She was a local fixture, a minor celebrity we called Veronka. That single name was her calling card, her entry into places people only dreamed of. Always costumed, her arms were snaked with bangles, her neck swathed in scarves. A full face of makeup. Platinum hair that beamed like the sun. She only left her apartment to walk the dogs. Onlookers would whip their heads, certain they knew her, that one name trembling on their tongues.
At first, I couldn’t understand why she stayed. When the pandemic hit, women of wealth had options. A chateau in Aspen. A condo in Cape Cod. Those who stayed had too much to lose or too little to gain.
I suppose I was lucky. Days before the city closed, my Aunt Tildie fled to the Hamptons. I was the first one she thought of. Like many fourth-year medical students, I had been recruited by a hospital desperate for help. Instead of taking two buses and a train, I was now within walking distance of my new job. A view of the park. A doorman. A prewar building with ten-foot ceilings and pristine walnut floors. I jumped at the opportunity. Looking back, I had no boyfriend and few prospects. Med school had been my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The future was just within my grasp.
But nothing was what I expected. Like the virus, the world had mutated, too. Within the first month, the building emptied. The few who stayed whispered the names of the dead, as if speech gave form to our fears. One by one the halls grew quiet. The Super marked a red cross on their doors, the rest of us tiptoeing, careful not to breathe, not to look, not to stare.
But Veronka’s routine was unfazed. She owned not one but two units on the twelfth floor, one to live in and one to use as her studio. Workmen were constantly coming and going, carrying her large paintings up and down the service elevator. Black masks. Black shirts. Black trousers. They skulked up and down the hallways. Hiding in shadows. Dodging questions. They reminded me of a Bosch painting–those lost souls cowering from contagion, warding off the plague with their big bird beaks.
I worked the late shift, leaving after dinner and coming home as the sun rose pink. Like clockwork, Veronka would be walking the dogs, her outfit straight from a Bergdorf window. At first, we just nodded our heads. Her dogs, as fluffy as two white slippers, politely ignored me. But more than once I felt her eyes. I had just turned thirty while she was fiftyish. People considered me attractive in a non-threatening way. But for a woman like Veronka, those two decades meant everything. We’d silently pass each other on the sidewalk, the air thick, the tension palpable.
Then I became a dog owner, too.
The calendar had flipped to May. Essential personnel were dying daily. Hymie, an ER nurse and all-around nice guy, went down fast. I’m not a people person. I’d perfected social distancing years before. But dogs were easy. And when Hymie begged for my help, I reluctantly said yes.
With my German Shepherd/dog shelter special in tow, I now bumped into Veronka on a regular basis. Our first official meeting happened on a Sunday. After working two weeks straight, I decided to spend some time outside. I looked at the dog and he looked at me. The park? I said. Ralph, like a greyhound at the gate, bolted out the door. He knew by instinct to race between the elevator doors. Then he waited patiently while I pressed the button and the doors slowly opened once more.
We circled the park. We growled at the ducks in the lake. We sniffed the candy wrappers skimming the pavement. After two hours, I was exhausted, but Ralph was still raring to go. I was dragging him back to the apartment when I bumped into Veronka. While her dogs yipped, my dog snarled. Ralph was a cross between a wolf and a rug. To Ralph, those slippers meant lunch.
“Sorry. Sorry,” I mumbled.
Narrowing her eyes, she pointed a finger. Then in a distinct Slavic accent, she offered advice.
“You’re the alpha, not heem.”
Ralph growled. The slippers yelped. Meanwhile, the facts I had gleaned from my computer spun in my head. There was no doubt that Veronka was not only famous but rich. Galleries fought to represent her. Museums hung her work.
But by now I had done my homework. Veronka both was and wasn’t what people expected. She was born not in Europe but in Pittsburgh. All three of her husbands had died. And her latest relationship had been an embarrassment. Spattered all over the tabloids, it was the sort of gossip people craved. A boyfriend who was my age. Public fights and ugly disagreements. Then months before the pandemic, the boyfriend dropped off the page. No one had heard from him since.
While I stood tongue-tied, Ralph wasn’t impressed. He took one sniff and started pulling in the other direction. Meanwhile Veronka’s dogs made a beeline to the elevator. It struck me as peculiar. The sky was blue. The trees blossoming. Whatever drove them inside?
Over the next few weeks, the puzzle that was Veronka vexed me. I tried to be friendly. If I headed to the corner market, I offered to pick up groceries for her as well. If I ordered in a pizza, I offered her half. But just the mention of food made her lips curl.
“Do I look hungry?” she’d purr in that Greta Garbo lilt. Then she’d theatrically wave her free hand. “Eating is of little importance. It is art that fuels my soul.”
My apartment was three stories directly below hers. On pleasant days, when I opened the windows, yeasty odors perfumed the air. Scones. Baguettes. Freshly made croissants. Heaven seemed right around the corner.
One bright spring morning I confronted her. I was heading to the park and she was just returning. Ralph, as usual, was tugging me along. “I’m hallucinating,” I said. “Big, fattening hallucinations. Seven-layer cakes. Chocolate tortes. Is there, like, a bakery nearby?”
She stuck her royal duchess of a nose straight up in the air. The accent seemed to grow thicker. “I really have no idea.”
But an hour later, when I returned to our lobby, the smells were even stronger. I sneaked up the stairwell, slipped down the corridor, and paused outside her apartment. The dogs were yipping and yapping. And the unmistakable aroma of baked goods wafted directly from her door.
I checked the visitor’s log that sat on the doorman’s desk. A year earlier, a single day would have consumed several pages. But now the notebook was a sea of whiteness punctuated with a few scribbled names. And the only names associated with her apartment number were Feinberg Associates, the art guys.
The doorman was new. Twentyish. Hispanic. I hated to think what happened to the last one. I offered Carlos my shiniest smile.
“Things pretty slow, huh?”
His shoulders were slumped, his eyes hooded. He seemed totally bored and half asleep. Reluctantly, he spoke.
“Mrs. G. in 225. An ambulance take her. Mr. C. in 515. His kids got him yesterday.”
“And Veronka,” I said. “Whoever takes care of Veronka?”
Then all at once the lobby grew chilly. Carlos shook from top to bottom like Ralph after hitting a pond. “She’s a bruja,” he whispered. “A witch.”
I looked to the right and the left. “A witch doesn’t wear St. John’s Knits,” I whispered. “A witch would have a broomstick. A witch would have a black cat.”
This time he inched closer. “You’ll see,” he said. “She’ll be the last one standing. After you and I are long gone.”
As the weeks passed, Carlos and I grew friendlier. And the friendlier we grew, the more he talked. He was a black hole of useless and not so useless information. For every resident, there was a story. He knew their comings and goings. Knew when they clogged the plumbing and if they paid their bills. Plus he had access to the Super’s keys.
“We’ve had complaints,” he whispered. “There were noises coming from the bruja’s apartment. Funny noises. So one day when she walked the dogs, the doorman went in. Did you know Gus? The last doorman? The next day he don’t come back.”
I admit I was addicted. Veronka was better than a jigsaw puzzle or a TV show. When your life is the stuff of nightmares, any distraction helps. Veronka was amusement. Entertainment. A diversion. I offer no other excuse.
The days were getting longer and hotter. People lived each moment like it was their last. I found myself looking forward to seeing Carlos. Evening bled into morning. How I savored our little talks!
Then one Monday he edged even closer. Then he shuddered and lowered his voice. From a distance, I’m sure we looked suspect. Like lovers or conspirators or both.
“I hear her paintings are magic,” he said. “Old people see themselves young. Sick people see themselves well.” Then he rubbed his thumb and index finger together. “They sell for thousands,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands. If one mysteriously disappeared, would she even know?”
Of course, I wouldn’t be an accomplice. I don’t consider myself a thief. But my judgment was muddied and my nerves were raw. And when he told me about sneaking into her apartment, I couldn’t deny myself a peek.
We waited for a cool crisp afternoon. The moment Veronka left the apartment, Carlos called me. “The coast is clear,” he said. “I’ll go in first. Give me fifteen minutes tops.”
I waited, pacing up and down the hallway. Then finally the door to her apartment slowly opened. I was shocked by what I saw.
A painting of a park covered the entire living room floor. It was just like the park outside our building but cleaner and brighter. Lifelike. I slipped off my shoes, careful not to cause any damage, and touched the surface with my toes. To my surprise, the grass tickled my feet. And when I stuck my foot into a pond, I could swear it felt wet. When I stepped over a bridge, I felt myself rising and falling. Somewhere jasmine was blooming. A gust of wind blew my hair.
The more I looked, the more I discovered. On a wall, beside her TV set, a hot dog vendor was hawking franks. And the closer I drew, the stronger the odor became. When I touched the man’s hand, the hot dog he was holding disappeared. And suddenly I felt famished, like that hot dog had slipped from his hand to mine.
I ran into the kitchen. A table and chairs. A clock. The room was spare save for the artwork. Every square inch of wall was covered with the most delicious treats. Pies. Cakes. Breads. Once again, I reached out. My fingertips were shaking as they touched the world’s largest cookie. I could smell it. I could taste it. I could feel it heading down.
The clocked ticked. A car honked. Then all at once I was sucked back into reality. I remembered I was trespassing. I remembered Veronka. I remembered the doorman. Wherever was the doorman? When I looked around, he was nowhere in sight.
I ran to the bedroom. Then I stood statue still and blinked. Though the floors were wood and the walls white, the headboard of the bed was fully painted. A portrait of a couple lying down. The woman’s head was on her pillow while her hands held a book. Next to her, a man was lying with hands by his sides. His eyes were closed. On top of each lid was a coin.
I crept closer, my body shivering, my heart somersaulting in my chest. Then once again my brain re-visited my computer. The woman looked like a younger, happier version of Veronka. The man also looked familiar. He bore an uncanny resemblance to the ex-boyfriend who had mysteriously disappeared.
“Carlos!” I said even louder. “Carlos, we need to leave!”
I opened one door after another, first whispering then shouting his name. Finally, I found what I was looking for. Inside the clothes closet, a full-length mirror was attached to the wall. But instead of being nailed or glued, it was hinged. Carlos must have opened it. This was the portal I was looking for, the entrance to the second apartment.
I tiptoed into the studio. To my surprise, it looked just like I expected. Stacks and stacks of canvases, some finished, some not. The floor was concrete, the walls bare. There was only one door left unopened. I walked slowly to what I assumed was the bathroom. A toilet. A sink. A tub. Above the tub was an opened window. And on the wall…a painting of Carlos climbing out.
They say we all live on borrowed time. And as I ran out of Veronka’s apartment, I felt my every step shadowed. The temperature had dropped, and the sun was eclipsed. Death’s breath was on my neck chasing me, chastising me, warning me to never ever bother her, to keep my distance, to stand aside. I locked myself inside my apartment. Then armed in a mask and gloves, I headed back to the hospital. It was the only place I would ever feel safe again.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories and essays have been published in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Catapult, PANK, and The Baltimore Review. She is the recipient of both the 2015 Rick Demarinis Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories.