Illy was still standing in front of her building half an hour later. She had sat down on the front step for a few seconds but that looked too permanent somehow, like she wanted to be sitting outside. She was afraid someone might come to the door, comment politely about enjoying the spring weather, and then let the door shut before she could jump up and explain the situation. So she stood up again and tried to maintain the constant appearance of having just arrived and realized she’d forgotten her keys. After a few minutes, an elderly woman came towards the building, murmuring to her overweight beagle. Illy began patting her pockets. She waited until the woman was within earshot, then smacked her forehead with a little too much force and groaned.
“Oh no. My keys!” Beagle Woman didn’t even glance at Illy, but she stopped murmuring, yanked the dog’s leash, and scurried down the sidewalk. Illy patted her pockets a few more times, then slumped against the brick wall of the building.
She wondered if this was a scene she could use as the tragic surprise ending to her novel. Cold and alone, the girl huddled outside the locked door, staring longingly through the glass. It did have a certain romanticism to it. The girl could be locked out in the cold all night, and then a handsome stranger would find her in the morning, curled up on the step, dead. As he carried her to the ambulance, the residents of the apartment building would gather around, whispering about the identity of the mysterious girl who died clutching a pen, an unfinished novel in her bag.
Illy was so touched by the image of herself lying dead in the ambulance, that when she heard footsteps approaching, she realized she was crying. This didn’t really surprise her. She had the rather morbid habit of imagining herself dying in any number of tragic ways and often found herself crying at inopportune times as she pictured herself languishing from malaria on an African safari, or plunging from the top of a malfunctioning ferris wheel.
Illy decided to explore the literary potential of the ambulance scene once she had resolved the current key dilemma, then wiped her runny nose with the back of her hand.
“Don’t you dare give me that prissy little attitude, Nancy. You can head straight inside and beg for my forgiveness. Do you realize how embarrassed I am? Maybe I won’t let you watch the game tonight. How’d you like that, little missy?”
Illy felt the familiar pressure forming at the base of her throat that indicated the approach of another awkward social encounter. She tried to swallow it down as she looked up with a too-wide smile. “Hi Dave.” She maintained the stretchy smile and wiped her nose again.
“Hi Ilia. Excuse me for a moment. Nancy, sit. Sit! Can’t you see I’m talking here? Sorry Ilia, just a sec.” A middle-aged man in a tracksuit crouched down and picked up a scrawny cat. He grabbed the blue harness that was wrapped elaborately around the cat’s body and began whispering in its ear with exasperated intensity.
The pressure in Illy’s throat shifted from awkward to embarrassed. She coughed and turned to study the divots in the brick wall of the building. She always tried to avoid being caught in the middle of Dave and Nancy’s sordid relationship. Just yesterday she was about to leave her apartment when she heard the familiar sounds of another domestic dispute. Nancy had once again escaped from their apartment and Dave was chasing her up and down the stairwell, calling after her in a tone that swung between desperation and fury. Illy couldn’t help thinking of Nancy as a young girlfriend who was trapped in a relationship with a very needy man. As she waited with her hand on the doorknob she silently cheered for Nancy. Come on, girl. Just keep going. You can do better than him. But Nancy always came back, probably as tired of Dave’s pathetic pleas as the rest of the tenants. Illy thought if she could just sit down over a cup of coffee with Nancy, she could convince her to end this unhealthy relationship. Maybe Nancy could move in with Illy for a while until she was back on her feet, gaining strength from some female companionship. Illy had listened for the click of Dave’s door shutting across the hall. Then she’d waited an extra second to be sure the argument was over before entering the hallway, not yet ready to forge the uncharted social waters of confronting a grown man on his unhealthy relationship with a cat.
“Sorry about that, Ilia. Hello.” Dave smiled at Illy, still clenching Nancy’s harness. He was one of the few people besides Illy’s mother who called her by her full name, and Illy suspected her mother mostly used it out of sheer stubbornness. Before Illy was born, her parents had decided to name their only child Katherine, a strong and sensible tribute to a strong and sensible great aunt. But during her long and foggy labour, Illy’s mother had heard the name Ilia on the radio blaring from the nurse’s station down the hall and after her baby was neatly swaddled in the hospital bassinet and her mind had emerged from its nitrous oxide cloud, she announced that the baby would be named Ilia. Illy’s father didn’t feel he was entitled to any objection, seeing as he had spent most of the previous eighteen hours worriedly eating sandwiches in the hallway, so he wrote the strange name on the birth record and imagined his own father’s reaction. Later, he asked the nurses about the radio program and discovered that what his wife had heard was, in fact, a dramatic retelling of Homer’s The Iliad, but by that point it was too late to revert back to the comfort of Katherine. Illy’s mother never admitted that the name had been a mistake, and Illy thought her mother still pronounced the name as if scoring another point in her defense.
Her neighbour Dave, on the other hand, had noticed her full name on a piece of dropped mail and seemed to enjoy this privileged intimacy, using the name unnaturally often.
“Out enjoying the sunshine?”
“Yeah, sort of, but mostly I’m working on my novel.” Dave was staring at her, his eyebrows pinched in a concerned manner. Illy turned her face dramatically towards the sky. “I really try to get into my subject matter, you know, experience what the characters are experiencing. Right now the main character is… standing outside. I thought I should spend a few minutes in the sun before hammering out the chapter.”
Dave wasn’t blinking. Illy resented his confused stare, as if she was the crazy one here. She just wanted him to snap out of it and unlock the door. “But I’m done now. I think I’ve got the hot sunny sensation just right. I just need to dash in and pour it out onto the page.”
“Hmm. Good for you, Ilia.” Dave finally blinked, then nodded, although he still hadn’t relaxed his eyebrows. Illy smiled and felt like she should nod too. They stared at each other, both nodding.
Illy had unconsciously furrowed her own eyebrows and wondered why he wasn’t opening the door. “Silly me! I should be opening the door for you. You’ve got your hands so full there with your sweet little cat.” She managed to stop nodding as she dug her hands into her pockets. “Oh no! My keys!” This was all sounding ridiculously familiar. She even smacked her forehead again, although she knew her timing was off and it couldn’t have been convincing. “I must have left them by the computer.” Illy had no idea why she refused to admit that she had dropped her keys inside, but by this point it seemed crucial to stick to her story.
Dave sighed and attempted a reassuring smile as he set Nancy down and pulled his keys out of his jacket pocket. He had barely begun to pull the door open when Illy slipped through the opening, grabbed her keys off the floor by the mailboxes and rushed up the stairs. She knew she should at least thank Dave and wish him a good day, but she was so relieved to be inside, that she didn’t want to risk any more awkward conversations.
As she shut the door to her apartment, she heard Dave’s loud whisper on the stairs. “Well, Nancy, sometimes people act strangely, but we really should try to be polite.”
Illy rolled her eyes and locked the door.
Continue Reading: Chapter Three