“So glad you finally decided to show up, your majesty,” said Charlie’s mother as he stepped through the mud-colored door on the second-story landing. The apartment building itself wasn’t actually an apartment building at all. It was a two-story house in Queens, the top floor of which had been turned into an apartment. Mrs. Leroy, the owner and landlord of the building, was a woman built like a toad that walked on two legs. She lived on the ground floor with her 98-year-old mother who could barely hear, see or walk. The two women could frequently be heard at all hours of the day and night shouting at each other about grocery lists, who left the light in the bathroom on and what was (or was not) the answer to each and every question on Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. The building as a whole was completely run down. Faucets were loose. Door handles had to be twisted and pulled in a very specific order to open. And no room was ever warm enough in the winter, or cool enough in the summer. But considering the price, it was about the best that Charlie and his mother, Ms. Rachel Cole, could hope for. At least it would be until they were inevitably evicted once the landlord found out they couldn’t pay yet another month’s rent.
“Sorry,” mumbled Charlie, closing the door behind him and removing his boots, leaving them off to the side of the entry hall. He came around the corner to the room which was both their dining and living room to find his mother lounging on the pleather couch with a cigarette in one hand and a glass filled with ice and a dark brown liquid in the other. She wore a near-constant look on her face that said she was exhausted, bored, and annoyed by the world around her. Her hair, dyed blond long enough ago that her mousy brown roots were now visible, hung messily down to her shoulders. She flicked a lock out of her face, tucking it behind her ear as she looked up at him.
“Sorry, he says,” she scoffed mockingly. She leaned forward and tapped the cigarette on the edge of a black ashtray. “You got my text?”
“Yeah,” said Charlie, giving a slight nod as he removed his coat and threw it over the back of one of two wooden chairs at the cluttered round dining table.
“And you didn’t think to text me back?” she asked, taking a long drag from the cigarette. It flared bright orange at the end. “My father died for Christ’s sake, and you couldn’t even be bothered to send an ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ or a ‘Wow mom. That sucks,’ or even a god damn sad-face emoji?”
He knew she was only venting her grief at him because he was the only person she had, but it still hurt all the same.
He cleared his throat. “I … um … lost my phone.”
Her eyes widened as they fixed on him. “Jesus, Charlie. How irresponsible can you be? Were you raised in a barn?” This was an odd expression that she’d picked up as a child and said to him whenever he did something even slightly forgetful. He assumed there was a time in their family’s lineage when someone was in fact raised in a barn and became chronically clumsy, forgetful, and stupid because of it.
“It was an accident, okay?” He didn’t want the tone of defensiveness to enter this voice, but it still did.
“Yeah, just like you,” she said with a flippant flick of her wrist. She took another long drag from her cigarette.
It had taken Charlie quite some time to get back to the apartment, and now he was starting to wonder why he’d come back at all. By now, the sun was just starting to peek through the nearby window, casting an eerie orange glow over the room. Long shadows crawled over everything like dark fingers, slowly choking the life from the room.
“Are you … um … okay?” he asked, pulling out the chair he’d hung his jacket over and taking a seat in it.
His mother stared off into the distance for a long moment and then shrugged, biting her bottom lip. “I mean, he was my dad, you know? It’s sad. I’m sad … I guess. But I don’t know if I’m actually sad that he died.” She shook her head slowly and Charlie got the feeling she was processing an incredible number of emotions. “I’m sad he practically abandoned us. I’m sad his little world of make-believe was more important than us. Sad I can’t really remember a lot of the time we actually spent together. I try sometimes but it’s all a blur. I suppose that’s just my mind’s way of dealing with the trauma … or whatever damage he did. I’m sad he turned away from his family rather than get the professional help he so desperately needed. I’m sad about all of those things. But when I think about him actually being gone? That part feels more like … relief.”
She shook her head more vigorously now, like someone who’s accidentally stepped into a spiderweb and is trying to come unstuck. “God, listen to me. I sound like a monster.” Her eyes caught his, and it was as though she suddenly realized she wasn’t in the room by herself, that someone was actually listening to her. She rolled her eyes. “Don’t look at me like that.” She pointed two fingers at him, the cigarette dangling precariously between them. “You didn’t know him. He was unwell. Something in that man’s brain was broken, and he refused to let anyone so much as mention it.”
“Was he … ever diagnosed with anything?” asked Charlie. He’d heard his mother refer to her father, his grandfather, as ‘unwell’ before, but the subject had always been changed before he could dig deeper into what that meant exactly.
“Not that I know of,” she said, taking another pull from the cigarette. “I could never convince him to go get checked out by a doctor. He refused to believe anything was wrong. And if nothing’s wrong, why go looking for trouble? That’s what he used to say to me.” She sat forward on the sofa and stared into Charlie’s eyes. “He was lost in his own world of fairy tales. He was so far from reality, no one could convince him to come back home.”
Charlie couldn’t help but notice the uneasy feeling that shot through him: jealousy. To him, real life was awful. If he’d had the option to live in a land of imagination and wonder, he knew in his heart that he would jump at the opportunity, regardless of how ‘sick’ or ‘unwell’ that made him seem to other people.
There came suddenly five quick knocks on the door that made them both jump nearly out of their skins. Knocks on doors in the early hours of morning are often jarring no matter who you are, but given that someone needed to bypass the entry floor doorway, which required a key or to be buzzed in to even get to their door, this knock was even more unsettling. Someone had skipped a step and was now standing on the landing.
“Charlie,” snapped his mother in a very loud whisper. “Did you leave the downstairs door open again? Mrs. Leroy will kill us if she finds out!”
“I didn’t! I swear,” Charlie whisper-shouted back at her. He was sure he’d pulled the door tightly shut behind him just as he’d done every day since the incident between his mother and Mrs. Leroy. His mother had left the door open a crack after coming back drunk to the apartment one night. Mrs. Leroy had discovered this the next morning, prompting a vicious rant about how someone was surely going to come in to murder her mother and steal her collection of handmade crochet blankets.
“Well you must have,” said his mother, waving at the door.
“I didn’t,” Charlie reassured her. “Maybe it is Mrs. Leroy. It’s not like she’d need a key.”
His mother softened a bit at this. “See who it is then, and if it’s not Mrs. Leroy, remind them that this is private property!”
Charlie made his way to the door and pressed his eye to the foggy peephole, only to find that there was no one at all on the other side. He stepped back and quickly unlocked and opened the door to double-check. No one. His eyes scanned the landing as well as the stairs leading up to it, but there was not a soul to be found.
He was pulling back into the apartment, pressing the door closed when he spotted a small black package tied with a bright red bow sitting just outside the door. For a moment, he did nothing, simply stared down at it as though it might explode if he moved. He and the box were locked in a staring contest, neither of them willing to make the first move. Finally, he exhaled the breath he’d been holding and bent down cautiously to pick it up using both hands. The box turned out to be quite light. It was such a little thing, small enough to sit comfortably in the palm of his hand. He stood up again, and with one last look down the stairs, receded into the apartment, closing and locking the door behind him.
“So? Who was it?” asked his mother, who hadn’t bothered to even get up from the couch during the whole ordeal.
“No one,” he said, staring down at the box.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the package in his hand. “Did someone just give that to you? Charlie, you can’t just take things from strangers who break into our home!”
“It was just sitting there,” he said, not picking up on her rising concern. He noticed that there was a small black paper card nestled almost imperceptibly between the bow and the package itself. “There’s a card!”
“What’s it say?” she asked.
He gingerly pulled the card free and flipped it over. The opposite side of the card was stark white. On it was scrawled a note written in a shaky cursive script.
To be Delivered to Charlie Cole upon the death of Arthur Cole.
The acceptance of this package and its contents should be
heretofore and henceforth seen as a bequeathing of the sole ownership
of Darkmoon Drive as well as the operation and care for its residents.
This property is hereby released from the deceased: Arthur Reginald Cole
and given totally and completely to the beneficiary: Charlie Lewis Cole.
Mr. Charlie Cole will find the deed of this property
Within Apartment 303 of the property mentioned herein.
“It’s … for me,” said Charlie in a disbelieving whisper.
“From who?” asked his mother.
“I-I don’t know.” He pulled the bow by one end, unfurling it from the box and then lifted the lid. Looking into the small box felt as though he was staring directly into a black hole, like it had no internal dimensions. No sides. No bottom. Just endless nothingness. This made very little sense. He turned the box over, holding his open palm out under it.
CLANK! Appearing from nowhere, a large ring filled with keys fell into his hand. His mother jumped in her seat, grabbing at her chest, surprised by the cacophony. One key in particular caught Charlie’s eye. The keys were all different sizes, shapes, and colors, but this was the only one that was bright red. It had a thin piece of twine tied around it, with another small black tag. He flipped it over and read two words written by the same shaky hand as the card before.
“I don’t understand,” he said under his breath.
He looked up to find his mother staring at him. But strangely, she didn’t share his look of surprise or confusion. In fact, she seemed to know exactly what this was, and she seemed to be already bored with the whole affair.
“So that’s it then,” she said. “He’s left you the building.”
“What building?” he asked.
“His building,” she said. “The one he owned. The one he always said was special,” she made aggressive air quotes with her spindly fingers. “Darkmoon Drive.”
“I … still don’t understand,” he reiterated. “What am I supposed to do with a building?”
She laughed. “I expect he thinks you’ll carry on managing it. But if you want my advice…” she leaned towards him now and stared right into his eyes. “I say you sell it and use the money to get us out of this hellhole.”
Charlie wasn’t sure what any of this meant. His grandfather had left him a building? But Charlie didn’t even have a relationship with his grandfather. And if his grandfather owned a whole building, why were they living in this awful apartment to begin with? He felt as though he was missing a very important part of the story. He had a thousand questions floating around in his head. Perhaps his mother was right. Perhaps this was their ticket to a better life. But he had a literal handful of keys and an address. Before he made any decisions, he intended to get some answers.
“I think I should go check it out,” he said.
His mother shrugged. “I suppose you’ll have to if you want to know how much it’s worth. Just don’t get mixed up with the people that live there. They’re … unnatural.”
He had no idea what she meant by that, but he decided he would figure it out soon enough. Charlie quickly showered, shaved, and changed out of the clothes he had intended to end his life in. He then packed a small bag with a couple of shirts, pants, socks, underwear, and other essentials like toothpaste and deodorant.
“You’re leaving now?” his mother asked as he reemerged with the bag in hand. “You didn’t even sleep?”
“I might be gone for a few days,” he said, ignoring her questions as he made his way to the apartment door once more. Hours ago, he’d planned to go to sleep for good. Now he was wide awake with a grand mystery laid out before him. Besides, he was the tiniest bit worried that if he did go to sleep, he would wake up to find that this had all been a dream.
“Suit yourself,” said his mother. “I’ll be here.” She’d already resumed smoking and watching a reality show on the television. “Just grab me some smokes when you come back.”
He nodded, then trudged back out onto the Astoria streets, determined to learn just why his grandfather left him an entire building. A building with odd residents, according to his mother. The building shared a name with the small street it resided on. Darkmoon Drive. He had to pull out an old paper map of the city just to find it since he no longer owned a phone.
Darkmoon Drive was located in Northwestern Brooklyn near an area called Dumbo. Not far from the Brooklyn Bridge where only hours before, he’d nearly ended his own life. Charlie pulled his jean jacket tightly around himself to stave off the cold and charged boldly into a day he had been certain he would not be alive to see.
Listen/Watch Chapter Two being Read!
Since I already know my mother is going to ask, NO, Charlie’s mom is not based on you!
I loved the idea of Charlie losing his phone super early in the story as so much of our lives are connected to it. How we get around. How we choose where to eat. How we get someplace new. I really felt like disconnecting him from his phone and the internet and the world at large gave me such a great chance to send him down this rabbit hole of an adventure he’s about to go on.
I also wanted to make it very clear that Charlie really has nothing right now. No job he has to be at in a couple hours. No friends he needs to check in with. No family that will really care if he goes off on his own for a while. Now that that is all done, it’s time for Charlie to venture forth to the mysterious Darkmoon Drive!