CHRISTIAN HERNANDEZ stared at the letter, his gut clenching. One look at its contents was all it had taken to send him spiraling down into a fit of panic.
He’d known it was coming, of course. He’d seen the posts on the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation website, all about how the housing association was putting together a list of their properties that were in dire need of renovation. He knew his building had to be on the list. They’d taken it over in the late nineties, along with several other properties along Minden Street, and nothing had been done to the buildings since then.
And here it was in black and white. His apartment was on the list for the first wave of refurbishments, which included the replacement of all the kitchen cabinets and countertops, plus the kitchen flooring. After that came the bathrooms, with new fixtures and tiles. The work would take two to three weeks.
Next Monday. They’re sending someone to start on it next Monday. What the hell do I do?
It wasn’t as if he had anywhere else to go, so that left one option: hiding in his room while whoever came to invade his apartment worked in the kitchen. And the bathrooms. Hell. That meant the bathroom next to his bedroom.
Looks like I’m going to be locking my bedroom door. The prospect of being holed up in his room for a couple of weeks made his heart sink.
Christian put down the letter on the kitchen table and walked into his living room, where patio doors opened up to the communal gardens that lay across the back of the buildings.
I need something to cheer me up, to take my mind off all this crap. And he knew just what would do the trick. He peeked through the blinds, knowing exactly what—or should that be, who?—he’d see.
Sure enough, there was his favorite handyman. Not that Christian knew the guy’s name. He only watched him every time the slim man with defined arms worked out there, mowing the lawns, repairing or repainting the fences, or digging up new flower beds and planting shrubs and trees in them. Christian estimated him to be in his midtwenties, and yeah, he was definitely Christian’s type. He loved it when the weather grew warm enough that Handyman would roll down his overalls to his waist, strip off his T-shirt, and expose all that tanned skin, with a light dusting of freckles across his shoulders.
Now, if the guy they send to work on my apartment is anything like him….
Christian knew the thought to be bullshit. There was no way he’d make any kind of contact with whomever the association sent. He’d just stay in his room, working there until the nightmare was all over.
It’s a couple of weeks—three, tops. I can manage. He figured if he kept telling himself that, somehow he’d talk it into existence. Yeah. I can stay out of their way.
Just so long as whoever turned up wasn’t a snooper.
JOSH WENDELL straightened and stretched, his back aching a little from lugging the large shrubs from the truck into the gardens. They were going to be really pretty when the rhododendrons flowered. He always liked working on the Minden Street houses. It was a peaceful little corner south of Mission Hill, just west of Jamaica Plain, and the communal gardens were his pride and joy.
Occasionally there’d be a couple of guys working with him, and they got along fine. Even if they told some fanciful stories. Like the one about the guy in the first-floor apartment at #197—the guy they said no one ever saw. Josh had scoffed at that immediately: If no one ever saw him, how’d they know he was even a him? Besides, if he listened to them, the guy in #197, apartment #1, was the bogeyman, a hermit who lured little kids into his lair, only to eat them and bury their bones under the patio outside his window.
Anyway, his days of working in the gardens had come to an end for a while. He’d received his instructions for the next few months: the association wanted him to use his skills in other pursuits, namely tearing out and replacing kitchen cabinets, laying down new tile floors, and replacing baths, sinks, and tiles. Josh was looking forward to it, even if it was going to be a royal pain in the ass working indoors at the height of summer. He just prayed the apartments had functional AC.
He glanced over at the apartment where the mystery guy lived. Not that Josh had ever seen him. All he saw were the vertical blinds that covered the patio doors, an effective barrier against revealing anything of the apartment’s interior—or its occupant.
Wonder what he’s really like?
Then he grinned to himself. Hey, what if I get to work on his place? The guys would be all over me, wanting to know what the inside of the apartment looks like. The way they described it, he expected to see something right out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That was, of course, if he worked on that particular apartment.
Josh couldn’t wait to get his itinerary to find out.
“HELLO? ANYONE home?” Josh pocketed the master keys and stepped into the apartment. He put down his hefty toolbox and listened. The apartment was quiet.
No one to hear me but the mice.
Then another thought occurred to him. Apparently the occupant isn’t home. So much for all the stories about the recluse who never leaves his apartment. It just went to show why Josh should never listen to gossip.
He made sure to wipe his boots on the welcome mat before walking into the kitchen area. Josh shook his head. Yeah, he could see why the association wanted to replace the kitchens. The cabinets looked like they were right out of the seventies. He did a quick check, and thankfully they were all empty. The countertops were devoid of clutter too, except for some jars by the stove. Beyond the cabinet that served as a sort of boundary between the kitchen and dining area, Josh saw piles of boxes full of pots and pans, boxes and containers of foodstuffs, and electrical appliances. The wall tiles might have been tasteful once, but the square design with an orange circle and floral pattern inside it was so old-fashioned. They reminded him of his grandma’s kitchen in Maine. The floor tiles weren’t much better, a tessellation of tiny hexagons in varying shades of green. The combination of color schemes was nauseous.
Hoo baby. They have got to go.
He caught sight of a single piece of paper next to the stove, on top of which sat a kettle. Josh stared at it. An honest-to-God whistling tea kettle, finished in a metallic cranberry color. Next to the stove were two squat brown jars labeled Tea and Coffee, a white jar, a glass pot, and in front of them was a white mug.
Josh picked up the paper.
Hi. Help yourself to tea or coffee. There’s creamer in the white jar if you need it, and sugar cubes in the little glass pot. There are also bottles of water in the refrigerator.
If you need to contact me for any reason, you can text me at the number below.
Josh smiled. The beverages were a pleasant surprise. “Thank you, Mr. Hernandez,” he said quietly. Then a thought struck him. Let’s sneak a peek at what this place looks like. He still couldn’t believe he’d gotten to work on the “bogeyman’s” apartment. If his kitchen was anything to go by, the guys had it all wrong.
Josh walked a little farther into the apartment to where it opened up into a larger area, the living room. There was a comfy-looking couch and a big squashy armchair that looked perfect for curling up in on long evenings. A tall unit housed the TV, DVD player, and several bookshelves. Josh tried not to look at the man’s books—he’d be there all day if he did that. Watercolor prints adorned the walls, mostly landscapes, although there were one or two that caught Josh’s eye. They had a fantasy feel to them, something he hadn’t expected.
Josh shook his head and grinned. Hey, what do you know, guys? No chains. No implements of torture. No bones lying around, the remains of his victims. Not that Josh had thought for one second that he’d find such items.
At the end of the living room were the patio doors, with an interior door leading off to the left. Josh wasn’t about to go peeking into them. He had a job to do, after all.
Then he remembered that job also included two bathrooms.
He’d spotted one of them as he’d entered the apartment. He walked into it and shook his head. Who decided sky blue was the perfect color for a bathroom suite? It was hideous, and the tiles matched, unfortunately. Josh figured anything would be an improvement.
The other bathroom had to be through the door at the far end, but when he tried the handle, it was locked. Well, shit. He’d have to text Mr. Hernandez and explain that although he was a man of many talents, walking through locked doors wasn’t one of them. He smiled to himself. Like I’d say that. At least he could measure up one bathroom for its new tub. The other would have to wait.
He traipsed back to the kitchen area and surveyed it with a sigh.
Okay, time to rip it out and start again.
Josh went to fetch his toolbox from beside the front door. This was going to take all day.
Only one thing would help time to move quicker, or at least seem to. He needed music.
CHRISTIAN TRIED to concentrate on the laptop screen, but it just wasn’t happening. The noise from the kitchen was too much of an intrusion. The frequent bangs and crashes had to be the removal of the existing cabinets. When what was obviously a radio blared into life, adding to the cacophony, he was on the point of launching himself out of his bedroom and into the kitchen to tell his unwelcome visitor where he could stuff his equally unwelcome music.
Except he couldn’t. I’m not even here, remember? And the chances of him showing his face beyond the bedroom door were infinitesimally small. There was nothing to do but put up with it.
And wear earplugs.
When a male voice rose up, singing along to the songs, he groaned inwardly. It didn’t matter that the vocalist had a great voice—it was just another nail in the coffin that was Christian’s day. He shut the laptop lid, stuck on his headphones, and watched TV. At least that way he could blot out the noise.
Well, most of it.
At one o’clock it dawned on him that the noise had stopped. He pulled off his headphones and listened. The radio had fallen silent, and Christian heaved a silent sigh of relief. Thank God. He’s finished for the day. He paid attention to the sounds that filtered through his door, waiting for the blessed moment when all would be quiet once more.
Except whoever was working out there wasn’t done.
A jackhammer fired up—or at least something like it—and what flitted through Christian’s mind was a resounding What the fuck is he doing out there? When the noises died abruptly, Christian heaved another huge sigh of relief. Seconds later he almost jumped out of his skin when a loud “Aw fuck!” burst out.
He smirked. Oh dear. He’s broken it. Sorry, not sorry.
It was only then that Christian realized the AC had stopped working.
What the hell did he do?
“WHAT A heap of crap!”
Josh stared at the ancient fuse box. No wonder his SDS drill had died—a fuse had blown, and judging by the results of his attempts to get the drill working in other outlets, half the damn apartment was on that fuse, including the AC.
Shit. That’s dangerous.
What was stupid was that the rest of the apartment seemed to be spread out on three fuses. That, at least, left him with options as to where else to plug in the refrigerator. He assessed the situation and decided to move the fridge first, seeing as it was just him in the apartment. The AC could wait.
Josh unplugged the tall refrigerator and wrestled it into a new location in the living room, hoping to God it didn’t mark the carpet. The stove would work just fine where it was, as it had its own thirty-amp fuse. That left him the problem of what to do next. There were spare fuses in the box, but he couldn’t just plug in a new one. If something happened, he’d be liable, and he couldn’t imagine his boss keeping him on in that scenario.
So where does that leave me—and Mr. Hernandez, of course?
As far as he could make out, the rest of the apartment had power, but the kitchen and the AC would be out for the night, until Josh could replace the fuse box the following day.
Damn it. He loathed setbacks, and now he had an even longer to-do list. A new breaker panel was the least of his problems. His drill had removed not only the wall tiles, but the drywall too, and what remained was too damaged for a mere patch job. He couldn’t finish early, because there was too much to do. Without the drill, that meant spending the few hours he had left taking off the tiles by hand with a bolster chisel.
Wait till I tell my boss. He is going to be super pissed.
And it wasn’t just his boss. Josh now had the delightful task of texting Mr. Hernandez to tell him the power would be off the following day while Josh worked on the wiring.
Mr. Hernandez had better not be around tomorrow.
Sighing, he pulled his phone from the pocket of his overalls and then sought the paper with Mr. Hernandez’s phone number on it. Quickly he composed a text, doing his best to avoid using abbreviated speech. Mr. Hernandez might be an older guy who likes his texts to be in perfect English. It did cross his mind that with a surname like Hernandez, the absent occupant might prefer texts in Spanish, but Josh’s high school Spanish wasn’t up to that task.
Josh Wendell here. Working on your apartment. Sorry but there’s a problem with the wiring. The fuse blew. Your kitchen will be without power until tomorrow. No AC either.
He shook his head. What a clusterfuck. Oh well. There was nothing to be done except hit Send.
He jerked his head up at the sound of a text pinging—somewhere in the apartment. What the hell? Then it dawned on him. Mr. Hernandez had obviously left his phone at home.
In his hand his phone vibrated, and he stared at a text.
Josh ground out another sigh, and his thumbs flew over the virtual keys. My drill blew the fuse to the kitchen. I took a look at the fuse box, and I need to replace it with a breaker panel. This happens a lot. I can do that tomorrow. Then I’ll check that the wiring is okay in the rest of the apartment. I’ll need to access all the rooms.
Like the ones behind that locked door, he thought to himself as he pressed Send.
There it was again, that familiar ping. And yet again, a second or two after he’d sent his, a text.
Yeah, but that would mean….
No. No way. Then it struck him how stupid he was being. There was only one explanation. Josh walked unhurriedly toward the closed door at the other end of the apartment.
He knocked gently on it. “Hello?”
His phone vibrated in his hand.
Fine, but the master bedroom is off-limits.
Josh stared at the message. What the fuck? He had to be wrong. Mr. Hernandez was not lurking in his bedroom, sending texts. Was he?
One way to find out. Don’t they say three’s the charm?
Quickly he composed one more text. Any way you can be here tomorrow? He could use a second body to tell him when lights or outlets were on or off in other rooms. Josh pressed Send and waited.
There was no doubt about it. A ping from the other side of that locked door. And then the reply came back. No.
Josh shook his head. He stared at the locked door and called out, “No offense, but… seriously? You’re going to text me… from your bedroom?” Okay, this was one weird dude.
Then it hit him. Yeah, way to go, Josh. If he is in there, he’s got to be suffering from some severe kind of social anxiety to do this.
His thumbs danced over the letters. Okay, sure. No problem.
All he could do was clear up his mess and get out of there. As he turned to go back into the kitchen area, he caught the quiet sound of a door opening, and he whirled around. The door was still locked. So there were obviously more doors beyond it. That figured. Somewhere there had to be a master bedroom and the missing bathroom.
“So all the food in my refrigerator and freezer is going to spoil?”
That put an end to his hypothesizing that Mr. Hernandez was elderly. That was a youngish voice.
Josh walked back to the locked door. “No, I’ve moved the fridge to another outlet. And if it helps at all, it’s not just your apartment. From what I’ve heard from my coworkers, about 40 percent of the apartments have needed rewiring of some kind.” Not that that would be any consolation.
“You didn’t get a shock or anything, did you?”
The question warmed Josh. Aw, he sounds like he’s a nice guy. He had anticipated being yelled at, verbally abused—any number of different reactions. This one took him by surprise.
“No, I’m fine, thank you for asking. And you have to look on this like it’s a good thing.”
A wry chuckle came from the other side of the door. “Just how do you work that out?”
“Well, if I hadn’t blown the fuse, we’d never have known what a piece of crap the fuse box is and how badly it needs to be replaced.” This had to be the most surreal conversation Josh had ever had with a client. I’m talking to a door.
“You’re a regular Pollyanna, aren’t you?” Mr. Hernandez’s voice held quiet amusement.
Josh grinned. “Guilty as charged.” He wasn’t one to ever complain his glass was half-empty. “Look, I’ll get it done as fast as I can, okay? But yeah, you’ll have no power to the kitchen and no AC until I’m through tomorrow.” He thought fast for a way to make things better. “I’m really sorry, Mr. Hernandez, but at least I’ve identified a problem here before it became dangerous.” He truly was sorry, about the whole stupid mess. He was doing his best to think about his job and not the mystery of the Man Behind the Door. He’s obviously got issues. Maybe that’s why no one ever sees him. Maybe he has agoraphobia.
There was a pause. “Thanks—Josh, isn’t it?—but I’m sure you didn’t know this was going to happen. Just make sure you can get this fixed tomorrow.”
“No problem. I have a few hours left, so I’m going to take off some more of the tiles.” Shit—the tiles. “And I’ll need to replace some of the drywall too. The drill might not have been on for long, but it left a hell of a mess.” And he was about to make even more mess with a chisel. “I’ll get it all done, I promise.”
Another pause. “Drywall too? You’ve had quite the day of it, haven’t you?”
That was putting it mildly.
Josh sighed. “What really pisses me off—Oh God, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t talk like that.” He couldn’t believe he’d just sworn to a client.
Mr. Hernandez laughed. “I’ve heard worse today. Especially when the fuse blew.”
It took Josh a moment to work out what he meant. Then he remembered. “Oh fuck,” he whispered.
Apparently there was nothing wrong with Mr. Hernandez’s hearing. “Hmm, yes. That. So tell me. What pisses you off? I don’t believe we got that far.”
“Huh? Oh yeah. This has set me back a little. I was hoping to have the whole area cleared by now and be ready to prepare the surfaces for tiling tomorrow.” Josh was glad he couldn’t be seen. He was sure his face was bright red.
“It can’t be helped. Just do your best.”
Before Josh could reply, the snick of a door closing told him their conversation was at an end.
He went back into the kitchen area, shaking his head. Whatever Mr. Hernandez was suffering from, it had to be some heavy-duty shit to make him act like this. Will he still hide away in his bedroom tomorrow? What’s wrong with him?
He stared at the tiles hanging off the wall. I suppose I’d better get on with it. He rummaged in his toolbox for a hammer and chisel, then set about the mind-numbingly boring and slow-as-molasses-in-winter job of prying the tiles from the wall. No radio this time. Now that he knew he had an audience, Josh kept quiet. Well, as quiet as it was possible to be while wedging a chisel under a tile edge and hitting it with a big hammer.
The hours until four crawled by, and Josh’s back had had enough by then. His throat was tight with dust and his fingers ached. After making sure he’d left the place reasonably tidy, Josh picked up his toolbox and headed for the front door.
“See you tomorrow!” he called out as he pulled the door shut behind him.
It was only as he was walking to the van that he realized his statement was somewhat ironic. I’m not going to see him at all, am I?
WHEN CHRISTIAN caught the unmistakable snick of his front door closing, he breathed easier at last. He waited for another five minutes, until he was sure Josh was well and truly gone, before venturing forth from his room.
The air held particles of dust, but there was nothing he could do about that. His kitchen was an empty shell. The stove now stood in the dining area, still plugged into the same outlet, its cable just about reaching. The refrigerator was in the living room. He moved the fridge on his own? Josh had to be strong. The unit containing the sink was gone, leaving a couple of copper pipes sticking out of the floor, plastic caps on their ends. About half of the wall tiles had been removed, along with some of the drywall. Where it was still in place, bits of adhesive and plaster clung to it. The floor tiles remained untouched.
Christian had no doubt Josh was pissed. He’d heard it in Josh’s voice, and to Christian’s ears, it had come across as genuine. He took another look at the kitchen area. There was no sign of the carcasses of the cabinets, so Josh must have removed them. Apart from the dust, little else was disturbed, indicating a diligent, methodical worker.
A worker whose departure meant Christian was free of his temporary prison.
He fetched his laptop and folders from the bedroom and went through into the living room. His table near the window was much better for working on than his bed had been, except he didn’t feel much like working. He slid open the patio door, leaving the blinds in position, and sniffed the current of fresh air that wafted through, laced with the heady scent of the jasmine that grew outside his window. Summer was both a joy and a torment to Christian. He loved the warmth and the sunlight, the long days and hot nights, but not being able to simply walk outside and enjoy the elements made his heart ache. Those times when he felt the pull of summer most strongly, he would regard his reflection, which was enough to kill his desire to get out there. His night walks were a poor substitute.
The last thing he’d expected when he woke up that morning was that by late afternoon, he’d have carried out a conversation through a locked door. Not that it differed much from his work-related conversations, all of which took place via phone. Christian didn’t “do” people.
And yet I laughed with him. When was the last time I did that?
He shook his head. It had certainly been a weird day. Unfortunately Josh wasn’t the only one who’d gotten behind today. An hour or two of work, and Christian would be ready for dinner.
Then I get to do this all over again tomorrow.
He tried not to think about that part.