I've looked at life from both sides now,
From win and lose, and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall.
I really don't know life at all.
- Joni Mitchell
We moved into the apartment complex when I was six, shortly after my Mommy told me that Daddy had to go away for a while.
"A new start," she had called it – something to be excited about. But she didn't look very excited as she packed up her bedroom. She left Daddy's clothes hanging in the closet but I don't think I was supposed to see.
Our new apartment was small, but nice. We had some neighbors. For the first few weeks, they were just voices through the walls – rising and falling, like the one time my Daddy took me to the ocean. I asked Mommy if they were fighting, like she and Daddy used to fight. She told me that they weren't fighting, just discussing loudly.
I didn't believe her.
The first time I see Mr. Will, I'm sitting on the fire escape overlooking the street. I like to let my legs dangle and pretend I'm much higher up than I really am. He parks his car and makes his way up the front walk. I wonder if he knows that his engine is dragging on the ground.
He looks tired. I know, because my Daddy used to look tired.
He pauses in the middle of the walk and adjusts his bag on his shoulder. It looks heavy. He sighs a big sigh and his shoulders sag as if someone has just dropped a weight on them. It must not be nice to have to carry something like that around.
He has very curly hair. I tug at my own shaggy brown fringe and wonder if mine will ever look like his. He must have noticed me move, because he looks up at the fire escape and gives me a small wave. I hesitate for just a moment, and then I wave back.
The shouting is loud tonight. Mommy locked herself in her bedroom in an effort to make it go away. She didn't say that, but I knew.
I crawl out to the fire escape at the end of the hall again. It's getting cold and I forget my jacket, but I don't want to go all the way back inside so I let my teeth chatter.
That night, I learn that the man with the curly hair is named Will. I call him Mr. Will because my Mommy told me that that's the proper way to say it.
"Is there room for two out there?"
I jump because I didn't hear his apartment door open and close, but he waits until I say it's okay to join me. I bite my lip, because I'm not supposed to talk to strangers, but he reaches his hand through the open window and says, "I'm Will."
"Hi, Mr. Will. I'm Luke." I take his hand. It's much bigger than mine. "I think you can fit."
I scoot over and he sticks one long leg out and pulls himself through. After a few minutes, he blows warm air over his hands.
I nod, but don't say anything. Like Mommy said, I'm not supposed to talk to strangers.
He stops heating his hands to ask, "Did you move in a few weeks ago?"
Again, I nod but stay silent. He leans back against the brick. It can't be comfortable.
"I thought so. I saw the moving truck."
"Did you get into a fight?" The words are out before I can stop them, but I slap a hand over my mouth all the same. Mr. Will smiles at the reflex.
"Why do you ask?"
I shrug. "The walls are thin." I play with the hole in my jeans. "And my Daddy used to leave the house when he and my Mommy fought."
Mr. Will's eyes soften and he says, "Oh. Are your Mommy and Daddy at home?"
All of a sudden, I want to cry and six-year-old boys don't cry. "No. Mommy said my Daddy had to go away for a while."
Mr. Will remains silent but he places a hand on my head. It's warm.
"Do you have kids, Mr. Will?"
He smiles but shakes his head. "I wish I did." And then he takes his jacket off and drapes it around my shaking shoulders.
It's two weeks before I see him again. I'm walking the three blocks between the elementary school and home but he still pulls over and offers me a ride.
I tell him, "It's only three blocks."
And he says, "But it looks like rain."
I look at the sky and sure enough there's a big black cloud coming in fast. Mommy always said that when the sky looks like that, God's angry and you should get inside fast. Mommy also grew up in Kansas where God threw tornados at people who misbehaved… at least, that's what she said. She may have been fibbing.
Mr. Will reaches across and opens the side door for me. I jump in, backpack and all, as I feel the first raindrop hit my head.
"Good timing, huh?" He says as he watches the drops mark up his windshield.
"Uh huh." I swing my backpack around and drop it on the floor. "Thanks."
He smiles at me. He has very straight teeth. I still have baby teeth, but don't tell anyone. It's the first time I've seen Mr. Will really smile. He seems happier and I realize that I haven't heard the voices through the wall recently.
"Hey, guess what?" he asks.
"You got a dog?" I like guessing games.
He laughs and it fills the car. "Not quite. You asked me a couple of weeks ago if I had any kids. Well, I'm going to."
"Have a kid? Really?"
He nods and his face must hurt from smiling so much. I can't even take a school picture without my face hurting.
"It's gonna be a boy."
"That's cool," I say as he pulls into the parking garage. I don't like the parking garage. It's scary.
I don't see Mr. Will for a while after that, but I hear music coming through the walls and, one night when I took the trash to the chute, I saw a man in a really ugly blue suit knocking at his door.
The next time I see Mr. Will, I'm sitting on the fire escape and he waves to me from the front walk. He's carrying a stuffed rabbit under his arm.
I run back into my apartment and rummage under my bed. I know I put it there. Maybe Mommy moved it. We haven't been here that long but already there's a ton of stuff shoved under here. Wow, a push-pop. I put it in my pocket for later.
Finally finding my prize, I tell my Mom I'll be right back and I bound down the hall to knock on Mr. Will's door. A lady answers.
"Oh hi. You must be Mrs. Will."
She looks at me like I'm a space alien. "And who are you?"
"Oh. I'm Luke. I live down the hall. Is Mr. Will here?" I hide my present behind my back and stand on tiptoes to see around her. I can hear Mr. Will whistling. It's a song I know from somewhere but I can't remember.
I jump. She can yell really loud. Mrs. Will walks away, leaving me standing shyly in the doorway. Mr. Will sticks his head into the hallway a minute later and I feel better.
"Hey there, Luke. What's up?"
"I brought something for your new baby." Mr. Will looks really surprised.
I nod and I'm almost bouncing, I'm so excited. I pull the leather mitt out from behind my back and hand it to him.
"It's my old baseball glove. My Daddy got it for me when I was really little, but it doesn't fit anymore. You can give it to your new boy."
Mr. Will takes the mitt from me very gently, like he's afraid he'll break it. But you can't break leather, even I know that. Mr. Will doesn't say anything for a while and I start to worry. Maybe he doesn't like it. Maybe he wanted to get his own baseball mitt for his baby. Finally he says something and I realize I've been holding my breath the whole time. I'm a little dizzy.
"Thank you, Luke. That was…" He stops talking and he looks like he could cry and I don't know what to do, because if six-year-olds don't cry, then grownups definitely don't cry.
"That was very nice, Luke." He puts his hand on my head again and I like the feeling. My Dad used to do it. I feel kinda bad giving away the mitt that my Daddy gave me, but I don't use it anymore. Besides, he gave me a bat, too. That I think I'll hold onto.
"Wait here for a sec, I'll show you something cool."
Mr. Will jogs back down the hallway and comes back a second later with a gray, fuzzy picture.
"This is the baby."
I squint real hard, trying to see it. It's like one of those hidden picture games on the back of my Froot Loops box. If you look at it cross-eyed, a dolphin appears… or something like that. But no matter how crossed my eyes get, I can't see a baby.
"It looks like the blob that my friend Tommy made from mud, water, and jell-o." Mr. Will laughs. I'm happy I can make him laugh.
"Here." He points at an area on the piece of paper. "That's the head. That's an arm and that's a leg."
I looked back and forth from the picture to him. "Did we all look like that?"
He laughs again. "I'm afraid so."
A few days later, I run into some crazy girl named Rachel in the hallway. She's wearing the ugly gloves my Mom wears when she cleans the toilet.
I know her name's Rachel because I hear Mr. Will say it. He sounds like my Mom does when she's about to put me in a timeout.
I don't see Mr. Will for long time after that and when I do, he doesn't always wave.
After awhile, I stop hearing the fun music through the walls.
The loud voices are back.
One night, I wake up because I think I hear someone in the apartment. My Mom's still asleep. She's gotten used to the noises in the building. I think that if I get used to the noises, Darth Vader will come get me in the middle of the night and I won't be prepared.
I tiptoe through the apartment, grabbing a frying pan from the kitchen, just in case. I creak the front door open and see Mr. Will sitting in the hall outside his door. He's shaking and I wonder if he's cold.
I lower my frying pan and walk towards him, my peejay bottoms dragging on the floor. They were too big when my Mommy got them for me but she said I'd grow into them. I'm still waiting to.
He looks up and I almost run back into my apartment and hide under the covers. I've never seen someone look so sad, not even when my Mommy said goodbye to my Daddy. I feel like I shouldn't be here.
"Luke, it's late. You should be in bed."
"So should you." I know grownups don't exactly have bedtimes, but even they need some sleep.
I get closer and wrinkle my nose. He smells like the doctor's office right before I get a shot.
"Do you need help, Mr. Will?"
He doesn't move or say anything for a while and I wonder if he heard me. He stands but he looks so wobbly, I'm afraid he's going to fall back down. I see a few tears on his cheeks and I want to run away again. They're the quiet tears, like when your Mom yells at you. They aren't the loud tears like when you fall off your bike and scrape your knee.
"I didn't think grownups cried."
Another tear drops. "Trust me. They do."
"Do you need someone? Can I call Mrs. Will?"
Mr. Will cries harder and now I'm really scared. He roots around in his pockets and pulls out some keys. He holds them up close to his face, like he can't really see them. He finds the right one, but it takes him a few tries to get it into the lock. When he finally does, he pushes the door back and just stands there.
"Can you do me a really big favor?"
I feel myself nod.
"Can you go in there and make sure it's empty?"
I look into the dark apartment and back at Mr. Will. I don't want to admit I'm scared but my heart's beating really fast and my stomach starts to hurt. "Do you think it's haunted? Is that why you won't go in there? Are there ghosts?"
He smiles, but it's not a happy one. "Not the kind of ghosts you're afraid of."
I'm not sure what he means by that but I take a step into the apartment all the same. If Mr. Will needs me to do something, I'm going to do it, ghosts or not. Still, I'm pretty happy when he flicks the hallway light on.
I've never been in Mr. Will's apartment before. It's cleaner and neater than mine but it looks like someone left in a hurry. There are pictures knocked over and clothes in the hallway. It's usually how I leave my room when I'm late for T-ball.
Even though it's dark, I can still see Mr. Will standing in the doorway and I'm not afraid. I walk through all the rooms and call out that the apartment is empty. Granted, some ghosts are invisible, but I don't tell Mr. Will this. I doubt it's something he wants to know.
Mr. Will finally enters the apartment and hands me his cell phone. I hold it like it's a ticking bomb. I'm not allowed to have one until I'm 14. Mommy said.
"I need you to call Emma. E-M-M-A. I'm seeing double of everything at the moment and I can't really read."
I can feel my eyes go wide. How cool must it be to see two of everything? Two scoops of ice cream, two TVs, two soccer balls. Then I think of Mr. Wilson's dog down the street and I don't think it would be cool to see two of those.
I find her name in his phone and hit the green button. A sweet voice answers a moment later. I tell her that Mr. Will needs her and she tells me she's on her way before I can even tell her that he's seeing double. She probably should know that.
Mr. Will collapses on his couch and I think he must be pretty tired. I'm pretty tired and I've already gotten some sleep tonight. I wait with him until Emma shows up, but next thing I know, a pretty lady with red hair is shaking me awake and I look around and see that I've fallen asleep next to Mr. Will on his couch.
I feel myself being picked up and I think the pretty lady asks Mr. Will if he should be doing that.
I hear Mr. Will say that he won't drop me and I really hope he's right. My eyes are barely open but I know that he's carrying me through my apartment. I hope my Mommy doesn't wake up. She'll be pretty mad and put me in a timeout. She can't put Mr. Will in a timeout, so I don't really want to know what she'd do to him.
I'm more asleep than awake now but I still feel Mr. Will's hand brushing the hair away from my forehead. It's the last thing I remember.
The next morning, my Mom asks me why I'm almost falling asleep in my Cheerios, but I keep quiet.
Us ghost hunters gotta stick together.
Mr. Will avoids me for the next few days. I know he is because every time I see him, he hurries in the other direction.
Finally, I catch him in the stairwell and he can't run, because running up the stairs is hard and running down the stairs is dangerous.
"Hi, Mr. Will."
He looks like I do when I have to speak in front of the class. His hands are shoved in his pockets and he's scuffing his shoe against the floor. My Mommy keeps telling me I'm going to ruin my soles… whatever they are.
"I haven't seen you in a while." I take one step closer and he takes one step back.
"Yeah, well. I've been busy."
The one thing I always noticed about Mr. Will was his wedding ring. It always caught the too-bright lights that were in our hallway and made me squint if I looked directly at it. Today, Mr. Will isn't wearing his wedding ring and I have a feeling I won't be seeing Mrs. Will around anymore. I wouldn't mind seeing Emma. I like Emma.
"Look, Luke, I'm really - "
"It's okay, Mr. Will."
I don't want him to say sorry because he lost something and I get upset when I lose things. I don't see double, but I'm pretty sure he lost something a little bit more important than my baseball card collection, so he's allowed to see double.
I take one step closer and this time he doesn't take one back.
I hold out my hand, like I see them do in the movies.
And just like in the movies, Mr. Will takes it.
The next day, I find my old baseball mitt, all wrapped up, waiting for me on my doormat.
I never, ever ask him why he doesn't need it anymore.
The fun music is back. I can hear it through the walls. Sometimes my Mommy and I dance in the kitchen while we make spaghetti. She says it's a song by the Beatles, but I don't know why anyone would name a band after a bug.
Mr. Will invites us both over for dinner that week and Emma answers the door. I like Emma.
He says he's busy with his "glee club." It's a weird name but they sing and dance so it can't be all that bad. After dinner, he takes me into the living room and teaches me some spin moves. I almost break his coffee table, but he doesn't seem to care.
A few weeks later, the music is so loud that I almost don't hear the knock on my front door.
I open it up and Mr. Will stands there, sweaty but smiling as he invites me to a party at his apartment. Mr. Will doesn't seem like the partying type.
I follow both him and the noise and see lots of teenagers dancing and jumping around. They're singing another song by the bug band and there's a large trophy in the middle of the room that wasn't there the last time I was here.
I go away for summer camp and when I come back, there's an envelope waiting for me on the side table.
I rip it open because I never get mail and see a white card with swirly blue writing. Emma is going to be the new Mrs. Will.
My Mom buys me a special suit just for the occasion.
At the reception, I show Mr. Will just how much I've been practicing my spin moves.
The next time he shows me a fuzzy, grey picture that looks like a blob, I immediately run to my room and remove the package from under my bed. It's still wrapped in the paper Mr. Will put it in when he left it at my door.
When I hand it to him, he tells me, "But it's a girl."
I shrug. "Girls throw too."
Mr. Will nods. "Good point. When was the last time you played catch?"
I stop smiling because I know exactly how long it's been. Daddy played catch with me the day before he left. He left one year, ten months, and five days ago.
But Mr. Will doesn't need to know that.
"I'm a bit rusty," I tell him.
"Well, if you're going to teach my little girl how to throw, we better practice." Mr. Will disappears into his apartment and returns with two gloves. He tosses the smaller one to me.
"This mitt used to be mine, but like you, I grew out of it. I guess I've been holding onto it until it was needed."
I want to say thank you, but I can't. I tell myself that seven-year-olds don't cry, but then I remember Mr. Will's words and I let a tear fall.
If Mr. Will sees, he doesn't say anything.
I like Mr. Will for many things, but I think I like him for that most of all.
The sounds that come through the walls have become comforting. The fun music hasn't stopped since the night Mr. Will handed me his cell phone and neither has the laughter, but now there's a new sound.
And when we hear that baby crying, we don't mind one bit.
Mr. Will still joins me on the fire escape. He says it's nice to have some "man talk" in a house full of girls.
I can't help but agree.