“At the end,” Dad said, lifting his chin to indicate where he meant for me to go. He had looked at the house online, and knew a bit more than I did what to expect. “Your room could be that one down there.”
I climbed the dark stairs, passing the master bedroom and bath, and continued on to the end of the deep, narrow hallway. I could see a pale green light coming from beneath the door – what I would soon know to be the result of spring-green paint illuminated by late-afternoon sun. The crystal knob was cold but unclouded, and it turned with a rusty whine. The door stuck, edges misshapen from the chronic dampness. I pushed with my shoulder, determined to get in, and nearly tumbled into the warm, bright room.
It was longer than it was wide, maybe even doubled. A huge window took up most of the long wall, looking out onto a hillside dense with moss-covered trees. Like a patient butler, a tall, skinny window sat at the far end, on the narrow wall, overlooking the Russian River in the distance.
If the downstairs was unimpressive, the bedrooms, at least, held promise.
Feeling uplifted, I turned back to go find Dad.
“Did you see the closet in there, Mace?” he asked just as I stepped out. “I thought we could make it into a library for you.” He was emerging from the master suite. I heard one of the agents call for him, and instead of coming to me, he made his way back downstairs.
I returned to the bedroom, walked to the back. The door to the closet opened without any protest. The knob was even warm in my hand.
Like every other space in the house, it was undecorated. But it wasn’t empty.
Confusion and mild panic set my heart pounding.
Sitting in the deep space was a boy. He had been reading, tucked into the far corner, back and neck curled into a C to fit himself into the lowest point beneath the sloped ceiling.
He couldn’t have been much older than thirteen, same as me. Skinny, with thick dark hair that badly needed to see scissors, enormous hazel eyes behind substantial glasses. His nose was too big for his face, teeth too big for his mouth, and presence entirely too big for a room that was meant to be empty.
The question erupted from me, edged with unease: “Who are you?”
He stared at me, wide-eyed in surprise. “I didn’t realize anyone would actually come see this place.”
My heart was still hammering. And something about his gaze – so unblinking, eyes huge behind the lenses – made me feel oddly exposed. “We’re thinking of buying it.”
The boy stood, dusting off his clothes, revealing that the widest part of each leg was at the knee. His shoes were brown polished leather, his shirt ironed and tucked into khaki shorts. He looked completely harmless… but as soon as he took a step forward, my heart tripped in panic, and I blurted: “My dad has a black belt.”
He looked a mixture of scared and skeptical. “Really?”
His brows drew together. “In what?”
I dropped my fists from where they’d rested at my hips. “Okay, no black belt. But he’s huge.”
This he seemed to believe, and he looked past me anxiously.
“What are you doing in here anyway?” I asked, glancing around. The space was enormous for a closet. A perfect square, at least twelve feet on each side, with a high ceiling that sloped dramatically at the back of the room, where it was probably only three feet high. I could imagine sitting in here, on a couch, with pillows and books, and spending the perfect Saturday afternoon.
“I like to read in here.” He shrugged, and something dormant woke inside me at the mental symmetry, a buzz I hadn’t felt in years. “My mom had a key when the Hanson family owned the place, and they were never here.”
“Are your parents going to buy this house?”
He looked confused. “No. I live next door.”
“So aren’t you trespassing?”
He shook his head. “It’s an open house, remember?”
I looked him over again. His book was thick, with a dragon on the cover. He was tall, and angled at every possible location – all sharp elbows and pointy shoulders. Hair was shaggy but combed. Fingernails were trimmed.
“So you just hang out here?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “It’s been empty for a couple years.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Are you sure you’re supposed to be in here? You look out of breath, like you’re nervous.”
He shrugged, one pointy shoulder lifted to the sky. “Maybe I just came back from running a marathon.”
“You don’t look like you could run to the corner.”
He paused for a breath, and then burst out laughing. It sounded like a laugh that wasn’t given freely very often, and something inside me bloomed.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Elliot. What’s yours?”
Elliot stared at me, pushing his glasses up with his finger, but they immediately slid down again. “You know, if you buy this house I won’t just come over and read in here.”
There was a challenge there, some choice offered. Friend or foe?
I could really use a friend.
I exhaled, giving him a begrudging smile. “If we buy this house you can come over and read if you want.”
He grinned, so wide I could count his teeth. “Maybe all this time I was just getting it warmed up for you.”
tuesday, october 3
Elliot still hasn’t seen me.
He waits near the espresso bar for his drink with his head ducked as he looks down. In a sea of people connecting to the world via the isolation of their smartphones, Elliot is reading a book.
Does he even have a phone? For anyone else, it would be an absurd question. Not for him. Eleven years ago he did, but it was a hand-me-down from his father and the kind of flip-phone that required him to hit the 5 key three times if he wanted to type an L. He rarely used it as anything other than a paperweight.
“When was the last time you saw him?” Sabrina asks.
I blink over to her, brows drawn. I know she knows the answer to this question, at least generally. But my expression relaxes when I understand there’s nothing else she can do right now but make conversation; I’ve turned into a mute maniac.
“My senior year in high school. New Year’s.”
She gives a full, bared-teeth wince. “Right.”
Some instinct kicks in, some self-preservationist energy propelling me up and out of my chair.
“I’m sorry,” I say, looking down at Sabrina and Viv. “I’m going to head out.”
“Of course. Yeah. Totally.”
“I’ll call this weekend? Maybe we can do Golden Gate Park.”
She’s still nodding as if my robotic suggestion is even a remote possibility. We both know I haven’t had a weekend off since before I started my residency in July.
Trying to move as inconspicuously as possible, I pull my bag over my shoulder and bend to kiss Sabrina’s cheek.
“I love you,” I say, standing, and wishing I could take her with me. She smells like baby, too.
Sabrina nods, returning the sentiment, and then, while I gaze at Viv and her chubby little fist, she glances back over her shoulder and freezes.
From her posture, I know Elliot has seen me.
“Um…” she says, turning back and lifting her chin as if I should probably take a look. “He’s coming.”
I dig into my bag, working to appear extremely busy and distracted. “I’m gonna jet,” I mumble.
I freeze, one hand on the strap of my bag, my eyes on the floor. A nostalgic pang resonates through me as soon as I hear his voice. It had been high and squeaky until it broke. He got endless shit about how nasal and whiny he was, and then, one day, the universe had the last laugh, giving Elliot a voice like warm, rich honey.
He says my name again – no nickname, this time, but quieter: “Macy Lea?”
I look up, and – in an impulse I’m sure I will be laughing about until I die – I lift my hand and wave limply, offering a bright “Elliot! Hey!”
As if we’re casual acquaintances from freshman orientation.
You know, as if we met once on the train from Santa Barbara.