chapter one: the house
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself within a dark wood,
Where the straight way was lost.
- La Divida Commedia, Inferno Canto I
I was the first one to see the house. It loomed out of the streaming rain, a ghostly shape silhouetted in the early gray morning. My eyes widened with interest, and I pressed my face up against the window as we drove down the long, sweeping drive. Sophie was in the driver's seat beside me, sleepy eyes squinting through the rainy gloom. Logan sat in the back with his twin brother, Haakon. The three of them were silent. They had no idea that we had arrived – that we were only a few yards away from the house that we might share.
Fingertips lightly tapping the cold glass before me, I announced to the three of them, "We're here."
"Huh?" came Haakon's puzzled grunt from the backseat.
"You can see it?" Sophie asked, glancing at me. "Where?"
I pointed. "It's right there, through that copse. See?"
I could hear Logan and Haakon scrambling to the right side of the car to peer out of the window. As we neared, and the thick pines above us collected and thinned some of the harsh rainfall, we could see the house more clearly. It was a mix of modern sleekness and rustic antiquity, paneled in dark wood and wide square windows. Evergreens rose above a lawn of lush, green, waterlogged grass, their branches stirred by the damp wind. The entire building was three stories high, but the windows at the very top of the structure suggested an attic, or perhaps even a fourth story. Even from the car I could see the glint of homemade wind chimes hanging from the eaves of a long porch. Several bright yellow buckets rested on a loamy patch of earth on the side of the house, forming splashes of color in the rainy gloom. They overflowed with water; it looked as though one of the tenants was harvesting rain, though for what purpose I didn't know.
"Nice," Haakon said appreciatively, as we swung into the cobblestone drive. "I'm liking the place already."
"Better than the pictures," Sophie agreed. Her eyes were bright with excitement. "What do you think, Logan? Cole?"
While Logan didn't respond, I smiled and said, "It looks really beautiful. I can't wait to meet the other housemates."
"How many are there again?" Haakon asked.
"Four others," Sophie responded, as she parked the car and cut the engine. For a moment, the only sound we could hear was the rain whispering softly on the roof above us. "Two girls, two guys. It's a massive house – plenty of room for the eight of us, maybe even nine. Today we're meeting with a woman named Melanie. She'll be giving us a tour of the house."
"I'm surprised she invited us over so early," I said.
Logan gave a weary grumble of assent.
Sophie shrugged. "She says that everyone living here's an early riser. Sounds like that might be a problem for you, huh, Logan?" she added, amused.
Haakon leaned forward in his seat, his gray-green eyes darting between Sophie and me. "No use in just sitting here. Let's get going, shall we?"
We said nothing as we clambered out of the car and into the cold, rainy quiet. Once again, the only sound that fell around us was that of the heavy October downpour, briefly coupled with a distant sigh from the timbers as the wind swept through them. Like the rest of my companions, I found myself staring up at the dark, massive house that stood before us. Sophie was right – it looked enormously better in person than in the photographs we had seen online. The house was lovelier, the wide lawns greener, the entire setting simply beautiful and reclusive. I found myself thinking how lucky we were to have found a place as cheap as this – and with so many open rooms available, at that.
Hands deep in my pockets, I followed my friends as they trudged up the slippery stone walkway leading to the porch. We had barely reached the first few steps when the door flew open, and the girl who must be Melanie appeared. My first impression of her was that she was extremely pretty. She had a wide smile and a set of dark green eyes that reminded me of the evergreens around us. Her messy black hair tumbled out from underneath a thick woolen cap, several of the strands twined with feathers or tied into miniature braids. She was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and shorts, which was strange considering the frigid morning temperatures. Her left arm had a stylized black tattoo of circuitry, while the right had a design I could only compare to traditional Maori markings.
"Good morning," she said politely, holding her tattooed arms open.
To Haakon's obvious pleasure and to everyone else's surprise, she hugged each of us. Then she stepped back, cocked her head to one side, and studied us with a pensive expression. "It is such a pleasure to finally meet the lot of you. I am Melanie Yuma, the fourth resident of this household. You may call me Melanie, or Yuma, or any other name you can think of. I answer to almost anything. And you must be…hmm, let me see, now…Sophie Grant, Haakon and Logan Langerud, and Colette Greenwood, all students at Boris State University."
She listed our names off with ease, the green gaze of hers lingering on one face to the next. As we stood on the porch with the rain dripping all around us, I could not help but notice her eyes and how misty they appeared – dreamy and distant, as though she wasn't quite with us in a reality sense. She seemed to notice my inquisitive stare and turned her head to smile directly at me. I was surprised to be singled out, but nonetheless I smiled back and said, "Nice to meet you."
"And you, Colette," Melanie said, inclining her head.
"Cole," I corrected her.
"Yeah," Haakon said suggestively, leering at Melanie. "Very nice to meet you, miss."
Smiling, Melanie gestured towards the house. "Well, let us remove ourselves from the wet and the cold and find more comfortable conditions inside. I take it you have yet to eat today? How about we have some tea and breakfast, and then I will give you a tour? Does that sound good?" Without waiting for a response, she turned and drifted inside the house. Haakon followed instantly with his brother at his heels, but Sophie and I hung back. I glanced at my friend; her expression was stony, and her eyes burned into the back of Haakon's black jacket. I cracked a smile, shrugged at her, and stepped through the massive doorway.
I found myself standing in one large, open living space. It looked like the combination of a den, office, and dining room. The walls and floors were made up of a rich dark wood. Silvery daylight filtered through skylights that punctured the high-beamed ceiling. The next two stories had balconied lofts stretching over the main room, both of which were accessed by a heavy wooden staircase to my right. As for the furnishings, they were varied and completely random. There was a navy sofa seated next to a dark leather loveseat. A glass vase brimmed with multicolored candies, while another was filled with what looked like sand, or dirt. I did not see a television, but there were a few computers and laptops on a large glass desk in the far corner. The coffee table, which rested in the center of the room, was cluttered with all sorts of things – playing cards, a compass, bread knives, water bottles, and a pile of old books.
My friends and I couldn't stop staring. I was so absorbed by everything around me that I hadn't noticed that the number of people in the room had become six instead of five. Someone else had joined us, and I immediately guessed that he was one of the four residents. He was leaning up against one of the beams attached to the ceiling, muscular arms folded across his chest. His head was shaved and his skin was the color of sand. Beneath his thick eyebrows was a dark, hooded gaze that appeared almost haughty. But after a moment he lowered his arms, his gaze softening to mild curiosity, and approached my friends and me.
"What do we have here, Melanie?" he asked.
"New housemates," Melanie said, beaming at him. "Well, potential new housemates. They are considering staying with us for the fall and spring semesters."
"I see." A cool, slate-gray gaze passed over each of us.
Melanie said happily, "Haakon, Logan, Cole, Sophie, I would like you to meet one of my greatest friends and fellow roommate, Jack Harper. He attends Boris State as well. I wonder…have any of you met before?"
"I know her," Jack said, nodding at me.
I stared at him in surprise. "You do?"
"Yes. Last name Greenwood?"
"You were in my communications course."
As I dove into the pool of my memories, determined to wade through meaningless thoughts until I uncovered a Jack Harper, he spoke again. His dark eyes were narrowed. "Don't trouble yourself trying to remember me," he advised, his voice a strange blend of frost and amusement. "I wasn't in class all too much. The only reason why I remember you is because I erased your name from the presentation time slots and added mine instead, so I could present my research paper earlier. In case you ever wondered why your time mysteriously vanished and the professor had you present last, that was because of me."
Haakon laughed, but his laugh was nothing compared to the howling guffaws that Melanie unleashed. Sophie looked disgusted while Logan raised his eyebrows in incredulity. I simply shrugged at Jack, not sure what to say except, "Well…thanks for that."
"Anytime," Jack said. He smirked.
When her laughs finally quieted to chortles, Melanie said, "All right you four, as you can see, this is the living room. No television, as we do not watch that garbage. Television is for mindless drones and people with brains the size of acorns. You remember that. Anyway, this room is really just a nice study and eating area, and sometimes we gather here on the weekends to play cards or charades." Behind her, Jack shook his head in disagreement. She went on, "Pretty neat, eh? Now, if you will follow me, I will show you to the kitchen and we can grab something to eat."
Before she had taken a single step, Jack strolled forward and touched her on the arm. His tone was light and offhand, but I could see how sharp his eyes had become, like shards of glass. "Does he know that they're considering staying with us?"
"I might have mentioned it to him, yes."
"Melanie," Jack cautioned.
"What?" Melanie asked innocently. "We need new housemates, do we not? I know it, you know it, he knows it. If he is upset, which is highly doubtful, then he will get over it."
While I studied Jack, measuring his vague warning, Melanie spun around and headed for the kitchen. Sophie shot Jack a wary look before leaving the living room with Logan, Haakon, and me.
I found that I was quite fond of the kitchen. It was large in size but still very spacious, with the walls painted a muted teal color. The floor ran beneath our feet with panels of glossy wood. Skylights punctured the ceiling while windows showed the misty green world outside. There were signs of casual life here – dictionaries and playing cards on the table, Thai takeout menus and to-do lists tacked to the stainless steel refrigerator, granite countertops weighed down with a bag of fresh plums and, strangely enough, loaves upon loaves of bread. There were at least five different kinds, too – sourdough, sweet, rye, pumpernickel, and even naan. I wondered if bread was some kind of staple food in this household.
"So, what was that all about?" Sophie asked quietly. She leaned up against one of the countertops, eyes dancing around the room. Logan stared longingly at a jar full of oatmeal cookies while Haakon paused by the windows to watch the falling rain.
"Melanie?" Sophie said, sounding irritable.
Melanie, who had been rummaging through the cupboards, swung around. "Did you say something?"
"I want to know what you and Jack were talking about just now."
Melanie chuckled. "Oh. Yes, well I suppose I ought to fill you in. You see, the owner of this house lives upstairs – in the attic, actually. He is about our age. In his late twenties, I should think. He lets me take care of almost everything around the house – from finding new tenants to paying bills to handling necessary repairs. He just wants his peace and quiet. That's all."
Sophie looked shocked. She might have wanted to discuss the matter further, but Melanie slammed a yellow jar of yeast extract on the counter and said, "All right. Vegemite on toast, anyone? I love Vegemite and I love bread, and as you can see, we have quite a grand selection of the stuff. I was going to fetch you doughnuts, but unfortunately there was not enough time. So, this will have to do. We have some margarine to put on the toast, too. Just give me a second and I will grab some…"
I found Vegemite to be very strong and very full of flavor. It wasn't too bad, but when Haakon took a bite, he looked as though he'd been stabbed in the throat or something. Logan happily ate his, but Sophie slowly lowered her toast and shot Melanie a reproachful look. While we ate, Melanie chattered away. First, she gave us a short background of the house. Although built in the early twentieth century by a man named Egon Wishaw, it had been remodeled nearly a decade ago, hence its semi-modernity. Skylights had been added, along with two more stories and a large wrap-around porch. Not only that, but the entire siding had been replaced, the interior walls and floors redone and repainted. Melanie gloomily commented on how she wished she could have seen the home in its former 1920s-era glory.
"What I wouldn't give," she mumbled wistfully.
When she seemed to have recovered from her brief distress, she moved on to describing the other tenants. There was Jack of course, who had moved to Boris from Olympia to pursue a major in journalism at the state college. She launched into his likes and dislikes – apparently he was quite fond of clam chowder, while he absolutely despised almost everything about society. Another male roommate, who occupied the second floor, also attended Boris State University. His name was Elliot Smith, and he was studying mechanical engineering. Melanie assured us that he would have liked to meet us today, but had left town to attend an inventor's convention in the San Francisco bay area. "If you decide to stay," she said, "you will meet him soon enough. Elliot is awesome. A little loony, but awesome all the same."
Another tenant mentioned was Beau Glace. When Melanie spoke of her, her mood grew slightly colder, and I wondered if there had ever been a rift between the two of them. However, despite the iciness filling her eyes, she spoke very highly of Beau. After that, she moved on to herself. Her full name was Melanie Rose Yuma. She was twenty-five-years-old, and hailed from a small town in California known as Pillar Point Harbor, just north of Half Moon Bay. She had taken a semester off from school to fulfill an internship at a local publishing company but was hoping to continue pursuing her major sometime again soon. Her favorite animals were Siberian tigers, she had nineteen tattoos and counting, and she seemed extremely adamant about someday marrying the actor James Franco.
With the brief biographies done, I almost found myself asking about the landlord upstairs. He wasn't exactly a tenant, but he was considered a resident, wasn't he? Of course he was. He lived here, after all. My eyebrows came together as I sat there in the tiny teal kitchen, wondering about the stranger Melanie had failed to mention so far. I glanced at Sophie. Judging by her bewildered expression, she seemed to share my pondering thoughts. But neither of us spoke. We simply threw out our last bits of toast and followed Melanie out into the hall for our official tour.
The rain eased around noon, lightening to a drizzle that softened the evergreens and spread a watery gleam on the lawns outside. It was around that time that I finally came to my conclusion: I wanted to live in this house for my next two years of college. I was fascinated by its quaintness, not to mention its residents. True, Melanie was a bit strange, but I happened to find her very intriguing. The same could be said for Jack. I liked him, despite the trick he'd done in our previous communications class. I could definitely see the two of us becoming friends.
But while I was interested in the house, I could tell that Logan and Sophie weren't too pleased. Sophie kept her arms folded across her chest for most of the tour, eyes flat and mouth set in a hard, straight line. She was unhappy, I knew, but even she couldn't deny the cheap price for both the room and utilities. All we had to do was pay for food and basic housing. Everything else – from the electricity to the washer and dryer – was considered free and communal. In any case, Sophie would probably stay wherever I was. I didn't want to pressure her into living here, not at all. But I wanted to live in this house more than any other place we'd visited so far. I loved the sight of the greenery just outside my window. I loved the way the house seemed to breath with quiet homeliness. And most of all, I loved the third floor bedroom that I hoped would become mine. It was a simple white-walled room with wood floors and olive-green curtains, but what I liked most of all was the window seat that overlooked the garden below. It was perfect, and I knew it was for me.
Melanie was leading us out to the garage when I suddenly realized that Sophie was no longer beside me. I tugged on Haakon's jacket.
"Where's Sophie?" I asked.
He turned his eyes away from Melanie to look at me. "I dunno."
"Real helpful," I snorted.
"Go find her yourself," Haakon muttered.
I turned away from him and doubled back into the living room. Sophie was there, standing at the foot of the stairs with her eyes fixed on the third-story loft. She was motionless, her eyebrows furrowed.
"Hey…" I said as I crossed the room. "What's up?"
"I think I saw something."
A voice said, "Nothing to worry about. It's only Wishaw."
I almost jumped out of my skin. Jack was sitting on the blue sofa as though he'd been there all along, his calm eyes studying me.
"Wishaw?" Sophie said, puzzled.
"Cooper Wishaw, yeah."
I answered for her, because somehow I already knew. "The owner of the house." I glanced at Jack for a confirmation. "Right?"
"Right," He said smoothly, sliding off the arm of the sofa and walking towards us. "I'm sure Melanie's already told you a little about him – or maybe, hasn't told you enough. I'm guessing the latter, so allow me to illuminate. Cooper lives up in the attic. He's been here long before any of us have moved in and he'll probably be here long after we've gone. He attends night classes at Boris, but as for what he's studying, I haven't the faintest fucking clue. It's not like I'm going to go up there and ask him, either. If he wants to talk, he'll talk, but he keeps to himself mostly. You probably won't see too much of him. I think meeting people scares him."
"Have you ever talked to him?" I asked curiously.
"Twice, I think. Once, when he came downstairs and asked me who I was. At the time, I think he had no idea I'd moved in – Melanie had forgotten to mention it to him. Ditzy girl. The second time we spoke, he asked me to buy brushes for him so he could finish a painting, or something. He's on closer terms with Melanie, but that's only because she's so pushy. Well, that, and I think he really likes the pumpkin bread she makes for him around Thanksgiving."
I glanced towards the kitchen, my eyes narrowed. "So I'm guessing he's fond of all types of bread? Is that why you guys have that massive pile of it back there?"
"You're pretty sharp, kiddo."
"I guess so." I shrugged.
"Well, I think this is creepy," Sophie said bluntly. "Living under the same roof of someone who's holed up in the attic all day…never speaking or interacting with him…it's weird. Especially since he's the homeowner. That makes it not only weird, but also a little awkward."
Jack shrugged. "That's your opinion, then. Please, feel free to be as opinionated as you want. But personally, as someone who already lives here, and has lived here for three years, I don't have a problem with him. Beau, Elliot, and Melanie don't, either. Beau didn't like Cooper at first, though, but she learned to forget about him living here. She just wishes she could forget Melanie so easily." He smirked, as though enjoying a private joke.
"Is there anyway we can go upstairs and meet him?" I asked, ignoring the stormy glance that Sophie passed my way.
"I don't think that's a good idea. Move in here and yeah, maybe one day you might get to meet him. But even that's highly unlikely. Beau's never seen him, and neither has Elliot. One time, Elliot camped out in front of the staircase for twenty-four hours straight, just so he could wait for Cooper to come downstairs and get food or whatever. Well, Cooper never did. I'm pretty sure he stayed up there on purpose. Though whether he was afraid of Elliot or just wanted to piss him off, I'll never know…"
A door slammed. I turned to see Melanie leading Haakon and Logan through the garage and into the living room. Melanie and Haakon were chatting animatedly, but Logan hung back. He looked very annoyed. Something told me he wouldn't be moving in with his twin. But I could have been wrong. Because like the bond with Sophie and myself, Logan would probably go wherever Haakon went.
Melanie grinned at me. "So, what have you three been up to?"
"Jack was just telling us about Cooper," I said.
Although still smiling, her eyes hardened. "Is that so?"
I nodded. "Sounds like he's a pretty big bread fan."
She laughed. "The biggest. That's all he eats."
"He's a weirdo," Jack commented, his voice sleepy.
"A lucky weirdo! You'd think he'd get fat, eating all those carbohydrates day and night."
"Fast metabolism, I'm guessing…"
"Yeah, but still. If I ate a loaf of bread a day, I'd be a blimp."
"A pretty blimp," Haakon put in, and Melanie flashed him an affectionate look.
"I think it's about time we get going," Sophie interrupted, the smile on her face not quite reaching her stony eyes. "Thanks for the tour."
"Thank you, Melanie," I said. "Your home is gorgeous."
"Thanks," Logan mumbled.
Haakon grinned and sheepishly scratched the back of his head, ruffling up his dark hair. "Yeah, what they said."
Jack and Melanie showed us to the door. "Bye now!" Melanie called out, as my friends and I ambled down the porch steps. "Be sure to phone us sometime this week and let us know if you want to move in. You're all welcome here."
The rain started pouring as we pulled out of the drive and sped into the misty trees, leaving the beautiful house behind us.
Ugh I have woken up from the longest stretch of writer's block I have ever, ever known. Ever.
I don't even know where to begin, I can start apologizing for my lack of absence, and for abandoning my old stories.
College and work has me in this iron chokehold, luckily this winter's break I will have time to write.
I just want to play around a bit with this story and then hopefully I'll take to resubmitting old ones like Letters to Spine, Polished Pebbles, etc.
Take care everyone.
Oh also Haakon is a Norwegian name, it's pronounced 'Ho-ken.'