Andrew did not see the pink tricycle the first or the second or even the third time on his way to the north side of the city. Indeed, he had been going to see his new therapist for well over a month before he noticed it, though he must have passed it many times.
What he had noticed were the apartment complexes: two of them, on either side of the road, abandoned. He had been living on the east side of the city for about a year and it was common knowledge by then that past a certain parallel and meridian the northeastern quadrant of the city fell over to perpetually hard times, more convenience stores than grocery stores, neighborhoods likely to shred your automobile tires with the scattered glass and rusted nails left in the roads where children played with (to Andrew’s thinking, at least) preternatural enthusiasm. So it was until one reached the north side which, due to the presence of the university and a shrewd and silent demographic agglomeration, remained one of the more vibrant sectors of the city, even after the factories left the rest quiet and searching decades ago.
Still, it was one thing to know the northeast side was rough. It was another to drive, for about thirty seconds, down a major artery of the city with the silent husks of abandoned apartment complexes hemming you in on either side. Andrew had noticed them because he basically had no other choice: the long, unkempt grass poked curiously through the iron bars of the enclaves’ fences, brushing the curb of the road like blind fingers; the buildings’ off-white walls were spotted, here and there, with large and generally unreadable names in audacious bubble-letter graffiti; on the first and second floors the windows and doors had all been sealed with plywood. Meanwhile the third stories — the complexes reached only that high, in each of their five or six buildings, and this still was a strange sight to Andrew, who came from a place where developments were often higher than they were wide — the third stories remained unbarricaded, dark and curtainless windows exposed to the world. Presumably the thought was whoever — squatters, looters, bored teens and general trespassers? — had the dexterity to climb to the second floor would not manage to make it to the third.
But it was on the third floor of one of the buildings to the right of the road that Andrew saw the pink tricycle. Each apartment in this complex had been furnished with a small patio area, a cement block on the ground floor and a wooden balcony about five or six feet long on the second and third floors. And on one of these wooden balconies, near the sliding screen door that led into the apartment, sat a pink tricycle of chunky plastic. A child’s toy, left behind.
That was as much thought as Andrew gave it, to begin with.
Andrew came to the city to work as a representative for a pharmaceutical company, and while the city itself was not in any sense an attraction, his job required him to travel across the country frequently, meaning the misfortune of living there was offset by the opportunity to leave it for weeks at a time. His therapist had remarked on the ease with which he’d transplanted himself during one of their early sessions, angling, Andrew suspected, for some sort of comment on his distance from his family.
There was not much to say. Andrew had an older brother who remained in close contact with his father, working alongside him at the contracting company that bore their name. His mother was dead, cancer in late middle age. He had never really known any grandparents or aunts and uncles, since his father’s volatility and general priggishness meant estrangements and fallings-out were common.
The therapist, a slight man with thin glasses, long black hair, and a seemingly endless supply of different argyle sweaters, took this all in and made notes on his clipboard. “I point this out,” he said, “because of what you told me during our first session.”
Andrew nodded. He had come to therapy because of what his ex had said. It was not his first relationship, but it was the one that had progressed the furthest, the first time since leaving home he had lived with someone other than incidental roommates. It had lasted fourteen months. “You never talk about the future,” was something the ex had often told Andrew, which seemed like a bizarre thing to notice, let alone complain about. “You never talk about the future, what sort of life we’re going to have. I want to have a home with you.” The ex, who had been taking psychology classes for a graduate degree while Andrew did an internship, was prone to pointing things out and rattling off symptoms of depression or anxiety. “You need therapy,” the ex had often said, which, in Andrew’s opinion, was a bit like a barber telling him he needed a haircut.
Still, when things ended after Andrew accepted the job with the pharmaceutical company out west, the ex had tearfully repeated the observation. “You need therapy.” Along with that: “You’re an asshole.”
And as he had settled into life in the new city, despite himself, Andrew began to wonder if perhaps his ex was not onto something. He sat in his new apartment downtown — paid for by his healthy new salary — and in its sleek, not-too-modern cleanliness it felt no different from the hotel rooms he stayed in every few weeks. His life, he began to feel, was for the foreseeable future nothing but traveling through a multitude of rooms with only minor variations, living from one to the next, living in between each room, and each fundamentally empty apart from himself. He spent several long evenings reading about depression symptoms on the internet and eventually made an appointment with the therapist in the north of the city.
He wasn’t sure if he was making progress, but it at least felt like something to do. Of course he went out to bars and met people, schmoozed with clients and rivals while on his trips, but when he was home he felt listless, and therapy provided a kind of ritualistic element to his life, something to mark the passage of time. In the first few meetings he talked about the ex, and what the ex had said, which led him to talking about his father, his brother, his mother. College, prior exes, the first big falling-out with his parents just before graduation. Half-remembered childhood anomalies, like the time he was certain he saw his father leave the house late at night — far past midnight — and, standing in the yard, click a flashlight on and off in sequence, pointing it into the moonless sky. His brother had insisted he was merely misremembering a scene from a spy film they had watched together as kids. It was almost overwhelming, Andrew thought, how much he could say about himself and yet how little he felt actually happened. “I suppose I don’t think about the future very much,” he said once. “I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it. I’m not sure I ever have.”
His therapist remained placid, and marked something on his clipboard.
He was on his way to therapy when he noticed the pink tricycle had moved. At first he thought he was merely misremembering. After all, as he zipped by the abandoned building, how certain could he be that he knew where the tricycle had been on the wooden balcony? But as he considered the situation he became less certain.
Andrew’s initial vision of the pink tricycle, pushed into the corner of the balcony, had been initially burned into his mind in a peculiar way. On and off again he’d found himself returning to it, thinking of the child it had once belonged to and imagining their feelings upon it being left behind. He wondered at odd times — usually when making dinner, or just on the edge of falling asleep — about the family who had lived in the apartment, taking everything but the tricycle.
And now the tricycle had moved across the balcony, pressed up against the screen door of the apartment as if it were an animal begging to be let in. After his therapy appointment, on his way home, Andrew made sure to keep an eye out for the tricycle. He was on the opposite side of the road now, making it difficult, and the sun was setting, but he managed to spot it: a flash of color against the dingy walls and gray shingles. It was exactly where he’d seen it earlier.
The apartment complexes did not have names. Unlike most places of the sort, which had signs out front welcoming you to Green Brook Place or Heritage Estates or Brookstone Commons or The Meadows at Green River or something, the chained-off entryways of either complex had no such signage, presumably taken down whenever the properties closed. When, back home, he searched online for apartments along that particular segment of the street, he found no listings, not even legacy postings regarding the complexes.
When he pulled up a street view he could see them, looming on either side of the road. The complex to the left was obviously closed at this point, its windows boarded up, but its grass was shorter, its buildings less etched over with graffiti. On the right side of the street, however, the buildings of the other complex had not yet been sealed. Andrew clicked forward, searching for the balcony that he knew hosted — or would come to host — the pink tricycle.
The balcony was bare, but the sliding door was open, allowing just the barest glimpse into the apartment, a sliver of a kitchen and a refrigerator. He clicked forward again, finding the entrance to the complex and its sign: Homes at Roselawn. He checked the date on the street view images and found they were nearly three years old.
A search for “Homes at Roselawn” turned up nothing interesting, only what would be expected of an apartment complex in that area of the city: occasional mentions of domestic disputes, a methamphetamine arrest, one fatal shooting and one non-fatal. There was no mention of when or why it closed. It was if the complex had just, one day, shut down, without any reason, announcement, or fanfare. Andrew imagined the family leaving the third floor apartment in a hurry, evicted without notice, and imagined the wailing of a child whose favorite tricycle was left behind.
The pink tricycle moved twice more over the next few months, from the screen door back to the far corner, and then from that corner to the opposite end of the balcony. The weather, by this point, was beginning to change, the grass browning and wilting and the sky shifting to a perpetually dreary gray that threatened snow but only spat chilly rain.
It was probably squatters, Andrew told himself. Someone had broken in and was living in the closed apartments illegally. Certainly someone was living there: incidental vandals or addicts would probably do more than move a child’s toy across a balcony every handful of weeks. Did they have a child with them?
He left a little early before therapy once to stop by the apartment and find out. When he asked himself what he was doing — which he felt was a question posed more and more frequently these days — Andrew decided that he would, if the squatters were willing, help the occupants of the apartment find legal housing. His job certainly paid him more than enough to meet his own needs. Maybe he could do something with himself by helping someone else.
Andrew parked his car alongside the driveway of the abandoned complex. The chain across the driveway meant he couldn’t go further than what was basically the shoulder of the road, but it was enough space that he didn’t fear any passing motorist would clip him. It was only after he ducked under the chain and started walking toward the building with the pink tricycle that it occurred to him there wasn’t a no trespassing sign posted.
Suddenly he wasn’t sure if the complex was out of commission. What if he was totally wrong? What if families were living here, legally, behind these plywood boards? The idea seemed absurd but not impossible.
And yet the doors were also boarded over. He saw that now, very clearly: as he continued to walk across the overgrown, dying lawn Andrew passed the shuttered windows and doorways that showed barely any evidence of human attention. Indeed, the doorway to his goal — the building with the pink tricycle — was likewise boarded up, with no sign of tampering. He took a walk around the building, finding a fire exit on the far side away from the road, which was also sealed.
In reality, Andrew thought, there was surprisingly little to indicate that anyone — even the homeless or vandals — had visited this place since it closed, whenever it did close. Because it was assuredly closed, lack of a trespassing sign or not. He strolled back around the building, listening to cars zoom by on the road, and stopped by the corner of the building directly below the balcony with the pink tricycle. He looked up at it, noticing for the first time how bleached its plastic was by the elements. Had it even been pink originally?
He stared up at the balcony for a few more moments, his eyes drifting toward the sliding doors — the third floor hadn’t been boarded up, he thought. So what if someone did climb up there?
Andrew gritted his teeth, suddenly unnerved by the fact that he couldn’t see into the dark apartment. He remembered the image from the old street view: the screen pushed aside, a dim light within, kitchen linoleum, the glare of a refrigerator door. Now there was nothing. Just shadow. Someone could be watching him and he wouldn’t even know it.
He turned and quickly walked back to his car.
“May I ask you something?” his therapist said, looking at him thoughtfully. “Just to clarify my notes.”
Andrew shrugged. “Sure?”
His therapist glanced at his clipboard. “When did your mother switch jobs?”
“What?” Andrew frowned, not understanding the question.
“Your mother switched jobs,” said his therapist, looking at his clipboard. “During one of our early sessions you mentioned she was a nurse. You said both she and your father worked days. But some things you’ve told me indicate she started working nights — and hiring babysitters, correct? Where was your father during this?”
Andrew blinked. His mother was a nurse? That… seemed right. And his father… very little came to mind when he thought about his father.
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” said Andrew.
His therapist made an oddly defensively gesture with his shoulders. “Nothing, nothing, I’m just trying to straighten out the order of events. Your family is where you learn many of your coping strategies that manifest — sometimes problematically — later in life. And based on what you’ve told me your family had a bit of a crisis when you were around eight years old. You even moved out of the house.”
“The apartment,” said his therapist, again looking at the clipboard. “Your mother switched jobs and you lived, for a while at least, in an apartment. Unless I got something wrong?”
“That…” Never happened, is what Andrew wanted to say, but suddenly he wasn’t so sure.
His therapist waited a moment. “Dissociation,” he said, finally, “often begins as a defense mechanism…”
Andrew didn’t hear the rest.
Andrew was due to fly to Dallas the next week for a presentation, but he called into work with the flu and said he wouldn’t be able to make the flight. He took the week off.
He wanted to talk to his brother but when he called it went to voicemail. “Hey,” he said, “it’s Andrew. Do you remember when Mom started working nights? When was that? Anyway, give me a call.”
A new prescription sat on his kitchen counter, unfilled. On a whim he skipped his next appointment with the therapist and received an irritated text message about a fifty-dollar fee, but by then he had been parked outside the former Homes at Roselawn for nearly an hour. There wasn’t a no trespassing sign, so it wasn’t like anyone would have any reason to tell him to leave.
Still, though, he had to be careful.
Finally, as the sun dipped down and the corona of the city’s streetlights grew up in the sky, Andrew got out of his car and walked across the overgrown lawn of the apartment complex, the crowbar swinging easily, even naturally by his side.
It turned out to be unnecessary. The plywood that had covered the door to the building he approached was gone, a small halogen light glowing over the concrete stoop. Looking from side to side, thinking at any moment now someone might step out of the dark to stop him, Andrew met no resistance and finally pushed forward and opened the door.
The center of the building was a wood-paneled column containing a zig-zagging stairway. The air had a dusty, stale quality and at least a few sheets of the paneling had fallen away, revealing the flattened streaks of glue on the wall beneath like keloid scars. Somewhere he could hear the low thrumming of machinery, like a laundry dryer. Somewhere else was the sound of laughter, clearly filtered through a television speaker.
The stairway was covered by a ratty carpet that did little to muffle the sound of Andrew’s crowbar when he dropped it and it skittered down to the nearest landing. He reached the third floor and paused, looking from the left to the right to orient himself. Each floor had four apartments, set up in quadrants around the central staircase. Ahead and to his right, a door stood open, waiting.
He walked inside the apartment, not bothering to close the door behind him. the only source of light was a dim, bare bulb overhead. He was in a living room, furnished only by a couch with a severe dip in the middle situated before a TV with a dead, dark screen, and a card table with folding chairs arranged around it. To his left was a hallway leading, he thought, to a bedroom and bathroom. To his right an arch opened onto the small kitchen, and just beyond that, the sliding door to the balcony.
“You’re late,” said a voice.
Startled, Andrew turned from the kitchen — he’d been walking toward the balcony, he realized — and saw a woman standing at the mouth of the hallway, hurriedly putting on silver earrings. She was a black woman, and older than him, but not by too much. Maybe she just looked older than she was. She wore a knee-length dress of medicinal green with a white apron folded over the front and a wide, white collar, and he recognized it as a curiously antiquated waitress uniform.
“I’m already running late,” she said, “but you should know what to do.”
“Excuse me?” he asked.
“You’re the new babysitter, yes?” she said, eyeing him severely.
He had no idea what to say to that.
“It’s self-explanatory,” she said. “Food in the fridge, TV is mostly busted but gets a few channels. You’ll be fine. The child is out now, but will be back soon. Babysitting, not rocket science.” The woman had finished with her earrings and, after adjusting her hair, began to stride quickly toward the door.
“Wait,” Andrew said, more loudly than he meant to, and the woman stopped to look at him again, tiredly. “Where is your…” He struggled to articulate the idea, because she herself had phrased it so oddly. The child. “Where’s your kid?”
The woman cocked an eyebrow at him. “Out playing,” she said. “Always out playing. And it’s not my child. I’m just the last babysitter.”
And with that she left the apartment, closing the door behind her, and Andrew was alone in the room.
He stood for a moment in the light of the bare bulb, surveying again his surroundings. He pulled his phone out of his pocket to see if his brother had called him and, somehow, it was dead. He hadn’t brought a charger.
The kitchen light still worked, and when he flipped it on the glare rendered the balcony door nothing but a dark mirror. He stepped forward, pulling it away, and felt the unusually warm, almost summery air come flooding into the apartment through the screen. Across the street, in the other complex, he could see someone mowing the lawn in the fading twilight. He recalled hearing that twilight was the best time to mow in the summer.
The pink tricycle was barely visible in the dark corner of the balcony, but visible nonetheless. After regarding it for a moment Andrew grabbed one of the folding chairs from the living room and placed it in the kitchen, where he could sit and keep an eye on the balcony.
And the tricycle. Especially the tricycle. He settled in to wait and see what, if anything, would cause it to move.
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