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Landlord Wars: Chapter 11


Before I could take the time to contemplate what I was doing, I marched to the top floor of the building and knocked on Maxwell Burrows’ door. I also did more breathing exercises, because I was ready to kill him with my bare hands.

After a long pause, I heard the bolt shifting, and he answered the door, his eyes widening as though he were surprised to see me.

My mouth went dry, and my thoughts scattered. Max had changed out of his sweater and into jeans and a ratty T-shirt, and he’d done it in a hurry. His hair was sticking up in the back, as though he’d pulled the sweater over his head and hadn’t time to smooth it into place. The T-shirt he now wore was so thin it hugged the muscles in his shoulders and chest, and the jeans hung low on his narrow hips. All of this combined to blow a fuse in my brain, because Max didn’t look like his normal self.

He looked like the easygoing hot cousin.

His brow pinched, but it wasn’t a scowl. More like a look of guarded perplexity. “For your information, my office already has a plant person.”

My jaw clenched. In one fell swoop, he’d insulted my profession and accused me of soliciting. And nearly made me forget why I’d come.

Ignoring the hair sticking up that had him looking almost human, I said, “I’m not here to sell you something. I want out of my sublease, and I want my deposit back.”

He leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb—and there was the scowl I’d expected. “Why?”

For some annoying reason, my face heated. “You take every opportunity to insult me, like now with the plant dig, and”—I paused, calming my breathing—“you’re stealing my chocolate. The chocolate is the last straw. I work hard to afford those chocolates, and they don’t belong in your grubby hands.”

He blinked as though shocked. As though we hadn’t been at each other’s throats the last two weeks. Then his expression turned to ice, and he studied my face for a long heartbeat. “Jack could charge you for breaking the lease.”

“He wouldn’t do that.” I didn’t know Jack wouldn’t do that, but I was banking on his being a decent guy.

Max’s gaze narrowed. “I warned you not to use Jack just because he’s a nice person.”

“Yet not so nice last night with my sister, was he?” I imagined Jack was like any person licking their wounds after a breakup. But that didn’t excuse the sexist crap toward Elise.

Max’s gaze was hard and unfeeling for a long beat. “Fine. Consider the lease broken,” he said and shut the door in my face.

A day after my lovely encounter with Max, he sent a brief message via Jack that my deposit check would arrive in a day or two since he “trusted me to move out by the weekend.”

As easy as it had been for Max to usher me out, Jack wasn’t so happy. “What is Max talking about? You just moved in.”

I watered the outdoor plants I’d bought from my boss at a discount for the apartment niche between our two bedrooms. It was too small for a courtyard but let in light and was the perfect spot for greenery. I’d never had space at Mom’s for plants. It had been a pure luxury to have it here.

I’d questioned myself multiple times this morning about what the hell I thought I was doing moving out of this apartment. Then I remembered Max slamming the door in my face, and my hesitation evaporated. “It has nothing to do with you,” I told Jack.

I’d been putting off telling him about the move because of how much I liked him. But my time was up.

“Is it because of Max?” he asked.

I tested the soil moisture of one of the plants with my finger, avoiding the question.

“Because if so,” Jack said, “give him a chance. He comes across wound up at first, but he’ll calm down. He really is a great guy.”

I snipped off a dead leaf a little too violently. “I’ll have to take your word for that.” I felt bad doing this to Jack last minute, but it was the right thing.

He sighed. “Sophia, I’ll leave the lease available for the next couple of weeks. Please take some time to reconsider. If you do, I promise I’ll put a lock and bolt on your chocolate so Max can’t get to it.” He scrubbed a hand down the back of his head and mumbled, “Max and his sweet tooth.”

But it wasn’t just the chocolate. It was every word Max uttered, every accusation.

I stood and gave Jack a light smile. “That’s very kind, but you don’t need to hold the lease. Let’s grab a drink after I get resettled. I’ll be your wing woman the next time you go out.”

He chuckled. “I probably could use that. Speaking of progress in the romance department, have you heard from your date?”

I slammed the heel of my palm to my forehead. “Shit. I forgot to return his call.”

I’d been so distraught over the idea of moving out that I hadn’t thought about the guy Victor had set me up with, even though he’d called for a second date. I couldn’t get over the fact I’d compared him to the devil upstairs, and now whenever I thought of my date, I thought of Max Burrows. It wasn’t helping my mental state.

Jack laid a brotherly hand on my shoulder. “Either way, I’m available for wingman duties too.” His gaze wandered off. “I could use the distraction.”

That was cryptic, but it wasn’t like I was making sense these days either. It was insane to move from this place, but I couldn’t get over the strain of living beneath Max.

I swung by Mom’s the next afternoon after work to assess the situation at home, taking in the two-story Mediterranean revival. It stood out even though the houses in our neighborhood were nearly identical.

Right before my father died, he’d hired workers to repaint the exterior a pale tangerine my mom had chosen. The old place had been this warm shade of sunset, but now the chips and cracks in the orange revealed a gray subsurface and discoloration from dust and dirt. And then there was the white garage door that had never quite hung right—or really, ever been white. The color was a sallow yellow now, and mud-splotched. But my mom refused to repaint the house. She refused a lot of things, and Elise and I had stopped asking.

A shiver ran up my spine. It felt like a year had passed since I’d been home, not less than a month. I was backsliding, and the only way I could justify it was to tell myself it was temporary.

I knocked so as not to surprise Mom, then pulled out my key and opened the front door. My leaving had caused a massive anxiety crisis for my mom that lasted a solid week. After I moved in with Jack, she’d often sounded agitated over the phone. I wasn’t sure what I was in for, and sometimes diving in was easier than dragging it out with a preemptive phone call.

The first thing that hit me when I stepped over the threshold was the smell. Familiar and unwanted, a mixture of dust, mold, and something sweet I could never quite identify. Elise and I had gone to great pains to wash our clothes every week (especially the items hanging in the closet), so the fabric wouldn’t absorb the odor and make us smell when we went out. Whatever nostalgia I’d had for this place had faded a decade ago. Now the smell was like a gut punch that caused an immediate spike of adrenaline and my instinct to flee.

The space that made up the living room and dining area looked exactly the same. I wasn’t sure why I’d hoped my moving out would make a difference. As though fewer people in the house might change things. But if I’d taken a picture the day I left and compared it to now, there’d be no difference. The same newspaper, with an image of a New Year’s Day parade from twelve years ago, dangled precariously at the top of a ceiling-high pile of papers, magazines, and more newspapers. I was terrified to move too close to that particular stack for fear of being buried beneath it.

Several other tall stacks of mail and paper covered an ancient couch I hadn’t sat on in about fifteen years. There were cardboard boxes, an ugly old table lamp with a brown stain on the once-cream shade, and anything and everything you could imagine creating mountains of junk in the living and dining rooms.

Thank God Mom threw out food waste. Some hoarders didn’t.

My mother walked out of the kitchen, holding a ratty towel but looking neat as a pin in an outdated skirt and top she’d been wearing for as long as I could remember.

Her face lit up. “Sophia! What are you doing here? You didn’t tell me you were coming. I would have straightened up.” She looked nervously in the direction of my bedroom.

Other than the tea mugs I sometimes misplaced, I needed things orderly, or it gave me anxiety. I’d made a deal with Mom when I was in high school that my bedroom was off-limits. Other than taking up half my closet with clothes she never wore but refused to get rid of, she’d kept up her part of the bargain. But all bets were off once I moved out. I’d been gone less than three weeks, but it seemed that was enough time for my mom to have taken over my bedroom, given the look she’d just sent me.

“Is it okay if I move back?” The words came out sluggish, as though stuck to the roof of my mouth. This wasn’t what I wanted, but I had no other option at the moment. “The place I found isn’t working out, and I need somewhere to sleep while I search for something new.”

Her eyes widened in either excitement or surprise—it was unclear what went through my mom’s head when it came to her house. And then her forehead smoothed. “Of course, honey. This will always be your home. Though”—she looked behind her again—“your room might need tidying.”

I stepped closer and gave my mom a hug. “I know, Mom. Is there anything I can box up?” I’d stopped asking to get rid of things a long time ago, because it stressed Mom out and made her angry any time Elise and I brought up the notion.

Skimming her eyes over the living room and past an old exercise bike precariously holding clothing that had never been worn—the tags still on them—she seemed to search for something. A second later, she moved off the narrow path of bare rug and climbed on top of a pile of clothes—the only way to enter the living room.

My mom leaned down and lifted a half-full plastic container she’d magically spotted amongst the clutter. “This one still has space,” she said happily, and maneuvered her way back. “Go ahead and put anything you want out of your room inside here.”

Meaning I could place items she’d recently stashed in my old bedroom inside the plastic box, but she wasn’t getting rid of them. She hadn’t been able to get rid of anything since Dad died over fifteen years ago, and she routinely collected more, much to my and Elise’s dismay. “Sure, Mom.”

My mom returned to the kitchen with her dishrag, and I made my way down the narrow, darkened hallway, with books and clothes and plastic knickknacks shoved up against the walls, to my bedroom.

Before I opened the door, I mentally prepared myself. It had been spotless when I left, but that wouldn’t be the case now.

At first, the door wouldn’t budge. I shoved a little harder to get it to open and then stepped inside, but really that meant climbing over the top of a low mountain of clothes.

I was numb. I always felt hopeful that things would be different and then straight numb when they weren’t. The floor was covered not only with clothes but also boxes and papers. An old toaster peeked out of one of the boxes in the corner, and travel toiletries and plastic pill containers spilled out of another. Two dozen cheap vases were stacked against a wall, and a scratched-up wooden hope chest I’d never seen was covered with lamps and other items.

Tears burned my eyes, and I set the plastic container on top of a clothing pile, hitching my workbag higher on my shoulder. My mom picked up things off the street and through social media, but it boggled the mind the sheer volume she could collect in a short time. Was she getting worse?

Every time I saw evidence of my sweet mother’s mental illness, it was like being swamped by an ocean wave, powerful and impossible to fight.

There was no point in trying to pack today. I needed at least twenty boxes to clear everything out, not a half-full plastic container.

Absently, I heard the doorbell ring.

“I’ll get it,” my mom called, her voice carrying over the din of noise echoing inside my head.

Still pondering my dilemma, I thought nothing of someone coming to the house—until I heard the deep, liquid voice of a man.

I stumbled over clothes, knocked into a box, and nearly sprained my neck as I swung my head around the corner of my bedroom doorway to peer down the hall, giving myself a moment of vertigo.

Max Burrows…was inside my mother’s hoarder house?


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