this is actually a fragment of a longer piece. Probably it'll be a short story one day. Hope you all enjoy! (or not, but you can always click away if it's not your thing). thanks so much!
He knew there really was a problem when Mrs. Winokur called. Mrs. Winokur was the sort who ordinarily wouldn't call about anything. She barely spoke, as it was. She was small, slight, wore her yellowing whitish hair pulled into a thin bun at the nape of her neck, and appeared to spend most of her days tending to the pots of irises outside of her front doorstep. When she did speak, it was usually with more of a physical gesture than with actual words. A nod in acknowledgment to a passer-by. A clucking of the tongue and a disapproving shake of the head when someone's young grandchild or great-grandchild came running down the hallways, during a visit. A sigh when she found blossoms picked off of her pots when they were in full bloom. A shrugging of the shoulders as she swept away dead leaves and dirt. That was all that he usually heard out of Mrs. Winokur.
So the voice mail message he got that afternoon surprised him, first with the voice, and then with the context. “Hello, this is Madge Winokur in 308,” the voice said, cracked, husky with old age. “I”m quite worried about my neighbor down the hall. He hasn't seemed to have taken out his trash over the past few days. Can you check on him, please?”
Mrs. Johnston had left a very similar message about that neighbor earlier in the week. But Mrs. Johnston always called in on everything. If there was a cracked storm window in the recreation room, Mrs. Johnston would call. The front-entrance door always left ajar – Mrs. Johnston again. Dog poop in the courtyard – there was Mrs. Johnston, leaving yet another message. He never quite recognized who Mrs. Johnston was. He never saw her, save for a shadowy old-lady-shaped figure he'd occasionally notice brushing past the heavy curtains in her apartment, apartment number 315. He wondered how she managed to notice everything, yet stay locked up in that tiny apartment all day. Maybe she was a vampire or something, he thought. Always walking at night, when no one was around? Someone who had a strange empathic sense of the world around them, maybe? That was what those vampire people did anyway, right?
He usually ignored Mrs. Johnston's messages – there were just so many of them, all cribbled together in her scratchy old-lady voice, that he found it easier to just wait until the problems went away. Which they generally did, due perhaps in large part to the security and cleaning companies that did a regular patrol of the apartment complex. That neighbor situation, though, he thought he would check himself. And so he found himself heading towards the third floor that afternoon.
There was definitely a distinct smell when he came to the third floor. He noticed it when he stepped out of the elevator. It was a rotting smell that stuck in the back of one's throat, and it seemed to get stronger the further he walked down the hall. It didn't smell at all like kitchen garbage. Rather it smelled like...what was that again, when he worked in the hospital as an orderly?
His face becoming paler, he ran down the two flights to his office to his phone to call 911. Not more than a half-hour later, an ambulance, a group of paramedics, and two police officers were on the third floor.
“Yep, we've got a dead guy here,” one of the cops said. “Poor fellow. Found on the living room floor.”
“What happened, do you all know?” he asked.
“Eh, probably natural causes. He wasn't a young guy. Maybe seventy? Who knows? But looks like he's been here quite a while – two weeks maybe?”
From behind the police officer, he could see a gurney with a vinyl-covered shape on top of it. He looked at the floor, quickly.
“Did you know if he had any relatives? Any survivors?” the cop asked.
Still looking at the floor, he replied, “No. At least, I don't think so. I didn't know him all that well. I never saw any people come over, really...”
The cop nodded and pulled out a tape recorder from his jacket pocket. He pressed the record button. “Here we have a male, aged about seventy years, African-American, weighed approximately 220 lbs...”
“He was a white guy,” the man interrupted. “A skinny white guy.”
One of the paramedics, a young woman, perhaps on one of her first jobs, suddenly looked like she was going to throw up.
“That's what happens to us all, one day” the other cop said, sympathetically, to her. “He was here a while...” Then he looked at the maintenance man. “This is now a biohazard site, understood?” he said. “You'll have to have everything cleaned up and taken out of this place, pronto. Tell your boss to get this taken care of right away. We can't have the other tenants be exposed to this.” Then a nod, a step over to the cop with the recorder, and that was all that he got from them on that day.
Not more than a week and a half later, it was like the dead man had never existed. A group of men dressed in white head-to-toe coveralls combed through the apartment, ripping up the carpet, throwing out the furniture. The few personal items in the apartment were boxed up and placed in storage, for some long-lost, distant relative to claim, perhaps, one day. New carpets arrived, a coat of fresh paint was applied, and that was that – a new apartment.
And life would have gone on as usual, the empty apartment waiting for a new tenant, the rest of the residents going on with their day-to-day business-- until Mr. Wishinsky came back.