For the first three months there was no sign that anyone else besides the newcomer lived in the house, save for the bill that came on the first day of each month. On this day, a little slip of paper, of the same make as the advertisement and welcome note, would be on the floor just in front of his bedroom door when he woke up. This he would meet as requested by leaving his rent money in an envelope (which was always waiting for him on the side table by the front door on such a morning) and by the time he returned home from work, the table would be empty, and no more correspondence would be had until the next month’s rent was due. So, we come around to the beginning of our story. The fourth tenant lived like this, more-or-less contentedly, and did not think to ponder the peculiarity of his situation until one morning, after an unhappy meeting at work.
“Alright ladies and gentlemen!” began the school’s principal in that overly-conspiratorial way of school principals who have never made an effort to get to know their staff, yet treat them like childhood friends with whom mischief was wrought. This they do only when they want some sort of favour at year-end meetings. This principal was a stout, grubby-looking man with thick fingers and a fat caterpillar of hair perched upon his upper lip that wriggled around whenever he spoke. The various members of staff looked around subtly enough to be noticed by their colleagues and were noticed just enough by colleagues and principal alike to be awkward. The newest member of staff, our tenant, had no such alliances with whom to share overtly secret glances, and so stared the principal, sheepishly, in the face. Seizing his opportunity, the man lifted a stubby finger to point delightedly and, the tenant thought, somewhat victoriously at the poor, unallied man. “You there! Errr… math teacher was it?” The object of that accusation cringed. “Art tutor”, he corrected. “Yes, yes, exactly!” the principal chuckled and, as he did, held his belly in such a way that for one grotesque moment he looked like a boozing Father Christmas.
“Well sir, you are new here aren’t you?” The art tutor felt like he was being herded but could see no way of escaping what he couldn’t see. The glint in his questioner’s eye said that he knew the tutor was already conquered. The rest was just for show. “Well… I have been here a few months-”
“A few months! Barely half a year am I right?”
The tenant sighed “Yes, that’s correct”
“Well well”, the caterpillar man began, a smug smile tugging at his (what could be seen of them) lips. “You have been here almost half a year“, he paused there for dramatic effect and sent his gaze over the rest of his staff before continuing, “and have not yet received your initiation! We can’t let him get away with that eh?” His eyes swept once more over the now puzzled room and so did the art tutor’s. The expressions that greeted them were such that the tenant guessed there had never been such a thing before. Even so, they slowly began nodding and one or two even smiled in relief. The principal waited until everyone understood his drift- though the art tutor still did not- then clapped two thunderous palms together and boomed: “Marvellous! That settles it then; our year-end function will be at the new-bee’s house!” The staff room cheered and began to get up from their seats as if the matter was quite settled. Naturally, our tenant began his objections immediately, but the sounds were drowned out by the bavarderie of his – he looked at them as if it were his first meeting and settled on the word loathsome – colleagues.
All the rest of that week, they dropped hints about the kind of theme they would prefer or the type of wine that they like. He tried in vain to point out to them that he had no intention of hosting a party, that he was sure the principal would heed his objections and that, anyway, it would be a breach of contract to even dream of doing such a thing. To this they merely chuckled, winked at him and said something along the lines of “you won’t get out of your initiation (they added a conspiratorial drawl to the word each time which eventually confirmed the tenant’s suspicions that it was a thing created for him alone) that easily!” and strolled away before he could emphasise the sincerity of his refusal. That night, when he got home, he decided that he would have to take up the issue with his fellow tenants. Unsure of how to attempt the expressly forbidden communication, he sought out his lease agreement for clarification. The rule was unambiguous. He was not to even try meeting with any of his housemates, lest he forego his own tenancy.
Not knowing what his next move should be, he opened his bedroom door, stared down the corridor with all its rooms leading off to each side and considered his options. He could start by simply knocking on one of the doors, but which should he approach first? Big Jim certainly didn’t inspire the confidence of a visitor, nor did the austerely named Alistair. Between those was the silhouette’s room and he still had not worked up the courage to slip so much as an ‘I’m sorry’ note beneath that door. He could always just wait until one of them emerged, but for one thing he wasn’t sure any of them were even at home. They could have gone on a six-month long vacation for all he knew. For another, based on the incredible lack of morning coffee schedule coincidences (even on weekends), he doubted whether he could stand there long enough to catch a glimpse of any of them. Then he remembered the coffee table next to the front door. The one portal through which all his correspondences were had. Perhaps if he left a note there it may be taken up in much the same way as his rent money. He supposed that it would be more likely to end up in the hands of the right person that way too. Feeling a little relieved at not having to face a series of potentially awkward and eviction-preceding bedroom interviews (he shivered at the thought of being stuck in such a confining space with “Big Jim”- he fancied that the smell of used sweat clothes was bound to fill the room of a man so-named). His rent was due in another two weeks, so if his note alone was ignored, he could slip it in with his rent money. At last, the calculation that he had six weeks before the fated party gave him faith enough in his chosen route.
So, that night before bed, he penned his request in as neat a hand as he possessed and crept down the darkened passage to leave it folded on the correspondence table. He had chosen not to switch on any of the passage lights so as not to disturb his housemates. As he turned from the table to make his way quietly back to his room, he noticed that there was a slight breeze in the place which had not been there before. He turned to check that the front door was securely closed. It was. Then he realised, with a different kind of chill, that the slight draft was not coming from the direction of the front door, but from down the corridor. He frowned slightly, but made his way, cautiously down the passage. Had someone left the kitchen window open? There was a door there too, but he had never opened it. He hadn’t the key for it either if he wanted to. Having chosen not to use the light, he had to feel his way along the walls. The kitchen door sported frosted glass in its center, allowing for some moonlight to guide him to the front. On the way back that light was a hindrance. He moved along as quietly as he could, taking special care not to let his fingers fall too loudly upon one of his neighbours’ doors. The air got cooler as he got further down the corridor until, with a heart-skipping moment, his hand travelled from the wall into an empty space.
He froze. This could not have been his room. He had only passed one other door on this side and his was the third, not the second. This, then, was the room that, when he had tried to open it, he figured to be locked from the inside- the room which he thought had fallen victim to a rather aggressive growth of mould. Yet, there was not the damp, heavy scent which characteristically accompanied such a fate. Instead, a fresh, sea breeze greeted his inhaling nostrils. The pleasant sensation caused a conflicting rush of emotions to rise within him. shook him so deeply that his legs failed him for a moment. That moment was just enough for him to sink to his knees and find that the floor was all soft, cool, sand. His hand had slipped from the door and so he reached up to grab it again but felt only air. Slowly, his eyes began adjusting to the scene around him. Light swept in, seemingly on the breeze, and showed him a piece of beauty. He took in a sharp breath. The whole scene was backward. There was an ocean, but it looked like a mass of shore-lapping galaxies and the trees (or the things which stood upright and waved gently about) were translucent.
Shakily, he got to his feet and moved toward one of these ethereal plants. His hand touched something solid, but soft. He massaged a bit of the trunk with his fingers, trying to get an idea of what it was that he was touching. It felt gelatinous. He blinked- hard and rubbed his eyes, am I dreaming? he wondered. Looking around, he couldn’t fully believe that he wasn’t. His eyes were drawn back to that spangled, shifting sea and he watched it for a while until a thought occurred to him that he might try his toe in the lapping galaxy. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you” came a melodious, feminine voice from just beside the marvelling tenant. He started and turned to look at the speaker. She was… well, he wasn’t quite sure how he knew that she was a she, but it seemed intuitive. It was not that she was brutish or masculine, so far from it in fact that he was sure he would have the same difficulty in trying to explain why she was a he. In look and in aspect she seemed entirely androgynous. Yet, he knew. Her short hair was a low, soft, lilac and had little lights scattered throughout. He realised that she was covered in the shining lights, almost as though… “Did you swim in it?” He asked without thinking about why. She turned to him. He took a step back when he saw her eyes. They were warm. Not in the figurative sense- he could feel a heat in his body when her gaze touched him. They were like burning wood in a homely fireplace. He wondered if that was all they could be.
“I guess you could say that” she replied with a knowing smile. Sparks leapt from the fireplace. “But it isn’t for you”.
The tenant turned back to the shore, and a thought occurred to him, “why does it smell like the ocean?”
“Does it?” she paused, then “how did you get here?”
“Well I was…” he began but stopped. How had he got there? Just walking through a door at his home was a touch far-fetched but then so was this place. He threw a glance over his shoulder in the direction he had come from. The door was gone. Was this a dream? “I don’t really know” he finally said, “but what does that have to do with the smell?” He turned to her again, she was laughing. The sound was… surreal. Something happened then. Years later he still would not be able to find the right combination of words to explain it satisfactorily. He imagined it could be best described through a painting; The eyes of Mona Lisa were upon him. Van Gogh stared displeasingly at the tenant’s whole, uncut ear and handed him an expectant knife. The starry night was yellow with blue wisps instead of the reverse. Da Vinci’s human form exposition was off-center. In short, something shifted. It felt like perspective.
He wanted to laugh with her. The feeling was rich and satisfying. He wanted to sigh into it and dance around it at the same time. Then, she stopped and looked at him. That warmth- fast becoming familiar- filled him again. “you came here because you asked to be here but here isn’t really a place”.
“What do you mean? I don’t even know where this is- and how can it not be a place? I’m standing right here…”
“You are” she said, “but you are also in your bed”.
He furrowed his brow in confusion “You mean… this is a dream?” He rubbed his eyes again, but nothing changed.
“No, but I see why you think that”, she shrugged, then turned her back to the stars at their feet and held out her hand to him “here, let me show you something”. He took her hand and the world around them blurred. It made him feel sick and when everything eventually came back into focus, he ran over to a nearby bush to throw up. Coming back to her he looked around. They were in a jungle of sorts, and the scent of musty soil mixed with wet grass filled the air. “How-” he began, but she held up a hand to silence him.
“Where would you say we are now?”
He looked around, “I… in some kind of jungle? I don’t know… maybe India?” He looked for those gelatinous trees, but they weren’t there. Everything around them looked to be quite from the earth that he knew.
“Maybe” she nodded, “but we haven’t moved”.
He looked at her, and she at him. Her eyes were still warm, and he felt a sense of home and comfort from her that was new to him. He stood there for a while, thinking but unable to make sense of what was happening to and around him.
“This place is what you want it to be” she said “everything you see is filtered through you”.
“So the ocean made of stars…?”
“That was you” she nodded “and very creative I might add”.
“But how? I was at home one moment and then I was here… well… there- at the beach I mean”.
“What were you doing right before that?”
“I… was leaving a note… for my housemates… there was a breeze…and then I was here”
“You broke from a scheduled habit?”
“Yes, but- wait. How do you know about that?” The warmth he had felt from her gaze flared up. The heat was immense- he began sweating almost immediately. He felt like he was standing in a forest on fire and then- he was. Everything around him burned. He shielded his eyes from the white flames. White flames? He thought and opened one eye between his fingers. The flames were white, and the forest was not actually burning, despite the furious flames. It was as though the tongues of fire were dancing atop the foliage, every leaf a platform and not a single one caught alight. The tenant spun round, searching for the woman that had brought him there. She was gone. He shut his eyes tightly, remembering her words This is all me he thought I made this, I can stop this.
He focused on the flames, but not on their heat. He filled his mind with their light. he knew that light was the lens through which sight was granted him, and if that was so, he knew too that if he removed that lens, the flames would turn from a thing seen to a thing unseen. There was a flame-shaped gap in vision which greeted him as a thing of its own, but which could just be negative space. A nothingness without any heat or any warmth. He focused on that gap. He walked through it, to the nothing on the other side and let it envelop him. When he turned, he could still see the opening to the firey-white raging angrily back at him. He closed the gap, like he would have closed the zipper of a jacket, then stepped back. He was a single consciousness in an eternal nothing spread-out in all directions. He closed his eyes and floated there.
When he opened them again, he was in his bed. He sat up and looked around. Everything was as it should be. Then he noticed a piece of paper scrunched up in the fist he didn’t realise he had been making. There was the note that he had written, asking permission for his colleagues’ year-end function to be hosted at the house and there, below it was a freshly written No. His breath caught, how had that got there? Someone must have put it into his hand while he was sleeping- probably as a warped joke to freak him out. He shook off the strange feeling, got dressed and left for the school- footsteps heavy with worry. This worry made him leave the house with his eyes down to the floor. This worry prevented him from looking at the door he had tried to peak through on his first day there. If this worry had not been there, he would have glanced in the direction of that door as he passed it. He would have seen the door quietly close and on it he would have noticed the familiar carving of a hangman’s noose, with the addition of a circle enclosing two small ‘x”s and a horizontal line, curved ever so slightly down at the edges.