Emmett couldn’t make out the words carried by the voices in the hallway outside his apartment, but he could tell their instructive intent by their tone. He could almost always tell the mood and identity by the tone, and that was the way he liked it. He had no interest in the personal details of his neighbors lives, but he preferred to have a general outlook on each of the people living around him. Long-divorced and retired, social observation had become his primary form of human interaction.
Putting a hand to his knee to support himself as he stood up from the bicycle on which he’d been working, he lifted his dirty spectacles from the bridge of his nose to the top of his head with one hand and fished his unfiltered cigarette from his over-full ashtray. Taking a long drag, followed by the heavy cough that expelled the smoke from his lungs, Emmett shuffled to the living room window, relocated the folding TV tray that held last night’s dinner plate and a tangle of bicycle brake lines, and brushed one side of the old sheer curtains aside.
The flurries in the air were not the full, fluffy flakes that could sometimes make even this rundown section of the city look clean and magical, but rather the type so sparse and fine that it took a few moments to determine whether they were truly there at all. Christmas was tomorrow, and it appeared the only snow the city would see in the meantime existed only in the gray, gravely piles of slush still lurking near the curbs and corners. The last survivors of the most recent snowfall, they’d evaded a sunny afternoon or two in the shadows to make it to the constant cold that waited in the deeper days of winter.
Across the nearly barren parking lot and the unforgiving traffic of Liberty Street, the frigid river pushed small skins of ice sluggishly past downtown’s hulking giants of steel, concrete, and glass. By night, they hid in the deceiving charm of the metropolitan holiday decorations, but in the piercing light of the winter’s sun, they were laid bare in a way that reminded one more of demanding time clocks and assembly lines than of cozy fireplaces and festive family dinners. A young mother led her hooded child across the parking lot below, and Emmett wished he could turn out the daylight to change that child’s…