Tuesday, March 7, 2017

TRIBUTE: Part Three

   FINN peered into a hall, saw three apartment doors with numbers on them: 3,7, and 9. The stairway railing and the lamps were of a twisting metal that resembled vines.
   "Why isn't this ordinary?" she whispered.
   "Just remember some things are not what they seem." Phouka stepped in. Jack and Finn followed. Finn, glancing up the stair, saw a skylight in the ceiling, a stained-glass image of a red rose.
   A diminutive old woman with silvery curls stepped out of one of the apartments, an empty basket hooked over one arm. Her eyes glinted. She tugged up the collar of her fur coat and moved past them. Her shadow on the floor writhed. 
   "Mother Hubbard." Phouka spoke without turning.
   The old woman halted. She looked over one shoulder and no longer seemed so harmless.
   Phoua spun on one boot heel and smiled at the old woman. "Aren't you going to greet us?"
   The old woman's voice was younger than her face. Finn thought she had a Greek accent. "Why should I welcome you, white cat, and this one?" She glanced at Jack, who smiled charmingly at her. "And you bring a child here?" Mother Hubbard pointed at Finn, who felt like a kid caught out after curfew. "You two are worse than I took you for."
   "You just hurt me deeply, Mother." Jack touched his chest with the fingertips of his left hand. In his black sweater and pea coat, his dark hair tangled, he looked elegant and dangerous.
   Mother Hubbard snapped. "I don't want anything to do with your family. None of us do. I'll greet you, fine, to not cause trouble."
   "You've a pair of new residents?" Phouka prompted.
   "Upstairs. Fourth floor. I didn't know they were going to be kissing Reiko Fata's ass or I wouldn't have let them in." Mother Hubbard left, slamming the door behind her.
   "Charming as always." Jack whirled to face Finn. There was a hectic glitter in his eyes. "Stay here? Phouka and I'll just run up and meet and greet our guests."
   Finn hissed, "Where is Christie?"
   "We'll get him." Jack halted on his way up the stairs with Phouka in the lead. He pointed at Finn, his brows slanting. "Stay."
   She wanted to retort that she was not a dog, but as Jack and Phouka continued up the stairs, she resentfully sank down onto the bottom step. She noticed pieces of paper scattered on the stairs, almost indistinguishable from the carpet's maroon pattern. She picked up a red paper butterfly.
   An edge of the paper sliced her finger. She flung the butterfly away and resisted the urge to stick the wounded finger in her mouth.
   She stood up. She wandered to the mirror over the table that held a taxidermied fox, dusty and ragged. Her reflection was distorted, almost black and white. She combed leaves from her hair, smiled when she heard children's voices from one of the apartments.
   Out of the corner of one eye, she saw something big move.
   She whipped around. There was no one behind her. She breathed out. She turned back to the mirror.
   --and yelped. She pressed her hands over her mouth.
   Because what she saw was not her reflection, but a thing that looked like her, its eyes black hollows, a wreath of alien flowers set on its hair. It wore a gauzy dress. Blood ran from its wrists--
   Finn turned and bolted up the stairs. "Jack!"
   She reached the second floor. A lamp glowed on a small table. The wooden floor was scarred with age. There were three apartment doors, a television playing very loudly beyond one of them.
   Finn breathed in and out. Had Mother Hubbard said the Fatas's guests were on the second floor?
   "Can I help you, miss?"
   The polite, cockney voice made her head jerk around. In the shadows, sitting in a chair leaning against the wall was a man in a suit. He also wore a plastic dog mask. Finn didn't want to talk to him, but she had to. "Did two people just come up this way?--and why is that TV so loud?"
   "They went that way. And the TV's so loud because he's eating. You don't want to hear him eating."
   The sudden buzzing in Finn's ears made her back toward the stairs.
   She hurried up to the third floor. The buzzing in her ears vanished. She again felt that thrill, of peeling back the veil of the world that had taken her mother and her sister and revealing it to be false.
   The third floor was brightly lit, the silhouette of an oak tree visible through the uncurtained window. Ragtime music came faintly through one of the apartment doors.
   She set one foot on the next flight of stairs leading to the fourth floor.
   Someone snatched off her moth key necklace from behind.
   She whirled. The hall was empty, the three apartment doors still closed. A shadow crossed the light beneath one of the doors.
   She saw the moth key necklace glinting in the middle of the floor and dove for it.
   The key slid across the floor, beneath the door of the closest apartment. 
   As the door slowly creaked open to reveal darkness, Finn backed away.
   "What?" A young man's voice called drowsily from within. "Who's there?"
   A tousled blonde head popped out. The young man extended one hand, fingers draped with a silver chain. "Is this your necklace?"
   She approached cautiously. The young man watched her, gray eyes hooded. She said, "It's missing the key. There was a key on it."
   "The key to your apartment?" He continued to hold out the chain to her. He wore a pair of old jeans and nothing else.
   "No." She accepted the chain, watching him. Shadows sharpened his cheekbones.
   "I just woke up." He leaned against the door frame. "I think I'm supposed to help you."
   "I don't think so." She began to back away toward the stairs. She regretted the loss of the pretty moth key, but she didn't feel like talking to yet another weird tenant of this building.
   "Don't go to the fourth floor," he called after her as she ran up the stairs, her sneakers hitting the carpet in a rapid staccato. She wasn't about to trust him.

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