By Luke Cai
For one and a half years, Randolph W. and Richard S. had lived together in a Lincoln Village apartment. They were 23 years old. Randolph worked two part-time jobs and Richard was a plumber. Amid rumors that the two were in a relationship, they admitted to their neighbors that they were no more than domestic partners. Each week, they would alternate cooking and travel no further than the boundaries of Worcester County. Randolph would spend his Saturday nights reading in a café while Richard honed his skills as a painter. Someone would always ask them why they did not live with their parents after they complained about the skyrocketing price of rent, but they would never explain why it was impossible. Randolph could not stand his parents because they were unstable, and Richard’s parents could not stand him because he was gay.
One afternoon, Randolph met Riley. It was around 3:00 on Thursday in the Lincoln Plaza shopping center. It was raining. Randolph had clocked out of work and settled in the nearby Barnes and Nobles to read comics. He was relaxing and accomplishing some unfulfilled childhood desire. He picked up a manga featuring three children on a bench. The back cover advertised it as “a plea from the future… the heart-wrenching sci-fi romance that has over one million comics printed in Japan.” He sat by the window of the café and began to read. Nearby, a lady looked at Randolph and frowned. He could feel the sense of tension and told himself that he would buy himself this manga to dissuade that sort of glare. He ignored how the lady had giggled at the nearby children with chocolate stained hands who creased the pages of mangas and doted on a whining child as if it were cute.
As he finished chapter 3, a little girl came by him and stood rigidly in front of a cheesecake on display. It had rained for over an hour. Randolph had grown tired of reading and amused himself with the people on the other side of the window. Parents rushed to give their children umbrellas while senior citizens struggled to rush into their cars. He took a hard look at the girl. She had thick and long hair and wore a large fancy velvet raincoat. She was alone. Their eyes met as he turned his head in curiosity. She looked away then looked back at Randolph again. Her mouth stuttered as she began to form a question. “Aren’t you the cashier who works in the art store next door?”
“Yes…” Randolph began. “And you’re the girl who paints a lot and does her hair…” he scratched his chin. “And you have an uncle who likes to use clay?”
“I’m surprised you remember me!”
“I’m surprised too.” He had only met her twice.
“Could you do me a favor?”
“I can try.”
The girl twirled her hair. “It’s a simple favor, but I’m embarrassed to ask. I’m very hungry and I want a large slice of cheesecake. I’m scared of talking to the cashier, and I hardly have enough for a slice.” She showed Randolph her pockets; $4.62, most of it in loose change.
Randolph smiled. “Well maybe I could help you, and then I could have a small piece too.” She smiled at him. Randolph took the girl’s money and grabbed a few bills from his wallet. They approached the glass cabinet. He crouched down next to the girl. “Now,” Randolph asked, “which piece did you want?”
“The big fluffy one,” the girl said, pointing up. “With chocolate and vanilla and coconut shavings.”
Randolph smiled and nodded at the little girl. She ran to the table to take a seat and waited by the table, smiling. She watched when he asked the cashier for a slice of cheesecake and waited as the cashier grabbed the dessert from behind the glass casing. As Randolph returned to the table, the girl rocked her legs.
“You’re dressed very well,” Randolph said, offering the girl a plastic fork as he placed the cake onto the table.
“Thank you.” She took a fork and dove right in.
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” she said, her mouth full.
Randolph picked up the other fork. “You know, I’ve always wanted an excuse to try this cheesecake.”
“It’s fantastic. Help yourself.”
Randolph smiled. He took a smile bite of the cheesecake and set it aside. The little girl, after swallowing a mouthful of food, unbuttoned her coat and put it on the chair. Randolph noticed her hair, long and unnaturally braided, as if it were treated by a hairdresser only an hour ago. It was somehow stiff and controlled even in the rain. Under her coat, she wore a light grey dress. It was identical to the attire of a white-collared worker.
“Most children come into this bookstore with their parents. Do your parents know that you’re here?” The little girl said nothing. She paid all her attention to the cheesecake. Randolph put his fist to his chin. “You seem like a delightful child,” he said. “My name’s Randolph. What’s yours?”
The girl finished up her mouthful of cheesecake and swallowed. “My name is Riley.”
“Riley.” Randolph said. “That’s a nice name.”
“Yours is nice, too, Randolph.”
“Do you come here a lot?”
“Moderately. I come to the Plaza habitually.”
Randolph chuckled to himself, amused by the girl’s vocabulary. “You have a large vocabulary for your age. Do you read a lot?”
“Frequently,” Riley replied, slowing down on her cheesecake. “I usually read one book a month. I just finished a book about the Civil War called the Red Badge of Courage.” Randolph chuckled. He read the same number of books as a girl who was no older than 10. “My teacher tells me to make more friends, but it’s hard.”
“Do you do well in school?”
“Oh yes. I usually get all A’s.”
Randolph shifted uncomfortably. “Your parents must be proud.”
“They don’t really care,” Riley said. “Did your parents care a lot about your grades?
Randolph flushed. “Oh yes.” Alert, he asked, “so how did you get here? Where are your parents? You certainly couldn’t have left work like me.”
Riley stopped eating for a moment. “I walked.”
“Well I’ll be.”
“I live there too! You’re not walking back, are you?”
“Not at the moment.”
“Would you like a ride back home?” Randolph grinned. “It really wouldn’t be a problem for me. My roommate’s picking me up in his truck. We’d have room in the back.” Riley began to smile. “I’d feel awful knowing that a girl like you would walk home in this rain.” Riley nodded, but then sank in unease.
“I’ll have to ask another favor of you then,” Riley began, “because my parents don’t come home until six o’clock. I forgot to bring the house keys with me. If I could get a ride, could I stay in your apartment for a while?”
Randolph frowned. “Can’t you give your parents a call?”
Riley shook her head. “I would prefer not to call them.”
Randolph sighed and scratched his temple. “All right. But I should warn you about roommate Richard.” He looked down for a moment but saw that Riley was listening attentively. “He’s got a bit of temper, and I don’t want you to get his bad side.”
“Oh, I’m sure he won’t get angry at me.” She returned to her cheesecake, sitting again in an upright position. She continued to talk with Randolph straight in the eye. “My parents trained me to be very well behaved.” Randolph nodded, but he was pensive. Riley was unnaturally mature for her age.
Half an hour later, Riley was staring outside the window car-watching. Randolph was scrolling through Facebook and Twitter. The rain was still pouring. A pond had formed in the parking lot.
“Is that Richard’s truck there?”
“No, that’s a Ford. I told you that he drives a Chevy,” Randolph said. “See, Fords are bigger and are more of a luxury car. They have a larger front work while Chevrolet’s usually have a bigger cab.” Riley looked at him vacuously and nodded. Understanding what he was saying, he continued, “Chevy’s have a little plus sign on them. Fords don’t.”
“I see,” she said. She stared out again, kicked her legs, and jerked her thumb outside. “What about that one?”
Randolph adjusted his glasses. “That would be him.” Randolph picked up his bag and put on his coat. “Let’s go.” Riley nodded. She adjusted her coat with extreme precision and took judicious steps while she walked, as if she had been trained in an academy. Randolph could hear his father admonishing to this day, telling him to look at this girl’s near perfect posture. He would sneer at Randolph after asking why he couldn’t learn from her.
“You’re lucky to be able to live with such a nice man.”
“Oh yeah. I’ve had terrible roommates in the past.”
“And you’re away from your parents. You must be really happy.”
Randolph glared at Riley as they stepped outside. She hid under his umbrella as he opened it up. “And what’s wrong with your parents?” She shook her head. Randolph gave a wry smile. “Riley,” Randolph began, “I assume your parents feed you. They give you rides and a place to live.” Riley bobbed your head. “You know, those things are expensive.” Riley looked at Randolph quizzically. “When you’re an adult like me, you can’t have this sort of things. Be happy that you live with your parents. It’s tough to live on your own.”
“But you don’t miss your parents too much, do you?”
Randolph frowned. “That’s a little private, Riley. You shouldn’t ask a random adult too many questions. They say that it’s better to know more of the answers than ask all of the questions.” She nodded and looked straightforward with Randolph.
When Richard pulled up from his pick-up truck, he stared at the girl. “And just who are you?”
“This is Riley. She lives in Lincoln Village. I’ve offered to let her stay with us until her parents come home.”
Riley stuck out her hand.
“Good to meet you, Richard.”
He sneered. Randolph smirked.
“You know she’s also a painter. I’m sure you could teach her a thing or two.”
Riley smiled. “I like to paint trees: maple trees, evergreen trees, pine trees. Oak trees are my favorite–”
“I’m sure you do,” said Richard. “C’mon Randolph. Let’s go.” Randolph nodded. Riley sat in the backseat with her hands crossed on her lap.
It was raining even harder at 7:00. It drowned out the din of the neighbors downstairs and the hum of the fluorescent lights. In the falling tranquility there was no sky, only the earth and the cars that splashed through puddles on the side of the curb. Like the cicadas that awoke every 18 years in the park, the apartment complex was dead quiet until everyone awoke from their slumber. Besides a few noisy tenants, it seemed uninhabited, each apartment detached from the neighbor 10 feet away.
In Randolph and Richard’s apartment, the air was damp. Furniture laid sporadically along the walls. Two paintings and a small flat screen TV hung on the faded beige walls, accompanied with dust. Eyes closed, Randolph laid out on the upholstered couch resting while Richard was prepared dinner with a set of refurbished kitchenware. Their apartment gazed at the Windsor’s across the park with a brown turbulent visage.
“I still don’t know why you brought her here,” Richard began.
“She’s a cute girl,” Randolph shrugged. “I talked with her a few times in the store when I was waiting for the manager.” He recalled one moment vividly. She was laughing as she lied about how she did her hair herself like a big girl. There was no way a little girl could braid her own hair. “She’s very honest and hides her problems well. I couldn’t just let her stay in Barnes and Nobles, could I?”
“But does she have to be in my room?”
“You can’t stop a child from being curious,” he sighed. “It’s not like someone can read All-Star Superman for two hours. Kids get bored.”
“Well if she’s your friend, you should be taking care of her.”
Randolph chuckled and brushed him off the couch. “Fine, I will.” He got up and headed to Richard’s room. Riley was staring at Richard’s work in progress. He was commissioned to paint a local park.
“How does he get those tones and values?”
“Like that shade of red and purple. It’s very precise.”
“That’s a question for him, not me.”
“He’s a wonderful painter.”
“I’ll let him know. I’m sure he’d appreciate that.” Randolph stood behind Riley and stared at his roommate’s painting. He began to feel more depth to Richard’s painting. It was decadent and vibrant, painted over some other failure from before. Despite living together for over a year, Randolph had little knowledge Richard’s techniques. Like his sexuality, which he had left hidden in the closet for over 12 years, his drawing process was secret and intimate. It took a degree of socialization to understand. “It’s seven o’clock. Your parents are home now, aren’t they?”
Riley stood up and patted her dress. “They should be.” She got up and followed Randolph to the door. Richard peeked over from the kitchen when she shook Randolph’s hand. Richard was disheartened at the girl’s parents. Irresponsible, he thought. As Randolph helped Riley put on her thick velvet coat, he walked towards them and sneered again. He was disgusted at how her parents were so frivolous to buy a little girl such elegant clothes. “Thank you for letting me stay Randolph,” said Riley. She turned to Richard. “And it was good meeting you, Richard. You’re a very nice man. Randolph is so lucky to have you as a boyfriend.”
Randolph chuckled to himself while Richard flared. “Thank you,” Richard replied. He coughed. “He’s, uh, actually not my boyfriend.” But the girl still smiled at them and walked away down the hall and downstairs. As she began to descend the cold metal stairs, Richard nodded slightly to himself and slammed the door. He made a beeline for the kitchen and set the stew on warm. Randolph followed him to the dinner table. “That little girl,” he began. “I don’t like her.”
“You’re only saying that because she thought we were going out.”
“She’s odd. You should have felt it. She doesn’t seem to understand personal space.”
“She’s a nice kid. Always fun to talk with. She’s just seems a little lonely.” Randolph began to set the silverware and took a seat at the dinner table. “She told me that she doesn’t have many friends.”
“Doesn’t she know about stranger danger?”
“You didn’t notice the smartphone in her lap?”
“No,” said Richard. “Don’t most kids just play on their smartphones in their free time?”
Randolph recalled the manner in which she dressed and the style in which she walked. “Well that girl doesn’t seem most like most kids, does she?” Richard tried to forget about her demeanor for a moment.
“I still don’t like her,” said Richard. He put on an oven mitt as he brought dinner to the table: turkey stew, sweet potatoes, and a casserole with cranberry sauce.
“Have a little sympathy for her.”
Richard wrinkled his nose. Randolph didn’t notice. “What do think her parents do?”
“I don’t know. From what little I know, it seems like they work a lot.” Randolph clapped his hands and clashed his fork and knife. “You have to respect parents who work so much to put a roof over their child’s head.”
“You think she’s an only child?”
“Probably, just like you and me.” Randolph had already begun to eat, as if Richard’s argument didn’t matter. He sighed and closed his eyes. A devout Christian, he said a prayer before dinner. He clasped his hands together, held his breath for half a minute, and exhaled. “I don’t think I ever got her name.”
“Her name is Riley.”
The next afternoon, Randolph was long at work. He took an extra Saturday shift to earn some pocket money. Richard was in the kitchen fixing up a salad and a bowl of wonton soup for lunch while wearing a paint-stained smock. He was taking a break from his art. It was one o’clock. How old was she, Richard thought. Nine? Twelve? And why was Randolph so kind towards her? He knew Randolph was a curious figure but he could not understand the girl and what appeared to be a contrasting lifestyle. As he stirred his soup, the doorbell rang. He got up and peeked out of the peephole. It was Riley. She carried a pink backpack. Richard bit his lip. “For God’s sake,” he muttered under breath as he unlocked the door. The door’s chain held the door the door open an inch. “May I help you?”
“I’m here to see Randolph.”
“He won’t be back until after five. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“Then do you mind if I come inside to wait? I’ve been here so long already.”
He sighed. As he was about to reprimand the girl, the deep voice of a man yelled down the hallway. The words did not register in Richard’s head, but he pulled the girl into the apartment almost by instinct.
“What happened?” Riley asked. “Are you all right?”
“I’m not too sure.” Richard said with a few quick breaths. Riley was standing straight and astute. He gathered his breath and asked, “Aren’t your parents at home?”
“They are.” She put her bag down. “I just didn’t quite like it.”
Richard sunk into the dinner table chair and resumed his lunch. “What do you want?” he repeated.
“Aren’t you glad to see me?”
“No,” Richard rolled his eyes. “Randolph might be glad,” he stated. “Not me. I’m busy.”
She dropped her bags and took off her coat. She laid them neatly in the corner and strode about the room.
“Could you sit down? It makes me nervous to have strangers roaming around this apartment.”
Riley raised her eyebrows.
“I’m not really a stranger, am I?” She went towards the television. “And that’s certainly an abnormal fear, Mr. Stickel. It doesn’t seem like something a gay man such as yourself should have.
“How’d you know my last name?” Richard asked. He felt cold. In two sentences, Riley had discerned his surname and his sexuality. “Randolph couldn’t have told you those things.”
“That’s not a pertinent question, is it? They’re such simple matters, aren’t they?”
“When I was your age, my parents would have yelled at me if I barged into someone’s house like this unannounced.”
“But parents yell, don’t they?”
“I guess,” Richard sneered. “but they always have their reason.” Richard’s parents, for instance, did not yelled at him for having long hair and playing with dolls. They had ordained a mutual sense of unacceptance. As he finished his salad, he recalled how his father disdained his flowery wallpaper. Riley was about the room, touching the wallpapers, the tablecloths, and the flowers. “Hey! No touching!”
“Fake flowers,” she smiled. “It’s so drab.”
“No need to tend to anything real in this apartment,” Richard said as he took a gulp of water.
“Well that’s somewhat telling, isn’t it?”
And, in a gut reaction, Richard cried, “Just what did you come here to see Randolph for in the first place?!”
Riley turned towards Richard and replied, “It was something for an art class.” She went towards her backpack. “I want to show Randolph a speed painting I made. Our teacher wanted us to paint like another artist we were assigned.”
“All right,” Richard sighed, “get it out.”
From her bag, she retrieved an 11×14 canvas. In acrylic and pastels, Randolph was sitting in the coffee shop reading. He was painted in tones of grey in bright yet scattered strokes of a cerulean blue. The painting had form, structure, and composition far greater than a young child and even those of Richard’s age. In it, Randolph’s eyes seemed to look into the distance while everyone else in the café was focused on something in front of their eyes.
“It’s pretty good,” said Richard. “Who were you imitating?” It had reminded Richard of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.
“Someone called Paul Gaugin.” Riley curled her hair. Richard stood by her as if bound by a spell-like compulsion and deadly form of curiosity. “You seem to paint a lot. Do you?”
“You should have exhibitions,” becoming a little more excited. “Let your whole family see.”
“I don’t think they would prefer that,” Riley replied. “Dad wants me to do sports.”
Richard chuckled. “My dad was the same way.”
Anger began to thrive in Richard as his suspicions arose. “I’m sure Randolph would appreciate it, but you need to leave.” He repressed his convulsions. “I didn’t say you could come in, and you shouldn’t stay. You can leave the painting it in his room and can come back for it tomorrow.”
“Okay.” She went off to Randolph’s room, recalling it in almost an exact precision. It was as if she had lived here long before Richard or linked her mind with his. Carefully, he edged around the kitchen to take a glimpse at where she went.
In the alcove to Randolph’s room, he caught his breath. She had left the painting in Randolph’s room, but her hands instead contained a powerful stone. “What are you doing?” he asked.
On a bureau in his bedroom, Richard had a series of rings sprawled across the countertop. There was a sterling silver ring, a thick titanium one, and a tawdry blue plastic ring. Riley displayed the blue piece proudly on her hand. That ring was an artifact from age six, a simpler and more innocent time in his life that he would recall fondly. As he would have professed, it was something from his childhood, but he could not say this to Riley.
“This ring you have,” she said. “It’s not like the other pieces of jewelry you have. It’s charming in a completely unique way.”
“That’s nice. Maybe you can get your parents to bring you to a store and buy you one just like that yourself.” But she was dazzled by its glamor. “Take it off. Put it back.”
“But it’s so beautiful,” she said, bringing the tawdry ring to the light. Her eyes sparkled with the glimmer of the ring. “My parents would never let me buy one. I want to keep wearing this. It’s so nice.” Riley darted her eyes towards Richard. “Give it to me.”
“It’s something sentimental. Please don’t take it–” He trailed off. Richard kept no diaries and his parents refused to share his photos. He tried to shape an adequate sentence to save the ring, even with one word, but instead he did not resist. Riley was not something of a child. He was not overcome with black magic or curiosity, but instead stalwart subservience.
Then Riley walked into outside to her backpack. She slipped the ring inside.
“For God’s sake,” Richard yelled. “Go away! You need to leave and leave me alone!” But Riley started moving throughout the apartment instead. She left Richard in his room, giving him a slyly innocent smile. Defeated, Richard retreated to his bedroom.
Richard spent the afternoon in bed, rising every now and then to stretch his legs and check his phone. His thoughts were feverishly agitated. At one point, he tried to eat a mango with a spoon. At another point, he looked at his jewelry box and a piece of topaz for half an hour. He looked in silence until he could hear a little girl outside showing off her dress. Isn’t it pretty, she said. It’s beautiful, one another. The other said that her parents would kill her if she wore that dress, and they laughed.
At 5:00, Randolph returned. He brought some groceries home. Richard peeked out to look for him. “It’s just me, Dick.”
“That girl from last night, Riley…” Randolph nodded. He was putting the groceries back into the fridge. “She just came in and didn’t leave. It sounds so absurd.”
Randolph rattled the keys out of his pocket. “Go on.”
“She came to visit to give you a painting. Then she took my ring and helped herself to my lunch…”
“That little blue ring of yours?”
“Yes,” Richard replied. “And I’m sorry to act like an idiot, but she’s possessed. She ran inside and wouldn’t leave. It’s like she knew me or something and dissected thing from me.” He took a few deep breaths. “Like a little sociopath.”
“Is she still here?”
Richard looked around. “No. That’s why I’m scared. I didn’t see her leave from the front door or anywhere, and she hasn’t made a sound for over an hour.”
“That certainly sounds scary,” said Randolph. He went to his room to put his backpack away. He turned left and stopped before Richard’s room. He jerked his thumb. “Then what do you call that?” Richard poked his head into the room. Riley was asleep. “Looks like she crashed on the bed and fell asleep.”
Richard stood and breathed deeply. As if receiving a confounded jurisdiction, he said, “but I was just there an hour ago…”
Randolph and Richard went into the dining room softly. They left Riley in Richard’s room undisturbed, sat on the couch, and twiddled their thumbs. No, it not that something changed but rather the present did not feel satisfying. Surely, rain was falling but they could not be aware of this. The paintings on the wall loomed with a new strangeness, giving off some form of vexing emptiness. Below it, Riley’s backpack sagged against the wall. Randolph peeked inside. “Looks like she brought a bunch of clothes. Enough to last over a week.”
Richard’s face dissolved into a mess of ugly red lines. Unable to cry or laugh, he whispered, “well for crying out loud…” and sank into the couch. He scratched his face and sunk his face into his hands. “What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon.” They started forward, glanced at each other, and then looked back at the wall.
“You said she left a painting for me.”
“She left it in your room. I’ll get it.” Richard got up and slinked towards Randolph’s room. He peeked into his room. Riley was still there, gentling snoring. He coughed a few times, but Riley didn’t move. He returned to the dining room with a tiny piece of canvas. Randolph raised his eyebrows.
“I’m flattered that she drew me,” he began, taking a hold of the painting. “It’s beautiful.” Randolph said the next afternoon. “Reminds me of that painter, what’s his name, Gaugin? Cézanne?
“Talented as she is, that girl’s a nightmare.”
“If that’s so, why don’t you wake her up?”
“Why don’t you?” retorted Richard. But they knew the answer. Randolph set the painting on the dining room table. It seemed to bring a sense into the room. “That’s not all acrylic paint, is it?” Randolph said, touching the painting.
“No, I think there’s tempura paint and a bit of crayon.”
“It’s nice,” Randolph smiled. He peeked his head over to his room and sighed. He sat back down and at 5:30, they were sitting in the dining room, waiting for some other person to break the silence.
“I’m not going to call the police on her, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I’m not,” said Randolph. He looked around and drummed his fingers. “She said she lived in this apartment.” Richard frowned at Randolph. “Do you think we can find it?”
“What? And leave the girl here?”
“You saw her. I don’t know if you touched her like I did, but she’s out cold.” As if he heard the words for the first time like Richard had, he chuckled at the absurdity.
“She said she lived on the first floor,” Richard said. “Wouldn’t hurt.”
Outside, Richard and Randolph went down the rows of apartments, knocking on each door. “Well good evenin’ Randolph,” one tenant said.
“Good evening,” Randolph replied. “There’s this girl named Riley who found her way to our apartment and passed out. She’s black, carries a pink backpack, and has braids. Have you heard of her or know where she lives?” The tenant shook his head. In the next house, they administered the same process and found the same result. Not even the children were aware of this girl. As vivid as Riley had appeared to Randolph and Richard, she was an apparition to the others. Despite their descriptions, the tenants learned more of Richard and Randolph than they did of Riley.
Finally, Randolph began to sigh from exhaustion. It had been around 20 minutes. Richard looked up at Randolph and said, “She said her parents used to yell, if that helps.”
“If they do, they’re not yelling now.”
“What about that house before us?
“No, that wouldn’t be them,” said Randolph, flicking his ears. “The boy who lives there is an only child. His mother is silly. She’s saying he looks too much like a girl.”
Richard curled his 9-inch hair and chuckled. “Reminds me of my dad.” He flicked his hair. “Does this hair make me look like a girl?”
“No,” Randolph chuckled. “It makes you look handsome.” They left the room and its din alone.
As they trudged away, Richard asked, “did your parents yell like that when you were younger?”
“Not really,” said Randolph. “But I’ve had neighbors tell me about how loud my parents could get, so I might say that I did.”
“But your dad didn’t have a drinking problem, did he?”
“No. I think I could be thankful for that.” Randolph looked away. He looked forward at apartment 26, the final apartment in the hall. It arched in front of them in a large shadow, among a tattered brick walls. The walls were scratched, and there was no conscious effort to repair them. “Last house,” he said. “Wish us luck.”
Richard rang the doorbell. Like opening the gates to Hades, two tenants burst out in noise. They yelled about who was at the door, who should have answered. There was something explicit and another thing misogynistic yelled out. All the screaming and the yelling was calm in the face of neighbors and menacingly loud in its echoes. It reverberated in Randolph and Richard’s minds. It happened when Randolph was 8 and his parents began a regular series of arguments that would lead to their divorce. It happened to Richard was 12, when he had his first kiss with a man. No matter what the case, the echoes rang louder and chaotic with each argument. And it was perfectly natural to experience. Randolph and Richard stood silently outside the apartment as they did for their parents when they were adolescents. As the parents answered the door, they apologized for interrupting and asked the same question. They received the same response, albeit louder than before, before the neighbors slammed the door in their face and began bickering once again. Randolph nudged Richard to go back home, and they trudged back up the stairs.
The men entered the apartment quietly. They walked to the center of the room. Richard sat on the sofa for a moment while Randolph, by force of habit, walked towards his room as if to go to sleep. Gazing forwards, his room loomed before him, lights on, mattress messy. But it was quiet, with no one but Richard in sight. Its vacancy had an implied meaning and an odd strangeness; to be in the state it was in three nights ago and yet feel emptier. Randolph came in and gazed into his room. Everything was tidy, and nothing but the bed out of place. Only Richard breathed inside the room. His keys were still there and his book remained untouched. Opening a drawer, his wallet was untouched. Where was Riley?
“Is she gone?” Richard asked.
“Looks like it,” said Randolph.
Richard walked into the kitchen and into his room. Still there was no sign of Riley. He opened the door outside and peeked out. She was nowhere to be seen nor did she leave any tracks.
“Still nothing,” Randolph asked.
Richard shook his head. “Nothing.” He took a seat on the sofa for a moment. “You don’t think she took anything, did you?”
“What, besides that ring you gave her? I doubt it. My room’s clean.”
“I don’t know, I’m gonna check.” So, Richard checked his room, under the bed, and in the nightstand, but sure enough, there was nothing missing.”
“You don’t think she-“
“No. But I don’t want to think about her too long,” Randolph yawned. “We still have other things we need to do tonight. not much we can do tonight, and I don’t think she’s worth worrying about.” He checked the clock. Already 6:00. “For hell’s sake, I’m actually excited to do my taxes after that fiasco.”
“Sure,” said Richard. He looked for Riley’s painting, which had also disappeared.
He chuckled to himself. “Did you want to go out to dinner tonight?”
“Sure,” Randolph chuckled. “Maybe we could catch a movie too. I want to enjoy my Saturday night.”
“It seems like you’re taking me out on a date.”
“Who knows?” Randolph winked. “You might get lucky someday.” He returned to his room to retrieve his coat. For a moment, he yearned for Riley’s painting to return to his room, but he brushed these emotions away.
Richard peeked into his room and fixed his coat. “That girl Riley’s not too bad, is she?”
Randolph smiled. He flicked off the light to the dining room and humored Richard’s lie.
“I didn’t really doubt it.”
At night, Randolph was sprawled on his bed while Richard was tucked in tightly. He was parallel to the bed. They made no sound. 10 minutes later, Richard’s eyes were wide open as he stared at the ceiling. He headed into Randolph’s room. Randolph was fast asleep. He turned to look at the neighbors, likely watching him as he was watching them. He recalled one time when his father slapped him, he made eye contact for only a brief moment with his neighbor, who immediately dove her nose into an issue of Vogue. He walked outside. It was empty. He went underneath the stairs and stared up.
“It is a federal violation to place anything under these stairs.”
Up the stairs, all the lights were dimmed except for a light that the Windsors never shut off. It was quiet. He went back upstairs to his apartment, and he noticed a small glimmer from the flashlight. Walking toward it, he found his ring. That little blue artifact from his childhood returned to him, instilled with more meaning. The metal from the ring was still warm from her chubby little fingers.
“Riley?” Richard called out. He turned on his flashlight. “Riley?” On that floor, the light was still on from his apartment. There were no footsteps nor talk from the hallway. Only the wind accompanied the silence. Besides the ring, she was nowhere to be seen. There was no trace of that child. He slipped the ring back on his finger and proceeded to unlock the door.
Richard entered his apartment softly. In the stillness of the air, Richard could hear Randolph’s gentle snores. He walked back into his room and lied down. It was unchanged. Everything was the way it was 2 days ago, but there was new sense of emptiness in the room. The jewelry box on his armoire felt empty, and the faux flowers in the small felt lifeless. It felt like a funeral home, and Richard’s bed became a casket. He laid down and looked down at his ring. The ring resonated of his childhood and of Riley. Her creativity, her piercing smile, her curious stare. The yelling. The laughter.
He nudged the ring off his finger and curled up against his pillow. He placed the ring on a nightstand next to his phone and curled into the bedspread. He took a moment to listen to the night air and became aware of a metal sound. Someone was on the catwalk. As his eyes adjusted to the window, he saw a little girl watching in the shadows. As he was about to investigate the window, his eyes adjusted to night. It was only the wind, and the girl was a plastic bag. He took a sigh of relief and laid down. He looked up at the ceiling and uttered a few sentences to God. After half an hour, Richard lulled himself to sleep.