A young woman stands on the sidewalk in front of a house. The house is Victorian in style – asymmetrical with steeply sloping rooftops and ornate trim. Three stories tall with a tower on the right side, it would not be a stretch to call it a small castle. The green ivy creeping over the mustard coloured siding, along with the haphazard charm of an overgrown garden, save it from being pretentious or imposing.
Still the woman glances at the piece of paper in her hand several times, comparing the words there to the plaque beside the navy blue front door. 53 Ganymede Avenue. This is the right place.
The woman, short and soft in contrast with the sharp angles of the house, reaches for the over-stuffed suitcase standing at her side. She grips the handle tightly while rearranging her shoulder bag with the other hand. These are all her possessions in the world, the only familiar things in a strange new city. She inhales deeply, shoulders rising, and steps forward onto the stone pathway.
The wooden stairs of the wide veranda creak under her feet. When she reaches the blue door she is overwhelmed by a scent. No — by many scents. Cinnamon. Leather. Lavender. Wood smoke. Hyacinth. Peach. And others – too many to identify. They aren’t overpowering, but they are unmistakeable.
The woman knocks on the door and waits.
Her heart pounds in her ears. Her hands tremble, slightly. She licks her lips. Tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
No one answers.
The slam of a wooden gate draws her attention, past the large bay windows bulging out from the side of the house to her right. An older woman emerges. She has grey hair and a stocky, but crooked, body. Her skin is deep brown, a shade lighter than the young woman’s own, and she stomps through the ivy covering the front yard in purple rain boots. A dish towel droops between her hands, something folded inside of it.
“She locked me out again. Goddamned beast can sleep outside if she thinks she can…” The old woman stops, lifting her head to observe the figure waiting on the veranda. She blinks.
“I’m sorry,” the younger woman begins, “I’m the new renter, Claire Brown.”
The older woman shakes her head and chuckles a little. “Of course. I’m a renter too. Name’s Art.”
She continues through the yard and up the steps. She is only slightly taller than Claire.
“Sara isn’t home right now,” she tells her, “Told me you’d be coming. Well, she told me to use the front door and to be polite. Which means it should be open.”
“Open?” Claire asks, lost in the labyrinth of Art’s words.
Claire reaches for the knob, looking back to ask the older woman permission. When she nods, Claire turns and pushes the door open. Art laughs, stepping through first.
The entryway is small and dark. There are a number of shoes by the door along with a large wooden coat rack and umbrella stand. Claire has never seen an umbrella stand before, except maybe in movies. She leaves her suitcase beside it, hurrying to follow Art around a corner and past a large wooden staircase.
It is brighter back here, the rear of the house illuminated by sunlight pouring in through ceiling-high windows. There is a glass door leading to an enclosed porch and, beyond that, the back yard. Large potted plants overflow onto various tables and benches. Herbs hang drying from the ceiling, partially obscuring the view. Claire wants to linger here, to breathe in the complex aroma and sit in one of the comfortable arm chairs looking out onto the lush gardens, but she cannot lose track of Art.
She continues on through a small breakfast nook and then into a kitchen. She halts, frozen in the doorway. The kitchen is a contradiction: old and new, rustic and refined, organized and chaotic. Mismatched mugs hang above a marble countertop. Vases of flowers stand beside serving boards and glass cake trays filled with fruits, muffins, and cookies. The oven is stainless steel and gas – like the one Claire’s parents had used – and matches the double fridge. The cupboards are wooden and painted the same navy blue as the front door, with brass handles and accents. Canisters and utensils are displayed on countertops and shelves. Claire struggles to find a single matching set.
It is perfect.
“You like kitchens?” Art asks, resting the towel on an island in the middle of the room and unfolding it to reveal several plump, ripe strawberries.
Claire nods, still devouring the room, her eyes drawn to a glass-fronted cupboard filled with varying pieces of teaware. “My parents had a beautiful kitchen.”
Art watches Claire’s face, but remains silent.
A caress against her right leg finally breaks Claire’s reverie. She drops her gaze to see a small orange tabby rubbing against her. She leans down and gently scratches its head, oblivious to the way Art’s eyes narrow at the furry intruder.
“That’s Ginger. And she’s a little bugger.”
The cat purrs, lifting its gaze to Art’s face as it rubs its whiskered cheek into Claire’s hand. “She seems sweet.”
“Yeah. And good with doors,” Art mumbles. Claire stands straight, to the disappointment of Ginger, and opens her mouth to ask where she should put her things. She is interrupted by the sound of a door and a crumple of paper bags.
“Excuse me,” a voice says from behind her, and Claire shuffles aside to let the newcomer through.
“Sara!” Art shouts in greeting, “Perfect timing.”
Sara looks to be slightly older than Art, her white hair escaping from an otherwise elegant bun tied at the back of her head. She moves agilely, despite three large paper bags balanced in her lanky arms. She sets them down on the island, Art pulling the strawberries aside just in time.
“Watch what you’re doing woman!” she chides, but Sara pays no mind, instead turning to greet Claire. Art rolls her eyes and begins sorting through the groceries as they make their introductions.
“I’d love to give you a grand tour,” Sara says, twirling with arms outstretched to indicate the expanse of the house, “but for now I imagine you’ll want to see your room.”
Though Sara’s appearance is one of grace and poise, her attitude seems whimsical and almost distracted. Claire thinks of her as a walking contradiction, a perfect reflection of her home.
“That would be great. I just have to get my suitcase from the front door.”
“Dog food!?” Art shouts, lifting a bag of kibble from the island. A cute puppy, white and unrealistically fluffy, stares back at her from the package. “You have a cat, Sara. Why on earth did you buy dog food?”
“Oh,” Sara says, tilting her head. Claire can’t help but smile at the resemblance of her expression to the pup on the bag, “I must have grabbed it by mistake.”
“Mistake? It has a goddamned dog right on the front!”
“It has pointy ears,” Sara shrugs, turning back to Claire, “Let’s get you to your room, shall we?”
Claire follows Sara back to the front door, grabbing her case on the way, and then up the large wooden staircase.
“This is the second floor,” Sara pauses at the first landing, sweeping her hand around the cavernous hallway. “The Gallagher’s apartment takes up most of the right wing, and to the left we have Mrs. Park.”
She continues on up the stairs. Claire follows behind, her slow steps hiding the impatience within. She is desperate to see her new apartment, but — reminding herself of the low rent — braces for disappointment by reminding herself that a roof over her head should be enough.
When they reach the third floor, Sara steps off of the landing onto a thick rug in the hallway. “This floor is divided into three smaller apartments. Lucy and Mr. Gartner, her grandfather, live in the right wing. Mr. Alvez lives in the centre apartment. You won’t see him often; he works long shifts and travels a lot. Don’t ask me what he does though.”
Claire is eager to see her own apartment, but a question bubbles out before she can stop it. “What about Art? Where does she live?”
Sara smiles. “She has a room on the first floor.”
“Has she been here a long time?”
“Yes. Can’t seem to get rid of her.” She winks, then gestures Claire to a door on their left. She hands her a key. It is small but ornate. It doesn’t look like the kind of key that would lead to someone’s first apartment. Claire slides it into the lock and twists it gently. She opens the door.
Her first thought is that the apartment is bright. As her eyes adjust she slowly steps over the threshold, taking in the details of her new home.
Her apartment consists of the top floor of the tower and a connecting room. There is no doorway between the two, creating a single, open space. It is small, but has everything she needs. An electric stove rests against the wall to her left along with a petite sink and countertop. There is a small fridge and another door across the way. The door is open, revealing a bathroom. It is also small – toilet across from the sink and tight against a freestanding bath tub.
Claire notes these details, but continues forward, drawn to the bright light beyond. The tower is almost octagonal, with three of eight facets lost where it connects to the house. On each external wall is a window – tall like the ones near the first floor kitchen. This room contains a twin-sized bed, a small round table with two chairs, and a narrow dresser topped with empty shelving.
Claire drops her bag onto the bed, turning to try to take in every perspective at once. A shimmer of light from behind the house catches her eye, and she walks towards an open window there.
From this height she can see the entirety of the backyard and the way it drops off steeply just past a short iron fence. Below that are a lake and pier. Hundreds of sailboats are docked further down the shoreline, and she can hear the clacking of their lowered sails against the masts. She watches and listens as seagulls float over the gently churning waters stretching far beyond the limits of her vision.
She turns, looking to Sara who has followed without her notice. Past her she can see the looming silhouettes of apartment towers and skyscrapers through the front-facing windows. “There must be some mistake. You said the rent was…”
“Five hundred dollars, all included,” Sara finishes, handing her another key. This one is silver and modern in appearance, “That’s for the front and back door. You’re welcome to the main floor sitting rooms as well as the backyard. And you can always let me know if you need the kitchen for something special.”
There must be some mistake, Claire thinks. “But, this place… this view…”
Sara sighs and looks at Claire so intensely that it makes her blush and drop her gaze. “This house has been my home a very long time, but it has never been only my home. People have always come and gone at 53 Ganymede. I don’t care about money, Miss Brown, I care about this house. I care about the people in it. The ones who once lived here, the ones who live here now, and the ones that may one day find their way here. People come when they need us and leave when they’re ready. You need us, Claire. And here we are.”
She smiles and turns, walking out of the apartment and closing the door behind her.
Claire breathes, realizing that this is the first time she has done so since Sara interrupted her. She stares at the keys in her hand. Closing her fingers tightly around them, she lifts her attention to the almost empty room surrounding her. To her new home.
“So… where should I start?”