The first time Stella noticed something amiss she was sweeping pine needles and leaves off her balcony. There had been a rain storm the night before and the pine tree in the back yard across the alley always decorated her balcony when the wind came from the north. That semester she was living above a bookstore on West 4th. The apartment was tiny, but it suited her because it was cheap. In the kitchen there was no oven, only a two-burner hotplate. The fridge, with its ice box that didn’t make ice, needed to be defrosted every month and groaned and squealed when it cycled on and off. The suite’s ceiling had water stains in two places, and her dresser had to be kept in the living room because once the bed was set up there was no room for any other furniture in the bedroom. But the apartment was filled with light from windows at both ends and the bookstore employees were friendly, letting her borrow books as long as she didn’t mark them up. If she had an urge to bake she could always go home to her parents house.
Stella liked the neighborhood. Both sides of 4th Avenue were lined with small shops that she could browse on the weekends, when she wasn’t working or studying. And it was only a few blocks to Kits Beach. She’d had several dates at the beach recently, sitting on a blanket, listening to a young man lecture her about Sartre or osmosis or systems engineering theory. They always seemed more interested in proving how smart they were than actually getting to know her. Nevertheless she enjoyed sitting in the sun, watching the undulating sea and the mountains on the other side of the bay.
Now though, autumn had arrived with a seriousness she had not expected in late September. The storm had knocked the power out for a few hours overnight and the radio had said there were trees down blocking the causeway leading to the Lions Gate Bridge. She would miss sitting on her small balcony, curled up in one of the beach chairs her father had loaned her, her friend Sharon in the chair beside her, gossiping about the boys in their gerontology class. She moved a clay pot of impatiens aside to sweep behind it. The blooms looked bedraggled and waterlogged, and petals littered the balcony deck. That’s when it struck her.
This pot was normally about two feet to the left of where it was now. She could even see the ring from where it normally sat marking the balcony’s wooden slats. For a second she wondered if the storm could have moved the pot and then dismissed that idea as ridiculous. It was far too heavy to be moved by the wind. Had she moved it? She didn’t think so. Maybe Sharon had shifted it the last time she was up here. Stella thought back, trying to picture Sharon’s last visit, but if the pot had been moved then she had no memory of it.
Shrugging to herself she pushed her broom around in the corner behind the pot, sweeping up the sharp green needles, and then dragged it back to where it belonged.
A week later summer had returned and was doing its best to pretend it had never left. Stella was sweating mightily as she hauled three bags of groceries up the narrow staircase at the side of the bookstore that led to her apartment. She dumped the bags on the kitchen floor and went to the balcony door to open it and let some air into the suite. She’d left the drop-cloth curtains she’d made open that morning before she went to school so all day the sun had been pouring into the apartment, heating it up like a greenhouse. She started to walk back to the kitchen and then did a double-take. There was a coffee mug on the tiny round table beside her beach chair. Stella stepped over the threshold onto the balcony.
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