The eviction notice came in the middle of a long winter, on one of those afternoons when M just couldn’t warm up, no matter how many sweaters and blankets she piled on her shoulders. When they’d first moved in, Rhonda, the upstairs neighbour and sole avatar of their faceless landlord, had turned the basement’s darkness into a selling point. “Cool all summer,” she’d said, her thin hand with its chorus of twinkling rings sliding along an imaginary ski slope.
She didn’t mention that winter would be arctic or that, in the summer, animals would crawl into the ceiling and die. The exterminator had told them to be patient—the place would reek for a while, but the creature would eventually mummify, and then the smell would go away. But new things kept dying, so the aroma of death lingered through all the warm months. You could tell the season by the taste of the air.
When they’d moved in, M and her boyfriend, Eric, had known that their time in this little basement suite was limited. After the city had built the new train station, their neighbourhood had gone from being remote to “up-and-coming.” Flyers from city hall wafted through the streets and promised a new future. Densification was coming. No one was renovating. Gardens, immaculate for decades, fell to weeds. White stucco cracked and littered the sidewalks. One-by-one, the windows went blind.
At first they’d had end-of-the-world parties with upstairs and downstairs doors thrown open and music pounding. Then, their friends had trickled away toward the suburbs. One day, a sign the size of a drive-in movie screen appeared right in front of the house, promising a new height of luxury living to whoever could afford to buy in. It blocked what little sun made it through the windows. Then, orange plastic nets appeared to protect the trees; blue fences rose on either side of the house; and men with helmets reduced their neighbours to splinters, leaving nothing but twin chasms on either side. Most days, it felt as though they were the sole inhabitants of a remote mountain peak.
Still, it was home, for now.
Rhonda handed M the eviction notice and shoved her narrow hands in the pockets of her paint-smeared overalls. Mascara smudges had settled into the lines around her heavy lids. “Sorry, man,” she said in her bygone hippy drawl.
Not knowing whether to hug the older woman or hit her, M closed the door, wrapped another blanket around herself, and turned on a lamp against the darkness. She sat on their old green couch, bought from the Mennonite Central Committee in the more hopeful days of spring, and stared at the notice in her hands. Its return address was somewhere in Shaughnessy.
She was writing content for a word mill out of the Philippines at the time—as many articles as she could snag in the daily auctions for eight-and-a-half cents a word U.S. Her specialty was quizzes about medical issues, like “Think You’re Anorexic?”, “Name that Pustule”, or “Cancer or Allergies?” She had a variety of aliases for the work, but her favourite was Michaela Turnblatt because it had the same initials as she did. In secret, she hoped that someday people would be interested in tracking down her back catalogue, the way they did with Hemingway’s early journalism. The reader would look deep into her words and glimpse the seeds of genius.
When she ran out of synonyms for “irritation,” she would put on a hoodie and go for a walk in Shaughnessy, that other world west of Oak Street. The funerary stillness of the old neighbourhood calmed her heartbeat, distracted her from work and the cruel orange nets. As she walked, she thought about the things she might buy with an advance for a novel, or a win on the lottery, or even a real job—clothes, art, a personal trainer, an apartment above ground. All this time the shadow that owned their building had lived in one of those anonymous mansions not ten blocks away, and he’d never even bothered to stop by.
There were extraordinary fences in Shaughnessy, old ones and new. Some had twisted iron gates taller than a lumberjack, or were guarded by bushes trimmed into sentinels. Behind the fences, there were cars that glistened with fresh paint jobs, half-covered by tarps. And there were mansions: great, sprawling, columned, and gargoyled. Some of them were old and brushed with sprays of moss around the joists, cracked paint, melting porches. Some were new, concrete and square like sci-fi war bunkers. All the houses, old and new, gave off unearthly vibrations of power.
But during those long, lonely afternoons where her thoughts jangled with hope or fear for the future, she had never seen a single resident: not in a car, not through a window, not walking the dog down the street or tending the garden. When she did see the occasional person, they were always in uniform. They were there to construct more mansions or scrub floors or dredge pools for errant leaves. Once, an exterminator stood outside his own van gazing at a Swiss-style manor covered in stucco and brown shingles. He wore a quizzical expression, as if he couldn’t quite decide whether to go forward or go back.
The evening after she’d seen the insect man, she’d told Eric that she thought the whole neighbourhood was a movie set. They were watching a sitcom about super heroes that had been filmed only a few blocks away from where they sat. He just raised his eyebrows, the way you do when indulging a child through an amusing but fanciful story. He didn’t even take his eyes off the screen.
“Not all the time,” she said, on the defensive before he said a word. “Maybe they just keep them prepped, in case they’re needed. Those American crews are always traipsing around the city. Last summer I was walking through the warehouses by the water and I came across a whole block of snow. Winter Wonderland in August. If they can do that, I bet they can afford to keep a few stuffy old mansions ready for period pieces or whatever.”
He took a sip of his beer, and a vein of tar-coloured liquid tracked down his chin. She missed the beard he’d worn when they first met. “Foreign ownership,” he said. “People buy them as investment properties and flip them when the market jumps. They’re empty because they keep changing hands. One day, this whole city will just be empty glass towers.”
“Wouldn’t it be great to buy one,” she said. “Your parents could help us—it would be, like, an investment.”
Eric laughed. “Or maybe we could buy property on the moon.”
The next day, he packed his bags to go find work in Alberta where his parents lived. “You can join me,” he said as he toured the apartment one last time. “We can buy a house and have children.”
M looked at the floor with its worn linoleum, scarred in places and black at the edges. “I just need a little more time,” she said. “I can make it work here.”
He kissed her on the cheek, his stubble biting in a comforting way. “You call me when it’s all figured out,” he said. And then he left.
On the evening of the eviction notice, M moved with purpose. She was going to find the person who owned the house, and explain to them that it would be impossible to leave—where would she go? What else could she afford? But crossing Oak Street, her anger faded into awe. The sounds of traffic, the coo of distant pigeons, the rustle of squirrels seeking out winter scraps all faded away into the glowing chartreuse of moss beneath her feet.
Shaughnessy sat on a peak, high above the city. The streets bent, diverged and came back together according to a long forgotten logic, so the address was hard to find. It had been raining all day and as she walked she had to keep an eye out for worms that had crawled into dry patches between mulched leaves.
She found the house by walking clockwise around Shaughnessy park in the centre of the neighbourhood. It was an Edwardian mansion painted a creamy yellow, with tall white columns before a monolithic front door. She could hear voices and laughter from a party spilling into the evening. There was a tantalizing scent of food and the sound of a piano playing a familiar old melody. A dark cloud had moved across the setting sun and she could see backlit figures flitting over the gauzy shades of a living room, the unmistakable outline of a Tiffany lamp on an elaborately scrolled end table.
She’d always wanted a really nice end table, but the closest she had ever gotten was an art deco-ish dresser she’d found in an alley that was badly in need of lacquer. She’d brought it home and put their clothes in, but an infestation followed that bore circular holes into all their T-shirts and underwear. Eric had insisted on throwing it away.
Standing there, nerves kicking up a flutter in her stomach, she looked down at her clothes. Jeans with a tear in the crotch. A coffee spill on her faded hoodie from several days before. Who was she to say anything to the people who lived in this house? Before she could turn around to go home, the great door squeaked open and a woman’s head with smooth cascading blond hair appeared. Her body followed, clad in a loose white shift that on someone less willowy might have looked like a garbage bag; on this woman, the dress gave the impression of a goddess on a Greek urn. Even in the dim light, M could see straight, white teeth gleam through a symmetrical smile. “Finally,” said the woman, with a breath of relief. “We’ve been waiting.”
M opened her mouth to explain, but no words came out. She wasn’t the person this woman was waiting for, was she?
“I’m Carolyn,” the woman said, as if that would explain everything. “I’ll show you the children’s room. I can tell you’ll be very good with them.”
M followed into a vestibule as sumptuous as the exterior. “Wait. I’m here to talk to . . .” She looked at the letter clutched in her hand, but it seemed to have gotten wet. The name was smudged illegible. “I’m one of your tenants, and I just need to ask for more time.”
Carolyn turned around and leaned a hip against the banister of a wide staircase. “You must be thinking about Rod. He’s not here now but if you wait, he’ll probably be by later.”
M picked at a small crust of soup on the sleeve of her hoodie. “I’m kind of in a hurry.”
“Please,” Carolyn said, her eyes suddenly wet. “I need someone tonight and I don’t think anyone’s coming from the agency in this storm.” A clap of thunder punctuated the word and the lights dimmed and then came back.
M shivered. “You don’t know me.”
“Nonsense. You just said you were a friend of Rod.”
“Is he your husband or something?”
Carolyn laughed and flipped her hair over her shoulder as she turned to continue up the stairs. “We are so glad you could make it. I think you’ll really fit in here.”
As they climbed, M half-listened while Carolyn narrated the complications of her day—caterers who came late, balloons that were the wrong colour, a surly gymnast who tried to leave before the aerial show. Far away, the murmur of the party continued at a constant level. On a landing, M looked out the window and caught a breath-stopping view that stretched across the city to the North Shore Mountains. How big was this house? The stairs seemed to go on forever, but the dark wood of the banister was smooth and cool under her hand. What would it be like to live here? To have different rooms for every occasion, every whim? She looked up at Carolyn’s perfectly round buttocks, like two ripe, delicate melons, bobbing on water.
“I do a lot of yoga,” Carolyn said.
The statement drew M out of her reverie. She felt her cheeks heat up. “Oh?”
“You have to be in excellent condition to live in a house this size. Sometimes I move the furniture and just run up and down the halls.”
“In my apartment, that would take less than a second.”
Carolyn laughed again like a waterfall and looked back. “Such a card,” she said. “I had no idea you’d be so funny.”
M looked for a hint of sarcasm in her eyes, but there was none. “How long have you been here?”
Her host’s grin melted and she waved the question away. “Are you a student?”
“I graduated last April,” M said.
“Perfect. We need all the help we can get. There’s so much going on right now. I’m on a path that requires constant attention. I barely have time to think. That’s why I need you. The children need someone stable and intelligent, someone who can guide them toward their own destinies. I believe in you.”
A warmth came over her. Maybe it wasn’t her dream job, but she could give up the content mill and focus on her own writing. She put a hand in her pocket and felt the edge of the eviction notice. “But where will I live? My house is going to be demolished.”
“You can live here,” Carolyn said.
The stairs came to an end and they walked down a long hallway with carpet in deep red decorated with black arabesques. Carolyn paused at a door and knocked lightly. She waited for a moment before unlocking it and opening it wide for M to enter. The room was mostly empty: a worn, beige carpet on the floor and bare, grey walls; a low plastic table in startling orange with a couple of child-size chairs; an easel with paper; and a rainbow of markers scattered around yellowed colouring books. “Where are the kids?” M asked.
Carolyn gestured to a door on the other side of the room. “They’re fast asleep. This will be the easiest fifty dollars you’ve ever made.”
M’s heart jumped at the mention of money. “I don’t know these toys,” she said to cover her excitement.
“They’re vintage,” Carolyn said, smiling like a kitten.
M picked up a red-haired clown doll that looked vaguely familiar.
Carolyn leaned close and touched the yarn fringe. “Raggedy Anne. A classic. My little girl adores her.”
Her perfume was delicate and expensive, floral but musky underneath. M felt a stir. Breath caught in her lungs.
“There’s one last thing we need to do,” Carolyn said, her voice the air through trees, her voice the smell of ozone before rain. Reaching over M’s shoulder, she opened a closet and pulled out a mint green uniform, neatly folded. “Size twelve should fit, I think.”
M felt the weight of the well-laundered cotton dress fall in her hands. An image of her grandmother came to her mind, a photo from when she was new to the country and folding towels in a hotel to send money back to her parents. That uniform had been white and pink, but it had been the same design, right down to the fringe on the apron. “I’m not sure,” she said, an unexpected feeling of sadness washing up from her chest.
Carolyn ran a hand down M’s hair and squeezed her shoulder. “You’ll be perfect,” she said, with a sharp nod. “Keep the door closed, will you? No guests allowed in here.”
“Of course,” she said, still lost in a memory.
When Carolyn had closed the door behind her, M changed out of her torn jeans and stained hoodie and into the stiff dress. It smelled like industrial soap. There was no mirror, but she could tell it was ill fitting—too tight in the armpits and too baggy around the hips. She walked around the room, picking up toys and putting them in a basket. For a time, she sat, folded onto one of the children’s chairs. It was cold, so she put her hoodie back on and then took it off in embarrassment at the stain. She opened the door to the children’s room and found only darkness and the faintest sound of restful breathing. She shut the door again and considered texting Eric, but what would she tell him?
Below, she could hear the sounds of the party kicking up. The music had grown louder, developed a drumbeat. A woman was crooning to a double bass. Laughter bubbled up and then faded away. It sounded like so much fun. Maybe she could just have a look. She opened the door and peeked out into the empty hallway. Moving slowly at first and then with more determination down the stairs, she passed the window where the moon hung fat over the electric skyline. At the bottom of the stairs, she edged around the corner and looked into the living room. Her eyes adjusted to the light and then she saw.
The man’s body couldn’t have been there for long. He was limp and staring from open eyes. In the middle of the room, Carolyn was wrapped around him like a lover, her lips on the tender place between shoulder and neck. Around them stood a group of partygoers, watching, conversing. Soft jazz played on a piano. The guests turned their faces in her direction and gazed politely, expectantly.
Carolyn looked up too, her lips turned in that friendly smile. “Everything okay? Did the kids wake up?
“No,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I just wanted to see the party.”
“What a darling,” a woman said to Carolyn’s left. “Is she Chinese?”
The man beside her shook his head. “Norwegian, I think. A Laplander.”
The words rattled around in her head. She felt an urge to correct them, but she couldn’t gather her thoughts. “I’m not,” she said and then fell silent again with Carolyn’s eyes on her.
Carolyn unwrapped herself from the body like a musician rising from a cello. “Are you okay?” she asked, concern in her eyes. She came forward and put a cool hand on M’s forearm.
Was it a body or a cello? “What’s happening?” she managed to whisper.
Carolyn reached a long slender arm into the air and swung her hips. “Shadow flipping.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Nobody does. Isn’t it a laugh?”
“I don’t think I like it,” M said, nausea rising from her belly to her throat. Was the ground moving? Was there an earthquake? “I need to go home.”
“Do what you want,” her host said, a dark rivulet tracing its way down her chin and landing in the shallow pool of her clavicle. “But make a goddamn choice already. You’re boring my guests.”
M closed her eyes. In her mind, she saw Eric and Rhonda walking away together down a long hallway. Then she saw a hole where her apartment had once been, filling with rainwater, scraps of green cloth from her old couch floating in a muddy stew with splintered wood. She opened her eyes and looked at the shoes of all the guests. “Yes, ma’am,” she said in a low voice, and turned to climb back up the stairs.
Erika Thorkelson was born on the Prairies, spent time in Ireland and Japan, and now lives in Vancouver, B.C. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Vancouver Sun, The New Quarterly, Hazlitt, and Ricepaper, and she is a host of The Storytelling Show on Vancouver Co-op Radio.