Friday, August 9
Fifteen years ago…
I first saw Elliot at the open house.
The cabin was empty; unlike the meticulously staged real estate “products” in the Bay Area, this funky house for sale in Healdsburg was left completely unfurnished. Although as an adult I would learn to appreciate the potential in undecorated spaces, to my adolescent eyes, the emptiness felt cold and hollow. Our house in Berkeley was unselfconsciously cluttered. While she was alive, Mom’s sentimental tendencies overrode Dad’s Danish minimalism, and after she died he clearly couldn’t find it in himself to dial back the decor.
Here, the walls had darker patches where old paintings had hung for years. A path was worn into the carpet, revealing the preferred route of the previous inhabitants: from the front door to the kitchen. The upstairs was open to the entryway, the hallway looking over the first floor with only an old wooden railing at the edge. Upstairs, the doors to the rooms were all closed, giving the long hallway a mildly haunted feeling.
“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.”