Caroline ascended the steps. She held her breath.
Dusk settled over the doorway. The door was light blue, but in the shadows it looked like a murky gray. In front, a pile of objects lay on the welcome mat.
“Not tonight...” Caroline put a bag of groceries on the brick knee wall and crouched down. She touched the objects. A packet of sliced Sargento Havarti, browned by the sun and speckled in green, was propped up by a carton of large white eggs. Behind, lay a bag of red onions and a bouquet of wilted purple roses. Caroline crinkled her nose. It smelled like something died.
Pinching each package by her fingernails, she deposited the mysterious offerings in a nearby trash bin. She retrieved her bag of groceries and scooted inside.
The interior of the townhouse was toasty. Caroline slipped past unopened brown packing boxes into the kitchen. She dialed a number on her cellphone. A young voice responded.
Caroline unpacked the grocery bag. “Tommy? Is Mom home?”
“Nope. It’s just me. Mom’s running errands.”
“Bummer. Listen. I really need to speak to her.”
“She’s been gone for over an hour."
Caroline placed a wedge of Brie cheese in the empty refrigerator. “I found more gifts at my door. Onions and roses and other stuff.”
“That was yesterday. It’s been different things every day.” She sank to the floor and drew her legs in. “Why’s this happening to me? What’s wrong with this place?”
“Are you eating any of it?”
“Ewww, no! It’s been baked by the sun. Who knows how long it’s been out there.”
“That’s good. It’s probably poisoned.”
Caroline flinched. “I think I’m going to eat out tonight.” She thought of the evening before and relaxed. She had gone to a cosy restaurant, sat next to a cheerful fire, and ate anchovies on swordfish. She could do that again, or she could go to New Village Diner and treat herself to a prime rib or stuffed haddock. “I need to find someplace with parking. Why doesn’t this condo feel like home?”
“Have you eaten there?”
“I’ve only been here a week! I just found my dishes. I still need to unpack... get a chair... I haven’t had time. Besides, I just bought my first groceries.”
“Aren’t you scared?”
“No. I’m an adult now. I can handle this. I’ve got my job and my life. I have my own home. Everything’s under control.” She wobbled as she raised herself back to her feet. “I’ve got to go now. Tell Mom I called.” She put the phone down and took a deep breath.
Something banged on the window. Caroline shrieked and spun around. Outside, a bird disappeared below the sill.
“That’s it!” She grabbed her coat and her purse. Hopping over scattered boxes, she marched through the front door into chilled wind. She slammed the door behind her. “No more strange food. No more surprises at doors and windows and...” She paused as she noticed a man walking to the curb of the adjacent lot. He carried a bouquet with familiar packaging. Caroline’s heart skipped. “Hello!” She ran over. “Hi there!”
The man turned.
“I’m Caroline. I’m new here.” She pointed at the bouquet. “Have you been getting things at your door?”
The man glanced at the flowers. “You mean this? Yes. And I get food, too.” He opened his trash bin and dropped the flowers in.
Caroline straightened, relieved. “Isn’t that the creepiest thing ever?”
The man chuckled. “Oh, you shouldn’t mind it. It’s just something Derek does. He’s one of the original residents — lived here forty years or so.”
“Derek’s been delivering food to random doors for the last few months. He’s getting old and wants to see people happy. He’s trying to be kind.”
The wind stilled. Caroline stared at the trash bin. “I didn’t know. I thought someone was stalking my place.”
Her neighbor laughed. “No. Good heavens, no. Derek’s quite harmless. No need to worry about him.” He glanced at his doorway at some left-over objects. “Some of it’s still good. I don’t have to throw it all out. Do you want some?” He led her to his collection. “This pineapple’s fine.”
She accepted it. “You’ve made me feel much better.”
“Anytime. Let me know if you have questions about this place. I’ve lived here for quite a while.”
Caroline shook his hand. She returned to her condo and was enveloped by its warmth inside. She laughed. The fears accumulated over the past week melted under an inner glow of relief. She didn’t need to dread walking up her front steps. Those things on the mat were gifts from a friendly neighbor. He wanted to spread joy. It was a shame the food spoiled before she returned from work. She hummed. She could make dinner tonight. For the first time, she’d finally eat in her own place. She loved pineapple.
She put the fruit on the counter and drew a knife from a drawer. She turned the fruit over to slice off the crown.
Something stung her finger. She jerked away. A trickle of blood appeared. She examined the quilted skin of the fruit. A sliver of metal protruded from a seam. Something had been wedged inside.
“I’m an idiot!” She grasped its spindly leaves and dragged it to the front door. She flung it outside. “I’m having swordfish and anchovies tonight!”
The pineapple bounced down the steps into the darkness of the street.