“Oh.” Anni stared at her feet in black tights but no shoes. “Oh,” she said again, this time with the same panic she felt.
Lena waved her hands as if fanning a bad smell out of the room. “Go and get your shoes. Your good shoes.”
The doorbell rang again.
“Just a second,” Anni yelled.
Lena shushed and clasped her hands together as though praying, while Anni looked around the floor. “Oh good,” she said and shoved one foot and then the other into her mukluks, still waiting where’d she’d left them earlier. She tied the laces fast. “There. Okay. Go ahead.” She nodded in the direction of the door, but Lena stared with wide eyes at the puddle Anni’s boots had left on the floor. “What did—”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Just . . . answer the door.” Anni stepped in front of the puddle and smiled, her arms folded across her plaid vest.
Lena opened the door. A tall man with dark blonde hair, blue tired eyes, and an unshaven face looked back at them. He wore a wool navy topcoat, collar turned up, over a white shirt, blue tie, and gray pants.
Lena brought her hand to her throat, her eyes wider now than when she’d discovered the puddle.
Anni took the man in all at once, as did, it seemed Lena, though she looked as though someone had hit her between the eyes with a ball-peen hammer. He gave the impression of a stranger in a strange land, a traveler passing through with his large duffle bag slung over his shoulder and brown trunk sitting like a faithful dog at his feet. But a handsome traveler not much older than Anni who smelled like musk and Juicy Fruit gum.
“Hello,” he said and when he smiled his teeth flashed. At least, that’s how Anni would tell the story from that day on about meeting her first boarder. “I’m Mr. Enns. Perry.”
Like Perry Mason, Anni thought watching him from behind Lena who had not moved an inch since she opened the door.
“I hope I’m not too early.” Mr. Enns frowned and turned his wrist, revealing a silver watch. The outside air blew past him into the house, carrying with it his scent.
Lena stood as if in cement, staring, her hand still at her throat. Anni stepped to the door. “I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to be rude did we Lena you’re right on time I’m Anni Albach and this is Lena Wimmer welcome.” It all tumbled out like gumballs from a penny machine and he smiled again. “Please come in,” Anni said taking a breath and grinning like a pubescent teenage girl. “It’s freezing out there.”
Mr. Enns picked up his trunk by one handle then he and his smile stepped into the foyer. Lena moved for the first time and closed the door, but her face hadn’t changed since she first saw him on the porch. Stunned? Surprised? Smitten maybe? Anni nudged her hard with her elbow.
“You look familiar,” Lena said. She examined him like a new car she might consider buying. It wasn’t like her to be so personal; direct, but not personal, and never with strangers.
He studied Lena’s face. “Where are you from?”
“Near Berlin, Germany,” she said.
“Oh. I meant after the war. Here. In the U.S.”
“Brighton Beach. In New York City. ” Lena looked at his hands and bit her lip. Anni tried to insinuate herself between Lena and Mr. Enns before he noticed her staring.
He looked at the floor and rubbed the dark stubble on his chin. “That couldn’t be it, then. I’ve never been to New York.” He shifted the duffle on his back and looked around the room.
Lena studied his face, his hands, his clothes.
Anni clapped her hands together. “Maybe you’re long lost cousins. I guess that’s one mystery we can’t solve. Mr. Enns, you can leave your things here in the foyer,” she said, hoping to snap Lena back into place. “We’ll help you take them to your room later, after dinner.”
“Thank you.” He set the trunk and duffle on the floor. “I go by Perry. Mr. Enns makes me sound like an old man.”
Anni nudged Lena and mouthed “Stop it” to which Lena responded by blurting out, “Come with me. We’ll have dinner in here, when everyone has arrived.” She lumbered forward and waved her arm toward the kitchen like a novice magician’s assistant. Whatever spell she had been under was broken at last but she hadn’t shaken off the weirdness.
Mr. Enns looked at Anni as she rolled her eyes. “I haven’t eaten since early this morning, so I’m pretty hungry,” he said, glancing at the ceiling as he walked toward the kitchen door. “Nice texturing.”
“That is good,” Lena said and followed after him, chattering non-stop now about the dinner she had prepared.
Anni covered her face with her hands. Spectacular first impression. She hoped their first and so far only boarder wasn’t terrified that he’d stepped into a sort of Arsenic and Old Lace scenario. She lept up the steps toward her room to kick off her mukluks and put on her flats when the doorbell rang again, forcing her to turn around in mid-staircase.
She hurried to open the door, and staring at her from the other side was an older man in a brown hat and worn brown overcoat holding a suitcase in each hand. Beside him stood a petite forty-something woman with shoulder-length red hair wearing a smart ivory and gray wool coat with a fur collar. She held a small gray handbag and smiled a quivering peach-lipstick smile.
“Hello,” Anni said. “You must be Walter and Charlotte.”
Walter Otis fit the image Anni had formed of him from their one brief phone conversation. Short and thin, a face as set and hard as his opinions, impatient mouth, muddy brown eyes. Charlotte Denning, though, looked nothing like she had imagined. Neither did Perry Enns. But then, who could imagine Perry Enns?
“That is correct. But you may call me Mr. Otis.” His eyes behind black-framed glasses narrowed to m-dashes. “I assume you’re Anni?”
“Oh, yes. Anni Albach. It’s nice to meet you in person, Mr. Otis.” The lie stopped in the air and fell like a rock to the wood floor. But Anni’s smile was still polite.
The woman held out a white-gloved hand. “Charlotte Denning. Charlotte. How do you do.” Anni caught her fingers in a bird-like grasp before Charlotte pulled her hand away and left Anni’s hanging in the air.
Anni realized with some fear that she didn’t know much about the three people who would be sharing her home night and day. They gave her a personal reference, first and last month’s rent in advance, and a six-month commitment. Nothing more.
“Is there a reason we’re standing out here in the freezing cold?” Walter said leaning forward a bit toward Anni as if about to share a secret. His breath was as sour as his tongue.
Charlotte’s smile quivered even more and Anni thought she might cry. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to make you . . . Please come in.” Anni opened the door wider.
“Welcome to my home,” Anni said with forced enthusiasm as they stepped into the foyer. She closed the door behind them. “I guess I should say, our home. You can leave your bags here, Mr. Otis.” She emphasized “Mr.” but he didn’t seem to notice and he’d already set his suitcases next to Mr. Enns’ duffle and trunk anyway.
“We’re not the first ones here, I see,” Mr. Otis said. He unbuttoned his coat and pulled it off.
“You can hang that on the coat tree. No, you’re not. Our other boarder, Mr. Enns arrived right before you did. He’s in the kitchen with Lena. I thought we’d get to know each other over a nice meal before I take you around to see the house.” She motioned toward the kitchen.
“It smells delicious.” Mr. Otis surprised Anni then by smiling. A thin-lipped smile, but still. “In there?” He pointed to the open doorway down the hall and disappeared into the kitchen before Anni could answer.
Charlotte reached out and ran one gloved hand up the bannister. “Such a lovely place. Lovely.” Her voice sounded far away.
“Thank you,” Anni said. “Are your bags in the car?”
“One bag.” She turned and Anni noticed her eyes, warm and kind but also sad. “Thank you.” Charlotte pulled her into a tight embrace.
“Eh . . . um . . . okay. You’re welcome.” Anni stood still like a department store mannequin at first, but then patted Charlotte’s shoulder like she would tap a desk with a rolled newspaper.
The Albachs were not a hugging family. They loved each other but they didn’t touch a lot, and Charlotte sprang on her before she could give off the usual signals and create a safe buffer between them. So now here she was, being hugged.
Anni shifted from her left mukluk to her right mukluk as Charlotte sniffled into her shoulder. “We should join the others before they come looking for us.”
Charlotte let go and stepped away. “Darn it. I’m sorry. I’ve made you uncomfortable.” She took a handkerchief out of her purse and wiped under her eyes.
“No . . . well, yes a little. It’s not you, it’s . . .” Anni trailed off when she noticed Charlotte’s dangling false eyelash. “Your, um, eyelash has come loose.” She pointed but then folded her arms.
“What?” Charlotte felt her right eye.
“The left one.” Anni motioned with her chin.
Charlotte felt her left eye. “Oh.” She pulled off the eyelash and stuffed it in her handbag. “Stupid things. You know, I think they’re alive.” She blinked at Anni with one bald eye and one lashed one.
Had the bell not rung at that exact moment, Anni might have laughed herself right out of a boarder, though she was sure she saw Charlotte smirk before she turned to answer the door.
The man standing before Anni in a black suit and gray wool coat had the effect of a punch in the head. He had a sharp chin and high cheekbones above his red plaid winter scarf. His light brown hair was cut short beneath his black fedora and even though he wore dark glasses, she could feel his eyes on her. It wasn’t his face, though, that chilled her or his size because he was a broad man. It was what trailed him, something Anni felt but couldn’t see, that brought back the dread she’d felt for days, now with greater force.
“Madame.” He tipped his hat. “I understand you may have a room to let?”
Charlotte stepped up beside Anni. “Another boarder?” she said.
Anni shivered. “An unexpected one.”