There were many things to be said about Sam Higgins. Namely, that his lanky stature always seemed to sway when he walked a little too fast and that his sandy blond hair glowed under bright LED lights. His lips would go lopsided whenever he smiled a little too wide, and he couldn’t go outside without looking like he’d stepped straight out of a dry cleaner.
Yes, there were many things to be said about Sam Higgins, but being very honest wasn’t one of them.
Tonight, Sam found himself on the seventh—and highest—floor of an apartment complex hidden deep in the hills of Los Angeles. The building itself was slicked in rain, the rusty iron gate creaked when he entered the premises. He wore a thick cable knit sweater, the fluorescent lights above making the green fabric dull, and brown slacks that matched his suede shoes. If one looked close enough, they’d see that the ends of his slacks had begun to fray and that the stitches of his sweater were becoming undone.
He swung a brown briefcase back and forth, the golden clasps reflecting slivers of light onto the creme walls. The briefcase bulged in the center as if a small cabbage was tucked inside.
The sound of heavy rain on the roof filled the melancholy hall, and Sam went from door to door. Only four were left now. They were chipped white plywood with a black number tacked under the eyehole. He stopped in front of 7E, the one with a little cactus by the welcome mat, and adjusted his sweater so that it didn’t bunch at his wrists.
Sam just needed to find the right person. Someone who’d say yes. Someone who’d let him be the one in control of the golden clasps.
The door swung open, and an older woman stood in the doorway. Hot pink curlers were twisted in her hair; a cigarette puckered out between her lips. He wanted to yank it from between her teeth and toss it. What if she wanted to set him on fire?
“What d’you want?” she said, her voice scratchy.
He plastered a smile on his face, abandoning his fears of burning to death. “Would you like to see what’s in my briefcase?”
She frowned. “Are ya tryna sell me somethin’?”
“Would you like to see what’s inside?” Sam asked again. It was harder to keep smiling, the muscles in his face weighing down and down. “I can show you.”
“What’re ya tryna sell?”
“You didn’t answer my question.” He shook his head, glancing past her. A small kitchen was positioned right next to the door. An old green couch on a worn rug filled what could count as a living room, he supposed. Holes the size of fists punched through the walls as if the walls never existed.
“And ya didn’t answer mine.” She took a drag of her cigarette and blew the smoke in his face. He hid his other hand behind his back as it began to cramp up. “What’s inside?”
“You know,” Sam said, “smoking’s bad for you. My dad always used to say that it’ll burn your lungs right out of your body. But this can help. I have something, right in here, you’ll see.” He played with the squeaking golden clasps. The muscles in his mouth won; he couldn’t fight them any longer. Soon enough, he felt a grin spread on his face from cheek to cheek, and the old woman’s face paled. “I can show you what’s inside,” he whispered.
“Perv.” She slammed the door in his face.
Strange. It’s what Amy, his seventh grade crush, had said to him as well when they were on the playground, playing hide-and-seek. They’d stand together behind the big oak tree, when fall leaves had melted into the dirt. Sam wasn’t a perv, he knew, he’d just wanted to play with her golden hair. Hair that fell down her back. Hair that was like a rope.
He could’ve tugged her away from everyone and everything.
And he had once, but he did nothing bad. No, Sam Higgins wasn’t like that.
He continued down the hall, a swell of rain increasing overhead as he stared at the neon green exit sign that led to a fire escape. He stopped in front of 7F and knocked again, hugging his briefcase for a moment before lowering it again. No cactus or welcome mat this time.
An old man opened the door, and Sam wasn’t prepared.
Bright lights blasted into his eyes, lighting up the entire apartment. A low growl escaped Sam’s throat. He wanted to turn away and run, but his father would always catch him and drag him back. Drag him back by his wrists, or by his hair, or by his neck. Sam blinked eighteen times, and the light stopped buzzing.
The old man was staring at him. Wisps of gray hair were slicked back, a baby blue bathrobe wrapped around his tub-like figure. Sam glanced past him for a second. A woman sat in an old recliner, looking at the TV right in front of the window. A game show was on. She ate vanilla pudding from a plastic cup, a plastic spoon shaking in her hand. Some pudding had spilled down her chin.
“Hullo,” Sam said. He cleared his throat. “Hello. Would you like to see what’s inside my briefcase?”
“Who are you?” the old man said, his voice soft and fragile.
“Nobody.” He shrugged. “I see that you’re watching Jeopardy. My mother used to love watching Jeopardy. She’s dead now.”
The old man glanced down at the briefcase. “What’s inside?”
“Would you like to see it?”
“Are you one of those salesmen?”
Sam clacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “I can show you what’s inside,” he said. And then he stepped forward, hoping the old man’s eyes had deteriorated enough to not notice his unwashed face. “Why don’t I come inside?”
The old man glanced over his shoulder and shook his head. “No, thank you, my wife doesn’t like strangers in the house.” He glanced Sam up and down again and slowly, deliberately, moved the door shut to a slit so only his old weary eyes were visible. Suddenly, before Sam had noticed it, he’d slid the chain door guard over the door.
How rude, Sam thought, this man wasn’t polite at all. Sam knew that he could just grab the chain through the slit and yank it or push hard against the door.
But he stepped back, the skin stretched across his knuckles turning white.
“No problem.” He looked down the hall. Two more doors. Someone surely must want to see what’s inside. “Have a good evening.”
“Same to you.”
The door shut, and Sam dropped his smile. His gait grew more unsteady as he slithered down the hall, the fluorescent exit sign turning his skin green.
“Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, pitter-patter,” he quietly sang to himself. “Catch me if you can.”
He knocked on 7G and stepped back, waiting. No one answered. He knocked again, his foot tapping on the ground, faster and faster.
Was someone inside? Could they hear him?
He laid his ear against the door and listened. At first, there was nothing but a sniffle, like a dog taking its last breath. A draft sifted through the apartment, trickling through the gaps of the door. And then footsteps, soft and gentle, drifted closer.
The door opened.
“I know you didn’t mean—”
A young woman stood before him, with eyes and hair the color of mud, her hair curled. The whites of her eyes were coated in a light pink.
“Oh.” She cast her eyes on the ground, wiping her nose with her hand. The bones inside the skin were fragile and delicate.
“Sorry for disturbing you,” he said, ready to turn away.
“No, don’t be sorry. I thought you were someone else.”
He cleared his throat. “Everything all right?”
“Yes.” She nodded. “Yes.” Her gaze dropped to his briefcase and fixated on the golden clasps. “What are you selling?”
“I—” But the words escaped him like fog on a dreary Sunday morning. He took another step back, his polka-dotted socks showing. “You wanna see what’s inside?”
Stupid Sam, he thought. Stupid briefcase. He should’ve just left it in the car parked around the block, hidden under washed-out blankets in his trunk.
“Well, it’s okay. You seem busy. I won’t show you.”
The overhead air conditioning turned on. He glanced inside the apartment, at the small fold out table and plastic chairs in the middle of her living room. Candles were sporadically placed throughout the room, casting soft slivers of light on the walls. A whiff of meatball sauce drenched in oregano caught his attention, and he saw pans clean as untouched snow stacked on the stove. Only remnants of pasta lingered on the outsides of an orange pot, the only dirty thing he could see.
“That smells delicious,” he said.
The woman spun around to the kitchen before whirling back, the skirt of her dress lifting ever so slightly. “Yeah, well, won’t be eating that anymore.”
“Why?” He dared to step closer, keeping his briefcase behind him. “Was someone rude to you?”
She laughed, her large teeth showing. She looked beautiful. And in that moment, Sam wished he could run to the fire escape and chuck his briefcase out into the rain, hoping no one would ever find it again. Her eyes met his. They sparkled, small dots of neon hallway light reflecting off the fleshy part.
“Say, what’s your name again?” she asked.
But he hadn’t said his name, and now his brain was traveling faster than a bullet train. James? No. Henry? No, he used that yesterday. Mason?
“Sam,” he finally said.
She stuck her hand out, her nails long and sharp. “Marjorie.”
Marjorie, Marjorie, Marjorie, he thought to himself. It was such an easy name to repeat, to never forget. He wouldn’t forget it.
Something within him cracked open, a small space of light, like a gentle bleed on the brain.
“You know what?” Marjorie put her hands on her hips, her too-large teeth showing once more as she laughed. “I don’t want to eat alone again. Would you like to eat with me?”
He should’ve just run away. Maybe he could’ve said that he would run out into the pouring rain and put his briefcase in the car before coming back up, but she’d ask questions.
She spun around and marched back inside, grabbing two plates doused in red sauce before he could say anything. He swallowed hard, soundlessly setting the briefcase around the corner outside, pressing his palm against the door as he shut it.
She set the plates on the fold out table, glancing at him as she sat down and scooted closer. “Where’s your briefcase?”
His back pressed against the door, taking in the obscure painting of two women on the wall. Thunder crashed in the distance. Everything had grown too small as if the room was compressing inward. “Left it outside.”
She smiled again. “You can bring it in.” Her gaze lingered, and so he moved his hand on the handle again, pulling the briefcase in, the bulge at the middle squishy. He set it by the coat rack, just by the door, hoping she wouldn’t bring it up again.
A white, lacy tablecloth spread out over the table. A vase covered in fingerprints, in which wilting roses sat, stood in the middle. He sat across from Marjorie right as lightning forked out across the sky.
Would someone hear them if they spoke?
Strange how fingerprints and dust had collected on the vase when the rest of the apartment was meticulously clean. He glanced past her for a fleeting moment, down the darkened hall. One bedroom apartment, he thought, which meant there was only one bathroom but with the shower in it. Her bedroom door was opened to a crack, and he saw a large bed, the pink sheets folded back, clothes strewn across the floor.
She was a different Marjorie in her bedroom, tucked away from the world.
Marjorie scooped up her fork and hunkered down. Sam followed her example. The flavor of meatballs exploded in his mouth, a hint of lingering garlic and thyme. He stared outside at the cars in the distance hurtling through the streets like wayward ants.
“So, what brings you to Los Angeles?” she asked, wiping her mouth. Her big brown eyes were fixated on his face.
She turned her body away from him, toward the door and the coat rack. “Is it your work?”
Sam swallowed. “Yes.”
“What do you sell?”
He put a forkful of spaghetti in his mouth, the buttery taste melting on his tongue. “Many things.”
“Many things,” Marjorie said softly and smiled. “I came out here to act.”
He nodded, peering past her for another peek at the bedroom. “Exciting.”
She sighed. “Not really. So many people are like me in this goddamn place.”
“Can’t imagine it.”
Thunder crashed, and Marjorie squealed. She clapped her hands together, her face glowing in the light of the candles. “What do you like to do in your spare time, Sam?”
He pondered the question. What did people do in their spare time? See a movie? Take a walk in the park? Fall in love over the course of one evening? His eyes stung. “I don’t really have spare time.”
She frowned at that.
“I’m always on the move,” he quickly added and nodded fast, so fast he thought his head would fall off. His chest rose and fell quickly, and he placed a hand over his stomach. And then she caught his eyes, drifting toward the door, toward the coatrack and the briefcase as if it might grow legs and walk away.
She leaned in. “Are you a serial killer, Sam?”
Sam couldn’t stop himself from smiling. “No.”
Marjorie broke out in laughter, her eyes wrinkling together. “I was just joking.”
“Can I see what’s inside your briefcase now?” She laced her hands together, resting her chin as she tilted her head.
“I don’t think you’d care for it.”
An uncomfortable silence passed between them.
“Strange,” she finally said. “You don’t say much. In fact, you’re pretty quiet.”
Panic flooded him. Did he say something wrong? Did he miss something she said? “Would you like me to say more?”
He leaned in closer, until he could see the specks of gold sporadically dotted in her eyes as if God hadn’t known where to place them. “Who was this dinner for?”
Marjorie’s smile withered. She shot out of her chair, scratching her head, and grabbed his plate after her own. His fork clattered on the ground. She moved into the kitchen, dumping the plates in the sink, food and all.
Her chest rose and fell quickly, her eyes glistening. “Sorry. I’m sorry. You weren’t done eating.”
The rain swelled on the roof. She looked directly at him as if she could pierce his chest, his heart, his very soul with her eyes. “My fiancé’s no longer my fiancé. That’s all.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Sam said, because that’s what was expected. But he wasn’t sorry. Inside, he was floating over the sea, safe and calm. It was a feeling he’d felt so many years ago, although he couldn’t put a finger on it. That feeling was dead now.
“Do . . . do you have a girlfriend?” Marjorie asked quietly.
“No.” He stood, pushing the chair back in, clearing off the remnants of sauce that had splattered on his sweater. His eyes met hers again. “I don’t think anyone would want me.”
“That can’t be true.”
They stared at each other for some time, longer than Sam could keep track of. Eventually, everything swirled together, and time was not a thing anymore. It didn’t exist. Not in this realm or the next.
He was in control.
Marjorie suddenly grabbed her rag. Her hand raced over the counter, a nervous smile plastered on her face. “I really can’t see what’s inside your briefcase, then?”
“It’s not for people like you.”
“Gotcha.” She nodded. “Would you like to freshen up?”
“If you could point me to where it is, that would be nice.”
She marched ahead of him even though he didn’t need her help. In fact, he’d figured out the layout before he’d ever seen her apartment. After all, all of them were the same. The woman with the smelly cigarette and the old man with the demented wife had identical apartments, too.
Everything pointed east.
She led him down the hall, the rain growing louder and louder as if someone had tried to pry the ceiling open. He glanced over his shoulder at his briefcase for a moment as if it was a good dog that would stay put.
Marjorie closed the door behind him. Lavender soap sat on a dish, and Sam lathered his hands in it. The shower was still damp, the air thicker than in the living room as if Marjorie had only gotten ready before he got here. He spun around, looking around himself.
Would she keep her dirty laundry here?
There was something about Marjorie, an edge, like she was falling apart. He couldn’t ever imagine leaving his bedroom as untidy as hers, his bathroom so steamy, unless it were for a good reason.
If—when—Marjorie and he would fall in love, perhaps he could change her ways.
The whir of the air conditioning stopped abruptly, leaving a lingering silence. It was silent in the living room, too. Shouldn’t Marjorie still be cleaning, scrubbing, the pasta pot from its stained tomato sauce? But what if she got done early?
A knot formed in his stomach, screwing itself tighter and tighter.
And then he heard her scream.
He slammed the faucet shut and flew out of the bathroom, staying in the darkened hall. Marjorie, he saw, was on her knees by the coat rack and the door. Her hands trembled as she closed the briefcase.
The knot inside Sam’s stomach exploded.
Why did she do that?
She was probably selfish, he decided. She was the kind of woman who would eat the last bite of ice cream, even when you asked her not to. She was the kind of woman who would shut the elevator door before you got there on time, even if she saw you running.
No, Marjorie was not the woman for him.
And it wasn’t his fault what would come after this. She brought this on herself, Sam thought, because you can’t tame the beast.
“Did you look inside, Marjorie?” he asked, his voice shrill and high. She screamed again, louder this time. Sam felt the grin on his face split wider and wider. “Did you enjoy what you saw?”
She scrambled up to stand. “Don’t come closer.”
He flung himself toward her. Marjorie rushed to the counter, grappling with a knife before he could stop her. She lashed out with the silver, slashing his arm. Blood came through his sweater, and he groaned. Did she not know how hard it was to take a sweater off a homeless man’s body?
“No!” she screamed, biting his hand, a blur of mud brown hair coiled around her neck. But he was stronger and yanked the knife from her grasp. He was in control, after all. He held her tight against himself as if they were going to dance.
“Thank you for dinner,” he whispered in her hair, inhaling her coconut-scented shampoo. The knife disappeared between her ribs. She let out a soft exhale. “You would’ve been a remarkable woman.”
When all was said and done, he brought her to her bedroom, laying her down in the messy sheets. Her eyelids had slipped shut. With the tips of his fingers, he felt her eyeballs for a moment before pulling her eyelids back again. They should see her eyes when they find her, he thought.
He would’ve stayed to clean if he had the time. After all, Sam was a gentleman. But he had to leave. There was something inside his briefcase that needed to be shown.
He just needed to find the right person. Someone who’d say yes. Someone who’d let him be the one in control of the golden clasps.
Someone who would listen.
And so, he stalked down the corridor. He scooped up his briefcase and closed the door to apartment 7G. Blood came down his arm, turning his sleeve purple. He hurried to the last door in the hall and knocked long and hard.
There was a low growl and a man saying, “Yeah, yeah! I’m comin’!”
The door opened, and the man gasped. He screamed for his wife.
“Hullo. The name’s Sam Higgins,” Sam said. He held his briefcase up, grinning. “Would you like to see what’s inside my briefcase?”