The first thing Erik notices upon arriving at his new apartment are the cracked windows leading out onto the fire-escape. The second thing he notices is the smell of alcohol in the air mixed in with cleaning chemicals wafting around the living room adjoining the kitchenette. The third thing he notices is the muffled sound of Frank Sinatra singing a lively duet with Luis Miguel.
Erik ignores all of these things as he sets the two boxes in his arms down into the corner of the living room and goes back to the rental to pick up the rest of his things – a task which ends up taking a majority of the day and multiple trips back and forth to complete. When he goes to return the rental later that day, it’s right on the dot of closing time and just one twist of the key away from incurring a late fee.
He goes to sleep that first night with his pillow and mattress on the floor, a slight twinge in his arms and a definite ache in his lower back. The skeleton pieces of his bed is lying in a neat pile along the far wall and it’s nothing three-quarters of an hour and some elbow-grease won’t eventually put together but then he blinks and the next thing he notices is the sun shining in his eyes and the flimsy blinds that don’t shut it out all the way.
The cramp he felt in his arms the night before is gone but his back cracks in protest as he gets up from the floor and it twists again in discomfort as he leans down to rifle through his boxes for his coffee maker. He gets it in the fourth try and only has to wait a few minutes before the smell of coffee begins to surround him and his entire apartment.
As he takes in the aroma, he also notices the hint of something sweet and buttery floating in the air. His stomach rumbles in reminder of his missed dinner and attempt at missing breakfast but rather than leave the apartment in search of the nearby bakery, he settles for the rest of his Chinese takeaway he had for a late lunch yesterday instead.
It’s not until the din of his coffee maker has quieted down to a mere hiss of steam that he notices the muffled sound of someone yodeling. He pauses in the middle of spearing another piece of chicken on his chopsticks as he listens to the familiar tune, trying to pick out where he might’ve heard this song before. The moment the memory clicks, he’s lost his appetite and decides to spend the rest of the day with his ears plugged to everything that’s not the Sound of Music and, with screwdriver and hex key in hand, puts back together everything he took apart before his move.
He ends the second day with a harsher throb in his arms and along his calves as well as a deepening ache in his back but at least he doesn’t have to settle for sleeping on the floor again.
The next morning, Louis Armstrong sings to him in greeting.
Erik doesn’t like New York much but he thinks his Mama would love it. He’s absolutely certain she would love all of the city’s lights, sights and sounds. She would love walking around Central Park feeding every single duck and pigeon they come across. She would love going through Times Square and looking into every shop window, eyes bright with excitement and amusement. She would love visiting the Statue of Liberty, disposable camera purchased from the gift shop in hand to assist in her commitment of trying to get their adventure printed for bookkeeping. Most of all, he was definitely sure she would love the Broadway Theater district. She’d take him with her to all of the shows and sing along to all of the songs she knew off by heart. She’d wear her favorite dress with her favorite shoes with her favorite necklace and her favorite head scarf, and just half an hour before the show he’ll try and coax her into wearing a combination that matched with each other rather than clash like an eye-sore.
His Mama would’ve loved it here – maybe that’s why he can’t bring himself to enjoy any of it.
It’s sunny the day his Mama gets buried beside Papa. Magda and Anya are just a few rows away from him but he’s not here for them, not today.
The funeral passes in a blink of an eye and he ignores all the sad, pitiful looks coming his way as he rises from his seat and moves to the freshly turned soil to stand between the grave of his Mama and Papa. He can see Magda and Anya’s headstone from here – they’re right next to the weeping willow tree; hard to miss.
Erik can feel the sun searing the skin off the back of his neck but it’s a mild discomfort against the aching void in his chest. His pressed black suit stinks of sweat but there's nothing to be done for it as he crouches down, mindful of the dirt and grass, and brings a finger to lightly graze against the letters describing his Mama and her short life.
A loving mother, a devoted wife, a beloved friend.
He almost laughs – there are not enough words in the world to fully express everything that is Edie Lehnsherr – but he holds back the shake crawling its way up his throat as he straightens his posture and looks towards the weeping willow.
His entire family is here and he suddenly feels sick to his stomach at the thought of everything he’s loved and lost.
As he leaves the cemetery and its dwellers behind him, one thought echoes through his mind with every step he takes away from the bones of his old life: Never again.
There’s a man walking around his fire-escape.
There’s a man walking around his fire-escape, talking on the phone, laughing, smiling, and gesturing wildly with his other hand in some vague attempt to convey the meaning of his words. The brunet does this every second or third day as he speaks to whoever is on the other line while he walks up and down the steps of the fire-escape.
Erik looks away from the windows and continues his search for an old paperback book hidden somewhere in one of the boxes, though he cannot help but notice the stranger from the corner of his eyes as the brunet repeatedly disappears and reappears from his sight, going up one storey or more and then coming back down again. Occasionally, the brunet reappears with some form of bakery foods (donuts, muffins, croissants, danishes or even the odd pie) in his other hand as he continues to chat with his caller.
He’s only seen the stranger on his fire-escape twice, though this makes for the third time already. The first time he saw this, he brushed it off as a coincidence. The second time the stranger walked outside his apartment window brought hints of a warning bell, though he did nothing to assuage his suspicions. However, he’s now more or less signed this off as an oddity on the brunet’s part. Bizarre. Eccentric, maybe.
He finds the book he’s looking for, as well as an old handcrafted chess set he’s not, tucked at the very bottom of one of the many boxes he has yet to unpack. By the time he settles down on the couch to reread the book for possibly the fifth time since its purchase, the brunet is gone from his fire-escape and the low voice of Josh Groban is playing in the background mixed in with the occasional shuffling of feet.
Erik avoids parks and playgrounds but he can’t avoid the supermarkets if he needs to do his shopping in order to stock his fridge and cupboards so that he doesn’t starve – one can only live off takeouts for so long.
He goes during the quiet times but that doesn’t stop him from occasionally seeing a parent with their child, or even an elderly couple quietly ambling between the aisles with a small basket held between their hands. It’s the former that makes him stop and his heart ache with his mind stuck on what ifs and unrealistic possibilities; hopeful fantasies – an old wound but still so fresh.
A mother and daughter are in quiet conversation over a box of chocolate frogs and it becomes apparent a deal has been struck between the two of them when the mother moves to put the treats in the shopping trolley and the little girl jumps on the spot in triumph.
He tears his eyes away and quickly goes to pick up what’s left on his shopping list before he goes to the checkout to pay for his purchases, all but fleeing as soon as he’s collected the receipt.
When he returns to the apartment, he doesn’t move to unpack the groceries. Instead he leaves them on the kitchen island as he sits on the couch and thinks of Magda and Anya.
Anya would’ve turned 8 this year while he and Magda would’ve celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. He’s not sure what he would’ve done for either of them, but he supposes he’ll never be able to find out.
The next time he blinks, the sun has gone down and the world has darkened around him.
There’s a man walking around his fire-escape – he’s eating cake.
Erik laughs and cries.
The apartment has a mailbox system on the ground floor for the tenants to make use of. Anything too large that can’t fit gets sent to the head office and needs to be signed off and picked up from there. Anything not collected in one week is either used to feed the paper shredder or gets tossed in the bin.
Erik collects his mail every day, or at least every second day, and at least three-quarters of the pile is the usual junk mail: advertisements of offers from the nearest supermarket, specials from the butcher just two blocks down the road next to the deli, and sales from the shopping mall in downtown. Today, along with the monthly bills, he receives an extra two letters and not only are they addressed for two different people but also for two different letter boxes. He doesn’t dwell too deeply on the mail delivery system as he goes to the head office and hands them over to be placed in the right slot.
When Erik moves to take the stairs up to his floor he hears the front doors sliding open, a jangle of keys and a whistled tune of another Frank Sinatra song: Fly me to the moon.
There’s a gathering in the apartment above him, just a small one by the sounds of it. Erik can hear laughter, cheers, a few party blowers and someone singing a folk song loudly and off-tune in the background. Scottish, probably. It’s only just past 9 in the evening but with the way it’s been going for the past one hour Erik estimates it’ll likely be over before midnight strikes.
He feels tired suddenly, bone-tired and exhausted; heavy around the shoulders, hands and feet. It’s a recent development from too much inactivity and lack of mental as well as physical exercise but it feels as if he’s been this way for years instead of just weeks. Maybe it has been years; years of accumulated loss – the house fire, the industrial accident, the fall down a flimsy flight of stairs.
The music stops and Erik turns to look at the digital clock displayed on the microwave – it’s only a quarter to 10 and it’s already over. The thought is in and out of his head as he tips the coffee he hasn’t bothered to drink after he’s made it into the sink. A waste, his mother would say. An image of homemade tiramisu abruptly pops into his head but he pushes the idea aside the same way he pushes his body away from the sink and goes to settle on the couch where an opened photo album sits at an awkward angle on top of a cushion. The back of his fingers graze against the faded paper of the page as he goes to pick it up.
There’s a clatter outside his apartment followed by hushed laughter and four knocks on the door. Erik contemplates leaving it alone but one look at the photo of his Mama squashes that idea down so he puts the album back on top of the cushion to answer the door.
It’s a party, and they brought cake.
He’s never practiced true Judaism, unlike his Mama and Papa, though they never pushed for him to follow in their traditions. Magda was much the same, except she liked to cheat and treat herself to a hamburger every once in a while. He never judged her harshly for that since their weaknesses happened to be one and the same.
Erik followed the rules of keeping kosher only occasionally, but he’ll keep it up for as long as possible whenever he attended Passover or Hanukkah with the family.
For the first two years following Anya’s birth, they kept her diet strictly kosher. Mama insisted, saying that it would be good for a growing baby’s health, but eventually allowed more freedom in her food choices. He and Magda were never meticulous when it came to what they were and weren’t allowed to eat but instilled manners and moderation into Anya’s upbringing.
She would’ve grown up to be a fine woman, to be sure. Erik just wishes it didn’t cut itself short at 4 and a half years.
‘Yes?’ He addresses the only person he recognizes out of the entire group of people, five men and three woman all wearing one form of party hat or another, standing outside his door: the brunet who walks the fire-escape, but even then they’re both still strangers who just happen to live in the same apartment building. No more.
‘Hey! You’re new!’ The blonde says excitedly and then turns to the brunet. ‘Since when did Mr. and Mrs. Kasilowe move out?’
‘I suspect it must’ve happened sometime within the past couple of weeks, since the last time I spoke to them was a little less than a month ago,’ the brunet reasons, never once looking away from Erik, and readjusts the bright blue and red top hat on his head. ‘Even then, they never mentioned leaving. Either way, it’s none of our business, dear.’
The blonde pouts, looking regretful, but easily changes her mood with a flip of her hair. ‘So, hey! Do you want some cake? We do this every year for Charles’ birthday,’ she doesn’t wait for an answer before she turns to a taller brunet behind her and begins to cut a sizeable portion out of the cake with a plastic knife and slides it onto a decorated paper plate along with a plastic spork. Its spongecake, layered with plenty of whipped cream and fresh seasonal fruits in between.
Erik isn’t sure what else he can do other than to accept the cake and then wish Charles, the brunet who frequently walks up and down the fire-escape, a happy birthday.
The cake has kiwifruits in it – Anya’s favorite – and as soon as he’s done with it, he throws the paper plate and plastic spork into the trash and returns to the couch, picks up the old hand-me-down photo album his Mama gave him and keeps his eyes fixed on a life that used to be his.
There’s more laughter coming from the apartment next door but he ignores all of it as he takes in every detail and every color of his late wife and daughter – they have each others’ eyes.
He leaves the photo album on the shelf in the living room but decides to take it into his room and place it next to his bed before he goes to sleep.
Between the hours of 7am to 12am residents of the apartment building are allowed full use of the laundry facility located on the ground floor. There are 5 washing machines lined up on one side and 5 dryers lined up on the other with tables in the middle of the room for sorting and/or folding. Both machines require two tokens each to work, tokens which can be exchanged for money at the dispenser on the wall next to the door. Laundry detergent or softener can also be purchased but Erik’s found that it’s more economical to purchase it in bulk at the supermarket than spend an extra two dollars for each use.
He thinks of déjà vu as he stares at the brunet in front of him again, except he’s without the bright blue and red top hat as well as the birthday entourage carrying cakes, paper plates and plastic sporks.
‘Charles,’ he says in greeting and thinks about how this is the second time he’s met the brunet in two days when he’s never before come face-to-face with the other in the whole two weeks he’s been living here.
‘Hello, Erik,’ he smiles and raises the plain white cake box Erik only notices now. ‘I’ve come bearing gifts. As a welcome of sorts.’
‘There’s no need,’ he manages and suddenly feels awkward as he stands just inside of the door with his fingers tight around the doorknob ready to close it.
With the exception of his family and Magda, very few people have gone out of their way to greet or welcome Erik, let alone speak to him. He certainly never entertained the thought he’d ever see Charles again, except maybe on his fire-escape with a phone to one ear. Apparently he was wrong.
‘I wanted to,’ the brunet shrugs good-naturedly as he briefly looks down at the box in his hand before offering it to Erik. ‘Besides, my sister always gives me more food than I can eat in a week so I thought I’d share.’
‘I see,’ he finds himself saying for lack of anything better to reply with and turns to look into the kitchen where his Mama’s handwritten recipe notebook lay on top of the kitchen counter next to a cup of barely-warm coffee. ‘Would you like to come in?’ He asks as he opens the door wider and accepts the box, only now noticing the crisp, tangy smell coming from it.
Charles’ smile widens at the invitation.
Each apartment has its own air conditioner but much like the landlord of the building it is both old and temperamental: it never works when you want it to and sputters to life when you least expect it.
All of the windows are left opened, even the two cracked windows by the fire-escape that Erik thinks might shatter at the slightest nudge, but the heat and humidity is too much. Erik has a high tolerance for uncomfortable and oftentimes difficult situations but he’s not one to make his life harder for himself.
There’s no wind but at the few times there’s a light breeze it’s warm and smells of hot metal and smog. He’s managed to unearth a jasmine-scented air freshener (something Magda and Anya bought together but--) to help with the city odor from the third box he’s opened but he’s yet to find where he stowed away the portable fan. The air surrounding him feels too warm and almost too unbearable but he perseveres and finds it hidden in the fifth box along with two cordless phones, an analog clock without any batteries, a digital camera and an old fax machine. He takes out the fan and one of the cordless phones but leaves the rest inside the box.
Just as he’s plugged the fan into the socket, the air conditioner suddenly begins to work again but only does as much as circulate hot air around the apartment for a grand total of six and a half minutes before it switches off again.
There are days that are easy, quick and painless, but there are some other (a majority if Erik’s being honest) that drag, long and seemingly never ending. Some days it’s difficult to get out of bed or even wake up and begin the day. Some days it’s difficult to survive (never mind trying to live) when everything he’s ever loved and cared for are six feet underground and pushing up daisies. Some days it’s difficult to think, regardless of where it’s clear and coherent or not. Some days it’s difficult to even breathe; he’s drowning and can’t find it within himself to keep on trying.
But then he turns his head to his side table and his eyes land on the photo album he keeps right next to his bed. He thinks of Mama and Papa, how they’d both be in the kitchen fussing over what stew to make for dinner and what ingredients to buy from the local farmers’ market. He thinks of Magda, of the times she’s kissed him good morning on his unshaven cheek before leaving their shared bed and taking the duvet with her. He thinks of Anya, of the life she never had a chance to live, not even half a decade, and this is the thought that makes him push on. It takes him a while but he eventually finds the strength he needs to get up.
Charles’ fifth visit happens in the late afternoon just after the sun has dipped low enough over the horizon that the heat has lost most of its oppression. Erik has left the fan running through most of the day but he’s closed some of the windows so he’s not constantly breathing in city-traffic air. The jasmine air freshener is doing its work to soothe the atmosphere but the smell is starting to fade into the background.
‘Wild berry cheesecake fresh from the fridge, Raven assures me,’ Charles says as he sets the small container down on the kitchen counter and begins to look around the cupboards for some plates, forks and a knife to cut the cake with.
Erik isn’t surprised Charles knows where he keeps the plates and cutleries, the kitchen isn’t very large or overly complicated, but what he is surprised about is how forthright the brunet is about his personal and private space, though he’s not too bothered by it.
He watches as Charles cuts two slices of cheesecake for the both of them and takes a while for the shock to settle and his manners to reappear. ‘Would you like to have something to drink?’ He asks, his eyes fixed on a raspberry that hasn’t quite sunken into the creamy mixture.
‘Some iced tea would be lovely, if you have it.’
‘I have ice and I have tea, will that suffice?’
Charles laughs but accepts the offer whole-heartedly as he puts a fork on top of the plate next to the cheesecake and packs away the rest back into the container for later consumption. ‘That will be just fine,’ he smiles and doesn’t wait for Erik before he takes a large bite of the sweet and tart dessert. ‘How was your day?’
Erik stares at the brunet and pauses in the middle of pulling out the ice tray from the freezer. Thankfully, Charles doesn’t notice his temporary halt at the question, or if he has, chosen not to mention it. ‘Fine,’ he says slowly, as if tasting the words to see if they fit correctly on his tongue or not. It’s half off. ‘How was yours?’ He asks in return as he closes the freezer door and continues the task of making their chilled drinks.
‘Decent, up until the moment I left the air-conditioned lecture halls and offices behind for the sake of returning home to grade some papers,’ he sighs around another bite. ‘It’s never ending, I swear.’
Erik almost laughs but doesn’t quite bite down the smile from his lips as he throws in two teaspoonfuls of raw sugar into the tea mixture and tops it off with a couple of ice cubes. ‘I don’t have any lemons in the fridge.’
‘That’s fine,’ he smiles and accepts the warm tea with melting ice pieces in it and takes a long sip.
Just before Erik takes a bite of the cheesecake the color of the berries suddenly reminds him of the summer dress Magda had to stop wearing four months into her pregnancy. At that point they still hadn’t been sure if their child was going to be a son or daughter.
‘Are you alright?’ Charles’ question brings his thoughts to a skittering stop and Erik watches as the brunet puts his empty plate into the sink.
‘I’m fine,’ he says and he’s surprised that the words don’t feel so strange on his tongue anymore, tempered by the sweetness of the cake and the sharp, tart aftertaste.
The apartment building has a basement level. Two basement levels, actually, and both floors are split between the tenants to act as storage space to safe keep any personal belongings away for the duration of their lease. If there is anything left behind that hasn’t been collected after the previous tenant has moved out, just like the mail that nobody picks up after a week, they’re thrown away without remorse.
Erik has seven boxes sitting in the corner of his living room in two piles and he thinks about putting them in his allocated storage space down in the basement to free up some room and clean up some clutter but he knows he’s not completely done with unpacking just yet so it’s still there sitting in two piles. There are things he doesn’t need he can store away, such as the analog clock next to the second cordless phone and the fax machine, so he leaves that box next to the door to be taken down later on but he takes the digital camera out of the box even though he doesn’t know if he’ll ever use it again. There’s another box with a metronome in it and while he no longer has the piano with him to keep him in time, he leaves it on the shelf as a decorative bookend next to the dictionary.
He never learned to play the piano properly, not like his Papa who had a Mama that lived and breathed music and taught all her children the importance of harmony and the discipline that comes from learning it. Papa came to inherit the piano who in turn gave it to Erik, though he kept the metronome for himself. The piano, however, burned in the house fire.
Apart from the metronome there’s nothing else in the box worth taking out so he leaves that next to the door on top of the other one and moves on to the rest. The third box is full of empty food containers, Mama’s first and only electric beater and an old plastic measuring scale. Erik finds enough space in the cupboards to store all of them and flattens the empty box to throw in the recycling bin just at the bottom of the fire-escape. There’s nothing of much use in the fourth or fifth box but he finds himself stopping at the sixth, momentarily transported back in time.
It was the middle of spring and it was Anya’s first picnic. She was only 18 months old and was just starting to take her first steps, though she resorted to crawling frequently. Magda was wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and a burgundy dress to match Anya’s own. The day wasn’t too hot or sunny but they took care to apply sunscreen regardless. Erik had never been in the habit of taking photographs but his Mama made him promise to take one whenever the moment was right.
The photo frame is made of wood, old but still sturdy, and behind the slightly scratched glass was a moment preserved in time – a picture of Magda smiling softly at Anya whose lips are wet from a spit bubble ready to burst.
He puts the frame down before his shaking hands drop it to the floor and takes his time going through the rest of the box. He finds two more pictures and wonders how he could’ve forgotten them. He compensates by placing all of them on the shelf next to the digital camera, above the cordless phone, pens and spare papers but below the books.
In the seventh box he finds more books and the hand-crafted chess set he hasn’t played since his Mama passed away. He leaves it on the shelf to act as another bookend.
It’s easy to tell when Charles has come home from work: music from the sound system starts playing – Nat King Cole today – and the window leading into the fire-escape opens followed by laughter and steps going up and down the fire-escape. Eventually, Charles appears on his landing and knocks on his window (the one that’s not cracked) in greeting.
Erik returns the knock with a wave and stands from the couch to open the window to grant the brunet access into his apartment who immediately tells him, ‘Raven says hello,’ as he slides in and sits on the ledge with a phone to his ear. ‘She’s also asking if you liked the choux puffs.’
He almost makes a face at the memory of the chocolate covered, cream filled dessert – too sweet – but he manages to hide it from Charles well enough. ‘I’m not too fond of treats and the fact that I even make an exception for the ones you bring over should be telling enough,’ he answers as he goes to the kitchen to make the both of them cups of tea.
‘He likes them,’ the brunet informs his caller with a smile as he tilts his head to the side to keep the phone tucked in between his ear and shoulder as he unbuttons the cuffs and rolls them to his elbows in a haphazard fashion.
Erik makes Charles’ tea with two teaspoons of raw sugar and a dollop of milk while he keeps his own black and with half the amount of sugar. As soon as he’s done he gives the cup to the brunet and takes his seat back on the couch, ratty old book in hand, while Charles continues on his conversation with Raven by the window, occasionally taking a sip of the drink every sentence or two.
Charles eventually finishes the exchange with a promise to call again another day and leaves the cordless on the window sill before going into the kitchen to make himself another cup of tea. ‘Would you like another?’ The brunet offers as he helps refill the sugar jar while he waits for the water to boil.
‘No, thank you,’ he declines as he closes the book with a light snap and slips it back onto the shelf next to the dictionary. It’s only now he notices that everything is completely out of order but decides to leave it as it is – there’s something about its randomness that he finds appealing.
The electric kettle finishes boiling with a chime but Charles is standing beside him rather than in the kitchen, eyes fixed on the row of photo frames. ‘Your mother and father?’ He asks at the first picture display.
‘Yes, and this is…’ Erik nods and finds his eyes straying towards the second one without prompt, hand reaching out to touch but stopping halfway in an aborted motion.
It was spring, barely a cloud in the sky.
‘Erik,’ Charles’ voice brings him back and he completes the movement, picking up the photo frame of his late wife and daughter both with their matching eyes and matching sets of clothes.
‘This is my family, Magda and Anya,’ Erik introduces them to Charles, holding out the photo for the brunet to take, not letting go until he’s certain Charles has a proper grip on them. ‘Anya is only 18 months old here.’ There’s an ache in his chest as he says this but it’s no longer as suffocating as it used to be. It still hurts but he can breathe around the pain now.
Charles doesn’t say anything as he takes in the photo, eyes critical as if trying to spot the differences and similarities between mother and daughter. He only looks up again when Erik hands him another picture frame, this time with the inclusion of himself as well as his Mama and Papa. ‘This is Anya’s third Hanukah,’ he pauses as his eyes stray to the lit up menorah sitting on the mantelpiece behind them, ‘and our last as a whole family.’
Charles’ posture stills momentarily and Erik catches his blue eyes shift towards his fingers at the paler band of skin where a wedding ring used to sit. His gaze doesn’t linger for long before he returns it to the photos and he smiles at what he finds.
‘She definitely has your laugh,’ Charles points out at the picture of himself with Anya in his arms.
A sudden laugh escapes him but he finds himself grinning to match the photo. ‘She does.’ There’s a terrible ache beneath his ribs as he takes back the photo and he finds his vision blurring as he thinks back on this moment.
He remembers how Mama spent the entire day since before the sun peeked over the horizon in the kitchen fussing over the never ending pile of dishes in the sink and the pots of stew boiling away on the stove or the trays of bread and pastry baking in the oven. He remembers watching Mama with Anya on his lap and narrating to his daughter every little thing her Grand-mama was doing. Mama complained that he was being distracting but he knew that she loved every single minute they spent in the kitchen with her. It’d been a good day. Everything was good.
There’s a hand on his shoulder and it takes Erik a moment to calm himself and gather enough courage to turn to Charles whose eyes are bright with unshed tears like his own. The sight catches Erik by surprise but it doesn’t feel wrong: he feels fine.
‘Thank you, Erik, for sharing this with me,’ he says with a soft smile.
His breath catches in his throat and he lowers his gaze to the photo of Magda and Anya still in Charles’ hands.
It was spring, barely a cloud in the sky.
Erik had never been in the habit of taking photographs, he’d always thought it something of a nuisance, but it was the perfect moment and he’d be a fool to let it pass without doing something to preserve it in time. That, and he’s sure Mama would scold him for not using the camera she told him to use.
‘Did you just take a photo of me?’
‘No,’ he denied with a sly smile as he switched the camera to the view setting, ‘I took a photo of Anya.’
‘You’re terrible,’ she joked and wiped away the spit bubble on Anya’s face with a cloth before it popped in messy directions. ‘You better delete that picture.’
Erik hummed, neither agreeing nor disagreeing to the demand while his eyes lingered a little longer on the photo of Magda and her smile before he changed the setting back to wait for another perfect moment.
Erik’s eyes stray to the digital camera sitting on the shelf in remembrance of all that he’s loved and lost but will never forget.
There’s a rooftop that's accessible through the stairwell or the fire-escape that everybody is allowed to but hardly anyone ever uses. There’s nothing to see: taller buildings surround the apartment on every side and there’s only a waist high metal fence between safety and an eight storey fall.
Erik turns to where Charles is just taking the last step off the ladder leading onto the roof and brushes his hands against each other to get rid of any rusts, dusts and particles from between his fingers.
‘There’s nothing here,’ he points out as he takes another long look at his surroundings before returning his gaze back to the brunet who is now pulling a satchel over his head to settle in the middle of the rooftop.
‘On the contrary,’ Charles protests with a quirk of his lips as he pulls the cover off and takes out a folded blanket. ‘There’s plenty to do and see out here, you just need to widen your horizons.’
‘My horizons are blocked by brick walls on all sides,’ he quips but takes a seat next to the brunet on the blanket when prompted to. He contemplates crossing his legs but doesn’t want to wreck havoc on his ankles and shoes so he sits with his legs outstretched. ‘And now?’ He asks, though he’s not sure why he’s encouraging this.
Charles' smile widens as he reclines until he’s resting on his back and gestures for Erik to follow suit. Erik shakes his head but after some quick mental debate decides to lie down next to Charles and finds his sight no longer impeded by walls.
He can see the midnight blue sky beyond the manmade structures. It’s not a lot, just a small stretch no larger than a soccer field, but it’s enough. It’s only now he realizes that he can’t remember the last time he looked up.
There’s barely a cloud in the sky.
‘The city lights are too bright to properly see the stars on any good night but you can still catch glimpses of it every once in a while,’ Charles says as he points out to one that’s glinting dully somewhere to their right. ‘That might be a satellite, though, I’m not too sure.’
Erik wordlessly takes Charles’ hand away from the view and keeps his eyes focused on a sparse cloud passing high above them. He can’t see the stars, any of them, but this is already more than he’d been expecting to find.
He feels something bloom deep inside his chest and he can’t quite pinpoint the exact emotion. It goes beyond happiness and tastes of promises. Above them, the sky clears and he knows.
‘Thank you, Charles,’ he manages in a breathless manner.
‘What for?’ He asks with a squeeze of his fingers.
Erik doesn’t say.
There’s a florist just two stores down from the bakery where Raven works. Erik doesn’t know what prompts him to step inside the shop and he almost backtracks the way he came in but stops short at the bucket of baby’s breath sitting just inside the entrance way.
A shoe steps into his view and he looks up to see Charles standing with one foot inside the door and the other just outside – caught in limbo. Erik draws in a quiet, steadying breath and retreats back into the shop with the brunet following just behind.
There’s almost every shade of color under the sun surrounding him and a strong, heady scent of perfume in the air. There are Casablanca lilies, hydrangeas, orchids and peonies – flowers ranging from normal everyday plants to the more exotic types.
They don’t stay for long but they don’t leave empty handed, either. Erik ends up purchasing two bunches of carnations, red and white, and a mixed bunch of roses, also red and white, to bring back to the apartment. He carries the carnations with him, one in each hand, while Charles carries the roses, mindful of the coffee-flavored Swiss roll Raven gave them to take home after their shared lunch together.
Erik doesn’t have any vases in his apartment but Charles manages to find one medium sized vase and two large baking bowls he hardly ever uses in his storage so they use those to display the flowers in. It’s not long before the living room has been rearranged to accommodate the changes in decoration and Erik stands in the kitchen next to Charles feeling lighter than he has in months. Years if he’s being honest with himself.
‘Do you want some cake?’
He tears his eyes away from the red carnations he placed on Magda’s side of the photo and turns to see Charles looking through the wooden knife block for a serrated bread knife to cut the Swiss roll with.
‘And some iced tea?’ Erik asks as he takes out two tall glasses and begins to make the drinks. There’s lemon in the fridge.
‘That would be lovely,’ the brunet smiles as he readies the plates.