The feature image for this story was illustrated by the author, Alicia Hurtado.
The police found old Miss Paisley’s bones in the basement. My mom said, “The residents must have thought she was one of the Halloween decorations stored down there.” Then she hid her face with her hands and wailed just like the police siren.
Miss Paisley lived on the ground floor, and she never smiled. Her room was dark and smelled like moldy blankets, but she let me play with her troll doll collection and gave me melty lemon candies, plus also Miss Paisley wouldn’t listen when I talked. Nobody listens to me, not even my mom. Well, except Mr. McClane. He listens.
I used to have a different best friend. Edie lived in Unit Five. She was very old, and her eyelids were sky blue. The blue crumbled off when she smiled, and her condo was full of art from all over the world, and her walking stick had a golden badger on top named “Reginald.”
Edie listened to me. When me and my mom had a fight, Edie listened. When I got in trouble at school, Edie listened. When I did something bad, Edie didn’t scold me. She always said, “Nobody should ever have to feel lonely.”
Last year, Edie ate a whole bottle of pills and died in her sleep. She left me alone. When my mom told me Edie did that, I threw my glass music box across the room, and then my mom screamed at me, and she raised her hand, but she didn’t hit me. When we stopped crying, she braided my hair and said, “Edie was a very lonely old lady, and now she’s with her husband. She’ll never feel lonely again.”
Me and my mom live all the way up on the fifth floor. She’s the superintendent, plus also she works in a warehouse. Her jobs are important, so she doesn’t have time to play with me. She has time for the residents, but not for me.
Now that I’m a big girl—eight years old!—I help out when my mom goes to her other job. I like helping. I even have my own ring of keys in case of an emergency, but I never get to use it, because our residents always let me in. My job is to make sure nobody’s lonely. My mom says it’s the most important job, even more important than fixing the leak that rains on Mr. Anderson’s piano bench when I take a bath.
Mr. Valentine and Mr. Dobson say our building used to be full of kids, but now it’s all sad old people with no friends, so I have a very busy schedule. First, I visit Miss Rita. She has too many birds, but we won’t tell on her, because she takes good care of them. Miss Rita doesn’t let me hold the baby birds anymore. Then I visit grumpy Mr. Anderson and listen to him play piano. I’m not allowed to touch the piano. Next, I let Mr. Valentine and Mr. Dobson show me old newspapers. History is boring, but Mr. Valentine and Mr. Dobson are nice, so I pretend to be interested. Usually, I’d visit Miss Paisley next, but not anymore, and last is Mr. McClane.
The first time I saw Mr. McClane, he really scared me, but now he’s my friend. He never says, “Not now, dear,” and he asks me lots of questions. I met him in the basement, where he lives. My mom was doing laundry, and I was bouncing my glow-in-the-dark bouncy ball off the dryer, making a racket. My mom didn’t turn around to scold me, so I threw my ball extra hard and it bounced off the wall and rolled under our giant, rusty boiler.
The boiler is as big as a school bus with tentacles. The pipes look like tentacles. I’m scared of the whistling, clunking, thunking noises it makes in the winter, but I’m not scared of it in the summer, so I wiggled on my elbows and knees through a square hole in the metal.
It was dark in the tunnel. Darker and darker the more I crawled. The ground was cold and dusty, and a little green circle glowed a few feet away. My bouncy ball! I wiggled towards it. My mom wouldn’t like the soot on my clothes. Good. Then I saw three glow-in-the-dark circles. Two of them blinked, and I hit my head on the ceiling of the tunnel.
“Don’t be scared,” said a scratchy whisper. “I just want to give you back your toy.”
A skinny, yellow hand reached out of the dark holding my bouncy ball. His fingers were too long, and he didn’t have fingernails. Sharp bone poked out instead.
“Who are you?” He asked. I was too scared to talk or move. There was a crackling noise, and then he stuck his head out of the shadows and said, “I’m Mr. McClane.”
At first, I thought Mr. McClane was a skeleton. I could see his skull under his yellow skin. His eye holes were huge, but his glowing green eyeballs were tiny, and it was red behind them. His nose was one big scab with some white-ish, green-ish fuzz on it, like how the scab on my elbow looked after I swam in the pool. I thought I should scream, but my voice didn’t work.
“What’s your name?” He smiled and he had no teeth. No gums either. It was just dark in his mouth.
“I . . . I’m . . . I’m Amanda.”
“Well, Amanda, thank you for visiting me. I get lonely down here all by myself.” Mr. McClane sounded like he was going to cry, and I felt less scared of him.
“Nobody should ever have to feel lonely.” He said, rolling my bouncy ball in his fingers like a magician at a birthday party.
“My best friend always said that.”
“Then your best friend was very smart.” Mr. McClane flicked my ball at me, and I caught it. If he agreed with Edie, he might not be bad.
“She was . . .” I looked over my shoulder. The light from the laundry room was farther away than I thought, and my tummy did a flip flop, and I started backing up a little.
“What happened to your friend?” asked Mr. McClane.
I stopped and stared at my hands.
“Edie ate too many pills, because she was lonely.”
Mr. McClane hummed and scratched the floor with his pointy fingers.
“Are you lonely, Amanda?”
“Nobody listens to me. Adults don’t think kids have words. My mom is always working, plus also when she isn’t working, she always says, ‘Not now, dear,’ and she doesn’t stop looking at the laundry, or the frying pan, or the telephone.” My face got all hot, and all of a sudden, I was really angry.
“She doesn’t even look up?”
“Tommy, at school, called me a murderer because I cut a worm in half, which is stupid because worms live when you do that, but he wouldn’t stop saying, ‘Amanda’s a murderer!’ over and over, so I shoved him. It wasn’t even that hard, but he started crying, and I got sent to the office, and the Principal called my mom, but she didn’t pick up, so he left a message. And then when I came home, I thought she was gonna scold me, but she just told me that soup and dinosaur chicken nuggets were in the freezer, and then she left. I usually go to sleep before she comes back, but I stayed up really late in case she was gonna yell at me, but . . . but she forgot. She doesn’t care.” My hands were fists.
“She’s missing out. You’re very interesting. I could listen to you all day.”
“Really?” I looked up and Mr. McClane’s monstery face made me jump a little. He creeped into the dark so I couldn’t see him anymore.
My mom’s voice called my name from far away, and I looked over my shoulder again.
“Here, as a thank you for visiting me.” Mr. McClane pushed a little tin dog at me with one of his long, sharp fingers. The dog was white and had black spots.
“I can keep it?”
“Mhmmm. Just promise you’ll tell me more about your friend Edie, and Tommy, and your mother tomorrow? I’ll have another toy for you.”
Now I visit Mr. McClane every afternoon, and he asks me about my mom, and the residents, and school. Plus also he listens to my problems, like Edie. So far, he’s given me a toy car, a plastic maze with a bead in it, a little stormtrooper, a pompom with googly eyes, and a Wiffle ball, and then he ran out of toys.
“I can get you more toys, Amanda. I just need a little help.” Mr. McClane whispered from the dark. He never showed me his face again after that first time. I don’t want him to show me again. Even though we’re friends, his face makes me shiver.
“I can help you. I’m a big girl now.”
“You certainly are. You even have your own ring of keys!”
His scratchy voice sounded like he was smiling.
“All you have to do is unlock the door to Unit One. At night, when Miss Paisley’s asleep.”
“That’s easy! I can do that!”
Mr. McClane hummed and scratched the floor.
“But . . .” I paused. “But how will that help you get toys?”
“You have to trust me. Friends trust each other, right?”
I was excited to use my keys, and I like helping, plus also I like being sneaky. That night, I sneaked out of bed, out the front door, down the stairs without creaking, and unlocked Unit One. I felt like a spy, and my heart beat like crazy.
The next day, Miss Paisley didn’t answer the door. I thought I’d get to use my keys again, but the door was still unlocked. It was cold inside even though our building doesn’t have air conditioning. I yelled, “Miss Paisley?” I even peeked in the bathroom, behind the shower curtain. No Miss Paisley, so I took a lemon candy from the glass bowl on the table and went down to see Mr. McClane.
When I wiggled through the tunnel in the boiler, the floor was wet and sticky. Mr. McClane’s eyes glowed brighter in the dark. Before, they glowed like a cat’s eyes, but this time, they glowed like little green flashlights. I squinted.
“Hello, Amanda.” His voice was deeper.
“Do you know where Miss Paisley is?” I asked. “She’s not in her room.”
Mr. McClane flicked a troll doll with pink hair out of the shadows, and I stared at it, and my head felt staticky.
“That’s one of Miss Paisley’s . . .”
Something was wrong. My arms prickled.
“You didn’t hurt her, did you, Mr. McClane?”
“Don’t worry, Amanda. Miss Paisley won’t be lonely anymore. She won’t be lonely ever again.”
I looked in Mr. McClane’s flashlighty eyes, and it hurt, but I didn’t look away.
“You mean, like Edie?”
He touched my chin with one of his sharp fingers, and I gulped.
“Mhmmm. Just like Edie.” He whispered. “It’s better this way for Miss Paisley too. You helped her, Amanda. You did a good thing.”
“I did a good thing . . .”
That was a week ago. They found Miss Paisley’s bones last night, and no one knows what happened.
Tonight, I’m going to unlock grumpy Mr. Anderson’s door. He won’t be grumpy when he’s just bones.
You see, Edie and Mr. McClane are right.
Nobody should ever have to feel lonely.