The aspen trees up north were just beginning to shed. The city watched the trees as they emerged from their cocoons of drab green into beautiful red-and-yellow butterflies, leaves bending and twisting to produce the radiant autumn.
Bax walked home on Lorax Lane after work because it was lined with aspen trees. The wind chimes of the cat lady on the corner brushed the breeze as it went by and added melody to the wind.
Her apartment was near Lorax, just a street down and over, the building with the snow peas clambering up, with the roses in the window boxes. When one day it was too cold to walk home she caught the bus and waved to the cat lady on the corner, the one with the roses in her hair and cat hair on her winter coat as she bent down outside to pick up a stray kitty someone left on her doorstep.
Bax opened the door. Somehow it was unlocked again, even though she writes it on her hand every morning to lock the door, bax. But every morning she forgets.
Inside a leafy array like a greenhouse greeted her. Plants everywhere, on the shelves, on the floor, balanced on the furniture and on the windowsills, on top of waterstained books. Most of them are shriveled up and dying, reaching out with furred leaves toward the water spigot by the dish drainer, begging for a drop. Some smaller, younger plants hold out hope, forcing a dehydrated green into their leaves each morning like dressing for the day.
She collapsed at the table with her feet up and took a breath as the fern leaf trailed along her toes.
Bax’s eyes closed. Afternoon light shone into the room. The lights faltered as they watched her sleep, that lucky person everyone’s jealous of, the one who can sleep on command.
She opened her eyes and it was dark. Evening, the clock told her. But late evening. She rubbed at the bags under her eyes and walked to the kitchen. Her hair was tousled and tangled, a sight her mother would have gasped and clucked at of Bax had a mother.
The dented teapot began to whistle as Bax moved around the kitchen. Her wrist was scratched from the peeling lead paint and protruding splinters on the cabinets. She opened the glasses cupboard and gasped at her hand again. A slice of red appeared.
“Tape, tape, tape…” she muttered. “Where is the tape? Where is the tape? Why can I never find the tape when I need to paste down the stupid splinters?”
She clattered down a cracked plate and mug and poured out the hot water. “Bread… Just the heel? The heel!”
Her feet tapped and she whirled toward the little record player in the corner, the one she’d bought at the pawn shop for a dollar. Thelonious Monk began to play. The plants around the house moved in a little happy dance, most of them dancing for the last time, a few shriveling and dying as Bax ate her toast and hot water.
She slid the dishes into the sink and picked up the notebook lying on the mattress in the corner of the living room. Leaves of paper fell to the floor, covered with cramped, spidery writing. She scribbled down a list: Tea, bread, eggs, candles, ripped it out and shoved it in her pocket.
Bax sprawled on the mattress after changing to her holey pajamas. It was right up against the living room’s window, and she curled next to the reflections of the night sky on the glass. Outside the window, her neighbor’s old Christmas lights on his balcony shone in a ring, illuminating the peaceful apartment grounds. Her own balcony was bare and unswept, mainly because Bax liked to run or walk instead of sitting outside.
Papers littered the floor, shirts flung on the baggy corduroy loveseat, the navy sweater and emblem of Colombia draped on the kitchen counter. The emblem read In Lumine Tuo Videbimus Lumen with the coat of arms and underneath, Staff. Bax was the assistant in the library.
Dirty dishes piled in the little sink, with trailings of dead leaves swimming in the scummy water, and a shelf of a few thumbed books sagged on the wall next to the mattress. Bax snored softly as her apartment ticked in the gentle night light.
The little wind chime on the old man’s balcony next door moved in the breeze.
Suddenly, in the darkness of near-midnight, Bax jerked awake as a knock on the door pushed her off the cliff in her dream. She sat, confused, in semidarkness. Then the door shattered again.
“Open up!” shrilled a voice on the other side. “I know you’re in there, Becky!”
Her hands were cold and her back prickled. Her hands gripped her thin blanket unconsciously, feeling the weight of the cold night outside on her shoudlers. Bax brushed away the hair from her face, took a kitchen knife from the block, and stepped over the clothes and books on the floor. The door swung with the eerie noise that before, Bax thought charming. Now it sent chills up her spine.
In the doorway was a dumpy woman with lanky grey hair about her face. She stood, haggard in the dim light, with a suitcase under each arm, flappy house shoes on her feet. Seeing Bax she straightened, stretched her thin cracked lips in a smile, and pushed her way past Bax into the apartment.
The woman flicked the lights on with a grimace, and began laughing crowishly. “Becky, you have a shitty apartment!”
Her legs seemed frozen. Bax told herself to run, to push the woman out, to stab at her with the knife, but her legs sat and refused to budge. Bax hid the knife behind her back.
“Um, who are you?”
The woman dropped the suitcases where she stood and waddled over to the mattress on the floor. “What the hell is this?” she cried, picking up Bax’s stained notebook between finger and thumb.
“Uh, that’s my—”
But the woman shrugged and tossed it over her shoulder. She dug into the blankets, finding each book buried inside and murmuring in disgust each time she found it. “Why is my bed infested with these pests?”
“It’s not your bed, it’s—”
The woman struggled into the mattress and wrapped herself in the blanket like an inmate on his first night in jail. Her eyes squinted shut and then she was gone.
Bax stood helplessly with her arms by her sides. She moved back and forth, to the kitchen, with a knife, to the mattress, to push the woman off, to the loveseat, to curl up.
Then she shoved the suitcases out of the way with her foot and went into the bathroom, opposite the kitchen, and locked the door.
Bax grabbed the clean bath towels and patted them into the peeling bathtub. Then she turned the water on and sat on the toilet and watched as the bathtub filled, steaming.
At every shower the water was either almost frozen or literally boiling. It was a matter of the broken dial. Bax turned it all the way up, shivering in her thin pajamas. She tested the water with a finger. Boiling. Bax turned the bathroom light off and sat on the floor beside the tub, rubbing her arms. She leaned her head back and trailed her hair in the water, looking at the bugs buzzing at the fading light above her.
She listened to her heart beating quickly under her ribcage, counted her breathing, rubbed her feet, held her breath, tried to think.
Tomorrow is Saturday. No work. I can go to the police. I can run away. I can push her out and lock the door. No, no, and no. I can kill her. I can live at the college. No and no. She has my books somewhere near her. I can’t go get them without waking her up. But I need my notebook! Leave the notebook. Get out. Leave. Escape. You don’t know her. Call the police.
She dipped her hand into the water. Still hot. Bax lowered herself in, holding her breath. It closed like a curtain over her shivering body, and she closed her eyes with her head tucked in the curving corner. Her chin fell to her chest, barely resting in the water, and she was asleep.
In her dreams she saw a strange figure dressed in shredded grey, holding a large key and a suitcase shaped like Arizona.
The next morning Bax awoke with the distinct feeling of a sickness somewhere within her, and she rose out of the tub with lukewarm water clinging to her body and hair. She opened the door to the bathroom and jumped back with a shriek. The woman stood there, hand raised to knock, slumped over with half-sleep.
“Don’t do that!” Bax yelled at her, and she gave a little start, like she’d never been yelled at before.
Bax stepped past her, giving her a not-so-gentle shove with her shoulder, and into the kitchen.
“So, when’s breakfast?” the woman asked, sitting at the table.
Bax looked at her. “Get out of my apartment!”
“Get out! I am not making you breakfast!”
“Get out of my apartment!”
“Now why should I?” the woman asked, sliding her feet onto the tabletop. She knocked over the potted fern.
“I don’t even know you, woman. You burst into my house at midnight last night and forced me to sleep in my own bathtub.”
“You should know me.”
“How so? Were you begging beside the Colombia Library recently?”
“No,” said the woman, lighting a cigarette produced from within her greasy blouse. “I am your mother, Becky.”
Bax stood there, staring at the wall above the woman’s head. The voice kept talking, but it was muted and muffled.
“Yeah, honey. Bet you’ve wondered where I’ve been all this time, huh?”
Bax slid down to the floor and sat with her wet hair against the sink cabinet and closed her eyes.
“I was in prison, Becky. I was young when I had you, kid. You remember me at all?”
Bax shook her head, eyes shut tight.
The voice was closer. “Thought not. You were a kid when they got me. Seven, eight. Maybe six. I can’t remember. How old are you now?”
She nodded at Bax.
“You left me.”
“No. I didn’t mean to.”
“You were a bad mother.”
She opened her eyes. The woman sat across from her, watching her.
“You’ve got my hair, Becky. Thick. Black. You’re a pretty kid.”
“That’s a boy’s name.”
Bax closed her eyes again.
“Anyway, they let me out a week ago. I’ve been tracking you down ever since, sleeping on park benches.”
“I can’t, I can’t…”
“I know,” she said comfortingly. “It’s a lot to process.”
“Where did you think I would go?”
“You were a smart kid. I taught you how to survive. You’ve done all right, even in this,” she waved her arms, “apartment that smells like dead things. All the plants.”
“All I remember is a blur of you. Making cereal with corn syrup on top. Putting a huge sunflower in my hair. Then you were gone.”
“What’d you do?”
“I won’t tell you. You don’t deserve to know.”
“Hey, Becky, I love you.”
Bax stood up. Deep inside somewhere there was a bomb, ticking fast. It would go off soon. “Well, I don’t! Maybe you made a mistake and went to prison. But you—look at you! You’re a homeless woman. You’re wearing dirty clothes and barged into my home in the middle of the night. You threw my books over your shoulder, trashed my notebook. I slept in a tub full of hot water last night because I didn’t have a blanket! I hate you!”
The woman tried to brush her cheek but Bax shied away. The bomb ticked. “Look at my clothes! I’m sick because the water is cold! I hate you! I hate you!”
Bax grabbed her clothes and locked the bathroom again. She leaned on the sink and stared into the mirror and tried to take deep breaths. The ends of her hair stopped dripping, and with it the bomb hidden inside her heart stopped. She breathed deeply.
Then she straightened and stepped into the tub. She let the wet clothes clap to the bottom, and stood, eyes closed. She dressed quickly in a shaggy white shirt and old khakis.
The woman was standing on the balcony outside. Bax sprinted to the door and locked it. She turned and stared at Bax through the glass, watching her with great honey eyes. Bax mouthed, “I’ll let you in later.”
The bubbly feeling of panic was rising within her chest.
She slipped on her library cardigan and yanked her backpack from where it was squashed behind the loveseat. Bax dropped her notebook and as many books as she could fit into the bag. She rolled up a few shirts and stuffed them on top of the books. She shoved an apple and a can of beans in the two spaces where water bottles were supposed to go. Bax looked around the little apartment for something else. She caught sight of her socks and pulled them on. She found the thick-soled shoes she wore on long walks and double-knotted the laces. Then she unhooked the small golden compass hanging from a candlestick on the mantle and clipped it to her backpack. Bax lifted the dead bonsai tree on the mantle and buried her money deep inside her back pocket.
The teapot was boiling, and Bax poured some for herself in a bright red mug. The water bubbled gently in the mug and sent steam into her face.
This time her mother did not turn around when Bax unlocked the balcony door.