This story is by Nicholas Popkey and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Tyler pressed his forehead to the cold glass. His city blinked a million eyes back at him. Nearly five thousand a month for the luxury studio, with the pool and the sauna on the second floor. But his favorite amenity was how the apartment left an impression. Admiration settled in between the tiles. The floor-to-ceiling windows were streaked with affirmation. Jealously hung in the air until the cleaners came, after which he always entertained. He loved seeing new people wander in his terrarium, sullying every surface with envy.
Tyler squinted, pretended he could see Celia’s building, The Highland Palms. She’d been his first assignment at ModenCorp. The company offered bribes up to fifteen thousand dollars to get rent-controlled tenants to move out. They made a profit within a year by leasing at market price. At this point Celia refused to even speak with Tyler. Last week, his co-workers had hazed him until happy hour, when they switched to disingenuous encouragement. “You’re there to do your fucking job,” Logan had said. “Right. She can use the buyout for a down payment,” Oscar had said. “We make more money, she gets a cushion. Win-win.”
Tyler went along with this twisted logic, expecting a promotion soon. Whoever replaced him would handle direct contact with tenants. For now, his commissions, his quality of life, were worth the internal conflict. And the money gave him the confidence and the air of disinterest to seduce women. What his numb tongue didn’t taste on the lips of strangers, he swallowed in their morning-mouth goodbye kisses. Although he displaced people, he contented himself knowing he would someday have a home that couldn’t be taken away. With a wife that would always want him and children that didn’t complain.
A knock at the door. Had he ordered food and forgotten? No, his favorite places were closed. It was strange. Nobody got upstairs without checking in at security. He looked through the peephole. A blurry form at the edge with long hair. He inched the door open. Celia stared up at him, holding a bottle of pinot noir.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi, what— how did you get up here?”
“The elevator. Polite thing to do is invite me in.”
“You wouldn’t let me into your house.” “Wouldn’t be fair. If you pitched me on my turf it wouldn’t’ve worked.”
“So, you’re ready to talk?”
“Ready to negotiate.”
“Long story.” She looked past him.
“OK, come in.”
Celia cut through the open floorpan, past the bauhaus sofa and along the glass walls. Tyler moved toward the kitchen. Instead of taking in the view, Ciela turned and walked straight for him, with a look between disgust and pity, as if she meant to tear him from the earth like a weed. Just before they collided, she reached past him and into a drawer for the corkscrew. She seemed to know exactly where it was kept, like she was going for it all along, intent on spilling the wine’s burgundy blood, not his. She pounced on two glasses and poured.
“Cheers,” she said.
“To your health, and your generous employers.”
“I thought we were scum.”
“Changed my mind. And if I didn’t, you’d find a way to get me out. Might as well get paid to leave.”
“Seems too good to be true.”
“It isn’t. It’s logical.” She took a long drink.
“How do you know where I live?”
“Anyone can find out where anyone lives. What’s the offer?”
“It was ten thousand at first.”
“So it’s ten thousand?”
Tyler took a step back, regarding her with interest. “I like you,” he said. “So I’m gonna tell you how it works. Which I would’ve told you already, if you ever let me get a word in.”
“Imagine being asked to leave after twenty years.”
“We understand that. The initial offer is good for a month. If you need more time, we lower the ask on the buy-back in order to offset the cost of renovating.”
“How much lower?”
“Your situation makes it trickier since you’ve been there so long.”
“Trickier.” She laughed.
“It’s actually a good thing. Renter’s protection and city ordinances… they get in the way. We can go higher than six K if you’re not budging.”
“I’m not budging.” She finished her glass. “More wine?”
“No thanks.” He needed a joint. “Mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all.”
Tyler went to sit down on the boxy sofa. He pulled out a bag from a drawer in the coffee table. “Seven thousand?” he asked.
“Ten.” She sat down next to him, a little too close.
He leaned over the table to distance himself and to grind the weed. “Seventy-five hundred is the best I can do.”
“If you can get ten K, I’ll give you two thousand.”
Giving him two thousand to make an extra five hundred? Either she wanted insurance or she wanted to sleep with him, he thought.
“Are you trying to corrupt me?” he asked.
Celia scoffed, mixing the air around with her line of sight, looking for something familiar to focus on. Tyler recognized her discomfort. He’d seen it before from his guests, when they struggled to relate themselves to his ultramodern domain. Was there anything to be felt here, by Celia, his friends, anyone trapped in this glass replica of success?
“Got anything stronger?” She asked.
Tyler put the joint down. The aroma itself was enough to throw the room off axis. He went to the bar. Celia took a seat at the raised kitchen counter. Tyler dropped a single sugar cube into two tumblers, then orange zest and a dash of bitters. He didn’t care if she didn’t like whiskey. Was her hair really strawberry-blonde? It could be the rose-tinted lights above her, misting her in a custom palette of tones. As he brought the drinks, he thought about switching the color to find out.
“Don’t be so afraid of things,” she said, leaning into him.
He pulled away from her. “I’m not.”
“Relax, I was just gonna say cheers.” She overplayed the gesture of lifting her glass.
“How do I know you’re gonna to pay me?”
“Trust me,” she said, stepping down from the counter, leaving her jacket slung on the chair. Her white dress folded neatly at the waist, with a belt tied around like a ribbon. Sliding off her shoes, she tiptoed to the windows, light-footed despite being ten years older. The view of the skyline usually humbled his guests, so Tyler followed to close the deal.
“With a place like this, I bet you can have any woman you want,” she said.
“And you’re so attractive, you think you can get eight thousand. Plus an extra two K by blackmailing me.”
“Mr. Vitoya,” she chided. “You have my word.”
“I’ll make us a contract.”
“Sure. Whatever you need.”
He jotted a contract on hotel stationery, making her equally responsible for what was planned. “I can’t see why you’d risk losing your place and the money. Just to bring me down. That will happen if you try something stupid.”
“Obviously I’d rather not leave, but my mom is sick. I have to move back home,” she said sharply.
“I’m sorry,” he said, not at all suspicious.
“Thanks. It’s fine.”
“If that’s the case, it’s better to just wait until you move out. No buy-back.’”
“What’s the difference? You’ll get two grand for doing nothing.”
He sighed. “OK. So long as we both understand.”
Tyler pressed the paper to the window and signed it. In the reflection, she slid her dress off of one shoulder, slowly, to make sure he was watching. “Let’s make it official,” she said.
“If you sign this, I’ll do whatever you want.”
She took the pen and slipped it under her dress, which shimmered as she moved her wrist back and forth. She placed her other hand over Tyler’s on the window, holding it for balance as her body began to shudder. “Help me,” she whispered, pulling his hand beneath her dress. Her warmth drew him closer, but he kept two fingers against the paper on the window. If he let go it’d be forgotten.
“I’ll help you,” he said, kissing her lips and neck. He brought her hand to the window and felt her sign above her name. Then, he let the pen and the paper fall as they fell upon each other.
Tyler slept through his morning alarms. He looked for the contract but found nothing along the baseboard. Searching under the sofa he found his phone. An email marked “Urgent” glared up at him. He scanned it for keywords. Suspended indefinitely, request for resignation, investigation pending, embezzling company funds. Tyler went to the window. The city swam in smog. He pressed his skull to the glass.
Celia lived at the Highland Palms for another twenty years.