“Stop running. Jesus. These damn kids! One day they are going to get seriously hurt.”
Muttered Mrs. Patrakis from the fourth floor as she slowly climbed up the stairs with the support of railings.
“God knows when they’ll fix up the elevator. It’s been months. People these days have no concerns for their senior citizens.”
Mrs. Patrakis, widowed at the age of fifty, recently turned seventy. Her body ached every time she got up from her chair. Yet, she made it a point to step out to buy her own groceries, get her letters and cook her own meals. Years of living alone made her bitter. The kids in the building made fun of her snowy white hair, and at least once a day they rang her bell and ran away just to amuse themselves with the expletives she hurled when she opened the door.
The building was seven years older than her. Her husband and she were one of the first people to move into it. Over the years, people moved in and out, but she stayed put. The building badly needed repairs. Plasters came off the walls, the electric wires dangerously hung loose in the open, the lighting on many floors was damaged, and the power cuts were more frequent than her blinking. Mrs. Patrakis didn’t associate much with the people in the building, except with Laika from the third floor, a woman in her late thirties, divorced. In actuality, the residents were quite friendly, they truly believed in the phrase, “Love thy neighbor”, and helped each other out whenever needed. They tried to help Mrs. Patrakis too, but she seldom accepted their generosity.
Amongst the other residents were the Guptas on the first floor, the Petersons and Doyles on the second, and the Walkers on the fourth floor opposite Mrs. Patrakis. The Walkers had kids too, who screamed at the top of their voices all day long.
The building was situated in a narrow alley which opened to a very busy street in the city of New York. In summers, the neighbors chatted in the hallways for hours with their doors open. They visited each other’s apartments with ice creams made from scratch and custards. Laika sometimes dropped a pie off at Mrs. Patrakis’s door. The kids ran around in the alleys, all day long, and came home only for lunch or snacks. Mrs. Patrakis didn’t mind the noise, but she always portrayed that it annoyed her.
In the evenings, Mrs. Patrakis sat by her window and observed cars and people. New York was something else in the nineties.
Every two weeks, a street artist came with his spray cans and made graffitis on the wall opposite the building protesting something or the other. He occasionally waved at Mrs. Patrakis. Sometimes he had a new tattoo, a different hairstyle, or a new piercing on his body which immensely amused her.
That particular day, as Mrs.Patrakis reached the landing of her floor, she found a notice loosely stuck on her door.
“The elevator will be repaired in the evening along with some of the electric lines. For that purpose, the power will be out from six to nine today evening.”
Reading that notice gave Mrs.Patrakis a bittersweet feeling. She was happy that they were finally repairing the elevator, her left knee was beginning to trouble her a lot but she couldn’t understand why they had to do it at such odd hours and not when there’s daylight.
“Oh hey, Mrs.Patrakis!” Greeted Mrs.Gupta as she stepped out of the Walkers’ apartment, closely followed by Mrs. Walker.
“You saw the notice for today right? It’s a pity they are doing it in the evening.” Sighed Mrs. Walker.
“Kids at home these days, Annie?” Mrs. Patrakis asked Mrs.Walker, who blushed at the subtlety.
“Yes, summer break. The whole house is upside down. You know how they are.” Responded Mrs.Walker slightly embarrassed, well aware of how big a nuisance her kids were.
“Also we’re hosting a game of charades at my place, during the power cut. Everyone will be there. You should come too, Mrs. Patrakis.” Mrs. Gupta extended the invitation warmly.
Mrs. Patrakis observed Mrs. Gupta for a couple of seconds. The Guptas were a young couple who moved to the US from India, three years back. The husband was a professor and the wife stayed at home. She was beautiful, kind, and sweet. Reminded Mrs.Patrakis of her youth.
“I’ll see.” Mrs.Patrakis grunted in response.
As the clock struck six, the lights went out instantly and Mrs. Patrakis was left staring at the black screen of her old TV.
“How punctual !” She mumbled as she looked around the empty dark apartment. She could hear voices in the corridor. The Walkers were probably heading over to the Guptas for the evening.
She wondered what else she could do in the empty house, without the TV or lights. She could go to her window and watch people again, but that particular evening, she wasn’t in the mood for that. After several minutes, she decided to take up the Guptas on their invitation.
As Mrs. Patrakis slowly climbed down the stairs, she wondered if people would be surprised to see her for she never appeared at any of the gatherings. She was more excited than she wanted to be.
“Let’s not get our hopes high, for all we know it’s just going to be one chaotic evening.” She mumbled to herself.
The apartment door of the Guptas was wide open. She could hear loud voices and laughter coming from inside. Taking a huge breath, she walked in.
The evening turned out to be surprisingly pleasant. Everyone sat around in one large circle, with snacks and drinks set out on a table in the corner. The room was filled with candles. To an outsider, it would seem as if a group of people was performing a seance. Mrs. Patrakis wondered why she never hung out with these people in the past. They were all very nice. There was laughter, kids ran around the place and time was flying by real quick. Mrs. Patrakis started dreading heading back to her empty apartment.
She noticed Laika hadn’t shown up. She was down with a headache apparently. She made a mental note to pay her a visit before heading back home. As the clock struck nine-forty five, everyone wondered what’s taking so long. The power should have been back by nine. People started getting impatient, suddenly wanting to go back home and rest. The Guptas’ hospitable attitude also started deteriorating by the minute. Some of them volunteered to go and check.
The others waited in silence. The kids were subdued, some fell asleep on the couch. After a few minutes when the power didn’t come back, Mrs. Patrakis got up and announced that she was leaving. Mrs. Gupta’s face lit up with relief hoping that others would follow her.
Suddenly, Mr. Gupta and Mr. Walker, who had gone out to check, came running in, their faces white with fear.
“We need to evacuate immediately.”
People shot up from their seats.
“There’s a fire. Something about the electric wires. They are trying to contain it, but it has already reached the fourth floor and is spreading rapidly. One of the workers has gotten seriously injured. We need to leave this building. Quick, wake up the kids. Come on!”
There was sudden chaos and moving of chairs. Mrs. Patrakis heard about the fourth floor. Her heart suddenly gripped with fear. Pain shot through her whole body.
“ I need to go back up and see. What happened to my apartment?” She started mumbling to herself.
“Are you crazy? No Mrs. Patrakis. Nobody should go back up.” Mr. Walker was exasperated.
They started evacuating the apartment, the fathers lifting the kids onto their shoulders, letting the women leave first. Luckily they were all on the first floor and had to climb down only one flight of stairs.
An impatient and panicked Mr. Gupta held Mrs.Patrakis's hand as they climbed down, as fast as her weak old knees would permit.
Only after Mrs. Patrakis got out of the building could she see the dense smoke coming out of the top two floors, including hers. The flames got worse by the second. Someone called the fire department. The kids in the crowd started crying, the families stood in a circle, discussing the valuables they were forced to leave behind. Only Mrs. Patrakis stood away from them and stared up at the window by which she sat every day. She could see the flames through the glass.
For the first time in seventy years, Mrs. Patrakis felt truly lost. Her heart felt heavy, as she realized that this loss pained her more than the loss of her husband. The workers also came out of the building, coughing their lungs out. One of them carried the injured worker and laid him down on the ground. Looking at the injured worker in silence, she remembered something and suddenly screamed out.
“What happened Mrs. Patrakis?”
“Laika! She’s still in there. She had a headache, remember? She must be sleeping. Somebody has to help her.”
She turned to look at the workers helplessly.
“Please!” She begged them.
“We’re not firemen. We barely managed to get out safely. We’re not trained for this.” One of the workers responded, with a guilt-stricken face.
“We have kids.” He added after a few seconds.
“Someone please do something. The poor woman is still in there.”
Mrs. Patrakis looked at the rest of the residents, whose eyes immediately went down.
“The fire department will be here soon. They’ll save her, Mrs. Patrakis. Please sit down, take a deep breath.”
Feeling hopeless, she sat down. She told herself that if she was young and her legs permitted, she would help Laika. Then she looked at the kids and wondered about the moral dilemma the others were in. Would she risk her own life if she was not alone? If she had a family? Were the others around her being selfish? Was it justified?
She noticed Mr. Walker pacing around staring at Laika's window.
“I think I can do it. Yes. I'll go in.” Mr. Walker finally announced after a few seconds.
“I’ll be fine.” He mumbled to himself.
But just then the firefighters arrived and asked everyone to stand back.
They soon managed to get Laika out, but she had inhaled a lot of smoke and had to be taken to the hospital immediately.
The night ended with all of them in the hospital, worried to death, getting checked up one by one. The men stood in line at the telephone booth in the hospital calling their insurance companies, waiting for someone to tell them about their temporary arrangements.
Only Mrs. Patrakis stood far away from the commotion, in front of a door, and watched Laika lying on a bed through the glass window, wondering if Laika woke up, would she blame her for not saving her sooner?
“Wow, this building is fancy, mum.”
Luke walked through the glass doors opened by a doorman into a lavish lobby. A huge chandelier hung from the top. The building was renovated after it caught fire in the nineties. Rumour has it that people died in the fire. Everything was bright and shiny and screamed money. The alley outside the building was no more there.
Mrs. Aubert was divorced. Her ten-year-old son Luke, and she recently moved to the city from a small town after she came into some very generous fortune last year. They made their way to a glass elevator, the bellman behind them with their luggage.
A woman in her late twenties, fashionably dressed, came and stood next to them for the elevator.
“Hi, I’m Bella Aubert. This is my son, Luke. We just moved in.”
The woman looked up from her phone for a brief second and forced a smile with an acknowledging nod.
“Okay then.” Bella mumbled under her breath looking the other way.
There were ten floors in the building with two elevators that opened privately into each of the apartments with an access card. Coming from a small town, Bella and Luke were used to running into neighbors from the moment they stepped out of their house, but here it was immensely difficult to run into anyone in the hallways, because there weren’t any, nor could they drop by anyone’s place to introduce themselves, for one needed an access card to go anywhere.
A month had passed, and Bella and Luke had not made acquaintances in the building. While Luke went to school and made a few friends, Bella was completely alone. Every other day, by the elevator she found a new face with who she tried to start a conversation, but nobody showed any interest. Initially, Bella thought it was Luke and her, that they didn’t fit in. But the more she observed, the more she realized that nobody talked to each other in the building. Everyone looked into their phones from the time they walked into the building till the time the elevator doors opened and they stepped into their apartments.
Sometimes Bella hung around in the lobby, flipping through fashion magazines on the comfortable sofas. She had seen a number of people do that. But there too, nobody uttered a single word or looked each other in the eye. The most she ever spoke to was with the doorman and the bellboy who she later realized, indulged her out of respect.
After Luke left for school, Bella sat by the window, which didn’t open, and stared at the traffic for a better part of the day. She had heard a lot about New York. People had told her it was a fast-paced city, brimming with culture, talent, dreams, and opportunities. So far, she had only noticed the fast pace. Hundreds of cars lined up at the signal, people walking, with eyes always glued to their phones. The noise made her crazy. She longed for the late evenings when the buzz died down a bit and people actually looked like they had a life outside their phones.
One afternoon, Luke brought home some friends, who decided to play hide and seek in the lobby. No less than thirty minutes later, as Bella sat down on her sofa to watch some TV, she got a call from the lobby. Running down in a hurry, she found the kids sitting on the sofa, staring at the marble floor.
“Mum, we got into trouble.” Luke muttered.
“Running around in the lobby is not allowed, Mam.” The receptionist approached Bella with a paper of some sort.
“One of your son’s friends broke a very expensive vase in the process. I’m sorry but here’s the receipt for it. Will be deducted from your maintenance.”
A little offended, Bella took the receipt and exclaimed when she saw the amount.
“ A 500$ vase? Why would you keep something this expensive out in the lobby?”
“Because people here don’t usually go running around breaking them, Mam.”
“Where else would the kids play then?” Bella could sense how loud her voice was getting with each sentence.
“In their apartments? Or you could take them to the park? Or enroll them for some classes? This is a shared space. People don’t like kids running around like that, Mam.”
Staring hard at the receptionist, Bella wondered if it was a wrong decision to have moved away from the small town where her son could run around on the streets with his friends, shoot hoops in the garage, or cycle around the neighborhood. She remembered how her friends dropped by in the evenings with cookies and punch and they chatted till it was time for dinner. Here she didn’t even know the name of a single person that lived in the building.
“I’m sorry mum.” Bella turned to find Luke tugging lightly at her dress.
“It’s fine, honey. Let’s go back upstairs.”
“I don’t like living here. I miss home, you know.” Luke stated sadly.
There was a new face waiting for the elevator again that day, but this time Bella made no effort to strike up a conversation. The woman was in her early sixties, with a pleasant face.
“New to the building?” She asked Bella.
Bella looked up surprised, her heart foolishly skipping a beat.
“Not quite. We’ve been here for over a month!”
The old woman laughed. “Yeah, nobody really gets to know anymore when new people move in.”
“I’m Bella Aubert. This is my son, Luke. The rest are his friends from school.”
“I’m Jeanne Walker. I live on the fifth floor.” The old woman smiled broadly.
“This might be surprising but you’re the first person I’ve spoken to in the building ever since we’ve moved in.” Bella confessed with a short laugh.
“I’m not at all surprised. Things aren’t what they used to be.”
“How long have you lived here for?”
“You could say, all my life, with gaps in the middle.”
“But, this building is only a few years old, right?” Bella asked, confused.
“Yeah, I used to live here as a kid. Before it got renovated. Before it caught fire in the nineties.”
“Whoa, really? What was it like then?” Bella couldn’t contain her curiosity. Even Luke suddenly seemed interested in the conversation at the mention of fire.
“Better. Nicer. Friendlier. With the fancy renovations and changing times came solitude.” Jeanne sighed.
The elevator door opened and they stepped in. As Jeanne swiped her card, she turned to Bella, “Want to come over for tea?”
“Sure. Would love that!”
“Is it true that people died in the fire?” Luke’s curiosity got the better of him.
“No. Nobody died. You know why?”
“Why?” Both the mother and son asked in unison.
“Because people in the building were friends.”
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Well done and very good characters. I like the way you shifted in time. A couple technical mistakes. You said, "The building was seven years older than her. Her husband and she were one of the first people to move into it." Unless she got married at age 7 or 8, she & her husband couldn't have moved in. Better to make it her family, then she & her husband took over the apt. In the US, the dollars sign comes before the amount. $ 500 for the vase. Overall, I like the way you handled the shifting points of view with being awkward. Well done.
Impressive. You handle the shift in times very well. I would like to see the movie you just played in my head...