The next few days had the tenant’s mind filled with his dream. Was it a dream? He wrestled with the possibility of his experience having been real. But the answer on the note… He would think, then justify his thoughts with the theory that it must have been a prank. By whom? One side of him would ask. Any of the other tenants… it must have been, the other part of him would answer. But why would they do something like that? If it was a prank, was the answer real? And that girl… her eyes… those flames. He could not make sense of it, so he stopped trying to and assured himself instead that it had to have been a dream. It must have been a dream. Yes, it must have. Yes… just a dream.
A few days later, at school, he found himself with a free period and nothing to fill his time. All his lessons had been prepped over the weekend (he hadn’t had anything better to do then either) and he was feeling too angsty to sit at his desk and read. He went for a walk. All the students were in their classrooms and the faint, but constant mutter of voices could be heard like a waterfall from far away. Every now and again a boy or girl desperate to reach the bathroom came speeding past him. He strolled aimlessly down the corridors, focusing on trying to make his mind as empty as they. As he came around one of the corners, he noticed that hum of voices getting softer and softer. Had he been down this corridor before? He wasn’t sure how he could have missed it, but just as he began considering turning around, he passed an open doorway to his left. It wasn’t customary for unattended rooms to be left open as small children could go inside and cause havoc. He poked his head in. It had an abandoned look, save for a canvas that stood on a paint-splattered easel in one corner and a mass of painting utensils which seem to have been well used, though not in bad condition. The tenant felt himself being drawn to it. He looked around once more, checked his watch- he still had over half an hour to kill- and entered the room.
The canvas was not new. It had a painting underneath, but someone had painted a white primer over it- obviously unhappy with the previous artist’s attempts. The tenant looked around at the tools scattered around the easel on various work-benches and stools. He picked up a paintbrush and ran his fingertips through the bristles. They were soft, even though the brushes looked to be quite old. Their owner was obviously meticulous about cleaning them. He noticed a metal cup filled with something that looked like water. Picking it up, he smelled it and recognised it as a solution for soaking used paintbrushes in. He could create something there, on that canvas, and leave everything as he had found it. No one would know. The temptation overwhelmed him. He began by picking up a palette- wooden and stained with colour. Using the acrylic tubes nearest him, he squeezed a drop of yellow and two drops of white onto one corner of the wood. This he mixed together by wounding circles through the paint with a medium-thick brush. Next, he mixed a half drop black with five drops of blue and one purple. He mixed this unevenly, so that whole sections of the paint were all black or all purple or blue streaked with either of the other two colours. Then he squeezed some white into one of the palette dips and touched a dot of black to it, creating a very light grey. Once this was done, he sat back and closed his eyes. He had been avoiding his dream for a while, but now he pulled it purposefully forward. He summoned it from the place in his mind reserved for those least comfortable thoughts. Then he began to paint. Before, he had always like to use a reference picture when putting paintbrush to canvas, as the ingredients were so expensive. But now, he felt free. His wrist flicked to and fro as the colours brought his platform to life. After a while, the school bell rang, and he sat back to view the scene that he had made. He smiled, then stiffened. Slowly, he turned around to face who he was sure to be standing behind him. There wasn’t anybody there. “Hello?” he called, “is someone there?” No answer. He had felt it, he was certain. For a moment every hair on his arms and his neck had stood on end as an eerily familiar warmth crept up his spine. No, he thought, it can’t be. It was a dream. Just a dream. He looked around again. He was alone. Hurriedly, he cleaned the paint things he had used and, deciding not to paint primer over what he had done- the owner could do that if he wished- he made his way back to his own classroom for the next lesson.
That night, he couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned but fear of what his dreams might look like kept him awake. He decided to get himself a glass of warm milk to help with his insomnia. Groggily, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and shuffled toward the kitchen. The moonlight that shone through the windows was bright enough that he could see around the kitchen as well as if it were late afternoon. He opened the fridge and felt his skin raise in small goose pimples when the cool air reached his bare arms. Grabbing the milk, he closed the door and turned to get a small pot from the drawer beneath the stove. He went to the cupboard and, yawning, he reached into it for the cup he knew he would find there without having to look. He measured out one full cup of milk and went back to the fridge to replace the carton. Once this was done, he switched the stove onto a medium-low heat, grabbed a wooden spoon and began to stir the milk in the pot. Something about the colour of the milk caught his attention. It was white, which was normal, but the kind of white it was seemed to be glowing. Bright he thought, It’s too bright. He looked up out the window that was set in the wall just above the stove. The moon was shining fiercely. The kitchen was illuminated as if by a floodlight. A movement to his right made him turn his head and he saw that the kitchen door to outside stood wide open. Cautiously, he turned the stove off, moved the pot to the side and stepped toward the doorway. As soon as he stepped through, he realised that he must be dreaming again.
The landscape was soaked in colour. He didn’t need to turn around to know that the door to the kitchen had vanished. Standing there, he breathed in the scents around him and allowed his eyes to drink in the details. To an artist, this place was a playground. The trees were the first thing he noticed. He searched for the translucent things he had seen on the beach but could not find them anywhere. Instead, something like oaks, yet not quite with that shape of leaf held their strength in 3… 4… 6 dark brown pillars and sent their branch-tips sky-ward, begging a heavenly audience. A massive bougainvillea-like vine hung lazily across the tops of two of these trees, creating a canopy of orange leaves and busy insects. In the semi-shade created beneath, wild daisies- white petalled with purple centers, yellow skirted with a single black dot for an eye, and crimson petals thrust around a blue center- thrived. The grass was green, but beneath the flood of moonlight, it held an iridescent quality. He couldn’t tell if the light was creating the illusion or exposing the fact. The effect was that all the ground seemed to be glowing. There were other flowers there too. One, he noted, had an exceptionally feather-like quality and he wondered if his mind had somehow conjured up a fern and bird hybrid plant. Another was difficult to look at because from afar it looked like a simple five-petaled flower, but on closer inspection, each petal was its own flower and on closer inspection still, each of those flowers’ petals was its own flower too. It seemed to just go on and on. This observation began making the tenant feel dizzy, so he took a step back and let his eyes take in the scene.
“It looks just like a painting” the admiring tenant said to himself, smiling. The branch tips, he noticed, were glistening as though they had been set with diamonds.
“Does it?” came a light-hearted reply, “I suppose from this angle…”.
The tenant spun around, and his heart raced. That voice, he thought, I know that voice. Suddenly, all the anxiety and fear that had cloaked him since his last dream came back to him like a flood. He inhaled sharply when his eyes found her. There she stood, as he had seen her before; lilac hair and star-speckled everything. It seemed that the scenes around him could change but she was the one constant in this dream world he kept finding himself in. Then a thought occurred to him, If this is a dream then how… “was that you today? At the school, when I was painting”. She cocked her head to the side and looked at him with dancing flames in her eyes. The warmth swept over him. “I felt you” he pressed, “I felt your eyes on me”.
“If you know that”, she offered, “then why ask?”
He looked at her for a moment, searched her for mockery or malicious intent. He could find neither. “To be sure, I suppose” he shrugged.
She smiled approvingly, “then yes. It was me. Did I scare you?”
He let out a gruff half choke, half laugh. “You could say that”. He watched her face for any small sign that she might turn out to be trying to taunt or embarrass him. She only smiled kindly back at him, waiting. A thought suddenly occurred to him “I don’t know why I haven’t asked you this before” he began, looking a little sheepish, “but, who are you?” She closed her eyes as if relieved by his curiosity. When she opened them again, her flames were embers. He shuffled his feet awkwardly. She looked up at the trees.
“I am a messenger”, she sighed, and it was a sigh of sad peace.
“What’s the message?” was all he could think of saying.
“Don’t you know?”
“How could I? You haven’t told it to me yet”.
She studied him and cocked her head to the side, eyes flickering playfully “I rather think I have” she said softly.
The tenant looked at her in confusion “I don’t understand…I think I would have remembered if you had given me a message…” She shook her head, smiling, then looked back up at the trees. “Every life on earth is like a road” she said, hands motioning a strip of ground, “and we walk the road. There are times when the view is beautiful” she motioned to the garden around them, “and times when it isn’t”. She paused, looking at him. He nodded to show that he understood her. She continued. “Sometimes, your road will have a turn-off. Some other path that you can choose. You must choose. Even if you don’t choose the turn-off, you may continue down your path, but it is still a choice. You may stop at the turn and not move for fear of making the wrong choice but choosing not to choose is still a choice”. She raised her eyebrow at him questioningly. He nodded again so she went on. “Every path, every life, is offered more than one turn-off. More than one option to choose, but,” she held up her index and middle fingers in a V, “one; nobody knows how many turn-offs they will be offered, or why. One may have fifty, another only three, and two; Everyone’s turnoff’s eventually run out, then all that’s left is the path. That person’s choice has been made and there is no turning back”. She turned to him then, “do you understand?” He thought for a moment then nodded slowly, “yes, I think. You want me to choose?”
She shook her head lightly, “you want you to choose”.
“But what are my choices?”
She looked at him. He waited but she remained silent. Stubbornly, he folded his arms and returned her gaze. After a long while with the two of them staring one another down, she walked toward him and placed something in his hand. Then she leaned close to his ear, whispered “time’s up” and shoved him backward.
The tenant’s eyes shot open. His heart was racing so much he feared a heart attack and clutched at his chest as though he could force it to slow down that way. Something hard dug at his skin as he did. He looked down and opened his palm. In it was a brass key. He thought he knew what it must be for. He jumped up and ran to the kitchen door, then held out the key before the lock and frowned as he realised that it would never fit. It was far too big. He tried his own door too and the front door, but it was no good. The key didn’t fit anywhere. Perplexed, he decided to put the problem aside for after work and got dressed, placing the key in his pocket as a last-minute addition to his outfit before he left. When he got to work, people kept staring at him. He eventually went to the bathroom to check that he hadn’t left the house with his nightshirt on or with his jacket on inside-out. Everything was as per normal. There was nothing in his dress that could justify those looks. He kept his head down after that and avoided making eye-contact with other people. When he was almost at his classroom, his path was cut-off by the school’s burly principal.
“Woah there!” he exclaimed in his overly-loud voice, “where do you think you’re going?” The tenant looked at him, confused. “You can’t escape me mister” the man chided, eyes narrow. He leaned close to the tenant who realised that his painting must have been found. He was obviously wrong to have wasted school resources and was now going to pay the price. “I-” he began, but the overwhelming man cut off his words with a slap to the back that almost winded the tenant. “Don’t look so scared!” laughed the principal, caterpillar lip wriggling in amusement right along with him, “We just need to have a little chat”. The tenant was very confused at this point but, still believing it must be about the painting, guiltily followed the principal into the classroom. Once the man had made himself comfortable at the tenant’s desk, he spoke. “I know you’re new here, and you don’t know all our ways, but we have given you an opportunity to be a part of our illustrious school”, he held his hands out as if in reverence to their surroundings, “and you have taken us for granted”. The tenant hung his head shamefully. The principal looked somewhat surprised at his young staff-member’s reaction but seemed satisfied with it. “I’m sorry” muttered the tenant embarrassed by his own lack of self-control “It won’t happen again”. The principal seemed to have had the wind taken out his sails at the tenant’s ready apology. Evidently, he had been prepared for a verbal battle of sorts. “Well…uh… that’s alright then. Very good!” the man nodded, and his fat moustache flapped in agreement with him. “Well, I have already taken the liberty of looking up your address and sending invitations out on your behalf, so you needn’t worry about that. All you need to do is throw the party!” The principal grinned in a self-satisfied way and the tenant’s jaw-dropped.
“The… party?” he asked meekly. “Why yes man! What, did you not listen to the conversation we just had? Of course the party, what else?” The tenant closed his mouth and groaned inwardly as the principal handed him a list of things to buy and a list of names of the people who would be attending. When he was finished, he pushed himself up from the table and shook the tenant’s hand. “Well, I expect it will be the best one we’ve had yet eh?” He winked at the young art tutor and turned to leave. “Wait!” the tenant shouted, much louder than he had intended, which turned his face red with embarrassment. The principal looked at him expectantly. “I uh…”
“Well? Out with it man! I haven’t got all day”, he checked his watch then to emphasize the fact.
“It’s just” the tenant let out, “I can’t afford half of what’s on this list”.
“Ahh. I see” the principal smiled at him reassuringly. “The school will naturally reimburse you, just hand your slips in to my secretary”. With that he left, and the tenant stood staring down at the list of extravagances. Reimburse? He couldn’t afford to buy it in the first place! He would have to go through another supper-less week (or two) and use all his savings to fulfil the demands of that cursed list. He let his head drop into his hands and moaned quietly to himself.
The next couple of weeks were tough. He ate less and worked more to make enough money for the party. It frustrated him immensely that he was not able to shirk the duty at all. Why are they so persistent? He would never have thought that people were so selfish before leaving the farm. He once imagined that the world was filled with successful, intelligent and caring people. This new experience had him wondering about where he was going with his life. Could I ever really fit in here? He remembered the path that the woman in his dream had told him about. What path am I on? He wondered. The thought brought an image of the hangman’s noose to mind. He had noticed it earlier that morning. It had grown since he moved in there. A bulging head and too-thin arms had been drawn on, along with a thin, stretched-out body. You haven’t given me any message, he remembered saying to the woman in his dream, and then her eerie reply; I rather think I have. The thought bothered him, but he was more worried with what to do about the function and his fellow tenants. He had received his answer from them, but at this point he had no real choice in the matter. He had to have the event. It was clear that no amount of talking would get him out of it. On his way home on the day of the event, a thought occurred to him. Outside. I could have the event outside. He knew it was still not allowed, but it seemed less of a rule-breaking than having them all snooping around inside the house. Having made up his mind, he bought everything that the principal had put on the list (swapping out some of the pricier bottles of wine for a few slightly cheaper ones). When he got home, he went straight to the kitchen and began preparing their food. Half an hour before his guests were due to arrive, he went to the garden and set up some tables with little candles running down the centre and placed bowls of snacks, fruit and bottles of wine periodically along the length of each one. Then he went inside to shower and dress for the evening. Almost as soon as he had done up his last button, he heard a knock at the door. A surge of panic raced through him then. He pushed it down and went to greet his first guest.
An hour later, all the staff members were seated and eating the food that he prepared. For the most part, they seemed happy, and the principal especially seemed to be enjoying himself. The tenant let out a sigh of relief. The evening had gone without a hitch so far and they were already halfway through. He looked around at his fellow staff members. They were a selfish lot and had paid him very little respect the whole evening- considering they were all under his roof, so to speak. Instead, they had all fallen over themselves with compliments to the principal for his pains in preparing the year-end function. The tenant did not mind so much as he had never felt like he wanted their thanks. He made a mental note not to be like them. To rise above whatever swampish characteristics kept them so low in virtue. If he could not rise, he vowed to at least stay on the banks. They were the kinds of people he hoped never to become. A “ching-ching” sound came from one of the tables. It was the principal raising his glass for a toast. He toasted the school and the teachers. He thanked the coach for organising their athletics and the English teacher for running the school Olympiad. He thanked everyone and praised the school to such a degree you might have thought it was a palace. He was obviously the right man for the job of principal because no one was near as proud as he of every brick and cobblestone on the school grounds. “At last”, he said, turning toward the tenant, “Thank you for holding the best party we’ve ever had!” He raised his glass and everyone cheered. One of the tutors sitting nearest to the tenant leaned towards him, “he says that every year”. She rolled her eyes, then joined in the clapping with everyone else. The principal held his hand up for silence. They all obeyed like well-trained dogs. “As a token of our gratitude” the principal continued, “we’d like to give you a gift. A memento that has been part of our school for…” he seemed to flounder under the weight of his sentence, “for… ehm…generations! Five generations at least!” Everyone cheered again and someone came and handed the tenant a thin, rectangular parcel, about a meter long, and half a meter high. He smiled and accepted the gift. The party continued as before, and everyone drank themselves to intoxication. He already had his resignation letter typed in his mind. He was only waiting for the finances to seek a better situation, but this event had solidified his decision.
A few hours later, the tenant had just entered the house after clearing the last bit of mess outside, when he noticed that one of the doors in the passageway was open. He was shocked. None of the other tenants had come out before and he was worried that they only did so now to scold him. Then he realised which door it was. It was the first door on the right. The hangman’s door. Approaching it, he noticed that there were hangmen covering the inside of the door too. They were all full. His was the only one missing its legs (he checked the door’s front to be sure). Slowly he peeked inside and gasped. The entire room was a studio. There were canvases along the one wall- all waiting to be painted- and new tubes of paint still in their packaging along the shelves. Then he saw her. standing with her back towards him was a woman. He made the connection instantly. This was that figure he had seen through the keyhole, the silhouetted figure whom he had offended through his peeking. More to the point, this was also-
“You!” exclaimed the tenant, dropping his gathered rubbish, “this whole time!” She turned to him and smiled. “Hello again”. She was the same person, but her features were far more normal now than when he saw her in his dreams. Her hair was a soft brown, and her features were definitely feminine. No androgyny to be found.
“Have you really been living here all along?” He asked.
“In a way” was all the reply she gave. Her look turned sad.
“What’s the matter?” He wondered what he had said wrong.
She shook her head, still smiling, but a tear came rolling down her cheek. “You chose” she said. When she looked at him, her face was painted with sorrow, but also with pride and relief.
“Did I make the wrong choice?” he asked, worried at her features.
“No”, she laughed. She turned around to face him then, and he noticed her eyes flick past him- to the door.
He followed her gaze to the numerous hangmen carved there. “What is all that?” he asked.
It took her a moment to respond. “Let’s call it a tally chart” she said and turned away.
“Was one of them yours?”
She nodded, but her body stiffened too, so he decided not to pursue the topic further. He took a step toward her and she pointed at something lying against the wall. A package. His package he realised. The one the principal had given him. “Aren’t you curious?” she asked. He shrugged, but she never dropped her pointing finger, so he moved over and picked up the gift. When he tore open a corner he was surprised, but felt amusement rising in him. Then he pulled off the remaining paper and held the thing in his hands, while he laughed out loud, fully and in earnest. She stood there, laughing with him and the house filled with the music of it. When the sound had subsided, the tenant noticed that they were no longer in the studio room. They were in another garden. “I see you have a thing for nature” she commented, looking around. “I guess I do”, he said, still smiling. She looked at him and her eyes made him feel at home. He felt a warm affection for her, for what she had done for him and hoped that she could somehow feel that too. What he said was “thank you. For showing me”. She flung her arms around him in a tight hug, then let him go and stepped back. Giving him one last flamed look, she turned to face the garden and walked toward the leaves, dissolving into the foliage until every inch of her had been lapped up and a petalled shore stilled, gently, behind her.
Two years later, the tenant had become the proprietor and the house had become an art gallery. After the school’s function, he realised that he had been offered his turn-off and decided to take it. He was an artist and needed to be an artist. He had found the deed to the house in his room when he woke the next morning and all his months’ rent money in a safe that his little brass key opened. This he used to re-design the house. The place now bragged a few unique features, including an inside garden in the hangman’s room. He had taken down that door and had it chopped up to be used as firewood. The house was now open-plan and sported many more windows. He had found that Alistair and Big Jim’s rooms were both empty. He knocked down the wall separating their rooms and turned it into a display lounge. His room was now a small art studio where he gave free lessons to new artists. His gallery wasn’t the most famous, but it was popular. The most well-known piece in the place was a meter by half-meter canvas that hung in the room which served as an inside garden. It showed a beach and some ghostly trees standing at the foot of an oceanic galaxy. Everyone who saw it would leave and talk to their friends about it. They would tell its story in the way they had heard it from so-and-so. There were so many versions floating around by that stage that none really knew which- if any- were true. One thing they all agreed on though, it all started in a wonder-filled house on X Street.
– THE END –