It was a wet morning in NYC, but I went ahead with the move anyway. All the way to the far side of Brooklyn, driving through heavy traffic until I reached the rundown apartments. I started lifting my boxes into the lobby. A few people passed by, disinterested, but the building itself was eerily quiet. Only the low hum of falling rain filled the vacuum. The paint was chipping off the walls where graffiti marred their surfaces. Although some might consider that art, to me it just looked old. A faint smell of beer and fried chicken permeated the place.
I pried open the jammed doors of the rickety elevator. It looked like a time travel machine. I struggled to juggle a box while I held it ajar, when a Chinese-looking man walked down the stairs. He looked at me, the boxes, and then the elevator. He looked at me again.
“That’s not working,” he said and hurried away.
“Why couldn’t they put up a sign?” I mumbled, but he was long gone.
I dragged the door shut with all my strength, then looked around the lobby at my piles. With my unit on the fourth floor, this was going to be a long trek up. A lot of long treks up, actually. I picked up a box and started toward the stairs. Suddenly I bumped into someone.
“Ow,” came a muffled response from behind the box.
I quickly put my load down and saw a young teenager in front of me.
“I’m so sorry. I couldn’t see where I was going.”
“I know,” she smiled, and I was struck by her appearance—white alabaster skin, green eyes, and soft brown hair.
I put my hand across to introduce myself, “I’m Amelia.”
Instead of taking it, she bent down and picked up a box, “I’m Ally. Let me help you.”
“So are you going to be here long?’ She asked, leading the way.
“I think so. I just lost my job and this was the only place I could afford.”
She clomped up the stairs ahead of me. “How does a photographer lose a job?”
I stopped. “How did you know that?”
“I just guessed.” She shrugged and didn’t look back, so I started following again, up the never-ending stairs, past a landing, and then up some more. I was winded, panting as I tried to keep up with Ally. It didn’t seem to bother her, though. I’d probably get used to it.
By the time we made it to the third floor, I was ready to collapse. I paused on the landing, and a door swung open. A wrinkled old woman stared at me. I forced a smile, but she just looked at me, then slammed the door shut again. She and the Chinese man were creepy. Hopefully there were more friendly people like Ally in the rest of the apartments.
Ally smiled from above me on the stairs. “It’s a nice place. I hope you will stay Amelia.’
“The people here seem a bit odd though.” I readjusted the weight of the box, climbing after her.
“I’m sure they’ll come around. If it helps, I can give you a rundown to make life easier for you.”
“Well, these people deserve it, and so do you.”
She stopped walking, so I balanced the box on my hip to keep my eyes on her while she talked. She had this breathy, ethereal voice.
“On the left is Mr. Richford; he’s a retired military guy. His wife has Alzheimer’s. He likes to play chess. Do you play?”
I shrugged. “Not very well, but I can manage.”
“Dorothea is in the opposite flat. I guess the both of you would get along well. She likes doing girl stuff like shopping, clubbing and dressing up.”
Ally was like the building Wikipedia. She knew what everyone wanted, did, or wanted to do.
“In 201, are Mr. Choi and his wife. They’re both professors at NYU. They just recently had a miscarriage.”
“Mr. David in 202 owns a store across the street. 301—That’s Mrs. Gales. She’s an excellent baker and appreciates a good cook.” She pointed to a door behind me.
“Moving on! 302 is Damien Deluca. He’s a cute programmer and just broke up with his girlfriend.”
I wondered if this was her attempt to set me up. But before I could respond, she turned and I was following her again. When we reached the fourth floor, she pointed out my door and said the neighbors were a family of five with three kids. “They’re gone for the holidays to Philly.”
“So who’s upstairs?”
“My mom and dad live above you, and our neighbors, Genevieve and her son, live across. Genevieve’s husband was shot and killed in a drive-by a year ago. She could use a friend. So could my mom.”
“Ally that’s so thoughtful of you. I mean, for you to think about all these people, you’re an angel.” I’d never known that much about my neighbors. I was excited about the prospect of living somewhere where they watched out for each other.
Ally shifted the box in her hands and I noticed a flash of color. “That’s some beautiful nail art you’ve got there. What are those?”
“Snowflakes,” she said without looking down. “I had them painted the last time. My mom loved them. As soon as she saw them, she wanted them and we got matching ones.”
She turned and walked me to my door where we dropped our boxes, then followed me back to the lobby again. Two hours later we’d finally moved everything upstairs.
“Ally, thanks for all your help. You must be hungry; do you want to go grab a bite? My treat!”
“I’m okay, Amelia, but I could have my mom bring you something.”
“No don’t trouble her. I’ll be fine.”
“It won’t be trouble at all. She likes having something to do. Lying all day with her regrets is driving her crazy. She needs to think about my brother Mason and my dad, too.”
I didn’t know how to respond about her mom’s obvious issues, so instead, I changed the subject. “What about you?”
“I should be in school this year,” she said with a hint of sadness. “But I spend most of my time here goofing round.”
“Well school isn’t all that.” I trailed off and looked around at my boxes.
“Give it time here, you’ll be fine. There’s just been so much tragedy in this building that people have forgotten what it is to be happy. I know now that life is a gift.”
I smiled at the optimistic teenager in front of me, wishing I could think of a way to thank her. Suddenly, I had an idea. Rummaging through my box I took out a photograph of swans that I had snapped recently. “Here, in gratitude for today, keep this.”
She took the picture, and I went back to the box to grab my camera. “I always keep my Polaroid with me. If there’s one thing about today that I want to remember, it’s you. So choose your pose.”
“Okay, here.” She walked over and stood near the window, her body angled toward it as she rested her hand on the frame.
I clicked a few pictures and my phone started ringing. “It’s the landlord,” I told her. I put the Polaroid on a box, and she inched to the front door.
“Amelia, I have to go. I have to check in on my mother. She’ll come down to meet you soon. I didn’t tell you this, but today is my birthday. I’m really glad that we met.”
She took a few steps up and then halted again. “Remember what I told you. Just give it time, this place needs you.”
“Thanks, Ally. Happy birthday. I wish I could give you something great.”
‘You already have.” She smiled that warm beautiful smile, and then she was gone.
I closed my door and answered the phone. After I hung up, a gentle knock on the door jolted me. A woman with the same green eyes as Ally’s stood there at my doorstep. She looked gaunt and forced a mild smile.
“Are you the new tenant here?”
“Yes I’m Amelia. Do you live here?”
“I’m right above you. Someone knocked, and I was lying down,’ she said apologetically. “I heard the noise of you moving in, but I didn’t bring you anything. Maybe tomorrow I’ll bring you a pie.”
“Do come in Mrs….”
“Morgan. Just call me Pat.”
I motioned her inside. “Pat it was really nice of you to come down. Your daughter told me you would. I must say, you raised a wonderful child.”
Pat froze, her eyes blank as she stared at me. “I’m sorry, Amelia, what is it that you do?”
“I’m a photographer.”
She glanced around the room. “Well, you must be mistaken about the child.”
“No, I’m sure. Her name’s Ally, right? She has your eyes.”
Pat’s eyes came back to me, wide with tears looming. “Is this some sort of joke?”
Unease settled over me. “No. Why would I joke about it? Ally helped me up with the boxes. She told me about each apartment. She said she wished you would pay more attention to Mason and your husband. It’s her birthday today, right?”
“Stop this! I don’t believe you,” she shrieked and held up a hand, as if to keep me away.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
Pat’s eyes narrowed, but she took a deep breath. “My daughter Allison died a year ago. My sweet Ally was shot in a drive-by shooting while she was down in the yard with…”
“Your neighbor’s husband,” I added.
“How did you know?”
“She told me.” I said simply.
“She was talking to him about babysitting his son when it happened.”
“I’m sorry.” I whispered.
She nodded, as if deciding something. “Come upstairs with me. Let me show you something. Everybody loved Allison. All the neighbors. She would go play chess, learn baking, and spend time with everyone, just to make them happy. Ever since she passed away, this place has fallen apart.”
I stepped inside the apartment, and immediately my eyes went to the table beside the couch where my picture of the swans rested. My stomach tightened. “The photograph! Pat, I took a picture of her.”
I raced downstairs, inside to the Polaroids still sitting on the box. I flipped through the pictures. “Where is Ally?”
Pat rushed in behind me and snatched the top one away; immediately, her hand flew to her mouth.
“It’s her. I believe you.”
I looked back at the empty photo of the bare window. “I don’t understand.”
She pointed to the edge of the photo. “Those snowflakes on that slim half finger. I’d recognize it anywhere.”
Pat took the second photograph from me and smiled. I looked closer and my breath caught in my throat. In the window was a reflection—a faint profile of Allison’s smiling face.