Status: Updates on Thursdays

Letters From the Sky

Chapter Two

Lily tried to give the old woman the benefit of the doubt at first. She’d definitely struck her as odd, but in that quirky way Lily sometimes aspired for herself. The woman dressed in mostly black, far too many layers for the California sunshine, and wore her long silver hair down most of the time. She wasn’t exactly a fashion icon or anything. Most of her clothes were peppered with cat hair and/or holes. But she was different and unique to the community of elderly ladies that lived in the apartment complex.

It didn’t take long for Lily to suspect she wasn’t quirky exactly. More likely she was leaning a bit toward wacko. Lily spotted her only days after she first moved in. The old woman had made a camp for herself under the balcony across the courtyard in the center of the u-shaped complex. Despite already having a collection of plush outdoor chairs, the woman had apparently dragged out a raggedy old rocking chair. She set it up just inches from the runoff from the upper balcony. She set up the chair, and various jars and bottles. Watching the world go by as she pet a scraggly tawny colored cat in her lap.

It wasn’t entirely odd behavior. Most of the people in the complex had chairs and pets and spent their afternoons out in the yard, watching children playing on the grass or enjoying the sunshine. The odd thing was that it was approximately eleven at night and right, smack dab in the middle of a very violent rainstorm. The wind was blowing so hard that it was soaking the woman and her cat, and neither of them seemed the least bit bothered by this.

Lily was unpacking when the storm rolled in. She’d always loved the peacefulness of angry storms. It reminded her of the few moments of peaceful solitude she’d found as a kid. When her childhood home wasn’t so silent. She would lie in bed for hours, excited by the energy of lightning, kept awake by the sound of rain on her bedroom windows.

Now she lived on the second floor of the two-story south facing building. Which gave her the noisiest parts of the storm. She could hear the rain hammering against the roof, and whenever the wind blew, it came in big wet gusts, splashing the windows and reminding her of those cold New England storms.

She always felt energized during storms. Even as a little girl. Even in the middle of the night. If a storm rolled in, she inevitably woke up, and she’d find a cozy seat by a window and watch. She did her best, most creative work during stormy weather.

So maybe she and the old woman weren’t so different after all. Except that Lily was indoors where it was warm and dry and the old woman was outside in the cold and violent rain. Unbothered and content while she absentmindedly stroked the ugliest, wettest cat Lily had ever seen.

She considered going down there just to check on her. Maybe bring her an umbrella or a hot cup of tea. But the woman seemed happy. So Lily just shook her head and went back to work, wondering what it was that had the old woman gazing so delightedly at the growing puddles in the now soggy grass.

An hour later, the storm had subsided into a weak (and disappointingly slow) drizzle. When Lily peeked out through the blinds, the old woman was gone. Along with the rocking chair and all the jars and bottles. It was as if she’d come outside just for the storm. Which now left no trace aside from the drizzle and the numerous wind chimes hanging from the balcony. They hummed and chimed in a myriad of different tunes. They were noisy, even from across the courtyard, but in that comforting sort of way. The way that killed the silence and made the world seem just a tad less lonely. Lily supposed that was the reason no one ever complained about them. Even though they were loud enough to keep people up at night. Especially during windy storms.

Lily saw the old woman several more times during her first few months, though she’d never learned her name. She would be walking through the courtyard to check the mail, her large tawny beast trailing behind on a leash. She usually carried an umbrella. Not a rain appropriate one either. She never seemed to mind rain much. But the sun she didn’t like. It was a lacy black thing that likely did a good job of shading its owner when it wasn’t pocked full with moth holes. There was an elegance to her cat hair coated dresses and her lacy shawls and cardigans. But she always wore red shoes, and usually in styles that didn’t seem to match. A pair of red chucks with a nice dress. Rain boots on warm days. And a fancy pair of flats that she liked to wear best with a raggedy pair of jeans when she gardened.

Lily’s mother never let her wear red shoes. She always said that only sluts wore red shoes. It didn’t matter what style. But once, when Lily was still a little girl and her mother allowed a rare visit with distant relatives, she’d heard that red shoes were undoubtedly the mark of a witch.

She’d been fascinated by the color ever since. She spent years of her life saving up enough money for her first pair of Louboutins. Which weren’t red, precisely, but deep black. But there was still some spark of rebelliousness in the red sole on the bottom of the pump. Like she had a secret. And sometimes, when she was feeling particularly brave, she would wear them with the red lacy underwear she kept hidden in her bottom drawer.

Of course, she’d immediately cover all those red secrets with her favorite basic clothes. And then she’d immediately regret the decision and hide them away again. She’d never left the house with them. They were a secret she just wasn’t ready to take into the outside world. But she admired the old woman for boldly wearing red boots that starkly contrasted from the dark colors of her clothes.

The old woman must have been a beauty once, Lily thought. With long thick curls that had obviously been dark as raven feathers at some point in her life. She had heavily lidded eyes and smiled like she knew every secret in the entire complex. She was the kind of woman who knew exactly whose husbands were unfaithful, which children snuck out after dark, and exactly which neighbors kept secrets of red scattered throughout her closet.

Other than that, it was difficult to get a read on her. If she was married, Lily never saw the husband or the ring or any other indication that she’d ever been tied down in all her life. Her only visitors were the few people in the complex who would come to complain about the stray cats that congregated on her porch or to help her carry in groceries. There was an odd stranger or two, who would come in the middle of the night, pounding on her door (usually in tears). Lily could never hear what they were there for. She would just see them when she’d come home from late nights at the office, or those brief nights she’d sit outside with her tea and watch the city sparkle like stars. The people would come, and she’d never see them return.

She liked to imagine the old woman was secretly a witch if her red shoes were any indication of her profession. She imagined the people who came in the night (usually women) were there to beg for love spells or tarot readings. “How do I make him love me?” they would ask. Or “How do I make him stop loving me?”

She tried to keep it to herself, though. She didn’t want the strange old woman across the courtyard to know she was fascinated by her. But the old woman was, despite all her oddities, everything Lily wanted to be as an old woman. Bold, assured in her place in the world, brave enough to wear red shoes whenever she damn well pleased, and so mysterious that people imagined she was secretly a witch.

Lily had only spoken to her once or twice. They gave each other a few waves and smiles. And once the old woman commented that Lily would look lovely with red lipstick. She’d offered to find her an old stick or two that she might have lying around. But Lily declined, claiming red just wasn’t her color. This made the old woman scowl as if she knew Lily’s secret, but she didn’t press the girl further.

Lily wasn’t a mousy girl, by any means. She’d grown tall and lovely and had never been told otherwise. Even people who didn’t particularly like the set of her facial features, or thought she was just too long-legged or thick in the thighs, never said anything overly unflattering. “There’s just something about you. I don’t know what it is, but it’s drawing me in,” is something she’d heard a thousand times before. From men and women both. People who wanted to be her friend, and people who only wanted to fuck her.

They were always disappointed in the end. Imagining that Lily was a mysterious quirky woman who would run away to Paris on weekends and kiss strangers on the street.

But Lily was just a girl with a normal office job, a dead father and sister, and a mother who never loved her like she really wanted. She preferred to stay home and was never brave enough to wear the Louboutins. Her mother had squashed all of the confidence and self-love out of her before she’d even known she’d grow to be pretty and sweet. So as much as she admired the color red for all its passion and rebelliousness, she knew she would never be bold enough to wear it. Red, in any form, was just too noticeable. And she feared being noticed just as much as she secretly craved it.

The old woman, however, seemed just as interested in Lily as she was in her. Sometimes the girl would peek out of the window on rainy days and find her already staring back up at her. She’d hide for days, ashamed to be caught spying. But sometimes the old woman went out of her way to be kind to the younger girl. Like leaving her flowers from her garden on the doorstep the first Valentine’s Day she lived there. When she’d made it abundantly clear that her only plan was to sit at home and buy herself chocolates. Or the time she’d left a box full of vintage lipsticks on the front porch. Most of them looked as though they’d never been used at all. But each and every one of them was red, each shade slightly darker than the last.

It wasn’t just the woman that was odd, though. The complex itself seemed to have a knack for attracting the weirdos. Maybe it was the garden plots that were left to grow wild by uncaring tenants. Or the community boxes where tomatoes and herbs grew that were free for anyone to take. Perhaps it was the eerie tune of the wind chimes that sang even when there wasn’t any wind. Or the few strays that hung around the courtyard, surprisingly friendly for being wild cats.

There were normal people from time to time, of course. Single parents and college students just passing through on their way to bigger and better things. Within a few months, the parents would have recovered from divorces and they’d move on to bigger places closer to schools and parks. The college kids would finish classes and return to wherever they’d come from, never to be seen again.

But the ones that lasted seemed especially odd. Like the seemingly average empty nesters who hung a pentagram in their window but said “God bless” to every passerby. Or the kid down the hall who seemed just too young to be living on her own, but created so much noise at night with the sound of high pitched flute music that the elderly tenants regularly called the police.

And then there was the writer. Lily didn’t even notice he lived there at first, he spent so much time locked up in his apartment. He’d already been living there for some time when they first ran into each other late one night. She was returning home from a long day, and he was returning home from a late night store run. They both stopped in their tracks at the sight of each other in the yard. He was standing just out of reach of the porch lights, and Lily couldn’t make much out except that he wasn’t very tall, had curly dark hair, and was carrying a gas station burrito by the wrapper in his teeth.

They stopped to stare at each other like two timid deer in headlights. It took a good few seconds for either of them to find the words to speak. Lily could already tell he was looking at her the way men typically did. Like she had a whole plethora of mysteries, quirks, and stories all swirling around her like magic. And not that she was a boringly average person who just happened to have hit the genetic lottery.

But they weren’t alone. The old lady from across the yard was out, digging around in her garden boxes in the dark. Neither of them noticed her. Since it was, after all, approaching midnight on a moonless night.

“Ha,” she said, cackling like a witch in the dark and scaring the both of them simultaneously. Lily jumped and the man dropped his burrito. “My mother always said that meetings by moonlight don’t happen by accident.” Her tiny shovel scrapped against rocks as she spoke, adding to the already gravely sound of her voice. Several pairs of cat eyes shimmered in the dark around her. Giving off the illusion of flickering lightning bugs.

“The moon isn’t even out,” Lily pointed out, waving in the general direction of the overcast sky. The man had reached down to pick up his fallen burrito, silent and giving no indication that he was going to argue with a clearly wiser old woman.

“Sure it is,” she said. “Just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

Lily looked back at the man standing several feet away. He gave her an awkward smile like they were sharing their own little red secret now. And she couldn’t help but wonder how many odd quirks and stories he had swirling around him too. The only secret they shared now was that they both kept late hours and thought an old woman was nuts.

“Alright—well—goodnight,” Lily said, heading toward the stairs.

“A good a night as any,” the old woman replied. Lily shot another look toward the man, startled to find herself suddenly flustered under his gaze until she turned up the stairs.

She’d seen him again several more times over the months. Usually only at night, when she’d come home late and he’d be sitting outside on his front steps, haloed by the dull light above his door. The only reason she found out he was a writer at all was because he kept a journal with him, and sometimes he’d barely notice her when he was so busy scribbling away at ideas. Another neighbor, the young girl who liked flute music, made a comment about it because she claimed his late hours were the only way he could get his creative mind whirring. She only knew this because he’d mentioned it on one of the inside covers of his books. Lily knew a thing or two about restless nights. It was the whole reason she always stayed so late at the office. Her best ideas happened at night. And her bosses didn’t care enough to force her into regular hours. So long as she got the job done.

One afternoon she was heading out, intending to spend another late night at the office, when she met the person who was destined to change her life forever. He appeared on her doorstep when she slipped out into the intense summer heat, intending to rush right to her car to get the air conditioner going. But she nearly tripped on a small, solid form plopped neatly on the welcome mat.

A cat looked up at her with vibrant green eyes and a swishing black tail. He seemed taller and stalkier than a cat should be. Not overfed, but thick legged with big wide paws. He had the presence of a panther. As if his size was the result of power and one wrong move would set his claws into her legs. His presence was hard to miss, despite being so dark it was like he was made entirely of shadows.

But instead of turning those claws on her, he just looked slightly irritated that she’d kicked him. And as punishment for her wrongdoing, he decided to let himself into her apartment.

“Oh, no no no,” she said, chasing him down. He’d already headed to the kitchen and hopped up on the sink as if asking her for water.

The apartment was about twenty degrees cooler than the outside. It had a covered deck, but the sun had gone to the other side of the building now, so it was shining directly onto her door. The nearest shady spot was across the courtyard, and he clearly determined this was too far to walk. She didn’t feel right kicking him out in such weather. Not with fur dark enough to attract all the light and heat in all of California.

“Oh, alright,” she said, in too much of a rush to worry about it now. She quickly found a bowl, filled it with fresh water, and set it down on the floor outside the door. He watched her from the sink until she set it down, then happily followed after, making a solid thud on the floor before trotting back out the door.

Lily got the door shut, gave him a friendly pat on the head, and continued on her way. The old woman was sitting outside her apartment with her feet propped up on an old ottoman. She was wearing stylish Ray-Bans and fanning herself with a lacy black fan. She gave Lily a smile and a wave, obviously having witnessed the entire scene with the cat. Lily returned it, intending to forget the cat entirely, not knowing she was about to embark on the strangest journey of her life.