Permanent Residents

Submitted into Contest #148 in response to: Write about an apartment building being demolished.... view prompt


Drama Fiction Suspense

This story contains sensitive content

Note: This story mentions both suicide and murder.

Caroline did not mind the quiet so much, but Arthur hated it. Vivian had mentioned that she was getting bored with no tenants around. Ewell had said nothing. The kids, twins named Hazel and Haskell, managed to make their own fun. They chased the mice that scurried down the empty hallways, looked inside the walls at treasures people had hidden and sometimes played in the empty rooms. Still yesterday, Caroline had found them sitting on the stairs in the second floor landing staring out the window. Haskell in his blue dungarees and white t-shirt and Hazel in the bell-bottoms with daisies sewn on around the bottom, looked glum. “Hi kids, what’s up?” Caroline asked. “What’s down is more like it,” Hazel replied. Haskell looked up at Caroline with sad green eyes glimmering with tears. “Where is everyone?” he asked.

Caroline bent down so that she was the same height as Haskell and looked him in the eye. She had read somewhere that it was better to talk to kids as if they were equals and bending down to their height reinforced that idea. “Haskell, I don’t know,” Caroline answered. It was the truth but it just made things worse. Haskell started to cry. Hazel cast an angry look at Caroline. “You should have some answers, you’re the adult here!” Hazel shouted. Caroline was at a loss. She was the adult. However, the kids were both much older than she was. They should know at least as much, if not more than she did about this situation, about this whole apartment building.

Caroline turned to go only to find Vivian standing at the bottom of the steps leading to the first floor. Vivian, always a vision in a black silk dress and silver jewelry, looked up the at the children. “What is this, my little dear-hearts?” Vivian asked. She had always called the Hazel and Haskell her dear-hearts when she sensed that they needed a little extra care.

Hazel looked down the stairs from the landing where Haskell had gone silent although tears were still streaming down his face. “We just want to know what is going on,” Hazel insisted to Vivian.

“Of course, you do, my dear-hearts, and I think I may know,” Vivian declared. Caroline looked at Vivian, surprised. How could she know? None of them knew, Caroline thought.

Vivian went on, still addressing the children, “If anyone would be interested in taste testing the new recipe for ginger cookies I just made, I think I can offer some very interesting information about our dear old building.”

Hazel and Haskell looked at each other then made their way down the stairs toward Vivian and her apartment, always fragrant with something baking, preferably something with vanilla, cinnamon or ginger.

Caroline followed. Things had never really been easy here, but she admired the way Vivian seemed to take everything in stride.

She remembered when she had woken up that first morning to find that she still existed. Vivian was the first one she met that was like her, a Permanent Resident. It was necessary, Vivian had told her then, to embrace the existence, whatever it is. Happiness came in all different forms and experiences, but you had to find it for yourself. Vivian had taught her that. Caroline had learned to find happiness in unexpected places. She had found happiness, for example, in watching people love each other even though she herself would never know that love again. She had also found happiness in the eternal lives of the dandelions in the yard outside the building. For decades, Caroline had watched with great amusement as groundskeepers would mow down the dandelions with blades, dig them out with shovels and douse them with poison, only for those little flowers to rear their optimistic yellow heads again out of the ground. The building’s owners had spent small fortunes trying to get rid of them and yet the dandelions were still here.  Everyone else was gone now, except the dandelions. They had outlasted everyone, Caroline thought. Well, almost everyone. Only the Permanent Residents remained. Caroline wondered, as she followed the children into Vivien’s apartment, if they would outlast even the dandelions.

Vivian’s dining table was covered with a cream lace tablecloth. The children sat down at the table while she and Caroline went into the kitchen. Vivien transferred warm ginger cookies from a baking sheet to a plate; Caroline prepared a pot of cinnamon tea. As they carried everything out to the children sitting at the table, Caroline’s curiosity got the best of her. “What is going on Vivian?” she asked, eager to get some answers.

While the Permanent Residents in the first floor apartment tucked into tea and cookies, Ewell sat in the basement of the building. He had worked and lived in the basement as long as he could remember. He had started as a janitor and worked his way up to maintenance. Over the years, property owners had come and gone, but he stayed. Ewell knew every square inch of this building. That was why he began to worry when he saw the workers last month. They had ripped out all of the wiring, the gas lines, the plumbing. Then other workers, scavengers really, had come in and torn doors off and taken out some of the old stained glass windows in the lobby. They had pulled up antique tiles and bathroom fixtures. Then came the vandals and the homeless. The homeless he did not mind —wretched souls who just needed a place to lay their tired bones. However, the vandals were the worst. The first time Ewell heard the ball bearing inside of a spray paint can being shaken, he knew they had to go. Luckily, he had developed a few tricks over the last century. One kid came in and started spray painting all over the lobby fireplace. Ewell dreamed up a fire and it lit up the room in exactly the haunting orange glow he had imagined. He still chuckled at the thought of that kid tripping over himself to run out of the building. If any more of them came back, Ewell was ready. Still he did not know what was happening with the building. Whatever it was, Ewell reckoned he would be ready for that too.

It was not as if he had a choice.

Caroline sat in Vivian’s dining room and wondered how much of it was real. She could smell the cinnamon and the ginger. She could see the large dining table; she could feel the warmth of the teacup. The children were sitting in chairs and not on the floor. They would be able to taste the cookies and the tea. However, Caroline knew that Vivian had dreamed all of this up for the children’s benefit. She had told Caroline once how to do it. You wanted something so you thought about it, you pictured it, and then you imagined the other components, the taste, the smell and the feel. “Before you know it,” Vivian told her “everything you have been imagining is right in front of you.” Caroline had asked if the tenants could see. "Sometimes," Vivian said. "Sometimes, they can see it. Sometimes they can even see you, but you have to be good at the imagining and at the showing." Caroline did not understand how you could just imagine or dream up a reality that did not exist.

“It isn’t that you are playing with reality, my dear, reality is fixed,” Vivian informed her. “It is the perception of reality that you change.”

Caroline and the children ate their perceived cookies and drank their dreamt up tea at Vivian’s imagined dining table. Vivian explained what she believed was happening. “Back in the 1940s, right after I became uh, a Permanent Resident, something very similar to this began happening,” she began.

“What happened?” Hazel asked as she reached for another ginger cookie on the blue plate.

Vivian took a sip of tea and continued, “All of the tenants left, the building was completely empty. Then construction workers came in and they began pulling out walls, pulling up carpets and old flooring. After that they started working on the building.”

“With hammers and nails?” Haskell asked, excitedly.

“Oh yes,” Vivian assured him. “They had hammers and nails, drills and screws. There was a cement truck and even a crane brought in.”

Haskell’s eyes got bigger and he started smiling. “Wow.” He said.

It was the happiest Caroline had seen him in months. 

“What were they doing with all of those tools?” Hazel asked.

Vivian looked at the inquisitive little girl with amusement. “They were remodeling the building,” Vivian told her.

Caroline thought for a moment. It certainly sounded logical. The tenants had all been evacuated. That would have to be done before a major remodel; of course, the building was in desperate need of repair. Caroline had seen tenants complaining over the years of broken plumbing, bad electrical outlets, rotting flooring and crumbling drywall.

“I think you are right,” she told Vivian.

Vivian smiled. She always wanted to set everyone’s minds and souls at rest.

“How long will it take?” Hazel asked.

Vivian shrugged, “I am not sure, maybe a year or more. However, the point is, there is nothing to worry about. After they get finished fixing the building, people will start moving in again and everything will be back to normal.”

A feeling of calm blanketed the souls sitting around the table.

While Ewell thought about the vandals and Vivian gave assurances, Arthur walked the halls with a bottle of whisky, even though getting drunk did no good. Soon after he became a Permanent Resident of the building, he realized that the thing he missed most about his life before was whisky. He had always loved the snap of a new lid twisting open, the smooth feel of the glass bottleneck in his hand, the first warm drink. The first ten years he was here, it was torture, watching tenants enjoy a drink when he could not even get a whiff. Finally, he met Ewell who showed him the trick of imagining something that you wanted and making it appear. Of course, he knew that the whiskey did not really exist—he just perceived that it existed, that he could hold it and taste it. Nevertheless, he would take the lie of it. The lie was better than nothing.

Arthur too had noticed the building being taken apart piece by piece, the bums dozing in corners, the punk kids with their spray paint cans.

He hated to say it, but he actually missed the tenants. At least with the paying tenants, he felt like he was still part of the world. Now he really felt forgotten, just like the building itself. He looked out the windows at the overgrown grass coming up in the once manicured lawn and shook his head. If only he could leave, he thought.

Then he noticed someone walking down the sidewalk to the main entrance. It was a man, but not one of the bums or the punk kids. This person’s clothes, a green shirt tucked into khaki pants, were neat and clean. The man was approaching the front door of the building. What was more, Arthur noticed, is that he was carrying something. The man walked to the front door, but did not open it. Arthur went down the stairs until he reached the first floor. Looking out the window, he could see the man had turned and was walking back down the sidewalk away from the building.

Arthur opened the front door. Of course, it would do no good to step outside but he could see that a piece of paper had been taped to the door, just as he could read the words written on it:



By order of state code: E101.b2


Arthur dropped his bottle, ripped the sign off the door and ran to Vivian’s apartment yelling for everyone to drop what they were doing. He was calling a meeting of the Permanent Residents.

Less than ten minutes later, they all sat around Vivian’s table, staring at the demolition notice as if it were a snake poised to strike.

“What do we do?” Caroline asked.

“Maybe we could try to leave again,” Ewell offered.

“What good would that do?” Arthur interjected.

“Well, has anyone tried to leave lately? Maybe something has changed,” Caroline offered.

“We tried,” Hazel admitted. Everyone looked at her, hope in their eyes.

Hazel looked down as she spoke again, “It didn’t work, it was just like all the other times.”

The adults let out a collective sigh.

They knew what Hazel was talking about. They had all tried to leave numerous times.

Vivian looked the most dejected. “Dream us up some whisky Arthur, I think we could all use it,” she said.

Glasses of whisky appeared in front of everyone.

Everyone, even the twins, reached for a glass and took a long drink.

Ewell looked at the amber liquid and seemed to be lost in thought before he said anything.

“There’s one thing I know for sure,” He stated. “If I had known that I would be stuck for eternity in this building, I never would have hanged myself in the basement.”

Vivian raised her glass toward Ewell, “I’ll toast to that my old friend,” she said.

“At least you both had a choice,” Caroline cried, “I was killed by that idiot I thought I was in love with.”

“Mine was not a choice,” Vivian said, slamming her glass on the table. “My overdose was accidental, the coroner said so,” she argued.

“If anyone cares, I didn’t exactly choose to be here either,” Arthur interjected.

“You are the one who decided to drink yourself to death in room 2A,” Ewell informed him.

“That is a low blow Ewell, and I don’t appreciate it!” Arthur yelled.

“Shut up! Just shut up all of you!” Hazel screamed.

All of the adults grew quiet and realized that Haskell was staring at the floor, crying again.

Hazel glared at all of them before she spoke. “Me and Haskell were just kids when our stepmom poisoned us, and I’m not going to sit here and listen you all argue over who is the bigger victim!”

All of the Permanent Residents were victims in their own way. Vivian had been dead for seventy years, Ewell for sixty. Hazel and Haskell had been poisoned in 1971 by their stepmother, who had gone to prison for the crime and was now long dead herself. Arthur had moved into the building in 1977 after his divorce. One boozy night he simply stopped breathing, a result of alcohol poisoning. The youngest Permanent Resident was Caroline, who had been strangled by her fiancé in 1985.

As long as they had all been dead, none of them could tell you anything about the afterlife; except that they were stuck in the building where they had died. They had tried to leave so many times, usually through the front door although Ewell had jumped out of a few windows. Now the only thing they knew for sure was that they were stuck in some kind of loop. Going out the front door would would simply lead them back into the lobby of the building. When Ewell jumped out of the windows, he would somehow land in the basement instead of the ground below. It was madness. How long it would last, no one knew. They only knew that they were stuck in this place, but now the place itself was to be destroyed.

Haskell broke the silence “What are we going to do?”

“There is nothing to do but wait my little dear-heart.” Vivian answered.

On the day the demolition began, the Permanent Residents all gathered on the first floor. The top floor collapsed first, then the others came down like a giant stack of pancakes. If they had been alive, they would have been crushed. Being Permanent Residents, they were all still standing after the demolition. None of them felt a thing.

After the demolition, things improved. Haskell watched with excitement to see the work crews remove all of the old building, one truckload at a time. A cat had died during the demolition. In the afterlife, it began following Hazel around. The adults tested the limits and found that they were still hindered in their escape attempts by the footprint of the old building. However, they found themselves in the outdoors for the first time in decades. They sometimes imagined they could feel the sun and they grew warm. Caroline dreamt up dandelions growing in the rubble and they appeared.

Over several months, a new office building filled with windows and light was constructed around them.

The new tenants would not be residents, rather, they would be employees of a new company. Ewell had heard some of them call it “start-up”, whatever that meant. 

Caroline liked seeing the new computers and what they could do. Ewell busied himself studying the architectural components of the new structure. Arthur stopped dreaming up whiskey to drink and began imagining lattes after he had seen how the employees enjoyed them. Vivien dreamt flavors for Arthur’s new addiction, cinnamon, ginger and vanilla. Haskell and Hazel made mischief in the elevator and they played with their new cat.

Life and afterlife, as it turned out, went on.

As for the employees of the new company, they noticed nothing of the world of souls that lived alongside their own, except the brief mysterious smell of ginger that sometimes wafted through the building or the faint sound of children laughing as the doors closed on the empty elevator.

June 03, 2022 19:55

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