The Subtenant

The Subtenant

by Allison Lamberth

Deborah found another bruise on her right leg. She didn’t know where they were coming from. She wasn’t prone to falling and bumping into things and her apartment was fairly sparse. Between her bedroom, the kitchen, and the living area, there was a twin bed, a dresser, a desk, a couch, and a short round kitchen table shoved underneath the bay window. She remembered reading some terrible novel as a young girl where the protagonist discovered she had cancer after unexplained bruises started appearing all over her legs, but as much as this recollection frightened her, she could not bring herself to schedule an appointment with the doctor to discuss the offending marks. She was the type of woman to prefer the threat of death over the confirmation of it.

Her apartment had another bedroom, but she left this space to the devices of her latest subtenant. Deborah had never bothered furnishing the room until a kindly old lady died in her sleep during the second week of her sublet. The woman’s daughter had insisted that Deborah take the dead woman’s king-size bedframe, mattress, nightstand, and paintings. She even left the bedsheets. The daughter, Deborah knew, didn’t want to deal with the hassle of moving anything, and the arrangement pleased Deborah: most of her previous subtenants lacked furniture, and this development would eliminate that problem. The story of the older woman’s death also became the means of gently evicting the subtenants Deborah wanted to leave. She only exaggerated the event to the point of haunting and suicide when she wanted them to leave immediately.

She never let a person stay long. She insisted that anyone who signed with her agree to a month-to-month lease, and no couples, youths, or loud sorts were welcome. For another apartment, her terms might have been impossible, but her apartment was rent-stabilized and situated a block or two away from nearly every major subway line. The kitchen table window overlooked Central Park. There was a doorman (on weekdays), an elevator (often broken), laundry (in the basement), and a gym (composed of two exercise bikes in an abandoned apartment on the third floor). It was irresistible.

The apartment itself was nothing exciting. Its appliances were old, there was no dishwasher, and the toilet needed to be flushed twice. Still, the extra bedroom was spacious, and Deborah kept her distance from her subtenants. She memorized their schedule and rearranged her own to avoid the chance of conversation or any form of eye exchange.

Hannah arrived with her four-year-old son on a snowy afternoon in the dead of winter. She had responded to Deborah’s online posting just two weeks prior, stating her situation. She was twenty-seven, unmarried, and her boy was a quiet sort. “He’s slept through the night since he was born,” she said in her email. “I’d have to wake the dead to get him to eat.”

Deborah never accepted subtenants with children, but the woman sent a photo of the boy. He had his fist to his mouth, and his eyes were unfocused, passively observing something out of frame. His mother held him and looked nice enough—far better than her son, in truth. She wore a modest, thinning blue dress, her hair neatly straightened and framing her face. But it was the boy who interested Deborah. His name was Lincoln. His shirt was much askew, his pants were wrinkled, and one of his socks was halfway off his foot, yet he seemed unperturbed, as if he had nothing to do with these oversights. And perhaps he didn’t—he didn’t look the type to muss his clothes. And as his mother said, he was the quiet sort.

Deborah stewed over the nerve of this woman. To think that such a photo could be appropriate, to dress a child so inadequately without shame. She archived the email and nearly accepted another, better inquiry from a young man needing temporary housing. He belonged to a decent family, had references, and was enrolled at Columbia University. His parents would be footing the monthly rent.

But he didn’t need her. That was the problem—that had never been a problem, and it worried her that it was. But she couldn’t stop picturing the young boy’s expression, and how lonely he looked in his mother’s arms. She retrieved the archived email and examined the photograph once more. She felt it was her duty to educate this woman. This boy deserved a better life than he was destined to have. And perhaps Deborah’s influence, in some small way, could change that path.

Later, when she was honest with herself, she would admit he had looked a little like Luke. Those absent blue eyes and unkempt clothes—none of it his fault. She hadn’t thought of Luke in years, not consciously. It was pathetic to remember, humiliating to pine. He had only been in the city for a few weeks worth of conversations and flirtations. She had been a litigation paralegal then, and his firm was considering merging with hers. She had spent most of her days and nights in the office. And then he’d given her one night—one night, and she had already made so many plans, imagined so many possibilities. The spare room would be their own, the smaller room for their child.

He was married now. He might have been married before. She had asked, months after he was gone. A girl who knew Luke had flown in for a meeting, and Deborah couldn’t help herself. The girl laughed. “Oh, yes,” she said. “The poor woman.”

Hannah had already removed her coat when she walked into Deborah’s apartment. She wore the same blue dress as the one in the photograph, though its color appeared much faded. She held Lincoln’s hand loosely, her eyes darting around the room’s undecorated walls. “It looks just like the pictures,” she said. She sounded disappointed.

“I’ve had it for twenty-five years,” said Deborah. “It’s freshly painted each March. You’ll have to sleep in the living room for a few days, when the painters come.”

“I don’t know that we’ll be here that long,” said Hannah, looking down at her son. He returned her look, his eyebrows raised and quizzical. “But no problem.”

“You said you’re a bookkeeper,” prompted Deborah.

“Part-time,” Hannah nodded. “And I’ve been nannying here and there. Lincoln’s made a few friends.”

Lincoln did not acknowledge the mention of his name. After a brief silence, he let go of his mother’s hand, his eyes trained on the opposing kitchen table. He carried a small black backpack, which he swiftly removed and placed on the floor. He seated himself in one of the table chairs and looked out the window, watching the falling snow. He was wearing a green jacket and pants that were too thin for the weather. They looked grubby, too; they couldn’t have been cleaned within the past week.

“He’s a little shy,” said Hannah. “He likes to keep to himself.”

“Music to my ears,” said Deborah. “Do you have luggage?”

Hannah nodded. “A friend’s dropping it off tonight,” she said. “I’d been staying with him, and he’s very kind—” she eyed Lincoln. “But this arrangement seemed more suitable, for now.”

“I’m sure,” said Deborah warily. She hesitated. “No overnight visitors, of course.”

“No overnight visitors,” Hannah repeated. “Do you travel much?”

“Not at all,” said Deborah. “I’m retired.” She hadn’t traveled much when she worked, either.

“Yes, I saw in your posting,” said Hannah. “But no family?”

Deborah shook her head. “My parents are dead,” she said. “I have a brother in California, but he has his own family to see.”

Hannah nodded. “It’s hard,” she said. “Lincoln’s father likes to see him for the holidays. I always think I’ll love the two weeks he’s gone—I always forget,” she mused, “what it’s like without him.”

Deborah motioned to the spare bedroom. “Do you want to see the room?”

Hannah shrugged. Deborah took this for a yes and guided the other woman into the second bedroom. It could have belonged, Deborah knew, to an entirely different apartment. Its walls were covered with the dead woman’s old, faded artwork, and the stately king-size bedframe suggested a regal, old-fashioned presence. Even the yellow curtains on the two windows had belonged to the dead woman. They had been designed for different windows, each panel forming a pile of bunched, wrinkled fabric on the floor.

“You may want another bed for the boy,” Deborah said. “There’s space in the corner there.”

Hannah shook her head. “Just the bed’s fine,” she said. “He sleeps like a log, and he’s too skinny to be a bother.”

“Whatever you like.”

“Is it alright if I replace these?” said Hannah, her fingertips brushing the frame of one of the paintings. It depicted a young girl playing violin to an empty room, her legs splayed as she danced to her own song.

“I won’t have them thrown out.”

“No, no,” said Hannah anxiously. “Of course not. I can store them in my—in the closet or something.”

“I won’t have anything obscene,” said Deborah. “Nothing inappropriate.”

“I have some old sketches,” said Hannah earnestly. “And Lincoln loves hand painting. Just stuff like that. Nothing framed.”

Deborah paused, considering. “Very well,” she said, nodding. “But you’ll have to put the frames back, as they were, before you leave.”

“Of course,” said Hannah, offering a small smile. “Not a problem.”

“Not a problem” was to become Hannah’s regular refrain. Her friend did not come that night, nor the next, and Hannah asked to borrow some quarters for the laundry machine so she could wash her dress and Lincoln’s shirt and pants the following morning.

“He’s had to work late the past two nights,” Hannah explained, alluding to her nameless friend. “I’d pick up the things myself, but he’s particular about giving out his keys.”

“Where did you get the pajamas?” Deborah asked, surveying Hannah’s figure.

Hannah bit her lip. “I had stuffed Lincoln’s backpack with a pair for each of us, just in case.”

Deborah hesitated. “I’ll have to add it to your rent payment,” she said, considering. “You’ll need four dollars total for the washer and dryer.”

“Four dollars.” Hannah’s expression was unreadable. “And if it’s just the washer?”

“Three.” Deborah wanted to add detergent to Hannah’s rent as well, but she concluded—most unwillingly—that it would be a step too far.

Lincoln helped his mother with the laundry, carrying Deborah’s detergent to the basement. His hair, like his mother’s, was a bit greasy. Their toiletries, Deborah presumed, were with the rest of their belongings.

She wondered what the neighbors would think, seeing the boy and his mother doing laundry in their pajamas on a weekday afternoon. The laundry room was kept clean, but the basement was in desperate need of renovation, and smelled of mold and rot. It couldn’t be good for developing lungs.

Deborah herself didn’t often interact with her neighbors. She knew there was a nice black couple on her floor, and a nervous man nearing his nursing home years who’d always ask her for the time, but even then, she did not know their names. Perhaps they’d told her once, but she hadn’t bothered remembering.

The luggage arrived that evening. Deborah was sitting at the table alone, having her dinner, when Hannah burst out of the spare bedroom. She pressed hard on the front door’s receiver to buzz up the man, her expression agitated. Deborah could see that Lincoln was still seated upon the bed, engrossed in something on his mother’s phone.

The man who carried the bags looked tired. He did not enter the apartment, electing to remain in the doorway. Hannah kissed him in greeting. She had him pass each bag to her, and she dropped each item behind her until only a large green suitcase remained between her and the man. Deborah considered excusing herself and retiring to her own bed, but she suspected that Hannah might try to bring the man into the guest room. So she remained.

“I’m sorry,” said the man. He eyed Deborah briefly, nodding in greeting before returning his attentions to Hannah. “I hope you’re doing alright.”

“It’s fine,” said Hannah. “It’ll do for now.”

“How’s Lincoln?”

Hannah shook her head. “Are you up for coffee?”

The man smiled weakly. “Always.”

Hannah waved to Deborah. “I’ll be back in an hour,” she said. “Don’t worry about Lincoln.” She kicked the suitcase out of her way so she could exit the apartment. She did not say goodbye to her son.

Deborah picked at her food. She did not like that Hannah had left, and she stewed for some time on this transgression. For how long, exactly, Deborah did not know, but when she looked up, she could see that Lincoln had abandoned his mother’s phone. He was eyeing Deborah. He did not look frightened. His gaze was studious, as if a scientist observing a new specimen.

She did not look away. He was still wearing his pajamas, his hair an even greasier mop of curls. She could not read his expression. It suggested fleeting curiosity, the barest of interest. He wanted to know what she was going to do, she realized. She was a variable; she was a stranger. There could be no assurance of normal interaction.

“Have you had dinner?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“Would you like some?”

He did not nod, but he stood and walked over to her, seating himself in the chair across from her. She smiled. She had some leftover meatloaf from a previous night’s meal. She retrieved the Tupperware from the refrigerator and heated up a sizeable portion in the microwave.

“I can’t promise it’ll be much good,” she said, giving him the warmed plate. “But it’s something. Do you want ketchup?”

He took a bite, chewing thoughtfully. He did not respond until he had fully swallowed the piece of meat. “Yes,” he said. It was the first time he had spoken to her.

She fetched it for him. She watched him eat half of his meal before recalling that she had not finished her own. She returned to it, though she continued to steal looks at the boy. He seemed pleased with the dish.

“How do you like your new room?” she asked.

He shrugged. “It’s not mine.”

She nodded. “It must be hard, not having your own space.”

“I had my own room before,” he said. “It was big.”

“Yeah?” she asked, smiling. “Did you have a lot of toys?”

He shook his head. “Only Kippy.”

“Who’s Kippy?” she asked.

“He’s my friend,” he said. He stood suddenly and ran into the spare bedroom. He returned with a stuffed bear, or perhaps a dog, its face, arms, and legs torn and mussed. He held the thing out to Deborah and let her take the thing into her own arms.

“He seems like a good friend.”

He pet the stuffed animal’s head. “Mom doesn’t like me to have him out.”

“Why not?”

“Daddy gave him to me.”

“I see,” she said. She handed the dog-bear back to the boy. “You should probably take a shower.”

He looked disturbed by the suggestion. “Mom gives me baths in the morning.”

She laughed, trying to hide her shame at not having known that a boy of his age would still take a bath. “But you haven’t taken a bath in two days.”

“Four.”

“Four?” She made a faux-horrified face. “Then you absolutely have to. You know what happens to people who wait too long to take a bath.”

He wrinkled his nose. “What?”

“Why,” she said, her eyes searching the room, “their skin starts to melt right off.”

She thought he might laugh, or look afraid, and that the two of them could share some sort of inside joke together. But he only looked at her, his eyes blank. “Then what?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“What happens after their skin melts off?”

“Well,” she said, hesitating. She knew, then, that she had made a mistake. “I suppose they’re just—dead.”

He nodded, staring at his empty plate.

“And I don’t want that to happen to you,” she said, her voice rushed, desperate to salvage the conversation. “So—so you must have a bath.”

“Okay.”

She gave the boy one of her spare towels. No, not one of her spares—one of her best. She had received the set years ago from a white elephant exchange at work.

The boy pressed it to his face, the white cotton smushed against his large nose. “It’s soft,” he said.

“It better be.” She smiled, not without pride. “I’ve only used it once.” With Luke, the night he stayed.

“Why?”

She shrugged, her tone growing harsh. “Because it’s nice.”

“But won’t it melt?” he asked.

She stared at him, perplexed. “I’ll fill the tub,” she said.

Deborah closed the bathroom door behind her and ran the hot water, letting the steam rise. She would give the boy her shampoo and conditioner, she decided. Perhaps a washcloth. He was young, it was true, but he seemed mature enough to bathe alone. She would check the time and knock on the door every five minutes or so to ensure he hadn’t gone and drowned himself. She was sure Hannah couldn’t have done any better.

The door opened behind her. Startled, she spun around. In her rush, she splashed some water on her pants. The boy, his expression solemn, stood wrapped in his towel.

“I’ll let you be,” she said hurriedly. Deborah felt, now, her own strangeness: he was not her son. She dropped the bottles of shampoo and conditioner in the tub and pointed to them as they hit the bottom with a loud thud. “There.” She seized her own washcloth hanging by her towel and thrust it at him. “And this.” She brushed past him, then, and resisted the urge to slam the door behind her.

She paced the kitchen, worried that the tub was too hot. But surely the boy knew how to manage the knobs. He would call if he needed her help—though he didn’t seem the type to ask for it.

She returned to the table to collect the dinner plates. She had just begun washing them when she heard his call: “I’m done!”

He sounded like a different boy. It was nearly a shout, and almost playful. She checked the clock. He couldn’t have been in the tub for more than two minutes. Leaving the plates in the sink, she returned to the bathroom.

His hair was filled with soap, and he was smiling. He must have dumped half of the shampoo bottle into the tub and streaked his skin with the conditioner. The washcloth, forgotten, was floating beside him. He raised his hands to the ceiling. “I’m clean!”

Deborah laughed. “You’re a mess.”

The boy dunk his head into the bathwater before yanking it back up, flinging soap and water at every corner of the tub. “That better?”

She sat down, then, and took up the washcloth. “Here,” she said, running the water once more. She squeezed the washcloth over his head and had him wipe the remains of the conditioner off of his arms. “That’s meant for your hair,” she added.

He shrugged. “It’s so soft.”

She waved at him to stand up. He had left his towel on the sink, the majority of its length hanging precariously off of its side. She held it out horizontally and self-consciously looked away as she wrapped the towel around him.

“Do you have a comb?” she asked, turning back to him.

He shook his head.

“Very well,” she said, privately chastening herself for asking. “I’m sure there’s one buried in one of those suitcases out there. But you can use mine.”

He knit his eyebrows. “I don’t know how.”

“Oh,” she said. She didn’t want to admit her own ignorance. She hardly knew how to do her own hair. “Well, it’s easy.”

Deborah knew she would have to retrieve the comb from her own bedroom, but she felt strange, leaving him alone in the bathroom. So she beckoned him to follow her. He did as she asked, dripping as he went, puddles of water forming behind him.

The comb was in the makeup bag on top of her dresser. It was a small blue comb with dull teeth. She must have purchased the comb some years past—decades, even. What was, after all, the expiration date for such an object?

She worried what Lincoln might think of her room. Its simplicity, its lack of light. He was just a child, but children had opinions. Most days—before Hannah and Lincoln came—she had kept to her room, her hair unwashed and swept back in a loose bun. She’d only had a few days with them, yet she couldn’t imagine how she’d done it, now, with all the other subtenants. How had she been so shaped by their patterns, cowering in her bedroom while they used her space and things as they pleased?

Luke had laughed at her twin bed. Asked if it was a joke. If the salary was really that bad. “We’ll have to put that on the negotiating table,” he said, referring to the merger. “We’ll only merge if you pay your employees enough to fuck comfortably.”

She’d said no, of course not; she just had no time to purchase a full or a queen. And then there would be the hassle of putting it together. She had no one to help her, and her time away from the office was precious.

“I’ll build it,” Luke promised, fingering the stunted bed’s sickly green sheets. They, too—Deborah colored with shame at the memory—had been in need of replacement.

“Stop it.”

“I will,” he said, seizing her hands. “And find you a decent lamp.”

He’d talk about her lack of wall decor, too, and her need of a mini-bar in the living area. “I thought women were supposed to have a knack for that sort of thing,” he’d said, sitting naked at the kitchen table, drinking coffee. She’d made it for him—he’d liked that.

“Sit down,” she commanded Lincoln, pointing to the desk chair. He did as he was told, wrapping the towel closer to his skin. It was colder in her room; she liked to keep her lone window cracked open, even in winter.

She pictured Luke’s hair. Its part was just off-center, to the left. She narrated her decisions to the boy, slowly combing out each knot, meticulous in her smoothing of each strand. She wished she had a little shaping product—something to keep each lock in place.

The task was over long before she finished; his hair half-dry, his eyes half-closed with sleep when she remembered herself and told him he was free to get dressed and go to bed. “It’s getting late,” she said, unsure of the time. He did as he was told, and she was left to wipe up the water he had dripped on his way to her room.

She had just determined that she would begin getting ready for bed herself when she saw the boy standing in the doorway. He must have opened one of the suitcases, as he now wore an orange shirt—with various stains or bleach marks near his neck and armpits—and brown pajama pants. She felt proud, in some small way, at the cleanliness of his complexion, and the neatness of his hair.

“Can I tell you a story?” he said.

She smiled. “You should be in bed.”

“Can I tell it to you before I go to sleep?” he persisted.

She sighed. She was tired, and she feared Hannah’s return. But she couldn’t tell the boy no, either. “Alright.”

She followed the boy into the spare room. She always felt an intruder in the space. She had become used to thinking of the spare room as belonging to someone else. The table lamp on the right side of the bed—the only light available in the room—was lit. Hannah had taken down the paintings but had yet to move them to the closet. Each sat propped against the wall, each resting beneath the hook upon which it had once hung.

She felt, then, just how much nothing in the room had come from her. Even that lamp—it had been left by another subtenant, a young woman who thought she could make it as an actress and left the city a month after she arrived.

And the bedding. Lincoln leapt onto the bed, bouncing on his knees a few times before letting her tuck him in under a dead woman’s white sheets.

A sickening morsel of self-loathing played at Deborah’s throat. She feared swallowing it. But she should have purchased new sheets—that much, she could have done. She had always suggested to her subtenants that they bring their own, though so many had lacked the means or desire to bother with washing the sheets themselves. So she had done it for them, once every other week while they went to their jobs, their friends, their hobbies. They thought it was a nicety, but she had laughed a little, finding the situation delightfully macabre.

Lincoln smiled at her, naive as to the sheets’ history. They were soft, Deborah had to admit. The old woman had just bought them when she moved in and had slept on them for less than a week’s worth of days. And the subtenants who had used them had been careful—she’d never so much as had to bleach them. They were pristine, clinical, utterly benign.

“I call it ‘An Everyday Adventure,’” he said.

She had already forgotten about the story. “That’s lovely.”

“There was a big mean dog,” he said, his voice eager. “It growled and ate all the other dogs.”

“That’s terrible.”

“The adults couldn’t catch him,” he said. “He ate kids, too. He ate everything. He ate books and towels and soap, everything. And everybody was sad and scared. So they got another dog who could eat him, and he did. But then he started eating everyone.”

“There’s a lot of eating in this story,” Deborah laughed.

“He ate so much he got as big as a skyscraper,” Luke said, ignoring her. “And everybody died.”

She looked at him, waiting. He did not continue. His eyes were elsewhere; they had floated over to one of the old paintings.

She wondered if there was anything left to his story. On an impulse, she kissed his forehead. It was warm, almost feverish. “You should see King Kong,” she said. “I think you’d like that.”

His eyes were closed; he was done with her. Deborah turned off the light and closed the door behind her, retiring to her own bed.

Deborah tossed and turned for hours, only able to nap here and there. At two in the morning, she gave up, leaving her bed to grab a glass of water.

Hannah was sitting at the kitchen table, her head in her hands. She looked up. “Oh,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” said Deborah, stopping. “I only—I just wanted a glass of water.”

“No problem,” said Hannah. She sounded congested, as if she had a cold. “It’s your home.”

Deborah filled a glass and sat down across from Hannah. The girl stared at her, not without contempt. “Have you ever had children?” she asked, pointedly.

Deborah swallowed. “No.”

“Nieces? Nephews?”

“My brother’s kids,” she said. “But I haven’t seen them since they were babies.” She had never met the youngest. A girl, she believed—she couldn’t be more than three or four now, she was sure. Though she couldn’t recall when she had seen her brother last.

Hannah sneezed. Her eyes darted to her left and zeroed in on the napkin holder. She seized the napkins and proceeded to count them, stacking them one by one on the table. “He’s all I have, you know,” she said.

“Lincoln?” She wasn’t sure if Hannah meant him or the man she was seeing.

“He didn’t scream when he was born,” she said, ignoring Deborah. “They thought he was dead.”

“Was there something wrong?”

Hannah smiled. “Not at all,” she said. “They slapped him a bit and took his vitals. And then he laughed. They didn’t believe it. They said it must have been gas. But he laughed.”

Deborah knew nothing of babies, but she did not believe the other woman. “He must have been happy to get out into the world.”

“The way I see it,” Hannah said, “most of us are born screaming. We have to learn to be happy.”

“But not him,” said Deborah.

Hannah laughed, darkly. “He screamed enough after.”

The two stewed in their own separate silence. Finishing her glass, Deborah stood to place it in the sink and return to her bed.

“We’ll be out of your hair tomorrow,” Hannah said, as soon as Deborah had turned her back. “You can keep the full month’s rent.”

Deborah did not turn around. “As you like,” she said, hesitating only a moment before continuing to her room.

Plenty of subtenants had left in a hurry, disappearing into the night after a half-month’s stay. Hannah’s decision was nothing unusual. It was unusual in that she hadn’t brought in her belongings until the end of her stay, but each subtenant tended to have their own quirks, their own failings, their own reasons to come and go. This would give Deborah almost a month to find someone better, a bit more stable, and less taxing on her habits.

Hannah must have realized. The boy might have told her, or perhaps she had simply smelled the soap and come to her own conclusions. Or perhaps she was more like Deborah than she let on—perhaps she had felt the change in her bones, sensed that her boy had gained another option, felt companionship with yet another person that wasn’t her.

And perhaps Hannah hated how much she couldn’t blame him. He might be all Hannah had, but Deborah was quite sure that the other woman didn’t very much love any of her possessions.

Deborah slept fitfully, dreaming of Hannah waking her with a knife or a broken shard of glass to her neck, screaming. She could sometimes hear them, Hannah and Lincoln, their voices seeping through her locked door. She dozed as long as she could, only deciding to get up when the apartment was silent and she knew they were gone.

She shuffled into the living room. The luggage had been moved, and the spare bedroom’s door was wide open, showing nothing of Hannah and Lincoln’s things. The paintings had been returned to their hooks. The dirty dishes in the sink had begun to smell. Hannah had left the spare key and a note on the kitchen table with her phone number, requesting that Deborah call if she found that anything had been left behind.

Deborah crumpled the note into her pajama pocket, planning to dispose of it later. She would have to begin advertising for another candidate. It would be such a waste, to leave the room empty when she could be making double.

She poured a bowl of cereal. Each bite was harder to swallow. She was not hungry, she decided, and dumped the remains into the trash. She would go for a walk. She returned to her room to retrieve a shirt and pants. And some makeup—yes, she had hadn’t worn makeup for some time. A little lipstick and powder would do.

Once dressed, she went to the bathroom to brush her teeth and apply the makeup. The towel Deborah had given the boy was splayed across the toilet. It was still damp in places; left in such disarray, it had not dried properly over the course of the night.

Forgetting her makeup, she dropped the towel in the hamper in her bedroom. Her pajama pants also lay in the hamper, the note from Hannah slipping out from the pocket. She should check the spare room, after all. It was the least she could do. She would have to anyway, before the next tenant arrived.

The lamp light was on. The bed was made, albeit sloppily. Deborah would have preferred that Hannah had stripped the sheets; she was only going to have to wash them anyway. Hannah had also drawn the curtains, keeping any natural light from spilling in.

And there it was—a thing left behind. The half-bear, half-dog; the boy’s friend. Kippy. He had been tossed haphazardly between the nightstand and the corner of the room, his torn arms and legs jutting out into her line of vision.

She knew its presence was intentional—though to what intention, she could only guess. Perhaps it was Hannah who had left it, wanting to be rid of the creature; her note in the kitchen a dare. But Deborah wanted the boy to have left it for her, as a goodbye present. She knew he would not have otherwise forgotten it.

She picked up the stuffed animal, digging her fingernails into the folds of its matted fur. Its black, plastic eyes stared back at her.

Deborah did not leave her bedroom again for three days. She did not know what she did, or what she felt. On the last day, she only left because her thirst had become unbearable. She poured the water, savoring each drop as if it were a luxury.

She would have to leave the apartment. It was impossible to stay. She called the landlord and told him. He did not believe her, and he made her promise to think a little longer on the subject before making any arrangements. She almost told him that if she thought about it any longer, he’d find her body hanging in her room in a few days.

But she wanted to call her brother first. His name, Mark, was her lone emergency contact. They had lived together, ever so briefly, before he left for the West Coast. He was her first subtenant. He claimed to hate subways and food trucks and crowded streets, but he’d left to follow some girl who’d go on to marry and divorce someone else. Whenever Deborah called, Mark always gave her an update about the girl—even after he met his wife, Sarah, who he liked nearly as much—and he’d tell Deborah she ought to marry, anyway, if she could.

She selected his name and began the call. She hadn’t spoken to him in two years. No, three. And they hadn’t even spoken. He and his kids had left a voicemail, shouting Happy New Year in-between some slurred words wishing her well, the children banging pots in the background.

He answered on the fourth ring. “Deb?”

She exhaled. “Yes. Yes, it’s me.”

There was a pause. “I didn’t want to miss your call,” he said, “but this is a bit of a bad time. Is something wrong?”

“No,” she said. “Please. We can talk later.”

He seemed to consider this for a moment. “I just had to step out of a meeting, is all,” he said. “You’re sure you’re alright?”

“Yes,” she said. “I mean—I was just thinking of seeing you and the kids. And Sarah, of course.”

Another pause. “Why, it’s been years.”

“Yes,” she said. She had never consciously chosen to stop calling her brother. Some part of her had stopped seeing his relevance in her life.

He laughed. “You know, Sarah’s pregnant again.”

“What?”

“It wasn’t planned,” he said gruffly. “But she’s dead set on keeping it.”

“Isn’t she a little old?”

“Not enough, apparently.” He coughed. “Marcy got divorced.”

“Marcy?”

“That girl I dated,” he said. “The one with the mole.”

Marcy—the girl he had followed to California—had a small mole on her right cheek, and Mark had been obsessed with it. “You were right.”

“I always said it,” he clucked. “Knew it wouldn’t last.”

He and Marcy had dated a grand total of two weeks before he’d decided he was in love with her. In another two months, she’d left for California, and asked him for an open relationship.

“And you?” he asked.

“Oh,” she said. She hadn’t thought out, exactly, how she’d ask. “I’m alright.”

Neither of them spoke. Deborah briefly wondered if he had hung up. She could hear the nice black couple laughing in the hallway—they were always laughing.

“Well,” Mark said, his voice uncertain. “I mean—are you sure?”

She hesitated. This would be her only chance. “I have a lot of money,” she began.

“I bet.” His tone suggested sarcasm.

“And—and a lot of time.”

“I’m sure.”

“And it’s too late for me,” she said, hoping he’d interject, say it wasn’t true. When he didn’t, she pressed on. “I’m a little lost.”

There was a long, terrible silence. She worried that he had hung up, or that the call had dropped and she would have to call back and try and say it again. She wondered if she even could—if she was even capable of sorting out her broken parts, of letting this man, bound to her by blood, pity her enough to let her in, to let her crawl into the life he’d built with his own hands, his own schemes, his gifts and faults alike on display.

She’d thought so little of him when he was a boy. He’d always known so much less than she. He’d ask questions she never thought to, questions she preferred to learn on her own. But the world had liked him better for it. Wherever he went, whatever he chose, he was welcomed with open arms. He belonged everywhere. Or so she thought—and that thought, with time, had brewed a loving contempt for the boy and now grown man. She found it impossible even now, when he was all she had left, to eradicate her dislike. For how could a decent, intelligent person belong everywhere?

She had been content with her life. Proud of it. Her person had not seemed strange to her—she, her thoughts, her actions, had seemed reasonable, sure, sound. And they had been! What part of her had been the first to fail? What dark thing had so cunningly returned her to Hannah’s email, so determined in its drive to begin the unraveling of everything?

“It’s a tight squeeze,” Mark said, finally. “Guest bedroom’s gonna be a nursery, now. Sarah’s painting it all pink. She swears it’ll be a girl. Won’t even let them tell her, she’s so convinced.”

She bit her lip. “I understand.”

“Come on, I didn’t say no,” he laughed. “We could use a babysitter. You just need to say yes.”

Kippy stared at her from the top of her dresser. She could bring him wherever she went. She could find Lincoln someday—she could gift him the creature and tell him something wise, something good, something his own mother would never think to say. And he could look at her and remember. It had to have been for something—what was life worth, if it wasn’t for something?

“Yes,” she said. No. Whatever she had lost within herself, whichever neglected parts had so painfully lashed out, she would leave behind the stuffed animal and the rest of her things. Someone else could give them life again. Failure, she knew, was no uncommon quality.

About the Author

Allison Lamberth

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Allison Lamberth grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and now resides in New York City with her husband and son. An adjunct professor and freelancer, her short stories have previously appeared in Chaleur Magazine and Burnt Pine Magazine.