-place-so-we-can-have-a-quick-roll-in-the-sack-before-going-back-to-work.
Sarah couldn’t remember how long she sat in shock at her desk staring at her computer screen and the mountains of paperwork on her desk. Sometime before lunch, she picked up her pocketbook, the black and white picture taken in front of their house of her parents and the family’s golden retriever Rex, and small snow globe with the Statue of Liberty that someone gave her as a non-New Yorker joke, and walked out. She called her boss later in the day when she had arrived at her parents’ home in Connecticut and explained she had to quit for personal reasons. He did not seem overly surprised and she rapidly surmised that by then the news of the betrayal was spreading all over the office. She was glad she left when she did.
Besides a few trips with her dad into the city to pack and bring back her belongings – which luckily didn’t amount to much – she stayed at home and sulked. After weeks with her sole responsibility of walking Rex and devoting her days to watching sappy movies, endless phone calls with her childhood best friend Lisa, and feeling sorry for herself, her grandmother Rose arrived. The vibrant octogenarian appeared on the first Sunday in October under the pretense of a family meal and announced Sarah needed to pull up her bootstraps . . . it was high time to start over.
Her grandmother had arranged an interview with an old friend Henry Wadsworth, the editor-in-chief at Muddy River, a small publishing house in Boston. A perfect place to start over, so she was told. Sarah was ordered to pick out a suit or two and head up to Boston the next morning. The interview would be Tuesday morning and she was already booked at The Ritz, courtesy of her grandmother, for four nights to get a feel for the city and if all went well, look for an apartment.
Which led her here, to the final flight of stairs leading to the top floor, one bedroom vacant apartment in a swanky section of Boston’s revived South End. She had found the apartment online that morning and felt completely drawn to it even though she was hesitant on the price. Henry had offered her a job on the spot and was paying her well; her New York wages in Boston. She was ready to start anew.
This last flight of stairs had winded the realtor and she stopped at the top landing to catch her breath. Sarah waited, feeling excited and a bit winded herself. Or, maybe it was just thinking about that terrible incident with two-timing Dylan that made her chest feel tight.
“Remember what I said, dear.” Mrs. Casey cautioned, looking pointedly over the top of her glasses. Sarah nodded in reply, fearing the owner may be on the other side of the door listening. She took another look at the door and realized it was carved mahogany, too, and marveled at the luxuriousness of what she had seen so far.
Mrs. Casey nodded once and rapped softly at the door.
“It’s open,” called a deep voice from the other side of the door.
Mrs. Casey twisted the brass handle and stepped inside. Sarah followed keeping her eyes downcast.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Brown” Mrs. Casey said warmly. “This is Sarah Carter.”
“Good afternoon Mrs. Casey, Miss Carter. Please, take a look around.” He sounded pleasant enough, but he didn’t cross the room to greet them and shake hands. He stayed in the shadow of the hallway. Maybe he had trouble walking? Mrs. Casey had not been specific on the disfigurement.
Mrs. Casey started her introduction to the apartment. “The previous tenant was an art dealer. He and his significant other found a prime spot for a gallery in New York, down in the SoHo district, so they moved rather quickly in August. They already had an apartment there so they left the living room furniture here.”
“The apartment comes furnished?” This place is perfect, she thought.
“Well, only the living room furniture.”
Sarah stood in the middle of the living room and was spellbound. An exposed brick wall dominated one side of the room ‒ it was paired with celery green walls and chocolate brown furniture that she thought she remembered from a Crate & Barrel catalogue. To complete the room, there was a large area rug over the hardwood floors that was predominantly pale green and had the same brick red and chocolate brown as well as cream in the pattern. Tall windows across the back of the apartment gave an amazing view and they were each framed with cream sheers that looked so light and gauzy that if the windows were open she was sure they would be fluttering with each small breeze. The room was perfect; livable and comfortable yet it looked like it could have been a spread in furniture catalogues she always poured over when they arrived in the mail.
Mrs. Casey had been pointing and talking the whole time but Sarah had been absorbing the perfect room that was slightly out of her financial reach. She was starting to think she could live on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to afford it.
The realtor caught her attention, “And behind here is the kitchen.” Sarah dragged her gaze away from the windows and turned toward the open kitchen.
“Mr. Brown remodeled the kitchen himself a few years ago and the black granite and cherry cabinets are just lovely, don’t you think?” Sarah admired the small but functional kitchen with breakfast bar and looked up at the beautiful stained glass light fixture that was mesmerizing.
It was then that she mistakenly looked his way. He was standing in the darkened hallway leading to the bathroom and bedroom. Dressed in jeans with his hands thrust deep in his pockets and a brown jacket with an upturned collar, he looked like he wanted to shrink his hunched form back into the shadows. A black military style cap covered his head with a brim that hid some of his face. A light beard, as if from a few days’ growth, covered the rest of his face, but she could see the left corner of his mouth was either pulled down or just slack similar to a stroke victim’s dipped mouth. The beard had bald spots, almost like how she remembered some boys in college had when they shaved their hair down into crew cuts and small scars from their youth would become visible. These, however, must be bigger scars – by the look of the patches and she wondered if it had been a car accident…or worse.
She pivoted on her heel slightly but the movement made him look up. She caught his eye and quickly looked away but not before noticing one eye seemed smaller, almost closed up due to a sagging eyelid. The other eye, the one that had been watching her was bright – either blue or green. Like the color of the sea, she thought and then shivered – dizziness washing over her for no apparent reason.
Sensing they would be moving on to the bedroom, the landlord moved into the living room without looking up. He had a pronounced limp.
The bedroom and bathroom were freshly painted and she breathed in the clean scent. Walking across the room, high-heeled boots echoing in the empty space, Sarah looked out the same dormered window he had watched them from moments before and down to the street as Mrs. Casey talked about the closet space. A sudden chill slipped over her, and she closed the navy peacoat across her bright green turtleneck sweater. It must be the old windows, she thought.
Mrs. Casey led her back down to the kitchen for the pièce de résistance.
“The hallway here runs down to the basement for the laundry,” she explained as she swung open the door exposing an old hallway, dark and obviously not updated. The hallway was well swept and there were some beautiful ornate coat hooks and an old faded black and white photo of a skyline in a dark wood frame. From one of the coat hooks hung a small brass bell.
Mrs. Casey stepped into the hallway behind her, “And it is also how you reach the roof deck so everyone in the building has access from this hallway. When the house was built, this was the back stairway that the staff used so it runs all the way to the basement.” Sarah looked at the half stairs, half ladder leading up to a hatch door and realized it was the best the builder could do with the limited hallway space but it was a beautiful design.
“Could we take a peek?” Sarah asked enthusiastically.
“I don’t see why not.” She raised her voice level and called over her shoulder. “Mr. Brown?”
He was in the kitchen, just out of sight, but his presence was felt. Sounding almost startled by being included in the conversation, he said, “Yes, by all means.” The women could hear the limping footsteps as he moved closer to the doorway but stayed out of eyesight. “Just please be careful. I unlocked the door for you earlier.”
Sarah grabbed the railing and started up.
“I’ll wait for you down here, dear. You go ahead.” She smiled and waved in the direction of the hatch.
Sarah pushed open the hatch and climbed the rest of the way out. Most of the roof was covered with teak wood flooring; large empty planters dotted the deck and there were built in wooden benches. Navy blue furniture covers were spread over the chairs and tables that had been left in their groupings in preparation for winter.
She could imagine herself up here in the summer. The thought of planters full of flowers made her smile. Looking out at the other rooftops and noticing the pretty garden built in the middle of the street below then sealed the deal for Sarah. She had to have this apartment; she felt she was home.
Scampering back down as quickly as she could to the warmth of the hallway, she noticed the door to the apartment still open and was momentarily alone in the hallway. She took a closer look at the picture that she noticed a few minutes before and then joined Mrs. Casey back in the kitchen.
“The deck is sensational. It must be wonderful in the summer,” she said, addressing Mr. Brown but pointedly looking at the cabinets. “Do the other building occupants spend a lot of time up there?”
He cleared his throat before answering. “Not really. Most are older and don’t like the ladder.”
“Oh,” she replied dejectedly. She had hoped that she had found a topic that would draw him into the conversation. There was a heavy silence and he decided to say something that surprised Mrs. Casey and caused her to momentarily turn toward him before she remembered to redirect her gaze.
“Mr. Karavetsos, the previous tenant, left the furniture but if you need me to move it out, there is storage here in the attic space across the hall.”
“Um, thank you. Actually, it’s beautiful. Much better than what I have stored in Connecticut at my parents’ house. I would really like to rent this apartment and would be happy to use the furniture while I am here.”
“Wonderful, dear!” Mrs. Casey cut in. “I will get your application and we can check in with each other tomorrow after Mr. Brown and I have a chance to speak.”
“Okay, thank you.” Sarah felt Mrs. Casey gently take her arm to guide her toward the door, quietly announcing it was time to leave.
“Thank you for your time Mr. Brown. I will call you later from the office.” Mrs. Casey called back over her shoulder.
“Of course, Mrs. Casey. It was a pleasure.”
Mrs. Casey hurried out with Sarah and down to the lobby before she spoke. She seemed quite happy and as they made their way out to the street Sarah found out why.
“That was the first time he has ever spoken to a client! I’m sure he will take you.”
“Was there doubt?”
“Mr. Brown is what we call a ‘picky landlord.’ We could bring in the most qualified tenant and sometimes he is a little irrational. He has a little more leeway since he lives in the building.”
“He has already turned down many good prospective tenants since the art dealer moved out.” She saw the furrowed brow on the otherwise wrinkle-free face. “Don’t worry dear . . . I have applications right here.” She dug into her bag again and smiled warmly. “Let’s see how your credit application comes back and I will call you.”
To continue reading, please visit Amazon: Cursed, by Lynn Ricci