Hope stepped out of her friend's apartment into the small grimy hallway.
She was wearing her yellow and black gym clothes and had intended to workout after visiting her friend, Sarah, but time had slipped away from her.
Sarah was deathly sick, and had recently finished her fourth round of chemo. Out of sympathy, Hope had decided to shave her head, and it was going to be a surprise for Sarah on her next visit.
Hope ran her fingers over her head, and trailed them down and through her long blonde hair, pulling it over her left shoulder.
She smiled, and knew she was going to miss it. But some things were more important.
Hope took a mental snapshot of Sarah, sitting in her chair, watching the TV, and pulled the door closed until she heard the lock click. It scared Hope how much weight Sarah had lost.
In High School she had been on the track team, and had a throwing arm that rivaled the quarterback. Now she was small and bony, and none of her clothes fit her anymore.
Sarah lived on the top floor of the apartment building.
The concrete stairwell that wound down to the ground floor was always dirty and littered with discarded coffee cups and fast food boxes, and sometimes even used syringe needles,
bent and burnt spoons, and broken glass. It was a burden to remember the location of anything ominous that might be stepped on.
Hope decided against the stairwell and followed a small and hunched man wearing a tatty blue cardigan and flat gray cap into the elevator.
He was stooped over two large cloth carrier bags, one on each side, and shuffled forward without taking his feet from the floor.
Judging by his posture, one would've guessed the bags each weighed about fifty pounds.
There were stains on the floor of the elevator, but none of them looked wet.
Hope stepped to the side of the old man, glanced sympathetically at his heavy bags, and looked up to see the doors close.
"Which floor?" the old man grunted, holding up his quivering left index finger to the elevator buttons.
Hope thought he might have Parkinson's Disease. "All the way down, please," she said. "The ground floor."
The old man's hand scanned downwards and he hit the number one button. The elevator jolted to life. The man brought his hand back up and hit four.
Hope watched the floor lights change above the double doors. There was a ding with each floor that passed. Her fingers were in her hair again, tugging gently at the roots.
When the elevator passed the fifth floor the gentle whir of the descent morphed into a squeak and a grunt, and the elevator shuddered to a stop.
Hope stepped forward and pressed her hands to the steel doors to retain her balance.
The main elevator light went out.
There she is. Right on time. I love it when they're punctual. Leaving the little bald girl's apartment. She won't take the stairs. She never does on the way down.
She'll follow me into the elevator.
"Are you okay?" Hope asked the old man, squinting to see his outline in the dark.
The man replied, beleaguered. "Yes. It did this last week. Was in here for half an hour."
Hope sighed. "Half an hour is okay, I suppose."
There was no signal on her phone, but perhaps she could listen to music? No. That would be rude.
"You live in the building?" she asked, tucking her phone into the pocket of her pants.
"Yes," he replied. "On the fourth floor. It only had one more floor to go," he laughed. "Murphy's law, ain't it?"
"What's Murphy's law?" asked Hope, following a thoughtful pause.
"It just means that what can go wrong, will."
"Oh," said Hope. "I've had days like that."
The old man laughed. "You're having one now."
Hope chuckled. "That's true." She ran her fingers over the smooth metal of the elevator wall next to the doors.
"Is there a phone in here, or a button to press if there's an emergency? I think I remember seeing one in here."
"There is. But when I was stuck in here last week it didn't work."
Hope's fingers traced over a catch in the elevator wall and she pulled it aside so that a small metal door swung open. She reached inside the space and found an old plastic phone handle.
"Here we go," she said, pulling it to her ear.
There was no dial tone.
She smells so clean. Her body is so lean. With the right blade all of that should slip straight off.
"It's dead," said Hope and hung the phone back up on the hook. She leaned against the back of the elevator.
The old man made no sound.
Hope turned to him. "So, what happened last time? The elevator just start up again?"
"Yep," his dry, croaky voice cut through the silence.
Hope sighed and slid her hands into her pockets. She glanced around the elevator, watching as shapes etched out of the darkness. The old man was breathing heavy, strained.
Hope glanced down at his bags.
"Do you have far to go from the elevator?"
"No," he sighed. "Just down to the end of the hallway."
Go on. Say it. You know you're going to.
Hope could see the old man quite well now, composed of varying shades of gray. He was breathing heavy through his teeth, the saliva clicking against the enamel.
He brought his hand up to his mouth and coughed a throaty cough.
"I can give you a hand with your bags, if you like?"
So easy. Like hot butter slipping off a knife.
"Oh, you're too kind, dear. It's no big deal, though. I can manage on my own."
"Ah, don't worry about it. It's no skin off my back," said Hope, still looking at the bags.
The old man coughed again, buzzing with excitement.
Hope trailed her fingers through her hair again. Sarah was putting up such a tough front with her treatment. Hope wondered if she would ever be that brave in the face of a terminal illness.
"You don't live in this building, do you?" asked the man.
"No. Just here visiting a friend."
"The little girl with cancer?"
Hope's eyes flicked open. "How'd you know?"
The man took a deep and labored breath. "I thought I'd seen you two together once before. It's a shame what she's going through. That's what took my wife. Cancer."
Hope found herself looking at the bags again. "I'm sorry to hear that."
The elevator shook and descended at a steady pace. Hope looked up, wondering if the light would come back on. It didn't. The elevator stopped and the doors opened.
Hope blinked as light flooded in from the hallway.
The man stepped out. "Would you mind, dear?"
Hope picked the bags and was immediately shocked at how heavy they both were. She followed the old man down the hallway, wondering what could be so heavy.
The man stopped outside his apartment, fumbled in his pocket for the key, and opened the door, pushing it open.
With his head down and the cap covering his eyes, he indicated for Hope to go ahead of him.
Go on my dear. It's just a bit further.
Hope stepped passed the man into his cluttered apartment, noting piles of newspaper everywhere, and the smell of cats.
"Just put them down in the kitchen," he said, following behind her.
A strong stench of industrial cleaning fluids wafted from the bathroom.
Hope stepped onto the linoleum of the kitchen area from the dirty gray carpet of the living room. Her sneaker tapped the hardened floor.
A localized explosion ripped through the air to her left. She dropped the bags, and one tipped over, spilling red building bricks onto the kitchen floor.
Hope pivoted to glance behind, realizing that the explosion had been a gunshot. Was it her? There was no pain, at least yet.
The old man was on his knees and he fell forward, face planting the floor by Hope's feet. He was holding a wooden little league bat. Blood pooled on his back, saturating the blue woolen cardigan.
In the doorway, still standing in a shooter's stance, stood a young woman with short platinum blonde hair, bright red lipstick, and black rimmed glasses. She was wearing a dark gray suit.
Noting the look on Hope's face, the woman held up her police badge.
"Don't worry. You can now go home tonight."
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