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"Stay Red" by Nikki Williams

Alex kept digging until her forearms were on fire. She crouched down, clawing through layers of hats, purses, belts, wishing she’d worn leggings instead. The field of cardboard boxes surrounding her mocked her hurried efforts. Dropping her head low she moved faster, ignoring the heat clinging to her skin.

So far she’d only brought out the essentials. A file box with text books and trophies now doubled as a TV stand. "MISC" was written on the box in her own hand. Bridgerton was a cruel master.

Alex liked her new apartment. Mostly. The walls were a strange shade of beige, though. Neutral, like clay. She blamed her apprehension accordingly. Perhaps that was why she was still fishing out shoes and silverware weeks after moving in.

When her wrists complained, Alex stopped looking and went with her only option – a mustard belt that turned her sleek outfit into a veritable Batman costume. At this point, she’d be driving like the caped crusader to get to her dinner meeting early anyways. Walking to her car, she wondered how much longer until it didn’t feel like she was winging it in the city


Alex got the greenlight from Mandy Laparkan that night, then ran right into Karen D. Andrews.

At dinner, she let her tacos get cold, studying Mandy’s pout as they discussed statistics. Alex was suddenly glad for her recent bout of insomnia. She’d redo the SWOT later on and submit three new KPI's for each quarter. Potential clients loved pageantry. Mandy would have the report by dawn while Alex drifted off to the sounds of the stirring city.


Alex waddled from her car to the apartment, arms and bladder full, grateful for ground floor convenience. Dashing through the door, she was halfway down the corridor as keys-iPad-jacket landed on the only chair in one swift move. The plush, cognac-brown loveseat had seen several seasons, almost all of Alex's cliffhanger episodes since college.

Alex was getting ready to shower when she remembered her leftovers. Grabbing the paper bag, she pinched at the cling-wrapped contents and almost tripped over a box marked ‘Assorted’ on her way to the fridge. She eyed the box sullenly, suddenly sure of where her chic black belt was. Alex closed her eyes and sighed.

As she lifted her head, she stared straight into a curious gaze at her kitchen window.


“Hi there!” came the cheery voice. The woman waved as Alex blinked to banish the mirage.

“I came by earlier. I hope I’m not intruding,” she continued.

“I’m Karen…Karen D. Andrews. From upstairs. Well, not from upstairs, but you know what I mean,” she said, laughing at her own joke.

Alex’s breath was still lodged in her chest. It was her turn to say something.

“Um, hi,” she managed. She checked the watch on her left hand.

“I just thought I’d check if you were settling in ok. I brought you these,” Karen said holding up a package. Her smile widened.

It was 9:11pm.

But Karen wouldn’t budge. Beaming in bright pink gym clothes, watching her through the blinds.

“That’s nice of you,” Alex began. “The thing is –”

“Oh, I won’t stay long, dear,” Karen chirped.

“Right,” Alex sighed, crawling to the side door.

“I just thought I’d introduce myself, see how everything’s going,” Karen said as she entered. Her eyes wandered around the space — long duffel bags, boxes stacked in corners.

“These are for you,” she said, handing Alex a new set of kitchen towels. Fruit print. Neutral.

“Thanks,” Alex said. “I’m great actually. I’m kind of in the middle of ten things right now though so…”

“Oh! Well, I’ll let you get right back to it then,” Karen said, slowly stepping off.

She stopped again suddenly, picking up Alex’s rag doll off the kitchen counter. More signs there was still much to unpack. “Is this your daughter’s?” Karen asked, smoothing the doll’s brown tresses, wearing a different grin.

“Nope,” Alex said casually. “Not about that life.”

Karen D. Andrews pulled her eyebrows together.

“Do you have kids?” Alex asked, leaning against the door.

Karen’s answer was in her eyes.

“Not yet,” she said.

“Anyway, good night dear,” Karen said, disappearing into the dark.


One morning, Alex was awoken by a faint knock. Whoever it was guessed correctly that she was still straddling sleep and wakefulness. It was Karen’s husband dropping off the new gate remote. Like his wife, his eyes darted elsewhere, everywhere when she cracked the door. Without a greeting, he gingerly handed her the remote. There was a chill in the gut of his silence, even at dawn.


On a windy Saturday in the summer, the neighbors threw a birthday party for their daughter. Alex watched Karen from her living room window flitting among the parents, sans spouse. When she saw the birthday girl, Karen brushed back the little girl’s curls and bent to tie her laces. The toddler ignored Karen’s smile, busy bouncing a large pink balloon.

As she watched her, Alex remembered the dull pains in her legs, times she’d gone numb in her new home searching for essentials not yet unpacked. Sometimes she’d kneeled while looking, trusting it would be there. Hopeful.

Staring as Karen slowly spun the shoelaces, she pictured the couple’s matching Toyotas, always several paces apart.

She thought of Karen's sunny bearings; her husband, a shadow.

When the laces were in neat bows, Karen scooped up the toddler, spinning her in the air. The shocked child shrieked as the pink prize left her palm. Her tears fell harder the higher the balloon went.

Alex’s eyes followed it until it was a dot in the sky. A withering stare was waiting. A florid face met her own.

Karen eyeballed her in static silence, the bright balloons between them lined up like ellipses.

Nikki is a multimedia journalist and writer. Her work appears in The Citron Review, Ellipsiszine, Sublunary Review, LEON Literary Review, Literary Yard and is forthcoming in HOOT and PreeLit. She munches trail mix and takes stunning photos when not busy writing. She tweets: @ohsashalee / See more:

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